Friday, July 21, 2017

Trailer for Guillermo del Toro's 'The Shape of Water' is gorgeous, strange, and thrilling

Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors who can generate interest from movie fans just with his involvement in a project alone. The Mexican filmmaker who started his career making small Spanish- language critical darlings like Cronos and The Devil's Backbone has become one of the few visionaries working in Hollywood today, having put his distinct stamp on Blade II and the Hellboy franchise during the 2000s. Del Toro got the chance to make his masterpiece with Pan's Labyrinth in 2006, and in the years since, he has created more in the way of elaborate genre fare. Pacific Rim made enough money to spawn a sequel (which will be released next year, not under del Toro's direction), but Crimson Peak debuted to mixed reviews and low box office. Many of del Toro's fans have clamored for him to return to smaller, stranger territory, and that wish appears to be coming to fruition. This December, del Toro will premiere The Shape of Water, a Cold War fantasy that blends creature feature and romance to unique effect. It's his first foray into a potential Oscar race in over a decade, and I could not be more excited to check it out. The first trailer premiered with War for the Planet of the Apes last weekend, and Fox Searchlight released the sneak peek yesterday- watch it below!

When I first saw Apes last Friday, they actually didn't play the trailer for this. I went back to see the film again on Tuesday, and I was lucky enough to see this first look before Fox put it online. The Shape of Water looks absolutely glorious on the big screen, and I don't really know what my expectations were for this movie, but this trailer blew me away. I say this as someone who likes del Toro's work without being a complete devotee of the director- The Shape of Water looks like it could be one of the year's very best films. Everything about this trailer is perfect. The music, the production design, the "connection" between the unique lead character and the gorgeously designed creature- this is all top-notch stuff from del Toro. Sally Hawkins looks great as the lead, and the supporting cast includes terrific actors like Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg. This looks like an incredible fairy tale, and the Cold War setting only has me more excited. And with today's reveal from Variety that the film is set to play at the Venice Film Festival, I think we could be looking at a bona fide awards contender. I cannot wait to see more, and I really wish I was going to TIFF this year just to check this one out.

The Shape of Water hits theaters on December 8. It's surely one of the most anticipated cinephile events for the second half of the year.

'The House' review

As stated many times over the last few weeks, 2017 has been a tremendous year for movies and for many individual genres. It really has. I've been surprised by how many incredible blockbusters we've seen this summer. But when it comes to comedies, this year has been almost appallingly bad. And no, I'm not talking about comedies in the loose definition of the word- films like The Big Sick and Baby Driver don't count. I'm talking about the pure laughfests that have been Hollywood's bread and butter for years, raunchy spectacles crafted by hilarious people who made a name for themselves with these kinds of films. Every year has at least two great studio comedies, and yet 2017 seems poised to be the first year in a long time without a single one that hits the mark. Baywatch and Rough Night missed by a mile, and if you take a look at the schedule for the rest of the year, it's even more depressing than what came before. Sorry, A Bad Moms Christmas and Daddy's Home 2, but I don't think you'll be joining the pantheon of classic Hollywood comedies.

Which brings me to The House, an R-rated bit of hilarity that, on paper, seems like a slam dunk. Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler doing a filthy farce with a clever concept that will surely generate plenty of laughs? Sounds like a great time to me! But there's a plague going across the film industry this year, a plague that is striking down everyone who was once funny and putting them in awful movies that aren't worth their talent or time. The House is another middling comedy, a series of sketches stretched to the absurd length of 88 minutes, which feels insanely long even if it is one of the shortest mainstream releases of the year. Despite the occasional laugh from Ferrell, Poehler, or rising star Jason Mantzoukas, The House does pretty much nothing right, offering up what feels like an incomplete plot, inept character work, and comedic energy that wears thin pretty quickly.

The story on this one is simple. Scott and Kate Johansen (Ferrell and Poehler) are needy, relentlessly stupid parents who are about to send their only daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), to college. Alex is going to prestigious Bucknell University, and her parents are undergoing real separation anxiety. Unfortunately, there's one other small problem- they don't have enough money. Scott and Kate had been banking on a scholarship from their small suburban town, but when a corrupt city council member (Nick Kroll) decides to do away with the prize, the parents are left to face their greatest fear. But thankfully, there's a back-up plan. Frank (Mantzoukas) is one of the couple's best friends, but after a recent separation, he's down on his luck and looking for a plan to bounce back. After a trip to Vegas, Frank comes up with a brilliant idea- an underground casino. Scott and Kate agree to team up with their friend to make $250,000 in a month, enough to send Alex to college. Of course, things don't quite end up working out as they planned. "Hilarity" and "hijinks" ensue.

The House opens to the song "My House" by Flo Rida, an on-the-nose move that sets the lackluster tone for the rest of the movie. It's a film defined more by its ubiquitous product placement for Stella Artois than its actual comedic value, and it is so devoid of laughs and fresh material that it eventually becomes exhausting. The House feels like a relic from a bygone era of Hollywood comedies- much like Scott and Kate, it's the cringe-worthy cinematic equivalent of a parent trying too hard to be hip. Like the worst of these movies, it's filled to the brim with F-bombs, sex jokes, and shocking comedic violence, but it feels so forced that it fails to ever really tickle the funny bone of the audience. It flails around, attempting to provide something in the way of entertainment, but it never feels properly anarchic or unhinged. It's textbook insanity that we've seen a thousand times before, and I'm so tired of it.

It doesn't help when your movie has no real emotional core or engaging characters. Look, I'm not a supporter of the idea that all comedies need to have serious moments where the characters reflect on their horrible decisions, but you need some investment on the part of the audience. The House tries to do this, but the movie is such a misshapen mess that it ends up endorsing the awful behavior of the lead trio in a strange way. Like this summer's Rough Night, it ends up saying "Yeah, these people are horrible, but THIS guy is way worse!" which is a message that made me scratch my head. Not to mention the fact that Scott and Kate are characters defined by two things- their love for their daughter and their total and complete idiocy. The former is quickly overwhelmed by the latter, and it's hard to care for their struggle to pay for college when they regularly display that they're terrible, terrible people.

But I can overlook some of that stuff. I don't watch comedies for their ethical and moral value- I watch them to laugh. And primarily, that's where The House goes wrong. It never has any sense of comedic momentum, settling for a sketch approach that ultimately fails the film. This movie goes into some seriously strange directions that end up being complete dead ends, and it's honestly baffling at times. To get into some spoiler territory here (not that anyone cares), Jeremy Renner shows up as a gangster during the final act of the film. It seems like it should be a big moment when he kidnaps Alex and threatens Scott and Kate, but Renner quickly has his arm chopped off in horrifically gruesome fashion. Oh, then they set him on fire and murder him. Yeah, that's a thing that happens in this movie. And the movie just keeps going! It just keeps trucking right along with its plot like nothing ever happened. Director Andrew Jay Cohen and co-screenwriter Brendan O'Brien have made some amusing movies before, but The House is almost jaw-dropping in its total lack of storytelling cohesion and comedic value.

So yeah, this is a very bad movie. Not that I was all that surprised by that fact, as Warner Bros. and New Line opted to not screen this film for critics or many audiences for that matter. They dumped this during a crowded month in the hopes that it would disappear forever, and that's exactly what it will do. It has a few chuckles here and there, and yet it simultaneously seems to have no idea how movies are supposed to work. Opportunities for both social commentary and laughs are completely squandered by the film's "Hey, look at me!" approach, and its raunchiness comes off as profoundly forced. It's a tired movie made by stars who are lost in the new era of comedy. Despite the potential for laughs, The House is dead on arrival. There's absolutely nothing to see here.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.8/10)

Images: WB/IMDB

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Michael Fassbender hunts a serial killer in the grisly trailer for 'The Snowman'

The mystery genre doesn't get much love these days, but it seems like there's always one noir film that pops up in the fall of each year. David Fincher is probably the master of the modern noir, having directed masterpieces like Se7en and Zodiac, as well as more recent efforts such as the 2011 remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. But for every Fincher-esque work of suspense and terror, there's something like Tate Taylor's The Girl on the Train, a ghastly attempt at translating a popular best-seller to the big screen. When it comes to this genre, it's a total toss-up. Ever since I first read about the concept for The Snowman, I have been on board with this film, an adaptation of a popular novel from Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy director Tomas Alfredson. A detective named Harry Hole, played by the reliably brilliant Michael Fassbender. A terrifying serial killer who murders in the snow. A talented supporting crew led by Rebecca Ferguson and J.K. Simmons. This sounds like hard-boiled noir 101. With the October release just under 3 months away, Universal has debuted the first trailer for the film. Check it out below!

I'm still intrigued, but if I'm being completely honest, I like the poster shown below more than the actual trailer. It starts well enough, depicting a horrifyingly intense murder and kicking things off with some intense Fassbender voice-over, but this trailer quickly devolves into standard issue action nonsense. I can't tell what tone this movie is going for, and while Alfredson's track record indicates a commitment to unconventional narratives and challenging films, Universal appears to be marketing The Snowman as a pulpy bit of mystery horror. To use my aforementioned comparison- this movie looks to be leaning more towards Girl on the Train territory, which is a very disappointing thing. That being said, I'm gonna put my money on the idea that this is just marketing. Universal probably doesn't want to have to sell audiences on a depressing, gruesomely disturbing thriller, so they're pitching a rather basic action movie with some darker elements. I can't fault them for that, but I hope the final product is more engaging than this trailer.

The Snowman will hit theaters on October 13. A festival premiere could be in the cards, but Universal has been shy about doing so in the past. We shall see.

Poster courtesy of Universal

First trailer for 'The Disaster Artist' teases James Franco's take on Tommy Wiseau

As a film festival, South by Southwest is far from the prestigious event around. It's not a cinephile haven like Cannes, Toronto, or any other major fest that pops into mind. It has always been devoted to pure genre fare, mainly existing as a party for bloggers and a platform for the best studio comedies of the summer. But in a year where there literally are no good comedies for anyone to show off, the 2017 edition of SXSW took on a bit of a different approach. It ended up being the premiere spot for Edgar Wright's Baby Driver and David Leitch's Atomic Blonde, two of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer with huge sleeper hit potential (the former has already achieved that status as it creeps its way to $100 million). But perhaps most surprisingly, SXSW may have launched an Oscar favorite- James Franco's The Disaster Artist, a biopic of The Room director Tommy Wiseau. The film is in the vein of Tim Burton's classic Ed Wood, but with an all-star cast of Franco regulars. After New Line Cinema realized that they didn't know what to do with it, the studio partnered with indie icon A24 to release this highly acclaimed comedic adventure. Set for a prime Oscar release, the marketing campaign is beginning to kick into high gear with the release of a brief, but hilarious teaser trailer. Check it out below!

I have never felt compelled to watch Tommy Wiseau's The Room from start to finish, but I've enjoyed watching compilation videos of the most outrageous moments from the disasterpiece. And if you've never seen anything from this movie or have never even heard of it, let me just say this- it's unbelievably awful. So when I heard that James Franco would be bringing this story to the big screen, I was automatically intrigued. As a big fan of Ed Wood, I was excited to see another movie about an infamous director of horrible films, and as someone who loves the stuff that Franco and Seth Rogen do on a regular basis, I was thrilled to see their take on such an absurd story. And for this adaptation, Franco has brought along a cast that includes almost every single famous actor in Hollywood- Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Zoey Deutch, Zac Efron, Bryan Cranston, Sharon Stone, the list goes on and on.

Oh, and this teaser is perfect. Absolutely brilliant in every way. The critical point for A24's marketing campaign will be selling audiences who have never even heard of The Room, and while this teaser does a good job of pandering to midnight audiences who love Wiseau's schlock, it also works as a perfectly calibrated scene of comedic tension. It's a great first look that automatically generates interest in a fascinating character, and it is also laugh-out-loud funny. Franco looks tremendous as Wiseau, and the other Franco looks great as co-star Greg Sestero. I can't wait to see this one myself, and if it's as good as the buzz at SXSW indicates, we're in for a hysterical treat.

The Disaster Artist opens in limited release on December 1.

Poster: IMDB/A24

'The Big Sick' review

When was the last great big-screen romantic comedy?

Plenty of genres have been on their last legs in recent years, but none have suffered quite as much as the romantic comedy. It's been such a rough stretch for the former staple of the Hollywood diet that you probably have to go all the way back to 2012's Silver Linings Playbook to find the last truly great one- unless you count La La Land, which is more of a musical romance for my money. In fact, the best romantic comedy of the last several years can actually be found on television in the form of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's Master of None, a show that is as gorgeously cinematic and hopelessly thrilling as any big-screen romance in recent memory. Hollywood has turned its back on great love stories, opting to throw more money at blockbusters and leaving Sundance to create arthouse hits like Marc Webb's 2009 classic (500) Days of Summer.

But eventually, the studios have to learn their lesson, right? Romance still sells, date movies are important, and great, emotional stories are critical to success at the box office. If Hollywood takes the right lessons from this summer, we could see some serious paradigm shifts. The latest evidence of the aforementioned trends comes in the form of The Big Sick, a Sundance breakout (surprise!) from comedian Kumail Nanjiani and producer Judd Apatow, who created a raunchier version of the romantic comedy with films like Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin. This film practically brought the house down at Sundance, and it has quickly emerged as the best counter-programming of the summer. Critics are absolutely loving it, and this film is practically the definition of a crowd-pleaser. I seriously didn't think that Michael Showalter's flick could live up to the hype- but it somehow managed to exceed my expectations. It's seriously funny, genuinely emotional, and grounded in warmth and compassion, a remarkable true story that is as poignant as it is truly hysterical. The Big Sick is a knockout, and a film that deserves every bit of praise and adoration that you can throw its way.

Kumail Nanjiani (played by none other than Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling stand-up comic living in Chicago, performing on stage with his friends (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler) in the hopes of becoming successful. After a show one day, Kumail meets Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who hopes to go into psychology. Kumail and Emily hit it off, have a fun little one-night stand, and then mutually agree that now isn't the best time for dating. Unfortunately, their chemistry is just too much to resist. They start to spend more time together, falling in love at the most unexpected time. There's just one small problem- Kumail's Pakistani family, especially his mother (Zenobia Shroff), desperately want him to be married to a Pakistani woman. Arranged marriage is a prominent part of the culture, and Kumail's mother has been setting up a never-ending series of forced dates for her son, with each girl awkwardly hoping to impress him. Kumail plays along, putting the pictures of each of the women in a cigar box in his room.

It all goes swimmingly until Emily finds the box. Shocked to see that Kumail is "judging Pakistan's next top model," a heartbroken Emily slowly realizes that there's a good chance that the two will never end up together. She storms out, effectively ending the relationship. Kumail is devastated, but he moves on with his life. One night, Kumail receives a phone call from a friend of Emily who tells him that she's in the hospital with a bad infection. He rushes there, only to find out from the doctors that she needs to be put in a medically-induced coma. Over a whirlwind couple of weeks of tragedy and insanity, Kumail is able to bond with Emily's parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), reflect on his own decisions, and come to terms with his culture and his family. The result is a journey that is part hilarious, part heartbreaking, and completely life-changing for Kumail and everyone involved.

Some movies are great because of their complexity and ambition, and others achieve greatness through much humbler methods. The Big Sick falls into the latter category- it never stretches to be something that it isn't, and its aspirations are modest to say the least. But even in the absence of flashier elements, this is a film made by people who know that they have a great story on their hands, and their love for the characters and the narrative is deeply felt at every turn. The Big Sick is a supremely confident movie, one keenly aware that realism and humanity are profoundly necessary to its success. The filmmakers and writers are in total control here, crafting an impressive balance between the humorous and the tragic, manipulating the audience in the most naturally affecting way possible. This is the romantic comedy at its most effortlessly engaging, a crowd-pleaser that isn't afraid to fit that exact bill.

Props to Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon though- it's no small task to write such an emotionally frank, messy portrayal of your own lives. The Big Sick may never veer too far into serious territory, but it has no qualms in depicting its characters as immensely flawed human beings, a choice that resonates as the film goes on. Kumail lies to his girlfriend and keeps everything from his parents, Emily is as reactionary as you can get, and her parents have their own inherent flaws that I won't divulge here. No character is perfect, but they're all genuinely good people, which is part of what makes this thing feel so refreshing. The Big Sick is about kind-hearted, funny people in extraordinary circumstances, and the changes they undergo throughout the story oddly manage to be both specific and universal. Everyone can find a little piece of themselves in this film, and that's what makes it such an enjoyable journey.

That level of empathy from the audience is not only generated from Nanjiani and Gordon's screenplay, but also from the performances of the main quartet of actors. While The Big Sick features a solid supporting crew that includes funny and engaging turns from Bo Burnham, Anupam Kher, and Zenobia Shroff, this film belongs entirely to the four main performers at the heart of this story. It's difficult to label what Kumail Nanjiani does here as a "performance," because he's basically playing himself, but in the midst of all the snark and deadpan charm of his character, he achieves a real sense of emotional depth during the most heartbreaking moments of the film. Zoe Kazan matches him well, and while she runs the risk of being typecast as this kind of character, she's terrific again. And if any performances are able to gain traction at the Oscars, it'll be the supporting turns of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. While they begin as a foil for Kumail, Terry and Beth take on a life of their own, becoming sympathetic characters with complexities and relationship issues that you don't necessarily see coming. This was a pleasantly surprising twist for me, made all the better thanks to Romano's lovable dopiness and Hunter's fiery bluntness.

But even beyond the performances and the humanity of the screenplay, The Big Sick works for two reasons- it's funny as hell, and it'll hit your emotions at precisely the right points. Few movies have as many uproarious scenes or deeply affecting moments as this one, and even fewer movies would dare to blend these comedic and tragic highs together. The Big Sick will make you laugh out loud at an awkward conversation and then devastate you with a scene of unexpected pathos, all before mixing the hilarious and the heartwarming in a flash of sheer perfection. Nothing in this film feels forced, and even though Nanjiani, Gordon, and director Michael Showalter (who will likely end up being overlooked, despite his impressive workmanlike direction) pack a lot of material into a film that barely hits the 2 hour mark, not a single emotional beat rings false. This is as good as it gets.

If you're looking to take a chance on a smaller film this summer, The Big Sick is the one. Even if you go in expecting something great like I did, there's a good chance that you'll have your expectations blown out the water. You'll laugh, you'll tear up a bit, and you'll see one of the very best rom-coms to come out of Hollywood in years. It's a joyously funny film with a heart of gold, told with a level of easy-going empathy that generates laughter and tears in equal measure. It's not a film that reinvents the wheel, but it has a great story and it tells that story so well that you just can't help but fall in love. Believe the hype- The Big Sick hits all the right notes.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)

Images courtesy of Amazon

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Second full trailer for 'Blade Runner 2049' previews a stunning, thrilling ride

With so many big movies coming out in 2017, it's easy to forget that we have a sequel over 35 years in the making arriving this October. Yes, folks, I'm talking about Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited follow-up to Ridley Scott's 1982 masterpiece of science fiction. Scott has been trying to get a sequel to that film off the ground for years, but fans resisted and the director eventually moved on and tackled a series of prequels to his Alien franchise instead. Even the most intensely skeptical Blade Runner fans finally relented when it was announced that Denis Villeneuve, the man who brought us remarkable films like Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, would be stepping behind the camera for the film. Scott remains on in a producer capacity and screenwriter Hampton Fancher and star Harrison Ford both return, while Villeneuve has brought Ryan Gosling, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer Johann Johannsson to round out the talented crew. All of the pieces are in place for this to be a masterpiece. But following up such a beloved film is a tricky balancing act- making a sequel to Blade Runner is like making a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. With all that in mind, Warner Bros. has released the third trailer for the film in advance of this weekend's Comic-Con panel, a sneak peek that gives us our best look yet. Check it out below!

The teaser set the tone, the full trailer raised some interesting questions, and this third (and final?) full look at Blade Runner 2049 solidifies my outrageous anticipation levels. Now, it is worth noting that this does look incredibly different from the original film. Blade Runner is a sci-fi film, but it's quiet and thoughtful, ruminating on big questions while resisting the urge for thrilling action scenes. 2049 does not appear to be that film, and while it appears to be retaining some of the noir elements that made Blade Runner distinct, Villeneuve and the marketing team have made it clear that this is going to be a straight-up action movie. But good lord does it look like a beautiful one. The visuals on display in this trailer are monumentally stunning, and I am in awe of how incredible this looks. It's big and bold and ambitious, but I also adore the casually gruff rapport between Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling. The supporting cast is excellent, and I can even get down with the idea of Jared Leto being a creepy villain. This trailer contains some of the most perfect shots of the year, and I'm so thrilled that Roger Deakins is working on another big blockbuster after knocking it out of the park with Skyfall. Everything about Blade Runner 2049 seems perfect. It looks like Villeneuve has hit a grand slam. Here's hoping that the final product delivers.

Blade Runner 2049 opens on October 6.

Rest in Peace- Hollywood legends George Romero and Martin Landau have passed away

Sunday was a sad day for Hollywood and for film lovers across the globe, as we learned of the death of two titans of the entertainment world within hours of each other.

We first learned of the passing of George A. Romero, the father of the zombie genre and a horror mastermind, who died at the age of 77 after a short battle with lung cancer. Romero was undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers to ever live, a man who practically created a genre and announced the debut of a new kind of scary movie. His debut feature, 1968's Night of the Living Dead, is one of the most acclaimed horror films ever made, praised for both its tension and its social commentary. Romero continued to make zombie movies for the rest of his career, directing classics like Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as some later films that didn't quite match up. In addition to working with the undead, Romero directed cult classics like The Crazies, Creepshow, and Martin, films that are beloved by horror lovers and cinema fans everywhere. While I can't claim to have much of a personal connection to Romero's work, his influence is undeniable. He changed the game, and without him, we wouldn't have so many of the films that we hold so dear to our hearts. His direct and indirect impact on the history of the last half century of movies is incredible. He will be sorely missed.

For a better insight into the life of Romero and this monumental loss in the film world, I encourage you to check out Edgar Wright's remembrance of the director. It's a touching, lovely tribute.

A very short time after hearing of the passing of Romero, reports began to spread that Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau had passed away at the age of 89. The storied actor has 177 IMDb credits to his name, dating all the way back to 1953. His big break came in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, where he played the unnerving henchman of the lead villain. Landau also did some of his most famous work on the small screen appearing in shows like The Twilight Zone, Mission: Impossible, and Space: 1999. Landau's career saw a resurgence in the late 1980s with his appearance in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, but perhaps his most famous role came in 1994, when he played Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Landau's touching portrayal of a washed-up icon won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, cementing his status in film history with one of the best biopics ever made. I recently watched Ed Wood for the first time, and it's one of those films that just instantly became a favorite of mine. Landau's performance is so instrumental to the success of the movie, and the way that he balances caricature and genuine emotion is magnificent. Landau was one of the last icons of the golden age of Hollywood, and it was incredibly sad to learn of his passing. His loss is deeply felt. Rest in Peace, Mr. Landau.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Disney and Ava DuVernay's 'A Wrinkle in Time' gets a magical teaser trailer

Ava DuVernay has established herself as a vital filmmaking voice in a very short period of time, and I have to imagine that she's only going to grow in fame from here. After breaking onto the indie scene with Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay shot to wide success with Selma, an acclaimed biopic of Martin Luther King that debuted to universal acclaim in 2014. Since then, DuVernay has continued to embrace the unexpected, directing an Oscar-nominated documentary with 13th, lining up a TV show about the Central Park Five, and dabbling with the idea of taking on Marvel's Black Panther. But even after DuVernay departed the latter project due to creative differences with the studio, Disney was able to find a place for the director at the studio with an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle's classic novel. With this hotly anticipated film, DuVernay becomes the first African-American woman to helm a movie with a budget of over $100 million, a remarkable achievement that was long overdue. At this weekend's D23 convention, Disney took the opportunity to debut the first trailer for the film, which was promptly released online. Check it out below!

I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was in elementary school, but I would be lying if I said that I remembered anything about it or had any fond memories of the novel. I remember finding the book to be a bit strange and confusing, like a Roald Dahl story that just didn't work. So the cool thing about this film is that I really don't have any pre-conceived notions. DuVernay can surprise me with something spectacular and new and I won't have any idea of how it diverts from the book. This is a really strong trailer, one that showcases a dazzling, thoroughly imaginative journey through time and space. The trend of a slowed-down cover is cliche at this point, but the use of "Sweet Dreams are Made of This" is incredibly effective, and there are some visuals in this trailer that click extremely well. DuVernay appears to have made a blockbuster without compromising an ounce of her artistic vision, and that makes me very excited to check this out. Plus- that cast! Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Andre Holland, Mindy Kaling, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Pena, Gugu Mbatha-Raw- what a stunning lineup of talented people. A Wrinkle in Time looks unique, fresh, and original, and that's why I can't wait. It looks like DuVernay may have cooked up something special with this one.

A Wrinkle in Time debuts on March 9, 2018. 

Poster: IMDB

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Watch: New behind-the-scenes look at Rian Johnson's 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

After what was probably the most disappointing year for mainstream action cinema in my lifetime, 2017 has roared back with a vengeance. It has not only been an impressive summer for blockbusters, it has been an outstanding year on the whole. Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter Two and James Mangold's Logan brought life to the doldrums of the early months of the year, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant made May a great time at the movies, and the big-budget films have continued to impress as the summer has marched on. Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman shocked everyone, Baby Driver brought Edgar Wright's talents to a whole new audience, and War for the Planet of the Apes sent my jaw to the floor. And we haven't even seen the biggest movie of the year yet. That's right, folks, even after all of these great blockbusters, we're still five months away from the Holy Grail of 2017- Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi. We saw a trailer for the film back in April, but word has been quiet since then. The Star Wars narrative was overtaken by the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and it seemed like hype had been muted for Last Jedi. But with D23 this weekend, Lucasfilm and Disney took the chance to release a behind-the-scenes featurette for the film, which is the best piece of marketing yet. Take a look!

The main complaint about this new run of Star Wars films has been a simple one- it's too much of the same. While The Force Awakens was acclaimed for breathing new life into the franchise, it was also lambasted for having the exact same plot as the original film. And despite receiving praise for its grittier, darker direction, Rogue One still relied heavily on nostalgia and previously used elements. I say all this because it appears that The Last Jedi is going to break this trend. Rian Johnson is a very solid director who has taken an imaginative approach to genres like noir and sci-fi in the past, so the idea of him doing a Star Wars movie is tantalizing. And judging by this behind-the-scenes featurette, it looks like he has pulled off something that is visually distinct and fresh, something that won't merely be a copy of The Empire Strikes Back. J.J. Abrams laid the groundwork two years ago, and now it's time for Johnson to take these characters in a new direction. With Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy being so set on her vision for the Star Wars franchise, I've grown worried that we're just gonna get more of the same. But The Last Jedi looks narratively and visually unique and thrilling, and I can't say enough about how much this clip impressed me. Consider me excited.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits theaters on December 15.

Poster: Bleeding Cool

First trailer debuts for Joe Wright's Oscar contender 'Darkest Hour'

We're creeping closer and closer to the 2017-2018 Oscar season, and it's sure to be an interesting one to say the least. At this point, we already have a few contenders from the early festivals- Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name (November 24), Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and James Franco's The Disaster Artist. I think we can also safely assume that Alexander Payne's Downsizing will be in the Best Picture race, as it's the opener at the Venice Film Festival, the same spot held by La La Land, Birdman, and Gravity. In addition, we also have a few big contenders from the first few months, including Jordan Peele's acclaimed social thriller Get Out, James Mangold's Logan, Patty Jenkins' beloved Wonder Woman, Matt Reeves' trilogy capper War for the Planet of the Apes, and Christopher Nolan's upcoming Dunkirk. Due to a serious lack of "Oscar bait," we could actually see some of these films sneak into the race. But don't worry, even with a slightly weaker second half of 2017, there will still be plenty of obvious awards plays to round out the year. One of the big Oscar movies is Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, a biopic of Winston Churchill with a prestige cast and a prime November release. Earlier this week, the trailer was released for the film- check it out below!

This is a very good trailer, and it was a terrific choice to build up to what is likely Churchill's most famous speech. Oddly enough, this is the second Churchill movie of 2017, and I find it funny that each one focuses solely on the events surrounding a major battle. If anything, Darkest Hour will be a showcase for an unrecognizable Gary Oldman, an actor who has miraculously never won an Oscar despite being one of the most beloved performers in Hollywood. He looks incredible as Churchill, and he has pretty much locked up a nomination already. We'll have to see what Daniel Day-Lewis does in his supposedly final role, but I think that this could be Oldman's year. As for the film itself, I'm less certain of its chances. This seems like it could be an Iron Lady type of deal, where the movie can't quite match up to the incredible performance. Hanna has its fans, but Joe Wright has generally been in a slump since the Oscar-winning Atonement in 2007. Darkest Hour definitely looks compelling, but with a changing Academy, can it find a way into the Best Picture race? We shall see.

Darkest Hour stars Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Stephen Dillane, and will hit theaters on November 22. And depending on the strategy taken by Focus, it may find its way to a berth at one of the major fall festivals.

Poster: Focus/IMDB

Saturday, July 15, 2017

'The Beguiled' review

Sofia Coppola is one of the most powerful female filmmakers on the global stage, and she's also one of the most important voices in American independent cinema. When she makes a new film, people pay attention. After being stuck in the shadow of her famous family for years, mostly due to her role in The Godfather Part III, Coppola burst onto the indie scene with 1999's The Virgin Suicides and never looked back. In 2003, her biggest hit arrived in the form of Lost in Translation, which won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and put her firmly on the map as an indie auteur. In the years since, Coppola has devoted her time to making films that fit her distinct style and interests, and that has proven to be a divisive strategy. Coppola hasn't had a universally acclaimed movie since her Oscar-winning effort, but for her fans, that hasn't been a problem. Coppola has an incredibly loyal base, and they've been out in force to pump up The Beguiled, the director's first film in four years and her first remake.

The Beguiled is a re-imagining of the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, this time told distinctly from the female perspective.  And despite its origins as a novel and as a 70s classic, this rendition very much feels like the singular work of a director like Sofia Coppola. It's slow and luxurious, bathing in its Southern style and allowing the inner lives and desires of its characters to be put under a microscope. It's atmospheric, juggling sexual tension and the threat of violence as the narrative and jealousy and betrayal progresses. And it's full of tremendous performances, led by the immaculate trio of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, and enhanced by a cleverly nuanced turn from Colin Farrell. And yet, for all of its incredible acting and sumptuous production values, something feels missing from The Beguiled. Maybe it's the lack of forward momentum, maybe it's the fact that it seems too restrained in the wrong places, but Coppola's otherwise deliciously entertaining period piece falls just short of greatness. It's a feast for the senses, but you just can't help but want a little more.

Set three years into the Civil War, The Beguiled is set at a school for girls in Virginia. The slaves have left (a line that has prompted a wide variety of thinkpieces), and it's just Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her girls. One day while picking mushrooms in the mossy woods around the school, Amy (Oona Laurence) makes a shocking discovery- an injured union soldier (Colin Farrell), slumped against a tree. He says his name is Corporal John McBurney, and Amy offers to help him back to the school. Once at the plantation, McBurney immediately becomes the most popular topic of conversation among the girls. In addition to Miss Martha, he attracts the attention of Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher who has deeply repressed her sexuality, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a schoolgirl who practically throws herself at him. McBurney also attracts the sympathy of the younger girls at the school, and they all convince Martha to keep him around. But as his seductive techniques become more apparent, the rivalry between the girls becomes more pronounced and the betrayals stack up. And let's just say that things don't end well from there.

The Beguiled may have some flaws that I'll discuss later, but there's no question that this is flat-out one of the most gorgeous movies of the year. This movie practically exists as a middle finger to anyone who thinks that all period pieces are stuffy and drab (this is a group that includes myself). It's sexy and sultry and sumptuously crafted, and the tastefulness with which everything is done only makes it that much more compelling. The cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd captures the atmospheric intensity of the 19th century with both subtlety and a delightful flair, alternating between a rich moodiness and decadent images. The same can be said for the production and costume design by Anne Ross and Stacey Battat, respectively. The design elements manage to be both muted and delicious, chaste but hopelessly seductive, perfectly representing the contrast at the heart of this movie. Coppola puts the puzzle together with ease, resulting in a film that is an absolute feast for the senses. You sink into The Beguiled- you can practically feel this movie around you at every moment.

This is a film that also features some of the most sensational performances of the year, and despite the failings of Coppola's screenplay, she develops these characters in an expert fashion. There's no clear lead, but I guess one could say that Nicole Kidman is the anchor of the cast. She gives a strong performance as a character who is represented more by what she doesn't do than what she does, an interesting twist that allows for Kidman to do some really fascinating stuff. She's an intricate web of composure and good Southern manners- oh, and repressed sexuality too. She's the most ruthless character in the film, and also the most unpredictably compelling. It's a tough role to pull off, but Kidman does a magnificent job. She's matched in deeply held discontent by Kirsten Dunst, who plays the most easily tricked member of the group. Dunst's Edwina Morrow is a thoroughly depressed individual, and you can't help but feel a little bad for her. Dunst communicates almost entirely through body language, allowing you to understand exactly what's going on in Edwina's mind without any explicit confirmation. She has the most tragic arc of the story, and it really works.

But no actress is as fun to watch as Elle Fanning, who gives Alicia a breathy southern charm that makes you respond with laughter and shock. Alicia is the most brazen about her burgeoning sexuality, and there's not a hint of repression in her relentless pursuit of McBurney. Fanning impressed me all the way back in 2011's Super 8, but with this, The Neon Demon, and 20th Century Women, she's quickly emerging as one of the best young actresses working today. To round out the supporting cast, Oona Laurence and Angourie Rice have significantly less to do, but they're both spectacular in their own right. And of course, there's Colin Farrell, who is truly outstanding as the seductive soldier. Farrell knows how to hit the right note in each scene, and the tension created by him and the main trio of actresses is sensational.

The Beguiled is a true chamber piece, with almost all of the action taking place within the confines of Miss Martha's school. On the surface, this film really works best as a stage play- limited locations, straight-forward scenes, actor-y performances. But it's Coppola's ability to make it astonishingly cinematic that emerges as the most notable aspect of this handsome production. Coppola takes a film that could be stiff and bland and elevates it to a kind of arthouse beauty that overcomes the inherent visual constraints of the story. But there's only one problem left- the story itself. The Beguiled is an interesting film to watch and a masterclass in acting, but it's not a dramatically engaging one, and while I know she was working with adapted material, that blame shifts to Coppola herself.

There are lots of things that work in The Beguiled. I think the darkly funny ending is great. I think the banter between the characters builds tension to a certain degree. I think that some of the twists pay off nicely. But there's a restraint to Coppola's storytelling that doesn't pay off, and even though The Beguiled is set in the mannered, prim and proper world of the Confederacy, the film always seems afraid of embracing the true nature of its story. I remember when the first trailer for this came out, many were saying that this would be Coppola working in pure genre mode. And you can see this film dipping its toes into horror and exploitative territory, but Coppola seems to be resisting that at every turn. Even when things get really crazy towards the final act, there's still the sense that she's holding back. And ultimately, this means that the movie lacks punch. It doesn't have that knockout scene that sends audiences into a fit, nor does it have an escalating sense of dread that boils over into madness. Its impact is muted by the nature of its storytelling, and that is the most disappointing aspect of an otherwise gorgeously made film.

I'm probably being a little too hard on The Beguiled, mostly because I feel it was so close to being a truly great film. But at 94 minutes and with an approach to the story that just doesn't quite work, Coppola's sixth feature falls just short of the mark. And yet there's still so much to love in this spectacularly designed period piece. Even if she can't quite pull off a tricky narrative and tonal balancing act, Coppola does deliver one of the most beautiful films in recent memory, and every performance in the movie is top-notch. The Beguiled is a mesmerizing visual experience, and while the payoff doesn't live up to the rest of the film, you'll surely want to witness this delightfully grim thriller. It's a fun ride that could have been so much more.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.1/10)

Images courtesy of Focus Features

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Quentin Tarantino's next film will reportedly tackle the Manson Murders

Few directors can generate public interest for a movie based on their name alone. We all know filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, but even they're not infallible when it comes to delivering box office hits- after all, Scorsese's passion project Silence made only $7.1 million in the U.S. last year. At this point, the list of bankable directors can be limited to two filmmakers- Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. The former has enough clout to get a mega-budget war movie like Dunkirk made, while Tarantino has long turned violent R-rated films into global smash hits. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained both made well over $300 million worldwide, establishing the director's popular credentials to go with his cinephile adoration. Although Tarantino is coming off The Hateful Eight, his lowest grossing film in recent memory (although $155.8 million worldwide for a horrifyingly dark chamber piece isn't half bad), the director still has the power to do almost anything he wants. For a while after that film's 2015 release, word was quiet on the Tarantino front. But yesterday, the floodgates opened and we learned a bunch of new details about the famed director's next adventure.

The Hollywood Reporter exclusively revealed that Quentin Tarantino's next project will tackle the Manson Family murders, the series of grisly killings that gripped Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film will reunite Tarantino with Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the two super-producers who have both been regularly involved with the director's movies. Tarantino and the Weinsteins will reportedly shop the film around to various studios, hoping to gain financial support and distribution for the flick. In addition, THR reports that Tarantino has already been meeting with a variety of high-profile actors, including Basterds star Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence. According to Variety's Justin Kroll, Pitt is being considered for the role of Vincent Bugliosi, the man who prosecuted the Mansons, while Margot Robbie has discussed the role of Sharon Tate (the wife of director Roman Polanski, who was killed by a Manson supporter while she was 8 months pregnant). Deadline's Mike Fleming added that Samuel L. Jackson will likely star in the movie as well, which isn't a surprise given his relationship with the director.

So ultimately, what do we learn from all this information? Well, I think it's safe to say that this will be radically different from anything that Tarantino has ever done before. Tarantino has tackled slavery, Nazis, and even put all the nastiest aspects of America in one room in The Hateful Eight, but he has never dealt with real life characters before. And well, it'll be interesting to see how it all works out. I love pretty much all of Tarantino's movies, but I've never seen him as the most tasteful director out there. He deals with gratuitous violence and shocking bloodshed, so to see him deal with real people and victims who have living family members could be a bit disturbing. Nonetheless, there's so much to be excited about with this project. For starters, he's taking on the 1970s, which is immensely thrilling considering his love of that decade's cinema and music. Secondly, Tarantino is clearly going to be working with a great cast- we've seen him do great work with Pitt and Jackson before, but it'll be really exciting to see him team up with Lawrence or particularly Margot Robbie. And finally, there's nobody I trust more than Tarantino himself. He has vision to spare, and he only does a movie if he knows he can pull it off.

With that in mind, it's safe to say that his Manson movie is one of my most anticipated for the next several years. THR also revealed that Tarantino is hoping for a 2018 production start date, which means we'll likely see this one sometime in 2019. I can't wait to hear more about it.

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Poster: IMDB

'Moonlight' filmmaker Barry Jenkins to direct 'If Beale Street Could Talk' adaptation for Annapurna

Although his directorial debut came in the form of 2008's Medicine for Melancholy, if you asked cinephiles a year ago who Barry Jenkins was, I guarantee that you'd receive no response from many of them. That all changed with the release of Moonlight, a truly revolutionary movie that put a spotlight on Jenkins by garnering critical acclaim and ultimately winning the Oscar for Best Picture. While Moonlight represented the breakout moment for a variety of stars, including Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, and Ashton B. Sanders, the real star of the show was Jenkins, who was praised throughout the season for his warmth and genuine humanity, as well as his incredible vision for the film. Jenkins, even more than La La Land director Damien Chazelle, became the favorite on the Oscar circuit. After the A24 indie shockingly won Best Picture, everyone turned their attention to what Jenkins would do next. And while he directed an episode of Dear White People this year and is also set to helm an adaptation of The Underground Railroad for television, earlier this week, we received our first word on what Jenkins' next big-screen project will be.

Barry Jenkins is set to direct an adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, the 1974 novel by iconic author James Baldwin. The film will be released by Annapurna, the new distributor who has been taking on a variety of high-profile projects, including next month's Detroit from director Kathryn Bigelow. According to early reports, Jenkins has been wanting to direct this film for years, having spent a good deal of time working with the Baldwin estate to secure the rights to the novel. If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of Tish, a pregnant woman attempting to exonerate her young fiance when he is accused of rape. The result is a race against time, with Tish trying to bring about justice in 1970s Harlem. Baldwin's sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart, had this to say about the project: "We are delighted to entrust Barry Jenkins with this adaptation. Barry is a sublimely conscious and gifted filmmaker, whose 'Medicine for Melancholy' impressed us so greatly that we had to work with him."

Meanwhile, Jenkins had this to say about taking on the project: "James Baldwin is a man of and ahead of his time; his interrogations of the American consciousness have remained relevant to this day. To translate the power of Tish and Fonny's love to the screen in Baldwin's image is a dream I've long held dear. Working alongside the Baldwin estate, I'm excited to finally make that dream come true." To produce the project, Jenkins will reunite with PASTEL and Plan B, two companies that helped to produce Moonlight as well. The film is shooting for an October production start.

While I'm not familiar with the novel (I really should read some Baldwin, as well as watch I Am Not Your Negro), I can't help but be excited for another film from Barry Jenkins. After Moonlight, I have complete faith in his ability to consistently deliver great movies. This will certainly be one of the most anticipated cinephile events of 2018. And who knows, with Damien Chazelle's First Man also set to hit theaters in the fall of that year, maybe we'll see a repeat of one of the greatest Oscar races of all time.

Variety originally reported the news. Additional details from The Hollywood Reporter.

Image courtesy of A24

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

'Spider-Man: Homecoming' review

I don't care what anybody says about them now- Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films were an essential part of my evolution as a movie fan. I've said this before, and I will say it many more times. The 2002 origin story was the very first "PG-13" movie I ever saw, and every few years I would get excited at the prospect of watching a new adventure with the friendly neighborhood superhero. I grew up with those movies, and for me, the version of Spider-Man that Raimi and Tobey Maguire created is how I perceive the character. I read plenty of Spider-Man comics, but when I think about the web-slinger, my mind goes back to Raimi's universe and Maguire's dorky take on the hero. Andrew Garfield was fine as well, but Marc Webb's messy features ensured that he wouldn't have much of a lasting impact as the character. But even though it's been a decade since Raimi stepped away from the franchise after the disappointing Spider-Man 3, his impact is still felt in my mind. I will always see Spider-Man as the conflicted romantic, the good-hearted kid whose life becomes a saga of epic proportions.

I point all this out because Marvel's Spider-Man: Homecoming is the complete opposite of those films. After the disastrous box office performance of 2014's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony chief Amy Pascal struck a deal with Marvel honcho Kevin Feige to bring Spidey to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a move that many fanboys long thought to be impossible. Tom Holland made his debut as the character in last year's Captain America: Civil War, and it was a delightful cameo that slapped a smile on my face. I was so excited to see one of my favorite superheroes fighting alongside the Avengers, and I was thrilled at the possibility of a younger, fresher Spider-Man. Jon Watts' Homecoming takes Peter Parker back to high school, shooting for the tone of a John Hughes movie in an attempt to tell a coming-of-age story with Spider-Man. Where Raimi preferred epic melodrama in his take on the deeply hero, Watts prefers to inject the character with a youthful spirit that is felt in just about every scene of this reboot.

And for many, this will be the great appeal of Spider-Man: Homecoming- to see the hero in the more fun, crowd-pleasing setting that the MCU provides, especially after a dour reboot that failed to turn Spidey into a dark 'n' gritty vigilante. Homecoming is a rock solid film, a superhero flick that is fast and funny, sharply written, and engaging from start to finish. But for me, it provides a version of Spider-Man that I don't find particularly interesting. For all of its charm and low-key blockbuster pizzazz, Homecoming is a very frivolous movie, one with a story that feels perfunctory and a tone that is much more comedic than I would prefer a Spider-Man movie to be. Watts and his team of screenwriters (6 people are credited with the script!) veer wildly close to turning the web-slinger into a family-friendly version of Deadpool, which is something that I didn't think I'd ever say. So while Homecoming is fun and it's great to see Spidey back at Marvel, this film just can't quite put it all together. It's an amusing one-off and still a very good piece of work, but not the great, nuanced film that this character deserves.

Spider-Man: Homecoming opens in the aftermath of the climatic Battle for New York, with blue collar worker Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) tasked with cleaning up the mess of Loki and the Chitauri. But when government workers come in and tell Toomes that his men are let go, he reacts with anger and disdain- oh, and he also keeps some alien weaponry. Cut to 8 years later, a jump that theoretically means that this film takes place in 2020, and Toomes and his merry band of cronies (Logan Marshall Green, Bokeem Woodbine) have managed to use that technology to create a weapons market of their own. Toomes becomes the Vulture, and he uses his scientific genius to take from the rich and the powerful and make a fortune of his own.

Meanwhile, Peter Parker (Holland) is recovering from his first fight with the Avengers, a battle that saw him head to Berlin to face down Captain America (Chris Evans) and assist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Parker is given a pretty great suit upgrade by Tony, but the billionaire refuses to let him become a full-fledged member of the Avengers. After all, Peter is just a 15 year old kid, and he still has high school to get through. And currently, he's not doing so hot with balancing his superheroics and his personal life. His best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), comes to discover his secret, he has a flirty relationship with a popular senior girl (Laura Harrier), and he's consistently bullied by Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori). However, all of that boring high school stuff comes second to Peter's main concern- stopping the Vulture and becoming an Avenger. But over the course of his adventure to stop Toomes and his crew, Peter learns that being a kid for a while might not be such a bad thing.

While all movies are ultimately subjective, I think that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a film that will especially provoke a wide range of responses despite its quality. Overall, this is a really solid flick. It has a good character arc for Peter Parker, incorporates the Marvel Cinematic Universe well, and it's consistently compelling and amusing. By all measures, this is a good, highly entertaining Marvel movie. And if previous big-screen iterations of this character disappointed you for their lack of loyalty to the comic books or the heart of Peter Parker, this will more than likely be the Spider-Man film for you. In that case, this is the rare instance where I'll say that you should pay no attention to my opinion. Comic book Spidey fans are going to absolutely love this movie. But for the generation that grew up on Tobey Maguire, with Spider-Man being the biggest and most famous superhero on the planet, I believe that many will have the reaction I did to Homecoming. Sure, it's good, but something is missing.

Going into this film, I already had a lot of problems with the mere concept of the whole thing. I hated that Tony made the Spider-Man suit. I hated the idea that Peter needed Iron Man to come save him whenever things got tough. I hated the thought of having a version of Spider-Man who was a cog in the Marvel machine. Surprisingly, I didn't hate any of these things in the context of the movie. This is the story that Homecoming is trying to tell- Peter's coming of age, not just as a high school student, but as a superhero. With that in mind, everything that director Jon Watts decides to do makes sense. But after a trilogy that imagined Spider-Man's actions and his personal life as a kind of melodramatic Greek tragedy, accompanied by some innovative visuals and villains that directly tested his humanity, it's kind of disappointing to find a version of Spidey where everything feels so small in the grand scheme of things.

Trust me, I've already read and listened to plenty of people who claim that the small-scale nature of Homecoming is its greatest appeal and that it's more true to the character than Raimi ever was. I get that. But Homecoming removes so much of the drama inherent in Spider-Man by turning him into a bumbling kid who just really wants to be a superhero. There's no conflict between Peter's personal life and his life as a superhero in this film. Sure, the character arc ensures that we understand that Peter has learned to cherish his childhood and have fun with his place in life. But while Holland plays this version of Spidey to perfection, he's never able to effectively sell the character's inner battle. When it comes to going to a school dance with the girl he has a crush on or going to stop the Vulture from his greatest weapons heist yet, you know exactly what he's going to do. There's something to be said about Spider-Man being a novice who has to learn how to balance being a good superhero with his own life. But it's a whole different ballgame when you essentially turn him into a wannabe Avenger who attempts to impress Tony Stark at every turn.

It leaves you with a movie that doesn't have much in the way of dramatic momentum or emotional consequence. Peter isn't fighting to protect those he loves or fighting a battle to keep his identity a secret. He's just trying to impress his idols. The result is fun, but also fairly pointless. Nonetheless, Homecoming is bolstered by a set of strong performances across the board, starting with Tom Holland. I don't particularly like this more comedic rendition of Spider-Man, but I respect Holland's performance- he's simply perfect for the role. He's funny and charming, giving vibrant life to what is undoubtedly the most humorous main character that Marvel is working with at the moment. Holland has a great foil in Michael Keaton's Vulture, who emerges as another strong villain from a franchise that has been lacking in compelling antagonists for the good part of a decade. Marvel is finally learning that the audience has to empathize with a villain to a certain degree, and there are times in this movie where I really did wish that Peter would just leave Toomes alone.

And considering that I was not encouraged at all by Tony Stark's appearance in this movie going in, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed both the presence of the character and the performance of Robert Downey Jr. Positioning Tony as a father figure to a young superhero is an interesting development that will grow more poignant as Stark's run in the MCU comes to a close. Other Marvel regulars like Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts get solid parts as well, but the real stars come in the younger supporting cast. Jacob Batalon is terrific as Ned, Peter's best friend who also desperately wants to be an assistant to Spider-Man. Laura Harrier has some strong moments as Liz, Tony Revolori's Flash really doesn't make much sense despite his good performance, and Zendaya displays some promise for the future as Michelle.

For all of its flaws, Homecoming still has no shortage of rousing and funny moments. An early scene depicts Peter's video diary as he chronicles his journey with the Avengers in Civil War, and it had me in stitches as soon as I realized what they were doing. Watts films all the action scenes with a zippy energy that helps the film overcome its sterile visual palette, an issue that has plagued almost every Marvel movie with the stunning exception of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. The early setpieces all have a sense of fun about them, with the strongest coming during Peter's attempt to rescue his friends from a collapsing elevator at the Washington Monument. The climax delivers the film's much-needed emotional heft, and while there aren't any scenes that stick out in my mind as being some of Marvel's best, Spidey delivers when it counts.

I know that this positive review probably sounds unnecessarily harsh, but after the film was repeatedly showered in praise this weekend, I felt it necessary to dig a little deeper into what I didn't enjoy about it. Basically, for my generation, this will never be the defining version of Spider-Man. Just like Andrew Garfield and Marc Webb could never escape the shadow of Tobey Maguire and Sam Raimi, Tom Holland and Jon Watts aren't able to do that either. Maguire and Raimi were working in an era where they were pretty much the only superhero game in town- now, there's a million other heroes just like Spider-Man. But for whatever Homecoming may be lacking, it's still a remarkably fun blockbuster that puts Peter Parker in a good position for the future of the MCU. Marvel chief Kevin Feige has said that Spidey will be the anchor of Marvel's next phase after the fourth Avengers film in 2019, and having seen this movie, that makes sense. Marvel has been great at always maintaining a brand image of family entertainment, and this version of Spider-Man fits the bill.  If Watts and Holland manage to incorporate a bit more dramatic heft next time, it'll be much appreciated. But for what it is, Homecoming delivers the goods.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.2/10)

Images courtesy of Sony

Friday, July 7, 2017

Josh Martin's Top 15 Most Anticipated Films for the Rest of 2017

Half of 2017 is in the books, and it's already looking like we're going to have one of the more complete cinematic years in recent memory. The first half of the year has already given us some of the best superhero films of all time (Logan, Guardians 2, Wonder Woman), a car chase musical for the ages (Baby Driver), and a low-budget horror movie that captured the attention of America (Get Out). But the second half of the year is just as promising, with a wide variety of Oscar favorites, genre movies, and big blockbusters to feast our eyes on. For the purposes of this list, I've excluded the films that will be premiering in the next few weeks during the month of July, which means that movies I'm really excited for such as Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, Atomic Blonde, and The Big Sick will not be mentioned. But with that said, check out my list of the 15 movies I can't wait to see in the rest of 2017, along with five honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

MOTHER!- The new film from acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky sounds chilling and fascinating, and that poster is a real eye-catcher. Plus, the cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem is nothing short of terrific. OCTOBER 13

JUSTICE LEAGUE- Wonder Woman did a great job of getting the DCEU back on track, but can Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon build on that momentum? Judging by that first trailer, no, but there's always reason to hope. Especially when it comes to one of the biggest superhero movies of all time. NOVEMBER 17

COCO- Pixar makes great original movies, and despite its similarities to The Book of Life, Coco looks like another dynamite addition to the Pixar canon. The trailer was truly gorgeous, and I can't wait to see what director Lee Unkrich has cooked up here. NOVEMBER 22

THE PAPERS- It's a new Steven Spielberg movie. I mean, come on. Wait, scratch that. It's a new Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jesse Plemons, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, Zach Woods, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, and Bruce Greenwood. Yeah, I'm pretty excited. DECEMBER 22

UNTITLED PTA- Like The Papers, this film is being sold on the basis of its talent alone. It's the new film from director Paul Thomas Anderson, and it is supposedly the swan song for acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Anderson is one of the most famous American auteurs working today, and this project set in the fashion world of 1950s London sounds intriguing and provocative. DECEMBER 25

And now, here are my top 15 most anticipated films for the latter half of 2017.


Tommy Wiseau's The Room is one of the most famous bad movies of all time, and this year, James Franco is giving him the Ed Wood treatment with The Disaster Artist. While I can't claim to have seen Wiseau's disasterpiece in its entirety, the mere thought of Franco creating a sort of companion piece to Tim Burton's 1994 classic is exciting. And in addition to that conceptual intrigue, The Disaster Artist premiered at South by Southwest as a work-in-progress to rapturous reviews, with critics praising Franco's performance while also stating that this is his best work yet from behind the camera. Throw in a supporting cast that includes Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Zac Efron, Lizzy Caplan, Zoey Deutch, Bryan Cranston, Seth Rogen, and a whole bunch of other Hollywood stars, and this A24 release undoubtedly becomes one of the hottest films of the fall season. DECEMBER 1

14. IT

The trailer for It practically broke the internet, receiving almost 200 million views in a span of 24 hours. Does this mean that Warner Bros. and New Line have the biggest movie of all time on their hands? No, but it certainly means that Andres Muschietti's adaptation of Stephen King's horror opus is one of the most promising releases of the fall. After Cary Fukunaga's ambitious version of King's story failed to get the green light, many horror aficionados were disappointed, thinking that Warner Bros. had no interest in capturing the heart of the story. But the trailers have done away with many concerns, displaying beautifully terrifying images and an easy-going chemistry between the kids. It'll be interesting to see how It works in the aftermath of Stranger Things (which takes heavy inspiration from King), but there's no doubt in my mind that this is one of the biggest movie events of the fall. SEPTEMBER 8


Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

After completing both Side Effects and HBO movie Behind the Candelabra in 2013, director Steven Soderbergh claimed to be retiring from the film industry. Well, that certainly didn't last long. While Soderbergh has been working in the TV realm with The Knick for the past few years, this August's Logan Lucky represents his return to big-screen filmmaking after just a four-year hiatus. And this one looks like a hell of a good time. Billed by the director himself as the "anti-Ocean's Eleven," Logan Lucky stars Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, and Riley Keough (among others) as a group of dimwitted southerners who decide to take on a heist at NASCAR's Charlotte Motor Speedway. As a Charlotte resident, the basic concept of this movie is absolutely hysterical, but with Soderbergh behind the camera, this seems like a surefire smash. AUGUST 18


I couldn't make my mind up on Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster when I saw it last year, and it's a film that I still feel uncertain about. However, it has stuck in my mind for well over a year now, and I think that's a testament to Lanthimos' skill as a director. He's back with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a clinical horror drama that reunites him with Lobster star Colin Farrell. This one premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to rapturous reviews, with critics praising a dark, cynical experience that puts the unsettling nature of his last film to shame. Lanthimos is provocative and brilliant, and while I can't guarantee that I like his latest effort, I know it'll certainly be a fascinating watch. NOVEMBER 3


George Clooney proved his directorial chops a long time ago, but he seriously needs a hit right now. While The Ides of March received some praise back in 2011, two out of Clooney's last three features have been critical flops. With the sting of The Monuments Men still felt by myself and others, Clooney is finally returning behind the camera for Suburbicon, a small town crime comedy that doubles (obviously) as a suburban satire. Clooney's best features seem to come when he isn't also acting in his own work, so the good news is that he won't be starring in this one, leaving the acting to a talented cast that includes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac. This one received quite the buzz at CinemaCon in April, and Paramount is giving it a prime November release. Could this be the movie that brings Clooney back to the top of his game? I certainly hope so. NOVEMBER 3


Detroit is the rare Oscar favorite to be opening in August, but that hasn't dimmed my anticipation for this project one bit. I haven't always been the biggest fan of Kathryn Bigelow's work (The Hurt Locker just doesn't do it for me), but after creating perhaps the most measured procedural of the post 9/11 era with Zero Dark Thirty, it excites me to see Bigelow tackling a film about one of America's most disturbing racial conflicts. The trailer for Detroit is viscerally intense- John Boyega looks tremendous, Will Poulter seems to be truly terrifying, and the handheld work by Bigelow seems as gripping as ever. It won't be long before we start hearing the buzz on this one, but thanks to Annapurna's unusual release strategy, I have a feeling we're in for a late summer treat. AUGUST 4


Josh and Ben Safdie's Good Time first caught my attention with a strange poster that seemed to indicate a fun, wacky crime comedy. The trailer sold a vastly different film with a much higher level of intensity, but it's a movie that I'm no less excited to see. After his infamous run with the Twilight series, Robert Pattinson is slowly emerging as a fascinating actor, working with acclaimed filmmakers such as David Cronenberg, James Gray, and Claire Denis, and his performance in Good Time is supposedly his best yet by a good margin. The film was almost universally acclaimed at Cannes, receiving extremely positive reviews for the performances and the direction by the Safdies. This lightning-quick thriller also doubles as an A24 release, only furthering my anticipation for the project. And while I doubt it'll break into the Oscar race, Good Time's NYC-bound genre thrills could make for one of the year's most entertaining films. AUGUST 11


Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a film that seemed intriguing based on its title and story alone, but then the trailer came along and blew us all away. After being absent from the cinematic world for nearly half a decade, Martin McDonagh is returning with a black comedy that appears to feature a tour-de-force performance from Frances McDormand. On the surface, this doesn't immediately seem like the type of movie that would be generating Oscar buzz, as it's the kind of dark material that the Academy tends to shy away from. But Three Billboards is one of the hottest commodities of the fall season, with Fox Searchlight primed and ready to debut it in November, the thick of the Oscar race. The film looks vicious, disturbing, and downright hilarious, and I can't wait to see what McDonagh has cooked up with that wild concoction. NOVEMBER 10


It's the new film from Guillermo del Toro. What more really needs to be said? Not much is known about The Shape of Water beyond that it's a Cold War thriller with a mystery element. We should know more about the film next week when the trailer premieres in front of War for the Planet of the Apes, but del Toro is one of those filmmakers who can sell a movie based on his name alone. This is his first feature since 2015's Crimson Peak, and he has assembled quite the cast for the film. Octavia Spencer, Sally Hawkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, and del Toro favorite Doug Jones lead the ensemble for this drama, which is quite the talented group of people. I can't wait to see what del Toro has in store for us. DECEMBER 8


Luca Guadagnino came onto my radar last year with A Bigger Splash, an imperfect film that still displayed an incredibly high degree of directorial confidence and bravado. Guadagnino's follow-up, Call Me By Your Name, was one of the most highly anticipated titles at this year's Sundance, and the director's latest film managed to exceed all expectations. Billed as a gay romance with a trio of powerhouse performances from Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, and Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name is already one of the favorites going into this year's Oscar race. The rapturous reviews were almost overwhelming, with some going as far as to call this one of the best films of the decade thus far. So yeah, I'm excited to see if this lives up to the hype. NOVEMBER 24


Marvel kicked 2017 off with a bang with James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, and if the hype is to be believed, this weekend's Spider-Man: Homecoming is another incredibly fun installment in the Marvel universe. The studio has a chance to go 3 for 3 this year with November's Thor: Ragnarok, the third film starring Chris Hemsworth's titular Norse god. This one is particularly interesting because of who's sitting in the director's chair- Hunt for the Wilderpeople filmmaker Taika Waititi. The director has promised a much funnier, stranger Thor film, a tone that was on display in the spectacular first trailer. If anyone can deliver a great Thor film, it's Waititi. This looks great, and I have no doubt that the filmmaker will make good on his promise. NOVEMBER 3


Image courtesy of Fox

Consider this my guilty pleasure pick, but I could not be more excited for Matthew Vaughn's follow-up to the incredible Kingsman: The Secret Service. The ultraviolent spy film was a gleeful blast of stylized fun back in 2015, and it successfully took shots at the James Bond series while also being distinctly its own thing. The Golden Circle looks to up the ante even further, taking newly minted Kingsman Eggsy (Taron Egerton) around the globe and joining forces with the Statesmen, the American equivalent of the Kingsmen. Channing Tatum, Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, and Pedro Pascal all join the cast, and if the first trailer is any indication, we're in for a ride. This looks positively bonkers, and I can't wait to see what Matthew Vaughn has created this time. He claims that there are multiple action scenes in this sequel that rival the infamous church scene in the original, and that thought alone has me giddy. SEPTEMBER 22


I was excited for Downsizing at the start of the year simply due to the fact that it's the latest film from acclaimed director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Nebraska), but the buzz at CinemaCon solidified the fact that this is one of the must-see movies of the fall season. Bloggers and exhibitors alike went nuts for the 10 minute clip of the film, which depicts a man who shrinks himself to a smaller size in order to maximize his purchasing power. It's the kind of clever idea that also feels ripe for plenty of social commentary, and Payne has shown to be an astute observer of ordinary Americans with his previous features. This time around, he's working with a great cast that includes Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris, and Margo Martindale, an incredible collection of A-list talent. And if the buzz is to be believed, we could be in for a Kubrickian masterpiece that gives us something we've never seen before. DECEMBER 22


Denis Villeneuve has gone from little-known director to household name in just over four years, and with one more smash hit, he'll probably be worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Nolan, Tarantino, and other masterful auteurs. After jumping into sci-fi with the shockingly emotional Arrival, Villeneuve is moving up to the big leagues with Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 classic. Scott is back in executive producer fashion, Harrison Ford is reprising his role as Rick Deckard, and screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who penned the script to the original film, will also be back. Joining the crew are Ryan Gosling and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who look to entice skeptical cinephiles. We don't know much about the story yet, but this looks like another gorgeous piece of work from Villeneuve, a more action-oriented trip into the Blade Runner universe that will answer old questions and leave us with new ones. If Villeneuve pulls it off, it'll be a truly impressive feat. OCTOBER 6


It's the predictable choice, but did you think anything else would top the list? Star Wars: The Last Jedi has the potential to be the best film yet in the post-George Lucas era of the franchise. After J.J. Abrams laid the groundwork with the highly entertaining Force Awakens, Rian Johnson is here to give us the Empire Strikes Back of this new trilogy. The first trailer didn't give us much, but I think it solidified that Johnson is gonna subvert our expectations, take us to new places, and give our characters quite a bit to deal with. Throughout all the drama at Lucasfilm that has gone on in regards to Rogue One, the Han Solo movie, and even the internet controversy over Colin Trevorrow's involvement with Episode IX, one thing has remained certain- The Last Jedi is going to absolutely rock. Kathleen Kennedy loves it, the geek community loves Johnson, and the pieces are all in place. I can't wait. DECEMBER 15

And that's it. Here's to a great second half of 2017!

Images: IMDB/Various Sources