Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man Homecoming

Aren’t we all sick to death of the Spider-Man origin story? You don’t need to be a comic book buff to know about the spider bite, Uncle Ben, and web-slinging. So when it was announced that the Spider-Man tale was going to be rebooted for the big screen yet again – for the third try in the past 15 years – I wouldn’t blame you if you audibly groaned. Of course, this time it was supposed to be different, because Spider-Man is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Still don’t really understand what that means, despite having seen about a dozen of the MCU films? Join the club.) But is Spider-Man: Homecoming really a significant departure from the past iterations of the story that are so fresh in our minds? Well, yes and no.

Mercifully, director Jon Watts (Cop Car) spares us the bulk of the origin story, instead joining Peter Parker (Tom Holland) in progress as Spidey. After getting a taste of the superhero life with the work he did in Captain America: Civil War, we now see him honing his skills. Itching to don the superhero suit at any opportunity and bumbling his way through stopping small-time crime, Peter is really just waiting for Tony Stark and the rest of the Avengers to call him up for the next mission. At the same time, being just 15 years old, Peter still has to navigate high school, which to him now seems like a total snooze in comparison. However, it’s not all bad, since he has best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) and crush Liz (Laura Harrier) to help occupy his time.

This sets the scene for Spider-Man: Homecoming, and I was actually pleasantly surprised to see how much of the film focuses on the process of Peter coming into his own, both as a superhero and as a teenager. Nowhere to be found is the flashy, perfect badassery of the Avengers crew. Instead, Peter fumbles and gets in over his head, sometimes inadvertently causing more trouble than he prevents. He’s obviously got a lot of heart and skill, but he’s still finding his footing, and Spider-Man: Homecoming works best when it navigates that uncomfortable in-between phase – even down to the touch of showing the awkward process of trying to change from street clothes to a full-blown superhero costume in public. Superhero movies often struggle with humanizing their heroes without either making them seem weak or going the satirical route, a la something like Deadpool. Here, by contrast, I felt more invested in the character because he actually seemed fallible, and we get to see so many of his less glamorous moments.

This added dose of humanity also comes partly thanks to Holland, who balances the many character demands of Peter Parker. Charming and quick-witted, Holland can also bring a vulnerability that is refreshing to see in the MCU. This is underscored during a particular moment during the film’s climax, which (without heading into spoiler territory) finds Peter at an extreme low point. Holland plays the moment perfectly, as well as true to Peter’s age, and I also applaud Marvel for showing their protagonist react in an unexpected way that we haven’t necessarily seen in an MCU film before.

Despite these strengths, the film has its weaknesses, especially when wading into its big action set pieces. The action is just lacking the flow or even the comprehensibility seen in many other films of its ilk. For example, there is a sequence that takes place on the Staten Island Ferry that should have come across as inventive and exciting, but instead it becomes overly complicated trying to figure out the geography of where certain characters are. With some exceptions, many of the film’s big “action” moments lose their punch thanks to sub-par direction. This is perhaps the most compelling argument as to why Marvel should have invested in a director with more of a resume.

Fortunately, I guess, the film doesn’t overly rely on action to tell its story, and it has other strong aspects working in its favour, including the fact that they scored Michael Keaton to play a villain who actually has some substance. As well, the film’s humour and slightly shaggier feel make it feel like both a breath of fresh air, and like a film that could easily appeal to younger audiences in addition to the adult fanboys who have been breathlessly following the MCU from the start.

Those looking for a film to reinvent the superhero wheel won’t find it in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as it does for the most part tow the Marvel line. But by featuring such a youthful protagonist and focussing more on his struggles than his victories, this is a film with more heart than many of us have come to expect from the subgenre. While feeling oddly slight in some ways, Spider-Man homecoming is still a middle-of-the-pack entry in the MCU and makes for pleasant summer viewing at the multiplex.

10 films you need to see in June 2017

The Bad Batch

Kicking off what looks to actually be a pretty strong summer movie season, June has a lot of interesting offerings. From the biggest of the big budgets, to indie flicks that’ll probably make only a small blip at the box office, here are the 10 films I think you need to see this month.

Wonder Woman (June 2, wide)

Directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster), Wonder Woman just opened on Friday and is already looking to smash records and exceed expectations. Of course, the film is the latest in the sometimes-maligned DC cinematic universe, though so far much more highly regarded by critics than DC’s other recent outings, including Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman.


Dean (June 2, limited)

Directed by, written by, and starring stand-up comedian Demetri Martin, Dean follows a New York City-based illustrator (Martin) who returns home to the west coast after the death of his mother. (It also stars Kevin Kline and Community’s Gillian Jacobs, which are two more pluses, in my opinion.) Knowing Martin’s distinctive brand of comedy, I’d imagine it’d be helpful to already be a fan of his work going into the film, and perhaps as a result, the film has earned somewhat mixed reviews from critics after initially being well-received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.


It Comes at Night (June 9, wide)

A24 has become a darling of independent film, with each of their new releases pre-ordained with buzz before much is even known about the film itself. Not everything they release is a hit or even very good, necessarily (for every Room or Moonlight there seems to be a Sea of Trees or an Equals) but It Comes at Night seems like it has potential to be a crossover success. Starring Joel Edgerton and Riley Keough, it story is familiar within the horror genre (a man tries to seclude himself and his family to protect them from a mysterious outside threat, only to have some strangers show up seeking refuge), but it looks to balance horror tropes with artful filmmaking, which I can always appreciate.


My Cousin Rachel (June 9, limited)

Oh, doesn’t this trailer look like melodramatic fun? Based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, director Roger Michell (Noting Hill, Venus) seems to be embracing gothic camp with the help of his seemingly extremely game leading lady, Rachel Weisz. Throw in Sam Claflin as a wan upper-crust dreamboat (arguably the only type of role he should play), and I’m solidly on board.


Rough Night (June 16, wide)

It shouldn’t be noteworthy that June features two major releases that are directed by women and feature female leads, yet it kind of is. The second of those is Rough Night, the debut feature from director Lucia Aniello. Aniello has worked extensively on Broad City and now makes the leap from television to film with the help of Broad City star Ilana Glazer. Following the misadventures of a bachelorette party whose hired male stripper winds up dead, Rough Night also stars Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Zoe Kravitz, and Jillian Bell.


The Bad Batch (June 23, limited)

Anna Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is sure to be batshit insane, if The Bad Batch’s trailer is any indication. Billed as a dystopian cannibal love story, The Bad Batch looks to offer an eclectic cast and style for days. It received somewhat lukewarm response on the festival circuit last year, but it looks ballsy, weird, and fun enough to get me into the theatre.


The Beguiled (June 23, limited)

Haven’t we all been waiting for Sofia Coppola to make a freaky Southern-gothic Civil War parable? Loosely based on the 1971 Clint Eastwood western of the same name and starring Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman, and Elle Fanning, The Beguiled takes place at a Virginia girls boarding school that is disrupted by the arrival of Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell). And in case all of that wasn’t enough to entice you, last weekend Coppola scooped up a Best Director award for The Beguiled at the Cannes Film Festival.


The Big Sick (June 23, limited)

There needs to be at least one quality indie rom-com released every summer (preferably starring Zoe Kazan), and The Big Sick looks like it could perfectly fill that slot. Telling the real-life story of star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily (portrayed here by Kazan), the film follows a complicated relationship made more complicated when Emily suddenly becomes very ill. The trailer looks touching and its two stars are endlessly charming. AND The Big Sick is directed by Michael Showalter, whose last film, My Name is Doris, was equal parts funny and melancholy.


Baby Driver (June 30, wide)

Any new film by Edgar Wright is bound to garner a lot of excitement. But while his last outing, 2013’s The World’s End left me a little underwhelmed, I have high hopes for Baby Driver, partly just because it looks like something a little different from Wright. More than just being a typical caper/crime movie, film also boasts an interesting approach to integrating its soundtrack. The trailer looks relentlessly stylish (but, like… in a good way) and early buzz seems strong. It looks like it could be a perfect summer popcorn flick.


Okja (June 30, Netflix)

There was a bit of a kerfuffle at Cannes this year after it was announced that Okja had been picked up by Netflix and would be released on the streaming platform just weeks after playing the festival. But hey, I’m not complaining about getting to see the new Bong Joon Ho movie. Following up 2013’s truly excellent Snowpiercer, Bong’s Okja looks strange and wonderful, telling the story of a young girl attempting to protect a fantastical creature from being kidnapped by a multi-national corporation. And to top it all off, the film stars Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lilly Collins. Time to fire up Netflix and enjoy.

Review: All These Sleepless Nights

All These Sleepless Nights

It’s tempting to spend this entire review pondering whether All These Sleepless Nights is really a documentary or not. Of course, there’s much more to Michal Marczak’s film than questions of form. But those questions also turn out to be pretty compelling.

Low on story and heavy on style, All These Sleepless Nights provides a slightly voyeuristic look at a group of mostly directionless young adults living in Warsaw, Poland. We spend a lot of time wandering the city streets with them, witnessing their often mundane encounters. We also watch as they use a combination of sex and drugs to lull themselves in a passive state of detachment, adding an even more meditative tone to the movie.

The film’s two main subjects are Kris and Michal, two quasi-handsome, vaguely charismatic friends whose hedonistic and egotistical behaviour unsurprisingly puts some tension on their interpersonal relationships. There are love triangles and some conflict throughout, but All These Sleepless Nights is more about conveying a mood and capturing a mindset, rather than telling any sort of conventional narrative.

It may seem like a pedantic distinction, but going into All These Sleepless Nights thinking of it as a documentary or as a narrative will affect the way you experience it. There’s room for grey areas and blurred lines, yes, but the film’s heavy stylization complicates things. Is this meant to be an accurate document of youth, or a constructed interpretation of it? The answer is undeniably somewhere in the middle. And while it may sound like that formal non-commitment would obscure the film’s impact, it actually increases it, adding to its already hazy, dream-like aura.

All These Sleepless nights has played at documentary film festivals such as True/False and Hot Docs, yet on IMDB it’s classified as a drama rather than a documentary. In viewing it, I found it difficult to view its subjects as anything other than “characters”. The way the scenarios play out (some of which feel quite obviously staged), the subjects’ sometimes less-than-natural reactions, the reliance on the musical soundtrack, and the impeccably lit cinematography all really prevent the film from feeling like something that was captured on the fly and in real time. But again, that isn’t really a knock against it. Marczak (who has been upfront about the fact that aspects of the film were manipulated, re-shot, and improvised, rather than simply “documented”) has crafted something that feels authentic, if not completely grounded in reality. If a film involves real people and strives to represent the authentic feelings they experience (but uses unconventional means to do so) who’s to say it’s not still non-fiction?

Ultimately, though, these questions fade to the background as you’re watching All These Sleepless Nights. You get lulled into the film’s hazy tone, basking in the beautiful visuals. Marczak, also a cinematographer, cultivates one striking image after another. The film is absolutely worth seeing just for that, though don’t go into it looking for any real narrative thrust.

Atmospheric and distinct, All These Sleepless Nights captures the strife, power, and mundane feelings of youth all in one arty little package. It may not appear to say much on the surface, but its impact lingers.

10 films you need to see in April 2017

Free Fire.jpeg

Just ahead of the summer movie season (which arguably kicks off on May 5th with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), April is shaping up to be a strange month at the cinema. Even the major releases seem a little more low-key than usual. But with most of the tentpole franchises absent (save one notable exception), maybe it’ll make room for something a little different to catch on at the box office.

Box office prognostication aside, there are a lot of really promising, slightly offbeat offerings this month. Here are the 10 I’m most excited for.

Graduation

Graduation (April 7, Limited)

A high-profile title on last year’s festival circuit, Graduation is the latest project from Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu. Best known for his Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Mungiu found success at Cannes again this year with Graduation, winning the festival’s Best Director award (which he shared with Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper). The IMDB plot description for Graduation is concise and mysterious, conveying perhaps all I want to know going in: “A film about compromises and the implications of the parent’s role.”

Colossal (April 7, Limited)

Featuring a somewhat bonkers premise and a surprisingly star-studded cast, this latest film from Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) is one that sounds too unique not to give a chance to. Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, an American alcoholic who begins to realize that her own actions are directly linked to those of a giant monster who is simultaneously terrorizing Seoul, South Korea. Though it received generally positive reviews out of last year’s TIFF, this one seems like it could be divisive. In case it helps win you over, the film also stars Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, and Tim Blake Nelson.

Win It All (April 7, Netflix)

Kicking off a strong month of Netflix exclusives is the latest from director Joe Swanberg, Win it All. Swanberg, once known for his truly voracious movie-making pace, has taken a break (by his standards) from movies to work on two recent series for Netflix, Easy and Love. Now back with his first film since 2015’s Digging for Fire, it seems like Swanberg has found a medium that suits his low-key films. Win it All stars Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, and Joe Lo Truglio and follows a man who spends all the money he’s promised to hold on to for an imprisoned friend, only to have to quickly win it back when the friend’s prison sentence gets shortened. Johnson (here a co-screenwriter) has become a regular collaborator with Swanberg, so here’s hoping this go-round is as entertaining and insightful as 2013’s great Drinking Buddies.

Mine (April 7, Limited)

Utilizing the usually successful trope of putting your protagonist in a confined space they can’t get out of (think 127 Hours, Buried, and Frozen [not the Disney one]), Mine is about a soldier (Armie Hammer) who gets stranded in the desert, surrounded by landmines and unable to move. It’ll be interesting to see how Hammer handles having the film pretty much all to himself (by the looks of it), considering his other work has either been supporting roles or with a co-lead. The premise here is good, so let’s see if the delivery does it justice.

The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z (April 14, Limited)

I’m still not totally sold on James Gray as a director, and 2015’s middling The Immigrant didn’t do a lot to change my mind. However, I have hope for his latest project, despite the fact (because of the fact?) that it stars the likes of Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson. The Lost City of Z tells the true story of Col. Percival Fawcett (Hunnam), a British explorer searching in the 1920’s for a mysterious South American city.

Maudie (April 14, Limited)

Delving into the life of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, Maudie stars Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. Those two names alone are enough to pique my interest, but when combined with strong buzz from the festival circuit and a gorgeous-looking trailer, Maudie becomes a must-seee.

Tramps

Tramps (April 21, Netflix)

While it may not have the same star power as something like the upcoming War Machine, it was nice to see Netflix snap up this indie crime romance, which earned strong reviews during its premiere at TIFF last fall. Starring Callum Turner (Green Room) and Grace Van Patten (Stealing Cars), Tramps is written and directed by Adam Leon, who made a splash with 2013 debut feature, Gimme the Loot. An unlikely rom-com, Tramps takes place in New York and follows two strangers who end up working together when a shady deal goes awry.

Free Fire (April 21, Wide)

With a top-notch cast (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, etc.) and a brash, bullet-riddled premise, it’s not too surprising that Free Fire is getting a major release. It’ll be a big step up in terms of attention for director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List), though, previously a favourite in the cult film community. Free Fire looks fun and crowd-pleasing, and I’m intrigued to see how Wheatley’s vision competes among big-budget fare at the box office.

The Circle

The Circle (April 28, Wide)

After his directorial trifecta of Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and The End of the Tour, I’m now automatically excited for any movie helmed by James Ponsoldt. The Circle is far and away his biggest project to date, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson and based on the popular 2013 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. The film follows Mae (Watson), a young woman who lands a lucrative job at a powerful tech company (the titular “Circle”), only to discover that they may have a sinister agenda. Having read and liked the book, I’m highly intrigued to see what Ponsoldt does with the material.

Rodney King (April 28, Netflix)

A new Spike Lee movie is reason enough to perk up one’s ears (although perhaps also still resist full-fledged excitement, given the director’s spotty track record). This one sounds particularly interesting, even though details are still scarce. Rodney King seems to be a one-man show, examining King (portrayed here by Roger Guenver Smith) and the infamous videotape of his brutal beating at the hands of the LAPD. Lee likely won’t shy away from a bit of controversy with this latest project, so you’ll want to be part of the conversation about this film, which conveniently makes its premiere on Netflix.

Other films of note: Their Finest (April 7, limited) looks like a charming return to form for Lone Scherfig (An Education), following a group of British propaganda filmmakers during WWII and starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, and Bill Nighy. And speaking of charm, Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, and Jenny Slate team up for Gifted (April 7, limited), the latest from Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man) about a young girl with exceptional mathematic skill. Terrence Davies also returns hot off the heels of last year’s Sunset Song with A Quiet Passion (April 14, limited), examining the life of Emily Dickinson. And, finally, April also has something for the adrenaline junkies in the crowd, unleashing the hotly anticipated The Fate of the Furious (April 14, wide).

Review: The Levelling

The Levelling

The Levelling, the debut feature of English director Hope Dickson Leach, is understated and solemn, but also crackling with emotional intensity.

At just 83 minutes long, the story is slight – at times too much so – but it feels like the perfect length for this quiet slice of life that writer-director Leach is conveying.

The Levelling is set during the Somerset Levels floods of 2014, which jeopardized the livelihoods of many in the area. However, that real-life event largely serves as a backdrop (and metaphorical tie-in) for Leach’s fictional story. It follows Clover (Game of Thrones’ Ellie Kendrick), a veterinary student who returns home to her family’s farm after the sudden death of her brother, Harry (Joe Blackmore). In the immediate aftermath of Harry’s death, their father (David Troughton) struggles to come to terms with it, so Clover must take care of the farm while also trying to piece together exactly how her brother died.

The Levelling is largely a film about grief. While the mystery-of-sorts surrounding Harry’s death serves as a loose plot to propel the movie along, the main focus is on the ramifications that incident has on Clover, her father, and their relationship. Leach’s examination of loss is delicate, saying more with silence, characters’ body language, and cinematic atmosphere than she does with words in the screenplay. The Levelling has a tone that is understated and a little grim without ever feeling morose. Leach’s handle on the material is too steady to venture into melodrama and The Levelling is all the more captivating because of it.

Also greatly helping to convey the film’s subtle narrative themes is Kendrick, whose performance is nothing short of stunning. Her face is so expressive that it’s easy to know how Clover is feeling without it ever feeling too obvious or exaggerated. Clover is a very internalized character, which doesn’t always translate on screen, yet rather than her introversion feeling like a hurdle for the film to get over, Kendrick sinks her teeth into it, finding other ways to inhabit the character. Despite the film’s other strengths, it seems doubtful this character study would have worked without a strong lead actress like Kendrick.

The Levelling may not grip everyone, but I found that its quiet impact lingered with me, hitting in unlikely ways for a seemingly low-key movie. Let the beautiful cinematography wash over you and accept the story for what it is. You might find that it says some unexpected things about human nature in the process.