The 2017 Popcorn Frights Film Festival Short Films

19249880_2006006322954352_2063996667_o

Another year, another summer’s end, another return to O Cinema Wynwood with the upcoming Third Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival, right here in Miami, FL. And that means more features moving up from last year’s 16 to a whopping 21, including a section dedicated to Florida-based production entitled Homegrown. And full sell-outs by this point with every opening night feature, though that’s no reason not to take a chance on the rush line.

And that means more shorts, so same as last year – courtesy of co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman – I’m gonna be giving a quick look at almost every one of them to tell you what to expect between 11 – 17 of August.

And looking back at it all, there’s even more variety than last year, enough to promise there may be something for every single type of horror-goer and nothing less than decent overall. It’s exciting to think about who will respond to what over the coming week, so allow me to introduce each one.

Great Choice

Great Choice (dir. Robin Comisar)
Playing Friday 11 August 7 pm before Tragedy Girls

Great Choice has a Catch-22: on the one hand, Carrie Coon is so well-known in 2017 as a face that the structural exercise can’t surprise us the way I would love it to (this would have found its home on Adult Swim at midnight). On the other hand, Coon’s performance (against a very foreboding Morgan Spector) really sells the cosmic horror of the thing and I wouldn’t trade her out of this for the world, salvaging even the out-of-step ending. Even if Coon wasn’t in the short, Comisar has provided us with the outstanding kind of physical video experimentation – mixing in and out of aged television textures with colors like a bad photograph and sharp arresting high definition in 1.78:1 (breaking out of TV’s 3:4) like if an Everything Is Terrible! video collapsed and threatened to crawl out of the screen and suck you in. Wart of an ending and all, this is probably my favorite short of the lineup (Buzzcut and Hell Follows gives it a fight).

THE THIN PLACE

The Thin Place (dir. Alexander Mattingly)
Playing Friday 11 August 9 pm preceding Jackals

Mattingly has a very good sense of timing and spacing to create terror but my one major gripe is the ending and I don’t think it would have bothered me as much if what preceded it didn’t impress me. For one, it seems too abrupt after nearly 15 minutes was spent with Arlene (Lindsey Shope) trying to find out what’s happening to her daughter Maddy (Kelsey Blackwell) and it’s more interesting drama than it deserves to be, with Blackwell’s delivery of Maddy describing her headspace when the creature (Faye Davis) stalking their home abducts her are unsettling. Maybe if the plot was a bit more thin, that ending wouldn’t have bothered me but I hardly think Mattingly and Hemphill should remove anything from a tight 15 minutes. And then there’s the real killer: Mattingly and S.T. Davis do outstanding things with the shadows and spaces for a low-budget production. Our first look at the creature is a great bit of “what was that?” unfocused movement in the far end of a frame that feels like the scare you get seeing something from your peripherals. And all the other teases of the creature between that moment and the ending are just as crawling and alarming as you could hope for. And then that ending shot is so underlit as to be anticlimatic. And that’s heartbreaking for what a great thing Mattingly and Davis had going. But ending on a bad note hardly ruins the whole song.

die-sitter-die-rupert-1

Die! Sitter! Die! Rupert (dir. Lee & Sam Boxleitner)
Playing Friday 11 August 11:30 pm preceding Terrifier

Well, I’m not gonna pretend the movie is at all bad. It’s a perfectly fine work of horror craft, especially in its gruesome though clearly budgeted treatment of the trashy gore people would want out of such a premise. But it’s also exhaustingly sadistic. And I don’t know if removing the early subplot of the mom’s chemotherapy and the lead’s hard financial times would have made it feel less mean-spirited but it would have gotten rid of a lot of wasted runtime for a motivation we kind of don’t need for something like this (You don’t need to be broke to find $12,000 for one night’s work enticing and by the middle mark it’s very clear that she’s motivated by fear for her life). Either way, I’m still a sucker for hard reds and blues in horror and Rupert’s a very imposing presence by Boxleitner himself – less grotesque than one would expect a grown man pretending to be a baby, but still frightening from how in control he is – so there’s no room to call this a failure in anyway. I’m just not the audience for it.

Buzzcut2

Buzzcut (dir. Mike Marrero & Jon Rhoads)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

It’s nothing Sam Raimi hasn’t already perfected, but not even Raimi has been reaching that apex since 2009 and Marrero and Rhoads get closer than any episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead. It’s a fantastically dense short for its length, frenetically establishing the rapture, the cannibal demon monsters and making it all seem so elliptical to Jane’s quest to get a haircut. The semi-episodic nature, the punk rock needle drops (although there’s one song choice that isn’t broad enough to work for me), and Kelly Jane’s frustrated no-nonsense performance as a foil to all the madness makes this 9 minute feature have all the efficient excitement of a feature without feeling like the joke went on for too long. It also gets points by me for making a very sex positive portrayal of an lesbian relationship without getting male-gazey about it despite two men directing, so right on.

Midnight Service

The Midnight Service No. 2 – Home Invasion (dir. Brett Potter & Dean Collin Marcial)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

The first of two internet document episodes, this one a pseudo-documentary produced by our local Borscht Corporation (who also produced Great Choice) and based on the testimony of NY-based comedian Kat Toledo on her possible break-in encounter with the missing delinquent Quincy Lemon and the alleged brushfire that occurred right outside the Everglades home she was house-sitting but had no clue about. And despite the extremely neat and structured manner Potter and Marcial (there is no credited editor so I assume they’re responsible for it) present this multi-tiered and mysterious tale, I can’t say I have a clear picture on everything that happened. Maybe that’s intentional to give us a bunch of pieces and see if we can make them fit together, but I would assume that the creepy atmosphere wants us to find at least some supernatural answer within it. In any case, it’s also fantastically gorgeous both in its representation of nighttime interiors and its landscape photography of the watery greens of the Everglades (again, no cinematographer credited) so I can’t say I wasn’t highly enjoying it.

Primal Scream

This Wooden Boy (dir. Rodney Ascher)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

Yet another documentary internet episode for the Homegrown program. I think short format fits Rodney Ascher much better as a documentarian. An episode of the new Shudder original series Primal Screen, the 30-minute runtime forces the director/editor to include more narrative and thematic focus than the tangle of his popular features Room 237 and The Nightmare. Not entirely focused, since its still floating between several different stories of fears of dolls and dummies in a freeform manner that doesn’t clarify between three similar adult narrations (plus Ascher’s habit of adding in unnecessary tv/film clips appears here in the form of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal) but it clearly draws a throughline between pop culture in television (capturing the Screen part of the show title) to the public consciousness to the psyche of its subjects fearing all of these dolls. It’s a very sharp and interesting watch, aided by Ascher’s direction of recreations using black negative space to sell the subconscious memory aspect of these recreations.

maxresdefault

Fierce (dir. Izu Troin)
Playing Saturday 12 August at 9 pm preceding Mayhem

So I’m not 100 percent on the story being a parable for workplace aggression and the dog-eat-dog world of corporate work (it seems to only function in the bookends of the short rather than the actual meat of the protagonist’s hunt), but I am always 100 percent on watching some new animation and this French production is pretty detailed in both the shocking gruesomeness of the violence – splatching red against the otherwise muted browns and greys – and the sort of smeared, outside-of-the-lines style of the thing has enough shape to establish who is where and already gives a feeling of visual momentum before the chase even truly begins. And that’s without even acknowledging the interesting artistic choice of having the frame constantly moving in a fluid manner as though in a handheld camera. A short that wants you exhausted and catching your breath by the end of it.

CURVE

Curve (dir. Tim Egan)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding The Endless

Oh boy, was that anxiety-inducing. A simple premise – a girl (Laura Jane Turner) is trapped on an impossible incline with an abyss below and one leg already broken – and enough time to make it feel unbearable and hopeless, no less thanks to undetailed design of her apparent prison and the depressing gray palette of the whole thing. It’s nothing but an exercise in patient fear-building and nihilism and it’s an extremely effective one at that for all of its limited resources.

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR

A Knock at the Door (dir. Katrina Rennells & Wendie Welldon)
Playing Sunday 13 August 9:30 pm preceding Better Watch Out

A subtle and short throwback to scary tales of domesticity being violated (particularly a famous classic sci fi feature), helped out by a sense of physical place for the house in which nearly all of the 8 minutes of the story takes place, only breaking out to establish the behavior that should be setting off a red flag for our man Nick (Drew Jenkins) and then for a final beat showing what’s to come. It’s pretty straightforward and gets the tension going enough for its final beat (no real climactic payoff but there’s a gotcha moment), which is good work for a horror short to accomplish.

Fucking Bunnies

Fucking Bunnies (dir. Teemu Niukkanen)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding 68 Kill

Wow, “Fucking” seriously translates in Finnish to “Saatanan”? That’s gnarly, I love the design of the title. I also can’t help loving the short, which is not remotely “horror” – at no point does the genial demon-war-painted face of Maki (Janne Reinikainen) come across as threatening, even when he’s holding a kitchen knife joking about his killing his new neighbors (and I think superintendent) Rami (Jouko Puolanto) and Kirsi (Minna Suuronen). Nor do I think Niukkanen wants it to be, Puolanto’s off-put anxieties about Maki’s Satanic lifestyle is clearly meant to be in the wrong and the result is a pretty funny short that’s a lot more layered about cultural differences than meets the eye (the patronizing way Rami greets the Senegalese janitor with “Jambo”, a shot where Rami practices ejecting Maki that is framed to look like him lecturing an immigrant family). It’s actually so pleasant that I only really don’t care for the sudden needle drops of black metal, probably meant to push the viewer into feeling as apprehensive as Rami which I don’t think we need. But then I’ve never been a fan of Finnish black metal (Norway represent!), so that might just be my own bias showing much as Rami’s.

Couples Night1

Couples Night (dir. Robert & Russell Summers)
Playing Monday 14 August 7 pm preceding Lake Bodom

There is nothing to comment on negatively in the least – the performances are all broadly fitting for their characters attitude, one couple being as sinister as you can be without it being scary and the other being manically pleasant in an alarming one – there’s just also not much for me to praise with a short. I don’t want to call artless, but it isn’t visually interesting. Not that it needs to be to work out in the end as a fine little brief comic gag to whet some horror movie appetites. We’re not looking for something weighty here.

2AM

2AM (dir. Huseyin Hassan)
Playing Monday 14 August 11 pm preceding Happy Hunting

So, let’s just toss aside the fact that we have an idea where this story is going from square one when its established that our protagonist Alex (voiced by Mark Kenfield) is looking through an asylum and absolutely know how it’s gonna end the moment Dr. Hattaro (Akira Bradley carrying the human element as the only amicable face we see the whole movie) align our understanding of the plot a third into the 15 minute short. Despite that, it’s still a really excellent execution of such a recognizable plot type, provided by a whole 15-minute uncut first person point of view that sinks us into Alex’s clear descent into madness (something Hassan really wants to sell as Alice in Wonderland esque, but I didn’t find that necessary). What really impresses me is how seamlessly the ghostly presence of Nichola Jayne’s character can pass in and out of frame, alongside the sound mix helping us feel surrounded by the things that haunt Alex’s walk into the truth. It’s basically “you are here” experiential horror, done no differently than the infamous playable teaser to the cancelled Silent Hills and that includes being as well-done and very entertaining.

HELL FOLLOWS

Hell Follows (dir. Brian Harrison)
Playing Tuesday 15 August 9:30 pm preceding Psychopaths

Now here’s some really daring stuff: something that gives Great Choice a run for its money. Harrison, in the span of 10 minutes, provides a very genuine anti-genre short: those genres being yakuza and revenge. Much of it is the anticipation towards a certain revenge being taken, carried by the paced duel performance of Iba Takuya. But it’s so stylized – in a coldly metallic black-and-white for the majority of the runtime and a frenetic jarring editing manner including overblown (and sometimes recognizable) needle drops to keep us disoriented and on-edge – that it’s still exciting to be in anticipation for the very thing our narrator Ishimatsu is dreading. It essentially feels like what you’d get if Tsukamoto Shinya was told he could have one long monologue scene for his short film (which is dishonest of me, there’s much more going on here narratively than that including a wonderful climax in bold color) and decided to make it the most electrifying thing ever out of spite.

THE TICKLE MONSTER

Tickle Monster (dir. Remi Weeks)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 7 pm preceding It Stains the Sands Red

Another great little teaser. Some great cutting to make a novel idea both amusing and tense at the same time, but some of the underlighting within the final minute where the scares are being heightened becomes more frustrating than frightening and the opening shots within the room are too well-lit to make that feel deliberate. Still a fantastic pay-off in the end.

IMEDIUM

iMedium (dir. Alfonso Garcia)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 9:30 pm preceding Still/Born

So, iMedium is my least favorite kind of First-Person Camera Movie… the kind that knows there are things within the style that it cannot possibly communicate within the aesthetic so it has to break away and cheat it frequently. In spite of that, iMedium is actually really damn good. In fact, I say it’s the best first-person camera movie I’ve seen since [Rec], meaning that Spanish people are way better at this thing than Americans. It’s heartbreaking because I think it could get rid of both the app element of the plot and still keep its derangement, especially with director/editor Alfonso Garcia’s finger on the emotional beats, Jesus Velez’s ability to sell the amateur quality of the story without making audience’s have to squint to see what’s on-screen, and Jose Bermudez’s on-edge performance, none of which really demands that the movie be FPC. It could have stood proudly on its own without that camera phone crutch.

THE CLEANSING HOUR

The Cleansing Hour (dir. Daniel Leveck)
Playing Thursday 17 August 11:30 pm preceding Dead Shack

This is pretty funny. Not really bellylaughs funny, but from the moment at the end of its stone-faced opening montage that it actually establishes this supposed exorcism to be an internet hoax phenomenon by “Father” Lance (Sam Jaeger) and Drew (Neil Grayston) with the assistance of aspiring actress Heather (Heather Morris). All three central performances do an adequate job – Jaeger at selling Lance’s insincerity, Grayston at being his exasperated foil – to bringing enough levity to the material that the overly polished and labored production feels self-reflexive as a comment to the falseness of sensationalist videos, but it’s all on Morris at switching to grisly demon mode once it’s clear that something inside her is going off-script that re-establishes the stakes while The Cleansing Hour is clearly trying to parody this sort of exploitation. It’s not particularly intelligent parody nor laugh out loud, but it’s entertaining enough to breeze past its runtime on to a sharp final beat.

And there you are. The short film line-up of the Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Hope to see you there starting this Friday!

This Very Minute

daysofbeingwild5

I haven’t seen his debut As Tears Go By, but everything about Wong Kar-Wai’s sophomore feature film Days of Being Wild feels like the beginning of the famous Hong Kong filmmaker’s style being coalesced* and this doesn’t make it feel amateur in the slightest. In fact, it’s really impressive how this quickly Wong was able to develop his cinematic personality based on a sedate patience, lilting airy romanticism so ephemeral that it mirrors the characters’ inability to consummate their love, and an ability to visually distinguish colors while making them feel as muted as the characters that are surrounded by them (another reason that Days of Being Wild feeling like the beginning of true Wong is that it was his first work with one of his most famous collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle). What’s especially impressive on Wong’s part is his confidence in establishing for the majority of the brisk hour and a half film, that he’s able to provide a violent third act development that is shocking enough to really make the whole thing feel like such a deliberate break from his modus operandi. Obviously, I have almost all of his filmography behind me to contextualize the scene in question, but I feel even if I had only seen Days of Being Wild as my first Wong Kar-wai, that moment might have pulled the rug out from under me. Wong has a talent for that.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself by talking of the ending first. There’s a story preceding it – kind of two, but it’s hard not to claim it’s not just one story with different perspectives. The one that’s truly “guiding” the film is the aimless flirtings of bad boy casanova Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) or ‘York’ as his English name as he roams through Macau in 1960 preying on the heart of the young worker at the local stadium Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and the relationship – which is presented with Su’s voiceover to establish as the point of view for the first 20 minutes – is cut through so quickly that it already feels so long past and like a scattered memory by the time we get to Yuddy’s new girlfriend, a taxi dancer who goes by many names like Leung Fung-ying, Lulu (which she gives Yuddy), or Mimi [which she gives to Yuddy’s best friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung**)]. Yuddy clearly doesn’t have any care for the devastation she clearly left Su in when she confronts him one night for her things or to the disposability he makes Lulu feel and this apathy doesn’t feel like a performance but instead something that stems from his lack of knowledge of who or where his true mother is and thus his inability to come up with any real identity or life for himself. This also fuels his own antagonistic nature in his crime dealings with his closest mother figure, prostitute Rebecca (Rebecca Pan).

daysofbeingwild18

Leslie Cheung, whose suicide in 2003 left the feeling that his life was no less conflicted than Yuddy’s, embodies the self-destructive nature using only body language while having a stonewalled expression on his boyish face for every grievance his victims give him and it ends up being layered and telling in spite of Yuddy’s in-text intentions. And Wong graciously gives Leslie room to have that uncertainty redefine Yuddy as a character, including moments where he looks himself in the mirror and dances to Wong’s usual preference for Spanish tunes. Obviously, even the several names of Carina’s character reflects Yuddy’s struggle for identity.

Meanwhile, there is Su Lizhen’s side of her story after the break-up and the pacing is more generous to her returns to Yuddy’s place and the police man Tide (Andy Lau**) who tries to console with ambiguity over his intentions with her romantically than it was with in the rushed opening sequence of her time spent as Yuddy’s girlfriend. And Maggie is wonderfully empathetic drenched in rain in such a sorrowful manner surrounded by the beautiful black and blue of the streets of Hong Kong, a very modern touch to a semi-period piece. That modernness is one of my favorite things about Days of Being Wild, the ability of Wong and Doyle to use its sense of place and time to give it a very now feeling – most particularly evident in the moments between Su and Tide where the repetition of their encounters and the circular walk they take as Andy plays a frustrated stoic audience to Su’s fears of solitude is the closest thing such a fluid film has to being a structure. Su’s clearly such an open character that Wong would later return to her throughout his career the way Richard Linklater takes Jesse and Celine around life, which makes her sudden departure from the film forgivable if still disappointing.

Then when the film moves over – through clear narrative logic on both Yuddy and Tide’s part – to the Philippines for its final act, it teases a serenity in the characters’ eventual encounter (especially in the colors being less severe there) only for it to be viscerally explosive and the opposite of fulfilling for everyone involved. And that’s a very bold thing for Wong to do early in his career, interrupting the otherwise patient manner of his storytelling to pull in fist fights and gunshots that are exciting but only solidify Yuddy’s complete lack of control for his life. But it’s also something I’m thankful for, as the deliberate nature of it very clearly established Wong as a figure who could easily flip back and forth between eroticism, melancholy, and tragedy without broad tonal shifts. That sort of versatile elegance can only be praised when it comes to a contemporary filmmaker.

f14a5d96e_170011071013

*And this is not just because of the fact that it’s the first part in an informal trilogy – though not that informal since Maggie Cheung plays the same character in all three – by Wong including In the Mood for Love in 2000 and 2046 in 2004.
**Despite having the same birth surnames, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung are not related at all. Guess it’s just the Chinese version of Smith. Likewise for Carina and Andy Lau.

Apes! Together! Strong!

apes1

Its conclusion is obviously less than a month old and there’s the test of time by which I swear most of my movie opinions on and I’ve clearly always been high on the hype before there was even a final chapter being filmed, but I still have no qualms in making the hyperbolic statement that the prequel/reboot trilogy of films for the famous Planet of the Apes franchise – 2011’s Rise of, 2014’s Dawn of, and now 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes – are the best popcorn movie franchise of the decade, possibly of the century (the only real competitors for that title is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the Bourne franchise and they’re both hindered by their most recent installments because disappointingly weak). They are surprisingly intelligent enough to trust their audience, they give such dignity to the characters inhabiting the roles to make the drama feel full of weight in the present tense rather than reminding us of what’s going to happen in the main franchise, and this is all done partly thanks to the very tippity top state of the art effects working so wonderfully in fleshing out our central characters in this film that, when we sink right into the story of escaped Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan’s struggles to find a safe haven for them in the midst of the human’s killing each other out, we’re not really registering that we’re looking at digital air. We’re witnessing full-grown beings with their own emotions and inner commentary.

So, a full-on salute to both Serkis’ always incredible work as an actor inhabiting CGI characters, for his translated physicality and the subtle expressiveness of his face, playing just a powerful emotional anchor before the work of Weta Digital, which has evolved long since its early days with Serkis embodying Gollum, has provided us with no just Caesar as a compelling and emotive protagonist against heavy odds, but a whole damn race of apes with their own distinctive personalities (again with the help of a game cast) largely expressed in their physical wear and their gestures. I don’t believe Lake (Sara Canning) has more than maybe 15 minutes of screentime but she’s recognizable enough that there’s a good hour between when we leave her in the first act – as Caesar and others leave the main Ape tribe to seek vengeance against the militaristic humans who threaten to exterminate them – and when we see her again for the third act. And she’s just a new character, that’s saying nothing of the ones we already knew since Rise, like the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal and weary chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the tough and brave gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). All three accompany Caesar on his quest to find the deranged Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who hunted for the tribe and left enough damage to have Caesar seeing red.

war-for-the-planet-of-the-apes-movie-11

It’s also mostly thanks to the fact that director-writer Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback (both returning from Dawn) know well enough the characters that producers (and former writers) Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver created in Rise to cash in on all of the emotional attachment we’ve invested in the characters and their quest to find peace in a world that devolved into chaos because of their sudden existence. This is a movie where the cost of their struggles starts to take a toll on Caesar in particular and it crushes War for the Planet of the Apes with a feeling of cold devastation, accented visually by a harsh white and blue palette provided by cinematographer Michael Seresin. It’s a landscape of winter suffering and often does Caesar and his friends’ journey end up with a checkpoint where they have to kill or watch somebody be killed from afar, abandoned to die in the uncaring landscape, a matter that begins to does not mix with Caesar’s desire for vengeance for the better and informs the character study that War for the Planet of the Apes becomes for most of its first half.

Aye, there is indeed a clear difference between the first and second half and that comes when they find the base of the Alpha-Omega faction that the Colonel leads (with the help of a sadly traumatized talking chimpanzee named Bad Ape played by the comedic Steve Zahn to try to translate as much of that character into levity without undercutting the sobriety of the film) and the movie becomes much better than the sometimes meandering preceding hour for it. The movie turns into a prisoner of war escape drama of the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle wrote the source novels for both Bridge and the original Planet of the Apes so that connection had to come eventually – and a battle of wills and motivations in the face of violent conflict and war, most especially aided by Harrelson giving the exact sort of performance I WISH with all my heart Marlon Brando had given in Apocalypse Now, espousing all his fatalistic attitudes on war and mercy in an attempt to psychologically breakdown Caesar and his role as a leader. It’s a frighteningly present embodiment of soldier psychology put on Circus Maximus and also a deft ability to turn an exposition dump of a role to a formidable antagonist.

But the second half’s also where Michael Giacchino shines in his orchestrations, gleefully evoking all the epicness of this grand finale to Caesar’s fateful journey. And before then, Giacchino is a boon to reminding us that this is bombastic effects heavy popcorn drama, not bogging us down in its misery. Giacchino’s presence helps make a dark movie so palatable and coaxes Reeves and all by earning the very optimistic final note that War for the Planet of the Apes leaves us on with all the finality that the movie already implied. Because sometimes the most entertaining movie can be the one that treats its characters and their efforts with dignity and that dignity that translates to the Planet of the Apes preboot trilogy is only its own reward.

gallery3-gallery-image

Dead Men Tell The Same Ol’ Tales

pirates-of-the-caribbean-dead-men-tell-no-tales-movie-jack-sparrow-johnny-depp

I don’t think a single person in the world asked for another Pirates of the CaribbeanPirates of the Caribbean movie. Hell, I don’t think a single person asked for it back in 2012 when Rob Marshall’s sloppy Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made good on Disney’s threat to continue past the original trilogy. Hell, I’m sure half of the people who received Pirates sequels when they asked for them in 2006 and 2007 kind of ended up with a regret that they existed to dilute and complicate the enjoyment of the original Curse of the Black Pearl, one of the most fun and surprising summer blockbusters of my lifetime. It would only make for Walt Disney Pictures and Johnny Depp to want to keep hanging by that successful thread during one of the most tumultuous periods of their respective careers (which Disney has since recovered from but I don’t think Depp’s ever will). And the honest truth is that much like On Stranger Tides has mostly faded from others’ minds, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will do so as well and this is despite being a much better movie than the sequels that preceded it.

That’s not a high bar.

Anyway, the way Dead Men Tell No Tales gets to being that “best sequel in the franchise” is simple, they repeated the narrative steps of Curse of the Black Pearl. Like that’s it. They took every single narrative step that the one great Pirates of the Caribbean movie pulled and retread them all again. Though the way they retread those steps are inarguably weaker, for one re-establishing our ol’ pirate scalliwag “Captain” Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) once again abandoned by his crew (but without the messiness of mutiny and all) and having him recruited by a young man wishing to free somebody he loves from imprisonment amongst the pirates. That young man is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and he wants Jack’s help finding Poseidon’s Trident to free his father, previous hero Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) from the curse Jack actually put him under three years ago to save Will’s life – the curse that made Will the Captain of the accursed ghost ship The Flying Dutchman. Alongside them is a young scientifically minded woman Carina Smythe (Kaya Scodelario) who is also in search of Poseidon’s Trident and her father, evading pursuers accusing her of being a witch (which makes little sense but whatever) while Jack is evading the revenge of undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) after Jack gets rid of his compass.

11et1580v37final00088243rjpg-f9a827_1280w

So basically Thwaites and Scodelario are playing the same roles Bloom and Keira Knightley (also returning as Will’s old love Elizabeth Turner) played in the original Pirates trilogy and while Scodelario is barely better at establishing agency than Knightley, Thwaites is far below Bloom. And Bloom’s no De Niro. It’s some very vanilla acting overall, only salvaged by Depp finding a lot more comfort in having Sparrow become a tricksy puck rather than the lead and Bardem’s spitting anger. Even Geoffrey Rush is done with this, in his mandated return as pirate rival to Sparrow, Admiral Hector Barbossa.

I’m not 100 on the logic of Salazar and his crew’s return, but that’s fine because that crew makes up the first time in a while where the frequently undead (because when does this franchise ever not have undead pirates?) actually play with the horror imagery, having them half present and fragmented and grisly but in blue paleness to their skin is sure enough to give children the creeps enough to pass as a Disney film, while Bardem knows how to turn that handicap on his character into an anchor for his acting, much like Bill Nighy before him as Davy Jones. And while it goes without saying that directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (of the fellow sea-faring picture Kon-Tiki) are not Gore Verbinski in their popcorn filmmaking ability, there’s a lot in this film to make for a pleasant enough diversion from the very labored script (I personally think Barbossa gets the worst of it with an element tacked on that feels absolutely unearned despite how long we’ve been acquainted with Rush in the character, but there’s also the possible contender in Royal Lieutenant Scarfield played by David Wenham, who seems so arbitrary and second-banana as a threat compared to Salazar). There’s their action sequences such as the wonderful rescue of Jack and Carina from execution early on, particularly in a very theme-park-ride esque shot involving a guillotine on Jack’s head that feels like a Looney Tunes moment. There’s the wiliness of a flashback in which Jack shows his sea skills that turned Captain Salazar in for dead. Rønning and Sandberg know their way around over-the-top physics in an action scene, save for a very underwhelming and forgettable CGI climax to remind us that this is of course a summer tentpole (in 2017… a disappointing summer to say the least).

There’s nothing about this that screams a necessary watch. Like I said, nobody asked for this movie to exist and I think the world would keep right on turning if it didn’t. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a return of the franchise to some kind of quality and however minute that amount may be, it has to count for something.

null

Going Unclear

louis-theroux-scientology-movie-film-still

So, the very first and obvious thing I could figure out from having seen Louis Theroux’s 2015 documentary My Scientology Movie is that Theroux has seen The Act of Killing.

The very premise of My Scientology Movie feels like an attempt at using the film to self-indict somebody in the form that Joshua Oppenheimer did in his infamous documentaries on the 1965-66 Pancasila Youth massacres. Early on, the film establishes that Theroux is actually unable to get any actual access to the very controversial and very secretive Church of Scientology and that’s the basis of Theroux trying to recreate one thing – the make-up of the Church of Scientology and their regular process – and trying to actively capture something else – the Church’s outright attempts to obstruct him and his film. He does the second thing aptly as My Scientology Movie is full to the brim with conflicts between Theroux and some representative of the Church, normally with an amusing standoff of cameras with each party demand the other stop filming. And to be fair, that’s more than enough to portray just how oppressive and bullying the Church’s tactics are, but you get the point well before the halfway point in this very short movie and the amusement certainly doesn’t last as long as the end of the second time that same old woman and her “I’m just freelance” cameraman pop up.

maxresdefault1

See, the problem with Theroux’s approach as opposed to Oppenheimer’s is that at no point in the film is it very clear who his actual target is meant to be. Is it the actual Church of Scientology given how he expresses an intention early on to cast people as big faces of Scientology such as David Miscavige and Tom Cruise to re-enact allegations of violent behavior on their part? Or is it Mark Rathbun, the former official of the Church, that had walked away under clear hardships on his life since and spoken out against the church’s cruelty over? Rathbun is there as an advisor and informant that practically co-directs most of these re-enactments of beatings and abusive behavior that Rathbun claims occurred (and claims to have been present during), but something about Theroux’s attitude during the film and insistence on accusing (fairly) Rathbun’s own involvement in these actions despite Rathbun’s clear anger at that makes My Scientology Movie feel like, in lieu of its inability to get deep inside The Church’s dealings, to instead use Rathbun as a window for those dealings in more ways than just the one he consents to.

And, I don’t know, using Rathbun in that fashion (especially at the moment where we actually witness his family being implicitly threatened near the end) just seems shitty on Theroux’s part. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that Rathbun certainly has some issues of paranoia and anger management and he’s probably still more than a little bit stuck in the mindset of a Scientologist despite his breaking away from the Church, but he’s also graciously getting involved in Theroux’s project in the hopes that it would spread awareness of what kind of harmful practices the Church indulges in. He’s literally Theroux’s only link to these going-ons and it feels like punching yourself in the face to alienate Rathbun like this.

louis-theroux-scientology-movie

Granted, My Scientology Movie doesn’t entirely seem to know how to approach itself and Theroux doesn’t feel anywhere near as confident as he did in his most famous documentary work The Most Hated Family in America. He’s chasing his own tail and between poking and prodding at Rathbun and John Dower’s direction of the film (indeed Theroux is not the director) is at times dropping and forgetting about the re-enactments it wants to stage instead for more moments of Theroux and another member holding cameras at each other for so many senseless minutes as to numb myself to the Scientologist’s bullying. It doesn’t help that My Scientology Movie assumes you’re already well-enough informed on Scientology practices and doesn’t spend any of its much-wasted time informing us on what the Church’s ideology is. Maybe Theroux felt that was unnecessary with a much definitive portrayal provided by Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief but that’s still quite a leap assuming your audience would have already watched another film.

In the end, the whole thing just feels like a great big bucket of flop sweat, so much work and pain and anxiety that Theroux and company have put themselves through only to not really come to any revelatory conclusions and only deciding to stop at a moment when it feels clear that they didn’t really have much of an end-game, just aggravate people who could sue them all into an assisted suicide. Not even Theroux’s portrayal of being targeted or stalked feels entirely correct, as a sudden appearance by an actor who has long been known for being crazy is somehow misread as a direct attack rather than just an infamously not-well person acting out.

Perhaps My Scientology Movie would feel better if it felt funny or like it was worth anything in the end of it all, but instead it just feels like Theroux and Rathbun just hired a few people to get locked inside a room and shouted at and there’s really no conclusions or results to be figured out from what they re-enacted. Just a bunch of abused kids. Theroux didn’t shine any further light on the Church of Scientology’s dealings than even the infamous South Park episode “Trapped in the Closet” and when a cartoon feels more in-depth than your documentary… how is that not supposed to be a disappointment?

004033d8

The Horror… The Horror…

The following is my reprinting of a write-up done for a Facebook group titled The Horrors of the Dissolve where every week somebody gives a Triple Feature suggestion. For that reason, I hope you will excuse the very casual manner of this particular post and enjoy!

Oh boy, mah fuckin’ turn! What’s good, bruh? If you saw Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, you’re aware that sometimes the social climate of a country can affect their national cinema and if you’re anything like me, you were wondering what some of those people were smoking when they came up with their theories. Still there is the certainty that pop culture can’t be said without the word “culture” (seriously try it. You just end up with, like, “pop”) and that the national identity of some cinema has to be swayed by either current or past affairs and concerns as a way of squaring with it as a community, hence why sometimes people will read into them the state of a nation (my favorite of these readings is Stephen King in Danse Macabre implying The Amityville Horror is based on anxiety over home ownership in a terrible economy).

Personal affairs come into it too (for what is cinema but personal?), but that’s not what I’m here for, I’m here for the communal affairs. The type of thing that recognizes an emotional earthquake just happened around its target audience and wants them to face that fact, and usually war is the best source of that. That’s why I’m here to give y’all my

NATIONAL TRAUMA TRIPLE FEATURE!

Three horror movies focusing on the affected nations in the wake of some violent af conflict. Here we go, baybee!

nightofthelivingdead

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968, dir. George Romero, USA)

Of course, this was going to be my number one, for it is my favorite horror movie of all time. And I’m sure everybody is aware of how the film unconsciously comments on race relations in the middle of Civil Rights era America, but what is hardly discussed is how direct it is as a reflection of the still fresh scars from the Vietnam War. The cynicism, the undeniable madness and the closeness to home of the violence all presented by Romero and Russo in their framing the information given to our characters through the news – nevermind the fact that the horror is happening right outside that door. Romero may have considered it an accident that Night of the Living Dead was such a potently angry indictment of race relations in 1960s America (which is still outrageously relevant in 2010s America), but there’s absolutely nothing unintentional about his mirroring of the conflict overseas and how invested American families felt in the carnage we watched. The anonymity beyond the zombies while it’s clear they’ve all once been people and personalities has been read as being representative of the “Quiet Majority” against the war, but I think the movie is a lot more damning than that. The fact that our “protagonists” (if you can call them that) are eagerly striking them down without any problems (beyond Barbra’s clear shell-shocked manner) reflects the inhumanity and refusal to recognize the Vietnamese as people or casualties with weight, just people to be cut down. It’s not just the complete inability of our characters in-fighting and having no clear compromise on what to do that promises Night of the Living Dead won’t end well, it’s the chilling vibe that we’ve been through this before as a nation that hammers down that nihilistic certainty.

Ugetsu

2. Ugetsu (1953, dir. Mizoguchi Kenji, Japan)

Like any other country involved in World War II, Japanese post-war cinema of the 1940s and 50s are of a very rich variety all sort of having some kind of attitude on life in the aftermath of it all (in fact, post-war Japanese cinema is maybe, like, my favorite kind of cinema). They’re usually dramatic and full of mandates on society in no small words (I mean… fucking Godzilla, y’all) and Ugetsu is obviously no different except in that it’s the only movie to use horror in a sense to portray what kind of devastation war leaves and how that diverges on its effects based on things like gender and class. The ghostly specter is always a possibility in this movie, even if ghosts don’t actively appear until 30 minutes in (and you’re not aware of what the ghosts are until later), what with the amount of smokiness on the river in which our lead family evades death by bandits and how they encounter a dead body (quickly exclaiming that it must be a ghost on the river). So yes, tension is at the very least present from square one of the picture, though horror is in how the characters we witness and align with are treated and have to suffer without ethics at the feet of Civil War (standing in for World War II). Once the supernatural enters the screen, it becomes outright eerie in its invocation of nature (dat hot springs scene) and history, as we listen to the noblewoman explain how her once proud family was practically erased by Nobunaga only to truly see the devastation at the end of it all. This gives the themes a base to move onto a relatively optimistic ending of moving on beyond what devastates us – after Genjuro is warned he must or die – and rebuilding from our ashes in spite of the unfairness of the world.

Devil's

3. The Devil’s Backbone (2001, dir. Guillermo Del Toro, Spain/Mexico)

Kind of cheating a bit on account of the fact that it was more than 40 years past the Spanish Civil War and obviously the Mexican Del Toro never actually lived through it (nor did producer Pedro Almodovar). Originally, it was based in the Mexican Revolution so it’s a story that can be fluid enough to reflect on most armed conflict in the face of oppression and I don’t think it’s such an accident that it was nearly based in Mexico and so soon after the infamous kidnapping of Del Toro’s father. The idea that even an orphanage cannot become a sanctuary for fearful souls (nor even Catholicism), the disappearance and re-appearance of faces always more damaged than the last time, and the always remaining aftermath of conflict and war sitting around. There’s no sense of safety in The Devil’s Backbone despite barely having any war combat in it, which is why I find it more devastating a portrayal of war than Del Toro’s return to the Spanish Civil War in Pan’s Labyrinth. And that inside of that nihilism, Del Toro saw to craft some of his most ghastly and nightmarish creations to pop out of the black dark corners of the orphanage end up making The Devil’s Backbone feel like the very pinnacle of his career thus far and everything he ever wanted to say about the anguish of a torn Mexico state that he and his father still felt the effects of, even after he followed his contemporaries Lubezki and Cuaron into Hollywood, an escape that Del Toro knows many cannot afford. “Every day, every week, something happens that reminds me that I am in involuntary exile.”

And now some honorable mentions AF, y’all.

War of the Worlds (2005, dir. Steven Spielberg, USA)
The very film that inspired this triple feature suggestion to me, though I did not want to make it US-centric and Night of the Living Dead was going to be the ONE I put in. Still, you’d have to be incredibly dense not to recognize how much of 9/11 lives inside the devastation and confusion present in every single second of War of the Worlds and the distanced lens on the amount of people dying en masse makes it certainly the darkest film Spielberg ever made and a strong anti-thesis on claims of his sentiment, even despite its ending.

The Host (2006, dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
Likewise, I didn’t want more than one East Asian film (as well as the fact that the attitudes in The Host are not necessarily representative of all of South Korea), though Bong Joon-ho is no stranger to political commentary and probably knew as best as we all do that Monster movies make the best indictments on chemicals and politics (Godzilla, Them!, etc.) but Bong wanted to go one step further than them pointing a finger at “who the fuck did this to my nation”. Hence, the ever-presence and incompetence of the U.S. military’s encampment in South Korea (ever since the Korean War) being the very source of the beast and their inability to take full accountability for their negligence proving to be just a greater example of dysfunction than our broken family protagonists themselves and a clear polar opposite when that family takes immediate action to save one of their own.

It Comes and Goes at It Pleases

it-comes-at-night-movie-4

There’s a letterboxd post by Julian Towers that essentially sums up Trey Edward Shultz’s sophomore feature It Comes at Night as a feature-length episode of The Walking Dead and I honestly cannot imagine a more apt way of describing the movie (well, maybe a more competently-made version too with less budget). It is similar in aesthetics right down to the worn grey and charcoal color palette that establishes our horror film as grounded post-apocalyptic atmospheres, it is similar in character relations and tensions being the true “incidents” that pace to efficiently use the runtimes, and they’re both thematically shallow enough to only sum up themselves as “people don’t trust each other in times of strife and that leads to everybody dying.” This was not revelatory well before The Walking Dead’s premiere in 2010, let alone 7 years later, and none of the characters or plot developments provide anything new or of interested beyond that very simply concept.

This is a shame because Shultz is no slouch as a craftsman and I can’t imagine anybody walking out of It Comes at Night thinking it was a remotely lazy film. Far from it, a movie this efficient in trying to make its post-apocalyptic world, on the tail of an epidemic, is clearly not going to get away with laziness and yet despite largely remaining on the perspective of the young Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) – there are very notable exceptions to this but nothing that I want to say hurts the film – there’s a sense of the world beyond our periphery being ravaged and torn without any doubt about it. The movie smartly begins this by showing upfront the effects of this contagion and how very easy it is to suffer from it, as Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton) is infected within the walls of the family’s secluded wood-surrounded sanctuary and quickly dispatched with by Travis’ father Paul (Joel Edgerton) and mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo).

hero_itcomesatnight-2017-1

Hence the ability to set up tension easily with anybody who approaches the family’s home since we’re seen how severe it is and the explanation on why Paul is immediately hostile towards an intruder one night named Will (Christopher Abbott) arrives desperately trying to find supplies and shelter for his own family – wife Kim (Riley Keough) and child Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) – again wasting no time in establishing how shaky the co-living arrangements of the two families will be in such a desperate time and the certainly that Paul will possibly kill Will and his family if the slightest thing goes wrong.

Obviously, this is the sort of movie that goes wrong. It doesn’t waste any time with things going wrong, even before the families move in, there is ever the slightest belief that Will is hiding something or that something unusual happening is his fault. And Schults plays up that ambiguity as much as he can, leading to a portion of the film leading into the finale act that uses Travis’ nightmares (most of the film is stuck in Travis’ perspective and there are places where it helps and places where the movie knows it shot itself in the foot) and the ever-constant vigilance of their dog Stanley to play with the paranoia and the uncertainty of a sequence of events that leads to the untangling of their tense peace.

And that’s frankly all Schults can play with in this story. Which is sadly why I’m not impressed with It Comes at Night. It’s incredibly shot with the darkness of the film whole enough to direct our eye to one of the few things to be lit, complemented by a weathered and battered physical home design to keep us aware of the walls surrounding the characters, the bright red door that spells flat-out danger beyond, and even in the light through windows of day, the winding claustrophobia of all the hallways around. It Comes at Night is a very visually dark film, dark enough to earn some amount of horror that the otherwise misapplied marketing promised*. Its cast are all dedicated to selling the paranoia and confusion of the film and making their lives as destitute as possible.

ican-cover

But it doesn’t… have anything to say. It’s such an empty movie. That may be deliberate for the nihilistic intent of the film, but it doesn’t feel rewarding in that nihilism nor even profound. It’s a collection of post-apocalyptic tropes that amounts to as much thematical material as… well, as an episode of The Walking Dead, like I said. “Bad things happen when you mistrust people” and that’s it. It seems to be wanting to at least make up for that emptiness in psychological exploration, but that doesn’t really work out when the movie moves back and forth between Travis’ perspective and Paul’s – both distinct enough as moods, without much distance between how their mindset is at the beginning of the movie and how it is at the end of the movie (I am somewhat interested in Schults’ debut Krisha which is a psychological thriller, but the staticness of Travis and Paul as characters makes me uncertain now).

I don’t know, all I could think after watching the film (other than the fact that it felt like a shallow re-do of The Witch) is how I could easily have had a short story version of this film and not lost one single element. It Comes at Night clearly wants to be more than it actually is, but it doesn’t itself enough rope to be much more than a disposable genre film.

it-comes-at-night1

*and boy did that end up shooting it in the foot. For It Comes at Night is NOT a horror film and pitchforks were raised over its marketing, ruining its financial performance.

Girlfriend in a Coma

big-sick

There are elements of The Big Sick that it’s going to be impossible for me to be objective about. Thankfully, those elements are such a small mix of the collision of plot threads that make up its story, an autobiographical account of how screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani (who also stars in the film as himself) and Emily V. Gordon met and went through a trial of life and ended up marrying each other. It’s after leaving the theater that I realized that such a seemingly straightforward premise actually had a lot cooking inside of it and it even backloaded most of the best things about it to the second half. So when I say that I can’t help the fact that I’m also a Muslim-raised atheist mostly Americanized who at one point drove Ubers (the very earliest indication that this will mostly be fictionalized, the fact that Nanjiani drives Ubers is an anchor to the rom com element despite the real-life couple being together in the early 2000s) whose still Muslim family insists on arranging a marriage that wants to be involved in some manner in the entertainment industry that has mostly dated white girls*, it’s like… maybe the fourth most important tangent within this movie. Maybe the fifth, I can’t keep track of it all.

But for the first hour at least, it feels front and center to have Nanjiani introduced as two things from the start, a Pakistani American comedian living in Chicago. Early on this look into a comedian’s life segues into a romance Nanjiani has with a heckler named Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) and the two of them are clearly bad at pretending they’re not a couple because before we know it they give up their mutual “we’re not gonna speak to each other anymore” thing and end up spending time together at each other’s apartments before a pretty unsavory part of Nanjiani’s Muslim parents trying to throw him into an arranged marriage upsets Emily enough for the two of them to break up (the biggest diversion from Nanjiani and Gordon’s true-life story and something I can understand interjecting drama into the film but also ends up making Nanjiani look a lot more unsavory than I think the film wants him to be later on).

ray-romano-the-big-sick-ht-jc-170718_12x5_992

Shortly after Gardner ends up hospitalized for a lung infection nobody saw coming or knows what’s up and Nanjiani is forced to sign a medically-induced coma order (despite the fact that she’s literally sitting in the next room talking to somebody) before calling over Emily’s parents from North Carolina, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter).

Now, The Big Sick is clearly about a lot of things, which is the beauty of it. Nanjiani, Gordon, and director Michael Showalter have been able to tell Nanjiani’s story by letting all these very distinct strands of his life – his struggles as a comedian, his romance with Emily, his Pakistani-Muslim background – with the same sort of “this is my life” weight and generous charm that makes it hard not to be endeared to every single person that appears in the film and I’m most impressed with the way the three of them let all these strands bleed into each other, especially in the second half where Nanjiani’s attempts to separate all these parts of his life start collapsing and demanding more dramatic momentum. Still, as sure as those three storylines are present in The Big Sick, they don’t captivate me nearly as much as Kumail’s attempts to connect with Emily’s parents does. That Kumail’s first meeting with them has to be during such a trying time (and starting on the wrong foot as they know of Kumail’s ex-boyfriend status) is the most extraordinary circumstance in a film full of extraordinary circumstances and Terry and Beth end up anchoring a lot of the rest of the film from their very first appearance halfway through until pretty close to the end as Kumail has to figure out how to help them find their way through both their fear for their daughter’s life and Chicago itself.

It can’t hurt that Hunter and Romano are clearly the best performances in the whole cast. Romano is nobody’s idea of a great actor, but being the concerned father who might be a pushover is hardly a tough role for him to inhabit and he’s very lived-in with his relationship to Hunter’s on-edge, semi-confrontational mother (a role she can do with her eyes closed). They easily steal the show without showboating away from the conflict of Kumail’s own family concerned for his absence, played by Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, and Shenaz Treasury, nor relegating either side to being just stereotyped caricatures.

If Emily’s lack of presence in this romantic comedy’s second half does bother me (something the movie keeping leaning towards acknowledging and then forgives outright by the end), if the clear anonymity in its aesthetic does as well (especially the editing, where the decisions made seem to be exactly the wrong ones in my eyes… namely shots and angles used where the most obvious ones are staring right in our face), if parts of the story don’t interest me as much as other parts (I haven’t talked about the comedian’s life side because – much as it is well-written – I could have lived without it), I can’t lie to myself and pretend that I didn’t still love The Big Sick in all of its heartfelt messiness. It’s a movie that asks for sympathy from all possible ends, doesn’t fault anyone, has characters that I don’t mind living around for two hours, and it speaks to a side of my life I don’t think is much represented. This is the sort of cool hang-out friend version of a movie where you know everything will be ok in the end and if some people think that doesn’t seem challenging, I can’t disagree but it’s their loss.

the-big-sick-12002

*My mother has not had any negative reaction to my last girlfriend, my dad didn’t even know about her because he wasn’t in town. So no, my life is not nearly as dramatic as Nanjiani’s.

There’s No Place Like Homecoming

spider-man-homecoming-trailer-2-hd-screencaps-3

There is a beautiful moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming, perhaps my favorite moment in the whole film where the youngest-looking incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) yet is trapped under a hell of a lot of rubble after building has collapsed on him in an image nearly reminiscent of the famous cover of Amazing Spider-Man #33 (something I doubt was unconscious on the part of the mothership company Marvel themselves finally getting to co-produce the superhero after all of these years). And there’s obviously no way Spidey won’t make it out of here but for once Holland breaks away from his otherwise joyously bubbly and bright performance as the young kid to start crying for help under the weight and selling the threat of his crushing death, before getting to see his makeshift Spider-Man mask under a puddle of water with his reflection filling out half of the watery darkness, thereby recreating another famous Spider-Man image halving Peter’s face and the Spidey cowl as one. And it’s a very inspiring and self-reflective moment for the character that assures both Parker and the audience and gives him the resolve to get himself out of this situation.

And the movie redundantly ruins this wonderful moment with a hamfisted voiceover reprise of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. both literally and metaphorically phoning his performance in) saying “if you’re nothing without this suit, then maybe you shouldn’t have it.” Which is not only a shitty misfire of tone in its condescending wording, even if it’s an attempt to re-establish the message, but it’s also emblematic of exactly how I feel about Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s not exactly a classic in the sense of Raimi’s works, but it’s a movie with its own strengths that could stand on its own if only the MCU would kindly stop butting in every once in a while.

I do have to give Spider-Man: Homecoming (and that title keeps me just shuddering at the unnecessary shade of Marvel Studios towards Sony Pictures) some credit. As would be common sense, producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal, director and co-writer Jon Watts, and the dizzying six man revolving door of the writing team knew that it would be completely unnecessary and redundant to re-establish the origin story of one of the most famous superheroes of all time and yet Homecoming feels every bit like an entry tale for our favorite webslinger. And it wouldn’t be able to do that without the greater context of the Avengers and how Spidey is THIS close to earning Stark’s approval and joining them, but I wonder if it would be a bad thing if we didn’t have that?

spider-man-homecoming-movie-image-official-tom-holland-600x243

It just feels so ultimately divorced from the truly stellar element of Homecoming: the “friendly neighborhood” aspect. Holland is so boyishly charismatic and engaging within the part that just having him interact with anybody – the people on the streets in which he helps out, the A.I. in the suit Tony Stark gifts to him, the overabundance of high school friends that doesn’t fit my idea of “outsider” Peter Parker but certainly gives us a lot of charming high schooler material – is not only wonderfully entertaining, but reverses the scope of the whole MCU and gives a sense of tactility to the community sense of localized superheroes, a concept that doesn’t really come to play anywhere else in the MCU except their Netflix series.

The entire cast is the best salesman on this premise: Holland wrestles eagerly with this sense of anonymous celebrity, Michael Keaton as the villain Victor Toomes has a sense of frustrated blue-collar workaday escalation to his aggression (his one big EVIL moment where he kills a man on-screen is undercut by him mistaking the weapon he used and I don’t think it’s an accident that Keaton sells that surprise very well). Donald Glover, in a two-scene cameo, essentially delivers the tired inconvenience you’d expect New York would have facing alien forces and consistent destruction. The strength of Homecoming is in the smaller human elements, those touches of a living city underneath (even if it’s Atlanta playing New York City in a conspicuous way). It is no accident that the best setpiece in the whole film is a comical one of Spidey finding it very hard to swing webs in a suburban residential area and forced to superpower-Ferris-Bueller his way around, a wonderful moment of character and geography.

vlcsnap-2017-03-28-10h37m09s607

It is unfortunately the ONLY great setpiece, which is a shame because anybody who has seen Holland at work on stage knows he’s certainly the most athletically capable of all of the screen Spider-Men. But Watts and editors Dan Liebental and Debbie Berman just don’t give him his due, never finding a true rhythm to the moment whether it’s a bank robbery, a jet heist, or scaling the Washington monument and never finding dynamic ways to represent the high-flying physicality of Spidey the way Holland’s hollerings do so, nor does it bother to cover up its CGI much beyond the “night time means no lighting to see it”. And that’s really disappointing for a climax as restrained as this film’s.

I can’t say it feels less like a product than Marc Webb’s time with the character, but it also is a lot more fun with it. Sure, the aggressively eager-to-please nature of having every character that isn’t Mac Gargan (Michael Mando) be able to perform a quick gag seems kind of insincere, but it’s nothing less than platonic. Spider-Man may have found himself in a new prison confined to being another stepping stone to the next Avengers movie, but he seems to at least be having fun there and he’s got great company, so there’s no big problem. It could be worse.

spider-man-homecoming-movie-trailer-images-marvel53-600x251

Now THAT’s What I Call a Fiasco

Note: Anybody who can tell me what famous Spidey moment the title of this review comes from wins my eternal respeck.

Other Note: This is re-do of a previous review from when I first saw this movie in 2012 because maaaaaaaaan, it’s not only too long, but a godless mess of a ramble.

79589_m1328805496

Spider-Man, like any comic book icon, is a versatile malleable figure. He means different things to different people, they have a different idea of what his defining trait may be, and many artists and writers have put in different contexts and styles just to twist his imagery around as much as Batman. Now for some people, their idea of Spider-Man’s defining trait is that he is a unrelentingly quippy sort and that means that Andrew Garfield was (until Tom Holland thankfully disabused them) the best screen Spider-Man. And for sure, Garfield might have been able to foreground the sarcasm of high schooler Peter Parker behind the mask (though claiming Maguire’s Spidey wasn’t humorous and full of levity is an outright lie – he was directed by Sam Raimi, the creator of one of the quippiest heroes cinema has been blessed with), but he’s not my ideal Spider-Man because I have a different concept of the defining trait of Spider-Man.

That trait being he’s not a complete piece of shit*.

To be fair, Garfield did not go full throttle on making Spidey a despicable son of a bitch. That happened in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But rest assured, when it comes to his first go in the red tights for Marc Webb’s (a director’s title I’m all but certain feels ceremonial) The Amazing Spider-Man, there is nothing to his performance that feels living beyond his sarcasm and his casual ability to look like him and co-star Emma Stone (as the doomed first love Gwen Stacy) have some kind of affection for each other. This is definitely informed by the fact they were, at the time, in a relationship and not any of the giggling dialogue afforded to them by co-writer Steve Kloves (he focused on that side of the script most while co-writers James Vanderbilt and a definitely begrudgingly returning Alvin Sargent worked out other areas). Beyond that, his Spider-Man is a empty mass of high school cool tropes that seem out of the ordinary for the character except in a desperate attempt to mangle some protagonist to desperate film.

1351292211_4

The Amazing Spider-Man is not as bad as I thought it was on first watch. It’s clear Webb and his studio puppeteers (this movie and its sequels have studio interference fingerprints all over it) was not flailing around, but it’s a soulless product. Time passing by, especially in the face of all the Sony leaks and the eventual entry of the character into the MCU, has only shown that this was Amy Pascal and company trying to hold tightly to the character by implying the promise of a further movie franchise, with the subplot on Peter’s parents (something that always alarmed me as so dismissive of Martin Sheen and Sally Field’s potential in the roles of Uncle Ben and Aunt May), the deliberately illogical overshadow on a hologram of Norman Osborn, the terribly out-of-place mid-credits scene, and so on. It’s like Iron Man 2 in those self-reflexive attempts of foreshadowing, except less confident and without the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. to guide us through it. And that’s what really gets under my goat about what “universe-building” has done to this decade of popcorn cinema: it leaves us with only half a story.

The Amazing Spider-Man feels like the bare minimum of what you need to create a story (with half of the beats already done to more emotional effect in Raimi’s first film) where the content goes no deeper than “Peter becomes Spider-Man to avenge his Uncle’s death, battles the Giant Lizard that Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) has become, and courts Gwen.” You’d only need one more sentence to throw in “Gwen’s police captain father George (Denis Leary) is a bigger dick than Spidey and wants to arrest him, because something seomthing vigilante.” Nothing about it has the same explosion of personality Webb’s earlier debut (500) Days of Summer got to have and everything is just calculated to get this movie out in time to hold tightly to the Spider-Man property and make it seem like it’s still relevant.

Actually, there is some kind of tone in it but it’s obnoxiously self-serious. It almost feels as parodic as Spider-Man 3 except without the parody. Underlit scenes in alleys and sewers, attempts to make Parker’s isolation a lot gloomier than Raimi, even the costume went like three shades down in darkness. There’s nothing that gives me less confidence than realizing the aesthetic for The Amazing Spider-Man could go hand-in-hand with Trank’s Fantastic Four and not thank my stars Kevin Feige rescued a sinking ship. The only true moment of inspiration comes from when Parker begins his ascent as Spider-Man and we witness his playground treatment of New York in first-person camera. But that’s the only place for fun in The Amazing Spider-Man‘s world and it’s back to making superhero movies feel like an obligation in one of the most disappointing moments in the genre’s history.

the-amazing-spider-man-screencaps-the-amazing-spider-man-2012-37018463-500-208

*There are many defenders of Garfield that sit on the thesis “Spider-Man is supposed to be a dick, Maguire was too nerdy”. Same as the Tobey Maguire crying meme, I flat out ignore such an asinine complaint and suspect they never picked up a comic in their life, let alone a Spider-Man one.