Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: No Way Home

The Facts:

Synopsis: With Spider-Man’s identity now revealed, Peter asks Doctor Strange for help. When a spell goes wrong, dangerous foes from other worlds start to appear, forcing Peter to discover what it truly means to be Spider-Man.

Stars: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx ,Willem Dafoe, Rhys Ifans, Thomas Haden Church, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, J.K. Simmons, Benedict Wong, Paula Newsome

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 148 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: At a recent gathering of friends, the talk turned to movies (I only keep the best company, naturally) and we got to discussing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Aside from a heated debate comparing the movies made within the MCU with those that come from the realm of DC Comics, a few well-rounded film fans expressed a feeling of exhaustion when it came to these extravaganzas, and I can’t say I didn’t agree. Look, I’m plopping my tush into a theater seat as fast as the next person when the newest chapter in the seemingly endless series of interconnected superhero adventures is released but a feeling of sameness has seeped in for a while now. The bright spots are fewer and farther between, so when you look far ahead on the Marvel slate and see films scheduled out literally years in advance there’s less to get wowed about.

That was a discussion I had the Saturday night before I saw Spider-Man: No Way Home.  Three nights later I was leaving the screening fighting the urge to skip a little bit back to my car because Sony and Marvel have jointly delivered one of the collective franchise highlights to date.  It’s essentially an entertainment package aiming to please without coming off like it’s building a bridge to “what’s next”.  Though it certainly is a gateway to…something…it wastes little time with one foot out the door or an eye on the exit sign.  Instead, director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers keep the focus on hyper-immediacy which makes this third film featuring Tom Holland (Cherry) as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man the absolute best one yet.

While plot points are discussed below, rest assured there are no spoilers included (anywhere on this page) that have not been already revealed through marketing.

At the end of the previous film, for his final act of treachery Quentin Beck / Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) revealed to the world that Peter Parker was Spider-Man.  Framed for Beck’s murder, Peter is hauled in with his family and friends by a shadow government agency before being released back to public scrutiny.  Assimilating to daily life under the eye of a cruel society based on unfounded judgement is easier said than done, however. Hatching a plan to make the world forget they ever found out his truth, Peter calls on Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Mauritanian) for his assistance, but the spell he orders gets complicated and winds up opening the multiverse, bringing forth everyone that ever knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man.  With the multiverse cracked, it allows villains from previous Spider-Man films not starring Holland to enter this realm…Big Baddies Spider-Man will have to track down and send back to where they came from.

It’s always odd when a different actor starts playing a role in an established franchise.  The first Spider-Man reboot saw Andrew Garfield take over for Tobey Maguire and I remember thinking at the time how weird it would be to see another actor in the role.  It was even more discombobulating when Holland stepped in so rapidly when the Garfield era came quickly to a close.  To have elements from the Maguire and Garfield films cross over into this third Holland one was a big risk but it comes off so well, it’s got to have other studios wondering how it could work in their own franchise tentpoles. 

What great possibilities this made into reality. Seeing Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina, The Water Man) from Spider-Man 2 appear to greet Holland is one of those movie moments you can really get excited for.  I felt the same about O.G. villain Willem Dafoe (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin acting the heck out of his role. Actually, it’s kind of incredible to see all of these legendary foes back together sharing the screen.  Even if the two Garfield villains are sort of lame (sorry Jamie Foxx and Rhys Ifans, but thank goodness Paul Giamatti didn’t show up), it’s more than a little thrilling when they’re all standing in the same room.

Most notable in Spider-Man: No Way Home is a true devotion to hitting as many emotional beats as action-heavy ones.  For as many spectacular scenes as there are, Watts and his team are willing to give Holland (who has never been better) and equally aces co-stars Zendaya (Malcom & Marie), Marisa Tomei (Frankie), Jon Favreau (The Wolf of Wall Street), and Jacob Batalon (Banana Split) the space they need to deal with some major events that happen during the extended run time.  I don’t know if you’ll have a similar experience but darn it if I didn’t get a little misty on a least two separate occasions.  Fans that have waited a while for this will be more than pleased with the developments that take place and movie-goers in general who have held back from entering a theater will be sufficiently satiated by the feature. 

Movie Review ~ Dune (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people

Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 155 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  Am I a perfect audience member for the newest attempt to adapt Dune, Frank Herbert’s celebrated 1965 novel?  Long thought to be too complex to be translated onto the screen, it was famously attempted by the artist and director Alejandro Jodorowsky who began his work in 1974 before abandoning the project two years into pre-production.  Years later David Lynch more infamously tried his hand at the piece, releasing his completed film in 1984 to disastrous reviews and failing to make back it’s budget at the box office.  While it has gone on to achieve a cult-like status, no one would say it’s any kind of definitive version of the film.  More notable where the two miniseries that aired on the Sci Fi channel, essentially giving that fledgling cable company street cred from the industry and fans at the same time.

Me?  I’ve never seen any adaptation or read the book(s) and while I normally try to do my homework before a remake, reboot, or other comes out, for the version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve arriving in theaters now I decided to chuck it all and do absolutely nothing.  So that’s why I might be the best all-around viewer because I’m coming at it with no pre-conceived notions about the source material or previous adaptations to compare it to or feel like it has to live-up to anything.  The only thing it had to contend with were the monstrous expectations the studio had put by delaying it nearly a year from its original release date, insisting it was an experience best reserved for theaters on the biggest screen possible.

Like the recent release of No Time to Die, I’m willing to admit that while some of the releases that came out during the pandemic lockdown shuttered theaters worked just fine when viewed at home, Dune is a film that deserves to be witnessed on a screen so big it should feel overwhelming…like the movie itself.  This is a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-blue-moon sort of event movie that can’t be replicated completely when seen at home.  Though it was made available on HBOMax the same day it opened in theaters, you can’t compare the two viewings because the movie is the movie and it’s great, but the awe-inspiring visuals are knockouts when projected in their sheer enormity.

Unrestrained praise for the theatrical exhibition aside, Dune is more than anything an example of filmmaking (and a filmmaker) firing on all cylinders where each piece of the cinematic puzzle working together to make something incredible.  Yet to (in my mind) make a film that isn’t worth watching multiple times, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has a clear vision of what this movie is and should be (and, as you’ll know right of the bat…will be in the future) so there is rarely a moment along the way where Dune isn’t absolutely on course in its narrative storyline.  From what I understand, that’s where the previous adaptations have run into trouble.  Herbert’s novels have deeper meanings and storylines with interwoven characters, times, and subplots and to juggle those all is an immense challenge.  The director, along with co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Passengers) and Eric Roth (2018’s A Star is Born) have focused the action and events to be cohesive and trackable – you could likely watch this on mute and still get the idea of what’s happening.

So…what IS happening in Dune, you may ask?  Let me attempt a small breakdown of it all.

Way way WAY in the future, Spice is a valuable resource to anyone that can harvest it and harness it’s power.  With the universe under the command of an unseen Emperor and overseen by various “houses” within the Galactic Empire, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, The Addams Family 2) has been ordered by the Emperor to the planet Arrakis which is the only current source of Spice.  Accompanied by his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman), mother to his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet, Lady Bird) they travel to the planet to find the previous House (led by Stellan Skarsgård, Cinderella, and overseen by My Spy’s Dave Bautista) left the harvesting equipment in disrepair.  Recognizing they were set-up to fail and eventually betrayed by those they trusted, the House of Atreides will need to find favor with the people of Arrakis (and avoid the terrifying sandworms trolling around the Spice fields) if they are to survive a plot that was cruelly set into motion from the top levels of the Empire.

Sounds a lot like another space epic that just ended a few years back, doesn’t it?  It’s not quite the same, but there are ripples of those Shakespearean twists that Star Wars employed so well throughout the film.  Dune very much succeeds on its own merits, however and that’s not just thanks to Villeneuve’s specific direction and eye for visual acuity.  The performances are top notch, and this has to be Chalamet’s best showing since his Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me by Your Name…I’d even say there are times when its better.  Acting can get lost in these spectacles but Chalamet doesn’t let that important aspect slip.  Neither do Ferguson, Isaac, or terrific supporting players Josh Brolin (Oldboy) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) playing allies to Atriedes that fend off attacks from all sides.  Billed high but seen little is Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie), though she’ll be kept busy enough…later.

Ah…the later aspect of Dune.  It’s now well known this film is but the first chapter of a longer series but how many more and how long will we need to wait until the next one arrives?  Even knowing this is the initial entry point into this world shouldn’t dissuade you from getting out to this one because it’s as standalone a film as can be, with its own thrills and humungous set-pieces that make for breathless action sequences.  At times I wished for subtitles because the sound design is often as complex as the story…but that’s what a home rewatch is for.  And I’ll be getting to that as soon as I’m through with this review. Spice up your life and climb this mountain as soon as possible.

Movie Review ~ Malcolm & Marie

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A filmmaker and his girlfriend return home from his movie premiere where smoldering tensions and painful revelations push them toward a romantic reckoning.

Stars: Zendaya, John David Washington

Director: Sam Levinson

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  As an only child, there were plenty of times growing up when I had “opportunities” to learn from my “mistakes” and much of these lessons were in how my words were received to others.  My parents, like many of yours, were fond of the phrase ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’ and that’s a motto I’ve tried to stick with through the years, to varying degrees of success.  It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  Meaning, sometimes even though you think you’re saying the right thing, you aren’t sincere, and it shows.  Still…words matter and even removing a passive aggressive delivery can’t hide the fact that you just said something you ought to be taken to task for.  Flipped around, ‘It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.”

That’s what I thought while watching the new Netflix film Malcolm & Marie, which has become a bit of a hot button topic of conversation in the movie world thanks to its dissection of film and film criticism during an eventful two hours.  Made over the summer when COVID-19 was in full swing, the project gained some attention because of its two in-demand stars and the way they came together to not only fund the project but see that it was carried out under strict health guidelines.  The small crew huddled together in quarantine for two weeks before shooting and many had multiple jobs on the set.  It was clearly a labor of love by committed artists that cared deeply not only for telling the story but for finding an outlet of creativity during this strange time.

I’d like to report, then, that Malcolm & Marie was worth the time and effort but unfortunately, it’s ever so slightly the talky drab dud I feared it would be.  It’s strange, though, because I didn’t regret a minute of the film.  Watching stars John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Zendaya (The Greatest Showman) bicker, make-up, fight, and emotionally evade one another throughout a stunning house in Carmel, California in glorious black and white was a rich experience.  There are a few scenes that are truly beautiful to behold and as a whole the film is never, absolutely never, boring to look at.  It’s just when we start to delve deeply into writer/director Sam Levinson’s annoyingly pugilistic screenplay that you’ll want to reach for the mute button.

Arriving home after the premiere of his new film, Malcolm (Washington) is energized but what he feels will finally get him noticed by mainstream audiences.  His past films have only been seen as genre fare (read: black) and he longs to be considered with some of the greats and not just his fellow respected black filmmakers.  For now, though, he’s on cloud 9 and with drink in hand and James Brown playing throughout the house he’s dancing while Marie (Zendaya) is clearly feeling something a little different after their night out.  A harmless mistake before the premiere, likely brought on by the energy of the evening has been eating away at her and she can’t let it go.

Cooking macaroni and cheese (there’s no promotional tie-in here but if you’re watching this late at night you’ll definitely wind up wanting a bowl of your own) she lays out her grievances and it only slides downhill from there.  The two battle over their thoughts of Marie’s perception of the mistake (a sleight of attribution on Malcolm’s part) and, eventually, on Marie’s overall contribution to their marriage and Malcolm’s professional endeavors.  Did Malcolm steal pieces of Marie’s life to make his latest success and if so, why didn’t he cast his actress girlfriend in the role that could have helped her career advance as way of repaying the support she’s offered him?  As most fights go, there are low blows and then jabs that hit even darker places that couples don’t easily bounce back from.

The centerpiece of Malcolm & Marie, however, doesn’t even involve Marie and it almost seems like Levinson has been building to this point throughout.  It’s a profanity-laced diatribe from Malcolm on the state of film and the critics that review it that goes on and on and on, an endless barrage of holier-than-thou observances and notations of a century worth of filmmakers.  Though slanted through the viewfinder of a black man, you can clearly hear Levinson’s voice on the other side and how it’s transparently leveled at all naysayers that may take an opposing view to the film.  Feeling like a way Levinson can say what he wants to say but not really “say” it, the whole speech comes off as a cheap shot and poor sportsmanship…though Washington gives it one heckuva good read.  Too bad it instantaneously sucks what little momentum Washington and Zendaya had worked up for the rest of the movie.

Independently or together, Washington and Zendaya are impossible to look away from and both actors make you wish they had collaborated on a film that took their strengths and used them for something more interesting or less mouthpiece-y.  I think Malcolm & Marie might have even worked if it would have removed Malcolm’s unfiltered rant and excised one or two of the “artful silences” that have been kept in but as it stands this couple becomes hard to listen to by the end and all you want to do is watch them turn out the light and sleep.  Then at least they’ll, for once in the night, not have any hurtful things to say or demons to battle.