Onward I Go with My Thoughts on ‘Onward’

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CREDIT: Pixar/YouTube Screenshot

There’s a certain trope that’s kind of popular in TV and movies. And you can tell that it’s popular because the characters are always so enthusiastic when it happens. In fact, it’s kind of defined by its enthusiasm. I’m talking about, you guessed it, the almighty Title Drop! It’s that triumphant moment when movie characters say the name of the movie within the course of the movie itself. If they do it really well, it makes you go, “Hey, that’s the name of the movie!” (Thanks, Arrested Development!) And Onward, as it turns out, has a doozy of a title drop. In fact, I’ve decided I would like to evaluate the entire film based on how strong that title drop is.

But first, I’ll run through some more straightforward thoughts I have. This tale of elf bros Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) attempting to resurrect their dad for one day feels like a pretty straightforward quest adventure, although it does have the added twist of taking place in a world where magic has petered out despite the population of magical creatures. Ultimately a big part of your enjoyment of Onward will likely depend on how much you connect to its message of brotherhood. And as a brother, and someone who has a brother, I must fairly say, I felt the brotherly vibes. If you too are a brother, or have ever imagined what it feels like to be a brother, you might feel similarly.

Now, back to that title drop. As the action is really starting to ramp up, with Ian taking the wheel of Barley’s trusty van Guinevere, Barley commands, “Put it in ‘O’ for ‘Onward’!”

Did that moment make me go … well, you know?

Indeed it did.

Success!

CGI Animals and a Daffy Robert Downey Jr. Performance Make for a Feather-Brained ‘Dolittle’

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Harry Collett, Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Carmel Laniado, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Jason Mantzoukas, Frances de la Tour

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG for Mild Animal Chaos

Release Date: January 17, 2020

It’s not a great sign when my favorite part of a movie is the end credits revealing who all the voice actors were, especially when it’s a movie about talking to animals, because … I love talking to animals! Not necessarily in the Dr. Dolittle sense, but if I did have that ability, I would be happy to use it. As for Robert Downey Jr.’s version of the classic fictional veterinarian, I wouldn’t say that he is unhappy about his interspecies communication abilities, but he is making some odd choices, what with an unplaceable accent while barely opening his mouth whenever he talks to the point that it seems like he is practicing his ventriloquism. Dolittle is a movie whose existence in 2020 I’m having trouble fathoming, but despite that, I can’t say that I doubt Downey’s commitment, however strange it may be.

Anyway, the plot is some fever dream logic-driven concoction about how a reclusive Dr. Dolittle, hiding away in his home following the death of his wife, is summoned to set out on an adventure to find a cure for a deathly ill young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). Naturally enough, his animal friends join him to help out, and their presence on this journey just feels too unremarkable. Perhaps that has to do with the reliance on CGI, which renders these creatures less adorable and more just humans with fur or feathers or scales. For the most part, then, Dolittle is a mix of humdrum when it should be goofy and ridiculous when it should be straightforward. Although, there is one part when Dr. Dolittle removes a set of bagpipes from a dragon’s colon, so this endeavor wasn’t a total disappointment.

Dolittle is Recommended If You Have: A Bottomless Appreciation for CGI Animal Hijinx

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Quacks

‘Spies in Disguise’ Preaches Weirdness, But It Could Stand to Be Weirder

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CREDIT: Blue Sky Studios/Twentieth Century Fox.

Starring: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka

Directors: Troy Quane and Nick Bruno

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: PG for A Pigeon Eating a Band-Aid, and the Like

Release Date: December 25, 2019

Spies in Disguise has two credited directors and two credited screenwriters (and a third writer with a “story by” credit), and it’s based on a 2009 short film made by someone who is none of the aforementioned writers or directors. Yet it feels like a very singular, personal vision, as though it were willed into existence by someone who really loves pigeons and wanted the world to know that they’re not just rats with wings, but rather, dignified and eminently capable creatures. The world of animated children’s films is filled with plenty of talking animals, so this isn’t out of the ordinary in that regard. But I haven’t gotten the sense that movie-going tykes have been clamoring for the pigeon niche to be filled in this genre. And yet that’s what has happened, with about as triumphant a premise as possible, as the fate of the world hinges upon what super-awesome spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) can accomplish when he turns into a pigeon.

If there are any pigeon aficionados out there, you will certainly be pleased by how lovingly they’re treated in this film. For everyone else, you’ll probably be floored by how out of time Spies in Disguise comes across. It feels like something that should have come out twenty years ago, when CGI animation was in its infancy and Smith was known primarily as a Man in Black. I actually appreciate some of its musty style, as it commits to a full-on opening credits sequence (a rarity in this era) that follows not one, but two, cold opening scenes.But the rest of my reaction to this film is basically being flummoxed by its outdated, non-specific definition of “weird.”

The other main character is socially inept young gadget guy Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), who is the one who accidentally turns Sterling into a bird. He’s spent his whole life believing that the world needs more weird, just like his mom assured him when he was a boy. But the thing is, while he may be a little awkward, I find it hard to believe that his line of work wouldn’t consider him weird so much as technologically essential. And while a man becoming a pigeon may be unusual in our world, it’s standard practice in this sort of movie. Spies in Disguise, you need to follow your own advice and be more weird.

Spies in Disguise is Recommended If You Like: Therianthropy

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Spies in Da Skies

‘The Current War’ Offers a Few Sparks of Electricity Here and There

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CREDIT: 101 Studios

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, Nicholas Hoult, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Macfadyen

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Big Egos Occasionally Misbehaving

Release Date: October 25, 2019

Note: This release of The Current War includes the subtitle “The Director’s Cut,” which is a rare thing for a movie in its original commercial theatrical release. But it’s arriving under unusual circumstances, as it was originally supposed to come out two years ago, but then it was one of the movies orphaned by the dissolution of The Weinstein Company. Since then, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon assembled a cut that is ten minutes shorter than the version that premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. (He spoke about the experience with Deadline.) I have not seen that cut, so this review is based solely on “The Director’s Cut.”

I’m by no means a huge history buff, but that doesn’t mean an anti-history buff. So I’m at least open to the possibility of being entranced by stories from the past, and cinemas certainly has the power to do that entrancing. The war of the currents would seem like an ideal subject to be powerful in just that way – it is about electricity after all! In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were jockeying for position to be the providers of electric energy to the burgeoning United States power grid, with Nikola Tesla popping in to alternately work for both of them. There is plenty of energy and spirit to these characters, but overall The Current War is a little more subdued than might be expected.

CREDIT: Dean Rogers/101 Studios

Much of The Current War follows this formula: the principal players head to meetings, buoyed along by the invigorating score by Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. Then they sit down … and the music peters out. That sense of the oomph escaping is a major issue. You get the feeling that Edison and Westinghouse don’t really want to be enemies. True, they have a major fundamental disagreement: Edison advocates for direct current, believing that alternating current is way too potentially lethal, while Westinghouse thinks that alternating is the only option powerful enough to get this project on a country-wide scale. But by the end, you get to a sense of “what was all that fuss about?”

As individuals, these men are fascinating to witness. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison is given to bombastic statements like making this counteroffer during a negotiation: “I give you nothing you want, and you give me everything I want,” while Michael Shannon’s Westinghouse is certainly hungry for victory, but he is also mellowed by an anti-materialist streak, noting of his company’s AC, “It’s not my electricity. It’s electricity.” That offers plenty to chew over, and there’s also a fantastic bit of filmmaking set at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that achieves a bit of transcendence. Maybe if we could have literally spent some time in the heads of Edison, Westinghouse, or Nicholas Hoult’s Tesla instead of the snatches of subjectivity that we do get, then we could have truly been electrocuted.

The Current War is Recommended If You Like: Watching clashing egos duke it out

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Horses

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.

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

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This review 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: The Lost City of Z

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

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland

Director: James Gray

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Bow and Arrow Violence, and Occasional Gunfire

Release Date: April 14, 2017 (Limited)

The Lost City of Z tells the story of a liberal-minded man’s dilemma. During Percival Fawcett’s (Charlie Hunnam) early 20th century explorations to South America, he becomes convinced of the existence of a mythical city deep within the jungles of the Amazon. His patrons back in England scoff at the idea, both because it is unrealistic but also because they are European white men who believe that their way of doing civilization is the only right way. Fawcett positions himself as an open-minded paragon who recognizes that the native peoples are not savages but in fact have plenty of value to offer the rest of the world. This is not posture. He genuinely believes all that he says – and Hunnam imbues every declaration with the urgency of the end of days – but idealizing a foreign culture introduces its own problems.

Fawcett does not fetishize the Amazonian peoples, but his single-mindedness can be blinding. The film’s structure is partly like that of a Möbius strip, with the end of each South American expedition only serving as a prologue to the next one. Supplies are depleted and conflicts break out within his crew, and then re-stocking and reconciling takes years. And you feel that passage of time, but Fawcett simply must get back. The strain is borne most acutely by his family, especially his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), who pleads to join one of the expeditions. The Fawcetts pride themselves on their equality, but here Percival marks a limit: they are intellectual, but not physical, equals.

Ultimately, this film is a detailed and heavy examination of the dangers of obsession. It turns out (spoiler alert) that Fawcett’s instincts are right, but that vindication is saved for an epilogue. The climax involves Fawcett and his eldest son (Tom Holland) entering the most nightmarish of the expeditions. For the most part, The Lost City of Z avoids mysticism in favor of realism. The cinematography generally focuses on weary faces instead of natural wonders. Thus, this journey is not transcendent until it starts becoming hellish.

The Lost City of Z is Recommended If You Like: Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, Impassioned Speeches to Fusty Government Types

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Men Overboard