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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.

Published in Reviews

I wish I could tell you that Captain America: Civil War is so good that it will make you forget the horror that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Bursting Diseased Cinematic Pustules. Alas, nothing is good enough to clear that out of anyone’s brain anytime soon.

Captain America: Civil War is very good, though, a nice blast of superhero fun that finds a diplomatic way to include many Marvel favorites without feeling crowded or rushed. This is one well-oiled Marvel machine.

Front and center, there’s Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, still having Brooklyn-bro issues when it comes to the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Cap wants to back up his former best friend, but the guy committed some shady, hard-to-defend acts while brainwashed. Captain America has to make some extremely difficult—and potentially cataclysmic—choices.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) thought Age of Ultron sucked for more than the obvious reasons: On top of being boring, it left death and destruction in its wake, as did the far-more-exciting original The Avengers. World leaders want to put the Avengers in check, using them as a sort of alternative to nuclear weapons. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., still owning it), in the midst of a crisis of conscience, agrees to the proposed accord. Rogers thinks it’s bullshit and won’t sign. This all works as a fine setup for an eventual battle between Iron Man and Captain America, during which both sides have compelling reasons to fight. It’s actually hard to pick a side in this movie, making the confrontation all the more fun.

The Avengers get split up between Iron Man and Captain America. Stark has Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Vision (an excellent Paul Bettany), as well as new recruits Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and, yep, Spider-Man (Tom Holland, looking like he could be the best Spidey yet) in his ranks. Rogers goes into battle with the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Bucky and new recruit Ant-Man (a funny Paul Rudd).

It’s no easy task, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo, along with their screenwriters, juggle a lot of characters and spin a lot of plates—successfully and entertainingly. No single character hogs the screen for too long; everybody gets a nice stake in the movie; and the newbies are introduced in satisfying ways. Spider-Man manages to get his setup in a solid scene with Stark and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei … hooray!). It’s a relatively quick scene, but, hey, it’s Spider-Man. He doesn’t need a long setup. Just introduce him, and let him start shooting webs and wisecracks.

The film has good performances throughout, but Downey is the true standout. He’s the anchor of the Avengers universe, and he brings true gravitas where other actors would just make things corny. Holland gets a lot of points for making the most of his screen time and slipping comfortably into the costume most recently worn by Andrew Garfield. He’s perfect for Spidey on the acting front—and, if you take a look at his Spider-Man workouts, you’ll see he doesn’t necessarily need a stuntman.

Conspicuously missing are Hulk and Thor. Something had to be left for the next Thor movie, so those two get a break here. While Age of Ultron felt like nothing but a bunch of scenes setting up the next chapter, Civil War works as a standalone action movie.

There are no clear plans for Captain America and Bucky in The Avengers saga going forward. They are great characters, but there are plenty of great characters now existing in the Marvel Comics Universe. Captain America: Civil War gets things back on track after the weak Age of Ultron, and should make people excited for next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.

I’ll just keep saying it: You must stay through the damn credits until that blue ratings thing shows at the end. It’s a Marvel movie! There are two extra scenes to see. Stop leaving before the screen goes dark. It’s driving me crazy!

Captain America: Civil War is playing in a variety of formats at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

When Avengers: Age of Ultron wrapped, I realized a terrible thing for a fanboy like me: I had just watched almost 2 1/2 hours of stuff that did almost nothing for me. It was a big blur, intermittently interrupted by half-interesting moments.

In other words: It was boring.

You can’t accuse director Joss Whedon of “second verse, same as the first” with Avengers: Age of Ultron. He and his team definitely went for something different with this sequel to one of the greatest blockbusters ever made. Perhaps it would’ve been OK to retain more of the good humor, campiness and non-cluttered thrills that made The Avengers such a gas.

Ultron is flat. Nothing of any real consequence happens; there are just a bunch of scenes teasing future Marvel movies, and some action sequences that lack clarity. With the exception of an interesting smackdown between Iron Man and the Hulk, the action sequences feel repetitive.

The “Ultron” of the movie’s title is a series of robots with an artificial-intelligence program initiated by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark, thinking he can create a security force that will save the world, gets a little ahead of himself, forgoes the approval of his fellow Avengers—with the exception of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)—and starts the program, only to discover that A.I. can sometimes mean Absolute Insanity. The program goes AWOL and produces the anti-human Ultron.

Voiced by James Spader, Ultron is a one-note villain that lacks personality, unlike Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and other recent comic-book villains. He’s not a formidable bad guy, in part because he’s just a CGI creation voiced by an actor. All of the great Marvel and D.C. villains are usually a little more human, while Ultron comes off as a third-rate Transformers Decepticon. Yes, Spader has a menacing voice, but he’s no James Earl Jones.

On the other hand, the Vision—a good-guy offshoot of the same program that produces Ultron, more or less—is far more interesting. Played by Paul Bettany, the Vision is a welcome addition to the roster. Bettany’s likeness is actually used in the Vision, and he looks cool.

Also new are Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Scarlet Witch does the mind-control thing, which Whedon illustrates with a visual that looks like mist surrounding her victim’s head. This reminded me of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy and her red-mist, mind-controlling pheromones in Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. When it comes to comic book movies, it is never a good thing when something reminds you of Batman and Robin.

Quicksilver is potentially fun, but Johnson’s incarnation is not as interesting as that of Evan Peters, who played the part in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The film plays with the notion of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk having an affair. We get a couple of scenes with Black Widow managing to get the Hulk to calm down, and a little bit of Ruffalo and Johansson sort-of flirting, but the subplot doesn’t go anywhere. While the original Avengers was a terrific showcase for the Hulk, the latest mostly loses the big green guy in the shuffle. Also, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) now has a wife, in a failed effort to raise his character above least-interesting Avenger.

If you are an Avengers fan, you’ll have to see Age of Ultron, because it sets up a series of other films, and you might find yourself lost when watching future movies like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok or Black Widow: She Will Never Have Her Own Movie … What Gives?  

As for Whedon, perhaps he was the wrong man for this gig. The sequel goes for a darker tonal shift—a sort of Empire Strikes Back for the Avengers. The result is one of the year’s most crushing cinematic letdowns.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The thought of Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall starring together in a movie is, in a word, awesome.

So what did director David Dobkin do with this exciting scenario? He gave us The Judge, a cliché-ridden mess.

Downey plays Hank Palmer, a typical movie lawyer who gets bad guys off the hook while pissing, literally and figuratively, on lawyers trying to put bad guys in jail. Just before he gets another criminal off the hook in Chicago, a call comes in from home: His mom died while tending to her flowers. Therefore, Hank is off to the funeral in his hometown, where his dad, Joseph (Duvall), is the town judge—and a major-league prick.

Of course, Hank’s hometown is the absolute opposite of Chicago: It’s a rural, country paradise that Hank despises, although we, the viewers, can see it’s a pretty darned nice place, especially if you like fishing trips, bike rides and hot bartenders who are willing to sleep with you.

Hank hates his dad—boy, does he hate him. Joseph hates his son, too. The reasons for their mutual hatred are slowly revealed, and not one of those reasons comes as a surprise.

After the funeral, Hank is ready to bolt and go deal with his developing divorce when he gets a call: It turns out dad’s Cadillac, and consequently his dad, are being investigated in a possible intentional vehicular homicide.

You know what this means? Court drama! A long court drama. By god, at 141 freaking minutes, is it ever so horribly long.

Billy Bob Thornton plays the evil lawyer Hank must face while defending his dad. We know he is evil, because he has a steel, collapsible cup out of which he drinks water—a cup he snaps open and shut with a vengeance. Other clichéd characters include the autistic brother who likes to film things, and the “Coulda Been Somebody!” brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) who lost a chance to be a baseball star when Hank got them into a car accident while they were teens.

The highlight of this movie would be the scene in which a sick Joseph shits himself in a futile attempt to make it to the toilet in time. Hank comes to his rescue, and we are treated to a scene in which we not only see Robert Duvall covered in shit, but the gruesome aftermath of Hank cleaning him off in the shower. Dobkin adds a little humor to the crap-shower scene, with Hank’s daughter outside the door doing a knock-knock joke. It’s funny, because the kid doesn’t know that behind the door is her dad and granddad, standing in a shower, covered with shit. Those are some major hijinks right there.

So … this is a courtroom drama involving Billy Bob Thornton and his stupid cup; a disease-of-the-week movie involving rampant shitting; a romance involving Hank getting it on with an ex (Vera Farmiga); a fish-out-of-water dramedy; a mystery about who done run somebody over; and a little bit Rain Man, due to the autistic-brother angle. 

It’s really unbelievable that so much talent threw down for The Judge. Downey was on Howard Stern recently, and he claimed that Duvall was a bit of a holdout, and didn’t really want to make the movie. I’m guessing the opportunity to crap himself onscreen and then get a nice shower from Iron Man must’ve sold him on the gig.

The Judge is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The third Iron Man film regained some magic after the enjoyable but inferior Iron Man 2. That’s thanks in large part to director Shane Black, a man who has great chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. Just watch their Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for proof.

Things get dark this time around, with Downey’s Tony Stark suffering anxiety attacks after the events of The Avengers. The world is being terrorized by a strange sort called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a cloaked psycho who uses television and the Internet to hold the world at ransom.

After a battle that annihilates his California abode, Stark finds himself on the road and hiding out with a kid; this leads to some funny banter. Guy Pearce shows up as a potentially bad guy, and Gwyneth Paltrow gets a chance to put on a suit and kick some ass.

As far as action goes, this film really delivers the goods. Stark must face off against some crazy, fire-breathing mutants that are capable of regenerating when they lose a limb. There are a whole bunch of new suits and gadgets flying about, and many pretty explosions. Downey, as usual, anchors the whole thing with a fun performance.

This might mark the end for Downey in solo Iron Man films, but he has signed on for more Avengers movies—so he remains Iron Man.

Special Features: They include commentary with Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce, a bunch of behind-the-scenes featurettes, a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Shane Black, writer of the screenplays for Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero, made one of my favorite directorial debuts with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I thought it marked the arrival of a true directorial force.

Then he basically disappeared.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang featured the best Robert Downey Jr. performance ever put to screen. Maybe Downey agrees with that statement, because he pushed for Black as his director on Iron Man 3. Thankfully, he got his wish.

Iron Man 3 is as good as the first film, and markedly better than the OK second installment; it’s just slightly inferior to last year’s The Avengers. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it features dark humor, and gives us a protagonist that is slightly unreliable.

The film opens with a few mistakes Tony Stark made a long time ago, and sets us up for the perils Stark is facing today. Chief among his enemies is The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a tripped-out version of Osama bin Laden who executes Americans on TV and openly taunts the president (William Sadler).

Another big enemy would be Tony Stark himself, because he’s battling panic attacks and insomnia after the events of The Avengers. These blows to his mental and physical capacity lead to mishaps in his laboratory, and a pretty scary moment when one of his suits pounces on Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in their bedroom.

Chief among Stark’s flaws has always been his vanity, which leads to him calling out The Mandarin, resulting in all kinds of hell fire coming down on his West Coast compound. Stark winds up going deep undercover, and at one point has a kid sidekick (Ty Simpkins). The kid-sidekick stuff sounds like it would be lame, doesn’t it? However, Black and Downey Jr. have a way of taking conventional crap and having a lot of fun, so the kid is cool.

Iron Man 3 piles on the villains and potential villains. In the intro flashback, we meet nerdy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who is working on some really big genetics project. Stark blows him off so he can sleep with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), another scientist.

James Badge Dale and Stephanie Szostak are on hand as Mandarin assassins who have the power to heat up their bodies and regenerate limbs when they are lopped off. They reminded me a bit of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 with their unstoppable evil, although their performances contain a little more depth.

Paltrow is allowed to play with her character a little more in this installment, as Pepper goes through all kinds of tribulations. As with Tom Cruise, Paltrow’s public-image garbage tends to distract from the fact that she can act up a storm, and she’s typically great in this one. Don Cheadle gets limited screen time as Col. James Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot, but he makes the most of it.

As for the Mandarin, Kingsley has a lot of fun—in ways you won’t expect. The Mandarin is one of the more unique villains to arise from the Marvel movie franchises, and he takes some major detours from his comic-book incarnation.

Black and Downey faced a rather daunting task: How do you bring the Iron Man back to Earth after The Avengers, which involved aliens, a Hulk, a Thor and Scarlett Johansson in tights? The answer: You allow Downey to riff; you surround him with a cast that matches his brilliance; and you allow the Stark character to remain human and vulnerable.

The action scenes are stellar. One scene, involving a high-altitude rescue after a bunch of people are sucked out of a plane, is the best of the franchise thus far, and the finale is a rouser. Let it be said that Black manages an excellent balance of action and character development, with every major character getting satisfactory screen time. Black and Downey are a great screen team, and that’s apparent in Iron Man 3.

Next up for Tony Stark will be Avengers 2, and then who knows after that? This one is going to be a bitch to reboot when Downey Jr. decides to hang it up.

One last thing: Stay for the credits, will you? Despite many Marvel movies offering after-the-credits surprises, I still see a parade of people getting up and walking out as the credits start. You paid for the seat and perhaps the funny 3-D glasses, so stay put until everything fades to black.

Published in Reviews