“Are you an Avenger?” “…Yeah … basically.” Spider-Man: Homecoming

[Image source: Wikipedia]

“Spider-Man,  Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves, just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man.” …So opened the ridiculously ear-wormy theme song to the classic animated Spider-Man TV show from 1967.

And in the past two decades, indeed, here came all the Spider-Men, an army of cinematic treatments and a revolving door cast that rivaled only the Batman and James Bond franchises for the head-spinning number of changes over the years.

Tobey Maguire helped usher in this modern age of comic book blockbuster as Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy in the early 2000s. While we finally had Marvel movies worthy in scope of that storied company’s impressive legacy, I always found Maguire’s take a bit insipid, whiny and cloying. Yet, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, James Franco as Harry Osborn, JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and Alfred Molina (!) as Doctor Octopus? Sheer perfection.

 

Then, Andrew Garfield swung into the scene as Peter with Emma Stone in tow as Gwen Stacy in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man pair of films. I thought we’d found our perfect duo, as this real-life/onscreen couple brought a shambling, bumbling, shoe-gazing charm that got us closer to Peter’s time-tested place as the “never can win” anti-Archie Andrews of teen comicdom. The only problem was Garfield and Stone looked like 30-year-olds playing 16 again. We did get another great Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Sally Field and Martin Sheen respectively – I’m sensing a theme here. Maybe those are the roles to play!

Yowza, though, the latest incarnation Spider-Man: Homecoming – directed with gleeful anarchic surety by Jon Watts – gets it just right!  The film stars a Peter Parker for the ages – British actor Tom Holland (Billy Elliot the Musical) – in a pitch perfect blend of winsome geekiness, outer New York boroughs cockiness, and sparkling Broadway dancer agility. This movie is an utter gem.

(What is happening Hollywood? Are you finally hitting your stride with these superhero flicks? Between this latest installment and June’s Wonder Woman, comic book movies have truly found their groove, embracing character and humor and fully leveraging the allegorical nature of these icons to celebrate our common humanity and to explore the dire need for compassion and heart in this little world of ours. And both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming feel like movies about, dare I say it, real people! I’ll take it.)

For years, the Spider-Man franchise was under sole license to Sony Pictures (in a deal struck in the late 90s before Marvel Studios as we know it now existed). The magic minds at Disney’s Marvel (chiefly president and creative visionary Kevin Feige) couldn’t get their hands on the web-slinger for their “shared universe” of movies that began with the crackerjack first Iron Man film. Oh, how times change. With the ongoing runaway success of Marvel Studios (and the relative box office disappointment of Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man series), the suits got to talking, a deal was struck, and Spidey made his first showstopping appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Holland’s brief screen time in that flick all but assured us fanboys that Hollywood finally was getting Ol’ Webhead completely right.

And they sure did. Spider-Man: Homecoming sets the bulk of its action in and around Peter’s unashamedly nerdy high school (Midtown School of Science and Technology) and his shaggy band of friends whose brains are their super power and for whom discovery and analysis and LEGOs and adventure and academic decathlons are waaaay cooler than football games and proms.

The film wisely eschews yet another retelling of Peter’s transformation origin story, and just dives right into the action with a quick recap (no pun intended) of Spider-Man’s involvement in the superhero tensions of Civil War, told of course from a starstruck Millennial’s POV as captured in shaky, grainy video snippets on Peter’s cell phone.

As sunny sweet as Peter’s world is, this is still a planet in pain, suffering the everyday strife of  uncertainty that a costumed crusader battle won’t erupt overhead (nearly as worrisome as what a real-life president may Tweet at any given moment). And just as in our society, there are those who see opportunity in other’s distress.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (“The Vulture”) whose failure as a legit contractor turns around when he starts stealing and repurposing debris from these superhero battles on the black market. His animosity (and covetousness) toward the one-percenters of the world is evident when he sneers at Robert Downey, Jr.’s visage on a TV screen, “A$$holes who made this mess [Stark’s Avengers] get paid to clean it up [Stark Enterprises’ subsidiary Damage Control].” No one does sad-sack country club-wannabe bitter middle-aged male contempt like Keaton, and this former Batman/Birdman (meta casting if there ever was any) is brilliant in this role.  Oh, and, by the way, Keaton sports big scary robot wings … but this is a Marvel movie after all.

Inevitably, Spider-Man and the Vulture cross paths (and again … and again), with a number of dizzying aerial battles for the action junkies in the crowd. However, what makes their tension work is that both characters are outsiders, scrambling to prove their respective worth to a society that sees them as invisible. (Not to mention a final act twist that I did not see coming and that raises the stakes – and connection – between these two characters exponentially.)

Peter spends most of the film trying to reclaim Tony Stark’s attention, pretending to his fellow students that he has an “internship” with the famed entrepreneur when in reality he spends every night waiting by the phone in the hopes of getting “the call” to join Stark’s Avengers squad permanently. When his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan, an utter joy as Peter’s hyperventilating wingman) discovers Peter’s secret identity, he breathlessly inquires, “Are you an AVENGER?” Peter looks aside, with sadness in his eyes and embarrassment in his heart, replying, “Yeah … basically …” The film is rife with punchy/poignant character moments like that.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

So, when The Vulture and Spidey clash, it is from a narrative-driven conflict of needs and philosophies. Keaton’s Vulture keeps his criminal enterprise going to “stick it to the man,” to fund the lavish lifestyle to which he’s now become accustomed, and, thereby, to remind the world he is a force to be reckoned with – not to be tossed aside like the refuse he salvages.

Spider-Man, on the other hand, is certain that by stopping these schemes in their tracks, he will finally get the adulation and validation he desperately craves from Tony Stark and the mainstream superhero community. Each fight between The Vulture and Spider-Man is truly a fight for their lives.

That dramatic tension between Keaton and Holland powers the film but never overwhelms it. Admittedly, most of their fight sequences could have been trimmed by three-to-five minutes each, and the film would have been all the stronger for the cuts.

Ultimately, however, the heart and soul of the film is Peter Parker and his love of family and friends.

Marisa Tomei is dynamite as Aunt May (there we go again), never a victim but always cautious that New York isn’t the limitless playground Peter perceives it to be. Her crack comic timing wrapped in a gauze of May’s world-weary worry is the film’s most essential special effect.  Anyone who still thinks her Oscar for My Counsin Vinny was in error can go take a long leap off a short pier.

Disney Channel alum Zendaya is a revelation as Peter’s acerbic pal Michelle, who sees through the gangly immaturity of her fellow academic decathletes to the potential greatness they offer. Michelle has never met a social cause she didn’t embrace. Her teacher/coach says to her, when she refuses to enter the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves, “Protesting is patriotic.” Damn straight.

And we get great character turns by Tyne Daly as a tough bureaucrat with a decent heart, Donald Glover as a tough hoodlum with an even kinder heart, and Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) as a not-so-tough bully with pretty much no heart at all. Revolori, in particular, is fun casting as Parker’s legendary rival Flash Thompson, typically depicted as a Nordic bruiser of a football player. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, he is portrayed by an actor of Guatemalan descent and serves as Parker’s chief competition on the academic decathlon team. Nice.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is, ultimately, a love letter to the American “melting pot.” All shapes and sizes – and ethnicities and races and ages and genders – of humanity are proudly on display, relentlessly pursuing their dreams and proudly challenging the status quo. That is what makes America great. And always has.

Oh, and this is a movie that makes a point to show Spider-Man going back to rescue a cat from a blazing convenience store. And to have Chris Evans channeling his adorably goofy comic side as a Captain America who makes earnest public service announcements against bullying in public schools. That’s my kind of America.

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

A Willy Loman for the internet era: Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a theater person who loves superheroes, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was the perfect cinematic storm for me: a film about an actor who walked away from a superhero franchise at the peak of his box office powers in order to rediscover his pretentious inner-theater muse … quite an intoxicating brew for yours truly.

Michael Keaton, whom I admit was most appealing to me back in his Mr. Mom days, plays the title character, an actor named Riggan Thomson. The film tracks the Quixotic enterprise to mount his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story … starring himself … and directed by … himself. If that conceit weren’t so believable in this egocentric day and age, it would be absurd. Keaton does his manic best, aided and abetted by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and his woozy one-continuous-take cinematic approach, to convince us that he is a failed superstar on the verge of a nervous break down.

After a clunky, self-aggrandizing first act, where all the players seem to be channeling Robert Altman-esque self-indulgence, the film kicks in and the enterprise becomes dizzyingly entertaining. Keaton is surrounded by a cast of superstars from Emma Stone playing his rehab-quirk-addled daughter to Zach Galifianakis as his neurotic consigliore to Edward Norton who steals the show as his Brando-ized Method (!) Acting co-star.

Once Norton enters the scene, the film finds its groove. (Norton can do no wrong in my book). Norton (both in character and in real-life) gives Keaton a similarly monumental ego against which to clash, and their scenes together are dynamite. The two actors create sparks as they literally beat each other to bloody pulps in their rehearsals for what appears to be one of the most turgid dramas that could ever grace the Great White Way. Norton is the saving grace (and secret weapon) of this film.

Birdman goes a long way to skewer our superhero-obsessed culture, casting many veterans of the genre, including Keaton (Batman), Norton (The Incredible Hulk), and Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man). They knowingly wink at the camera, actors who long for real parts to play but who have been forced to play spandex-clad clowns (or their paramours) to pay the mortgage.

I will add, though, that, like some lesser Oscar-bait films, the metaphors are laid on a little thick. This film is no Being John Malkovich, with its thrilling heights of meta-lunacy. Riggan literally (there’s that word again) cuts off his nose to spite his face by the movie’s conclusion. You don’t get much more obvious than that … unless Riggan had actually bitten that hand (audience member’s? producer’s?) that feeds. If the movie had been any longer, I bet he would have.

What the film gets so, so very right is the petty, competitive, ugly world of theater, rife with people who claim to be part of a larger artistic community but who can’t wait to plunge the proverbial ice pick in the back of a scenery-chewing costar. And, there is a wonderful moment in the film where Keaton says everything every actor has ever wanted to say to a theater critic. He eviscerates a New York Times pundit over drinks in a speakeasy; she, the gate keeper of all Broadway success, is excoriated by Riggan for what he sees as her lack of actual artistic credibility, channeled as it is into destroying the hopes and dreams of those treading the boards. It is a highlight of the film, which spectacularly identifies the Faustian pact that performers make with the media to promote and support their unyielding insecurities.

As an aside, this film made me think about what kind of creative person I am, both as an actor and a critic. I have acquaintances who are what one might call more “artistic” than I … or perhaps more “affected” if one is being cruel. In this blog, I don’t write about camera angles or nuance or sociopolitical constructs … at least not much. I write about my visceral response as a regular person wandering from multiplex to multiplex. I don’t know if that makes me a good critic or bad critic … a good witch or a bad witch. And I don’t really care.

That’s the joy of social media and blogging. People in the Fourth Estate might resent that there are folks out there like yours truly writing our thoughts for all the world to see. Well, get over it.

This film nails how creative people tear each other down for a lack of external validation. We are extremely, unnecessarily competitive. Sometimes we’re overtly harsh to each other in our commentary, and sometimes our absence of comment is even more so. I will never understand that. I remember vividly a dinner conversation after a local performance of Legally Blonde the Musical. (Yeah, I was in that show.) My cast-mates let me know how some other community theater types had seen the production and had identified at length all the things they thought we were doing incorrectly. WTF?!?  It was Legally Blonde the Musical.  It’s a cruise ship show.  A cartoon. This ain’t Hamlet, kids. Why anyone who is in community theater (myself included) would knock someone else’s community theatre show is beyond me. But I digress.

Back to Birdman. While I applaud Iñárritu’s efforts to create a Rube Goldberg cinematic style that sweeps us seamlessly from one scene to the other – in what appears to be a two hour continuous take – at times, it was a bit visually nauseating for me.  Or maybe that’s his point: when anybody launches into the fool’s errand of performing live theater, it is an experience that creates headaches, stomachaches … visceral highs and lows.

I will admit that I didn’t love this movie. It felt more like a student exercise at times than a fully-realized film. But I often find myself on the outskirts of what critics hail as artistic entertainment. The movie goes to great lengths to lampoon those films that the masses adore; yet, it misses the fact that most of us go to movies for escapism not torture.

Regardless, I found myself compelled by Keaton’s performance, a Willy Loman for the internet era, who sells his soul for credibility yet only finds validation when he accidentally lands on YouTube.

I believe the writers stole a bit from Carol Channing’s life, If I recall, she tells a wonderful story of being locked in the alley during a performance of Hello, Dolly! having to come around to the front door and enter through the audience. Granted, she was in full costume and not dingy BVDs like Keaton’s Riggan Thomson. And maybe that’s most obvious and most appropriate metaphor of all. The emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Musical postscript …

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“What’s more important than the safety of the American people?” RoboCop (2014)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the ongoing march of unnecessary remakes of 1980s films, here comes RoboCop clanking his way through the February movie doldrums, after all the Oscar bait has run its box office course.

And I liked it. Quite a bit. (And not just for all the on-location shots of Downtown Motown, including a ton of exterior shots of GM’s Renaissance Center.)

Maybe I am just tired of films that make artistic statements and am ready for one that is a low-rent summer-esque blockbuster. RoboCop certainly fit the bill.

Gone is the original film’s Swiftian satire of Reagan-era fear of one’s own neighbors. No comic undertones in this somber affair. In its place is a grittier/glossier take on post-9/11 American xenophobia and the supercharge it gives to the military-industrial complex’s ongoing economic prospects.

In fact, the film begins with a very telling sequence wherein robot police forces jackboot their way through some unidentified Middle Eastern country, lining the streets with men, women, and children deemed “nonthreatening” only after an invasive infrared scan (or two).

These scenes are interposed with footage of Samuel L. Jackson as an even cartoonier version of a Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Reilly television pundit casting his death darts at liberal politicians who won’t allow such android stormtroopers to police American streets. Yes, his character proudly wears a little “Stars and Stripes” pin on his lapel and tosses the word “patriot” around the way some people discuss the weather.

Satirical or not, this film isn’t afraid to telegraph its punches.

Instead of sardonic Peter Weller in the title role, we have a more emo RoboCop (his armor is even all black) in Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman. Yes, RoboCop cries. A lot. Kinnaman does a fine job grounding the wackadoodle proceedings, which involve a decent Detroit cop being blown to smithereens, being reconstructed in droid form as part of a martial law experiment conducted by big bad OmniCorp, and then proceeding to solve his own murder much to the chagrin of, well, everyone.

Unlike Weller, Kinnaman as Alex Murphy consistently and genuinely seems distraught by his unlikely circumstances, and the scenes between his otherwise cardboard wife (Abbie Cornish) and son are effectively poignant, chiefly through his presence.

The rest of the cast is fleshed out (no pun intended) by a great group of ringers (and a surprising number of Oscar nominees): Gary Oldman as the Dr. Frankenstein-mad-genius-with-a-conscience who transforms Murphy from beat cop to Tin Man; Michael Keaton as OmniCorp’s believably “country club casual” money-hungry CEO; Jackie Earle Haley as a junkyard dog lieutenant in Keaton’s army-for-hire; Jennifer Ehle as Keaton’s coolly calculating corporate counsel; Marianne Jean Baptiste as a smoothly corrupt police chief; and Jay Baruchel doing his dorky-James-Franco-wannabe thing as Keaton’s chief marketing nerd.

I don’t know that the world really needed a RoboCop remake but, as an exercise in taking a well-worn narrative and using it to tweak our post-millennial materialism, self-preservation, insecurity, and fear of the unknown, it runs like clockwork.