Category Archives: Movie Reviews

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.

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.

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.

Review: The Belko Experiment

The Belko ExperimentYou’d be forgiven for thinking the premise of The Belko Experiment sounds familiar. Following a group of American employees at a Colombian office building, a typical day at work quickly becomes a sadistic social experiment when the workers are instructed to start killing one another in order to avoid being killed. It’s a little bit of The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and Funny Games rolled together, all somehow set inside an off-kilter workplace comedy.

Director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) begins the proceedings by sardonically showing us the sanitized office setting of Belko Industries, but don’t let the film’s mild set-up fool you. Once the office building goes into lockdown, the pleasantries quickly vanish, making way for the bloodshed and exploding heads. There’s no other way to say it: The Belko Experiment is very violent. However, for those who aren’t too squeamish, there’s a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to the film that does help ease some of the brutality of what’s being depicted on screen. It’s more camp than torture porn; decide for yourself if that’s a good thing.

The Belko Experiment seems like a bit of a surprising choice to get a major release, having gotten its start on the festival circuit and featuring no A-list names. It doesn’t aspire to be much more than a high-concept, low-budget cult film, and it seems like it’ll have far better longevity on Netflix than it will at the box office. I suspect a lot of its pumped-up profile has to do with the involvement of James Gunn (best known for directing the Guardians of the Galaxy films), who takes on writing and producing duties here.

The irony of that, of course, is that the script is easily the film’s weakest element, never quite finding the balance between schlock and social commentary. The set-up features the sort of cardboard characters and snarky one-liners that we come to expect from this grade of horror flick, and then once the shit starts to hit the fan, Gunn never pushes the “moral dilemma” aspect hard enough, which should be at the film’s core. It instead becomes a matter of who’s going to turn into the big, bad villain that everyone else has to defeat. There’s a smart film buried within Belko that we get hints of, with its wry commentary on corporate life, and it would have been nice to see more of that, rather than a reliance on overworked clichés.

One aspect of The Belko Experiment that works both for and against it is the cast, which is huge. Clearly Gunn gave some of his friends a ring, because there’s no other explanation for how the film manages to land a character actor trifecta of John C. McGinley, Tony Goldwyn, and Michael Rooker. (Google it if the names don’t sound familiar – you’ll know all their faces.) All three of their characters are written to varying degrees of ridiculousness but are very fun to watch.

John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom, 10 Cloverfield Lane), meanwhile, might seem like a weird choice for the lead role but perfectly balances the everyman aspect of his thinly-written character with the badass “action” direction he has to go, all the while bringing a bit of genuine emotional heft to the proceedings. Most of the other actors are in the film too briefly to make much of an impression, and at least half a dozen of them could have been trimmed without anyone really noticing. It’s just another example of how Belko largely squanders its potential, settling for low-brow pulp when it had all the goods to be something more.

That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of Belko that work. McLean has a firm handle on the direction and carries the viewer through smoothly, even as the plot becomes outlandishly chaotic. And while the film fails to deliver on its premise in terms of the explanation provided for why the “experiment” is happening, it does manage a gut-punch of an ending. (It’s also a suspiciously sequel-friendly one, but I guess we can’t begrudge them that.)

Gunn has talked about how long The Belko Experiment percolated in his mind before getting made, and it does end up feeling overworked, never quite hitting any of the marks it seems to want to. However, the ride is still a mildly fun one – assuming your idea of a good time is at least a little bit twisted.

Review: Brimstone

Brimstone

Somewhere within Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone is a film with a fiercely feminist slant. Set in front of a fairly typical 19th century western backdrop, the film follows Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young mother being terrorized by a sinister preacher (Guy Pearce) who has his sights set on her. Throughout its ample 148-minute runtime, Brimstone shows the injustice and abuse that women face, as well as the ways they seek revenge. But while that may sound interesting or even empowering in theory, where Brimstone flies woefully off the rails is in the leering, exploitative way it presents its presumably well-intentioned message.

This isn’t to say that a film can’t be shocking while still making its points. And indeed, in one way I respect Koolhoven’s commitment to brutality; his hand is unflinching and his vision clear. The problem, though, comes from the fact that his vision happens to be so unrelentingly nasty that Brimstone becomes a complete slog by the time it wheezes to the end of its four-chapter structure. The shock value wears off early on, leaving the viewer with a sort of grimness set at the same pitch throughout, rarely evolving after the film’s first half hour or so.

Some of the brutality comes with a side helping of Koolhoven’s pitch-black sense of humour, and it’s easy to see that a lot of Brimstone’s most debauched moments are meant to be very darkly satirical. However, it seems that satire serves no real purpose other than to slightly lessen the blow of the twisted things Koolhoven is presenting on screen. Some viewers will be offended by the crimes that are fairly graphically inflicted on women, children, and animals throughout the film. Others, like myself, will find them trying so hard to be “edgy” that they lose all impact.

Koolhoven is clearly going for an in-your-face brashness (as evidenced even by the film’s title card, which declares it “Koolhoven’s Brimstone”) and his style is not without its merits. Resting in some ethereal realm between arthouse and schlock, there’s an elegant griminess to Brimstone that there just might be a gap in the market for. Despite largely really disliking this film, I still wouldn’t be opposed to checking out what Koolhoven makes next.

Dakota Fanning makes the most of things, delivering a powerful, measured lead performance despite the lack of character development included in the script. As the film settles in and you start calculating exactly how many minutes are left in the runtime, she and the film’s moody, burnished cinematography become two bright spots amid the mire. It would be unfair to expect that to be enough to carry the whole bloated beast, but it does kind of justify the film’s existence, and that’s not nothing.

It’s unclear if the world really needed the creation of a “Dutch psychosexual western” film subgenre, but it’s probably safe to say that Koolhoven has now cornered the market. Unfortunately, Brimstone just never follows through on its sweeping vision. Koolhoven clearly has the visual flair and attitude to pull it off, but it’s yet to be seen if he has it in him to find the restraint and narrative thrust necessary to really get a bizarre film like Brimstone off the ground. It seems unlikely he’ll stop trying, though.