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Sat11252017

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Spidey took an unfortunate detour with Andrew Garfield, director Marc Webb and their underwhelming, dreary The Amazing Spider-Man films. (I’m still pissed about those cranes!) That GIF of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker crying sloppily pretty much reflects my sentiment about the last couple of Spider-Man films.

Things get back on track in a fun way with Spider-Man: Homecoming, a complete overhaul of the Peter Parker character thanks to the effervescent casting of Tom Holland, an impressive athlete (he does most of his own acrobatic stunts) and fine actor (he’s amazing in The Impossible). Holland does the character proud, as did Maguire before him. The torch has been passed in reliable, snappy way.

Of course, a Marvel movie needs a good villain, and Homecoming gets one in Vulture, played with snarling glee by Michael Keaton. Director Jon Watts and a ridiculous number of writers give Vulture an interesting origin.

He’s Adrian Toomes, a construction salvage worker who had a city contract to clean up the mess in New York City after the events of the Avengers. Some government types take over and kick him off the gig, leaving him pissed—with a bunch of high-tech alien junk in his possession. Toomes constructs some weapons, including an elaborate winged suit, and voila—Vulture.

Parker is younger this time out, and he’s dealing with typical high school traumas that seem a little trivial after the events of Captain America: Civil War, where he sort of saved the day. He’s gone from stealing Captain America’s shield to worrying about girls, and he’s just a little bored.

Enter Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who has given him his Spidey suit with some conditions: He can only be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” concentrating on local problems rather than the really big ones. Those are jobs for the Avengers, and Spidey isn’t on that level just yet.

The film is basically half a kick-ass Marvel movie (Watts is no slouch with an action sequence) and half an enjoyable high school comedy that would make John Hughes proud (including a soundtrack with everything from the Ramones to the English Beat). It manages to be both a worthy Marvel Universe installment and a great standalone adventure.

Downey, Mr. Reliable, holds everything together and assures fans that this is very much another chapter in the continuing Avengers arc. He and Holland have great scenes together, and Iron Man makes more than one prominent appearance. Keaton holds up his part of the job with an expert’s efficiency, relishing a chance to be bad. Remember that moment in 1989’s Batman when he taunted the Joker? (“Let’s get nuts!”) He spends plenty of this movie’s time in “nuts” mode.

Marisa Tomei is the new Aunt May, and she’s great. (Hey, it’s Tomei, so the character pops the moment you cast her.) There’s no J. Jonah Jameson this time around; Parker’s adventures as a news photographer will have to wait for a future adventure.

Hats off to the producers for taking a risk with the relatively unknown Watts, whose other feature films include the horror film Clown and the very good Kevin Bacon thriller Cop Car. Watts demonstrated that he could balance adolescent actors, humor and dread in an expert manner with Cop Car; what he didn’t demonstrate was his ability to coordinate massive special effects with a gargantuan budget. Whatever handicap he had entering the production is surely conquered at this point. He’s a big-movie director to be reckoned with.

There’s a moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming that involves some heavy lifting, and it displays the magical powers of the famous character thanks to Holland’s amazing representation. In that moment, the character is genuinely reborn. This isn’t your typical approach to a superhero origin story; it’s a let-her-rip, no-nonsense declaration that the right web-slinging incarnation has arrived, and he’s ready to party.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

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Michael Keaton is fantastic in The Founder as Ray Kroc, the sorta-kinda founder of McDonald’s. Director John Lee Hancock’s film tells his story, from Kroc selling milkshake mixers door-to-door, through his wife-stealing days as the head of the McDonald’s corporation.

Hancock’s movie desperately wants us to like Kroc … but maybe we shouldn’t? After all, he swept in and took the name of McDonald’s from the McDonald brothers (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), effectively cutting them out of most profits and leaving them in his dust.

The film is at its best when it is in old-time, Americana mode. It’s a beautiful-looking movie that captures the essence of those old-timey fast-food joints that replaced the traditional drive-in diners. It slows down and gets a little muddled when it tries to depict Kroc as some sort of commerce hero. Hmm … I suppose if they went into details about how McDonald’s has contributed to worldwide obesity and environmental concerns, McDonald’s would’ve broken out the lawyers and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Offerman is great as the well-meaning, high-standards McDonald brother who regrets the day he met Kroc. Keaton gets high marks for a film that is ultimately uneven.

The Founder is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Spotlight stands as one of the all-time-great films about newspaper reporting; the story at its center is remarkable.

In 2001, Spotlight, an investigative division of The Boston Globe, gets tasked with investigating child-molesting priests. What starts as a few cases grows to cases involving almost 90 priests in the Boston area alone—none of them criminally prosecuted.

Special kudos go to Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, the real reporter who helped bring the story to the public. Ruffalo captures the spirit of a hungry reporter without resorting to any clichés. His Rezendes feels like the real thing; a moment when he loses his temper is one of the better screen moments 2015 has to offer.

He’s not alone in the brilliant category. Michael Keaton is terrific as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the Spotlight editor who suddenly finds himself and his staff up against a powerful Catholic Church. Rachel McAdams is totally convincing as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, while Liev Schreiber gets his best role in years as head editor Marty Baron.

The film also co-stars Stanley Tucci, John Slattery and Billy Crudup. They, and everything about this film, are first rate.

Spotlight is playing at theaters across the valley.

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The little yellow things from Despicable Me now have their own film, Minions. Their banana shtick is fun for a while—but it’s not enough to sustain an entire feature film.

Things start out funny enough, with a brief history of the Minions since the beginning of time. They’ve always wanted to be henchmen, and they are attracted to bad guys. We meet a lot of their former, unlucky bosses (Dracula, T-Rex, Napoleon, etc.). They wind up settling up north, worshipping the abominable snowman, when three of them (Stuart, Kevin and Bob) decide to head out on a journey to look for a new master.

Their travels take them to New York in 1968—which happens to be the year of my birth, and arguably one of the worst years in American history. The pop-culture references when they first arrive, including a fantastic Richard Nixon billboard and The Dating Game, are well done. The movie has a cool Mad Magazine vibe going for it in its first half.

However, things start going off the rails when the three minions leave New York for Orlando, Fla., where they seek out the world’s greatest villainous, Scarlet Overkill (the voice of Sandra Bullock), at something akin to Comic-Con for villains. She has some cockamamie scheme for the minions to steal the queen of England’s crown, co they all travel to England—where things get even wackier.

Perhaps the best thing in the movie is the queen (Jennifer Saunders), who is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky goofball, and who remains good-natured even when she loses her crown and the throne to Overkill due to a technicality. In fact, the film lights up when the queen is in the room; it could’ve used more of her.

As for the Minions themselves, they get a little grating after the first 45 minutes. The banana joke is funny the first seven times or so, but it grows a little tired around the 1,756th time. They speak that strange Minions gibberish, and that, too, is funny for a little while, but trying to figure out what they are saying eventually gets a little exhausting. When I could figure out what they were sort of saying … well, it just wasn’t that funny.

By the time one of the Minions grows to the size of King Kong and terrorizes London, many adult eyes had glazed over. The opening sequences that included things older people would know about prove to be a tease: Minions is strictly a kiddie affair for most of its running time.

The screening I saw had plenty of kids guffawing—and that’s really what this thing is supposed to do, right? It’s supposed to make kids laugh and give them something to drive their parents crazy with for the next few months. Parents: Start gearing up to buy the large variety of Minions toys sure to be assaulting stores in the next few months.

Bullock’s supervillain isn’t all that interesting, and neither is her husband (voiced by Jon Hamm). Michael Keaton and Allison Janney take part in one of the film’s more amusing sequences, as parents who take their children on armed robberies.

The film does have some sick fun with the back-history of the Minions. Most of their masters before Gru (Steve Carell’s character in Despicable Me) are accidentally killed. They manage to get a caveman eaten by a big bear; they blow up Dracula; they crush the abominable snowman, etc. Seeing powerful and nefarious male figures as no match for the Minions is good for a laugh or two.

I won’t spoil any surprises, but the film does feature a big cameo. Actually, you can probably guess who it is. Want me to tell you? Nah … screw it. I won’t tell you.

As for the future of the Despicable Me series, a third film featuring Carell’s Gru is slated for 2017. However, given the huge box-office take of Minions in its opening weekend, the little yellow guys have more drawing power than Gru.

Minions is playing at theaters across the valley.

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An amazing cast, led by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, turn Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) into an instant classic—a film like no other.

Pulling out all of the technological stops, director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) made this movie as if it were one seamless shot. The movie doesn’t happen in real time; it passes through locations, with hours and even days going by between the tricky transitions. For example, the camera will track forward from a hallway to a backstage area, and while mere seconds go by, 12 hours in the film’s world will pass. It’s extraordinary.

Keaton plays Riggan, an actor on his last legs. In his heyday, Riggan made millions as the title character in the superhero blockbuster Birdman and its sequels. At the height of his popularity, he walked away in hopes of finding more creatively fulfilling projects.

However, his other film pursuits have not panned out, and he finds himself in previews of a Broadway play—a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that he is financing, directing and starring in. The stakes are high, and Riggan is showing signs of mentally coming apart.

When one of his actors takes a falling stage light to the head (in what may or may not have been an accident), Riggan casts hotshot actor Mike (Norton) in a crucial leading role beside him. Mike is certified box-office gold, and his addition should help make the play a hit. Problem is, Mike is also a method actor who uses real booze onstage, and isn’t afraid to break character and challenge Riggan before an audience.

The whole situation causes Riggan to take breaks from reality. He converses with his superhero alter ego (also played by Keaton), who is not at all pleased with the state of Riggan’s existence. The ego has taken some hits; the money has dried up; the place in which he currently resides “smells like balls.” Riggan has moments when he believes he may have telekinetic powers, but in reality, he’s probably just throwing crap around his dressing room.

The moments in which Keaton and Norton square off are most likely the best-acted scenes you will see in a movie this year. Obviously, Keaton’s role is semi-autobiographical, in that he was once Batman and ruler of the box office. Norton’s role seems to be somewhat based in his own history, in that he is a notorious perfectionist. These realities help make their clashes seem quite authentic, and even a little scary. You get a true sense that Keaton and Norton are really pissed at each another, and any punches thrown are the real thing. Both actors should be solid contenders in the Oscar race.

As Riggan’s rehabbing drug-addict daughter, Emma Stone makes her own bid for Oscar contention with her compelling, intense work. She has a speech in this movie in which she eviscerates Keaton’s character, and it’s a real stunner.

Zach Galifianakis has shown dramatic chops in the past, and as Riggan’s agent and lawyer, he again shows that he is far more than a laugh-getter. Also worth noting are Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan in small but important roles. This is basically the best cast of 2014.

The movie works on so many levels. It’s an intense drama, but it’s very funny and satiric. It’s also an interesting take on a man’s decent into insanity, while being a scathing indictment of celebrity. It’s even a pitch-perfect depiction of the rigors of putting on a play.

You have never seen anything like Birdman, and I doubt you will ever see anything like it again.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342), the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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A slew of 1980s remakes are getting thrown at us right now. For example, Endless Love and About Last Night both got re-dos, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Also released on that day of candy and heart-shaped cards: a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 ultra-violent satiric masterpiece, RoboCop.

The idea to reboot RoboCop has been around for years. The last RoboCop film, the remarkably awful RoboCop 3, came out more than 20 years ago. At one point, director Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream) was attached, and that gave geeks and fanboys a reason to rejoice. Alas, Aronofsky dropped out to make Black Swan instead. A chance for legendary coolness was squandered.

In stepped Brazilian director José Padilha (Elite Squad), who received a mandate to produce a PG-13 RoboCop (as opposed to the hard-R original), so that more money could be made. After a tumultuous production, we have the result.

And that result? It’s not that bad … not bad at all.

Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer wisely go for something very different this time out. The new RoboCop is still subversive, and a bit satirical when it comes to its presentation of the media. Conversely, this one has a little more heart and emotion than the nasty original. Normally, I’d cry foul at this sort of thing, but a strong cast and a visually sound presentation result in a movie that is at least worth watching, even if it pales in comparison to Verhoeven’s insane incarnation.

Joel Kinnaman steps into the role of Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop in the year 2028 who gets himself blown up after causing too much trouble for a criminal kingpin. Murphy, with the permission of his wife (Abbie Cornish), has his life saved by being placed into an armored endoskeleton—with the purpose of making him a law-enforcement superhero.

In the original, Murphy (well played by Peter Weller) started his crusade while not really knowing who he was, or having any memories. He eventually figured out his identity and solved his own murder. The new film drastically diverts here, having its Murphy freak out upon waking up as a robot—fully cognizant of his identity. It’s only when his emotional stability comes into question that his doctor (Gary Oldman) decides to mess with his brain and shoot him full of dopamine, turning him into a robot zombie.

I heard about this twist in advance, and I didn’t like the idea. However, the plot change is handled well. Murphy’s wife and kid play a bigger part in this story, and that turns out to be fine.

This is still, very much, a RoboCop movie, even with more emotion and less violence. Michael Keaton represents the evil corporation that creates RoboCop; his Raymond Sellars is evil in a more understated way than Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones from the ’87 film—but he’s just as sinister. Michael K. Williams essentially takes over the role of the loyal partner, played by Nancy Allen in the original.

Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak!) gets one of his funniest roles ever as a militaristic policeman, while Samuel L. Jackson gets to scream as a sensationalistic talk-show host. I guess Jackson is essentially taking over the role played by Leeza Gibbons in the original.

The movie also contains some clever winks to the original, including an army of ED-209s (the cumbersome war machine that fell down the stairs, squealing, in the original), and a nod to the first RoboCop suit.

This film is rewritten in a way that won’t piss off the original’s legions of fans. Still, if a hundred years from now, anybody is watching RoboCop movies, the Verhoeven film will still be the one most in favor. The new one amounts to a decent-enough curio, but it’s not a classic.

RoboCop is playing at theaters across the valley.

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