Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

There’s a scene that I loved in Spider-Man: Far From Home that I wish I could explore in more detail than is really appropriate for an opening paragraph, even if the review is as late as this one. To be as spoiler free as possible, I’ll just say that we once again spend some time with a character who finds Tony Stark’s narcissism and egotism as obnoxious as I do, and I got a minor thrill out of the fact that, within this narrative in which (spoilers for Endgame) Stark’s corpse has barely cooled, the evil that he’s done lives after him and the good is interred with his arc reactors (or something). His former employees hated his freaking guts, with Stark’s careless dismissal of the “little people” in his sphere, despite their individual contributions to the technology that kept his empire alive, presented in a more honest way than we’ve seen before. Somewhere along the way, Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma tricked everyone into forgetting that Tony Stark is someone that would be very difficult to get along with, unless you were a gorgeous twenty-something he wanted to bed. That he died and left most of his legacy to a kid from Queens he barely knows is strange, to say the least, and Stark’s spurned employees don’t see a reason why they should have to honor that desire. Frankly, neither do I, and I have the benefit of living outside of the narrative and can recognize how weird it is that this Spider-Man isn’t really all that Spider-Manny.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland)’s going to Europe! Along for the ride are his pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), MJ (Zendaya), and Flash (Tony Revolori). Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice), seen in the last Spider-film only on the school’s video announcements, is also along for the ride. The aforementioned all disappeared for five years during what’s now being called “The Blip,” the time period during which half of all life was snapped out of existence by Thanos at the end of Infinity War, before being snapped back into existence by Tony in Endgame (ok, he’s not without a redeeming feature or two); some students return to discover that their younger sibling is now biologically older than them, even if they are still chronologically elder. To those who were gone during the interim, that means that there’s a whole new group of freshly-minted peers, with some of Peter’s classmates having, subjectively, grown from pipsqueak to hunk overnight. One such character is Brad (Remy Hii, who, like me, is 32, making me wonder if I could still pull off a potentially problematic Never Been Kissed investigation), whom Peter fastens onto as a potential rival for MJ’s affection. As soon as the group gets to Europe, element-based monsters appear and start wreaking havoc on all that priceless architecture, and Peter must team with new hero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to stop them, etc. Also part of this story are Tony Stark’s hideous sunglasses, which turn out to be linked to yet another A.I. that connects to an orbiting Stark weapons platform, among other things, and which Stark meant to go to his “successor.” But is Peter’s head adult enough to wear so heavy a crown? And if not, him, whom? Also, Samuel L. Jackson appears in his contractually obligated appearance as Nick Fury, and Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) is also there. And Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

There’s both too much and too little going on here. “Too much” in the sense that, with a release date a mere 61 days after the premiere of Endgame, there hasn’t really been sufficient time to let that film digest in the public consciousness; “too little” in the sense that, if we are going to dive straight back into this world, we don’t really get to spend sufficient time exploring the massive consequences of The Blip. I still remember the thrill of electricity that ran through my fat, greasy, balding 2009 body the first time I read in an issue of Wizard that there were going to be Captain America and Thor movies in 2011, and how that seemed so far away, and all the speculation and discussion and anticipation that created. Endgame truly felt appropriately consequential and, at the risk of coming across as sententious, iconoclastic. It was a capstone to a truly impressive decade of mainstream film; to break ground on something new so soon diminishes the poignancy and the potency of what we just saw in theaters two months prior. In my Endgame review, I noted that the film functioned as the “All Good Things” of the first ten years of the MCU, but even Rick Berman and Brannon waited at least six months before getting straight to Voyager. This analogy bears out in the content of Far From Home as well, where we find our intrepid band of heroes literally far from home, but the narrative quickly settles into something that’s so familiar it’s essentially the same old thing, just blanched of some of the color that made it special. Perhaps, like the franchise that once boasted the most films in a single series, we’re about to experience such diminishing returns that the next ten years of Marvel fail to penetrate the public consciousness the way its forbearer did.* Give my fat, greasy, balder 2019 body the chance to feel that excitement and anticipation again, Marvel.

I understand that fans are too hungry for new content to let the land lie fallow for a season so that the earth is sweet again, or at least I understand that this is the narrative. I also understand that the MCU is a machine that generates money, and that this is the real reason we’re not going to see a summer without an MCU flick until the well runs dry (if it ever will). But if we are going to head back so soon, we should spend more time really living with the aftermath of The Blip. As it is, an entire half of the universe just experienced a cataclysmic existential shift; half of all life just lost seven years, not to mention there’s very little exploration of the fallout from the doubtlessly widespread infrastructure issues that this creates. What we get is a single fundraiser for Aunt May’s homelessness initiative, which barely glances off of the surface of what kind of a massive housing crisis must now be a reality for everyone. The implications are boundless, but the most devastating event in the history of existence is used mostly as a source to mine for comedy in the fact that formerly sexually ineligible middle school nerds are now hot (32 year old) seniors.

I’m coming down pretty hard on this for a movie that I had a fairly good time watching. I’m not really upset with the product, just with the system of production. I mean, I’m never going to love the fact that Peter Parker’s whole deal–being a street-level superhero who had to balance all his great responsibility with his need to have some semblance of a normal life–is kinda defeated by having Tony Stark acting as Daddy Warbucks bibbedi-bobbedi-booing Peter straight out of Queens. Even when one considers that Peter’s desire to be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man is part of his external conflict in this film, Tony Stark’s presence looms so large and his shadow casts so far that it drags down the plot. The narrative connection between the former Stark employees and their complicated boss not only works for me because it’s critical of Tony Stark, but also because it makes the world feel larger in an organic way; having Peter’s story be so dependent on Tony’s makes it smaller. Gone is the relatability of the fable, in which perseverance is a virtue, replaced by the rhetorical distance of the fairy tale, in which you might be rewarded for hard work, but also sometimes you’ve just got a fairy godmother to do that shit for you.

There were a lot of things that I liked. There’s a series of illusions that appear throughout the film (to say more would reveal too much) that are really cool to watch. There’s also an appearance by J. Jonah Jameson, once again played by J.K. Simmons, which both comes out of nowhere and is a welcome addition, although it’s hard to wrap one’s head around what the larger implications of that might mean. Such as: is Jameson just the same across reboots? Do you think Simmons thinks its weird that he used to be 27 years younger than Aunt May when she was Rosemary Harris, but now he’s ten years older than Aunt May now that she’s Marisa Tomei? Are there really multiple earths? This film posits the existence of other dimensions and presents evidence for it, but the source is ultimately less than reliable.

I saw this one opening weekend, and in the time since, news broke about the potential dissolution of the contract that allows the MCU (under the Disney omnibrand) to use Spider-Man in their films, with much hand-wringing and corporate apologia and weeping/gnashing/sackcloth. But honestly, I’m not sure that getting a little distance from the larger MCU isn’t for the best right now. At least if we don’t see Tom Holland for a few months, it might give us time to miss him.

*In this analogy DS9 equates to the Netflix shows (more inspective of humanity’s darker impulses, tightly focused, “grittier” for lack of a more accurate term), and the original series is/are the comics (originating mostly in the sixties, socially conscious for both the time of origin and now, sometimes aliens steal character’s brains). Don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Life (2017)

I know in my heart that it’s reductive to discuss a film solely in terms of genre, but that kind of categorization & attention to tropes is all the mental energy I can really afford the recent sci-fi horror Life. With characters & dialogue that linger with you for about as long as a fart and insipid, free-floating camera work stylization that distracts more than it enhances, Life has little to offer anyone not already on the hook for its basic genre thrills. It’s a decent enough spaceship horror with creature attacks that delight in their novelty & brutality just enough to excuse the waste of space human drama they interrupt. If you’re looking to Life for ambitious, heartfelt cinema you’re going to leave dejected. As a genre exercise, however, it’s a mild success that more or less pulls its own weight.

A spaceship packed with near-future scientists discover the first sign of extraterrestrial life. Initially the size of a microbe, this alien species grows exponentially in dimension, strength, and intelligence throughout the film until it ultimately poses a threat to humanity at large. When the size of a tiny translucent mushroom, the little Baby Genius bastard is strong enough to break every bone in a scientist’s hand. It grows from there to some kind of flying killer starfish to resembling an evil translucent Creech, making this more believable as a Monster Trucks prequel than the Venom prequel it was idiotically rumored to be upon initial release. Nicknamed Calvin, this evil little bugger is the obvious star of the show, as his wet blanket victims have nothing compelling to do or say between his shockingly violent attacks. Ryan Reynolds does his usual “lovable” asshole schtick & Jake Gyllenhaal reprises his stoic blue collar caricature from Southpaw, but for the most part our cosmonauts are a boring wash of measured British whispers, all interchangeable & instantly forgettable. I even had a difficult time differentiating the two female leads despite one of them being played by Noomi Rapace, who I’ve seen in several films before. Calvin was an interesting enough design & enough of a killer brute to hold my attention throughout Life on his own, but it is a shame he didn’t have more interesting people to kill.

As far as Alien retreads go, Life isn’t even the most interesting one to be released this year, not while Michael Fassbender is making out with himself in Alien: Covenant. The one interesting idea the film brings to that formula is in having the idiot scientist who first prods the monster with his finger actually being verbally chastised by his coworkers for acting like an unprofessional fool, when in other examples of the genre they’d all act that way. Beyond that, the film can only deliver thrilling monster attacks & an interesting creature design, unless you think an overly dramatic reading of Goodnight Moon is enough to carry an emotional climax on its own. Luckily for me, I’m already a huge sucker for space horror as a genre and found Calvin both charming & nastily brutal enough for the film to feel worthwhile. It’s reductive to say so, but your own interest level in that genre’s minor chills & thrills will likely dictate your experience with this one as well.

-Brandon Ledet

Okja (2017)

In one of our very first posts as a website we declared Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer the Best Films of 2014. My assumption is that it rose to the top of our list that year mostly because it was so much movie. As with a lot of Asian cinema, Snowpiercer never ties itself down to a single genre or tone. It constantly shifts gears from humor to terror to action spectacle to political satire to whatever whim it feels at the moment as its story progresses from one dystopian end of its train setting to the other. It was near-impossible to know what to expect from the director’s follow-up, then, except that it might similarly spread out its eccentricities over a bizarrely wide range of cinematic modes. Okja is just as deliciously over the top, difficult to pin down, and tonally restless as Snowpiercer, although it does not resemble that film in the slightest. If a movie’s main virtues rest in its ability to surprise & delight, Okja is an undeniable success. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

Tilda Swinton & Jake Gyllenhaal star as the public faces of an evil meat industry corporation that’s attempting to improve its image with a new, falsely fun & friendly attitude. As part of this evolution within the corporation, they promise to breed a new form of domesticated animal to help maintain the world’s demand for (supposedly) non-GMO meat supply, a “superpig.” The unveiling of this superpig breed is structured as a kind of reality show contest and the movie follows one of 26 worldwide contestants within that frame. Okja, a superpig who has been raised free-range in the forests of South Korea, is officially declared “the best pig” (recalling titles like Babe & Charlotte’s Web), winning the dubious prize of being torn away from the little girl who raised her as a close friend instead of an eventual source for food. Before their separation, we get to know Okja as a kind, selfless animal with human eyes & a hyper-intelligent aptitude for problem-solving (not unlike the intelligence of a real-life pig). After she’s unceremoniously removed from her home and sent to face her fate as meat, we get to know the little girl who raised her as our de facto protagonist. The movie gradually reveals itself to be a coming of age quest to free Okja from her corporate captors, protect her from the well-meaning but idiotic animal rights activists who want to use her as a political pawn, and return her to her home in Nature. The rest is a blissfully messy blur of action set pieces, wild shifts in comedic tone, and a brutally unforgiving satire of modern meat industry practices.

The cuteness of Okja herself and the film’s occasional dedication to a kids’ movie tone (despite its constant violence & f-bombs) make it tempting to look to Babe as an easy animals-deserve-empathy-too comparison point. The truth is, though, that Okja more closely resembles George Miller’s terrifying action movie nightmare Babe 2: Pig in the City, where the grand adventure staged to bring its very special superpig home is a nonstop assault of bizarre imagery & comedic terror. There’s a constant threat of danger in Okja, ranging from car chases to meat grinders to stampedes through an underground shopping mall. The CGI in service of this spectacle is shoddy, but in a flippant, Steve Chow kind of way that is so irreverently cartoonish it could not matter less. Oddly, the performances work in much the same way. Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson all stand out as intensely bizarre sources of nervous energy that exist far beyond the bounds of human nature, but in such a casually absurd way that it somehow fits the film’s ever-shifting tone. Gyllenhaal likely wins the grand prize in that respect, often resembling more of a rabid duck than an adult man. In any other context he’d be too broad or, frankly, too annoying to function as anything other than a distraction, but it’s somehow just the jarringly over the top touch the movie needs.

Okja is too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods for it to be wholly described to the uninitiated. It’s both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I can try to describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. Just like with the similarly divisive Snowpiercer, I can’t promise all audiences will be onboard for the entire ride (Gyllenhaal in particular is sure to be a frequent point of contention), but Okja does offer something that’s increasingly rare in modern action adventures of this blockbuster-sized scale: the wildly unpredictable. You may not appreciate every individual turn in its impossibly twisty road, but oh, the places you’ll go.

-Brandon Ledet

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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threehalfstar

There’s no doubt in my mind that fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford has a masterpiece in him somewhere. His 2009 debut A Single Man was an interesting work that suggested that maybe his intense vision as a meticulous stylist wasn’t exactly suited for an intimate, small cast drama. Ford took the note and his follow-up, the gleefully trashy Nocturnal Animals, makes much more deliberate strides to match the arty perfume commercial pretension of the his visual obsessions to a more appropriately detached work of cinematic abstraction. In its best moments, Nocturnal Animals nearly touches the transcendent modes of exquisite trash that wins me over so fully in titles like Phase IV, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and The Neon Demon. Ford has seemingly accepted his role as an art curator & visual stylist here, aiming more for a well-constructed image than an emotionally engaging narrative. Nocturnal Animals still feels oddly restrained, though, and the director hesitates to follow through on the film’s more exciting, disorienting impulses, restraining it from becoming the soaring cinematic achievement Ford will surely make someday. Hopefully, it’ll be someday soon.

Amy Adams stars as an art gallery curator struggling to hold onto a flailing marriage with an indifferent business dick, played by Armie Hammer. Their imperfect, handsomely tailored reverie is disrupted by a package containing a manuscript for a new novel from the curator’s first husband, played by Jake Gylenhaal. This framing device sets up three competing storylines: the narrative of the novel, flashbacks to the bickering that dissolved the first marriage, and an endless parade of shots of Amy Adams thinking & reading in bed. All three of these narrative threads are dripping with melodrama, but only one of them is consistently entertaining to behold. The novel, which plays almost like a parody of macho fiction scribes like Bret Easton Ellis & Cormac McCarthy, follows a family who are derailed from a road trip by some West Texas hooligans who rape & murder all but one surviving member.  After a years-long pursuit with the help of a grizzled law man, an absurdist terror brought to life by a top of his game Michael Shannon, those hooligans are brought to a justice of a kind, but at a devastating cost. There’s some kind of parable here about the flawed nature of revenge, but the point Ford’s trying to make doesn’t really matter all that much in the end, given how little attention the “real” world drama of the art curator’s love life is given in comparison to the crime novel’s sensationalist violence & self-doubting masculinity. I like how the novel’s years-long search for retribution mirrors the frustration of constantly performing mental autopsies on a past failed romance, including the incessant impulse to return to the scene of the crime in both cases. However, I’d rather that the art curator’s half either match the novel’s narrative significance so that both halves are equally strong or for the film to not try to make a point at all. As is, their connection feels a little thin considering the effort they take to merge thematically.

The one thing the Amy Adams end of this fractured narrative does accomplish is to contextualize Nocturnal Animals as a work of Art, rather than a conventional feature film. The opening credits are a stunning, immersive gaze into a gallery exhibit where flabby erotic dancers shake their naked bodies in a Twin Peaks void of sparklers, confetti, and tiny American flags. At a fancy cocktail party between artsy types, Adams rattles on about “junk culture, total junk” and a swishy Michael Sheen chides her (along with the audience) to “Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful when you do.” Gyllenhaal’s frustrated novelist even laments at one point about how painful & vulnerable it is to make divisive art that seemingly no one likes. Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).

I’m loving the new weird territory Tom Ford explores here; I just think he can afford to get a whole lot weirder. There’s a third act shift into audience disorientation in Nocturnal Animals that I found far more exciting than any of the film’s various moral dilemmas and moments of bitter melodrama. Ford cuts from one reality to the next in jarring transitions where you sometimes aren’t even sure if you’re watching a scene or a still photograph. If this narrative jumble between its various storylines lead to some kind of a psychological break along the lines of a Persona or a Mulholland Drive, I might be singing its praises (the way I have been with its fellow exquisite trash pieces Tale of Tales & The Neon Demon) as one of the best films of 2016. It instead leads to a much more pedestrian narrative about revenge & bruised emotions: a hollow, although beautiful, shell of what could have been. I doubt Ford would be interested in doing so, but I’d love to see the director move into an even trashier genre than a pulpy crime story in the future. If he left behind his impulse to make a narrative point about life & humanity and instead applied his stylist skills to a horror of sci-fi genre pic, where the stakes are lowered from the heights of an intimate drama & the thrills are more or less predetermined, he’d feel way more free to let loose & deliver that weirdo masterpiece I’m convinced is in his imminent future. Nocturnal Animals very nearly gets there and it’s fascinating to watch him reach for it in his own carefully meticulous way, but he needs to loosen up just a little bit to arrive at that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

Southpaw (2015)

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twohalfstar
The advertisements for Southpaw have been driving me mad every time I go to the movies lately. No matter how I timed my entrance at the theater it seemed I was always just doomed to hear Eminem echo “I am PHENOMENAL PHENOMENAL PHENOMENAL” in an embarrassing fashion & I’d find myself cringing again. Much of the film’s trailer had me interested in Jake Gyllenhaal’s follow-up to his nightmarish turn in Nightcrawler, but Eminem was regrettably featured so prominently in Southpaw‘s trailer that I was expecting to take at least a half-star off my rating every time one his songs played on the soundtrack. Although Eminem’s voice is only heard twice during the film (once during a clueless in tone training montage & once during the end credits) his prominence in the trailer does point to a lack of self-awareness that prevents Southpaw from being anything too fresh or special.

It would be one thing if Eminem were something Gyellehaal’s punch drunk protagonist Billy Hope blasted in headphones to get pumped up before his boxing bouts. A down on his luck, white brute foster home survivor with a drinking problem certainly sounds like the kind of dude who might be a huge fan of the Detroit rapper, who knows a thing or two about being a down on his luck white brute with a troubled upbringing. Instead, though, Eminem’s contribution to the film amounts to little more than a business deal soundtrack tie-in, complete with an official music video. It feels like an ancient practice, dead for at least a decade, that’s much better suited for already-cynical corporate cash grabs like Juicy J’s contribution to the Ninja Turtles soundtrack or Waka Flocka Flame’s (laughably awful) collaboration with Good Charlotte meant to promote the latest Adam Sandler stinker Pixels. Instead of helping detail the character of its protagonist, Eminem’s involvement instead details the character of the film itself.

Southpaw is a mediocre film. It’s passable as a redemption story melodrama, but rarely memorable as a unique work. Even die-hard fans of boxing films in general are likely to find it difficult to distinguish its individual charms from much more distinctive examples of the genre. The story it tells is pretty easy to call from beginning to end within the first fifteen minutes or so, complete with a couple tearjerker character deaths solely meant to give Billy Hope’s inevitable final triumph some sense of meaning or purpose. Without a unique narrative or any visual touches to distinguish Southpaw (outside maybe a couple interesting 1st person POV shots in the ring), all that’s left then is the quality of the acting, which varies from Impressive, But Not Nightcrawler Impressive (Gyllenhall) to Decent (Forest Whitaker) to I’m Wearing A Hat! (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). It’s not a terrible viewing experience (besides maybe the sequence where it tries to use an Eminem song for misguided cool points), but Gyllenhaal’s performance is the sole element in play that approaches anything near PHENOMENAL PHENOMENAL PHENOMENAL and that’s far from enough to save the whole ordeal from mediocrity. I hope the actor continues this recent trend of playing scary that started with films like Nightcrawler & Enemy, but I’d like to also like to see that talent put to much more interesting use with far fewer Enimem songs stinking up the joint.

-Brandon Ledet