‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Actually Presents Many Ways Home, What with the Multiverse and All

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Spider-Man: No Way Home (CREDIT: Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures)

Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Benedict Wong, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans, Tony Revolori, J.B. Smoove, Hannibal Burress, Martin Starr, Angourie Rice

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 148 Minutes

Rating: R for The Usual Punching and Stabbing, Perhaps a Little Darker Than Usual

Release Date: December 17, 2021 (Theaters)

Hey, it’s our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man back on the big screen! Or maybe, that should be our friendly neighborhood Spider … Men? (Hey, wasn’t there another recent movie that asked that same question? With so many years of comic book history to draw upon, you can be multi-universal in multiple ways.)

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‘National Champions’ Presents Its Melodramatic Case for Student-Athlete Compensation

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National Champions (CREDIT: Scott Garfield/Courtesy of STX Films)

Starring: Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor, Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, Uzo Aduba

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: R for Big Boy Executive Language

Release Date: December 10, 2021 (Theaters)

National Champions is certainly timely, as the subject of student-athlete compensation has made its way up to the Supreme Court, and players are now permitted to financially benefit from their name, image, and likeness. But I don’t imagine that this conflict will play out in real life anywhere near as operatically it does in this movie. That’s not a criticism! I’m in the theater to be entertained, not to confirm that they get all the facts straight. And for the most part, I was thrilled, amused, and riveted.

Stephan James is at the center of it all as star quarterback LeMarcus James. James (the actor) played Jesse Owens in his breakthrough role, so he’s building up a bit of a resume of athletes who take a historical stand. LeMarcus is a senior playing his last college game in the looming title bout who’s also the presumptive number one pick in the upcoming NFL draft. But he’s calling an audible, as he announces that he’s boycotting the game unless and until the NCAA agrees to recognize varsity athletes as employees and pay them accordingly. He’s got about three days to convince his teammates and his opponents to join him, while also ducking out of the way of his coach (J.K. Simmons), various college football administrators and executives, and the NCAA’s ruthless outside counsel representative (Uzo Aduba).

Director Ric Roman Waugh and screenwriter Adam Mervis (adapting his own play of the same name) have painted a massively cynical portrait of the state of college athletics. Some of their tsk-tsking is well-founded, but my god, is it breathtakingly overwrought. It kinda has to be, considering that pretty much every line of dialogue frames everyone’s decision in life-or-death stakes. This could be a formula for unbearable soul crushing, but thankfully the premise has to allow at least a hint of optimism to poke its way in throughout. That lightness helps us realize that the ridiculousness of all the melodrama is a plus, as laughing at the moral righteousness of this exploitative system is a healthy reaction.

One other noteworthy observation before I go: several real-life athletes and sportscasters appear as themselves, which would add some authenticity, but that’s undercut by the lack of real-life branding. The teams in the championship game are from fictional schools, and ESPN (or any other sports network for that matter) is never once mentioned. I’d argue that the fakeness is weirdly the right choice (though I imagine it actually wasn’t a choice at all); this isn’t the real world after all, but a slightly heightened version of it.

National Champions is Recommended If You Like: Over-the-top line deliveries, Sports movies without any sports, Kristen Chenoweth performances without any singing

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Salaries

‘Being the Ricardos’ Has Some ‘Splainin’ to Do

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Being the Ricardos (CREDIT: Glen Wilson/Amazon Content Services LLC)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin, Clark Gregg, Nelson Franklin, Robert Pine, Christopher Denham

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: R for Language That the Censors Usually Don’t Allow You to Say

Release Date: December 10, 2021 (Theaters)/December 21, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

What is Being the Ricardos all about? I mean that both in terms of this movie’s plot and in the ontological sense. If Aaron Sorkin is to be believed, it’s a combination of kinda-sorta being exposed as a Communist, marital strife, and a fight to control the creative direction of I Love Lucy. Any one of those topics would be enough to center a movie around. But in the movie that we’ve got, they’re all kind of fighting for attention. I suppose these matters can all co-exist, but they don’t do so particularly gracefully in this case. The relationship and professional conflicts feel genuine but standard-issue, while the red scare pretty much fizzles out immediately. (Maybe that was the point?)

It must be said that Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem really don’t look or sound anything like Lucy and Desi. This did not bother me at all! In fact, I think I prefer this anti-accuracy approach in a biopic. These aren’t the real people after all, but representations of those real people. So why not make them characters of their own that can stand outside the historical document? Alas, I suspect that Kidman and Bardem actually were trying to achieve something close to mimicry. It all kind of gets stuck in the unremarkable middle.

One thing about this movie that I did kind of like is the series of interviews from some unspecified future date that serve to frame the 1950s scenes. Tony Hale, Jake Lacy, and Alia Shawkat play a few of the Lucy writers, while their older versions are filled in by John Rubinstein, Ronny Cox, and Linda Lavin, respectively. The check-ins with the senior crew are a little surreal (probably accidentally [or perhaps not?]), thanks to how little is explained about their circumstances. Like, where are these people? What year is it supposed to be? (None of the real-life versions are still alive anymore.) Is this supposed to be for some sort of documentary? Are they being held hostage? I DON’T want to know the answers to any of these questions!

Being the Ricardos is Recommended If You Like: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Wahhhhs

‘The Tomorrow War’ Review: Mike Mitchell Edition

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The Tomorrow War (CREDIT: Amazon Studios)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Jasmine Mathews, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Keith Powers, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mike Mitchell

Director: Chris McKay

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Alien Scum

Release Date: July 2, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

The Tomorrow War stars Chris Pratt as the leader of a fight between Earth and invading aliens in which he must be sent 30 years in the future. He teams up with a ragtag crew, including a future version of his young daughter (Yvonne Strahovski). But I’m not here to talk about them. Instead, this review is all about Mike Mitchell, who’s about 12th on the call sheet, but he’s pretty much the only reason I wanted to watch this movie. Mitchell is primarily known as a podcaster and a member of the Birthday Boys sketch comedy group, the latter of which featured him as a friendly alien who sings a jingle at birthday parties. His podcasting duties include co-hosting Doughboys, in which he reviews chain restaurants. The Tomorrow War, meanwhile, does not feature him chowing down on any good grub, which feels like a missed opportunity.

I’m guessing that Mitchell was cast to be the comic relief character, or one of the comic relief characters. And there needed to be multiple ones! Because, you see, the best part involving Mitch happens when Chris Pratt asks Mary Lynn Rajskub’s character what her name is, and she says “Norah,” which is indeed her character’s name. And then he immediately asks Mitch’s character what his name is, and he also says “Norah.” It’s really well-timed, I promise!

If you’re like me and watching The Tomorrow War only for the Mike Mitchell, you’ll have to be patient, because he’s only in a small percentage of it. But luckily today’s technology allows you to fast-forward and rewind as you please.And there’s also perhaps a consolation prize, as Sam Richardson (of Veep and Detroiters fame) has much more screen time, a good portion of which is meant to be funny. There’s one moment in particular when he continuously shouts a certain four-letter word over and over about a couple dozen times in a row. So I guess this review wasn’t entirely focused on Mike Mitchell. I hope you can forgive me.

The Tomorrow War is Recommended If You Like: Fast-forwarding through Amazon Prime Video’s viewing experience

Grade: 2 out of 5 Doughboys

This Is a ‘Palm Springs’ Review… This Is a ‘Palm Springs’ Review… This Is a ‘Palm Springs’ Review…

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Palm Springs (CREDIT: NEON/Hulu)

Starring: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Dale Dickey

Director: Max Barbakow

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: July 10, 2020 (Hulu and Drive-In Theaters)

Time loop movies are surprisingly robust. You might think Groundhog Day has perfected the formula, but then all these newbies arrive in its wake, and they’re all, at the very least, not half bad. Case in point: the pretty dang good Palm Springs, which finds Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti stuck at a wedding. So I have decided to review Palm Springs by comparing it to all the other Groundhog Day-style time loop movies I’ve seen:

Palm Springs isn’t as transcendent as Groundhog Day, but it has a deeper conversation with eternity.
Palm Springs doesn’t have the sinister undertones of Source Code, although there is a random appearance from a certain extinct species that makes me think that maybe you could theorize about something like that lurking beneath the surface.
Palm Springs is more rooted in theoretical science than sci-fi when compared to Edge of Tomorrow, though it doesn’t flaunt it.
Palm Springs is a whole heck of a lot more fun than Before I Fall.
Palm Springs doesn’t have as much time for death montages as Happy Death Day. But both of them have plenty of time for fun and are thus the most kindred of spirits within this subgenre. The former takes place at a wedding and the latter at a college, and college friends are often invited to weddings, after all.
Palm Springs is not a sequel, unlike Happy Death Day 2 U. Perhaps one day Palm Springs will get a sequel, though I doubt it. But if it ever does, I’ll watch it.

I give Palm Springs 4 out of 4 out of 4 out of 4 out of 4 out of 4 Dinosaurs

Best Film Performances of the 2010s

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshots

Back in April, I revealed my lists of the best podcasts, TV shows, TV episodes, albums, songs, and movies of the 2010s. I declared that that was it for my Best of the Decade curating for this particular ten-year cycle. But now I’m back with a few more, baby! I’ve been participating in a series of Best of the 2010s polls with some of my online friends, and I wanted to share my selections with you. We’re including film performances, TV performances, directors, and musical artists, so get ready for all that.

First up is Film Performances. Any individual performance from any movie released between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019 was eligible, whether it was live-action, voice-only, or whatever other forms on-screen acting take nowadays. For actors who played the same character in multiple movies, each movie was considered separately.

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This Is a Movie Review: The Front Runner

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures

The Front Runner raises a lot of valid points about the propriety, or lack thereof, of prying into politicians’ personal lives, but it is liable to leave you more confused than ever, even if you have strong opinions about all the issues it raises. As the narrative goes, the coverage of Gary Hart’s supposed indiscretions during the 1988 Democratic primary completely derailed his campaign and led to the overall coarsening of the political media landscape that we have today. That may be an accurate narrative, but is it a bad thing that we know more about the personal lives of those who govern us? The fact that it all remained secret for so long is one reason why powerful people have gotten away with terrible behavior.

But as for how it affected Gary Hart specifically, did he deserve what happened to him? The way the movie presents it, it seems like he had been unfaithful in his marriage, but not necessarily in this case. And the Miami Herald, which originally reported on the story, did not appear to do their duest diligence to verify their implications. At least I can unequivocally say it is a good thing that Donna Rice, Hart’s alleged mistress, gets to have her side of the story presented. But otherwise, The Front Runner is a bit of a mess. Although, it could be a portrait of a mess.

I give The Front Runner 2.5 (Million) Accusations out of 5 (Possible) Indiscretions.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Justice League’ is Okay, I Guess

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen

Director: Zack Snyder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Localized Explosions, Heat Vision Mishaps, and Grotesque Insectoids

Release Date: November 17, 2017

Would you rather have a true auteurist vision that is decidedly ugly and off-putting, or a plainly adequate film with little distinct personality? If you want something to endlessly discuss and theorize about, go with the former. But if you want something to actually watch, go with the latter.

Justice League is perhaps the least Zack Snyder-y film of Zack Snyder’s career. Absent completely is the washed-out color palette. Fabian Wagner’s cinematography is mostly workmanlike, but he does what he can in a limited sandbox, and the result is actually pleasant to look at. Colors are not only present, they’re vibrant! There is an early scene of Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince walking along some lush greenery, and it makes me wish the whole film had just been Justice League Hanging Out in the Park. The action might still fit within Snyder’s kinetic pinball wheelhouse, but it is not as garishly stylized as usual. And because this is a post-Wonder Woman world, the hard-to-be-a-god, brooding cynicism has given way to genuine hopefulness. Really, the only Snyder signature that unequivocally remains is the best one, i.e., the rediscovered rock song scoring the opening credits (this time, it’s Norwegian singer Sigrid’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”).

The main duty of Justice League is finding a way forward after the colossal slog that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice by way assembling its titular superteam and resurrecting its most iconic member. The returning headliners, namely Affleck’s Batman and Gadot’s Wonder Woman, unquestionably know how to handle this heft. Ezra Miller’s Flash and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman convey their characters economically enough. Ray Fisher could use some more prime time as Cyborg, but it’s an okay start. Overall, it’s refreshing that everyone is eager to team up because they simply recognize how much the entire world is at stake. Isn’t that how superheroes were always meant to be?

As for Superman’s rise from the grave, it isn’t surprising, nor is it meant to be. The (theoretical) fun of it is seeing how it plays out. And on that point, it is fairly entertaining. When Supes comes to, his mind is a bit scrambled, causing him to indiscriminately attack whomever is in the path of his heat vision. Henry Cavill plays it like his body vomiting up the last remnants of Snyder’s inexplicably distasteful take on the Man of Steel. This concession to a lighter version is in fact indicative of the whole Justice League ethos. Finally, the DC Extended Universe is allowed to crack jokes! And I’m not talking glib, Marvel-style one-liners, but actual character moments, like malapropisms and other exposures of vulnerability. Ma Kent (Diane Lane), for one, informs Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that Clark said Lois was “the thirstiest young woman he ever met” (she means hungriest). It’s okay to laugh!

As for the actual story engine, the DCEU is still testing our patience. If this were a pilot episode of a Justice League TV show, it would be fine enough. A little long, but a decent setup. And if you’re in the business of silver linings, that is the best takeaway to come away with here. Future sequels are inevitable, and I can see a roadmap where they might actually be good. The best villains are being saved for later, but this time around the big bad is incredibly perfunctory. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds under a lot of CG) is some sort of gargoyle whose motivation does not go anywhere beyond “try to take over the world.” His army of insect-men is just a nuisance in every capacity. It’s fair to save the best for later, but it helps to actually get to the best at some point.

Justice League is Recommended If You Like: Incremental Improvement

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Doomsday Clocks

This Is a Movie Review: Bucking Concerns That It Would Be Derivative, ‘The Snowman’ Barely Even Qualifies as Storytelling

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CREDIT: Jack English/Universal Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rachel Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, Chloë Sevigny

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R for Snowman-Human Hybrid Tableaux

Release Date: October 20, 2017

The best part of The Snowman happens a few minutes when someone refers to Michael Fassbender’s lead character, “Detective Harry Hole,” by his full name. Shockingly, that is the only time we hear anybody say “Harry Hole” in its entirety. True, my enjoyment of that moment might be the most prurient form of punnery, and I probably won’t be able to convince who looks down upon crudeness and wordplay of its hilarity. But at least that name has personality, something which the rest of the film lacks entirely.

The Snowman’s poster reads, “MISTER POLICE. YOU COULD HAVE SAVED HER I GAVE YOU ALL THE CLUES.” The film itself acts upon the same instinct, essentially giving away the identity of the killer in the first scene. So clearly, the mystery is not the point of this ostensible mystery film. What then is it all about? Perhaps a deep (or at least shallow) dive into a murderer’s psychology? I imagine a fascinating dissertation could be written about a killer who carefully slices up his victims, builds a snowman after each kill, occasionally affixes parts of the victims into the snowmen, and always calls in a missing person report to alert the same detective to arrive on the scene just a little too late. But as for how it plays as narrative, well, the harsh Scandinavian winter must have made everyone too sleepy to craft any plot turns anywhere near compelling.

The Snowman is based on Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s novel of the same name, one of the many bestselling Scandinavian crime thrillers riding the coattails of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. One might imagine that a potential problem here would be falling into a trap of derivativeness, but The Snowman isn’t really a knockoff of anything, whether literary, cinematic, or otherwise. Instead, it is just a hodgepodge of elements that I cannot understand would be a part of any movie whatsoever. The cinematography is plain ugly, almost like specks of snow are constantly stuck to the camera lens. Then there is a whole subplot about Oslo’s bid to host the “Winter Sports World Cup,” which apparently exists because any press about the Snowman Killer cannot be allowed to distract from that bid. Maybe there is supposed to be a point here about government corruption, but it just comes off as narrative padding.

The Snowman’s greatest sin is stranding some very talented actors with absolutely nothing to do. It also calls into question the bona fides of its director, Tomas Alfredson, who had previously pulled off two solid adaptations (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Maybe this is just a hiccup, though if so, it is a big one. On the other hand, I have not read the novel, so maybe the problem is with source material that managed to be inexplicably successful. But at least we have Val Kilmer as a suicidal investigator, who is strangely compelling, with a freakish appearance that can only be described as “Haggard Vampire.” After watching The Snowman, you’ll certainly be able to relate to his fatalistic outlook.

The Snowman is Recommended If You Like: Despairing About the Pointlessness of Life

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Daddy Issues

 

This Is a Movie Review: Patriots Day

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This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan

Director: Peter Berg

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for a Graphic Recreation and the Explicit Language Reacting to It

Release Date: December 21, 2016 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide January 13, 2017

Films about real-life terrorist attacks are tough beasts. Even with the best of intentions, the results can be sensationalistic. And even if the end product is as respectful as possible, survivors and witnesses may be too traumatized to relive that day in any capacity, which begs the question: is it even worth it? It is a conundrum whose scope goes beyond any simple answer, but it is important to keep in mind.

Then on pure storytelling terms, there is the matter of where to even place the focus. Patriots Day, which retells the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent capture of its perpetrators, chooses to spread its character reach far and wide, which works surprisingly well. The implications and motivations behind a terrorist act can be too massive to capture completely, but this particular event actually lends itself well to the real-life recreations that director Peter Berg (Lone SurvivorDeepwater Horizon) has recently excelled at.

A frequently reiterated theme is that Bostonians have each others’ backs, and that is borne out through how interlinked the main characters are to each other. That connection is heightened through crisis, but the glue is already there. Even the terrorists themselves (chillingly and matter-of-factly played by Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff), classmates and neighbors to many, are part of the Boston milieu.

Following the bombing, Patriots Day turns into a chase movie, with the urgency of the best of that genre already baked in. Armed forces, intelligence agencies, and civilians join together for an inspiring display of coordinated decision-making and action. The actors playing them summon their best reserves of basic decency to pull it off. The entire cinematic effort makes for a mix of emotions, often uncomfortable, frequently awe-inspiring, never without honor, even through the cathartic bursts of laughter.

Patriots Day is Recommended If You LikeLone SurvivorWorld Trade Center, Credits Scenes with the Real-Life People Portrayed in the Movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 Acts of Bravery

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