Movie Review ~ Onward


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

Stars: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodgriguez

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: By this point, I’ve gotten pretty good about preparing to see a Pixar film. I always make sure I bring Kleenex from home because when I inevitably cry, wiping my eyes/nose with the rough napkins from the movie theater always leaves them a bit red and raw. Also, it’s best to make sure you know where the exit is so you can make a quick dash out of the place if the theater is cruel and turns the lights on immediately when the movie is over, exposing all the tear-stained faces to the rest of the crowd. The best place to sit is near the entrance, on an aisle and definitely not near a family with small children because you don’t want to step on any kids as you try to avoid people seeing the after effects of your ugly cry.

I say this now looking back at my experience of watching Onward and recognizing that my mind was in a completely different place that day and I totally forgot all my pre-planning rules. Here I was, a guy that just celebrated a milestone birthday and about to mark the 12 year anniversary of the loss of my father and I had no tissues, was seated in the middle of a row with families all around me seeing a movie about sons using magic to spend one last day with their deceased father. Was I completely crazy?

The town of New Mushroomton isn’t quite the magical mecca it used to be as we see when the prologue for Onward begins. All sorts of magical creatures coexisted and used their gifts to get by, whether it was creating fire for light/heat or flying over vast oceans. Then, with the evolution of science the world began to find ways to accomplish magical tasks without magic (lightbulbs, airplanes) and the need for wizards, magic staffs, and important quests dissipated.  On the eve of his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is just wanting to feel a little more at home in his own skin. His mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said) encourages him to be more outgoing at school and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) thinks that life should be lived like its one big role-playing game. More than anything, though, Ian wishes he had met his dad who died before he was born. Barley barely remembers him but at least he has something…Ian doesn’t have anything. So when their mom presents a gift their dad had asked her to reveal when both were over 16, it sets them off on a journey to complete a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours.

The first attempt at the spell only brings back the bottom half of their dad so communication comes through the feet, and it will take finding another rare stone to complete the magic that will restore him fully. Forcing the vastly different brothers to work together, the search for the gem puts them into contact with a mythical Manticore (Octavia Spencer, Ma) who was once fearsome but is now toothless and through challenges straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. As is typical with any Pixar film, there’s a host of wild supporting characters throughout with some appearing briefly (two words: feral unicorns) and others getting a bit more screen time (Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe is Pixar’s first confirmed lesbian character) but the main focus is on the brothers and how they come to appreciate one another through their time together.

The long and short of it is this: yes, I did cry in Pixar’s latest tear-factory fantasy movie but it was not the severe ugly cry I was afraid it would be. Instead, I was taken with how the studio has once again managed to take a sensitive subject and made it palatable for children and a good jumping off discussion point for adults to have with their kids if any questions come up after the movie. Death is always a hard topic to discuss but in several of their movies, Pixar has found a way into that conversation that isn’t as scary as it might have been years ago when there weren’t animated characters that are saying some of the same things children are also feeling. Writer/director Dan Scanlon also has a nice way of bringing a lot of plot points together into one theme as the film moves toward its conclusion – I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it but it gets there in a lovely way.

It’s always risky now in this Must Be Proven Franchise Material cinema world we live in to create original story but Onward is a striking bit of computer generated fun with pathos on top of it all. The animation is beautiful…so is the message.

 

Movie Review ~ Dolittle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Frances de la Tour, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon.  Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward?  I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge.  That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.

By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously.  Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal.  Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.

If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters.  A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019.  Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic.  Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.

Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect.  It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.

With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals.  It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals.  He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce).  Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.

Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court.  It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure.  After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree.  Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.

For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time.  There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct.  Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle.  The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper.  They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create.  Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie.  The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.

Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels.  Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place.  What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious.  He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.

Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point.  Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given.  At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within.  I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…

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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Thinner (1996) 

The Facts:

Synopsis: An obese attorney is cursed by a gypsy to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight.

Stars: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney, Michael Constantine, Kari Wuhrer, Stephen King, Walter Bobbie

Director: Tom Holland

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Starting with the release and huge success of Carrie in 1976, author Stephen King has enjoyed seeing the profits for numerous adaptations of his work come his way.  Studios began scrambling to buy the rights to his work and bring his tales of terror to life which is how we’ve come to have solid titles like The Shining, Christine, Cujo, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and Misery in our libraries.  To talk about the good adaptions, you must also talk about the bad and King’s work has produced far more duds than hits…such is the case with Thinner from 1996.

Originally published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, Thinner hit bookshelves in 1984 and when it was discovered the King was Bachman isn’t wasn’t long before a studio attached themselves to the grim morality tale.  Condensing the 300+ page novel to 90 minute movie, director and co-screenwriter Tom Holland (who also wrote Psycho II and directed Fright Night) removed the, uh, fat from King’s tome and produced a slick but slack horror thriller that is passable entertainment but feels like everything about it was second-hand.

When overweight attorney Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) accidentally runs over and kills an old gypsy woman and then gets off scott free, he incurs the wrath of a gypsy king (Michael Constantine, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) who puts a curse and him and others that covered up the crime.  Each person cursed has their own personal hell to endure and Billy’s is that no matter how much he eat,s he continues to lose weight at a rapid pace.  At first, that’s good news for the man that has tried for years to shed pounds and his beleaguered wife (Lucinda Jenney, Matinee) who has kept him on a strict diet.  When the weight loss begins to accelerate, and his friends start dying in horrible ways, Billy must track down the gypsy clan to get the curse reversed.

Arguably, there’s a nice concept at the heart of Thinner and had this been given a bit more money and prestige I’d imagine it could have been a sleeper hit.  The problem is that Holland never quite figures out is how to make his characters (any of them) the least bit sympathetic so we have someone to be invested in.  There’re literally no “good” people to be found, everyone has an ulterior motive to their actions or spits their lines out with such overstimulated venom you have a hard time feeling sorry when they are killed off.

It also doesn’t help the leading man is such a bore.  Burke had infamously taken over for Peter Weller in RoboCop 3 and even under that heavy costume with his face obscured he managed to overact.  He does the same thing here, saddled with a fat suit and unconvincing make-up at the beginning and eventually turning skeletal as he continues to lose fat and muscle.  I’m not sure if the make-up did this to him but Burke has this smile/grimace on his face when he’s heavier that is truly unnerving…and not in the way Holland intended.

If I’ve forgotten to mention Joe Mantegna (House of Games) up until this point he should count himself lucky.  As a tricky mobster client of Billy’s, Mantegna plays up the wise guy role to the point of parody and acts as a silly means to an end in helping Billy connect the dots to the origin of the gypsy curse.  If there’s one actor I didn’t mind, it’s the always reliable Jenney who seems to know she’s in a turkey so opts for such a small performance that it has the effect of letting her scene partners look like they’re overacting.

Not surprisingly, this was a huge box office bomb but it didn’t stop the King adaptations from coming.  It would be three years before The Green Mile would be released and in 2017 there was the one two punch of the remake of IT and the dandy Gerald’s Game for Netflix.  It’s clear the best was behind the King work at that time and while Thinner wasn’t bad enough to make studios think twice about taking a dip in the King swamp it’s prospects of being much better are keenly felt two decades later.

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Infinity War


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Avengers and their allies must be willing to sacrifice all in an attempt to defeat the powerful Thanos before his blitz of devastation and ruin puts an end to the universe.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Sean Gunn, Tom Holland, Josh Brolin, Idris Elba, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Dinklage

Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 156 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The ultimate villain of Avengers: Infinity War is going to be anyone that spoils what happens in this all-star extravaganza, the culmination of 19 films over 10 years that have made up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a true believer in the power of a spoiler-free experience, I’m reluctant to even talk too much about the movie here, lest I give away even a whiff of the game-changing developments worked up by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. However further you venture to read, know that Avengers: Infinity War may be the first toll of a bell signaling the end of an era but there’s still a few clangs yet to ring out.

With the action picking up two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film wastes no time in diving into the action as big baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice) continues his quest to procure six Infinity Stones by any means necessary. With two stones in his possession by the time the title card is displayed, you get the distinct impression that Thanos isn’t going to be defeated easily no matter what brand of superhero gang sets about to stop him. Sending minions to Earth to gather stones protected by Vision (Paul Bettany, Transcendence) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County), Thanos searches for the remaining gems in truly out of this world locations.

If Thanos secures all six stones in his gauntlet he’ll have power over the entire universe and be able to wipe out half the population with the snap of his very large and in charge fingers.   Never fear, though, because according to Marvel there are about 64 main characters featured and while not all of them get as much screen time as you’d think, there is often more than enough action to go around. Markus and McFeely concoct some believable ways to separate the various heroes as they unite to stop Thanos from achieving his goal. Even better, the combos of who is working with whom are surprising and often quite entertaining…but in an effort to maintain some suspense, you’ll have to see the movie to find out who teams up.

With the exception of two notable stars (again…not telling) the gang is all here, down to supporting players that haven’t been seen for a while. Even if A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow (Thanks for Sharing) get limited screen time it’s nice to see these familiar faces along the way because their appearances act like mini Easter eggs, rewarding the actors as well as devoted audience members. Arriving a little over two months after Black Panther smashed all box office records, it would have been easy to do what Justice League did after the success of Wonder Woman and give a bit more attention to a breakout star like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, Get on Up) but the filmmakers wisely keep things level.

The main stars that anchor the action are Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., The Judge), Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation), and Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) with some nice supporting turns from Captain America (Chris Evans, The Iceman), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher). In hindsight, it feels like the popular Guardians of the Galaxy are favored in the action ever so slightly more than a few of the veteran Avengers but watching the movie in the moment there is a greater feeling of equity. There’s little room for new characters to be introduced and when they are, like Peter Dinklage’s (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) painfully serious but ultimately silly turn, it feels like time is being taken away from the people we want to see.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have stuffed this prize package with an abundance of get-your-moneys-worth riches, from eye popping visual effects to spectacularly pitched action sequences. The finale is a showstopper, an all-out blitzkrieg assault that takes place in multiple places with numerous characters and still it’s never hard to follow what’s going on. It takes a special hand to guide these types of action set-pieces and their fourth film for Marvel has the Russo Brothers finding full scale power in their directing. That style in direction marries nicely with Trent Opaloch’s (Elysium) stunning cinematography that isn’t overrun by the dynamite visual effects. Alan Silvestri’s (The Croods) score is, as always, instantly recognizable and eternally heroic.

Do yourself a favor and get your bathroom breaks out before the film starts because at 156 minutes from start to finish it’s a commitment. You can’t afford to miss much, though, so even a well-timed pee break might set you back, especially in the last ten minutes. As with all Marvel movies, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t leave until the final credit has disappeared because there’s only one post-credit scene and it’s at the very end. Missing this one in particular would be a mistake.

The next Avengers movie is set for release in May 2019 and by that time two more Marvel films will have seen the light of day (Ant-Man and the Wasp in July and Captain Marvel in March 2019). Not every question is resolved by the end of Avengers: Infinity War and I’m more than interested to see what gets answered between now and next year…just do yourself a favor and see this one before anyone can spoil what happens. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…or that I let the cat out of the bag either.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Homecoming


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Several months after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker tries to balance his life as an ordinary high school student in New York City while fighting crime as his superhero alter ego Spider-Man.

Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Zendaya Coleman, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Another Spider-Man restage?  Really?  A big collective groan was heard from fanboys and girls around the world when Sony decided to reboot their prized web-slinger back in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man.  That film and its 2014 sequel (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), while solidifying the rising popularity of stars Andrew Garfield and Emma stone, never fully justified its back to the drawing board feel.  So when Marvel Studios came to Sony with an offer to join creative forces and bring Spidey into the Marvel universe where he belonged, it was an offer they really had no right to refuse.  Still, with a new superhero movie seemingly released every other week, did the world need to get to know Spider-Man all over again?

The answer, dear friendly neighborhood readers, was a resounding yes.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is just the reenergizing kick in the pants Marvel was needing after a string of well received but oddly bland sequels (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and iffy first outings (Doctor Strange, Ant-Man).  Best of all, it’s so tonally different than the original trilogy and recent two entries that it should keep fans of that canon at bay.  Even better news, it’s not an origin story!

If you missed either The Avengers, its sequel, or Captain America: Civil War like my movie mate did, you may be a little lost in the first moments of this new Spidey adventure.  The brief prologue recaps Spider-Man’s introduction to The Avengers in Civil War from his wide-eyed teenage perspective and quickly brings you up to speed while setting the whiz-bang pace at the same time.  It also lays the groundwork for why it’s main bad guy went so rogue.

After his brief foray into the superhero big leagues, Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible) gets grounded by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., The Judge, looking guiltier than ever at continuing to collect a paycheck) and put under the watchful eye of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, Entourage) who quickly loses interest in the teen.  Not one to let his new heroic muscles go unstretched, Peter sets about “saving” residents of his Queens borough neighborhood, whether they like it or not.  Often causing more trouble than preventing it, Peter stumbles upon a group of thugs led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, Need for Speed), all of whom are clearly up to no good.

A disgruntled former blue-collar union man, Toomes has used his skills and a few alien power sources he’s scrounged together to fashion a set of wings (complimented by a bad ass bomber jacket) that take him sky high.  As Peter gets closer to finding out the truth behind Toomes/The Vulture, he comes up against not only his most powerful villain yet but runs afoul of his ally Stark in the process.

At 133 minutes, there’s a lot to cram in and thankfully the large handful of credited screenwriters have decided to forgo retelling how Peter got his powers and waste little time with introductions.  This being a summer tentpole film for Sony and Marvel and in the wake of the critical and financial success of DC Comics stellar Wonder Woman, a lot was riding on this entry.  Those studio exces can breathe a sigh of relief because from the nicely drawn characters to several impressive action sequences, this is a film that constantly and consistently delivers the goods.

Director Jon Watts (Clown) joins a curious list of “out of the box” choices to direct a movie of this size.  Known for his work in independent films, it’s obvious from the small details Watts adds into the film (like including a bit of Japanese war history on the wall of an otherwise innocuous school official, giving even a minor character a backstory) that he was the right choice for the job.  It’s a fast, funny film that felt unpredictable even though it’s part of the most predictable genre being produced today.

Nailing down the perfect star to play Peter Parker was no small task but Sony struck gold with Holland who, though 21, feels like the first actor to successfully play a believable 15-year-old.  With Holland’s dance training (he was Billy Elliot in the London stage show) and his well-documented tremendous athleticism, he’s able to bring the character forward rather than get lost within the costume and pristine visual effects.  Sharing the screen with scenery chewers like Downey Jr. and Keaton isn’t for the faint of heart but Holland more than holds his own.

Speaking of Keaton, it’s such fun to see him play a bad guy. With his devilish grin and arched eyebrows, he gives Toomes a pulse along with ample brainwaves.  I always respond to villains that aren’t out to take over the world but to reclaim what they think was taken from them and Toomes joins a long list of Spider-Man foes that have personal reasons for going bad. Zendaya Coleman, Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers), Jacob Batalon, and Laura Harrier round out the cast and all (but especially Batalon) make for a strong support system for Peter and the film.

With a few unexpected twists (there’s at least two reveals I didn’t see coming) and edge of your seat thrills that are sure to inspire furious popcorn munching, Spider-Man: Homecoming is worth your time and your attention.  If your Spidey senses aren’t tingling from the opening logos played over the old-school title tune, they will be once Holland and company get down to business.  This being a Marvel movie, you gotta stay until the very end for one of the more meta post credit sequences to date.

31 Days to Scare ~ Psycho II

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After twenty-two years of psychiatric care, Norman Bates attempts to return to a life of solitude, but the specters of his crimes – and his mother – continue to haunt him

Stars: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, Claudia Bryar

Director: Richard Franklin

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 slow-burn thriller Psycho remains one of the most famous and famously recognizable movies.  With its iconic ‘shower scene’ and last minute twist, the movie was already interred in the Hollywood history books by the time 1982 rolled around.  That was the year that Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho was based on, had published a sequel that found escaped madman Norman Bates turning up on the Tinsel Town set of a movie based on his life and eventually getting back to his own tricks.  While this was a surprisingly meta take (and one the Scream sequels would steal) executives over at Universal Studios who owned the sequel rights weren’t thrilled about their town getting skewered and satirized.

Hiring screenwriter Todd Holland and director Richard Franklin, both having had recent successes with horror films of their own, Universal decided to beat Bloch to the punch and draft their own take on the further adventures of Norman Bates.  The resulting film was far removed from the original, more in the slasher vein which was enjoying peak popularity at the time.  That’s not to say it exists without merit because Psycho II is very much its own film, strong enough to withstand ornery critics who grumbled that it sullied Hitchcock’s memory.

Released from a mental hospital when he’s deemed to be harmless, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, wisely changing his mind and reprising his role before Christopher Walken could be seriously considered) has only one place to go.  Home.  The house he lived in still stands, as does the motel where guests checked in but didn’t check out…well, at least the ones that showered.  22 years after being apprehended dressed like his dead mother and speaking in her voice, the house brings back bad memories…and maybe his killer instincts.  Not long after he arrives people go missing, dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways.  Is it Norman brandishing the knife or is it someone else with their own motives?

Surprisingly, Psycho II is filled with decent twists and winds up to be quite entertaining.  I somehow get amnesia between viewings and always forget how the pieces fit together.   Aided by Jerry Goldsmith’s (Poltergeist) score that thankfully doesn’t even attempt to top Bernard Hermann’s string heavy orchestrations from Psycho, this has more than its share of spooky moments from toilets overflowing with blood all the way through it’s surprising finale.  Franklin doesn’t try to mimic Hitchcock’s style but cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween) does liberally lift familiar camera angles right from the previous film (not to mention Franklin taking a huge risk by recapping the first film in clips before the opening credits).  He even manages to work in a nice tip of the hat to Hitch – try to see if you can spot a recognizable shadow when looking around the room that used to belong to Norman’s mother.

Along with Perkins, Vera Miles (The Initiation) is a returning player from the original as the sister of Janet Leigh’s doomed character leading a one-woman crusade to keep Bates behind bars. Robert Loggia (Jagged Edge) is nicely sanguine as Norman’s psychiatrist and Meg Tilly’s (The Big Chill) waifish waitress cautiously befriends Norman and eventually takes up residence with him in the main house.  Character actors Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, and Claudia Bryar are all standouts in the well-cast ensemble.

It wouldn’t have been possible to top Psycho but it could have been easy to drag its good name through the mud.  Thankfully Psycho II is elevated from cheap cash-in sequel to respectable continuation thanks to a cast and crew who obviously held the original film in high regard.  Now Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning…those are the sequels you should be worried about.

Movie Review ~ Captain America: Civil War

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Political interference in the Avengers’ activities causes a rift between former allies Captain America and Iron Man.

Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Emily VanCamp, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl, Tom Holland, Marisa Tomei

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: With the release of Captain America: Civil War we’re now 13 movies deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and no one would blame you if you think all the Marvel films are starting to blend into one another.  Before taking in the screening of CA:CW I was chatting with a friend, mentally trying to put together what events happened in which film and who was introduced when. I’m not as devout a fanboy to pull the connections out of thin air so it took me a while and in all honesty to full enjoy the offerings in CA:CW you’ll want to go back and re-watch 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.  I made the mistake of not revisiting the earlier films and paid the price, too often playing catch-up.

So let’s just assume you’re up to speed with the goings on involving our superheroes, namely Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, The Iceman), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., The Judge), & Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, Her).  Opening with a boffo action/chase sequence that finds Captain America, Black Widow, Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Godzilla), and Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain) stopping the theft of an infectious disease, the group winds up inadvertently bringing about the deaths of innocent civilians.  The ramifications for their mission, compounded by the previous massive destruction seen at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron is cause for the US Government (led by a mostly awake William Hurt, The Doctor) to step in, attempting to regulate the Avengers with the help of the United Nations.

While most of the team is willing to go along with being governed, Captain America is wary of signing his name for fear of being unable to help whomever and whenever he pleases (and interesting reversal for a man once used as wartime propaganda).  When his friend Bucky Barns (Sebastian Stan, Ricki and the Flash), aka the Winter Soldier, is possibly framed for a bombing at a peaceful meeting of foreign dignitaries, Captain America goes against his fellow Avengers and sets out to clear Bucky’s name while avoiding his former allies.  Add into that some secrets from the past that link Iron Man to the Winter Soldier and a mysterious man (Daniel Brühl, Rush) with a bone to  pick with our heroes,  and you have a globe-hopping film that alternates between vengeance and allegiance.

I’m not going to lie, there’s a whole lot going on here but directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (returning to the director’s chair after Captain America: The Winter Soldier and getting ready to direct the final two-part Avengers finale) and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to juggle the characters, action, and multiple plotlines with striking ease.  Even Joss Whedon, who so memorably delivered The Avengers with nice complexity, couldn’t produce a follow-up that flowed as well as CA:CW does.

You may not remember every little Easter Egg that pops up and the action scenes may be slightly overwhelming but it’s never a chore to keep up with the pace.  Okay, it’s about 15 minutes too long (it’s the longest Marvel film to date) and the performances tend to be on the stoically self-aware side (especially from Downey Jr. who seems to be going after a special Oscar for eye acting) but it’s the kind of crowd-pleasing adventure that audiences went looking for in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What’s nice to report here too is that some of the most exciting parts of the film haven’t been spoiled in trailers…in fact some sequences from the trailers have been edited to REMOVE spoiler characters and developments.  Marvel has a way with the element of giddy unexpected surprises and there are several neat-o secrets waiting for you.

Aside from the actors mentioned above, special shout-outs go to Chadwick Boseman (Get on Up) as Black Panther and Tom Holland (The Impossible) as Spider-Man.  A reboot of a reboot of Spider-Man was of little interest to me but Holland’s introduction gives my Spidey senses hope that another take on the web slinging hero isn’t the worst idea in the world. If the character feels like a late addition to the mix, it’s because the deal to bring Spider-Man over to Marvel from his home at Sony didn’t happen until the eleventh hour, necessitating some obvious Spidey shoe-horning to take place. Boseman, as an African prince seeking justice for a fallen family member, is a cool addition to the group and a post-credit scene (the first of two) gives us a small idea of where he may turn up next.  Jeremy Renner’s (The Bourne Legacy) Hawkeye, Don Cheadle’s (Flight) War Machine, Paul Bettany’s (Mortdecai) Vision, and Paul Rudd’s (Wanderlust) Scott Lang/Ant-Man all have their moment of glory though this is ultimately Captain America’s movie so enjoy them while they’re there (especially Rudd’s cameo which is better than a lot of Ant-Man).

With the uptick of comic book movies arriving in theaters, a small backlash is developing and I think it’s mostly out of overall fatigue.  With each new Marvel movie, it’s becoming almost a necessity to go back and review everything that came before…something that’s good for movie theaters and their marathon screenings but bad for audiences that don’t have the time to devote hours and hours to do their homework.  Recent failures like 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot and the critical disappointment in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (for the record, I liked it, get over it) might have given the Marvel studio heads a moment of fear.  Yet their output is just continually in another league than their competitors and their juggernaut franchise lives to fight another day with Doctor Strange arriving before 2016 is over.

Check out my reviews of these other Marvel movies: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, & Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Movie Review ~ In the Heart of the Sea

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a giant whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, Jordi Molla, Michelle Fairley, Charlotte Riley

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I finished the book that In the Heart of the Sea was based off of mere hours before I caught its big-screen adaptation and it’s probably the reason why I didn’t like it as much as I maybe would have had I not recently experienced Nathaniel Philbrick’s well-researched book.  Philbrick’s historical recounting of the tragedy of the whaleship Essex was a straight-forward piece equal parts storytelling and instructional guide.  Details about the whaling industry, on-board dynamics, and deeper looks into the backstories of the characters was something no film could capture fully…so it’s hard to blame the filmmakers for diverting so far away from the truth.

Well…actually…there is some blame to be had here because what was already a storied tale of survival on the high seas has been unnecessarily Hollywood-ized.  Events have been falsified, details overlooked, and certain aspects have been downright made up to serve…who?  Not the lovers of historical fiction that made the book a bestseller, that’s for sure.

Unwisely adding bookends to the piece featuring a young Herman Mellville (Ben Whishaw, Paddington) interviewing one of the survivors of the wreck (Brendan Gleeson, Song of the Sea) as he researches what will become his celebrated novel Moby Dick, the film starts off on the wrong foot by including this imagined meeting.  Historically it doesn’t make sense, just the first of many ill-advised missteps.  The old man recounts his time aboard the Essex (including scenes where he wasn’t even present) which ran afoul of one massive whale that destroyed the ship and set a band of survivors in lifeboats to fend for themselves on the harsh open sea.

After seeing the equally disappointing Unbroken last year, this survival against all odds seems a bit been-there, done-that so screenwriters Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver take some major liberties with the historical facts and add in events that never happened.  In the film, the whale returns several times to taunt/terrorize the men hanging onto life when in reality the massive mammal appeared only once when it originally capsized the Essex.  While the extra whale sightings may add some fairly nice tension to the mix (Silver and Jaffa wrote Jurassic World so they know how to craft a creature attack), knowing that it never happened pushes the film into Jaws: The Revenge territory.

There are other false happenings that I won’t spoil for you here…but the more the story took untrue turns, the less I cared about the film as a whole.  Director Ron Howard (Parenthood) reteams with his Rush star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods) and the results aren’t nearly as notable.  Hemsworth is a stiff actor and while his physical appearance may have made him an ideal candidate on paper for the headstrong sailor he’s playing, his performance never makes it out of the bilge.  Also feeling a bit lost is Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) as the combative Captain, in the book he’s a social leader done in by his inability to lead by example but here he’s a brat at sea.

The film was shot in 3D and it’s used to good effect here.  Unfortunately, much of the film is CGI-d to death so it can feel like you’re watching an animated film at times.  The camera is constantly moving so those prone to sea-sickness may want to take a Dramamine before embarking on this voyage.

When it was delayed from its intended release in March of 2015, many thought that the studio was positioning the film to play big on the high seas of awards season…but the final product is a total land lubber, unable to find its sea legs.

The Silver Bullet ~ In the Heart of the Sea

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Synopsis: Based on the 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home

Release Date:  March 13, 2015

Thoughts: I can’t help it – just as they say that man has always been drawn to the sea, so have I always been drawn to films about the sea.  That includes any number of undersea creature features (like, say, Jaws) to deep diving epics such as The Abyss.

Knowing that, you wouldn’t be surprised that the newest film from Ron Howard (Parenthood) caught my eye based just on the poster alone.  Based on the novel by Nathaniel Philbrick which charts the tragedy of a whaling ship ravaged by a sperm whale (which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick) this could be a nice little piece of historical action from a director that has experience in both genres.  Teaming up again with his Rush star Chris Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods), Howard could get some new wind in his directorial sails from this one.

As you know, I love a good teaser and hate a too-long preview…so I’m presenting you with a few options.  The teaser below is a nice bite while the two below may give away a tad too much.  The choice is yours.

 

Trailer #1
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs-JfPjgiA4

Trailer #2
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IdfGWfbNYI