Spider-Man: Homecoming

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” takes cues from “Deadpool” and is a superhero movie on the outside of The Avengers looking into the genre.

Spider-Man HomecomingI’m aware that Spider-Man was a thing well before “Deadpool,” either the comic or the movie, but there’s no denying that this latest reboot owes a great debt to the Merc with a Mouth. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has the same wise-cracking, clumsy superhero in full spandex but with a PG rating. And in both cases, Spider-Man and Deadpool are superheroes on the outside looking into the genre, and that’s a pretty good spot to be in.

If Marvel had their way from the beginning, Spider-Man would’ve been the flagship Marvel Cinematic Universe character from the get-go. But he was a property of Sony who had already gone through one bad reboot, with a 30-something Andrew Garfield trying to pass as a high school student. So Marvel worked around him, and they found a clever way to cross over the character into “Captain America: Civil War.Continue reading “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Rapid Response: Chaplin

Robert Downey Jr. shines in the biopic on the life of Charlie Chaplin and his Tramp.

chaplin-coverA lot of generic biopics about geniuses get a pass because they show an endearing side to a beloved figure. I can swallow a mediocre movie about “The Doors” because Val Kilmer is so electric as Jim Morrison on stage and I love the music.

In the case of “Chaplin,” I’m at a crossroads. I adore Charlie Chaplin and The Tramp, and Robert Downey Jr. has his mannerisms and his likeness down pat. It’s a wonderful performance, and the same goes for Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, a natural fit. But Richard Attenborough’s film has the markings of a prestige picture, a stuffy melodrama made to win Oscars and exactly the opposite of what The Tramp stood for. It doesn’t understand what made Chaplin such a gifted physical comedian or have the visual style to capture how his knack behind the camera gave each visual gag the necessary grace and style to make it funny, and it doesn’t show how he came to be truly great but rather assumes he always was.

I refer back to the most basic rules of movie biopics about geniuses: focus on an individual moment of the figure’s story, not their entire life. Drawn from Chaplin’s real-life autobiography and yet reimagined as Chaplin filling in important blanks of his life story with a fictional publisher (Anthony Hopkins), Attenborough’s film starts in Chaplin’s childhood and his complications with a mentally ill mother, then moves through his early vaudeville days before he’s swept off to America and early Hollywood. During the title cards, the black and white image of a sad, lonely Tramp removing his makeup has an unexpected poignancy, a quick glimpse of an icon as we’ve never seen him before, but Attenborough immediately signals what kind of melodramatic slog this will be. Why do we have to endure such bland, downtrodden moments of grief when we’re telling a story of one of the silver screen’s most beloved clowns?

“Chaplin” gets caught in an unfortunate middle ground, with film buffs who already know the full story disappointed at how the film chooses to treat their icon, and with newbies to Chaplin getting the wrong idea about his legacy. And while it might’ve been a wise idea to update the Tramp persona to exist in the late 20th Century, the movie forgoes a sense of classicism and feels dated as a result.

Occasionally the film shows twinkles of magic. Chaplin gets giddy and awestruck at the early magic of cinema and in how pioneer director Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) walks him through the elementary simple process of movie editing in order to create something incredible. It feels quaint today, but then this was once considered a gimmick and a novelty. Another sequence with Chaplin dodging some real life cops toys with some original slapstick and zaniness, although without a classical bent, several of these Downey showcases are undercut by editing that, in Chaplin’s case, would’ve been far more economical.

Working from “The Immigrant” up through “Limelight” and through all of his tumultuous marriages and tabloid worthy affairs, everything here has moments of promise before becoming yet another footnote in his autobiography. When your only goal is to do lip service to everything and say that even the genius can feel humble and inadequate, it begs the question again, who is this movie for? What is it trying to say? The Tramp never spoke a word, and yet he spoke more volumes than the biopic bearing his name.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America and Iron Man engage in an epic battle of titans in Marvel’s latest.

Civil_War_Final_PosterMarvel’s head-honchos must’ve spent years dreaming up this moment. It’s the moment when Captain America, Iron Man and 10 other superheroes all dash at one another in anticipation of an epic death match. This battle is why we’ve sat through these movies since 2008, and it’s everything fans could’ve asked for.

And whether you’re a fan or not, that may be enough. This particular scene, what is really a sizable chunk of “Captain America: Civil War,” stands out because it’s all these heroes at their best and having a blast. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is clambering through Iron Man’s circuitry, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is web-slinging and talking wise as Chris Evans’s Captain America manages to drop a building on him, and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is sleek, acrobatic and menacing. They’re not trying to kill each other, but are really just having fun.

“I don’t know how many fights you’ve been in, but there usually isn’t this much talking,” Falcon says to Spidey, who really does breathe a lot of life into this film. Except that’s not entirely true. For a long time now, Marvel has been making sensational action sequences that look and feel exactly like this one: rapid fire action editing that resembles comic book panels rather than cinema, carefully allotted portions of screen time for every hero involved, and a bunch of quippy Whedonisms tossed in between the mayhem.

So if this fight really is the best thing Marvel has ever made, is that really saying much?

To be fair, the Captain America movies are arguably a step up from its Iron Man or Thor counterparts. I’d rather watch Cap and Black Widow engage in some Jason Bourne style hand-to-hand combat than watch Tony Stark shoot lasers at swarms of CGI robots.

But regardless of who the participants are, every Marvel movie ever made feels exactly the same. Each one has been polished and tailored to fit a brand image, and they’ve been rubbed clean of their style, emotion and ambition. Anthony and Joe Russo may be listed as directors here, but these movies don’t have directors, just brand managers. It’s meant movies that are perfectly competent, enjoyable and disposable: almost never bad, but almost certainly never great.

In “Civil War,” when Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) bungles a mission in Lagos that leaves 12 civilians killed, the Avengers are brought before an oversight committee to be kept in check by the United Nations. Iron Man and Black Widow both agree to sign the sanctions, but Captain America believes they would be surrendering their right to choose.

Not unlike the recent “Batman v. Superman,” it makes boardroom discussions, MSNBC talking heads and debates about morality the stuff of blockbusters. Say what you will about that film, but Zack Snyder is a filmmaker with a voice and a style behind the camera. He invoked Greek mythology and Christ parables in order to argue his ideas, and he made Bruce Wayne far more of a tortured soul than the narcissist Tony Stark ever could be.

“Civil War” is entirely paint by numbers with simplistic, reductive writing. Is this movie really about anything other than vengeance? It bungles its libertarian political overtones by trying to straddle the line and appeal to a mass audience, and it proves yet again that Marvel has very little clue what to do with its villains. “Batman v. Superman” didn’t have a sense of humor, but so what if “Civil War” does?

When has this franchise ever made you feel anything beyond a giggle? Marvel has never been one to make you afraid, sad or joyful, to pay homage to a genre, or even to truly care for the fate of these characters. It’s for the same reason that Marvel movies only look like other Marvel movies. By making them all uniformly bland with glimmers of excitement and pathos, they can tease you for the next one.

Where can the franchise go after a dozen superheroes have all fought in an epic battle? If all we keep getting is more of the same, does it really matter?

3 stars

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Marvel’s latest blockbuster is a mess too beholden to plot threads of the MCU, and James Spader’s great Ultron can’t save it.

AvengersPosterMarvel has been branding their Cinematic Universe in such a way that each subsequent film teases the next, and all seem to be building to something. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” should be that moment, but it doesn’t feel like the culmination of all that’s come before. Worse, it doesn’t even feel like an “Avengers” movie.

With 2011’s “The Avengers”, director Joss Whedon did successfully juggle the many characters who showed up in Marvel’s “Phase One”, and he seemed to wink at the camera while doing so, allowing these big personalities to clash and poke fun in a way that returned the color, fun and originality to what had become an increasingly dense, plot driven series.

“Age of Ultron” doesn’t allow its characters to grapple with a major story as a team. It’s a super mess full of forced backstories and plot threads to past and future movies. Black Widow and Bruce Banner are given an unlikely and unexpected tortured romance while trying to battle their demons. Iron Man hints at fracturing from the team as he will in “Captain America: Civil War”, but feels half-baked and underdeveloped here. Thor disappears from the team to fulfill a nonsensical side plot in a Nordic cave. Hawkeye suddenly has family melodrama on a reclusive farm that slows the film to a halt. And new additions are given neither the screen time nor the emotional heft to truly make an impact.

If Marvel isn’t building to this and still hasn’t arrived at their best, what are we waiting for?

In the film’s opening shot, Whedon weaves through the forest of a fictional Russian-esque country as the Avengers stage an attack on a compound. It’s an unbroken take (achieved through digital trickery) that unnaturally circles the area in an effort to showcase each hero one by one as they deal with some baddies, all before catching them all lunging forward at once in a poster-ready screen grab. It’s emblematic of how “Age of Ultron” both looks and feels, in which Whedon is really just showing off. Some of these elaborate, but not stylish shots only remind how much is going on.

Like the camera, the plot also fails to stay fixated in one place. Upon reaching the compound, they retrieve Loki’s scepter. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) plan to research it in an attempt to create a brilliant form of artificial intelligence that can provide peace on Earth somehow. They inadvertently succeed but manage to create Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a highly intelligent program that in no time flat deduces that the only way to achieve peace is to eliminate The Avengers and evolve mankind through extinction.

Ultron brings to the film possibly Marvel’s first actual theme and message, and he proves to be arguably the best super villain Marvel has dreamed up. He repeatedly sings “I’ve Got No Strings” from “Pinocchio” to show he’s not one of Iron Man’s puppets, and his principled ideas about the evolution of intelligent life resound with the weight of countless sci-fi films before it. “Age of Ultron’s” ideas about AI and the folly of man may not be profound, but delivered with Spader’s quick, dry, ironic tone, it’s convincing.

But as for making a convincing narrative and objective for Ultron, Whedon is far less successful. As a villain, Ultron is convenient. He exists in the Internet! He’s unstoppable, and always one step ahead. So when his plan is revealed to make a tangible version of himself, it seems like a step in the wrong evolutionary direction. But even that plan fizzles out to make way for yet another new character, and the resulting final battle is The Avengers taking on thousands of disposable metal baddies. The action sequences feel like a rehash of not just the chaotic spectacle at the end of “The Avengers”, but of “Iron Man 3” for how many Stark-powered enemies they’re forced to bring down.

Whedon has more luck with a battle between Iron Man and a hypnotized Hulk in a crowded city. It isolates the action on two figures and smashes things up real good. Yet it too blends in with the chaos at the Russian compound, then in the African warehouse, then in the Russian city. Marvel seems unable to stage a compelling set piece that doesn’t involve a million moving parts in a busy area.

These scenes are so unmemorable because they lack suspense. They’re hugely bloodless and without any of the dark edges of Christopher Nolan’s or Zack Snyder’s superhero attempts. Marvel also doesn’t see the need to make us care for these characters again, as they’ve already done so in previous films. But it’s easy to forget what makes Tony Stark heroic and likeable in the first place, not least of which because he’s been separated from the brilliant, charming chemistry he has with Pepper Potts (the movie makes a quick, cheap concession to explain why Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman are missing).

When the action does settle down, Whedon brings his trademark smarm to the party, particularly in a scene where all the Avengers try to lift Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer and find themselves unworthy. These characters have shades and nuance, but under Whedon’s dialogue they all seem like the same cocky adventurers with a quick act of wordplay here and a too-clever high-brow pop culture reference the next.

But Whedon has interesting things to work with, and you wish Marvel would withhold flashbacks of Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) assassin up-bringing for her own movie and condense the two hour, 20 minute run time of this one. Johansson is arguably the standout of this franchise, and her interactions with Ruffalo are the closest Marvel has gotten to making Hulk’s werewolf curse understandable and believable.

“Age of Ultron” isn’t a movie though; it’s seven movies, and none of them stick. Marvel has to quit making teases for their next Big Thing and make that movie today.

2 ½ stars

Iron Man 3

“Iron Man 3” and its franchise as a whole has resisted a firm genre label because it’s trying to be everything at once and just feels like nothing at all.

How would you put a label on the “Iron Man” franchise? What is it about this franchise that has allowed it to survive reboots, drastic recasting, self parody and made Tony Stark the most likeable character in the complete Marvel Universe?

The popular candidate is Robert Downey Jr., but his on-camera chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow is part of the reason the franchise has resisted description. These two are screwball comics on par with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and their dialogue mixed with their story in “Iron Man 3” comes across as part comedy, part action movie, part superhero fantasy, part conspiracy thriller and even part social commentary.

“Iron Man 3” and its franchise as a whole has resisted a firm genre label because it’s trying to be everything at once and just feels like nothing at all. Continue reading “Iron Man 3”

The Avengers

“This intergalactic energy cube ain’t big enough for the six of us,” “The Avengers” says with a forceful tone as it struggles to conceal a smile.

Joss Whedon’s superhero movie equivalent to The Travelling Wilburys fully knows how impossible it is to squeeze all of these massive folklore figures into one film. So when the whole serious side starts to cave and just gets silly, Whedon is there with a zinger to run with the moment.

“The Avengers” is a fun and smart movie in doses, one that surprises and dazzles when it isn’t talking your head off. Continue reading “The Avengers”

Wonder Boys

It isn’t often to see intellectual comedies this side of Woody Allen. Perhaps it’s because few actors can crack wise about other “faux intellectuals” the way Woody can. “Wonder Boys” is a clever, wry film based on Michael Chabon’s inventive novel that certainly tries.

It stars Michael Douglas as the Woody Allen surrogate, English Professor Grady Tripp. Grady is a writer who struck gold once and is now plagued not with writer’s block but an inability to stop writing. As his sophomore book grows ever longer, he finds it hard to focus and come to an ending.

Distracting Grady are his students James (Tobey Maguire) and Hannah (Katie Holmes), the boy a dark, socially awkward kid with a writing gift of his own, and the girl renting a room from Grady but not afraid to move into his. His quasi-gay publishing editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) also pesters him, his wife has left him and his boss and lover Sarah (Frances McDormand) is pregnant.

He also has a dead dog in his trunk.

“Wonder Boys” is a movie about how a man finds his destination in life, especially when there are so many wacky, interesting people around and things going on. Continue reading “Wonder Boys”

Iron Man 2

If “Entourage” were a superhero movie, it would be this one. “Iron Man 2” loves knowing that it has a cocky, self-centered character everyone loves and an actor that is not only convincing at playing it but whom everyone loves even more. It hypes up the pretty boy lifestyle to the point of being silly and on the verge of absurdity.

If everyone loved the original “Iron Man” because the Tony Stark secret identity was not a cookie cutter hero, dweeb or lone wolf, then reasonably no one should be amused by Robert Downey Jr.’s now extreme version of a cookie cutter narcissist. But maybe like many episodes of “Entourage,” it’s hard not to be amused. I found it odd how little Stark was impressed by his own ability to discover and create a brand new element in the short time frame of one montage. I wondered why he didn’t blink at the thought of drinking coffee in a diner with an eye patch wearing Samuel L. Jackson as he sat in full Iron Man uniform. I can’t say any of it was out of character, and I can’t say it was an inappropriate direction in terms of entertainment value. Continue reading “Iron Man 2”