Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker(12/19/2019)

You know who I’m jealous of?  The 95% of the population who are going to go see Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker without having spent the last two years arguing about the merits of the last movie, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, on the internet.  This endless debate has been just a real bummer and has mostly consisted of people talking right past each other while making strawmen out of one another.  It’s been especially painful for me since I was among the people who didn’t like that movie which kind of put me at odds with both the critical consensus and in the rather awkward position of arguing against a movie for what I considered the right reasons while knowing there were a handful of people who were also arguing against it for the not so right reasons.  But I wasn’t going to just shut up and pretend there wasn’t a whole lot about that movie which bugged me and I ended up writing a three thousand three hundred word review of the damn thing which I think is to date the longest review I’ve ever written.  And now this whole debate is being rekindled all over again by the final film in this new Star Wars trilogy, which was directed by J.J. Abrams rather than Rian Johnson and which critics seem to be coming at it with knives out (pun intended) for perceived offenses against their preferred installment.  I’m going to do my best to discuss this thing without rehashing the old TLJ arguments all over again and I certainly don’t plan to set new length records.

We learn right from the film’s opening crawl that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has somehow resurrected and soon learn that he had created Snoke and was behind the resurgence of the Empire during this trilogy.  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has already found him and has begun to plot with him, but no one else knows where he is.  Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) has continued her Jedi training under Leia (Carrie Fisher) but then Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) arrive at the base with a lead suggesting that Palpatine is on an unknown planet called Exegol, a name that Rey recognizes from one of Luke Skywalker’s journals.  Knowing that The First Order is about to go on the offensive using a fleet of super star destroyers that will destroy the rebellion if they can’t find Palpatine and put an end to all of this.  As such Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, BB8, and C-3PO set out to recapture the trail that Luke was on to find this planet years ago.

If I had to sum up my objections to The Last Jedi it would be that it not only ignored mysteries that were deliberately set up in the first film but it dismissed them in the most disrespectful way possible.  It essentially told the fans they were stupid for having invested in ideas that J.J. Abrams had told them to invest in in the first place.  For instance, critics seemed to think there was a whole lot of interest to be mined from the fact that Rey’s parents weren’t prominent figures from earlier films, but to me that was just the most anti-climactic possible solution to a mystery from the first film.  There’s nothing new about force users coming from “nobodies,” hell, Anakin Skywaker himself came from “nowhere.”  So that wasn’t a radical reinvention so much as it was a lame “surprise” that didn’t fit within the original puzzle.  And now that he’s back in the director’s chair people are accusing J.J. Abrams of “capitulating” to the “bad fans” who dared not to like their precious Rian Johnson movie when the truth of the matter is that he was clearly just reverting back to the original vision he had when he made the widely popular The Force Awakens.  He also clears up a few other things that Johnson recklessly muddled like the origins of Snoke, Luke Skywalker’s reasons for having a bad attitude about training Rey, and the bad out of place comedy is kept to a minimum.

Of course there are still issues with this trilogy that this isn’t able to fix.  There’s still no explanation for why Rey was able to become a lightsaber savant without training and the basic logistics of how the First Order managed to take over the galaxy so quickly generally don’t make a lot of sense.  I would also say that the general trend of these movies mirroring installments of the original trilogy continues.  The Force Awakens was almost scene for scene similar to A New Hope, The Last Jedi very closely mirrored The Empire Strikes Back (despite critics’ insistence that it’s some sort of avant-garde reinvention), and the new film certainly has a lot in common with The Return of the Jedi though I’d argue not it’s not a ripoff to anywhere near the degree that The Force Awakens was.  Yes, the film has the Emperor and Lando but there isn’t really an equivalent to Jabba’s palace here and while the film does end in a big battle that’s intercut with a more personal conflict between Jedi something like that was probably inevitable regardless of who made this movie.  I would also say that the film is a little too drunk on slightly pandering cameos toward the end and I would also say that the movie isn’t entirely successful in building a performance out of Carrie Fisher stock footage to give Leia a meaningful role in the film.  That last issue was probably unavoidable to some extent but still the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty obvious what’s happening there and it’s not seamless.

But as easy as it is to pick holes in certain elements of the movie, but pros outweigh the cons in a pretty big way for me.  This is the first time we’ve really seen the cast of the new trilogy working together on a mission and the adventure elements here really delivered for me.  I’ve heard people say that the movie is “overstuffed” and moves too fast but to some extent that fast pace seems like an asset to me.  The characters find themselves on some visually interesting planets and there are some fairly solid action scenes along the way.  I also thought the film did a better job than I expected resolving the tensions between Rey and Kylo Ren, which I thought was kind of a mess by the end of The Last Jedi.  Beyond that I actually liked how hopeful and crowd pleasing the film’s finale was.  There’s nothing revolutionary about the way the last battle plays out but it certainly milks your desire to see win triumph over evil and as much as I might say they went a little overboard on some of the fan service I would be lying if I didn’t say I was struck when some of it happened.  It’s a kind of catharsis we from franchises like this in troubling times like these.

Honestly I’m not sure I’ve done a wonderful job of defending this movie, but I’m also kind of surprised that this is a movie that needs defending.  I can see why some people would be disappointed that this didn’t go off in whatever wild direction they thought The Last Jedi was pointing towards but isn’t that the same argument that was dismissed when people made it about The Last Jedi itself and its decision to ignore what The Force Awakens set up?  I heard one prominent Film Twitter personality accuse it of being “rude” to Rian Johnson as if Rian Johnson hadn’t been incredible rude to J.J. Abrams first.  And what’s really strange about the reception is that just about everything it’s been accused of things that are pretty in keeping with what The Force Awakens was doing, and last time I checked people liked The Force Awakens a lot.  I have the receipts; that movie is at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a solid 81 on Metacritic, if you liked that movie you should like this one or at least not be overly surprised that it is the way it is and the people claiming it’s “worse than the prequels” really strike me as being wildy un-objective… of course I’m doubt I can be too objective about it either.  It’s Star Wars dammit, it’s a series that’s ingrained in the back of my psyche and has been since I was a small child so what can I say, it’s a movie that delivered some quality Star Wars and even in this world where Disney is wildly monetizing that IP you don’t really get that too often.

***1/2 out of Five

Waves(10/26/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Major Spoilers

Before the autumn movie season started the one big film that really left me unsure what to expect out of was probably Trey Edward Shults’ Waves.  This might partly be because it wasn’t really a movie that could be easily summed up with a sentence long summery beyond “it’s about a family that stuff happens to or something.”  It might also be because, though he has a distinct style, Trey Edward Schults hasn’t quite become a brand yet and he isn’t exactly tied to any one kind of movie.  It may also be that the critics who’ve seen it have been respectful but haven’t exactly been unified in raving about it.  The film’s trailer is beautiful, but not overly plot oriented.  Its lingering shots of young African Americans on South Florida beaches would seem like an attempt to make it look like a sort of heterosexual Moonlight (a film released by the same studio).  That comparison isn’t entirely off but the actual similarities are somewhat superficial.  The film we did get is something a bit faster paced and more eventful in good ways and bad ways.

The film largely revolves around an upper middle-class Floridian family and specifically focuses on a teenage boy in this family named Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).  Tyler is on the high school wrestling team and his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) puts immense pressure on him to perform to his highest ability while seemingly neglecting his sister Emily (Taylor Russell).  Tyler is on edge already when he gets what seems like the worst news he could possibly receive: he has serious shoulder injuries and will likely need to give up on wrestling for a long time.  Being the impulsive teenager that he is he immediately goes into denial about this and continues wrestling.  On top of that he has just learned that his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) is pregnant and he has no ideas how to handle this news.  Later on we meet one of Tyler’s teammates named Luke (Lucas Hedges) who begins a relationship with Emily.

Much of the first half of Waves is rooted in putting the audience in the head of a seventeen year old as he makes a series of increasingly disastrous seventeen year old mistakes, each one with bigger consequences than the last.  To show this Trey Edward Schults plays around with aspect ratios (a trick he’s done on other films as well) in order to emphasize what’s happening on screen.  He starts the film in a screen filling 1.85:1 and then letterboxes the image down as the situation on screen becomes more dire before then snapping into the Academy ratio at a key low point.  This pattern then reverses itself in the movie’s second half as people are given a chance to heal.  Outside of that little trick there’s a lot to like about the film visually.  Before he was directing his own films Schults worked as an intern for Terrence Malick and that influence shows more here than it did with his first two films.  The film doesn’t really take on Malick’s narrative style with voice-over and the like but it’s certainly interested in capturing modern life with a sort of ethereal beauty.  The film also has what is to my ears a really solid soundtrack of recent R&B, but this is perhaps an element where Trey Edward Schults kind of tips his hand as being a white millennial making a movie about black teenagers as this is a very Pitchfork approved vision of what urban music sounds like.  I think modern teenagers are on average more into Migos than Frank Ocean, is what I’m saying.  But maybe having a great soundscape trumps generational authenticity.

Where the movie starts to lose me is in the structure.  When you split a movie right down the middle into two halves like this you are in many ways courting trouble as the audience can’t help but look at the two halves and compare them directly and in this case that can lead to a very unflattering interpretation.  One half of the movie depicts something of a worst case scenario for how a teen relationship and the other half depicts something of a best case scenario… and given that the one that ends in violence involves a black male and the non-violent half involves a white male… well, you can see how that could be seen as a potentially problematic message that equates black men with violence and white men with gentleness.  I don’t for a minute think that that’s what Trey Edward Shults was intending to say with the film and there are elements of the film that work against that reading of the film like the apparent past violence of the Lucas Hedges character’s father but I do think that is a byproduct of a structure that so plainly invites the viewer to compare these two relationships one against the other and once that interpretation took hold in my mind it became a bit of a distraction.

Even beyond any paranoia around racial messaging, I think that second half could have been improved by simply adding some complicating factors to that relationship to make it something other than the absolute platonic ideal of a teen romance.  After all, the relationship in the first half wasn’t all bad so why should the relationship in the second half be all good?  The film’s title seems to imply a sort of dichotomy between peaks and valleys in life, but maybe he should have had smaller waves in mind rather than giant tidal waves.  But I don’t want to focus too much on the elements of the film I was uneasy about because there was a lot about it that definitely worked.  That first half is pretty great the whole way through and it’s doing some great things stylistically.  Part of me worries that this is going to get lost in the year end shuffle and that A24 isn’t going to be able to prioritize it over their other films for award consideration, but another part of me almost hopes that it doesn’t get so big that it needs to fight off the hot take writers of the world.  It’s a hard movie to describe and talk about in general, and also a hard movie to recommend to certain audiences given the gamut of different tones and emotions it goes through.  But it is a very interesting effort to be sure and people interested in modern indie cinema should give it a look.

***1/2 out of Five  

A Hidden Life(10/21/2019)


The 2010s have been at once a great decade and also kind of a terrible decade for Terrence Malick.  Malick, who famously only made four movies between 1973 and 2010 and refuses to be photographed or interviews, had managed to make every film he made seem like an event even if only through their rarity but without exception his films in this period proved to be worth the wait.  But in the 2010s the floodgate seemed to open and he released more films in a period of eight years than he had in the preceding 37.  This proved to be both a good and a bad thing.  He started the decade with 2011’s The Tree of Life, which was heralded as something of a landmark film when it came out and will likely be remembered as one of the best of the decade.  I personally had kind of mixed feelings about it at first and have sort of struggled with it but mostly think its reputation is earned.  Then he rather shockingly came out with a new movie just two years later called To the Wonder, which I liked quite a bit but which was also when some of the magic and mystique of a Malick release started to dissipate.  Reviews were mostly respectful but it wasn’t the event that his previous films were and it was a hard movie to recommend to everyone.  Then Knight of Cups happened in 2015, which is really where things started to go wrong.  The film was made in the same style of the two films that preceded it but it was taken to this rather irritating extreme where just about any sense of real storytelling was lost.  Even I hated it, which is crazy given how much of a fanboy I was of his other work, and I didn’t even bother to see his follow-up Song to Song in theaters.  That last film seemed like kind of a last gasp of the new direction he took with Tree of Life, and I was happy to hear that his new film would be a departure from that.

A Hidden Life is set in the 1940s in Austria and tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter.  Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) live in a remote village called Radegund with three daughters where they live a (in Malick’s eyes) idyllic pastoral life.  But as the Nazis begin to take over Franz begins to have serious doubts about what is going on around him and feels a great obligation to speak out about what’s going on.  In particular he fears that he’ll be drafted and be forced to give an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler (which was a routine requirement of the German army), which is something that is anathema to him both as a man of conscience and as a devout catholic.  From there the movie is basically a deep dive into the spiritual anguish that this predicament causes for Jägerstätter and the eventual consequences that this decision will entail.

It has been reported that sometime after he made the movie Silence Martin Scorsese received a letter from Terrence Malick about his reaction to that movie.  The exact contents of this letter have not been made public but it would seem to be that he had some kind of theological difference of opinion with that movie and his work here might add some clarity to that.  It would seem that is issue is with that film’s ending, in which (spoilers) a priest renounces his faith at gunpoint but is essentially forgiven by the film for having kept his conscience pure internally despite going along with this charade in order to stay alive.  A Hidden Life would in many ways seem to be a repudiation of that because it’s about someone who does the exact opposite of that; he refuses to take an oath that goes against his principles and his faith knowing full well that it could likely get him killed.  In essence the movie is a defense of the act of martyrdom and of placing the sanctity of one’s soul above earthly matters.  I’m not religious, I don’t really agree with all of that, but I admire Malick’s passion in bringing the case for it to the screen and definitely support the use of the cinema to make these sorts of lofty points.

So, this is certainly a very thoughtful and spiritual movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an entirely successful one in execution.  The film is mostly in English despite having a predominately Teutonic cast (including at least two actors who have played Hitler in the past) and I think Malick is slightly embarrassed by given that he has included some short scenes in un-subtitled German, usually scenes where Nazis are shouting at people.  But that oddness aside the acting here is generally pretty good.  Visually the movie certainly has a lot going for it.  Malick isn’t working with his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time around, it was instead shot by a guy named Jörg Widmer who does have a number of cinematography credits (mostly for small European films) but appears to have also worked with Malick and Lubezki as a camera operator on their last four films and appears to specialize in Steadicam operation if IMDB is to be believed.  The change of personal behind the camera does not appear to have been much of an issue though because whoever his DP is Malick is a guy who can shoot the ever-living shit out of a landscape and as you can imagine he’s kind of in hog heaven filming in the Sound of Music-esque Austrian locales featured in this film.  In typical Malick fashion he manages to make all the early scenes look like the characters are living in this Edenic wonderland before everything goes wrong and also makes the interiors of the various cathedrals, prisons, and courtrooms look interesting as well.

Later in the film the camera increasingly begins to be pointed inward and seeks to document the toll this is taking on Jägerstätter, and this is where things maybe start to go a bit off the tracks.  This is a long movie (nearly three hours) and while I generally consider myself to be more patient with this sort of thing than the average moviegoer I will say that this one tested me a little.  It wasn’t the sheer running time at issue so much as a certain redundancy in just how many different shots are taken up showing Jägerstätter being ever so slightly more anguished than the last time we saw him.  There a certain “I get the point already” element to the whole thing.  Additionally I’m not sure that Malick’s usual style, which strongly de-emphasizes traditional dialogue, is entirely right for this story.  “Show, don’t tell” is of course one of the conical rules of filmmaking but that can be taken to the extreme and I think this movie could have benefited a little from letting Jägerstätter and some other character sit down and really talk out what’s going on in his heart.  There are a couple scenes here and there which come close to this but it never quite gets there and I kept hoping Malick would give us something akin to the famous conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest in Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

I worry that I’ve over-emphasized the negative here, so I do want to circle back and return to the film’s positives, which are many.  Really a majority of the film is very good, it could just use some cuts here and there and it’s hard to name what needs to go exactly because very little, if anything, in the film is actively “bad.”  In general I think the film might have been even more impressive to me if it had come out about ten years ago and had been Malick’s immediate if (for the time) characteristically late follow-up to The New World and in many ways it does feel like a return to that older mode of Malick’s filmmaking.  But I think the last ten years of increased output has maybe taken a bit of the luster out of that Malick style, like a magician having done the same trick a few too many times allowing the audience to spot where the strings are.  It just feels a little less special after seeing it every two years for a decade, is what I’m saying.  But again, I should be focusing on the positive here.  The film is certainly a marked improvement over the likes of Knight of Cups and its clear message and concrete historical context will also probably win back some of the people who were not interested by To the Wonder and even The Tree of Life.  It’s a movie that I strongly respect and am glad exists but for me, as a movie going experience, it never quite clicked as the next masterpiece that I hope this guy still has in him.

***1/2 out of Five

Ad Astra(9/19/2019)

Last year when I went to see First Man and this year when I watched Apollo 11 I came to a slightly depressing revelation: the 60s space program has lost a lot of its luster, at least for me and I suspect with a lot of people of my generation.  I think that’s in large part because at the moment space exploration seems like a bit of a dead end.  Back in the 60s people just assumed that landing on the moon was a giant leap for mankind and that by the year 2001 we’d be regularly traveling to space bases and traveling through trippy alien wormholes to reach our next stage of evolution.  Instead we’ve mostly just learned that the moon and Mars are both barren wastelands and that if there is life (or even worthwhile natural resources) out there it’s so astronomically far away that it would be ridiculously hard to ever get there.  Hollywood for their part has kind of given up on space optimism; they usually just go the fantasy route and jump to distant futures of the Star Trek variety without even suggesting how we got there.  The only movie in recent years I can think of which tried to do science fiction in a way that was closer to our current technology was The Martian, but even that movie kind of marginalized the actual space travel part of getting to the red planet.  Joining that film is perhaps the new James Gray film Ad Astra (which is the Latin for “to the stars), a film which looks at a distant but not entirely distant future which seems at least a little bit plausible.

The film begins with an action scene where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a massive antenna which stands so high that its basically in space when it’s hit by some sort of power surge and he plummets to the surface before being saved by a parachute.  We soon learn that this is one of many such surges that are wreaking havoc across Earth and McBride is brought into a top secret briefing where he’s told that these surges are the result of a mission from years ago called the Lima Project.  This mission, an attempt to find intelligent life in the universe which required a voyage deep into the solar system, was led by McBride’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who the public believes died heroically when that ship was lost sixteen years ago.  In the briefing its revealed that the government believes Clifford is actually alive and that these surges are somehow being caused by the Lima’s power sources.  As such Roy is being recruited to travel to Mars, via the Moon, in order to send out a personal plea to Clifford.  Roy accepts this mission and begins what is sure to be a fateful journey both for himself and for humanity.

What is immediately striking about the future depicted in Ad Astra is that, more so than in even the most grounded of science fiction, it manages to feel legitimately futuristic while also feeling like a fairly natural evolution of the modern world.  The space ships in it can apparently go to the outer-reaches of the solar system in a matter of a few months but they still resemble shuttles and need to use rockets to exit the atmosphere and the clothing and space suits everyone’s wearing are not wildly divergent from modern clothing trends.  They’ve apparently colonized the moon and Mars, but getting to them involves all the same mundanities we need to deal with at modern airports and parts of both are apparently unstable warzones.  All over the film you can tell that a great deal of thought and research was done to build all these futuristic things, but the film doesn’t feel obliged to stop and explain all of it.  Take that antenna thing at the beginning, what is that for?  I don’t know, and unless I missed something I don’t think the movie ever stops and explains it but it’s certainly a striking image and I do have a certain confidence that they thought it through.  The scientific things that don’t make so much sense to me are things that kind of seem like plot contrivances.  I’m not exactly sure why they would need to go to Mars just to send a signal to Neptune and it’s also a bit convenient that in the third act Pitt is able to travel a pretty vast distance in a relatively short span of time, which would seem to raise some plot questions.

Having said all that, the science fiction in Ad Astra is in many ways something of a background element more than the main focus.  This isn’t a movie that’s trying to be a headtrip in the lineage of 2001: A Space Odyssey so much as a human quest modeled after Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Pitt as Marlow and his father as Kurtz.  It certainly isn’t a one to one parallel and the overall thematic message is quite different but the basic structure is more or less there.  This also makes the film a rather inward piece of work that focuses almost entirely on Brad Pitt’s character to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else and as a result the film has to rest pretty heavily on a voice-over narration by Pitt that is a bit of a mixed bag.  I certainly wouldn’t want the voice-over taken out entirely because there are definitely sections of it that are needed but I do think it could have been reduced a little bit.  Pitt’s narration in and of itself is a bit monotone and was made to sound like it was recorded in an echoy spaceship, which may or may not have been the best call.  There are also some plot details that bug me in the film, especially a violent turn of events that leads into the third act which seemed avoidable and kind of undermined the film’s ending.

Honestly I do having a sinking suspicion that there are a lot of plot elements here which aren’t going to hold up overly well to strict scrutiny and I don’t look forward to the “everything wrong with” videos that are eventually going to be made because looking at the movie like that sort of misses the point.  At the same time, the film’s general straightforwardness does make it a bit more susceptible to that kind of criticism.  This isn’t the kind of brainy science fiction film that really forces you to untangle some crazy mind bending idea about aliens or time travel or something, it’s ultimately a character study and the journey at its center is about as literal as it is metaphorical.  While I was watching the movie, I really liked it.  It looks great and it has some very strong scenes, but it didn’t really leave me with the same level of food for thought that we’ve come to expect from this kind of science fiction.  It’s a movie that’s fairly straightforward in its messaging and there are plot elements which I just can’t completely overlook.  This is actually the feeling I get all too often when I leave James Gray movies, he’s a guy with clear talent but his movies always end up being a bit shallower than their trappings suggest.  Still, if the movie has failings they’re failings that are set up by high expectations, looked at in the wider world of commercial cinema this is definitely worth seeing especially for fans of hard science fiction.

***1/2 out of Five

Spider-Man: Far From Home(7/4/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The unique business relationship that Sony and Disney are in when it comes to Spider-Man should be something of a disaster.  Honestly I’m kind of surprised either party were willing to do it in the first place.  It was in Marvel’s interest to keep letting Sony flail and make bad Spider-Man movies until they gave up the IP like Fox did with Daredevil and it was in Sony’s interest to make Spider-Man movies on their own in hopes that they could find a way to make it work and keep all the profits.  Instead they came up with a surprisingly user-friendly deal that would have Marvel’s creative team bring Spider-Man into the MCU while having Sony front the bills and distribute the final product.  And somehow it worked.  2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was a great Spider-Man movie and a solid piece of the MCU puzzle, it was a win for everyone involved.  Of course the downside of the deal is that while the core Spider-Man films with Tom Holland they can also pretty much do whatever they want with the rest of the IP, meaning the market gets to be saturated with Spider-Man product both good (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse) and bad (Venom) and if they’re not careful we could become very sick of this character very quickly.  Fortunately we’re not at that point yet and as such I was still pretty excited for Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Picking up the summer after the events of Avengers: Endgame, the film finds Peter Parker (Tom Holland) mourning the loss of Tony Stark but excited about his upcoming school trip to Europe.  He’s looking forward to this trip firstly because he needs a break and secondly because he has this elaborate plan to woo Mary Jane (Zendaya) out of the friend-zone over the course of the trip, but all those plans get put on hold when he’s contacted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants to use Parker to deal with a situation while he’s on his trip.  Parker is reluctant to help and wants to spend the trip being a normal teenager, but after his tour group is attacked by a water monster he realizes he’s going to be brought in one way or another.  So he goes with Fury and meets Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a person from an alternate dimension whose world was destroyed by the same elemental monsters that appear to be emerging on Earth now.  Mysterio seems to be a much more conventionally powerful hero than Spider-Man but will their combined powers be enough to do the job?

So, just from looking at that plot description you can probably intuit one of the film’s biggest problems: its first half is largely predicated on the idea that famous supervillain Mysterio is a good guy and the film seems to treat it as a genuine surprise when this turns out not to be the case.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Spider-Man’s history will immediately see through this villain’s scheme given that his whole thing has historically been to create illusions to manipulate his foes.  Even people who know nothing about the original character should more or less see this twist coming so it’s a little surprising that the film does bother to treat it like a genuine twist.  That having been said I do like what the film does with the Mysterio character overall.  The guy has style and even though his reveal was predictable the film actually did manage to make the inevitable exposition dump about what he’s been doing sort of work for him.  I also like how they seem to be establishing a continuity of sorts between the spider-man villains in this series by making them people who are disaffected because of the seemingly benevolent corporate actions of Tony Stark whether it’s the displaced small businessman take on The Vulture from the last movie or the disgruntled middle-management level employees who make up Mysterio and his team.

Lame plot twist aside I was a bit disengaged by the film’s whole first half, which needed to do a lot to reconcile the post-Avengers: Endgame world from the down to earth perspective of Parker’s high school while also going through the franchises’ established high school shenanigans.  At times during this first half the comedy goes a bit too far; characters make dumb decisions and get into contrived situations to accommodate punchlines, some of the jokes just flat-out don’t work, and there’s generally a feeling of the movie throwing a whole lot at the wall to see what sticks.  You’re still enjoying the proceedings but its sloppy and something just seems off about it.  However, once the film gets the twist out of the way it finally recovers and becomes the MCU Spider-Man adventure that we were waiting for.  Parker is finally given a real goal in all of this and we get to stop pretending that these goofy CGI elemental monsters are a real threat.  The mix of comedy, action, and character gets back on track and the film just generally seems to tighten up and things seem to finally matter again.  So, yeah, despite some early stumbles the movie manages to recover and become another pretty strong piece of studio entertainment from Marvel that manages to be both an effective sequel to the last movie while furthering the overall story, which is something that this studio routinely makes look easy.

***1/2 out of Five

Rocketman(6/1/2019)

It’s always been kind of amazing to me that there was a point in history where Elton John was the biggest rock star in the world.  Not because of the music, I certainly see why that would be big, but it’s amazing that for a period of time in the 1970s the picture of rock superstardom was an overweight bespectacled ginger homosexual dude who played piano ballads while wearing strange outfits.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, in fact it’s sort of a testament to his talents: this was a dude who did not skate by on his looks.  But as far as Elton’s music goes he’s never really been my favorite artist.  When I was a kid he was still sort of around and would show up at strange moments to do stuff like eulogize Princess Diana or perform random duets with Eminem but he was ultimately an oldies act that I didn’t have time for.  I didn’t really get into him when I finally did start exploring classic rock either, and I think that largely has to do with his choice of instrument.  To teenage me rock and roll was defined by one thing: guitars, preferably electric guitars, and the longer the solos were the better.  I could find time for David Bowie, but Elton John was a step too far away from what really seemed like “rock” to me, hell I still haven’t really come around on Billy Joel.  Instead Elton John was someone I only came to like pretty late in life when I really started to expand the music I was into and started putting together just how many of the catchy songs I’d been hearing over the years were by him.  I’m still not a huge fan by any means and some of his songs like “Crocodile Rock” still don’t do it for me, but I am interested enough in him to have been pretty interested in the new biopic Rocketman.

Rocketman begins with a rather surreal scene of Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking into an rehab group therapy session wearing one of his signature wacky costumes and begins to tell his life story to the group.  This acts as something of a framing story throughout and every time we cut back to it he’s stripped off part of his costume.  From there we get a more or less chronological telling of the musician’s life from his childhood struggles with his father (Steven Mackintosh) and mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to meeting his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his becoming a superstar while battling addiction and an emotionally abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden).

This film has the immense benefit of opening less than a year after the worldwide blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  This is fortunate firstly because it shows the public is primed for a biographical account of a gay British music icon from the 70s and secondly it’s beneficial because its close proximity to that movie invites comparisons between the two and given how lackluster that movie was these comparisons are rather flattering.  Critics hate Bohemian Rhapsody because it’s a movie that flagrantly ignores several decades of advice critics have been giving filmmakers about musical biopics and just shamelessly leans into each and every biopic cliché in the clumsiest way possible (a problem that may be less apparent to the general public, who hasn’t sat through every damn one of these movies).  Rocketman, by contrast, carefully avoids at least some of the pitfalls which that leaped into.  For one thing, the film doesn’t feel sanitized like Rhapsody did.  It isn’t hesitant to show the extent of Elton John’s drug use and to make him look like kind of an asshole at certain points while also exploring what’s leading him to behave that way.  It also isn’t as squeamish about his homosexuality (even if the film’s one sex scene has a Call Me By Your Name style cutaway), and Taron Egerton also sings his own songs and gives a more well-rounded performance than Rami Malek, whose Oscar winning performance did not really impress me beyond the visual imitation of Freddie Mercury.

Of course the film’s most radical difference from Bohemian Rhapsody and musical biopics in general is that it actually takes the format of a jukebox musical rather than a straight biography with various fantasy sequences in which people (and not necessarily just Elton) “burst into song” and perform Elton John songs with thematic similarities to what’s going on.  I say these are fantasy sequences, but in many ways the film doesn’t actually treat them like that.  Director Dexter Fletcher never “snaps back to reality” so to speak after one of these performances are done, they just kind of “magic realism” their way into the movie and aren’t commented upon.  The film also makes no attempt to present any of these songs in their historical chronology.  For instance the film shows Elton John playing “Crocodile Rock” at his first American performance at the Troubadour even though that song was actually from his sixth album and more than likely wasn’t written at that point.  This kind of messing around with facts got Bohemian Rhapsody into a lot of trouble given that it presented itself as a straightforward biography but it feel more natural here given much of the movie is presented as a sort of fantastical musical and that the more salient facts seem to be accurate.

Of course the decision to make this a musical does have a couple of drawbacks.  For one thing the whole conceit seems to be based in the notion that Elton John music reflected his personal life, which would seem to be a rather dubious notion given that he didn’t write his own lyrics and generally seem rather impersonal.  At times the film does seem to be stretching a little to recontextualize some of these songs, like when “Tiny Dancer” is turned into a song about Elton’s loneliness in L.A. while Taupin is off chasing tail and the movie sort of contorts itself at one point to make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fit a conversation.  In addition to that, the musical motif is in some ways a bit of a smokescreen.  The usual musical biopic clichés are still there under the seemingly unique wrapping.  This is after all the story of a bright eyed musician who shocks the record company with his talents and shoots to superstardom before almost losing everything to addiction and hedonism until he enters rehab and emerges victorious.  It’s kind of the same story that damn near every rock star has and to an extent cliché is inevitable, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie smooths out those edges and flows more naturally.  It actually feels like it’s put some thought behind what the rockstar life is like and isn’t just presenting the material out of some obligation to formula.

I do think that this movie is the beneficiary of lowered expectations to some extent.  It might try a couple of new things but it’s certainly not going full I’m Not There and really innovating with the form.  In fact I suspect that this kind of biopic by way of jukebox musical format is a bit more common on Broadway in shows like “Jersey Boys.”  However, the fact of the matter is that I’ve never really been as allergic to the musical biopic format as some critics and wouldn’t even have been all that mad at Bohemian Rhapsody if not for the fact that people were giving it goddamn Oscars.  So really, taking that usual format and using it in a way that has some actual thought behind it rather than half-assedly going through the motions probably is enough to sell me on a project.  If this had only been about a band or artist that means more to me this might have even been a slam dunk, but as it stands it’s a solid movie that will serve the fans of the artist well.

***1/2 out of Five