Film review: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Spider Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Film: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Director: Jon Watts

Genre: Superhero

Rating: 3/5

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is one of the precious few Marvel Cinematic Universe films that uses its franchise to its advantage without feeling like a mechanical series installment programmed to do little other than set up more sequels.

Perhaps the most impressive differentiation from prior MCU films is that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” offers the franchise’s first memorable villain since Loki’s debut over six years ago. Michael Keaton’s Vulture steals every scene he’s in and the character’s personality and motivations are consistently human, and his performance should keep viewers’ eyes peeled just to find out what happens to the character next. Though Keaton kills the part, it’s a shame that he’s not given just a bit more screen time, which begs the question of what a more villain-focused MCU film could be like.

Of course, this is a Spider-Man film, and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is the focus here. Thankfully, Holland’s performance in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War” was no fluke, and his character’s laugh-out-loud goofiness is a breath of fresh air for the franchise. The jokes come fast and hit far more than they miss, and though they aren’t as consistently hilarious as Spidey’s bits in “Civil War,” they come reasonably close for a feature-length performance.

On the topic of other MCU films, prospective viewers shouldn’t worry about Robert Downey Jr.’s extended trailer appearances. This is a Spider-Man film first and foremost, and when other characters in the franchise appear or are referenced, it’s organic and sometimes genuinely hilarious. It’s also nice to see “Spider-Man: Homecoming” buck the stereotypical origin story arc: While this is Parker’s first solo outing, little time is wasted on spider bites, Uncle Ben-ing and other tropes that have been done several times over in the last decade of Spider-Man films.

Laughs are abound whether Parker is suiting up as Spider-Man or mulling around high school, which is good, since the film’s action is little more than superhero white noise. The choreography, cinematography and special effects — laser orgies and other action cliché nonsense are mostly toned down, thankfully — are serviceable, but none of the fight sequences do much to stand out. It’s particularly unfortunate that this extends to most of Spidey’s encounters with Vulture, and their climatic showdown is pretty much anything but.

There’s also concerns to be had with character depth. Other than Keaton’s Vulture, there’s little in the way of character development, which makes some of the interactions later in the film border on incredulity. Despite the lack of growth, it’s hard not to like most of the cast, who all bring enough humor and heart to the film to avoid coming off as stock characters.

It’s that kind of witty warmth that elevates “Spider-Man: Homecoming” above many of its superpowered contemporaries, despite the lukewarm battle scenes and lack of nuance. There’s plenty here for Marvel fans to love, and for those that have been tuning out to the ever-expanding Marvel machine, this is a good argument to bring you back into the fold.

 

Film review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Film: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Director: James Gunn

Genre: Superhero / science-fiction

Rating: 4/5

Déjà vu? Eh, a little bit. Don’t let that be a cause for concern, though: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” is full of the colorful action and endless wit that made the first film one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and co. are still as charismatic as they are wonderfully dysfunctional, and their idiot hijinks provide plenty of legitimate laugh-out-loud hilarity and some surprisingly apt dramatic moments. The sci-fi staples of epic space battles, daring escapes, larger-than-life baddies and universe-destroying stakes are all here: Like its predecessor, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a better “Star Wars” film than most of the “Star Wars” films.

There’s a lot to love here, even if the opening arc is fairly weak. The plot is jump-started by Rocket’s (Bradley Cooper) ill-motivated theft of some valuables from an underdeveloped and uninteresting group of aliens. It’s a limp premise that makes the Guardians seem like dicks—and not the irreverent-albeit-lovable scoundrel types—and the petty scale of the conflict kicks off the story with less of a spark and more of a dull thud.

It’s a good thing, then, that the latter two thirds of the film does nearly everything else right.

Although “Vol. 2” only rarely matches the original’s gut-busting hysterics of Jackson Pollock painting jokes and Quill’s desperate dance moves, the vast majority of its jokes come remarkably close. While Quill and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) don’t have quite as many zingers this time around, presumably because they were the most developed of the Guardians in the first film, “Vol. 2” makes up for it in spades due to franchise newcomer Mantis and the increased presence of Drax (Dave Bautista), Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Yondu (Michael Rooker).

A lengthy prison break featuring Baby Groot is certain to be one of cinema’s funniest moments of the year and one of the franchise’s best scenes in general. Elsewhere, Drax’s mix of ludicrous bluntness and moronic gullibility makes each of his lines absurdly entertaining. Whether the characters are talking, fighting or both, “Vol. 2” will have you laughing consistently throughout the film, which is no minor feat given its lengthy runtime.

Particular credit should be given to Mantis, easily one of the franchise’s best characters in years. While it’s difficult to discuss the character in-depth without spoiling the plot, the character’s humorous innocence and goofy exchanges with Drax serve as some of the film’s best moments. Like “Captain America: Civil War’s Spider-Man, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) makes the most of her screentime with nonstop entertainment.

That said some of the film’s more slapstick moments are to its detriment. When Drax is battered into trees at hundreds of miles per hour during a crash landing and emerges entirely unscatched, it’s just dumb enough to annoy and raise the question of why any of this matters if the protagonists are effectively immortal. These are the outliers though, and largely forgivable due to the sheer number of jokes that effectively hit home.

“Vol. 2” is genuinely fantastic comedy, but it’s also impressively dramatic at times. Kurt Russell’s presence is expectedly immense, and what Quill lacks in nonstop quips and barbs is made for with a satisfying fleshing out of his backstory and history. Yondu and his gang of Ravagers also enjoy more screentime, and while plenty of great humor stems from that, the crew is given a respectable bit of depth and some real heart.

The film’s primary villain—again, difficult to thoroughly analyze while avoiding spoilers—is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s better ones. Admittedly, “Vol. 2” didn’t have a high bar to pass there, but the Big Bad is certainly better than the original’s Ronan. The final fight is also a visual and creative spectacle in the vein of “Dr. Strange’s” Dormammu standoff. Great stuff.

Great stuff, indeed. “Vol. 2” is proof that the its predecessor wasn’t a fluke. There’s enough popcorn action to satisfy the summer blockbuster needs, just enough sci-fi and comic mumbo jumbo for the nerds and an endless stream of genuine whoops and warmth. This is another home run for Marvel and a fantastic film in general. Definitely worth getting hooked on this feeling.

Film review: ‘Doctor Strange’

So I just saw “Doctor Strange” and had an unusually strong immediate opinion. Normally it takes me a few days to develop my thoughts for a review. Not this time!

Though I disagree with the general acclaim mainstream press have lauded on the film, I hardly feel like I wasted my cash on a ticket. A serviceable and enjoyable two hours, but I don’t feel the need to endlessly rewatch it like I have other MCU films and TV series. Anyway, here’s my review:

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

Film: Doctor Strange

Director: Scott Derrickson

Genre: Superhero / science-fiction

Rating: 2.5/5

Your ability to enjoy “Doctor Strange,” the fourteenth (whew, we’re getting up there) installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, will depend entirely on whether you prefer style over substance.

“Doctor Strange” is one of the most visually impressive films in recent memory and an incredible argument for forking an extra few dollars over for the 3D theater experience. It’s also thin on plot, thinner on characterization and requires an entirely unrealistic suspension of disbelief.

Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the fantastic characters in Marvel’s Netflix series, but “Doctor Strange’s” eclectic characters never elicit an emotional bond. Yes, television shows have more time to flesh out their characters but I don’t buy that excuse here. “Ant-Man’s” Scott Lang was hilarious and likable and even “Captain America: Civil War’s” Black Panther and Spidey felt great, even if they were add-ons.

Here, Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant asshole. I know, you’ve probably read those exact words in another review. That’s because the film repeats it over and over and there’s little character development to suggest other personality traits.

It’s no fault of Cumberbatch. His performance ranges from respectable to great, but raw acting ability has never really been an issue for the MCU films. Instead, the scripting simply never gives him, or most of the other performers, an opportunity to truly shine. Yes, the typical Marvel quips are predictably on point and help the flow — jokes about Wi-Fi and Beyoncé are particularly great — but they’re poor substitutes for likable characters with clear motivations.

Naysayers, if you can name three individuals in the film other than Strange and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, one of the film’s standout performances), I’ll stand corrected.

The more concerning issue is that the plot feels incredibly rushed. Here’s the backstory: “Strange is a prestigious doctor, then he’s not.” The rest of the plot: “Exposition, genuinely awesome special effect-driven scenes to break up the jargon and fatigue, protagonist gets a bit stronger, repeat.”
Though Strange’s intense skepticism about the world’s fantastical and mythical secrets are both understandable and relatable, the sci-fi magic — ahem, sorcery — is nonetheless never adequately explained, a nagging issue that persists throughout the film.

Yes, this is a franchise with a flying Norse demigod, a giant green rage monster and a blind lawyer-turned-Batman, but “Doctor Strange” pushes the limits of believability. If you can turn off your brain or simply accept the wackiness, fine, but it’s all a little too “out there” to fully enjoy.

This all probably sounds quite harsh, but none of this is to say that “Doctor Strange” is an outright flop. The aforementioned trademark Marvel humor is thankfully present and is frequent enough to keep the film grounded whenever jargon threatens to take over. And although character depth is shaky at best, universally solid acting carries the film when the script can’t.

Finally, praise really must be given to the visuals. The “Inception” comparisons are obvious but well-deserved. “Doctor Strange” is a visual spectacle, with some scenes so fantastically trippy they nearly warrant the price of admission alone.

With that in mind, it goes without saying that many of the action scenes are suitably fantastic and supplemented by the focus on crazy sorcery. Though the weak plot inspires questions of the film’s long-term appeal, the artistic splendor alone may well warrant several repeated views. If indecipherable, Michael Bay “Transformers” cinematography is the stereotype for today’s science-fiction action, “Doctor Strange” is shining proof that creativity — and a hefty special effects budget — can go a long, long way.

At worst, “Doctor Strange” is a by-the-numbers Marvel sci-fi flick, and that’s not such a bad thing. While hazy plot and characters might kill its longevity, at the very least, “Doctor Strange” has the action, humor and visual bombast to pleasantly divert.

There are certainly worse ways to kill two hours. Just don’t forget your 3D glasses.