Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Far From Home


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Peter Parker and his friends go on summer vacation to Europe and there Peter finds himself trying to save his friends against a villain known as Mysterio.

Stars: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, J.B. Smoove,

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In some ways, Spider-Man: Far From Home was always bound to be disappointing.  Being the follow-up to the biggest movie on the planet and arriving barely two months after it’s release is an unenviable position.  Here’s the kicker, though.  If you believe the trade papers then it seems Sony, which still owns the rights to Spider-Man and has loaned him out to Marvel Studios for his work in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame, actually pushed to have this particular release date so close to the final Avengers film.  It’s a strange strategy because everyone is bound to compare this to the juggernaut last chapter of Iron Man and his team which is still playing in many theaters and is even being re-released with new footage around the same time Spider-Man is swinging into cinemas.

Yet here we are, with another comic book superhero movie and, if you count the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, our fourth big-screen appearance of Spider-Man in a year.  Sony is playing chicken with audiences and betting they aren’t suffering from Spidey fatigue yet and based on the genial but oddly underwhelming Spider-Man: Far From Home I’m guessing they made the right call at express shipping this next chapter into theaters right in time for the July 4th holiday.  Though flawed in the action department and failing to provide a showcase for an A-list actor trying his hand at playing an evil genius villain, the film succeeds best when it focuses on the people and not the effects.

As this site is spoiler-free as much as possible, a caveat that while the plot secrets of Spider-Man: Far From Home will remain hidden there are elements from Avengers: Endgame I’ll have to discuss.

So, if you don’t want the end of Avengers: Endgame spoiled for you then it’s best to turn back now.

You ready?

You sure?

OK.

Seriously.  This is your last chance.

I’m going to spoil something, don’t be mad.

OK…here we go.

Picking up where Avengers: Endgame left off, Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible) is still mourning the deaths of Captain America, Black Widow, Vision, and his mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man.  With the rest of the Avengers dispersed on their own missions around the world and in other galaxies, Peter is getting back to a routine in school and making the occasional appearance as Spider-Man to help raise funds with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, The Paper) to support the population vaporized in The Snap that were returned in what came to be known as The Blip.  As the school year winds to a close, Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) prepare for their science trip abroad which will take them across Europe.  Ned is looking forward to spending time with his friend as bachelors overseas while Peter is more interested in getting closer to MJ (Zendaya, The Greatest Showman).

The group has barely arrived in Venice when the floating city is attacked by one of four elementals, a creature made of water that goes about destroying everything in its path.  Before Peter can jump into action and save the day, Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) appears and helps vanquish the threat with some marginal assistance from your friendly traveling neighborhood Spider-Man.  Recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Shaft), Beck teams up with Peter to take on the final elemental who is due to show up in Prague, where Fury reroutes Peter’s class trip (though what his school is doing in Europe is a mystery, it’s never clear why they’ve traveled overseas) so he can believably stay part of the action.  Dubbed Mysterio by the press, Beck quickly (too quickly) becomes a new Stark-ish figure to Peter, establishing a trust that hides a darker agenda.  When Beck’s true nature is revealed it’s up to Peter and his friends (including Jon Favreau, The Wolf of Wall Street, as Tony Stark’s former bodyguard) to eventually save London and its key landmarks from danger.

What may surprise viewers is how long director Jon Watts takes to get to the first round of action in the film.  Aside from a very brief prologue there’s not another major action scene for nearly a half hour and, truthfully, I didn’t mind at all.  The characters established so well in Spider-Man: Homecoming have been brought back fully realized and we’re dropped right back into their mix without much adjustment needed.  When the action does start, in that first battle in Venice, the film gets less interesting almost immediately and it’s because we’re focused less on the people and more on the sturm und drang of it all.  It doesn’t help the action sequences are curiously flat and rarely edge-of-your-seat exciting like previous Marvel (and Sony Spider-Man) films have been.  Even the effects seem off and uneven, like the film wasn’t quite ready by time it had to go to theaters.

Another stumbling block is, surprisingly, Gyllenhaal as Beck/Mysterio.  I had high hopes for the actor entering this universe and lending some of his trademark intensity to a character.  Usually, Gyllenhaal has an interesting way into inhabiting whatever role he’s taking on but he was either stymied by the studio heads or just opted for the wrong approach because he’s dramatically inert here.  Watch the movie and see if you can spot how many times Gyllenhaal moves throughout – you rarely seem him walking or making any kind of actionable movement, the majority of his performance he’s sitting or standing still.  It’s like he was performing injured or filming his scenes in one soundstage over the course of two days.  What should have been a nice match of actor and fan favorite villain was a whiff and a miss for me, extra disappointing because I am a big fan of the actor.

The movie is saved in no small part due to the performances given by Holland and Zendaya, both of whom were appealing in their first film paired together but now have honest to goodness chemistry that is entirely palpable.  In Holland, we finally have a Spider-Man/Peter Parker that feels like he’s the right age and the actor plays him as more than an angsty teen longing to be more than the sum of his Spidey parts.  He knows the great responsibility he has and understands why Tony chose him, but doesn’t want to continue to miss out on the life that doesn’t include inter-galactic wars and infinity stones.  Zendaya isn’t your cookie-cutter MJ and mores the better.  I like her awkwardness and affinity for the darker side of history.  Like she did with Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman, she plays well off her costar and helps them to shine.

Based on the reactions of the audience at my screening, maybe I’m the one that’s fatigued at the present moment with these films.  Perhaps my attraction to the pieces of Spider-Man: Far From Home that had nothing to do with action or effects say something about were my attention is at this point and time.  I still don’t think Gyllenhaal is doing anywhere near his best work and the previous Spider-Man film was, in my opinion, more focused, unexpected, and heads and tails more entertaining from start to finish.  We’re all trained by this point to stay through the credits but the mid-credit stinger and post-credit scene are absolutely essential.  The final scene actually changes something about the movie entirely – don’t miss it or you’ve missed a huge piece of the story.

Movie Review ~ Aladdin (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A kindhearted street urchin and a power-hungry Grand Vizier vie for a magic lamp that has the power to make their deepest wishes come true.

Stars: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad, Navid, Negahban, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar

Director: Guy Ritchie

Rated: PG

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When Disney released their animated Aladdin in 1992 it was right around the time when I had passed over from being the target audience for their bright musical fare. I remember seeing it in the theaters, though, and finding it to be long and kind of…boring. Over the years it has been one I’ve regarded with some occasional interest but it’s never high on my list of re-watchable Disney Classics. To me, the movie will always be synonymous with two things: Robin Williams as the Genie and the song ‘A Whole New World’, both enduring classics no matter what you think about the film.

When Disney announced Aladdin would join their ever growing roster of live-action adaptations of animated classics, I could understand why they’d think this would be an eye-popping visual feast that would translate well but couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they’d want to try and top the unforgettable work of Williams. It seemed like a losing battle. As the movie came together, there were more curious decisions from the studio. Tough-guy director Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) would be at the helm? No songs from the expensive Broadway musical of Aladdin would be utilized in the film? Will Smith would be taking over as the Genie? Early previews and set pictures didn’t do much to quell the fears that this was going seriously astray but I can honestly say when I walked into the screening on a rainy day I was looking forward to settling in for something special.

The short and easy review of the 2019 live-action Aladdin is say that it rubbed me the wrong way. Almost from the very beginning, I knew this wasn’t going to meet expectations on any level and I was proven right for the next 128 minutes. From the rushed opening third to its saggy middle and lackluster finale, it seems like almost everyone involved forgot what kind of movie they were making. When they were focusing on music, they forgot to make it sound good. When they were focusing on fantasy, there was no effort to be truly transporting. This is film that’s overly conscious and cautious, staying decidedly in a safe zone much of the time, only occasionally finding some magic.

An unnecessary framing device introduces Smith (Suicide Squad) as a mariner with two children asking him to sing them a story instead of just telling them one. Not known as a singer, when Smith opens his mouth to sing for the first time it’s a remarkably flat tone that rarely shows range. The big notes feel enhanced or are drowned out by a gigantic chorale delivering quite a few new lyrics written by Pasek/Paul (The Greatest Showman) and original composer Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast). Smith’s narrator relays the story of Aladdin (Mena Massoud, Run This Town) a scrappy ragamuffin on the streets of Agrabah that has a meet cute with a Princess in disguise (Naomi Scott, The 33) and falls in love.

When Aladdin later sneaks into the palace to reconnect with Princess Jasmine, he’s caught by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, Murder on the Orient Express) the Sultan’s traitorous Vizier who needs to find a “diamond in the rough” to enter the Cave of Wonders and search for a magic lamp. When Aladdin accidentally releases a Genie (Smith) from the lamp and is granted three wishes, he uses one to become a visiting Prince to win the heart of Jasmine. It isn’t long before Jafar recognizes the Prince, putting all in Agrabah in danger when the Vizier schemes to get back the lamp at any cost.

The story of Aladdin stretches back to ‘The Arabian Nights’ from the 18th century and is an oft-told tale through the centuries. Surprising to me was that its original story differs quite a bit from the fairy tale we all grew up on, though it isn’t shocking how dark things get for Aladdin the way he was originally written. Screenwriter Ritchie and John August (Frankenweenie) stay away from a total revisionist version of Aladdin (ala the stellar live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon from 2016) instead choosing to follow the structural outline from the animated film rather closely. This makes the film feel even more beholden to its hand-drawn predecessor and invites unfavorable comparisons off the bat.

For starters, there seems to be a need to speed through the introductory moments of the movie. The credits have barely ended and we’re on a bullet train to get to that magic lamp and Smith’s Genie – which is understandable because the Genie is supposed to be the most memorable thing in the movie. The trouble is Smith’s rather charmless Genie is kind of creepy, all buff torso and swirly cloud for legs. The ‘Friend Like Me’ number, such a mega-shot of adrenaline in the film and a literal showstopper on the Broadway stage, barely registers because Ritchie has the Genie zooming around the screen in such a frenzy we don’t know where to look or what to follow. Unconvincing CGI throughout doesn’t help matters when you are always keenly aware the desert-set movie was shot on a soundstage, even if some location shooting was done in Jordan.

While Kenzari sinks his teeth nicely into the scenery as Jafar, I questioned why they turned the character from a creepy older man in his fifties to a brooding mid-thirties guy that isn’t quite threatening until his true intentions are revealed. Massoud is just fine as Aladdin, as blandly interesting as the character has always been. He may be the titular character but he’s never been the star of his own movie…not with Williams (and now Smith) there to overshadow him. He develops some good chemistry with Scott, though, and that goes a long way in making him more memorable. The real find is Scott who gives Jasmine the kind of 2019 make-over the character was sorely needing. Though saddled with the worst song (Pasek/Paul/Menken’s woefully Glee-ish ‘Speechless’) she makes the scene directly after that truly come alive by delivering a very “woke” speech with conviction. For some reason, Billy Magnussen (Game Night) turns up as a doofus Prince also vying for Jasmine’s affection in a scene that should have been excised.

Flashy numbers like ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ are meant to be the crowd-pleasing ones but the most winning number in the movie and, ultimately, the best sequence in the film is the one that has always worked like a charm and that’s the ‘A Whole New World’ number. Flying through the skies on a magic carpet, Aladdin and Jasmine sing that beautiful music and lyrics and you remember, however briefly, why Aladdin became a classic in the first place. If only the filmmakers had used this simple and sweet sequence as a jumping off point maybe they would have dialed down some of the garish excess evident in the rest of the movie.

So far in 2019, Disney is 0 for 2 in live-action remakes. Dumbo didn’t fly back in March and while I think Aladdin will make more money, it won’t do the kind of business Disney is hoping for. That leaves The Lion King in July with a big question mark and an even bigger target on its back. Can that be the one to right this sinking adaptation ship?