Category Archives: Reviews

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Movie Review

I rewatched The Force Awakens on Netflix before going to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and so I went into the theatre pumped for some storm trooper firefights, some lightsabre clashes, some new alien creatures (both cute and gruesome) and some answers to the many questions left behind by the first movie. Some answers I got, but what I realized more was that Star Wars movies don’t really service well-written stories. They love to build up their universe with a new kind of planet, or a new aspect to The Force that we didn’t know about before, but in the end they throw a bunch of cool-looking ships and characters together, with some good vs evil themes and we enjoy the heck out of them. I know I do.

A big part of this movie focuses on Rey and how she set out to find the mysteriously missing Luke Skywalker (the first movie’s main plot point was trying to get a map that showed where Luke was hiding). From battles with baddie Kylo Ren in the first movie, it became obvious that she could also wield the Force, so it makes sense that Luke would also be able to train her to become a Jedi. Meanwhile, the new Empire, now known as the First Order, is hunting down the remaining Resistance forces. Princess (I mean General) Leia, and the other Resistence are pinning all their hopes on a last-minute save by Luke (though surely that’s not a very good strategy).

So after declaring that Star Wars movies don’t need storylines, what do I think makes them fun? Well, this movie’s got all of those elements too. There are lots of space battles — one of the first scenes has pilot Poe Dameron leading a risky bombing run to take out a large “dreadnought” ship, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering if the last ship would be able to release its payload in time to save them all. There are alien planets which seem oddly familiar and Earth-like — a casino planet where Finn and newbie Rose go on a mission to seek out a “master code breaker” amongst the galactic one-percenters. I was drawn into the whole atmosphere and even the mini-story of the poor rabbit-horse creatures (along with their child jockeys) being mistreated and forced to run races for the wealthy clientele. There are new creatures, like the part-hamster, part-chicken porgs, which give the kids a chuckle for comic relief; and the crystalline foxes on the red salt planet which I thought were just cool. Then there’s the in-the-moment drama, when the Resistance forces might be sitting ducks at the mercy of the evil First Order bombardment if they don’t come up with an escape plan (and I was once again held breathless at the silent moment when it all comes to a head). Finally, there’s the internal and external struggles experienced by Rey and Kylo Ren, as they’re pulled between both good and evil. I was thrilled when Rey and Kylo Ren together faced Supreme baddie Snoke and tables turned from moment to moment. So while I may not remember all these set pieces and plot pieces a year from now, together they make for a fun-filled Star Wars movie that checks off all the boxes. (4 out of 5)

Despite my having enjoyed the movie (and I didn’t even mention an awesome Luke-Skywalker-centred climax that I loved), I also wish that these sequels could have taken Star Wars in a new direction. Much has been said about how much these new-trilogy movies resemble the original trilogy. Parallels between the new characters and the old are blatantly obvious, and the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order is so much the same as the one between the Rebellion and the Empire that both sides even use the same fighter planes as their antecedents. There was strong backlash against The Last Jedi in the fandom (even to the point of wanting it to be removed from canon and remade) because it was felt that characters (especially Luke Skywalker) had been changed too much from what they had become over the years. The changes didn’t bother me (though I did agree that Luke seemed a bit weak and forlorn at first) but they should have made more changes not to known characters, but to storylines altogether (Can we leave the Skywalker-Solo family out of the picture now?). Anyway, creativity doesn’t always bring in the ticket sales. I recognize that at the end of the day, Disney still wants to sell toy lightsabres and porg dolls, so I won’t begrudge. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly for what it is, and I look forward to more.

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Coco – Movie Review

I know that there have been a lot of animated films lately, and anyone with kids has already gone to see Coco and moved on, but I just saw it and still want to say how great I thought the movie was. Pixar’s track record has slipped a bit from the flawless hit-factory that it had been (no thanks to The Good Dinosaur or mediocre Cars sequels), but Coco reminds me that they are still top-notch when it comes to animated storytelling. This story of a young Mexican boy whose soul longs to be a musician, despite his family’s legacy of shunning music as a curse (ever since great-grandma Coco’s father left his family to pursue a musical career) is a fun, touching, adventurous spectacle.

Even before the first scene, I was reminded of Pixar’s technical mastery (there was a pre-movie clip with some of the creators which showed-off some of film’s wonderful visuals), but it was in the opening few sequences that their progress really became obvious. It wasn’t in the big, jaw-dropping scenes full of millions of lights and moving bits (though those are always awesome) but in the regular motion of the characters, such as main boy Miguel and his dog Dante. Human animation has always been a struggle between making the characters look and move too artificially puppet-like or too creepily realistic. In this movie, the characters all still look cartoonish (with their disproportionately large heads and hands, etc.) but their movements are amazingly life-like and the entire world they are in feels real. I was especially fascinated by a motion that occurred often in this movie: the strumming of a guitar. It is probably something that is so easily filmed using a camera in the real world, but to simulate those strumming motions and the vibration of strings in time to the music must have taken ages to get right. I know I’m geeking out a bit, but I can’t say enough about how transporting and engaging the animation really made this movie for me.

Beyond the impressive visuals, this movie also harkened back to some of the more heart-touching works in the Pixar canon, like Up or Toy Story. (Be warned that there’s a surprisingly simple yet moving scene at the end of the movie. It’s right where you expect it to be, but it’ll still getcha! Tissue, please.) Miguel (played by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) is an exuberant, happy kid, who balances a love and respect for his family with a secret love of music, especially the music of his idol: Ernesto de la Cruz (played by Benjamin Bratt). When some magical coincidences end up sending him to the land of the dead on the Mexican Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), he meets up with the spirits of his past relatives and the conflict between love of family and music sets up a difficult choice for Miguel again.

As usual, in these kinds of movies, a bunch of ground rules are set for the Land of the Dead, establishing that Miguel needs to be blessed by his family before sunrise in order to return to the living (subject to terms and conditions). Along the way to solving those challenges, Miguel runs into a vagabond spirit, Hector (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) who is trying to get back to the living world before he is forgotten, and fades away, forever. The ground rules are a great way to lay out the dramatic stakes (especially for kids), and it’s so much easier to understand what things mean in the language of the movie. That being said, there are a few delightful plot twists in this movie (not entirely unpredictable, but enjoyable nonetheless) which also keep things interesting. The best part of this story is that these concepts are all cast within the context of the Mexican culture and its folklore and traditions. From ofrendas (i.e. altars) where families display photos and other items to honour the dead; to alebrijes (i.e. spirit animals) which are colourful fantasy creatures carved out of wood or paper mache for the celebration of Dia de Muertos, it really brings this celebration of Mexican culture to vivid life, and ties it all back to music (which is apparently a big part of Mexican culture as well, at least according to this movie).

All in all, it’s great to see another new creation from Pixar (especially one that does not involve humanizing generally cold things like toys or bugs or fish). I look forward to them continuing on this path (even though I’m also looking forward to more sequels such as Incredibles II coming), because while they are definitely leading the way in terms of animation technology, they have also led the way in terms of creative family-friendly visual storytelling; and we need as much of both as we can get. (4.5 out of 5)

The Shape of Water – Movie Review

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is known for his creepy creativity and imaginatively dark and gothic style, which I recently got to peek into at the “At Home With Monsters” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. His movies have ranged from character tales about individuals who are haunted (both emotionally by past tragedies, and actually by ghosts) to high-octane action adventures involving bizarre, monstrous creatures. Similar to the movie that put him on the map, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a character-driven romance, but it’s got clearly fantastical elements to it. Essentially it’s a cross between The Beauty and the Beast and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with a dash of E.T. thrown into the mix. I enjoyed the character drama, but I really wish there had been a few more imaginary beasties.

The one beastie at the heart of this film is an amphibious man-creature (very similar to Black Lagoon‘s gill-man, or Abe Sapien from Hellboy — fun facts: del Toro also wrote and directed the Hellboy movies, and actor Doug Jones played both Abe and the creature in this film. This movie’s story (set in the 1950s) takes place after the creature is captured and taken to a government facility for study (aka every otherworldy creature’s worst nightmare). Eliza is a mute woman who works at the facility as a cleaning lady and she quickly connects with the creature’s pain and loneliness and starts to form a relationship with it. Other characters include Eliza’s co-worker and friend, Zelda (played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer); Eliza’s neighbour Giles (played by Richard Jenkins), an aging commercial artist and closeted homosexual, Strickland, the facility’s militant security chief and captor of the creature (played superbly by Michael Shannon); and Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist studying the creature. Because this is more of a character film, we get a pretty good look at each of these characters and really start to understand them and know them. That’s really the strength of this movie (more than the fantastical elements). The characters are quirky and unique and everyone gives a very good performance that drew me into their lives.

Once Eliza finds out the nasty fate in store for the creature, she sets out to liberate him and that’s when the movie kicks into high gear. As much as this is a story about how love can transcend outward differences, it’s also the classic theme of who the true monster really is. As Strickland feels driven to prevent his own failure in handling the creature, his obsession becomes maniacal as he tries to stop Eliza at all costs. These traditional fairy tale themes are given a more mature treatment in this movie, which has a grown-up sense of both sexuality and aggression/violence. Admittedly, by the end I was more sold on the good-guys vs. bad-guy theme than the romance and love theme of this movie. Eliza does mention how the creature was able to communicate with her, and she clearly felt a strong connection to his loneliness, but it just was not enough to convince me of a transcendent bond that they supposedly had. That’s why in the end, though I really liked this movie, I didn’t love it. All the style and imaginative flair that comes with del Toro’s creative touch goes a long way to making the movie special, but in the end it oversold and could not deliver on how magical it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

Thor: Raganarok – Movie Review

After Wonder Woman and Spider-man Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok seems to prove that we’ve hit a good patch of superhero movies at the moment. Starting out with a tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking monologue fakeout, I was having a good time with the charming humour right from the start — which didn’t let up all the way to the (more somber) end. Chris Hemsworth is now one of my new favourite movie stars (an honour he didn’t achieve in either of the two other Thor or Avengers movies). He’s got that action-hero-charm that has made stars out of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and more recently Chris Pratt, and this movie lets him work it. As a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur, he never breaks a sweat as he cracks wise while defeating Asgard’s timeless enemy and returns to the cosmic home of his god-like people. Upon arriving, he finds things a bit out of whack (and his father Odin is missing) and we are treated to a humourous play within a film (featuring some great celebrity cameos). The light-hearted tone continues as Thor returns to Earth and meets up with Doctor Strange (another cool cameo with Benedict Cumberbatch reprising his MCU role). Within a short time, this movie has already featured appearances of some of my current favourite actors (Tom Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, etc.) and soon will feature cinema-queen herself, Cate Blanchett. She plays Hela, Norse goddess of death, and sister to Thor and Loki. When she’s unwittingly released from banishment, she quickly takes action to regain control over Asgard and begins by destroying Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir (simply by gripping it tightly).

Surprisingly, while the Hela storyline is the cause of the titular Ragnarok (the end of the world), it’s not the focus of a big part of the movie, putting it on the backburner for most of the middle half of the movie. Instead, in the course of trying to stop Hela, Thor and Loki get catapulted to some previously-unknown junk world called Sakaar. On Sakaar, Thor becomes a contestant in the gladiatorial games run by the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum in a trademark, weaselly peformance). Of course, by a huge galactic coincidence, anyone who’s seen the movie trailer knows who Thor faces in the arena as the Grandmaster’s current champion. Seeing the Hulk, Thor is surprisingly happy, stating that it’s OK because “He’s a friend from work”, right before getting slammed into the wall. As I mentioned, the humour is one of the best parts of this movie, and thankfully that is not the best joke in the film (far from it). The rest of the story has the characters working to escape from the planet in order to return to Asgard and end Hela’s reign of terror and possible destruction of everything. Sounds pretty packed, eh?

The other wonderful aspect about this movie was the fast-paced action. From scene to scene, it toggled between well-shot, space-action (similar to either of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies — in fact, this would have made a great Guardians 3); and some slower-paced funny dialogue and interaction between characters. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves making this movie and that enthusiasm comes through. New Zealander director Taika Waititi is a breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

With a high degree of Australia/New Zealand content in the cast and production roster, it’s certainly the crown jewel to have Blanchett playing Hela. The role is a walk in the park for her, but it’s great how she revels in Hela’s superiority complex and bitter resentment of everyone who wronged her even a little bit. Frankly, I think Blanchett needs to play more of these deliciously villainous roles. I only wish that more of the plot had involved her. As a movie villain, she didn’t really get to stretch her wings much beyond snarling a lot and tossing her endlessly conjured blades everywhere, like magicians’ scarves.

After the disaster that was Thor: The Dark World, it’s nice to see that all it took for the franchise to hit its groove was to loosen things up a bit. Let’s hope that we’re on a roll. (4 out of 5)

2017 Summer of Sitcom Binge-watching

From my lack of reviews over the summer, it may be obvious that I, like critics and audiences everywhere, think this was the worst summer movie season ever. I only got out to a couple of movies in the theatre, so what have I been doing to satisfy my pop-cultural cravings over the summer? I’ve been couch-potatoing: binge-watching a number of sitcoms (many on Netflix). Some of them I never thought I’d like, or gave up the first time around. Giving them a second chance, they aren’t half bad. So now I’m going to provide a quick recap of ten (count’em, 10) of these shows, so you can decide whether or not to give these shows a viewing.

1. Grace and Frankie

This is probably the biggest surprise on the list. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play two women in their 70s who become unlikely best friends after their husbands come-out and become lovers. I could not relate too much with the situation behind this comedy, but an excellent cast, some pretty good writing, and a funny-yet-heartfelt tone really won me over. Fonda plays Grace, a serious, sophisticated business woman who ran a cosmetics company and needs her life to be perfect. On the other side, Tomlin plays Frankie, an unpredictable free spirit and hippie who teaches art classes to convicts and named her sons Coyote and Nwabudike. At first, they were mortal enemies, forced to live together in a shared beach house after their husbands moved in together, but they eventually learned to tolerate and even depend on each other. To me, the show’s focus on their offbeat-yet-solid friendship is what got me hooked in spite of all the stuff about seniors and their sex-lives (which definitely did not). (4 out of 5)

2. The Ranch

Just like Grace and Frankie, I’d seen promotions for The Ranch all around Netflix, as one of its originals, but I had no intention of giving it a shot. Ashton Kutcher does not really headline my kind of entertainment. I thought he was pretty funny on That 70s Show as Kelso, but his stupid goofballs are not the kind of characters that I like. When he was joined by fellow 70s alum Danny Masterson on The Ranch in a show about rancher brothers who struggle with their family, and with relationships (often due to their inability to express their feelings). These elements were all warning flags for me to stay away. However, once I tried on Kutcher, as a pro footballer who returns to his family’s cattle ranch after his career ends, I actually found myself interested in what happened to him and his family. Masterson plays his brother and in true Prodigal Son fashion, Kutcher’s character’s return stirs up a tornado of resentment from Masterson’s character who stayed behind. Topping off the triangle of stolid masculinity is their father, played really well by Sam Shepherd, who can definitely work a stone-faced glare. Again, the actors do a pretty good job (Kutcher inhabits his character well), and the show is surprisingly heartfelt about finding humour despite the financial hardships that the family faces. One weak point is Debra Winger as the mom: she’s kind of stiff and as a character, she doesn’t fit too well into the ensemble. (3.5 out of 5)

3. Life In Pieces

When it first premiered (it’s not a Netflix original), I dismissed Life In Pieces as a Modern Family knock-off. It kind of is, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable and diverting. Also about a family of adults (including grandparents, as well as grandchildren) who spend an unusually large amount of time together, there’s a very similar feel to this show. On Life In Pieces, there are three segments per episode (hence the title) and each segment brings together different members of this extended family in different situations. It’s taking the concept of “situation comedy” and putting an organized framework around it. The characters vary in likeability and quirkiness. I can’t say there are any that I am a total fan of (though maybe Colin Hanks as a hapless new dad comes close), which means I don’t have a character who anchors me to the show. It’s very take-or-leave for me, even after having watched the entire first season plus a bit of the second. (3 out of 5)

4. No Tomorrow

Another show that I gave up on originally, this one features Joshua Sasse as Xavier, an eccentric, free-spirited guy who is convinced that the world will end in eight months so he wants to live what remains of his life to the full. He meets up with Evie, who falls for Xavier’s good looks as well as his cavalier spirit. He ignites the risk-taker in her own relatively buttoned-up life (as a middle-manager for a Costco-style chain store). The situations for comedy are triggered by the two working through their doomsday bucket lists, as well as from the odd ensemble of friends and co-workers in Evie’s life. This show was alright, and it actually had a bit of an interesting background story arc around Xavier trying to get the message out about the imminent disaster. However, I did not really fall for the side characters, who are just oddly-mediocre. As for the main couple, I believe their story would have played out completely differently if they weren’t both so attractive, which just makes this show even more ridiculous. I enjoyed the episodes well enough, but if the show had not been cancelled already after its first season, I probably would have stopped watching. (3 out of 5)

5. About A Boy

Do you know of the Nick Hornby book of the same name, which spawned the original Hugh Grant movie; or that the movie also got turned into a TV series? Well, it lasted two seasons from 2014 to 2015, and presented the story of Will Freeman, a songwriter and bachelor, living off royalties from a megahit single and a roguish charm with women. However, when a quirky, hippie mother (played by Minnie Driver) and her young son move in next door, their lives start to intrude on each other and eventually bond and blend. I did watch the first episode of this show back when it aired, but immature man-child characters are one type that I really don’t like, so I stopped watching. However, as I stuck with the show this time around, I got to see a really crazy-yet-healthy relationship grow between Will and the neighbour kid (Marcus). As a bro/surrogate dad to Marcus, Will’s character really developed over two seasons. I enjoyed how they brought out the best in each other. It eventually became a plot point how close the two guys became, but I’m glad that the show leaned into that kind of unique relationship. It’s a bit too bad that the show ended, because I think I might have continued to watch it. (3.5 out of 5)

6. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I didn’t discover this series this summer. In fact, I had really enjoyed previous seasons when they first appeared on Netflix. Unfortunately, my interest and enjoyment of the series has decreased each season. The show about a young woman who had been rescued from a doomsday cult, trying to find a life for herself in New York, was an extreme and humourous fish-out-of-water story in season one, and I kind of enjoyed the over-the-top supporting characters, including her flamboyantly gay roommate, oddly crotchety landlady, and strangely clueless, rich boss. After two seasons, I now find Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) unbearably naive — though it was funny before. I’m finding it hard to stomach roommate Titus’s ridiculous melodrama, and the rest of the stories and characters are just getting broader and broader. As the situations get more soap-opera melodramatic (Can you believe there’s actually a “remove the bandages” reveal for one character, who ends up looking like a totally different person?) I don’t know what to laugh at anymore. (3 out of 5)

7. Master of None

As another acclaimed Netflix original sitcom, Azziz Ansari’s labour of love, has gone the opposite direction in my estimation from Kimmy Schmidt. I watched the first half of Master of None season one and gave up, feeling very little connection to Ansari’s character Dev (a struggling actor trying to find love and success in New York), and I didn’t like his friends much. (I did, however, love the acclaimed episode connecting a couple of the character to the stories of their immigrant parents.) Fortunately, good buzz caused me to retry the show, and I was really glad that I did. When Dev went to Italy to study pasta-making in season two, it transformed the show. The writing seemed to get a bump up in sophistication, while still remaining focused on Dev’s successes and failures in life. I enjoyed the characters much more in the second season, and the stories were richer and more satisfying (a high point was the Thanksgiving episode that not only traced Dev’s relationship with one of his best friends, Denise, since their childhood, it also showed Denise’s family come to terms with her being a lesbian). On top of all that, Alessandra Mastronardi is beautifully-flawed perfection as Dev’s friend/girlfriend Francesca; and the season ends with a subtle, nuanced, will-they-won’t-they cliffhanger. I can’t wait for the next season! (4.5 out of 5)

8. Friends From College

First off, this show looks like a comedy from the advertising, but it is not one. It’s a drama (with some humourous elements) about a group of friends and acquaintances from college whose group is potentially reforming when one couple moves back to New York. Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders play the pair in question, whose marriage is a bit shaky (wife does not know that husband has been having a long-distance affair with another one of their friends from college all these years, but now that they’re going to be co-located, it might just come up). I think the title of the series is meant to be ironic, or at least point a finger at the idea (which gets a lot of play on TV) that a group of friends from college will be friends forever. These characters act friendly and tease out the relationships that reach back into the past, but they are not very good to each other. The show reaches an extreme climax in the season finale as revelations lead to confrontations and a nice car is ruined. I didn’t find this show fun to watch, but I did want to see how these relationships all played out. Still haven’t decided on season 2 (3.5 out of 5)

9. Bajillion Dollar Propertie$

Coming from Seeso, a streaming channel that you’ve probably never heard of, this show lampoons the many real-estate based reality-TV shows. It focuses on a single top-end real estate firm in California, whose agents are all clawing their way to the top. While the characters are all pretty broad, they play pretty well (especially when paired with one of many comedic guest stars as clients, including Nick Kroll, Jack McBrayer, Patton Oswalt, Randall Park, Andy Richter, Casey Wilson, Weird Al Yankovic, Rhys Darby, Bret McKenzie, and Sarah Silverman). The scene that convinced me to give the whole series a shot was one where Dan Ahdoot (who plays Amir Yaghoob, a very driven agent) tried to wrangle The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as a spoiled rich kid who has gotten high with his friends in a home that Amir is trying to sell. The writing and tone is uneven, but if you enjoy poking fun at the excess that this kind of tv normally promotes, then this is a fun cartoon of a show. (3.5 out of 5)

10. Rick and Morty

Last, but definitely not least, is an animated comedy that I should have discovered a long time ago. It is tailor-made for sci-fi geeks such as myself and, for my money, contains the highest concentration of sci-fi ideas of any series currently active. Think of it as a cross between Futurama and Doctor Who. The title characters are Rick Sanchez (a hard-drinking, hard-partying, vulgar super-genius who can invent virtually anything) and his grandson Morty Smith (a semi-naive 14 year old brought along as a companion for his grandpa’s crazy inter-dimensional adventures). Though it’s an animated show, it is not really for kids. There is a lot of profanity and some pretty perverse and deviant ideas are tossed around left and right (I confess, I would have enjoyed less of that element). Armed with a portal gun that takes them to other places in the universe as well as alternate versions of reality, this show has everything from robots, space creatures, shrinking down to microscopic, splintering of space-time, intergalactic talent competition, insectoid alien assassins, a planet of amazon women, and the list goes on ad infinitum. This show has so many details that fanboys (and fangirls) pore endlessly over them to form fan theories, etc. On top of all the science fictional goodness, there is also an intense family backdrop. The rest of the family consists of Rick’s daughter, who is Morty’s mother, Morty’s older sister Summer, and their father Jerry. The family is far from perfect and they struggle with lack of communication, lack of mutual respect, lack of affection, lack of acceptance, which may be typical in some family dramas that are trying to depict the challenges of actual family life, but on this show, it’s all part of a dark sense of humour that underlies the stories. I love that this show does not shy away from the tough stuff, and also that it does not hold back on the sci-fi. I’m currently rewatching the series (even as the third season has already begun) to try to catch as many of the details as I can. (4.5 out of 5)

Spider-man: Homecoming – Movie Review

After so many incarnations, it’s hard to believe that another reboot of the Spider-man story could be fun and fresh, but I really enjoyed Homecoming, and a lot of the credit goes to this younger version of the web-slinging hero, and the exuberant performance by rising star Tom Holland. While I had already raved about the previous Spider-man, played by Andrew Garfield, having a more character-driven story — dealing with his relationship with girlfriend Gwen (played by Emma Stone), this time around the character is portrayed even younger (he’s only 15) and there is a lot of teenage energy and fun to it. It’s great to see Spider-man’s alter-ego Peter Parker going through challenges of high school (though he’s super-smart, so the academics are no struggle) and teen melodrama (at one point, his hi-tech talking suit tries to give him advice on girls). This movie has a non-stop sense of humour throughout the movie that is driven mostly by Holland’s aw-shucks kind of innocence (along with his hilarious nerd side-kick Ned). (They are such classic movie teens that I almost felt like I was watching an 80s movie!).

However, one of the things that reminded me that we are very much in the twenty-teens, was how Robert Downey Jr. made a few guest appearances as Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Avengers. If you didn’t realize, the “homecoming” is bringing Spider-man back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after many years of being isolated from the other characters by virtue of intellectual property rights. Downey’s presence reminded that even though this is a Spider-man movie, it’s part of that other pop-culture juggernaut. Interestingly enough, while the character needs a place among all the various cinematic super-heroes, Peter Parker is also trying to find his place as a hero. Having come off the thrill of teaming up with the Avengers in the events of the Captain America: Civil War movie, now he wants to prove himself worthy to be a grown-up super-hero: one of the big boys.

One of the best decisions made for this movie was that they didn’t go back and replay Spider-man’s origin story again (there’s a bit of mention that he was bit by a spider, but that’s it). This allowed a bit more time to spend with Peter Parker’s life — we even get to know his friends and classmates (he’s part of the academic decathlon team, which actually plays a meaningful role in this movie) and there was time to develop the villain’s story as well. This made the pieces fit together really well, and I felt like we got a good understanding of the characters — which is something lacking from the movies where producers want to cram a lot of characters onto the screen and give us a lot of explosions and crashes. This movie was even able to make an interesting bad guy out of the Vulture, a staple of Spider-man’s rogues gallery, but not generally very cool. With Michael Keaton in the role, he’s got a few really good speeches and does some moustache twirling, gradually becoming a true nemesis to the young Spider-man.

So is it all just characters talking, or high-school drama? Of course not. There is plenty of action (at some of America’s very well-known tourist attractions, no less) and as I mentioned, the humour is non-stop. I think this is the funniest super-hero movie ever — even more than Deadpool (which had a much darker undertone). There’s a moment of decision at the end of the movie that sets the direction for any sequels. Though it goes exactly as I expected, it also made me wonder what could possibly be in store for subsequent films. I guess I’ve been so programmed by the other blockbuster super-hero movie events that I almost can’t imagine what a down-to-earth, friendly, neighbourhood hero movie might be like — so I’m really looking forward to finding out. Much to my surprise, this third version of cinematic Spider-man seems to be the perfect one (as long as they keep Tom Holland) to take the character forward. 4.5 out of 5

Wonder Woman – Movie Review

After the mess that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I was worried about this movie. Wonder Woman has never been one of my favourite super-heroes, though I did watch her 70s TV series (despite its cheesiness). Like most fans, I’m surprised it’s taken so long for her to get her own movie adaptation. In contrast to Spider-man — who’s going onto his 3rd cinematic reboot — the origin story of Diana, princess of the Amazons on the island of Themyscira, seems fresh by comparison. This version begins with her childhood living on “paradise island” surrounded by warrior women but isolated from the rest of the world. Flashing forward to an actual war story, the focus shifts to the WWI events which brought Diana to the outside world in order to fight evil. Wonder Woman’s basic backstory can seem a little old-fashioned but it’s counteracted by humour and a bunch of Pretty Woman-inspired scenes (or given the Greco-Roman context, maybe Pygmalion is a better reference). Captain Steve Trevor (played by Star Trek‘s Chris Pine) tries to help Diana the Amazon fit into Edwardian England, and ends up creating an interesting metaphor for this movie, which itself tries to help a god-like super-hero blend into a relatively earth-bound conflict between warring nations and war-time politics. It’s not only because Diana (played by Gal Gadot) is so gorgeous that she continues to stand out.

Starting out in Themyscira, the scenes are wonderfully enjoyable. The locations (shot along Italy’s Amalfi Coast) are breathtaking, and the magically beautiful weather doesn’t hurt. Early scenes of little girl Diana watching the other Amazon warriors training for battle are also great fun. The Amazon fight scenes are really good: a combination of slow motion camera work and graceful movements (spins and legwork) make the fighting feel like dancing. The scenes reminded me a lot of those from 300, and even though director Zack Snyder also worked on this movie, this time he was only a writer/story guy. Again, there’s a bit of disconnection between the Diana’s quasi-mythological backstory (looks like they’ve been using the same decorator in Themyscira’s throne room  as Thor‘s Asgard) and early 20th century London, but I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t really mind.

When the WWI story kicks into gear, it’s largely Steve Trevor’s adventure (or at least him and his ragtag band, which easily adopts the beautiful Diana into its ranks). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his character. Chris Pine is really good at being the hero with a bashful sense of humour, but I was confused by the presence of an American in the WWI British air force (or intelligence corps). Anyway, the actual war story part of the story is not that well thought out or complex, but at least there’s a villain who is not only a German general (boo!) but a ruthless killer, working with a mad-scientist poison-maker. He might also be the current incarnation of the Amazons’ nemesis, the war god Ares. The setup is very simplistic (as comic book stories traditionally are) — I mean, the first bad general that she meets is the enemy that the Amazons were born to fight? Seems too easy.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I really enjoyed this movie, but it’s mostly because of the charm of the actors/characters, the nicely choreographed action scenes, the fun fish-out-of-water humour, and the adventuresome spirit of the film. I also liked how the movie dealt with a number of themes, including the strength and independence of women; and whether human nature or cosmic forces are truly accountable for the evil in the world. Any disjointed pieces of story came nicely glued together. Wonder Woman is a great palate-cleanser after the loud, over-the-top, confusing, and shallow super-hero movies that we’ve been seeing recently (4 out of 5).