Saturday, September 16, 2017
In the town of Derry, Maine during the summer of 1989, a group of outcast preteens known as the Losers Club, consisting of stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), absused Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Jewish mysophobe Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), orphaned Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and hypochrondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), fight against an immortal, shape-shifting entity known only as It that awakens every twenty-seven years, usually takes the form of a dancing clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), and is responsible for the disappearances of dozens of children in their town, and are forced to confront their own personal demons in the process.
It, originally published in September of 1986, is quite possibly my favorite Stephen King novel. Yes, the sewer orgy is terrible and completely misguided, but it’s still what I consider to be the best of all of King’s works and it’s one of my favorite horror stories as well. The once-lauded but now unfairly maligned 1990 miniseries may not have aged the best but it’s still a really entertaining miniseries in its own right and a solid attempt to bring the story to life, with Tim Curry offering a brilliant interpretation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Now, we have the first attempt to bring this story to the world of cinema that’s finally being released after years in development hell with many writers, directors, and actors, including True Detective director Cary Fukunaga and Insidious co-star Ty Simpkins, going back and forth on the project, and I’m just going to say it: this is one of my new absolute favorite Stephen King adaptations. It’s that good.
First things first, the cast. They really couldn’t have chosen better people to play these parts. As for the standouts of this bright young cast, Jaeden Lieberher is excellent as Bill Denbrough, who’s still grieving the loss of his younger brother Georgie to the point where he just can’t accept it. Finn Wolfhard, who you may remember from Stranger Things, is phenomenal as Richie Tozier and gets some of the best lines and funniest moments in the film. My favorite of these kids, however, is Sophia Lillis, offering a brilliant portrayal of Beverly Marsh, creating a tragic and sympathetic character that you can really feel for. The other kids also do remarkable work in their roles. Even with the characters of Stan and Mike being less developed than the others, you’re still able to root for them.
That’s another thing that works especially well in this film, the character development. The way this film develops and fully fleshes out these character is absolutely stunning. Like the kids in Stranger Things and Super 8, and even kids in classic 1980’s films like Explorers, The Goonies, and another Stephen King adaptation, Stand by Me, these kids play off each other beautifully, they’re all incredibly likable and relatable, and they all act like real kids. Each one of them is given their own unique traits, characteristics, and personalities, making them stand out that much more. The bond these kids form with one another really gives the film a lot of heart even during its most twisted and disturbing moments. I loved how these characters were handled here and I’m really hyped to see what they’ll do with them as adults returning to Derry in the upcoming Chapter Two.
However, the best performance of all comes from Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan Skarsgard and brother of Alexander Skarsgard, as the titular It, otherwise known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Much like with Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as the Joker, I love Tim Curry as much as anybody, but my God, Skarsgard completely embodies this role, disappearing into it and becoming the definitive live-action take on the character. Skarsgard and everyone else involved get Pennywise’s character so right and they clearly understand it so well that it helps add to Skarsgard’s already chilling performance. Every time he came on screen, I got instant goosebumps. So thanks for the nightmare fuel, Billy boy.
Now, I’ll be honest, when Andy Muschietti was announced to direct this film, I was honestly very worried. I know many really liked his debut film, Mama, but I personally didn’t like it. However, after this, I was very surprised. Muschietti absolutely knocks it out of the park here. You can tell that he has a deep love and appreciation not just for this story but for other Stephen King stories as well. He even said in an interview that he wants to do an adaptation of Pet Sematary and I’d be totally down for that. He really understands the material and the way he creates tension and suspense is impeccable. The atmosphere he also creates is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous. He even uses CGI and jump scares for some of the big scare moments but the CGI actually look finished and those jump scares feel earned. Like with James Wan’s work on Insidious and The Conjuring, Muschietti doesn’t use jump scares as a means of simply startling people by jacking up the volume randomly, he uses them as a means to create real scares. Not false ones, real ones. Also like The Conjuring 2, this film managed to make me terrified of a painting.
What especially helps add to the sublime atmosphere is regular Park Chan-wook collaborator Chung-hoon Chung’s absolutely gorgeous cinematography. From the first frame to the last, this film looks absolutely striking. The lighting is absolutely perfect and the camerawork is smooth and stylish throughout. Claude Pare’s production design is also fantastic, capturing the 1980’s time period superbly and also helping add to the atmosphere created by Muschietti. Jason Ballantine’s editing keeps the film moving smoothly, even with a long runtime of 135 minutes. That’s normally way too long for a typical horror film, but when you’re adapting something as massive as It and you’re only focusing on the first half of the story, a runtime like that is much necessary. Muschietti’s currently working on a director’s cut for DVD, Blu-ray, 4K, and VOD that adds 15 minutes of footage back into the film and I can’t wait to see how that turns out.
The special effects and make-up in this film are also top-notch. This isn’t tame or sanitized like the 1990 miniseries (granted that was made for television, so limitations were inevitable), this definitely deserves its R rating. The gore effects are fantastic. We even see Georgie’s arm being graphically ripped off by Pennywise (and keep in mind that Georgie is a 7-year-old little boy), something that wouldn’t even be allowed in a typical horror film. Kudos to Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema for letting Muschietti stick to his guns and remain faithful to King’s vision. I also loved how they executed the blood fountain in the bathroom sequence. By far one of the most chilling sequences in the film.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Both a mature, emotional, witty, and heartfelt coming-of-age story and a genuinely dark, terrifying, and thrilling tale about both the manifestation and confrontation of your fears, It is destined to go down in history as not only one of the finest and most well-crafted horror films in the past twenty-five years but also one of the absolute best adaptations of renowned author Stephen King's legendary works, with beautifully written characters, wonderful performances, gorgeous cinematography, terrific effects, superb atmosphere, mounting tension, heart-pumping suspense, and rock-solid direction throughout. I’m so happy to see this film turn out so well and I’m even happier to see that it’s breaking multiple records at the box office. Bring on Chapter Two.
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
Former daredevil stuntman Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage) is in self-imposed exile from the world. Blaze has become a tormented soul, convinced that his powers are a curse. Blaze is then approached by Moreau (Idris Elba), a member of the monastic order of Michael, the warrior angel. Moreau seeks a protector for Nadya (Violante Placido) and her son Danny Ketch (Fergus Riordan), who are being pursued by a figure named Roarke (Ciaran Hinds), the biblical Devil himself with a detailed knowledge of the Ghost Rider and his different identities over the centuries.
For those who are unaware, the first Ghost Rider film from 2007 happens to be one of my least favorite comic book films. As its own thing, it’s just plain bad, with mostly cheesy visual effects, incredibly lame villains with poorly thought out motivations, wooden performances and dialogue, and just a sore lack of fun. As an adaptation, it’s insulting, taking great characters and making them the complete opposite of what they originally were. I will always defend writer and director Mark Steven Johnson’s work on Daredevil, but his work on Ghost Rider is unforgivable.
With its follow-up, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor and writers Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer have certainly cleaned up Johnson's mess. For those who haven't seen this and have only seen the first, this film has absolutely nothing to do with the original, even with Nicolas Cage returning to play the title character, and that’s probably the best thing about this film. Johnny Blaze and the origin of the Ghost Rider are vastly different this time around and it actually works.
For one, they actually incorporate the demonic Spirit of Justice, Zarathos, into his origin. From that moment forward, it was clear that this is, in fact, a reboot of the first film and not an actual sequel, which was a very wise approach. Not only that, but they also incorporate Zarathos fighting being in the body of the Ghost Rider, fighting within Blaze for control of the Ghost Rider powers and driving him to absolute madness. Where was this before? This is so much more engaging. They also get Blaze’s characterization closer to the source material. Instead of eating jelly beans out of martini glasses, laughing at chimpanzee videos, and listening to the Carpenters, he’s actually in a darker place this time around like he should be, guzzling alcohol.
Nicolas Cage also gives a much better and more committed performance than in the first film. Whereas he underplays it terribly in the first film, Cage is much more full of life here, occasionally going full-on crazy Cage in certain sequences, mainly thanks to Zarathos driving Blaze crazy (i.e. “Scraping at the door!”). He also thankfully gets rid of that terrible Southern accent and bad haircut he had in the first film.
Even the look of the Ghost Rider is much more closer to his depiction in the source material than in the first film. Ghost Rider has a black Harley, a dirty and realistic-looking skull, a black leather jacket, and black leather pants covered in soot. The Ghost Rider looks legitimately menacing and bad-ass and like he poses a real threat in this film, unlike in the first film where he looked like an unthreatening cartoon.
One of our villains this time around is Ray Carrigan/Blackout (Johnny Whitworth), a former mercenary and an ex-boyfriend of Nadya who's given powers by the Devil after a series of unfortunate events in order to retrieve Danny, who turns out to be the Devil's son. Blackout can make the world around him turn pitch-black and he can decay anything he touches. Whitworth does a solid job playing the character, who has different powers than in the comics but looks near exactly like his comic book counterpart.
A supposed plot hole in this film is that if Blackout can decay everything he touches, how would he be able to retrieve Danny and give him to Roarke, the Devil, without killing Danny? Well, let's look at this logically. If the Devil gave Blackout the powers to combat the Ghost Rider in order to retrieve his son, I'm pretty sure the Devil would make it where Blackout couldn't kill Danny. I'd like to think that the Devil isn't that stupid.
The always awesome Idris Elba chips in with a fine supporting performance as Moreau, Violante Placido and Fergus Riordan are both solid as Nadya and Danny (you can tell from their scenes together that they genuinely care for one another), and Ciaran Hinds is great as Roarke, but then again, Ciaran Hinds is good in anything, no matter how bad. However, as much as I liked him as the Devil, he should be playing Mephisto.
In the comics, Johnny was cursed by a normal demon named Mephisto, not the biblical Devil. I suppose it makes more sense in context, but then you have stupid things like the Devil driving a car, which is lame seeing as he’s the literal Devil thus he really wouldn’t need to do that, so just having him be a normal demon would’ve easily fixed this problem. Christopher Lambert, in a supporting role, is unfortunately given a limited amount of screentime. In fact, he had a swordfight with Idris Elba that was cut out of the film, which is pretty lame as I think that would’ve been a really fun scene to see play out.
In regards to Danny Ketch, I thought he made for an interesting character. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with Ketch as a character from the comics, but from what I’ve heard, he was originally Johnny Blaze’s brother who became a Ghost Rider and had the Penance Stare that Blaze had in the first film. That being said, seeing the present Ghost Rider (Blaze) and the future Ghost Rider (Ketch) together was a rather satisfying treat. Their father and son-like relationship was well-handled and in a way, it reminded me of the relationship between John Connor and the T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Granted it’s not as good as that film’s bond, but it’s finely handled regardless.
The effects and action sequences are also much stronger this time around, completely destroying to pieces and burning to ashes everything its predecessor attempted to give us. You can tell in the big climactic action sequence, a really fun road chase by the way, that there was a real love for the Mad Max films, especially The Road Warrior, with Ghost Rider and Blackout hopping on multiple cars and motorcycles fighting each other.
What especially makes the action sequences thrilling and genuinely fun to sit through is the unique and hugely entertaining directing style of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor that worked brilliantly in both of their Crank films. Whereas this type of style works terribly in most other action films and even in Neveldine/Taylor’s own Gamer, the style helps add to this film, and to the Crank films, rather than take away from it. Regular Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg collaborator Brandon Trost chips in with slick cinematography, and Brian Berdan and Doobie White’s editing keeps the film moving at a fast pace even if some of the editing techniques they incorporate come off more as tacky and gimmicky than anything else (I can easily see why Doug Walker and Mike Jeavons refer to it as hit and run editing in their Nostalgia Critic and Shameful Sequels crossover review). I also enjoyed the script’s rather quite dark sense of humor, which works especially well with the way they portray Blaze’s character here.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
Overall, there's not much more I can say about this film that I haven't already. I know many hate this film, and I can totally understand why, but for me personally, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a vast improvement upon its incredibly boring and lousy predecessor. The story is darker, it’s well-paced and directed with a unique style, the action is awesome, the effects are top-notch, and the performances are very entertaining, especially from an often unhinged Nicolas Cage. It’s like if the Crank duology and Drive Angry had a baby, which is probably the best way to describe this film, and it’s quite a blast.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Months after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) begins to navigate his newfound identity as the web-slinging superhero Spider-Man. Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter returns home to Queens, New York City, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine, distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but when Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton) emerges as a new villain, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened.
When Sony made a deal with Marvel to incorporate the character of Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe following fan rage towards the Amazing Spider-Man films and the infamous leaked e-mails, fanboys were hyped. While I was excited, I was also disappointed since I loved the Amazing Spider-Man films and was sad when Sony denied Marc Webb the chance to finish the series. That disappointment quickly faded away, however, when it was said that their plan for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 would’ve been an adaptation of the Clone Saga and not Peter fighting the Sinister Six, which The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was constantly teasing. That being said, when Spidey made his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War, I was so pleasantly surprised that I got very much hyped for his solo film. Spider-Man: Homecoming is arguably the best Spider-Man film in thirteen years. Now, I will warn you that there will be major spoilers in this review so if you haven't seen this film yet, close the review, watch it, and then come back afterwards.
First, the cast. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Tom Holland is perfect for this role. He’s not only the perfect Peter Parker, but also the perfect Spider-Man, capturing everything that makes the character so great. He not only looks the part, but he completely acts the part, delivering snappy one-liners with relish and aplomb. I love Tom Holland. What I especially love about Peter’s characterization in this film is that this isn’t just a typical superhero film, it’s also a coming-of-age story. Peter has been Spider-Man for months but is still trying to get down the mere basics of being a hero. He’s a kid who’s learning. This is why Tony Stark decides to give him back the suit at the end after taking it away from him following the ferry incident. He realizes that Peter is just a kid and Peter realizes that to stay on the ground means to be a kid, have fun, and help out the little guy, hence why he declines Tony’s offer to become an Avenger. Even though Peter is intelligent, he’s going to mistakes just like everyone else does and is eventually going to learn from them to be better. It’s what makes him so likable and relatable. They even make the action sequences a part of Peter’s coming of age, something I felt added a great touch to the proceedings.
As for the rest of the cast, I loved them. Michael Keaton is fantastic as Adrian Toomes, creating a villain who can be intimidating, even frightening, but also kind of funny and even very sympathetic. You understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, you understand why he went down this path, you completely get his motivations and goals, and even better, he and Peter have some similarities with one another: they both have secret identities and they both share the pain of losing someone or something they hold very much dearly. I loved this villain and he is easily one of the MCU’s best antagonists.
Robert Downey, Jr. is great as always and I appreciated how they used him sparingly, unlike the trailers which made him look like he’s a major part of the film. Marisa Tomei is beautiful and charming as a younger Aunt May, a change I had no problem with since it’s more realistic than in the source material where she’s very old. Speaking of Aunt May, I know many complained about there being no mention of Uncle Ben, but we didn’t need that here because we didn’t need to know about the origin story again and we already had a reference to his death in Peter’s introduction scene in Captain America: Civil War where he says this line to Tony: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”
Jacob Batalon is absolutely hilarious as Ned, getting some of the best and funniest moments of the film, and I love how he and Holland play off one another. Also hilarious and very charismatic is Zendaya Coleman as Michelle, one of Peter’s classmates. Her comedic timing is spot-on and I even didn’t mind the homage to MJ with her nickname reveal at the end. Before any fanboys start chucking their laptops at me, hear me out: Just because she’s MJ doesn’t mean she’s Mary Jane Watson. It was simply a nod to their dynamic. That being said, if they were to introduce Mary Jane in a possible sequel (and ideally, do the whole blind date arrangement thing), have her introduction go like this:
Aunt May: “Peter, are you ready?”
Peter: “Yeah, right here. How do I look?”
Aunt May: “Great.”
Peter: “By the way, you still haven’t told me her name.”
Aunt May: “It’s MJ.”
Peter: “Michelle’s your neighbor’s niece?”
Aunt May: “Oh, no, no, no, this is a different MJ. Mary Jane.”
Peter: “So now I have two MJ’s in my life.”
Aunt May: “Funny how that works. Oh, I think she’s here.”
Neighbor: “Oh, hello, Peter, I’d like you to meet my niece.”
Peter: “Wait, you mean, that’s Mary Jane?”
Mary Jane: “Face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot.”
Everyone else does a fine job in their respective roles. Regarding the supporting characters, much of them are very different from their comic book counterparts, to the point where they’re just different characters altogether, but this never bothered me. For one, the changes they made were to avoid stereotypes from the comics and the other films. Like for example, Ned Leeds acts much more like Ganke Lee than he does Ned, and instead of a jock bully like in the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb films, Flash Thompson is now an academic rival to Peter, so if you’re wondering why he’s not intimidating, there you go. Plus, it also gives diversity to show how New York City truly feels and looks. I can understand why these massive changes would anger hardcore fans, but as long as they tell a compelling story with fun and interesting characters (and they did), I can easily let those changes slide. Not to mention, these changes are really small things when compared to the main conflict.
One of my favorite supporting characters has to be Aaron Davis, played by the always awesome Donald Glover. For those who are unaware, Davis is The Prowler in the comics and is the nephew of another Spider-Man, Miles Morales. Like Adrian, he and Peter also have a similarity with one another: they both want to get rid of the dangerous weapons Toomes and his team have been collecting. He has a change of heart because he mentions in a conversation with Peter that he doesn’t want those weapons in a certain neighborhood because his nephew lives there. That line not only teases Miles’ possible appearance in a future Spider-Man film but also provides actual motivation for why Davis turns on the criminals he’s been dealing with. Even if you’re not familiar with Miles Morales, the line makes a lot of sense. It’s smart writing.
What also works very well is the comedy, which also adds to the coming-of-age aspect. This film is very much influenced by the works of John Hughes and it really shows here. The likable and memorable characters, the hilarious jokes, the engaging drama, the effortless charisma and heart. A lot of the humor here had me laughing very hard, especially the character of Ned. Speaking of characters, this is more character-driven than one would expect from a big-budget superhero film. It’s refreshing to see a more down-to-earth Spider-Man film and that approach not only fits the film like a glove but is also handled remarkably well.
The film has its drama as well and it’s also handled very nicely, like the scene where Tony takes Peter’s suit away and says this line (which is also a great callback to the criminally underrated Iron Man 3) to him, “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” What has to be my favorite moment in the film is the car scene between Peter and Adrian. Not only does the twist that Liz is Adrian’s daughter catch you completely off-guard and also help greatly connect Peter’s personal life with his life as Spider-Man, but the tension in that scene is impeccable. The dynamic between Holland and Keaton is fantastic even if they don’t have a lot of scenes together and Holland skillfully holds his own to Keaton’s excellent performance.
The plot is admittedly typical Marvel fare but it’s still insanely well-constructed and put together. It has plenty of characters yet it doesn’t feel overstuffed or overbloated in the slightest. It’s because of the easy to get invested in characters, the well-built up tension, the witty humor, and the heart it wears on its sleeve that the story, although standard, is incredibly engaging. The pacing is also great too, with Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman’s editing keeping the action exciting and the film’s 137 minute runtime feeling like a total breeze.
The action sequences are incredibly fun to watch and the visual effects work is, as usual for a Spider-Man film, rock-solid. Similarly rock-solid are the technical aspects. The cinematography by regular Ron Howard collaborator Salvatore Totino is excellent throughout, the set designs by Oliver Scholl are also impressive, I love how Spider-Man’s suit looks a lot like the original comics drawing of the costume, and the musical score by the always fantastic MIchael Giacchino is superb. I especially loved how Giacchino incorporated the classic Spider-Man cartoon theme. That was a stroke of absolute genius.
One thing I didn’t much care for in this film was the love story they set up between Peter and Liz (whose last name is changed from Allan to Toomes in this film). They don’t really share that many scenes together and when they do, the chemistry just isn’t there. Tom Holland and Laura Harrier are both good actors, but their characters relationship just isn’t handled all that well unfortunately. Still, I did like how it led to the twist with her being Adrian’s daughter and I also liked how Liz’s portrayal was similar to how it was done in The Spectacular Spider-Man.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Successfully pulling off the double act of being both a witty, charming, very much John Hughes-esque coming-of-age teen comedy and a colorful, well-constructed, ridiculously entertaining superhero action film that’s more down-to-earth and character-driven than expected, Spider-Man: Homecoming is not only another rock-solid Marvel Cinematic Universe joint but also arguably the finest and most lovingly crafted Spider-Man film since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. I really loved this film and I can’t wait to see him in future solo and Avengers films following this.
Friday, July 7, 2017
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is attempting to juggle college classes and his job as a photographer with the Daily Bugle while maintaining his secret life as the costumed crime-fighting superhero Spider-Man. Peter is also struggling to hold on to his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who is beginning to enjoy success as a model and actress and is engaged to astronaut John Jameson (Daniel Gillies), and both Mary Jane and Peter have noticed he's beginning to buckle under the strain. Peter's friendship with Harry Osborn (James Franco) is also beginning to fray due to Peter's seeming alliance with Spider-Man, whom Harry blames for the death of his father, the nefarious Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). As Peter weighs his responsibilities to himself and those around him against the obligations that come with his special powers, Spider-Man is faced with a new nemesis in the form of Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a scientist whose latest project has turned him into the near-invincible Doctor Octopus.
As I mentioned in review for this film’s predecessor, I decided to give both it and this film another look since Spider-Man: Homecoming was coming out. While I grew to appreciate its predecessor more, no Spider-Man film will be better than this. Spider-Man 2 is not only one of the best comic book films of all time but also one of the best sequels of all time, the perfect Spider-Man film, and even one of my favorite films of all time period. I cannot think of a single thing in this film that I had any problems, issues, or even nitpicks with. It’s a film that gets better and better with each passing viewing. It’s a masterpiece of comic book filmmaking.
Now, let me just get this out of the way first. When it comes to comic book films, you can either have it one of two ways: you can either be light-hearted, or you can be dark, gritty, and serious. Spider-Man 2 tries to have it both ways, which would normally be a bad thing, but in this film’s case, it pulls it off remarkably well. The story it tells is very much so a personal one that’s serious and adult, even dark at points, but it never sacrifices the fun of it all and it balances light and dark so beautifully. Not once is this film not a blast to watch. Even when it slows down to focus on story, drama, plot, and character development, it’s never, ever boring. Everything is so well put-together and well-constructed, there is not a single ounce of fat that needs to be trimmed.
Speaking of the story, this has by far the best story of any Spider-Man film. It’s said that the best stories to tell are ones that deal with the personal struggles of its characters, and this is no exception. We focus heavily on the personal life and struggles of Peter Parker, who always tries to do the right thing but is always shunned for it every step of the way. We really get to see the toll that being Spider-Man takes on this character, with his heroic responsibilities affecting his personal life deeply and ruining it. It eventually reaches the point where Peter decides to throw in the towel. He’s Spider-Man no more, putting Uncle Ben’s saying about how with great power comes great responsibility to the test. Everything begins to look up for him after that until the city begins to suffer for it, with the crime rate increasing a great deal, causing an even bigger internal conflict in Peter.
The way Sam Raimi and the writers handle not only these struggles but also this conflict is nothing short of masterful. It’s perfectly written and directed, Tobey Maguire’s acting really sells it, and it’s very relatable to boot, which also helps us sympathize with Peter much more. When we try as hard as we can to do what’s right and none of our efforts are ever appreciated, we all begin to think that maybe we should give up. It’s with all of this as well as a scene with Aunt May, arguably the best and most heartfelt in any Spider-Man film (and the scene that proves Harris’ portrayal of Aunt May is the definitive cinematic take on the character), where she discusses that there’s a hero in all of us and that sometimes to do the right thing, that requires giving up what we love and desire the most, even our dreams, that Peter finally learns what Uncle Ben meant by his statemant about power and responsibility and decides to return as Spider-Man. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a true hero, a hero all of us can look up to.
Like I said before, Tobey Maguire’s performance really sells all of this, and because his character and dialogue are both written so extraordinary well, his acting is much better than it was in the first film as a result, and so is Kirsten Dunst’s as Mary Jane Watson. It’s also because of the much better dialogue and characterization that the chemistry between Dunst and Maguire shines a lot more, especially during that beautifully written and delivered ending where Mary Jane discovers Peter’s identity as Spider-Man and decides to be with him, encouraging him to let her make her own decisions and face the obvious impending risks and dangers alongside him. If that’s not love, I don’t know, and I don’t want to know, what is. Spider-Man even gets to crack a few jokes in here, and they’re legitimately amusing, like in the bank scene where Doc Ock tells him he’s getting on his nerves and he then replies, “I have a knack for that.”
Now onto our main villain, Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius, also known as Doctor Octopus or in short, Doc Ock. Not only is he a much better villain than the Green Goblin but also the best villain of the entire Spider-Man franchise. Molina’s performance and the script does the character immense justice while still taking liberties that, truth be told, make his character a lot more interesting. This take on Doc Ock is more of a sympathetic character this time around, with motivations and goals that are easily understandable, so we can easily form an emotional connection with him. Much like the relationship between Peter and Norman Osborn, the relationship between Peter and Octavius has a great sense of tragic irony about it when Octavius does become Doc Ock. The parallels between the two are wonderfully handled and I love how Octavius has to learn the same lesson Peter learns throughout the film at the film’s climax. Whereas in the beginning where it’s Octavius who influencing Peter, it’s vice versa at the end.
The way Molina manages to balance tragic, intimidating, and even humorous is nothing short of magnificent. We can feel bad for this character, but at the same time, we can be easily intimdated and even frightened by this character, like in the hospital scene that looks and feels like it was taken straight out of a horror film (Sony even told Raimi to tone down this scene so it could get a PG-13 rating) or the part where he confronts Peter and threatens to tear the flesh off of Mary Jane’s bones, and yet also at the same time, we can find this character darkly funny, like in one part where he purposefully drops Aunt May and says, “Butterfingers.” Molina perfectly captures the darkly comic side of the character from the comics.
The rest of the cast does a wonderful job as well, with J.K. Simmons still memorable and gut-bustingly hilarious as ever as J. Jonah Jameson (the Doctor Strange scene, the advance scene, and the costume scene are all fantastic moments of levity) and James Franco still superb as Harry Osborn, who’s now the head of OsCorp following his father’s death and finds that his friendship with Peter is on the rocks because he thinks he’s allies with Spider-Man, who he blames for the death of his father. He hates him so much that even when he’s saved by Spider-Man, he feels humiliated because he touched him. When he finds out that Peter is indeed Spider-Man, his reaction is absolutely perfect. He looks he doesn’t even know what to say or which reaction he should have.
The action sequences are all breathtaking to witness and incredibly memorable to watch. The standout, of course, is the train scene, which is arguably one of the best and most unforgettable action sequences ever put to film. The sweeping camerawork, the dynamic direction, the perfect lighting, the fluid editing, the breathless pacing... it’s just such a great scene. The visual effects are also much better than they were in the first film, with all of them looking incredibly convincing. It’s thirteen years later and they’ve aged like a fine wine. You can really tell John Dykstra and his effects team, as well as the Sony Pictures Imageworks team, really stepped up to the plate and brought their A-game here.
Technical aspects are also a lot better here than they were in the first film. Bill Pope replaces Don Burgess as director of photography here and his work on this film is absolutely breathtaking, making great use of the widescreen format and making the film look much more vibrant and stunning in terms of lighting and use of colors. The set designs still look fantastic, as do the costume designs. Spider-Man’s suit is as great-looking as ever and I love Doctor Octopus’ design. Bob Murawski’s editing keeps the 120+ minute runtime feeling like a breeze and to top it all off, Danny Elfman once again provides a great score.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Spider-Man 2 is a perfect example of how to do a comic book film right, how to do a superhero film right, how to do a sequel right, and how to do a Spider-Man film right. It expands on the characters, it tells a deeply personal story, and it has fun with the possibilities. It’s a film with so much charm, so much wit, so much development, so much maturity, and so much heart that it’s impossible not to find a single thing in it that’s any good. Spider-Man 2 gets my highest recommendation.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is an orphaned, intellectual teenage loner living in Queens, New York with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), and has a crush on the girl next door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). On a high school field trip to a Columbia University laboratory, Peter is bitten by a genetically altered spider and overnight, he gains superhuman strength, agility, and perception. At first, Peter uses his powers for material gain, winning a wrestling match with a purportedly lucrative prize. But when Peter apathetically fails to stop a burglar from robbing the wrestling arena, a tragedy follows that compels him to devote his powers to fighting crime as the superhero Spider-Man. When he's not busy saving the city, Peter moves into an apartment with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) and begins work as a photographer at the Daily Bugle. Meanwhile, Spider-Man finds a nemesis in the form of the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), a super-powered, megalomaniacal villain who happens to be the alter ego of Harry's father, weapons-manufacturing mogul and OsCorp head Norman Osborn.
Now, if I’m being perfectly honest, while I never thought this was a bad film, I didn’t think it was as good as many made it out to be. I don’t know, some certain elements that worked for other people didn’t really work for me personally. However, since Spider-Man: Homecoming was coming out, I decided to give this film and its sequel another look. Honestly, this film is better than I remember it being. For Spider-Man’s first live-action cinematic outing, it’s a very impressive work that’s full of wit, charm, heart, depth, and plenty of love, care, and respect for the source material, with certain scenes taking straight out of the comics, which is a huge plus in any comic book film.
First, Tobey Maguire as our protagonist, the titular Spider-Man. As Peter Parker, Tobey Maguire honestly does a great job, perfectly capturing the intelligent, naive nerd from the classic comics. He has plenty of moments to shine throughout this film, such as the scene with him and Aunt May following his graduation from high school, his scene with Uncle Ben’s killer in the building, his scene with Randy Savage as Bonesaw in the Wrestling League ring, and his scene with Ben in the car. There’s some great character development for Peter. As Spider-Man however, that’s a different story. He’s fine, but I would’ve preferred a Spider-Man more in-line like he was in the comics, where he’s a wise-cracking smart aleck who has fun with what he does. However, his Spider-Man works incredibly well for this type of film and he does manage to embody everything that the character needs to be.
Next, Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. Like with Spider-Man, her comics counterpart I personally feel is much more interesting than how she’s portrayed here, but again, her portrayal here works for this type of film. Here, they turn her into more of the girl next door type, who has troubles at home with her father and struggles following graduation, and to be fair, that kind of characterization works very well here, and it also helps to make Peter Parker’s character more relatable. Still, if they wanted to do that bridge scene, they were probably a lot better off using Gwen Stacy instead. That being said, I didn’t mind how they handled Mary Jane here, and it helps that Kirsten Dunst, who’s arguably at her most gorgeous and charming here, is very likable in the role. Plus, the two do have some decent chemistry in this film that would only get better in Spider-Man 2, along with their characters and acting.
Now onto our villain, Norman Osborn, also known as the Green Goblin. Willem Dafoe is genuinely fantastic as Osborn, creating an intimidating presence that balances subtle and over-the-top remarkably well. I also love how he and the writers handle the Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde aspect of both Norman and the Green Goblin, as well as how director Sam Raimi, cinematographer Don Burgess, and editors Bob Murawski and Arthur Coburn put it all together, like how in one shot he’s talking as Norman and it cuts to another shot of Dafoe, but it’s a reverse mirror horizontal shot and now it’s the Green Goblin talking, not Norman.
However, in regards to the Green Goblin, that’s where it starts to falter. For one, it’s hard to take him seriously and find him threatening when Dafoe goes completely over-the-top in the role and his costume looks like something you’d see on an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I’ve seen concept art and videos showing how they were originally going to use animatronics and they looked awesome, but instead, we got this goofy costume with an equally goofy mask that’s admittedly cool on a still image but very cartoonish in motion.
Also, I honestly found a few lines of dialogue to be rather cringe-inducing. Like say, the scene in the burning building where the Green Goblin says, “Are you in or are you out?” and Spider-Man replies, “It’s you who’s out, Gobby. Out of your mind!” I get it, this is based on a comic book and Sam Raimi wants this to feel like a classic Silver Age Spider-Man comic book. I really truly get that and that’s a cool approach when you’re adapting something, but just because some things may work on the page doesn’t mean they’ll translate well to film. There’s also that really gratingly campy scene where New Yorkers get all patriotic and start attacking the Green Goblin, saying lines like “You mess with him, you mess with New York! You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” I know it was after 9/11 and the people needed a sense of hope, but it could’ve been handled so much better.
What makes up for that is the story, which is not only very well-paced but also incredibly well-put together, especially considering this film’s long and troubled development and production history. It’s not only faithful to the comics, with the origin story for Peter and Spider-Man handled particularly very well, but it’s also compelling and rich with strong characterization. The way it manages to balance out strong emotion with camp is handled well for the most part. Plus, you can very much tell by how Sam Raimi directs with so much heart, energy, enthusiasm, and real soul this that he truly has a passion for the character of Spider-Man, treating this material with the utmost care, delicacy, and respect. They capture the spirit of both the character and the source material beautifully.
Back to the performances, James Franco is fantastic as Harry Osborn. He feels like he’s taken straight out of the comics, with Franco capturing the character damn near flawlessly. Maguire and Franco play off each other very well and I also love the parallels they give Peter and Harry, with Peter wanting the romantic relationship with Mary Jane that Harry has and Harry wanting the bond with his father Norman that Peter has. The relationship between Norman and Peter is done very well and it also works great as tragic irony when Norman becomes the villainous Green Goblin and Peter becomes the heroic Spider-Man.
Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris are also very good as Uncle Ben and Aunt May respectively and they serve their roles well. You manage to get a good sense of the love Peter and Ben have for one another although I personally feel the relationship between the two was done better in The Amazing Spider-Man. Harris, in particular, is wonderful as Aunt May, and in this and the follow-up, she proves to be the definitive cinematic take on the character. There’s also J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, but let’s be honest, everything that has to be said about his portrayal has already been said so there’s nothing to add really.
The film’s action sequences are also a big highlight of the film, with Raimi crafting some truly exciting and memorable set pieces, like Green Goblin’s attack on the big parade, the fight between Spidey and the Goblin in the burning building, Peter’s fight with Randy Savage, and of course, my favorite, the final fight between Spidey and Gobby. What I especially love about this fight is how surprisingly very brutal it is, especially for a PG-13 superhero film, with Peter getting beaten ruthlessly with his costume getting cut and blood on his face.
What isn’t a highlight, however, is the CGI. Now some parts honestly don’t look all that bad, but a lot of it looks really dated. Even Roger Ebert when he reviewed it said they looked sub-par, and keep in mind that this was fifteen years ago. I get that the technology wasn’t perfected yet, but considering this was released in the same year as visual marvels like Minority Report and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it’s just kind of baffling really to see CGI like this. Still, I could deal with it and there are some great practical effects sprinkled throughout.
Regarding technical aspects, Don Burgess’ cinematography is solid from start to finish, with some wonderful shots of Spider-Man swinging around the city and keeping the action coherent and easy to follow. I personally prefer Bill Pope’s work on the sequels, as they were more vibrant in terms of colors and lighting and the widescreen format really worked to their advantage, but still, Burgess does a bang up job with the cinematography and camerawork in this film. Bob Murawski and Arthur Coburn’s editing keeps the film moving at an expert pace, the set designs by Neil Spisak are excellent, the Spider-Man costume design by James Acheson is wonderful, and of course, there’s Danny Elfman’s beautiful and unforgettable musical score, featuring arguably the most iconic superhero theme since John Williams’ Superman theme and Elfman’s own Batman theme.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
Overall, for the titular web-crawler’s first big-screen outing, it’s still impressive to this day and it’s very easy to see why people cherish this take on the character and still remember and quote it fifteen years after its theatrical release. Spider-Man has its fair share of issues, but it’s a film with so much heart and respect for what it’s adapting that those flaws are easy to overlook.
Saturday, June 24, 2017
Orphaned teenage social outcast Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), who lives with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), usually spends his days trying to unravel the mystery of his own past and winning the heart of his high school crush Gwen (Emma Stone), the daughter of NYPD captain George Stacy (Denis Leary). Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase belonging to his father Richard (Campbell Scott), who abandoned him when he was a child along with his mother Mary (Embeth Davidtz), which leads him to his father's former partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). The discovery of his father's secret, as well as the murder of Ben, will ultimately shape his destiny of becoming the web-shooting superhero known as Spider-Man and brings him face to face with Connors' villainous alter ego, the Lizard.
A quick history of the Spider-Man franchise: the first Sam Raimi film is an enjoyable and fun little comic book film but I wouldn’t say it’s as good as many others make it out to be (I was particularly annoyed by the cheese factor, which I know is an essential trait of Raimi’s works, but I’m sorry, it just didn’t work for me here), the second installment is bar none the best Spider-Man film to date with the best story and the best villain, and the third and final chapter in the trilogy is a complete and total disaster with horrible direction, writing, and story structure. After Raimi bailed out on a potential fourth film due to creative differences, Sony hit the reset button on the series and hired (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb to take the helm for this reboot.
I know this and its sequel usually get a lot of hate, but personally, I feel that hate is completely unwarranted. The Amazing Spider-Man is not just a great reboot, it’s not just a great Spider-Man film, it’s honestly a great film in general. What I especially love is that this reboot is more faithful to the source material than the Raimi trilogy while still taking liberties that in no way, shape, or form hurt the film. Events from the 2002 film and the comics, such as the death of Uncle Ben and Peter being bitten by the radioactive spider, still happen, but through a different sequence of events. By doing this, Marc Webb and the writers are able to tell their own Spider-Man story while still making the fans happy. On top of this, this gives us an original albeit very similar origin story instead of merely rehashing the first Spider-Man film.
The acting is fantastic throughout. Before Tom Holland took the gold in Captain America: Civil War, Andrew Garfield lived and breathed Peter Parker. He’s likable, he’s energetic, he’s sympathetic, he’s funny, and he’s incredibly charismatic throughout. In the comics, Peter Parker is a nerd, but he's also a wisecracking smartass as Spider-Man, and Garfield pulls that off amazingly, fitting the Spider-Man persona perfectly. Emma Stone also does a great job playing Gwen Stacy, the original Spider-Man love interest, and in terms of the films, the obviously better one. She's a very witty, charming, and interesting character. Garfield and Stone also have amazing chemistry with one another, with their real-life relationship really shining through with their performances.
Rhys Ifans is brilliant as Curt Connors. He's a surprisingly very sympathetic character, but also comes across as very secretive, like he knows more than he's actually letting on. The character is also perfectly-written and Ifans truly does shine in this role, completely nailing the character and doing him great justice. The Lizard also manages to be a really good villain. I admit, more could’ve been done with the character looking back on it and the CGI used for this character could've been improved upon, but I do like that he looked the same way Steve Ditko drew him in the comics.
Martin Sheen is great as Uncle Ben, playing a more interesting version of the character than Cliff Robertson did in the original. This portrayal of Uncle Ben understands Peter much more, making him much more engaging, and because he's much more engaging, his death scene has much more emotional weight and much more of an impact to it this time around. Sally Field does a great job as Aunt May, who seems more worried about Peter, warning him that all secrets have a cost and are never for free. Denis Leary is a fantastic George Stacy. His fight scene at the end was so much fun to watch.
Now, this was the first action film Marc Webb has ever directed, and he does a great job behind the camera. All the action scenes are incredibly well-directed with slick camerawork and lush, fluid cinematography by the always awesome John Schwartzman. The editing by Michael McCusker, Alan Edward Bell, and Pietro Scalia also keeps the film moving at an expert pace and keeps the action fast and exciting without turning it into a mishmash of incomprehensible, needlessly flashy quick-cuts. The set and production designs by the late great J. Michael Riva are also really impressive. While there is plenty of CGI, there’s also a lot of practical effects that look amazing.
Now, the film does have some problems. When I first saw this film, I felt like a couple scenes were missing, and after I watched the trailers again and looked at production stills and set photos on Google Images, it's because there were scenes missing. The character of Dr. Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) just disappears out of nowhere and his disappearance is never explained, not even in the sequel. There was also a really cool part of the trailer where Curt Connors says, "If you want the truth, Peter Parker... come and get it!" Is it in the film? Sadly, no.
Also, I really, really hate to be ranting about the Raimi trilogy again (especially because, barring the third one, I like the Raimi films, I really truly do honestly), but aside from being faithful to the source material, mechanical and artificial web-shooters are better because it makes no sense for Peter to be able to shoot webs out of his wrists like he did in the original films. Also, I liked how this film had a significant focus on Peter’s missing parents, which was never addressed in the Raimi trilogy and barely addressed in the source material. Another plus is that while the original films told the audience that Peter’s a genius and show characters perceiving Peter as a genius, this film, for the first time ever in a Spider-Man film, actually shows the audience Peter being a genius. We see him hacking security codes, we see him building his mechanical web-shooters, and we see him actually putting together his Spider-Man suit.
Also, a complaint I completely disagree with is that Peter gives up the hunt for his uncle’s killer for no real reason. While he does hunt for the killer, things change when Connors, as the Lizard, wreaks havoc on the bridge and Peter manages to save the civilians, including the child. It’s during this scene and when Peter talks to Gwen afterwards that he realizes he can't just look the other way when people need help, that sometimes one thing (stopping the Lizard, who planned on turning everyone in New York into giant lizard-people just like him) is more important than something else (hunting down Uncle Ben’s killer).
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
With an incredibly well-told story, fantastic performances, entertaining action sequences, and a script that manages to be faithful to the source material while still taking liberties that don't harm it in any way, The Amazing Spider-Man is a competently directed, tightly-paced, and immensely enjoyable reboot. As I said before, this isn’t just a great Spider-Man film, it’s a great film in general, and nowadays, I’d consider it and its sequel criminally underrated.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
In a small suburban town, precocious 11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) and his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) are being raised by their single mother Susan (Naomi Watts), a waitress. Henry has a crush on the stepdaughter of Police Commissioner Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who has become glum. He discovers that Glenn is abusing her. To protect Christina from harm at the hands of Glenn, Henry comes up with a plan to rescue her that he writes down in a book. When Henry suddenly dies of a brain tumor, Susan discovers the book and decides that she and Peter will put Henry's scheme into motion.
The Book of Henry was an original screenplay that was penned by famed crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz back in 1998, with Hurwitz going back and constantly retooling it for years. Colin Trevorrow, fresh off his indie hit Safety Not Guaranteed, was set to make this his next film, but then he got the call to direct Jurassic World. After the critical and box office success of that film, Trevorrow went back to The Book of Henry, choosing it to be his next project before setting off to write Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and direct Star Wars: Episode IX. After seeing The Book of Henry, I walked out of the theater thinking to myself, “What on Earth did I just watch?”
Where do I even start with a film this fascinating and this bizarre? I could point how flamboyant it is in its jarring shifts in tone, but I don’t think that would work because honestly, this film has no tone to speak of, at least no consistent one. It’s first a comedy-drama about a precocious kid, then it’s a family film in the Spielbergian-Amblin style, then it’s a sentimental tearjerker about death and a brain tumor, then it’s a serious drama about child abuse, and then it’s a thriller in the vein of Hitchcock complete with walkie-talkies, suicide, and a sniper rifle. It’s like Trevorrow and Hurwitz were throwing all of these different genres and styles at the wall and see which one sticks, and while it doesn’t bore the audience in the slightest, it just doesn’t work, mainly because there’s not even an attempt to balance them out.
Is it a particularly badly made film? No. Despite never getting a good balance on tone, I can’t say that Colin Trevorrow does a bad job directing. He sets up his shots well and he gets great performances out of his actors, as he’s proven before in the past with the aforementioned Safety Not Guaranteed and Jurassic World. This is actually a very nice-looking film with relatively strong cinematography courtesy of John Schwartzman, arguably one of the most underrated DPs working today. So it’s not exactly the fault of Trevorrow for how this turned out, even if he is admittedly partly to blame.
Gregg Hurwitz admitted in an interview that when he originally wrote this screenplay, he had no idea how the whole screenwriting process worked or what rules there were in regards to the art, and boy, does it really show here. Now breaking the rules isn’t at all a bad thing. In fact, I wish more films would do something like this, break all the rules, take risks, do something fresh, different, challenging, and new. It’s how Hurwitz and Trevorrow do it that’s the core problem here. I can’t deny that it’s ambitious but that can only get you so far. If you don’t have a balanced tone, compelling story, or believable characters to back up that originality and ambition, then it’s really not going to matter in the long run.
The actors are all trying really hard to make their characters authentic, but the script’s bizarreness makes it near impossible for them to do so. I mean, seriously. You have Henry (the 11-year-old title character) being in charge of the family finances (!) and making his family rich via the stock market (!!), you have Susan (the mother) giving the middle finger to her children at one point (!!!) and playing Gears of War (!!!!), you have Peter (the younger brother) telling Susan not to talk to him like a child (!!!!!), you have Sheila (Sarah Silverman) literally romantically kissing a dying little boy on the mouth (!!!!!!)... you just can’t make any of this up. All of it is in here.
These are just a few of several points where I seriously couldn't believe what I was watching, where I was staring at the screen utterly flabbergasted. The Book of Henry is a film that I would normally hate. I should hate this, despise it even. It's not a good film at all. I could even argue that the comparisons being made by several reviews to other trainwrecks like Collateral Beauty are very much understandable, justified even. But it's just so incredibly fascinating that I honestly can't bring myself to hate it. It really has to be seen to be believed. This is destined to god down in history as one of the most interesting bad films ever made.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10
The performances from all are excellent (everyone from Naomi Watts to Jaeden Lieberher to Jacob Tremblay to Maddie Ziegler, in her first role, is really, rea;;u good here) and it's most certainly not lacking in ambition, but Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry is a film so fundamentally misguided, so flamboyantly jarring, and so unbelievably bonkers that it’s quite compelling but for all the wrong reasons. In fact, if we’re going to have bad films, I would prefer this kind of bad, because at least it’s an interesting kind of bad, the kind that bothers giving you something to think about.