THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK (2017)

August 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a movie borrows its title from a great Simon and Garfunkel song, and then utilizes the song to emphasize a point during the story, we can’t help but have high expectations. This is often true even if it appears we are likely to be subjected to yet another movie featuring the all too familiar ground of New York intellectuals brewing and stewing their own problems. Director Marc Webb (500 DAYS OF SUMMER, GIFTED) delivers the type of film that critics tend to rip, and audiences like to watch.

Much of the story seems familiar, but the excellent cast prevents the clichés from being overly distracting. Callum Turner stars as Thomas, an aimless writer-wannabe and recent college graduate with daddy issues. Thomas spends his time dreaming about what he might be and pining for the beautiful, intelligent girl with whom he hangs out. It’s understandable why Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) has friend-zoned him, since she has ambitions and goals, while he mostly just talks and drifts through each day. One evening while enjoying their conversation over drinks, Thomas spots his dad getting beyond “friendly” with a beautiful young woman in a corner booth. This is upsetting because Thomas’ parents are still married, and his mother is at home working through clinical depression.

Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) is a well-known publisher and Judith (Cynthia Nixon) is an artist in a fragile state. As with most self-centered twenty-somethings, Thomas has just assumed the marriage was fine and their family fell into the “normal” range of dysfunction. It’s about this time when the movie assumes the tone of a Woody Allen movie. Thomas turns detective and begins following the mysterious beauty from the booth, and their first encounter is a bit awkward. He finds himself mesmerized by Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). She’s the stuff that dreams (and fantasies) are made of … for both fathers and sons.

Johanna is really the second spell that Thomas has fallen under. His neighbor W.F. has been providing sage advice on love and writing. It’s yet another terrific performance from Jeff Bridges, who plays the alcoholic mentor with secrets of his own. See, every character here carries the weight and burden of their own secrets and plays games in every relationship. In fact, much of the movie plays like group therapy – two characters at a time.

No superheroes exist in this world. There are no car chases or guns, and the only knife is used to slice strawberries in the kitchen. The movie could be described as a coming-of-age story; however, it’s not just Thomas that has growing up to do. A deeper message is on display for those who take notice. Every person and every family has secrets, and many people find an inability to be honest and open to be a much simpler way to go through life. We know that people aren’t always good – even when we really want them to be.

Of course, we do get the obligatory dinner party with a table full of New York intellectuals (including Wallace Shawn) reminiscing about what a great city it used to be. Actually, nostalgia is an underlying theme throughout. The dinner party does provide Thomas the opportunity to drop the best ‘Philadelphia’ line since W.C. Fields. The script provides some other quality lines, and though it’s certainly not at the level of Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach, it marks a step up for writer Allan Loeb, who is renowned for such lackluster efforts as COLLATERAL BEAUTY, THE SPACE BETWEEN US and JUST GO WITH IT. He likely owes director Webb and cast a debt of gratitude.

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GIFTED (2017)

April 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The “right” choice isn’t always obvious. Things get more complicated when even the “best” choice isn’t clear. Place a young child at the heart of that decision tree, and the result may yield emotional turmoil and an abundance of moral high ground and judgment. Such best intentions are at the core of this latest from director Marc Webb (his first feature since 500 Days of Summer) and writer Tom Flynn.

Frank (Chris Evans) is raising his 10 year old child prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in low-key small town Florida. The circumstances that brought the two of them together aren’t initially known, but are explained in a poignant moment later in the film. Frank has been home-schooling Mary and now believes it’s time she transitions to public school for the socialization aspect … “try being a kid for once” he urges. Of course, Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) immediately realizes Mary is special, and just like that, the wheels of the educational system are in motion to explain to Frank why they know what’s best for Mary … a high-fallutin private school where she can be all she can be.

There is a really nice and enjoyable story here of Uncle Frank dedicated to doing what he thinks is best for bright and charming and spirited young Mary, but it all comes crashing down when the bureaucrats, and ultimately Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan), get involved. When the adults can’t agree on the best route for Mary, a courtroom battle ensues. Ms. Duncan gets a witness scene reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, and her overall performance stands in effective stark contrast to the warm fuzzies of Mr. Evans.

The supporting cast contributes nicely, though Octavia Spencer’s role as kindly neighbor Roberta is more limited than it should be, and the love connection between Evans and Ms. Slate could have easily been omitted – but she is so pleasant on screen, that we don’t mind at all. Glenn Plummer and John Finn are the attorneys who go to war, and Fred the one-eyed cat also gets plenty of screen time. But there is little doubt that the movie really belongs to the effervescent Miss Grace. She nails the back and forth between kid and genius, and we never doubt her sincerity.

Child prodigies have been explored through other fine movies such as Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Shine, and while this one may run a bit heavier on melodrama, but it’s worthy of that group. The best discussions after this movie would revolve around what’s best for the child. Should she be deprived of “higher” education in order to live within a more “normal” social environment? Are any of the adults more interested in their own ego than in what’s in the child’s best interest? Home school vs public school vs private school is always good for some fireworks, and everyone has their own thoughts. So how do we decide who gets to decide? Does a parent get the final say on their child – even if their motivations may be in doubt? Should every kid be pushed to their academic – or artistic – or athletic – limits? The questions are many and the answers are complicated. There is a great line in the film that itself is worthy of conversation: “You got on the bad side of a small-minded person with authority”. Yikes. Even Cat Stevens’ great song “The Wind” can’t soften that.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

May 11, 2014

spider 2 Greetings again from the darkness. This follow-up to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) seems to have the mission of throwing as much onto the screen as possible. There are not one, but three key villains, a teenage love story, a deathbed scene, numerous moments of soul-searching, a stream of wise cracks and puns, the most outrageous laboratory setting, a cartoonish evil doctor accent, the constantly furrowed brow of Aunt Mary (Sally Field), flashbacks and video of the mysterious father, teasers for future movies, and of course, enough action and special effects to ward off any thoughts of peace.

Personally, I find Andrew Garfield to be a nice fit as Spidey, but I just can’t buy him as ultimate science geek Peter Parker. He bumbles about and bats his eyes too much for my tastes, and can’t stand toe to toe with Gwen Stacy (real life squeeze Emma Stone) in scientific banter. Still, the original story is interesting enough that any minor issues are easily overlooked.

At its core, this entry is a story of revenge. The foundation for Peter Parket’s troubles all stem from Oscorp, so we are treated to some behind the facade sets that will keep viewers on their toes. After an initial face-off with bad guy Aleksei Sytsevich (a maniacal Paul Giamatti), we see the transformation of goofy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into the shocking (get it?) Electro. If that’s not enough, childhood buddies Peter Parker and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) are reunited to set the stage for more good vs evil.

The story would have benefited from more concentration on any of these three stories, while dropping one altogether. The viewer would have benefited from a slower jolt (one more!) in the transformation of Max to Electro. We needed to find the humanity, rather than just desperation. The same goes for Peter and Harry. The dots are a bit too far apart for connection, though DeHaan (so good in Lawless and Chronicle) is a striking contrast to the doe-eyed, beautifully coiffed Garfield.

It’s nice to see Stone’s Gwen portrayed as a smart, ambitious young woman who also understands how demanding a relationship is, and the responsibility that goes with dating a superhero. Speaking of responsibility, the lack of Uncle Ben’s influence here is disturbing, though probably necessary given the exploration of backstory on Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz).

When Paul Giamatti reappears near the end as Rhino, it’s a bit difficult to not think “enough is enough”. And oddly, this fight sequence ends abruptly, evidently setting the stage for future Spidey. And speaking of the future, the end credits scene plays as nothing more than a teaser trailer for the next X-Men movie, while robbing us of any details to the Sinister Six.

Admittedly, I feel somewhat overdosed on Superhero and Comic book adaptations, yet the action and effects are still quite fun to watch, even if director Marc Webb (Ok, that pun is just too easy) seems to jumble up too many story lines.

***NOTE: I find humor in the fact that both lead actors from Sideways (2004) have now played villains in Spider-Man movies. Paul Giamatti in this one and Thomas Haden Church in Spider-Man 3 (2007)

***NOTE: fans of The Matrix will experience deja vu as Peter Parker discovers his father’s laboratory

watch the trailer:

 


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

July 7, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The big debate seems to be whether it is too soon for the Spider-Man franchise to be re-booted. It was just 10 years ago when Tobey Maguire first appeared as Spidey and a mere 5 years ago when director Sam Raimi delivered the last leg in his trilogy. Obviously the reason to re-boot starts with “doll” and ends with “ars”. It is more interesting to decide if this is an improvement over the previous series.

We must first look at Spider-man himself. Played here by Andrew Garfield, we get a more thoughtful Peter Parker and a more athletic Spidey version than we had with Maguire. As usual, my pet peeve is that Garfield is a 28 year old man cast as an 18 year old high school science nerd. Looking past that, Garfield manages to pull off the stunts without looking too much like a real super hero. So that’s a plus. Luckily for him, his scenes with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) work because Ms. Stone is such a super talent. She makes everything she is in, just a little bit better.

Next we look at the villain. Rhys Ifans plays scientist Dr Curt Connors, who transforms into Lizard in the quest to regenerate growth of his lost right arm. He was once partners with Peter’s dad in their research into reptilian genetics. While Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) from Spider-Man 2 is still my favorite villain in the series, it’s clear that Lizard is certainly capable of frightening the younger viewers, so parents beware. It should also be noted that Dr Curt Connors was played by Dylan Baker in the Sam Raimi trilogy.

 Lastly, we look at the story. This take is much more personal and provides detail to the backstory of Peter Parker. We learn how (but not exactly why) he lost his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) and see how he came to be raised by Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). We see how Peter and Gwen Stacy come together and learn that she is every bit his equal intellectually, if not a notch above. Casting Dennis Leary as Gwen’s Police Chief dad works as Leary and Garfield exchange barbs at the table. Peter is still a photographer, but this time for the school instead of The Daily Bugle … whose logo makes an appearance on TV.

Director Marc Webb was somehow selected for this despite his only feature film being (500) Days of Summer … not exactly a film known for its CGI. Admittedly, the CGI used here is less rushed and cluttered than in previous Spidey films and many of the stunts look to be real stunts instead of the fake stuff. The closing credit cookie clearly sets up the sequel, though I can only guess that the shadowy figure is Norman Osborn. That’s still up for debate.

** NOTE: fear not, we get the now expected Stan Lee cameo

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of comic book heroes and simply enjoy the bigger than life films, even if it’s not at the level of The Avengers (it’s still better than Green Lantern)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are limiting yourself to one super hero movie this year … if so, make it The Dark Knight Rises

watch the trailer: