Thursday, August 17, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein


I’ve always enjoyed the comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, remembering watching their movies as a child as I’d spend my Saturdays watching the local channel that would feature their films.  They were such a great pair—Abbott being the straight man and shining Costello on as the chubby little guy who usually cried wolf.  But it’d been years and years since I had the good fortune to sit down and watch one of their movies, not recalling any of the ones I’d seen as a kid.  Knowing that the most popular ones they’d filmed were the ones that featured the Universal Monsters, I checked with Netflix for the availability on the first one and had it sent to me.


Some of the most notable and recognizable movie characters are the Universal Monsters from the 1930s to the 1950s.  Icons like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Wolf Man are just a few of the well-known monsters that we’ve all come to know and love.  To this day, those movies still work and will forever be timeless, as the use of eerie shadows and tranquil illumination make me feel that I can never get enough of them.  The first of the monsters movies—Dracula—is nearly 90 years old and it was the one that started them all.  Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein soon followed, making Universal Studios monster movies the phenomenon of its time.
 
The witty comedy duo, Abbott and Costello, were a hit in the 40s, making Universal Studios a lot of money with their films.  Toward the end of that decade, it was quite an ingenious idea to have the comedy duo “meet” the popular horror monsters of that era with the first experiment beginning in 1948.  The idea was so successful that it spawned another four films where the two comics run into other popular scary movie characters in comedic fashion.  But the movie that started this trend, however, is none other than Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
 
Although the title makes it sound like the comics were only going to meet Frankenstein’s Monster (of course, the title is a misnomer, as Frankenstein was the name of the man who’d created the monster, not the name of the monster itself), but two other characters are brought into the mix as well.
 
Before any further discussion, here’s the plot breakdown of the film…
 
Two hapless freight handlers, Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello), find themselves encountering Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.).
 
Released in 1948, this was the perfect time for a mishmash of comedy and horror, putting together the genius comedy of Abbott and Costello with the ever-popular and ongoing Universal Studios monster movies.  With the recent films of The Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein still popular and going strong, it was a no-brainer to put this together. 
 
The director, Charles Barton, has quite a list of films he’s helmed from the early 1930s until the 1960s, with quite a few popular television series interspersed between.  One thing I’d noticed, however, was how many Abbott and Costello films he had directed and that number is eight.  Seems that Barton was a good fit with the comedy twosome and Universal Studios had recognized that, giving him the reins to direct the funnymen in all those hits.
 
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein does feel like one of the serious Universal Classics at its heart, especially with Lugosi picking up where he had left off so many years before.  Although he had played a similar vampire character of Count Mora in Mark of the Vampire in 1935, this was the first time in 17 years that Lugosi came back to play Dracula in a feature-length movie.  Lon Chaney Jr.’s last outing as the lycanthroped Larry Talbot had only been 3 years prior along with Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster in House of Dracula.  But they all stepped into their roles flawlessly and had played them earnestly, regardless of the film being a comedy.
 
By today’s standards, yes, the movie isn’t very scary and might be seen as a bit cheesy.  Even the comedy of Abbott and Costello isn’t that great in this flick, but all the components that were brought together for this outing totally makes up for any inconsistencies you may notice.  Some of the skits seen throughout this film made me chuckle—one in particular, when Costello needed to grab a table cloth and pulled it off while leaving all the glasses and candleholders in place, he stops to look at the camera, breaking the fourth wall…classic.  You’ll see quite a few scenes like that, where Lou Costello chews the scenery.  In fact, there are a few YouTube videos you can find where there are some very funny bloopers from this movie, a lot of them having Glenn Strange crack up at Costello’s antics.
 
First off, one of the biggest misconceptions of all the popular monsters is that Frankenstein is the name of the monster in the film of the same name.  Really, the title refers to the doctor who created the creature with it never receiving a name within the film’s story.  It’s been a misnomer for years and years, and I’m sure if you were to show a picture of the monster to anyone and asked them to name the creature, they’d reply “Frankenstein.”  But here, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein isn’t in the story, but all this can be overlooked…unless you’re a picky movie enthusiast like me.
 
You can tell all the cast is having fun, at times not really taking the film seriously, but overall you can tell Universal had struck a gold mine with this concept.  In fact, the studio mined the idea four more times with Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).
 
Lastly, I’ll say it’s kind of sad that the real creator of these famous monsters wasn’t asked to come back for these films and that’s the great make-up artist, Jack P. Pierce.  He, alone, is responsible for the appearance of Frankenstein’s Monster and The Wolf Man, as well as many other famous monsters from Universal Studios’ canon of early horror flicks.  Here, Bud Westmore was brought in for the task of replicating Pierce’s work.  And it’s not to disparage Westmore’s efforts, it’s just upsetting that Jack Pierce was treated the way he was by Universal.
 
So…what’s my final “bit” on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein?
 
The movie has nearly the same feel as most of the Universal Monster movies, just supplementing some of the light comedy touches from the comic duo.  It never feels like a parody of the films from the 30s and 40s—Bela Lugosi as Dracula is just as ominous, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster is somewhat menacing, and Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man is once again frightening—so, they’re never put in situations that make them look ridiculous.  The movie, as a whole, is a good time and fun for all ages.
 
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Friday, August 4, 2017

The Hidden


Although I have a great appreciation for the films of the 1980s, it’s usually reserved for the ones released within the early part of the decade with anything after 1985 being ignored or not as enjoyable…for the most part.  For instance, my love of the Friday the 13th franchise is mainly for the first four films and I usually stop after watching the fourth film.  With the A Nightmare on Elm Street film franchise, I go as far as The Dream Warriors.  It just seems that the latter half of the 80s included too many silly films and they all became parodies of what we’d seen a mere few years before it.  But for some reason, 1987 was a year that churned out some very memorable movies that were entertaining and exciting.

 

With that said, and as unfortunate as it is, The Hidden had fallen through the cracks and hasn’t seen resurgence thus far.  But I’m here to tell you…it needs to be looked at and discussed.

 

The plot breakdown…

 

An alien parasite with the ability to possess human bodies goes on a merciless crime spree in Los Angeles, committing dozens of murders and robberies.  In pursuit of the extraterrestrial criminal is FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan) and police detective Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) who is investigating the recent outbreak of violence.  Closing in on the vicious intruder, the city faces a brutal threat like no other it has ever encountered.

 

Speaking of the 80s, there was a time back then when many productions were filmed in and around the Los Angeles area.  Although I’m not that familiar with the L.A. area, seeing these films almost makes me think I know it quite well.  Most of the films were memorable classics like The Terminator, To Live and Die in L.A., Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard, and those films always bring a sense of nostalgia into me.  I can go through a slough of films that most of you would recognize, but The Hidden stands out as an underrated classic—to me anyway.

 

I remember seeing this in theaters way back in 1987 and it seemed to be somewhat of a hit, resonating a little bit of a following at the time, but it seemed to be quickly forgotten after its run in theaters.  It’s understandable, of course, since 1987 was a big year for hit films.  Films like Beverly Hills Cop II, Lethal Weapon, Robocop, Creepshow 2, Fatal Attraction, and Full Metal Jacket—which preceded and followed The Hidden—made it a vague memory soon after it came out.  In fact, I happened to be perusing eBay when I noticed a Japanese import of this DVD which made me pause and gave me a bit of a surprise as it instantly brought me back to 1987.  Believing it to be an above-average sci-fi/action/thriller, I knew I had to add it to my collection.

 

The film grabs you right from the beginning, as it opens on a bank robbery, seen from a security camera, with a man shooting up the place before taking off with his take.  One part of this scene that I enjoy is after the crook shoots everybody up and is about to leave with his loot, he pauses to look at the security camera and smiles before shooting it out.  He then goes out to his Ferrari, pops in a cassette to blast some heavy metal music (these aspects are a repeated trait of this villain in the film), and speeds off with the police sirens being heard in the background.  Right away, this movie sucks you in.  It leaves you with so many questions: Who is this guy? Why is he so violent? Why is he openly breaking the law, even after getting away from the bank?  It’s the right way to start a film like this, hooking the audience to watch until the end.

 

For a little known film, with probably not that big of a budget, the special effects were—and still are—pretty convincing.  Even though the movie is thirty years old, it still makes me scratch my head here and there as I wonder how they performed some of those gags.  It’s no secret, especially if you read the plot summary to the story, that the film is about an alien parasite that takes over human bodies and will leave a dying one to take over another.  So performing those scenes would’ve been a daunting task, even by today’s standards.  I won’t get into the descriptions of those scenes, but I would’ve thought the special effects would’ve looked phony today, but it still holds up.  The gurus that worked on it obviously make use of dummy heads of the actors that had to be created, but they looked spot on.  Compared to The Terminator and Robocop, which were made around the same time and employed similar special effects techniques, the mechanical heads here looked way more convincing.

 

One critic’s quote on the cover of the DVD, by some random movie journalist, cites this film is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Terminator, which is the perfect description because that’s the feel of this film throughout: The movie doesn’t let up, there’s no dull downtime (besides the dinner visit, but that lets us—the audience—get to know the characters of Gallagher and Beck a bit more), and it’s basically the good guys against an unstoppable force that can take over anyone it chooses.  Hell, I’d even say there’s a little bit of The Thing in this flick as there’s a bit of a who’s who plot device to the story.

 

Always giving kudos to animal actors, I have to give props to Roy the Dog who plays Jake, Lieutenant Masterson’s (Clarence Felder) dog.  A characteristic that’s shown throughout the film, when the parasite takes over a body, the alien-controlled person tends to slightly lick their lips to appear menacing or cluing in the audience to show that the person we see is the antagonist.  At one point during the movie, the dog becomes infested with the parasite and later we see it looking at Gallagher as it licks his lips.  The scene always puts a smile on my face.

 

If there’s anything I can nitpick about the film is that I wish there was a backstory shown of where this parasite came from, maybe a scene showing it escaping the planet from where it originated.  But I understand the budget the film had to work with and it really doesn’t take anything away for me.

 

Being a 30-year-old movie, you’re going to see some silliness like the cars of the time and the technology available (like a car stereo that plays cassettes or a man walking around with a boom box), but as long as you can get past that, you’ll enjoy the movie immensely. 

 

My final “bit” on The Hidden?

 

The movie is a forgotten gem that many people may not know about or have never seen before.  Although it’s your typical 80s flick with a lot of gun fighting and action scenes, it’s a well-made film that encompasses so much originality and the right balance of humor and gravitas.  As I’d mentioned, the special effects are still believable and the acting is taken seriously, making this movie a must for a fun, popcorn-munching good time.  Maybe Shout! Factory can get a collector’s edition going with this one…I know I’d appreciate it.

 

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Get Out

Most of you know the comic genius of the Key and Peele duo: Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.  Although the men are talented comedians—both in the business for some time before hitting stardom on the comedy sketch show, “MadTV,” then hitting the television waves with their own show: “Key and Peele”—Jordan Peele has made a name for himself lately as a film director.  In fact, his only directorial job so far has been the praised film we’re going to talk about today…Get Out.



It’s time for a young African-American, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), for a weekend visit at their secluded estate in the woods.  But before long, the friendly and polite ambience will give way to a nightmare.


For a first time director—let alone, horror movie director—Jordan Peele definitely knows how to set the mood and arranges it eerily so in Get Out.  Although some of the tropes featured in the beginning structure of the story are typical thriller clichés, Peele tracks it well and fits it into the film without making it stick out like a sore thumb.  For example, at the beginning of the film, the young couple, Chris and Rose, is on their way to the parents’ home and something shocking happens to act as an omen.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it, nor does it spell out anything in particular, but before you have time to think about it, Peele’s setting up the next scene to make you invest your feelings into what’s coming next.  He doesn’t allow the audience to dwell upon certain scenes that may or may not be stereotypical or overly dramatic, he just keeps the story moving along to keep our brains busy.


Racism is definitely in the forefront of this story, going from Chris’s concern that Rose should tell her parents about him, to the parents'—especially the dad—over-acceptance of their daughter’s boyfriend, to the obvious majority of Caucasian people throughout the story…it’s constantly there and brought to attention at times in the most uncomfortable way.  The typical dialogue that white people seem to fall back on, to try—and fail—and fit in with an African-American is amusingly used here (Rose’s dad says he’d vote for Obama for a third term if he could is one of the many uncomfortable conversations you’ll hear), yet it gives the movie an even more unnerving undertone and making us worry for the central character of Chris.


I’ve got to say that the performances of Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose’s parents, the Armitages, were probably the two that I’d accepted right away.  With the setting at their home, which is in the middle of some woods and far from any neighbors (as mentioned by Mr. Armitage himself), it’s believable to think that they’d truly be out of touch with society and to be as odd as they are when Chris first meets them.  Keener and Whitford play the open-armed parents beautifully, making it the only time we—the audience—truly feel at ease...or vulnerable.


It’s when we meet the rest of the main cast that we start to feel something’s amiss, especially with the hired help: Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel).  Walter is introduced as the groundskeeper and Georgina as the help around the house.  Of course, ones thought will go to how it seems a bit racist to have African-Americans as servants, but Mr. Armitage actually gives an acceptable explanation that the two were around and helped with the grandparents when they were on hospice care, explaining that they were like family and didn’t want them to go after the grandparents passed on.  Fair enough…but the strange actions of Walter and Georgina are what really show something’s not right at the estate.  And how could I forget Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones)?  The over-aggressive, yet accepting way, he treats Chris during their first dinner together is a little off-putting and sets the tone for his relationship with him. 


Yes, Jordan Peele plays this out perfectly, making the audience wonder just what they hell is going on with everybody surrounding the Armitages throughout the story.  When remembering certain parts of the film, or rewatching it, Peele actually puts subtle hints of foreshadowing that really get under your skin once you get to the third act of this film.


Of course, what every horror movie needs is some comedy interspersed throughout and that’s where Chris’s friend, Rod (LilRel Howery), comes in.  Rod is Chris’s friend who works for TSA at the airport and is housesitting for him while he’s away.  I can’t help but think this part should’ve gone to Peele himself, but Howery is hilarious in the short scenes that he’s featured in.


Is there anything I can nitpick about Get Out?  Well…yeah.  But…it’ll give away the twist of the story, so I really don’t want to divulge that. 


I’m actually glad that I stayed away from spoilers before going into it and stayed away from web sites and YouTube channels that discussed the movie.  Going into this cold is the best thing one can do and you’ll thank yourself for it.  I really had no idea what was going to happen and it made the experience that much more exciting.


Lastly, I’ll say that I had really enjoyed Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Chris, how levelheaded he played the part and the emotion he displayed during some of the tough scenes, were great.  Although he has quite a résumé in film and television, this is the first time I’ve witnessed his acting.  He’s set to be in Marvel Studio’s The Black Panther next year, so I look forward to following his career.


So…what’s my final “bit” on Get Out?


I’m so blown away by Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, I can’t say it enough.  After watching this, I thought for sure Peele’s been a seasoned veteran of helming productions.  But, for being a first time director, and to take charge of such a great movie, I have to applaud him fervently.  So many great touches here and there, the lighting used so well, the perfect settings, and such a slight connotation of awkwardness brought out by the actors…all blends together and turns into an amazing film.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Jordan Peele does next.  You need to see this film.


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Monday, July 17, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

“Apes…together…strong!”


Here we are, just six years after the remarkable first film in these new reboots that has featured the most incredible special effects in movie history.  Yes, War for the Planet of the Apes has arrived and what a feast for the eyes and ears!  Say what you will about the Avatar films and how they’d set the path for motion capture CGI, but these films have grown and secured such a foothold within the special effects spectacles we see just about every summer. 


I’ve always been a fan—not a huge fan, but a fan—of the Planet of the Apes series of films.  The first one, released in 1968, is still an amazing film despite the laughable costumes and masks that the actors wear to depict the apes within that production.  But the story is so captivating and engrossing that you quickly forget about the cheesy makeup effects of that time.  I can accept it because I would just imagine that the apes had evolved over the centuries to stand more upright and to become taller, so it’s not too far gone of a conclusion.  Where it’s ridiculous—and I can’t remember which sequel it was—but there’s a film in the series where the apes end up back in time and are captured and believed to be normal apes.   


Back in 2011, ten years after the flop that Burton’s film had been, I really had thought the Apes films had run their course and couldn’t possibly be able to provide any more to the whole story.  But I was wrong.  It had been the right time, especially with the special effects technology, to start from the beginning and render realistic-looking chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans to show exactly how this all started.  Rise played that out brilliantly and Dawn continued the story faultlessly.


So here we are with War for the Planet of the Apes and I was chomping at the bit to go out to see this flick.  I say this with a bit of chagrin, but I think I’d been looking forward to seeing this movie more so than Spider-Man: Homecoming.  Suffice it to say, I think War may be the…


…well, let’s break down the plot summary and go at this step-by-step…


After the apes suffer unimaginable losses at the hands of a new enemy, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar (Andy Serkis) wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.


If you’ve seen the previous entry to this franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, then you know this story was coming.  At the end of the previous film, it was said through exposition that the military was on its way to fight the supposed threat of the apes.  In a way, the transition to this film is seamless and we can go right into this plot without much thought of what had happened beforehand.  It’ll help to refresh yourself with a viewing of the preceding two entries, however, just so you don’t have to think much about some of the aspects of this film.  Overall, we knew this was coming, we knew this was going to be a culmination of Caesar’s story—in one way or another—and we knew this would be an afflicting plight for both the humans and the apes.


Although most of the audiences’ presumptions of what will happen are correct, there are still a few surprises to be seen as well as a few connections to the original 1968 film.  Along the way, the audience will see great acting through the wonder of motion capture technology (and it is quite incredible this time around—more on that later), a few heartbreaking moments, and some delightfully humorous moments (mainly with the new character of “Bad Ape,” a quickly-established crowd favorite, played by Steve Zahn).


When thinking of the special effects used in this particular film, one can’t help but think back on the previous two and know that War surpassed them both.  Don’t get me wrong, Rise had some groundbreaking effects, especially with Andy Serkis’s Mo-Cap performances as Caesar, and it improved quite a bit in the sequel, but there were some scenes where the CGI was a bit spotty and obvious.  In Rise, the young Caesar wasn’t as realistic as the adult version and can take you out of the movie when seeing it today.  Dawn was better, but one scene in particular wasn’t done well and that was when the special effects team rendered the bear and elk during the hunting scene at the beginning of the film.  Here, in War for the Planet of the Apes, I didn’t notice any unrealistic execution of characters.


As for he humans in this story, Woody Harrelson played the villain as well as he could.  Though it was your typical cookie-cutter bad guy, the point was made that he had a personal vendetta against the apes and had no empathy for them whatsoever.  You learn early on that he’s the Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now reference) of the story who is going rogue with his platoon.  Not only is he an enemy of the apes, but of the remaining humans as well.  Harrelson’s Colonel is heartless and unlikable in this story, making his character a perfect adversary to Caesar.


To add to the conversation of the motion capture creature-rendering technology used this time around, I really think the Academy Awards need to add a category for Mo-Cap performances, because Andy Serkis is the best out there.  Either have that new grouping or include him in the competition for best actor—his performances of Gollum in Lord of the Rings, the title character in King Kong, and Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are some of the most incredible accomplishments one will ever see.  Along those lines, and seeing how well the effects crew was able to realistically render the apes, I’d seen an interesting tweet from PETA the other day, where they’d mention how this new Apes movie was proof positive that filmmakers won’t ever have to use live animals again.  I really wouldn’t go that far—it’s a bit cheaper to hire a dog trainer to have a dog obey some simple commands than to have a CGI-rendered dog that’ll cost quite a bit of money to showcase—but I see what they’re getting at with that statement and that’s high praise to the individuals who were able to bring Caesar and his apes to life.


My final “bit” on War for the Planet of the Apes?


A stellar completion to the Caesar arc of these new Apes films, but I still hope we see more.  Perhaps the filmmakers can spin off or just keep going with this world to see how the apes came to be in the original ’68 film.  How did they evolve to upright-walking apes?  When did they decide to wear clothing?  How did the Statue of Liberty get buried on the coastline?  Even more, will 20th Century Fox allow the original film to be remade/rebooted/reimagined?  I wouldn’t mind and I would even welcome it just so it fits in this string of films.  But War is a great conclusion to a fabulous trilogy of films documenting Caesar’s rise to power, his leadership, and his legacy.  Andy Serkis is awesome, as are all the motion capture actors in this, and the box office success speaks volumes on that fact.  If you haven’t already, go see War for the Planet of the Apes now.


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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming


Okay, so it’s been awhile, huh?  Where I was once an unyielding scribe of film criticism, I soon turned to the world of sports—namely, baseball—and set aside the writing of reviews.  Now, I’m still a constant movie-goer—always putting in a disc in the player or seeing the occasional blockbuster in the theaters—but I had to turn my attention elsewhere and put Cinema Bits in hiatus for a time (it’s a long story and I won’t get into it).  I’ve done it before, taking a yearlong break until Star Wars: The Force Awakens pulled me back to my film scrutiny and making me see the error of my ways. 
 
So, here I am, once again being brought back, compelled to write about a film I’d watched with the exuberance and giddiness as my 9-year-old self had experienced way back when I witnessed Star Wars back in 1978 (I didn’t get to see the movie until it was brought back to theaters the year after its release).  Yes…even though I’m going to be hitting 49 years old this coming November, I still felt like a little boy as I patiently waited for Spider-Man: Homecoming to begin.
 
You’d think I would have already felt this way back in 2002 when Tobey Maguire donned the webbed red-and-blues in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man—and I had felt that way as the movie’s final money-shot elicited a huge smile on my face that took quite a while to fade away even as I saw the movie again and again during repeat viewings—but it wasn’t until the sequel to that film was released when I had the state of euphoria that had equaled my Star Wars movie wonderment. 
 
I’ll state it here and now that the bar was set before going into the theater to see this film—Spider-Man 2 was the film to which I’d compare all the rest.  As it stands—and I know I’ll get some arguments against this (goodness knows I’ve already debated about this with many comic book film enthusiasts)—I don’t think anything has stood up to Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man outing.  The main dispute that comes up is The Dark Knight, and yes, I do believe Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film is great, but doesn’t have the heroic comic book feel that Spider-Man 2 exhibits.  Every time I watch the sequel, especially the scenes where Spidey is fighting Doctor Octopus on the train, I feel like the scenes are jumping out of a comic book, keeping me glued to the screen as I’d been glued to the comic books as a kid.  That was how I’d wanted to feel again when venturing out to see Spider-Man: Homecoming.
 
For obvious reasons, I’m not going to even address the Andrew Garfield films because that’ll raise a level of negativity that I really don’t think I can escape.
 
For the casual viewer of these recent Marvel Studios films, such as the Iron Man or Captain America films, you may not realize how important this film is to all of them.  In short, Sony Pictures owned the filming rights to the Spider-Man character for nearly two decades.  Marvel Comics decided to create their own studios—later, having Disney purchase the whole company—and decided to make this whole cinematic universe to cross-over all their characters in multiple movies.  Basically, Marvel Studios have most of their characters’ rights back, save for Spider-Man belonging to Sony, with The X-Men and Fantastic Four belonging to 20th Century Fox.  However, Sony decided to cooperate and share Spidey (it helped that those aforementioned Andrew Garfield films bombed—I know, I said I wouldn’t get into that), so now there’s a deal in place to share the character and split the wealth that comes with it.
 
Now, if only 20th Century Fox would smarten up and follow suit…I’m sure they will soon.
 
Well, for now, let’s get into Spider-Man: Homecoming
 
Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns home to live with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and resumes life as a high schooler.  Under the watchfull eye of mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Parker starts to embrace his newfound identity as Spider-Man.  As Peter tries to go back to his normal daily routine, he’s distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just a friendly neighborhood superhero.  However, he must soon put his powers to the test when the evil Vulture (Michael Keaton) emerges to threaten everything that he holds dear.
 
If you’ve been up-to-date with the Marvel series of movies, then you’ve seen last year’s Captain America: Civil War which showcased the first time Spider-Man has been brought into this cinematic world…and, boy, was it an entrance!  However, coming into this, I’ve got to admit, my expectations were a little low.  I mean, come on, let’s face it…this is the second reboot of the character on film, with the last crappy reboot still fresh in our minds (I know…I’m still refraining…but it’s difficult), so it’s hard to think that any Spider-Man film can have any more tricks up its sleeve to give us something fresh and exciting.
 
Before getting into the movie, let’s talk about the cast…
 
First up…Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the youngest Spider-Man brought to life on screen at the suitable young age of 21.  In comparison, Nicholas Hammond was 27 when he played the Wall Crawler in the 1977 television series, Tobey Maguire was nearly 27 as well when he took the role in the 2002 film, and Andrew (ugh!) Garfield was close to 29.  It definitely helps here as Holland looks and sounds like he belongs in high school, not having a five o’clock shadow certainly supports the illusion that we’re seeing a young kid deal with the heavy burden of being a person endowed with super powers.  But his acting in this flick comes across as how any of us would feel if we suddenly could flip and jump around, crawling up walls and having the power to kick anybody’s ass…I think we’d feel the same excitement.  Well…at least I would.
 
The baddie here, Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture, gives us a memorable performance as well.  At times, we see the comedian come out of him, but most of the time Keaton plays this villain as a commanding head of a criminal organization.  At the same time, we can side with him as he starts this story off as the boss of a legitimate clean-up crew who gets gipped from making a pretty good payday for cleaning up the mess left behind after the Battle of New York that took place during The Avengers.  So, Keaton—as Adrian Toomes—plays his role as anybody seeking fairness.  Seeing him as the bad guy here in Spider-Man: Homecoming, I can’t help but to conjure up memories of Tim Burton’s Batman; it’s very interesting to see Keaton going from the heroic role to the villain.  Though, I think we all know he has the capability to do so, as he’s played the bad guy here and there over the years—Pacific Heights, Desperate Measures, and Robocop are just a few that I can recall—so the choice to make him The Vulture was good.
 
As you may have seen in the trailers, Robert Downey, Jr. is here as Tony Stark/Iron Man, playing the mentor to young Peter Parker.  We get just enough of Downey as to not make this an Iron Man movie that features Spider-Man, which calms the thoughts of many people who’d thought that this was going to feature more than a cameo of the billionaire-playboy-philanthropist.  Pretty much what you see in the trailers are all the scenes Robert Downey, Jr. is on the screen and that’s a good thing.  But he’s the same witty and amusing tech genius that really doesn’t want Peter to get too involved in the superhero business, obviously protecting him and not wanting him to get hurt.
 
Marisa Tomei as Aunt May is definitely a new take on the character, but it makes sense when you compare the ages of her character and Peter Parker.  In reality, it’d be completely normal for a fifty-something year-old woman to have a 15-year-old nephew.  I know all us Spider-Man comic book fans would love to have the frail, old, grey-haired woman as Aunt May, complete with hair tied up in a bun, but that would not be relatable…especially between the two characters.  I like what they did here, casting Tomei in the role (which was already established in Captain America: Civil War), and I look forward to seeing how her character evolves from this film.
 
The rest of the cast does well, with great chemistry between them all.  There are some Easter Eggs and surprises to take in—I may need to take in another viewing to see them all myself.  I won’t go over them because it’ll just bog down this review, not to mention spoil some surprises along the way.
 
So…as I’d mentioned earlier, the bar was set with Spider-Man 2 as what I consider the best superhero movie—let alone, Spider-Man movie—ever.  Does Spider-Man: Homecoming beat it? 
 
The quick answer is…no.
 
But that’s not to say that this is a bad movie, no, on the contrary.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is the perfect introduction for the character to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Holland’s Peter Parker definitely goes through an arc in the film, going from an anxious kid who’d gotten a taste of superheroing with an awesome technological outfit, to an adult-minded young man who understands what he has to do with his newfound powers. 
 
If anything, this is what endears the character to all who’ve already seen him on the screen to everybody who’s coming into the character brand new.  To see Spider-Man as a newbie, starting off as a bike-thief and car-jacker deterrent, but making mistakes here and there, and going up against a real threat to prove himself even after Stark takes away the tech suit…this all adds up to how valiant and courageous this character has been throughout the years.  At one point during the film, I was kind of thinking about how we weren’t seeing any real web-swinging, but during a pivotal scene in Washington DC where Spider-Man has to scale the Washington Monument, it’s made clear that Peter hasn’t really climbed that high as we see him get a bit of acrophobia at the top of the monolith.
 
No, Spider-Man 2 still has stood the test of time with The Avengers coming close as toppling that film as the best superhero flick, but Spider-Man: Homecoming is just a different type of movie that is great in and of itself.  I look forward to where this is going and how the character will grow within the Avengers films, in its sequel, and how he’ll crossover into other Marvel productions.  Seeing the numbers over this past weekend, I’m willing to bet that’s how everyone else felt as well.  I hope Sony realizes they have a good thing here and doesn’t blow it.
 
So…my final “bit” on Spider-Man: Homecoming?
 
If anything, this movie has a lot of heart, almost going to the point where they try to make the character as great as he’d been in past films, only to dial it back to show you how grounded he should be.  It’s truly an origin story without having us go through the rigmarole of seeing the spider bite and the uncle’s death, but to see how Peter Parker deals with having these great powers as he lives a normal high school life.  Tom Holland does a wonderful job as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, giving us some humorous moments as well as heroic ones.  It’s the perfect—official—introduction of the wallcrawler into the Marvel lineup of films.  I’m definitely looking forward to the ones that are coming up.
 
Just a heads-up and you probably would know this already, but there is a mid-credits scene that’s fairly important to the film and where it’ll go from here.  Also, there’s an after-credits scene where the joke is on us…not going to go any further than that, but it’s funny…at the movie-goer’s expense.
 
Thanks for reading!
 
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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Suicide Squad


You know, I’ve never read—nor have I ever collected—the comic books from which this film is adapted.  Criticisms of the movie may have to be given to the writers of the comic book rather than the writers of this production.  However, to me, it’s up in the air and whomever the blame may lie upon, you can decide for yourselves.  What I do know is that this film takes place within the constructs of the DC cinematic universe, not only of all the latest DC films but also the ones that will be coming into fruition soon. 

 

With that said, I’d opted not to see this film when it was released in theaters this past summer.  It had been on my personal watch list, albeit not that high up where I’d really felt the need to see it.  I was hot-and-cold on the news of the production—I’d been excited to see Jared Leto’s own interpretation of The Joker, but the description of the story and what it entailed seemed a little lackluster.  Sure, the trailer showed us that Ben Affleck’s Batman would be making some sort of cameo, but I figured it’d be a very small part of the whole story (and I was right…spoiler alert), but that wasn’t enough to convince me.  Therefore, shortly after this film’s release, I’d made a conscious decision to wait for its distribution onto home media, forgetting about it until I’d seen its availability on Netflix a week ago.

 

Even as it appeared in my mailbox the other day, I had to push myself to pop it in the machine to finally see this film and decide on whether I’d liked it or not. 

 

So…did I?  Well…let me break down the synopsis of Suicide Squad first.

 

A secret government agency, run by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), recruits some of the most dangerous incarcerated super-villains—Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and Slipknot (Adam Beach)—led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and with minor help from Katana (Karen Fukuhara), to form a defensive task force.  Their first mission: save the world from the apocalypse caused by The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne).  All the while, The Joker (Jared Leto) thwarts the group every step of the way.

 

One thing that I’d wondered before seeing this, and while witnessing the first of a few trailers that had been released, was how these villains were going to be put in check and not run off when they were assembled for this group.  Seeing this movie the other night finally answered that speculation and just provoked disappointment from me rather than satisfying my inquisitorial thoughts.  Seems that the writers, producers, comic book authors—whomever—couldn’t think of a better way to solve this without ripping off the John Carpenter classic, Escape From New York.  Yes, the answer was to inject tiny explosive capsules into the necks of each villain—with an identical mechanical hypodermic to boot—and threaten them with the assurance that they’d be killed if they tried to cut and run.  I literally shook my head as this part of the film played out.

 

Let me go over this group of villains who are apparently needed to form this anti-hero heroic group.

 

Deadshot seems to be the main character of the group and his talent is that he’s a really good shot with firearms, able to hit the same exact target with micro-precision—we’re talking about hitting the same exact bullet hole over and over again.  He doesn’t have any super abilities, like strength or senses, just the capability to shoot a gun perfectly and accurately.  Deadshot does appear to have some sort of military background, definitely has some sort of combat experience, so he gets a pass on being needed for this team.

 

The requirement to have Harley Quinn as part of this group puzzled me throughout the whole movie.  She has no superpowers, she’s insane, she’s tied to the recently escaped Joker who’s still on the loose, so I don’t know why she’d be needed—let alone allowed—to be in this team.  Margot Robbie is definitely included here as eye candy for prepubescent boys who’ll undoubtedly be gaga over seeing her in this film, but it’s senseless to include her in this squad.

 

Diablo has some cool pyrotechnic powers, but reserves them until later, citing his vow to be peaceful and not to lose control due to him killing his wife and child a while back.  It was really getting on my nerves throughout the film when trouble would arise and he just stayed back, not helping the situation.

 

And speaking of keeping to the background without helping, Killer Croc does NOTHING except follow the group around until—lo and behold—the soldiers need to swim through the flooded sewers to get to the battle zone and he jumps in to show off his super swimming skills.  Sure, he fights here and there, but so do the no-name soldiers you see in these quick-cut scenes.

 

Captain Boomerang seems wasted as well, not really doing anything throughout this story.  Sure, he throws a few boomerangs, even has a boomerang drone (think of the physics and logistics of how that would work) that he uses to spy on the battle ahead, but besides a few one-liners that fall flat (in fact, ALL the one-liners you hear in this flick are not funny at all), Cap is wasted in this ensemble.

 

In charge of this group of desperados is Rick Flag, the military leader who keeps the villains in check with the threat of detonating the charges in their necks (which he demonstrates on one of the rogues who has the shortest screen time in superhero movie history).

 

Of all the characters mentioned, there is not one ounce of chemistry seen between any of them, making anything they say to one another seemed forced and unbelievable.  Some characters go from hating each other to suddenly having a comradery.  Case in point, at the beginning of the film, Deadshot tells Flag a few times that he’s going to kill him when he gets a chance, showing hatred and a determination in his words.  Yet, shortly after, the men are nearly sharing a bromance.  I really didn’t feel anything for these villains, yet I felt the soldiers and the government they’d worked for weren’t any better.  When there are no characters you care for or any heroes you can get behind, the movie usually falls flat…and that’s what happened here with Suicide Squad…at times.

 

Before seeing this movie, I’d hoped my intuition would’ve been wrong and that it was going to be better than I’d thought, but the film is just a rushed and thinly plotted story that didn’t make sense at times.  For example, Amanda Waller’s reasoning to put this group together was to thwart an attack of an evil entity of Superman’s ilk.   Meta-Humans like Enchantress made sense and so did Diablo, maybe even Killer Croc, but all the other rogues were just humans that wouldn’t stand a chance against something with Superman’s strength.  And wasn’t it a weird coincidence that Waller was pushing for this RIGHT BEFORE the shit hit the fan?  The biggest puzzlement of all—for me at least—was why Batman is nowhere to be seen when the shit goes down in this movie.  After seeing the involvement of Batman during some of the backstories, you’d think he’d be available to help solve this problem that has put the city’s population in danger.  But, no…I guess Batman’s on vacation.

 

Finally, I had such high hopes for Jared Leto’s Joker and looked forward to his inclusion most of all.  He definitely had some big shoes to fill as Heath Ledger raised the bar so high on that character that I really couldn’t see anybody ever playing the part again.  But The Joker is Batman’s biggest villain and he’d have to be included sooner or later, but Leto’s performance left me a bit flat.  Sure, there were some cool moments—making Alex Ross’s artwork come to life being one of them—but I can’t really accept this tattooed punk-rock star with silver fronts as the new Joker.  I’m sure Leto tried to veer away from Ledger’s performance, but I couldn’t help hear the same vibes and accents in the few scenes we see in this film.  Hopefully he’ll work out the kinks by the time we see him again, perhaps in the standalone Batman movie.

 

So…may final “bit” on Suicide Squad???

 

I’m sure on paper this seemed like a good idea—good, not great.  The acting throughout the production was nice and made it feel like it was a comic book come-to-life, especially from Smith, Robbie, and occasionally Courtney.  The stylized way it was produced and directed gave us that feeling as well, but I think all the effort was put into how this film was going to look rather than getting a good story together.  The plot was very thin and wasn’t a very good foundation to place this on top as it seemed like the studio was banking on a huge blockbuster.  Suicide Squad had its moments, but they were few and far between.  If you want to see Will Smith put on a cool costume and shoot guns or if you want to see Margot Robbie walk around in a skimpy outfit as she carried a baseball bat around or if you want to see a few cool special effects—both in CGI and practical—then you might like this movie.  It definitely kept my interest, for I’d wanted to see how it was all going to end, but it left me cold and I’m a little torn on whether I would recommend this movie or not.  I’ll leave you with this: if you want a mindless movie to sit back and eat some popcorn, maybe to keep on as background noise, this is the movie for you; if you want a really engaging film with an intriguing plot, I’d skip it. 

 

Here’s my bonus “bit” to Warner Bros. and DC Comics…

 

Warner Bros. and DC: if you’re listening (or reading), you better do something about the quality of these films in your so-called Cinematic Universe.  If Justice League doesn’t fair better, you’re going to have a mess on your hands…and from what I’ve seen of that released footage, it’s not looking too good.  Suicide Squad reminds me of the announcement from Sony a while back, saying they were going to release a Sinister Six film—a film about Spider-Man’s villains grouping together for a standalone movie.  They were smart enough not to do it, why weren’t you?  It just seems you’re trying to keep up with—or even trying to overtake—what Marvel Studios has already accomplished.  Forget them…take your time and do this right.  The more crap you put out, the fewer people you’ll get in the theater seats when you release the following movies of this DC filmic world.

 

For the rest of you, thanks for reading!

 

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