Movie Review: ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ Offers Goofs Galore and Surprise Reveals Aplenty

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures/YouTube

Starring: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Angourie Rice, Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove, Marisa Tomei, Tony Revolori, Remy Hii

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Nicks and Bruises from Webslinging Around and Awkward Situations That Teenager Somehow Stumble Into

Release Date: July 2, 2019

The name of the game is the ol’ switcheroo, the bait-and-switch, the smoke-and-mirrors routine … yeah, that’s the ticket. It’s only been a couple of months since the release of Avengers: Endgame, but despite all that seeming finality, the MCU must continue. And the first arrival in this new status quo is Spider-Man: Far From Home, which means we’re going to kick things off with an in memoriam montage that features Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Comic Sans lettering, and a Getty Images-watermarked photo. But there are also some baddies to defeat, although Peter Parker (Tom Holland) would much rather focus on his school’s European class trip and taking things to a more romantic realm with his friend MJ (Zendaya). You get the sense that this cinematic iteration of Spider-Man would also like to just focus on the high school ecosystem. But superhero movie requirements beckon, and Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ script does a fun enough job of incorporating Peter and his pals’ shenanigans into the CGI blowout.

The topsy-turvy hook begins with the fallout from the fact that the people who were snapped away in Infinity War and then returned in Endgame (referred to here as “the Blip”) have not aged the five years that everyone who remained did. Adding to all the pandemonium is the appearance of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a caped-and-suited fellow who claims to be from a parallel Earth and is here to help fight some monsters that have escaped from his world. But not all is as it seems, as characters may not be who they say they are, relationships have sudden accelerations and decelerations, and it really isn’t what it looks like when a classmate discovers Peter taking his pants off next to a much older woman.

That sense of the wool being pulled over and off and back on everyone’s eyes lasts all the way through to the end of the credits, with the extra scenes turning out to be surprisingly essential in clarifying what just happened. Peter’s efforts to puncture his way into what’s really going on have a satisfying vibe of getting past the bullshit. However, that level of satisfaction is not met with any corresponding visual panache, as Far From Home plays it way too safe in the standard-issue Marvel CGI department. If this is the post-Endgame status quo, at least it won’t be so stressful.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is Recommended If You Like: Spider-Man: Homecoming, High Quality Character-Centric Jokewriting

Grade: I don’t know how to grade these Marvel movies anymore. I could give it a 4 out of 5 for Fun, but I also want to downgrade it to 3.5 out of 5 for (Lack of) Originality, and then I also want to downgrade it to Less Than 3.5 out of 5 for Frustration about this being yet another good-but-not great Marvel movie. So my overall grade is all of that somehow mixed together.

Avengers: Endgame First Thoughts

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Studios

Maybe some movies should be reviewed in parts over the course of months, or maybe even years. That’s how I’m feeling about Avengers: Endgame. So I’m going to go ahead and talk about what’s striking my fancy about it now and maybe talk about it some more later.

The closest comparison I can think of for the premise of Endgame is The Leftovers. The opening scenes for the two are eerily similar in terms of both tone and function. But of course they then head in very different directions. I didn’t stick with The Leftovers because I just wasn’t hooked by how its particular characters responded in their particular ways to the disappearances. But with Endgame, I already know the context, so I’m already in, baby. And no doubt about it, I am happy that the ultimate focus is on Tony Stark’s beating heart, and everyone keeping things right with their families. That emotional resonance is enough to buoy the whole affair along for three hours. And it’s also enough to prevent me from getting too angry about the characters who don’t have much meaningful to do or the moments that make me go, “But why?”

Also important: how about those end credits? It’s not very often 50-plus above-the-line cast members have to be assembled in some sort of appropriate order, so we must cherish it whenever it happens. And I’ve got to say, it appears that for the most part, there was no rhyme or reason to the assembly. But we shall, and must, investigate whether or not that is true for as long as we can. The cursive credits for the core Avengers are great, though.

I give Avengers: Endgame A Handful of Snaps to the Beat.

Movie Review: ‘Captain Marvel’ is a Blast of Low-Key Wonder

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CREDIT: Marvel Studios

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence That Tends to Cause Nosebleeds

Release Date: March 8, 2019

It’s been a while since I have felt consistently sustained excitement for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m a fan of superheroes, and Marvel in particular, but I’m a bigger film buff, and I often find myself in a weird liminal space where I want to have more unbridled emotions for these movies, but it is hard to feel that way about a series sticking to a formula that is so much about ticking off obligatory long-term checkpoints. Captain Marvel does not burst free of that formula, but it has enough of its own magic to make it the first MCU movie in quite some time in which I left the theater wanting to re-watch it. It could have just been the way it happened to hit me on one particular day, but I think it has also something to do with its vibe of ignoring all the noise and getting on with it mission.

The plot is a little too complicated to easily synopsize, which Disney and Marvel are surely happy about, as they do not want us spoiling any of their MCU flicks, particularly this one, as it is uniquely dependent on backstory reveals and memory retrieval. Suffice it to say then that Vers (Brie Larson) is an intergalactic warrior fighting for the race known as the Kree, but she is also plagued by visions of a past life as U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers. The Kree are stuck in a long-term struggle against the shapeshifting Skrulls, which leads Vers to Earth in 1995 in a race for a powerful energy source. This is a typical McGuffin-focused Marvel film, but this particular McGuffin is unusually resonant, touching on themes of refugees and the perils of deep psychological deception.

Captain Marvel is also your standard MCU movie insofar as it builds to a climax with an unengaging, undistinguished action set piece. But luckily, that is not the main attraction. Vers teams up with a pre-eye patch Nick Fury, resulting in a buddy flick that serves as Samuel L. Jackson’s biggest showcase thus far in this franchise. His and Larson’s dynamic is one of instant respect that still leaves plenty of room for clowning around as they save the universe. That feeling is matched by a strong sense overall of the film being aesthetically tuned in. I cannot think of any other superhero movie that features a steady stream of crickets chirping amidst characters talking outside.

Captain Marvel is not massively revolutionary. While it may be the first MCU movie fronted by a female hero, it is not about femininity the way that Black Panther is about blackness. But while it does not respond hard to the big questions, it gets so many of the little things right.

Captain Marvel is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Nineties Rock, Friendly and Intelligent Aliens Who Speak English or At Least Have Universal Translators

Grade: 4 out of 5 Supreme Intelligences

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Keeps It Cool for the Summer

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Abby Ryder Fortson, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Hannah John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park

Director: Peyton Reed

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Large-Scale and Small-Scale Action Movie Destruction

Release Date: July 6, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp has left me feeling a lot more peaceful than other recent Marvel movies. I would it put about on the same quality level as Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, but those blockbusters left me with nagging bits of emptiness, whereas Paul Rudd and company just give off good vibes. That is partly a function of my own expectations, but it is also a matter of how this franchise and its sub-franchises are promoted. The excursions to Wakanda and the garbage planet promised that they would be unprecedented game-changers. Whether or not they lived up to that hype, it is hard to match the buoyancy of their ad campaigns, and it takes effort for audiences to avoid every commercial. But with the original Ant-Man and now with The Wasp, you can just come in, be chill, and not have to worry about it being the best movie ever.

Director Peyton Reed and his team of five credited screenwriters (including Rudd) maintain those good vibes by allowing for some conflict, but avoiding true evil, and establishing that those who are at odds are ultimately really on the same team as each other. The main story thrust is the recovery of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the “Quantum Realm,” a subatomic space where the normal laws of space and time do not apply. Her husband Hank (Michael Douglas) and daughter Janet, aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), have the science skills to track her down, but they need the help of Ant-Man Scott Lang, as his previous venture into and escape from the Quantum Realm has allowed Janet to establish him as a point of contact. Standing in their way is a black market dealer (Walton Goggins), who sniffs out a big potential profit, but he does not have the killer instinct to tear them down. More serious are those who represent the skeletons in Hank’s closet, but their threat is neutralized by the ultimate realization that they can solve each other’s problems together.

A-M and the W has genuine, successful humor to match its laid-back style. The comedy in Marvel movies often has the cadence of a joke without actually being funny, but here there is a cast that is trained to find the laughter. Rudd obviously has more of a comedy background than any other Marvel headliner. Michael Peña delivers another round of his motor-mouthed, very detail-oriented storytelling. And the most delightful subplot features Fresh Off the Boat‘s Randall Park as a fastidious FBI agent hounding Scott while he remains under house arrest. If their jobs did not require them to be enemies, they would be friends for the ages.

It is certainly odd that Ant-Man and the Wasp arrives in the apocalyptic wake of Infinity War, but die-hard MCU fans will be happy to discover that the connective tissue is clear and satisfying. And those who are tired of every superhero movie being about the end of the world will be happy that that connectivity does not get in the way of everyone just having a good time.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Recommended If You Like: The Marvel Cinematic Universe but with lower stakes

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Quantum Realms

This Is a Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

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CREDIT: Marvel

Much more so than 2012’s Avengers, Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of all that has come before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After ten years and nearly twenty films, this has been THE destination. Sure, “saving the whole world and/or universe” is what so many previous superhero movies have been about, so Infinity War cannot fully be satisfying on that score. But as a narrative experiment, it works as a satisfying conclusion (or beginning to a conclusion).

Weirdly enough, I think Infinity Wars works whether or not you have seen all the preceding entries. I cannot say for sure, as I have seen every MCU flick, though I have only watched all of them once each and I am by no means the most devoted Easter egg hunter. But there is just something about how this massive teamup of heroes manages to avoid feeling busy and instead come off as electric. There is a lived-in feel to Tony Stark and Stephen Strange trading banter and then becoming fast friends or the Guardians of the Galaxy making sense of Thor on the fly. If you don’t know what these characters are all about ahead of time, you can pick it up along the way, just as they do with each other. As for Thanos and his plan, it’s fine for setting the plot in motion, but I’m mainly here for all the combinations and permutations.

I give Avengers: Infinity War 4 Infinity Stones out of 5 “Shocking” Deaths.

This Is a Movie Review: The God of Thunder Gets Stranded in the Louche ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel

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

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Colorfully Stylized Action Violence and a Glimpse of Hulk Butt

Release Date: November 3, 2017

Even in its stronger outings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has consistently exemplified the distressing 21st century trend of “franchise film as trailer for its upcoming sequels.” But putting at the helm Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director behind vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and coming-of-age charmer Hunt for the Wilderpeople, would perhaps signal a willingness to kick back with an idiosyncratic one-off effort. And indeed, Thor: Ragnarok is not particularly burdened by setting up the next “phase” for all the other Marvel heroes, save for the mandatory post-credits scene as well as an early rendezvous with Doctor Strange that at least has the courtesy to be completely ridiculous. But as Waititi is not creating something out of whole cloth, it is still a bear of a job to wrap his sensibility around Thor’s personal history and Asgard’s extensive mythology.

One of the biggest disappointments of most MCU films, and what made Doctor Strange so satisfying when it bucked this trend, is their lack of imagination in design and music. Their craft is far from ugly, but it is no more than workmanlike. Ragnarok has plenty of personality, but it kind of gets in the way of itself. Mark Mothersbaugh’s prog-rock synth score is entirely fitting, but it never really fully rocks out until the end credits. All the new supporting characters make a convincing case to be the breakout star, but there is only room for so much of that in a busy 2 hours. I would never willingly sacrifice Cate Blanchett’s evil diva goddess Hela, or Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric sensualist Grand Master, or Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking and unapologetic Valkyrie, or the most hedonistic version of the Hulk we have yet seen on screen. But this is a series of solo acts, not a supergroup. They play nice together, but they only intermittently gel as a unit greater than the sum of its parts.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly straightforward, but a little overwhelming in its climax, due to the surfeit of moving parts. The titular end of Asgardian days is threatening to come to pass with the return of Hela, the long-imprisoned goddess of death and sister of Thor. Thor and Loki broker one of their many peaces to team up and save their home realm, but they are first waylaid onto the Grand Master’s home planet, where they get caught up in some gladiatorial combat.

By the end of it all, I found myself confused about who was defeated and who was victorious, and how much so on either count. Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo any prosaic interpretation for the sake of embracing a more expressionistic experience. This is not hard to do, as there are plenty of blasts of pure imagination (punneriffic reference perfectly intended). Trouble is, the story does matter to the people who made this movie, and even if it did not, it is too imposing to disregard. By the end of all these affairs, Ragnarok is the type of feast that overloads you with deliciousness but leaves you crashing instead of the kind that fills you up and floods you up with endorphins. It is adequately cromulent, but not very transcendent.

Thor: Ragnarok is Recommended If You Like: Doctor Strange, ’70s Glam Rock Stars, Kiwi accents

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nonsense Circles

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Switches Back and Forth Between Amusingly Diverting and Alarmingly Deadly

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

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Laura Harrier, Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Martin Starr

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Usual Superhero Action

Release Date: July 7, 2017

The problem with the two Spider-Man movies with Amazing in the title (as opposed to the Spider-Man movies that could be accurately described as “amazing”) is that they hewed too closely to what had already been told in recent cinematic history. Spider-Man: Homecoming (the first Spidey flick to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) avoids that issue by crafting a Peter Parker (here played by 21-year-old Tom Holland, who easily passes for 15) that is markedly different than any classic conception. Rather than bounding himself by the code of “with great power comes great responsibility,” this Spider-Man bounds into any crisis with reckless abandon. As a big proponent of not being beholden to source material, I admire this decision, but I wish that director Jon Watts and his team of co-screenwriters had a stronger handle on what exactly this conception means.

This is very much a high school movie, with its emphasis on episodic, almost sitcom-esque structure. But it is also a superhero action flick, so the threats are just as deadly and just as adult as they are in any other Spider-Man or any Avengers film. The tonal bridge between these two halves is plentifully whiplash-inducing. It is absolutely fine to awaken a hero to the dangers of the world, because the hero’s journey has been fruitful for centuries of storytelling, and it is a valuable representation of real-life maturation. Even switching back to scenes of high school shenanigans after fights with the most wanted criminals is theoretically acceptable, because mundanity does exist right alongside evil. But it requires a deft hand to make that balancing act entertaining and palatable, a feat whose difficulty Homecoming vastly underestimates.

What Homecoming succeeds at most is its skillfulness at making fun of itself, or the MCU more generally. I often find blockbuster stabs at humor to be glib and obvious, but it helps when you have comedy heavyweights like Hannibal Buress, Martha Kelly, and Martin Starr (whom Community fans will note is essentially reviving his performance as Professor Cligoris). Still, as funny as it is, it feels out of place. After all, it is essentially window-dressing to the fight that Peter takes up against arms dealing Adrian Toomes (a controlled, but thoroughly sniveling Michael Keaton), who eventually takes flight as a mechanized version of classic comics baddie the Vulture. We’ve previously seen Spidey get into predicaments as stressful as what he gets into here (a rescue atop the Washington Monument, holding together the two halves of a fissured Staten Island Ferry), but never against the context of a Spider-Man who actually looks like a teenager.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark stops by for several scenes to lend a hand in some of these most dangerous moments. Holland does not need RDJ’s help to make his first big starring vehicle work, but Peter Parker does need Iron Man’s help to avoid killing himself. It is that alarming realization that makes it clear that this ostensibly light and fluffy actioner has maybe taken on more weight than it can bear. Still, it is enjoyable when it allows itself to be kid’s stuff.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is Recommended If You Like: The Other Spider-Man Movies But Wish That Peter Parker Actually Looked Like a Teenager and That Everyone Was Hitting on Aunt May

Grade: 3.5 out 5 Best Sandwiches in Queens

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2’ Fulfills Its Blockbuster Duty

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Kurt Russell

Director: James Gunn

Running Time: 136 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Space Opera Whiz Bang and Discussions About the Facts of Life

Release Date: May 5, 2017

As fun as this era of Marvel-ous moviemaking can be, a corporate agenda gets in the way of originality. But it is not necessarily the blueprint of interconnected universes that mandates that every superhero movie must end with a fight for the survival of the planet. That is simply this genre’s instinct. If you want to avoid it, you have to fight it. And expanding the setting to multiple galaxies is not the way to do so. That just raises the stakes. Instead of just Earth, it is the fate of the entire universe that hangs in the balance. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 cannot help but be a part of this exhausting pattern, but it does what it can by rendering this gigantic fight as personal as possible.

When Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long-lost papa Ego (Kurt Russell) shows up, Quill suspects that the reunion is a little too perfect. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) convinces him to give his dad a chance, assuring him that if treachery is afoot, killing him is always an option. So they, alongside Drax (Dave Bautista) and Ego’s empathic companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) head off to Ego’s home planet. It looks like an idyllic utopia, but eventually it is revealed that Ego is the planet, and his intentions with his son may not be so aboveboard. The threat of universal apocalypse thereby feels intimate because it depends upon how Quill will or will not be manipulated.

Meanwhile, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are holding down the fort elsewhere and forming unlikely, but satisfying, alliances with Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). They must deal with an onslaught from a new race of aliens that I do not feel like getting into. They are probably here because they will factor significantly into future Marvel Cinematic Universe installments, but for now, they are a distraction from the main conflict. I am not opposed in principle to splitting up the main crew. Rocket and Groot, after all, have a delightful C-3PO/R2-D2-style repartee wherever they go. They can do their own thing, it just does not need to be so extensive when the main thrust is already so all-encompassing.

While vol. 2 does fall prey to sequel bloat, the Guardians crew is reliable enough for their adventures to have a pretty high floor. The banter is top-notch, fueled as it is by intergalactic culture clash. Gamora attempts to comfort Quill by referencing his attachment to a certain beloved-by-Germans celebrity, but she totally botches the details. Quill later fires back with a Cheers analogy of their relationship that is adorably confused. Drax demonstrates how his race is quite open about discussing sexual matters with a colorful description of his parents’ experiences. This is all helped along by Mantis’ empathic abilities, in which she can feel others’ emotions and thus open up the dams holding back honesty. The pinnacle of all this sharing is Baby Groot’s opinion on hats (which does not even need Mantis’ prompting).

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is Recommended If You Like: “I am Groot.” “I am Groot?” “I AMMM GROOOOOOOT!”

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sweet Sounds of the Seventies

This Is a Movie Review: Doctor Strange

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

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams

Directors: Scott Derrickson

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for fantastical bumps and bruises and a gruesome accident

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Now at 14 films strong, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no signs of abandoning its (consistently profitable) template: initial humbling, transformative origin, world-threatening climax. Doctor Strange is not interested in (or prohibited from) straying from that template, but it does mess with the rules in ways that do right by its protagonist.

That transgressive attitude is there right from the start. Stephen Strange is a highly respected and highly arrogant neurosurgeon whose superheroic path is catalyzed by a car wreck that is as horrific and as indulgent as a PG-13 rating allows. The comic book model often begins with these intense powder kegs, but they are rarely this visceral, unless they are making a show of being “adult,” which is not what this entry is all about.

With his hands left stubbornly tremorous, Strange is enticed by the promise of an alternative treatment in the mountains of Nepal. While initially prone to skepticism about the sorcery he encounters, he hears out the pitch, perhaps because all characters played by Chiwetel Ejiofor or Tilda Swinton exude confidence. Convincing Strange could have been drawn out, but that likely would have been tiresome, so instead he is soundly convinced by a cosmic trip that achieves cinematic psychedelia unheard of for decades.

Of course, this all leads to a grand climactic battle – this time, a traitorous rebellion led by a former pupil (Mads Mikkelsen). As usual, the entire planet is at threat, but Dr. Strange is sly about how this comes to pass. With much of the action taking place in the “Mirror Dimension” or “astral planes,” the world at large generally has no idea what is going on.

Basically, while Doctor Strange must work within constraints, it has no intention of dialing back the pizzazz. And why should it, considering that so many of its characters can bend the very nature of reality? The film’s most striking visuals – rolling skyscrapers, warped cityscapes – are obviously reminiscent of Inception. That earlier dreamscape flick famously utilized primarily practical effects, while Strange quite obviously employs CGI. That is not a knock – this is perhaps the most artful use of impractical effects of all time. As Stephen Strange learns in his hero’s journey, it’s all about playing to your strengths.

Doctor Strange is Recommended If You Like: Inception But Wish It Had Been More Maniacal, 2001, a Healthy Helping of Looney Tunes

Grade: 4 out of 5 Astral Bodies