Homework, Hormones, & Happy Hogan: The balancing act of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Jon Watts is just 36, a baby by filmmaker standards. His first two films were Clown, a tiny body horror film that grossed just $2 million, and Cop Car, a very good but sparsely seen Kevin Bacon thriller that didn’t even gross $150K. I’m not sure what would make Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige pin him as the director capable of the very difficult balancing act that is Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that’s why Feige gets paid a lot of money to make these decisions and I get paid no money to react to them.

Homecoming is an experiment in genre. Within its superhero responsibilities -thrusting one of the two or three most iconic characters in American comics into the biggest franchise in American cinema- it also sets out to be a genuine coming-of-age high school film. Call it “Perks of Being a Wall-Climber”. It’s the first time in multiple big-screen iterations of the character that Peter Parker’s conflict is just as important to the film, if not more important, than Spidey’s conflict. Yes, Spider-Man wants to impress Tony Stark, officially become an Avenger, and stop the bad guy. But just as important to the film’s narrative is Peter wanting to impress his crush. Throughout the film Peter is forced to make decisions. Does he follow the van full of alien weapons? Or does he go to his crushes’ party? These decisions drive his character arc. Again, this is a true coming-of-age film, and a very good one. Peter is stuck in limbo between who he’s been and who he wants to be, both as a teenager and a superhero.

A hilarious early sequence shows us some events from Captain America: Civil War from Spidey’s perspective, via cell phone footage. It communicates Peter’s excitement perfectly. When the timeline fast-forwards to the present day, Peter is back in Queens, going to school, and fighting small-time crime after school, all under the watchful eye of Tony Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Peter thinks he could be doing a lot more, but neither Stark nor Happy are returning his calls. He’s clearly not ready yet. His skills aren’t polished. He doesn’t even really know to use his fancy suit.

At school, Peter is a bit of a classic geek. He’s on the academic decathlon team. He and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) are the types who still get excited over a Death Star LEGO set. His crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), doesn’t seem to know he exists. While these dynamics may seem like clichés at first, they’re explored in real detail. There’s depth to the adolescent conflicts Peter goes through.

That’s a lot to balance in what’s supposed to be a lighthearted summer blockbuster. Thankfully, Watts and his exceptional cast were up to the challenge.

It all starts with Tom Holland, who almost instantly establishes himself as the best Spidey and Peter yet. He actually looks like a high schooler, for one. He also carries an effortless charm that makes his learning curve throughout the film heartwarming rather than annoying. There’s a concerned effort to capture the youthful exuberance of Peter in this film, and Holland proves the perfect muse for such a task. Physically, he has a real pep in his step. Whether in the suit or in typical milennial teenage attire, you can see Peter’s enthusiasm in the way Holland moves. There are even a few scenes that require some real dramatic acting, going as far as bringing the character to tears, and Holland nails it.

As for the villain, something that has plagued even the stronger MCU films, Homecoming succeeds effortlessly. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (aka The Vulture), a government-contracted metal salvager turned arms dealer who builds himself a winged suit. He has a real, believable, even relatable conflict. He’s not concerned with world domination. He doesn’t have some weird personal vendetta against the Avengers. He’s just a dude who gets screwed out of work and wants to provide for his family and the family of employees. The film has a few surprises with the character that I won’t spoil but are handled perfectly. There’s a scene where Toomes is in a car with Peter and a simple conversation makes for the most intense moment in the movie. Such is the power of Keaton, an actor of seemingly unlimited talent, capable of both finding the humanity in the character but also being genuinely creepy when the script calls for it. He steals every scene he is in. It’s a truly marvelous performance from one of our finest actors.

Another neat thing about Homecoming that sets it above other Spidey movies is it’s authentic New York flavor. There’s the diversity, for starters. Peter’s high school peers look like you’d expect them to given that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse urban hubs in America. But the film never goes out of its way to highlight this diversity. It’s just there, natural for all the characters. The film’s biggest action set piece takes place on the Staten Island ferry. Peter even has a favorite bodega. Being a teenager in New York is a huge part of Peter’s identity, and this is ultimately a film about his identity, so capturing that was important.

Homecoming, credited to a whopping six screenwriters and edited by Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman, is structured in a way so the dueling narratives unfold simultaneously. This isn’t a film that begins as a high school story and then becomes standard superhero fare halfway through. Both sides move forward with equal pacing, which really helps Peter’s character arc. Salvatore Totino’s photography is very smart. During major action scenes featuring the Vulture, who’s questionable CGI is the film’s one true weakness, Totino lights them dimly so that the questionable CGI is tougher to notice. And the editing team makes use of rapid cuts. It’s a very clever film, technically speaking. Do I wish some of the VFX work looked better? Sure. But here, unlike the countless films that feature middling VFX work, it doesn’t really get in the way. Watts and his team know this film’s strength is its characters, and that’s what is shown off.

As heavily as Robert Downey Jr. was featured in promotional material (which is understandable), he’s not as a big a part of the film as you’d expect. He pops in here and there to give Peter fatherly advice and criticism, lending trademark Downeyisms to the film, but never overstays his welcome. Happy Hogan is his surrogate in a sense, but even Happy doesn’t overpopulate things. This film is very much a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its obligations to the larger story never get in the way. If anything, the presence of the Avengers in the world of this film helps Peter as a character.

Everything in Homecoming works. Watts directs most scenes with an improvisational nature, fitting given the often comedic tone and the fact that most of the characters are just teenagers. His influences are clear; John Hughes, most notably. There’s a visual reference to Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  that’s maybe a bit heavy-handed but so charming that you’ll forgive its lack of subtlety.

This is *probably* the best Spider-Man film to date. It’s also one of the best MCU films, and perhaps the strongest blockbuster of a frustrating summer season thus far. A crowd-pleaser that’ll surely be a smash hit and reward repeated viewings, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a triumph in popcorn movie-making. More of this, please.

 

‘Wonder Woman’ is just okay, which is good enough 

Gal Gadot has the perfect eyes for Wonder Woman. They can be fierce, as they are when she’s wielding her sword and shield and lasso. They can also give off a childlike sense of curiosity, as they do when she sees a peacoat (or Chris Pine’s dick) for the first time. If only Patty Jenkins’ film as a whole was as good executing this duality as Gadot’s eyes are…

Wonder Woman is really two movies. One of those movies is an aptly handled fish-out-of-water story; a genuinely funny, romantic, and inspiring tale of a woman who wants nothing more than to save a world she doesn’t really understand yet. The film’s strongest moments all come courtesy of this premise. Whether it’s a young Diana punching air and practicing moves as she watches the Amazon warriors train, or a fully-grown Diana having what amounts to a grade school sex talk on a boat with her tour guide and eventual love interest Steve Trevor (Pine), the first half of Wonder Woman is some of the best and most refreshing blockbuster filmmaking in years. And not just because it’s a female-driven work in an industry dominated by old white dudes. By any standard, regardless of what rests between the director’s legs, a lot of Wonder Woman is a damn fine movie.

Unfortunately, when this superhero film actually acts like a superhero film, it’s an unimaginative mess akin to what the reasonable amongst us have come to expect with the D.C. Extended Universe. The actual plot, and the various cardboard cutout villains who drive that plot, is never interesting. From the second Gadot & Pine share the screen to the second they no longer can, all story becomes just a lame distraction from their relationship. The scenes where Diana fights are frustrating. Jenkins shoots these scenes with such over-reliance on slow-motion that the few moments when Diana kicks butt in real time feel like godsends. The finale is a bland clusterfuck of surprisingly awful CGI that looks dated when compared to similar moments in recent films like Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The film’s aforementioned strengths only make these offenses seem even more egregious. 

Jenkins is an undeniably gifted filmmaker. Anyone who’s seen Monster -a legit masterwork and one of the finest films of the century- can tell you that. She certainly flexes her directorial chops here. All the early moments set on Themyscira, the no-boys-allowed island from which Diana hails, are stunning. Jenkins and DoP Matthew Jensen create these gorgeous sun-drenched images that appear otherworldly, as intended. The dialogue scenes are given a perfect improvisational tone. Jenkins’ WW1 set pieces later in the film look awesome. 

But everything comes back to Diana and Steve’s relationship. It’s an interesting dynamic. They both babysit one another in different ways. Diana literally saves Steve’s life early in the film and continues to do so throughout. Steve helps Diana navigate the social and systematic aspects of a world she’s completely foreign to. Both are good people who want to save lives and end the war, but they have very different ways of going about it. Hilarity ensues, organic romantic chemistry develops, and, in a bold move that’s not being talked about as much as it should, it’s implied that the two have sex. They need each other. Diana needs Steve’s grounded understanding of the world and the war as she learns the ropes. Steve needs Diana’s optimism and can-do wherewithal to combat some of his cynicism. Gadot and Pine are so, so good together. It’s a shame we won’t get to see these two more.

Wonder Woman is self-aware without ever becoming meta. It wisely avoids heavy-handed feminism with the exception of one brief moment (the awful “We call that a slave” line when Diana learns what a secretary is). I cannot speak to the minds of young girls, but it’s easy to imagine this film being inspiring, and it pulling that off while leaving its feminism as subtext is a pleasant surprise. Jenkins is a smart filmmaker. She knows how gorgeous Gal Gadot is, and she knows we know it. She doesn’t treat the audience like dummies and hide Gadot’s sexiness, nor does she obnoxiously flaunt it like Suicide Squad did with Margot Robbie. Gadot looks great. Men briefly ogle her. But that’s it. 

Gadot’s actual performance erases all the doubts fans had, given her relative lack of experience, years ago when she was cast. She’s a gifted actress and her turn reminds me a lot of Chris Hemsworth’s strong work as Thor. She can play dumb when the script asks Diana to react to all the new things she’s discovering. And she can play tough when shit gets real. I sincerely hope she is featured prominently in the DCEU moving forward. Her Diana is certainly more interesting than Ben Affleck’s Batman or Henry Cavill’s Superman.  

Chris Pine shines as Steve Trevor, and the script makes Trevor one of the best love interests in any comic-book movie. He has a real arc, while serving a purpose in both the larger story and Diana’s development. It’s another fantastic performance from Pine, and a very vulnerable one, that sees him willingly play second fiddle for the majority of the film while never allowing the character -a throwback heroic military man- to seem anything less than classically masculine, a natural archetype given the setting of the film. Pine has quickly become one of our finest working actors, a versatile performer seemingly capable of anything. 

Perhaps the most refreshing element of Wonder Woman, and what’s caused people to overlook its obvious problems, is the overall enthusiasm the film has. In a world filled with brooding superheroes, it’s a lot of fun to see someone excited about being a superhero like Diana is. Her presence in this franchise is crucial. So in a way, despite not being a particularly great film, Wonder Women did save the DCEU from itself. The absurd box office figures and overall acclaim suggest so.

The Top 100 Films of the 21st Century, Part 1

I’m not sure when or where it began, but the online film community has recently become obsessed with debating the best films of the century so far. Perhaps the discussion began when the BBC published a massive critics poll. Then the New York Times did one. And then everybody started doing it. I joined in on a the fun a few nights ago, half-inebriated, on twitter, sharing a quickly made top 25 list.

I immediately hated myself for my exclusions. A top 25 list of films since the year 2000 is impossible for me given to how much content the global industry puts out now. So I changed my list and extended to 100, figuring I’d leave some commentary on my choices here. I still hate myself. There are countless films I love and consider to be damn near perfect that I had to omit. But whatever, this is just for shits and giggles.

And for the sake of making this easier on myself, I’m not including documentaries or animated features.

This is part 1.

#100) The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

Skillfully navigating the potential pitfalls that often accompany sports and addiction dramas, the film focuses on community and family. It’s carried by exceptional acting across-the-board, most notably from the always-dedicated Christian Bale, who finally won an Oscar for his work.

#99) Dogville (dir. Lars von Trier)

Experimental in its literal staging, Lars von Trier’s bold parable of inherent human misery is oddly hilarious, thoroughly thought-provoking, and arguably anti-American. Added bonus, it features Nicole Kidman at her very best.

#98) Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Behind a bravura turn from Elizabeth Olsen, Durkin’s film intends to disturb. It also shows off a filmmaker in complete control, utilizing visual and narrative tricks that could seem gimmicky in a film school sort of way if not for the haunting psychological subtext beneath every scene.

#97) Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)

So much better than it had any right to be. Ryan Coogler’s subtle touch and mastery of naturalistic dialogue turn what should’ve been a campy cash grab into crowd-pleasing tale of various loves hiding behind the guise of one of Hollywood’s iconic franchises.

#96) The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)

One of the great conversation films ever made, and a treat for any David Foster Wallace fan. Ponsoldt’s understated direction is perfect for this interviewer-interviewee story. Jason Segel knocks it out of the park as the late, aforementioned author.

#95) The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Nolan’s attempts to bend your mind often work to the detriment of his films, but here, thanks to a genuinely captivating story that fits his ambitions, all those Nolanisms feel right at home. It’s also a beautiful film, complete with expansive period detail and more great work from DoP Wally Pfister.

#94) Hot Fuzz (dir. Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright’s films play like they’re made by an eccentric movie geek trying to riff on his genre favorites, because that’s exactly what they are. But his writing never allows that love be mistaken for cynicism. Hot Fuzz is strongest of his “trilogy”.

#93) Punch-Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

We don’t deserve PTA, a former wunderkind who’s more than lived up to our gargantuan expectations. Maybe Punch-Drunk Love is a minor work from him, but it’s a cute and hilarious rom-com unafraid of embracing its weirdness. A real treat and testament to Anderson’s ability.

#92) Mystic River (dir. Clint Eastwood)

Eastwood’s mystery is much like Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone in its attempt to show a Boston community through a grisly crime. Both come from the same author, actually. Eastwood’s reigns supreme though thanks to the strength of its leads and ability to keep you guessing.

#91) District 9 (dir. Neil Blomkamp)

The allegory is hardly subtle, but it needn’t be. The film is a poignant and visually inventive sci-fi drama that lands all of its punches. Blomkamp hasn’t topped it yet. I doubt he ever will.

#90) Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)

Maybe not the adaptation that the kids (or Warner Bros) wanted, but it’s gorgeous to look at and the melancholic tone actually lifts up the source material. Spike Jonze was given a lot of money to make a film about childhood. The result is astounding.

#89) Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

You can feel how personal of a film this is for Chazelle by the details he chooses to emphasize. It’s a sharply edited collage of scenes showing relentless dedication and the issues it can cause. J.K. Simmons won a much-deserved Oscar, but it’s young Miles Teller’s nuanced turn that carries the film.

#88) Memories of Murder (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho’s crime drama is every bit as stylized and beautifully perverse as you’d expect from the auteur. He loves playing with the audience and finding captivating images in unexpected places. I am so grateful for his weirdness.

#87) Shutter Island (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese pulls out all the genre tricks he usually avoids to craft this carefully paced thriller. It’s so much more than just a twist ending. It’s a major filmmaker stepping far outside his usual bounds with a gripping piece of commercial entertainment. Robert Richardson’s photography is mesmerizing.

#86) The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

A welcome return to form for Mickey Rourke; the film finds serious emotional weight despite the narrative clichés. It’s wisely cut together in a way that emphasizes the thematic contrasts between the lead character’s professional life and personal life.

#85) Road to Perdition (dir. Sam Mendes)

The cinematography is staggering throughout, and it’s very fun to watch Tom Hanks play a hitman. This is a generally joyless film about fathers and sons stylized as a pulp-noir. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

#84) Monster (dir. Patty Jenkins)

It’s hard to put into words just how exceptional Charlize Theron is in this movie. More than just the jaw-dropping physical transformation, she communicates her character’s dark anxieties through glares. Jenkins perfectly handles a character impossible to love but hard to consciously root against in the timeline of the film.

#83) Gosford Park (dir. Robert Altman)

A study of post-WW1 the English class and peerage systems disguised as a dinner party murder mystery, Altman’s film loves its characters; all of them. The camera moves smoothly and functions as a character itself. This is remarkable filmmaking on every level, a testament to Altman as one of the all-time greats.

#82) Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

It made for one of the great in-theater experiences I’ve ever had. And beyond the technical mastery, it’s a strong survival story. Sandra Bullock gives what had to be difficult performance. This is the type of risk I wish studios would take more often.

#81) 3:10 to Yuma (dir. James Mangold)

Mangold’s action-packed remake is irresistible. The performances are so much fun, and the action sequences are staged in a loud, fast manner that’s never really been done in a Western before. It’s a joy throughout.

#80) Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)

Haynes’ camera understands human emotion so much. It knows that a simple gaze can say much more than a line of dialogue. And there may not be two better actresses at selling emotion through gazes than Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

#79) Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to create one of the most wholly human films ever out of stop-motion animation. The film’s brand of melancholy is as hilarious as it is creepy. It’s a story about apathy, and the infamous sex scene is perhaps my favorite ever.

#78) Y Tu Mamá También (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Erotic and funny and more aware of its social ideas than it was originally credited for, Cuaron’s often explicit road movie upends the genre. Who knew teenage hedonism set amidst socioeconomic issues in turn of the millennium Mexico could make for such a fascinating story?

#77) In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)

You’ll laugh out loud, hate yourself for laughing, and then laugh some more. Such is the writing of Martin McDonagh, a man who’s a blend of Wilde and Tarantino. This is a fun and at times genuinely moving film, an exciting directorial debut that reaffirmed the idea that McDonagh’s stage work could transition to the screen seamlessly.

#76) Birth (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

An ominous film, maybe even a film bordering on sadism. But it’s so artfully done. Kidman’s performance is one of her very best, the minimalist cinematography is striking, and the film takes its time rather than going for the easy horror thrills its premise could’ve allowed for.

#75) Casino Royale (dir. Martin Campbell)

A reinventing of Bond. Daniel Craig gives the character more nuance than thought possible. The film also includes some of the the best action sequences in any Bond. Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen make the Bond girl and villain more than archetypes.

#74) Traffic (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh’s crime epic lets its various subplots play out in distinctive visual ways, and refuses to place simple moral judgements on its characters. The ensemble cast is fantastic. And nobody does hand-held camerawork better than Soderbergh.

#73) Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg)

A unique aesthetic thanks to Spielberg’s visualization of Philip K. Dick’s future and DoP Janusz Kaminski’s experimental take on a noir look by bleach-bypassing the film negatives. The story is also engaging and well-paced; consisting of some inventive action sequences.

#72) The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino’s latest experiment is perhaps his most mature film. A gimmick-free and leisurely paced whodunnit capable of finding tension in every frame. The cast is great, and Tarantino’s unapologetic handling of racial tension has never had more depth or historical awareness.

#71) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (dir. Chan-wook Park)

The strongest in Park’s trilogy (and yes, that includes Oldboy), this film shows off the director’s exquisite tastes when it comes to cinematography and production design. Like its sister films, it’s rather violent and twisted, but this one actually has some interesting ideas about violent revenge as an idea.

#70) Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)

It’s not the complex mindfuck some pretend it is. Rather, it’s a thoroughly entertaining blockbuster filled with visual grandeur and strong performances. There are some incredible set pieces as well, proving that Nolan didn’t need the backdrop of Batman to create stimulating commercial entertainment.

#69) Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)

It is perhaps the best prison film ever made, a bleak and sober character piece featuring exceptional performances from Jack O’Connell & Ben Mendelsohn. There’s some subtext about rehabilitation and the British penal system, but everything comes back to a rather moving short story about a father and son.

#68) Capote (dir. Bennett Miller)

Benefiting from a timeless turn by Philip Seymour-Hoffman as the titular author, Miller’s film is complex enough to look beyond the murder sensationalism, to look at a man who wanted to be (and thought he was) better than everyone else at what he did. Was Capote’s peculiar personality required to write something like In Cold Blood? That’s what the film explores, and wisely refuses to answer.

#67) We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay is a filmmaker who refuses to put all her cards on the table too early. This is an eery film throughout, but its nonlinear narrative builds slowly to a climax that begins to feel inevitable. That doesn’t make it less powerful, however, since the most disturbing moments are simply gazes from Tilda Swinton. Ramsay and her team even work in horror tropes, creating a unique style that fits the subject matter perfectly.

#66) Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)

What a pleasant surprise this was. A smart sci-fi film that uses a time-travel premise to the benefit of its characters and world, rather than for cheap conflict. It also works well on the simplest of action movie terms. I now believe Rian Johnson can do anything.

#65) Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

Garland’s film is much more than simple artificial-intelligence ponderings; what does it mean to be alive and all that jazz. It’s actually a film about male sexual fantasy just as much as it is a film about technology. A trio of great performances and a sleek visual style aided by strong color contrasts and fun production design make it hard to look away from. Its ending lacks real payoff, but that’s intentional.

#64) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)

Gunn’s sequel will age well. It’s funnier, contains more emotional heft, and is more bonkers visually than its predecessor. His irreverent style is essential to this offbeat group of characters. A perfect director-intellectual property match.

#63) Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant)

Gus’ Palme d’Or winning is so sparse, refusing to stylize really anything. Given that the film concerns a school shooting, the directorial choices have a powerful impact. Many films that try to condemn violence do the opposite by making it extremely cinematic. Elephant does no such thing.

#62) Bamako (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

A thrilling courtroom drama on one hand, and on the other a detailed look at everyday life for various people in the titular Malian capital. Sissako would deservedly go on to receive serious international attention for Timbuktu, but this remains his best work.

#61) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Peter Jackson)

The entire trilogy is a marvelous technical achievement that inspired millions, but it’s this middle chapter that shines brightest as a standalone film, thanks to wise editing choices with its various subplots that culminate in perhaps the greatest battle in cinematic history.

#60) The Intruder (dir. Claire Denis)

It’s perhaps Denis’ most original film thanks to its story, which says a lot considering she’s a wildly original filmmaker whose camera loves to focus on bodies and emphasize sounds. It also features a powerhouse lead turn from Michel Subor.

#59) Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)

Within this story of changing schools of thought in baseball, Miller made a delicate film about personal perseverance. Brad Pitt gives one of his very best performances, and Sorkin’s script surprisingly finds the human element within Michael Lewis’ book.

#58) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

It’s strangely haunting, dabbling in magical realism as it shows a man putting quite literally everything into his work. It feels a bit meta for Kaufman, but never becomes too self-absorbed thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead. It has fun with its at times trippy visuals as well.

#57) Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

You’re not supposed to really be able to follow what’s going on in Inherent Vice. It’s a film about a good-natured but perpetually stoned P.I. struggling in a turn-of-the-decade world that’s mostly left his counterculture ideals in the past. It’s much heavier thematically than it was given credit for, and it’s easily PTA’s funniest film, a subtle treat that rewards repeated viewings.

#56) Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

It’s a very heavy and depressing film. But Villeneuve can manufacture tension on a dime and with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal he found two actors capable of aiding him in that. Roger Deakins’ photography is also perhaps the most impressive work of his legendary career. Prisoners was never going to have a happy ending. There’s nothing wrong with that.

#55) John Wick (dir. Chad Stahelski)

This is almost a prestige action film. It’s framed and lit like something experimental with European roots. It’s incredible action choreography is gun-fu to the beat of electronic music. The film also manages to build its own interesting criminal underworld. What a pleasant surprise this was. I hope we get five more.

#54) United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass)

Greengrass’ documentarian style here is essential in a film about regular people thrust into a tragic situation and then displaying true heroism. A more classically cinematic take would’ve played cheesy. But Greengrass, and his all-world editing team, never allow that to happen.

#53) A Seperation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Farhadi’s masterpiece is a complicated film about a relationship, for starters. As many of the finest Iranian films do, it cleverly navigates censorship rules. It’s also impeccably performed all around and gorgeously filmed, surprisingly intense as well throughout. An original gem worthy of all the awards it got.

#52) Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

It’s a bit bloated and extremely miserable, but it’s stuffed with fascinating ideas and moments. Lonergan’s sheer ambition is admirable, his ability to execute an atmospheric film from that ambition is remarkable.

#51) The New World (dir. Terrence Malick)

Another masterpiece from Malick, a beautiful and poetic take on the Pocahontas story whose messiness should not be confused for lacking in focus. It doesn’t claim to know about everything going on. It just throws image after image at you, letting you respond to those images however you please.

Check back soon for Part 2.

 

 

 

Daily Film Thoughts (5/23/17): Is ‘Baywatch’ dead on arrival?

A new daily unfiltered and unedited journal of random film thoughts going through my head. No proofreading or serious analysis allowed.

5/23/17

Baywatch is opening over this long Memorial Day weekend. The Paramount film is being destroyed by critics, sitting at a just 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. In theory, it should’ve been an easy sell. Make an unaplogetic big-screen comedy out of a campy but loved TV series with charasmatic stars in the leads. That’s what the Jump Street films did. But despite the prescence of Zac Efron’s abs and Dwayne Johnson’s arms, the film doesn’t seem to have drummed up much interest. Paramount hasn’t sold the nostalgia factor. Nor have they sold it as a buddy comedy like Jump Street. I’m not entirely sure of the strategy behind the marketing. Who is this movie for? Although, the marketing folks at Paramount probably aren’t to blame. With word on the movie so bad they maybe had nothing of quality to sell.

It’s not going to have a great opening in the states. I’d be shocked if it gets anywhere close to the $45-50M number over its five-day opening weekend that early tracking suggested. Hell, $30M may be tough to beat given the reviews and competition in Disney’s latest Pirates film. The production budget for Baywatch is just $40M, but based on recent comparables and continually raising costs it’s safe to assume that at least another $40M was spent marketing the film. Maybe it’ll stay out of the red if audiences like it more than critics. Maybe. Even then, when you consider oppurtnity cost, it looks like a failure for Paramount, a studio that also saw Ghost in the Shell bomb earlier this year and the disaster that was Ben-Hur last year. It’s been a tough stretch for the studio as their only recent film that’s really out-performed expectations was Arrival. They better hope the latest Transformers hits big next month.

The Zac Efron & Dwayne Johnson fan in me is upset, as I think both are surprisng comedic talents capable of carrying studio films. Efron may be limited, but he thrived as a bro in both Neighbors films and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates as well. Johnson is obviously a capable star, one of the biggest in the industry, but unless he’s aprt of a franchise or paired with a comedic sidekick like Kevin Hart who has their own appeal, I’m starting to wonder about his real draw.

Daily Film Thoughts (5/21/17): ‘Okja’ looks dope.

A new daily unfiltered and unedited journal of random film thoughts going through my head. No proofreading or serious analysis allowed.

5/21/17

Thanks to a well-received world premeire at Cannes (despite the anti-Netflix sentiment) and a kick-ass new trailer, buzz for Bong Joon-ho’s Okja has never been higher. The latest from the acclaimed helmer of The Host and Snowpiercer stars Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyleenhaal, and newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun. The plot concerns a young girl named Mija (Seo-hyun) trying to prevent a large company headed by Swinton’s character from taking her best friend away, a gigantic hog/hippo-esque animal named Okja.

Here’s the trailer.

Most of my initial anticipation for the film stems from my love for Bong Joon-ho, a true auteur who seamllessly made the transition to english-language filmmaking with Snowpiercer. He has a great control of atmosphere, and his writing does a fine job bringing weighty themes into genre films. Okja looks like another homerun.

Okja comes on Netflix June 28th.

Daily Film Thoughts (5/18/17): ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and the Anti-Establishment ideals of 70’s Hollywood

A new daily unfiltered and unedited journal of random film thoughts going through my head. No proofreading or serious analysis allowed.

5/18/17

I wasn’t alive during the 70’s. If you need someone who was to function as a primary source, I highly recommend following my friend Shane on twitter (@Shane1Alexander). But based on what I’ve read and seen, there seemed to be a great deal of social confusion amongst Americans. After the war in Vietnam and the counterculture movement that accompanied it domestically, but before the rise of home computers and the supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan and Robert Mundell; it was a decade in American history where folks on both ends of the spectrum didn’t know what or who to believe. When certain events happened (like Watergate, for instance), people knew they were angry, but not entirely sure where that anger should be directed beyond the obvious figureheads. People were searching for leaders at all levels of society.

I think. At least that’s what I’ve seen in movies.

Many films from the New Hollywood movement in the 70’s explored this confusion. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider were the unofficial start of the movement in the late 60’s, but it wasn’t until a new generation of directors rose that studios began to show faith in auteurism. This creative freedom granted to filmmakers who came of age during controversial wars and periods of social change in America (rather than rah-rah WWII types) brought about not only technical innovation but also a willingness to explore existentialism and anti-establishment thought through everyman characters pushed to dark psychological extremes. Some films were meant to disturb. Some were meant to satirize. Some were meant educate. Think of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men.

I recently watched Sidney Lumet’s 1975 masterwork Dog Day Afternoon again, and spent most of the film trying to put myself into the mind of a twenty-something seeing it in a theater on its original release, and how recreated the aforementioned zeitgeist. The film, based on true events that happened in Brooklyn three years prior, tells the story of a bank robbery and hostage situation perpetrated by Sonny (Al Pacino) and Salvatore (John Cazale). Beyond working as a perfectly acted, sharply edited, pulse-pounding thriller; Dog Day Afternoon is very much about the sensationalism of the crime, seen from the perspective of the robbers and their hostages.

The film opens with the robbery, no preamble. It’s clear from the jump that Sonny and Sal are out of their element, despite Sonny having worked in a bank before and Sal having been hardened by prison sodomy. These aren’t your typical masked gunman. Once the police quickly get word of what’s going down and the robbery develops into a hostage situation, unorthodox relationships develop between the hostages and the robbers, specifically Sonny. To put it simply, he seems like a nice guy who doesn’t want to hurt anybody. The film humanizes him but refuses to paint him as some sort of hero. He’s kind to the hostages, constantly reassuring them that everything is going to be okay. The bank’s security guard suffers from asthma, so Sonny lets him go. After a few hours, he even orders pizza for everyone. In one of the film’s stranger moments, Sonny, a veteran, teaches on of the tellers how to properly flip a rifle, even letting her hold the loaded weapon as he laughs. Again, Sonny isn’t your typical bank robber.

As the police surround the bank to an excessive extent, chaos arises. The media floods in, as do crowds of pedestrians who begin to root for Sonny as they learn more. In perhaps the film’s most heavily-quoted moment, Sonny, stepping outside the bank to survey the situation, gets upset with the number of seemingly trigger-happy police locked on him. He repeatedly screams “Attica! Attica!” in reference to the infamous prison riot that occurred four years earlier and resulted in 43 deaths. The crowd goes wild for Sonny. Lumet deploys a great many extras and wisely chooses angles to shoot them from, showing their restlessness. At another point in the film, Sonny comes outside and throws some of the cash he was stealing into the air. As it blows all over the place, the crowd busts down police barriers in effort to grab some. They’re like ducks rushing to bread tossed in a lake. Sonny gets great joy from this.

Sonny’s motivations for the robbery are revealed about halfway through the film. Sonny’s spouse Leon is a pre-operative transgender woman, and the money from the robbery is meant for sexual reassignment surgery. This is, obviously, a very progressive detail given the period. We learn from a newscast in the film that Sonny is immediately praised by some of the gay community, even called a hero. And it’s not just that Brooklyn subculture that lionizes or roots for Sonny. The hostages express genuine concern for what Sonny is going to do. The crowd chants his name. For a few hours, Sonny becomes a quasi-celebrity, a tragic hero who problematically comes to represent all marginalized people. I use the word “problematic” because, well, he’s a bank robber holding innocent people hostage at gunpoint.

There are strong emotional moments throughout the film thanks to the work of Pacino, Cazale, and Chris Sarandon as Leon. This is perhaps Pacino’s strongest performance. He livens up Sonny as intelligent but cynical, paranoid but strangely amused by what’s happening. For brief moments, shown subtly through Pacino smirks and energetic body quirks, Sonny seems to actually enjoy his hopeless moment of fame. Cazale says so much despite minimal dialogue, perfectly communicating Sal’s disconnection from all basic emotions.

Despite these strong character moments, Dog Day Afternoon hits its highs when it shows how nameless masses react to the events; reporters, onlookers, unfortunate policemen who happened to be on duty at the time. In a larger historical context, the robbery means nothing. Sal is killed, Sonny is is arrested, and all the hostages make it home safely. No legislation or even mild social protest comes as a result. But the film set entirely in one location, taking place over just fourteen hours, manages to make this ultimately insignificant event seem like a microcosm of an entire decade. It’s a gem, one of the strongest American films of the 70’s and essential viewing for anyone hoping to understand Hollywood’s evolution from a by-the-textbook entertainment industry to a factory of intelligent and often progressive art.

Daily Film Thoughts (5/17/17): Top 10 Ridley Scott Movies

A new daily unfiltered and unedited journal of random film thoughts going through my head. No proofreading or serious analysis allowed.

5/17/17

Continuing my anticipation for the release of Alien: Covenant this weekend, I count down the top 10 films of Sir Ridley Scott, a visually ambitious filmmaker accomplished in multiple genres.

Honorable Mentions:

  • The cool crime romance Someone to Watch Over Me, featuring an outstanding Tom Berenger.
  • The Counselor, while critically panned, is actually a a bold and sexy attempt at something new from Scott that is immensely watchable.
  • The director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, a historical epic that’s arguably problematic but filled with cool visuals and strong performances, specifcally from Edward Norton.
  • Hannibal may not be Silence of the Lambs and may be a bit silly, but it’s so much fun to watch Anthony Hopkins in the title role.
  • The stylish Black Rain, an unapolegetic action film that’s one of the forgotten gems of late-80’s violent cinema.

And now for the top 10…

#10) Matchstick Men

Was this the last great Nicolas Cage performance? True to its themes, the film is always jumping around. But it’s thoroughly well-acted and always interesting with its scathing humor. It also features Sam Rockwell doing Sam Rockwell things. Easy to see why it’s become a cult classic of sorts.

#9) The Martian

Scott’s critically-acclaimed and commercially succesful *realistic* sci-fi film was funnier than anyone expected, thanks to an exceptional Matt Damon. It also features some of the best 3D photography since the tech has been invented. Maybe its optimism holds it back from being truly thought-provoking, but it;s a fun film that proves Scott still does space as well as anyone.

#8) Legend

This 80’s cult classic is arguably Scott’s most visually immersive film, thanks to some groundbreaking makeup and beauitful cinematography from Alex Thomson. Scott wanted the film to play like old fables of old, in the sense that there’s a lot of darkness to them. The film is a bit muddled, but the visuals and Tim Curry’s work in the final act make it well worth your time.

#7) Prometheus

I wrote about this film in more detail yesterday, but let me just add that this largely unheralded blockbuster, much like The Martian, proved that practical effects and sets can work well with 3D photography.

#6) Thelma & Louise

Different than any other Scott film, this tragicomedy disguised as buddy road film remains an iconic piece of cinema decades later thanks to its memorable ending and feminist over/undertones. It’s a daring work from a director too often associated with bland studio filmmaking. Oh, and Susan Sarandon is the best.

#5) Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down was arguably the first great modern war film, and not just because it’s actually about modern war. Much like Kathyrn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker years later, Scott’s film takes an apolitcal approach, focusing more on physically detailing the conflict than sending a message. It received some critique for its lack of character work, but I think the omission was intentional and fitting. Scott used his technical prowess to show the lack of personality in war.

#4) Gladiator

Scott’s most successful film, a popular best picture-winning epic, throws an awful lot at you. Enormous sets, a heavy narrative, very aggresive sound mixing. He’s able to tell a human story though and reignite the sword-and-sandals subgenre because the film has two truly great characters, played by Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix. The fight scenes are perfectly edited, and the more melodramatic moments don’t come off as cheesy.

#3) American Gangster

Stylized much like gangster films of old, Scott’s film tackles corruption and ambition and race all the while remaining competent as a popcorn movie. Denzel & Crowe are both great and the film has so much fun with its period detail. Though not usually cited as a major work from Scott, American Gangster is a great crime drama that belongs right there with Scorsese’s The Departed, which won best picture the prior year.

#2) Alien

An atmsopheric sci-fi horror film that ignited a franchise and argued on behalf of slow-building tension at a time when genre films were getting more and more forceful in their pacing, Alien is probably the film Scott will be most remembered for. It’s surprisingly beautiful given its subject matter, and more concerned with character than James Cameron’s sequel. Who these people are and how they think matters. Add in iconic design elements and you’re looking at a true classic.

#1) Blade Runner

A perfect film, truly. Rife with ideas on society and humanity, equally rooted in film noir and pulp fiction, this film was so far ahead of its time that despite its classic standing today it was a box office failure and received poorly initially. Scott’s visualazation of the future has proven wildly influential, and Harrison Ford gives his strongest dramatic performance. If by some chance you haven’t seen this masterwork, make sure to get the director’s or “final” cut, just not the theatrical cut with the god-awful narration.