A Funny, Flawed, Dependent 'Homecoming' For Spider-Man

Directed by: Jon Watts; Runtime: 133 minutes
Grade: B

Some might see the momentum behind Spider-Man: Homecoming as hype, but it's closer to pressure on this unique partnership between Sony and Marvel Studios to, in the mindset of the incredible dedicated fans of the webslinger, finally get the character completely and utterly right. Even the title tries to draw attention to the significance of Spider-Man being brought back into the Marvel universe fold, creating an opening for Peter Parker to utilize the studio's creative insights and to interact with other characters in their roster. In terms of the tried-and-true summer blockbuster framework, Homecoming fittingly utilizes the tools now at its disposal, never shying away from youthful humor and spunkiness as it twists together a coming-of-age story for Peter Parker, where he endures the growing pains of balancing high-school and his new duties as a superhero. It's the interaction with the shared universe that keeps this Spider-Man from soaring, relying too heavily on the enormity of him being in the proximity of Marvel -- to Iron Man, in particular -- for the friendly neighborhood hero to blossom on his own.

Homecoming take place in a staggered pattern throughout the timeline created by Marvel and, specifically, its Avengers movies, but Spider-Man's there to help keep the record somewhat straight through it all. After home-video footage cutely tracks from the moment Peter Parker (Tom Holland) receives his specifically-tailored suit from his mentor, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) -- y'know, Iron Man -- to the aftermath of when he gets involved with the events of Captain America: Civil War, the story proper picks up as the young hero gets dropped off at his doorstep in the Bronx with superhuman powers, a high-tech costume, and his limiting life of being a studious and picked-on kid in high school. While monitored by Tony Stark and his assistant, Happy (Jon Favreau), Peter Parker must now figure out how to maintain his city's safety while waiting for the next big "assignment" from the adult heroes. In the meantime, as his student and social life suffers, the local sale of weaponized alien technology falls on his radar, sending the high-schooler on a chase to find the dealer, Toomes (Michael Keaton), while also trying to meet his everyday school obligations.

From the offset, even though this the third version of the character in fifteen years to swing onto the big-screen, it was made clear that Spider-Man: Homecoming wasn't going to be yet another telling of the origin story of Peter Parker, another depiction of his mutant spider-bite and of Uncle Ben's death that drove him to heroism. Homecoming assumes that these things have happened, briefly and smartly referenced in throwaway one-liners, which still gifts this familiar back-story to the young Peter Parker while allowing him to be several years younger than previous iterations; he's fifteen, so a freshman. It's more of a second chapter, but there are hints of this still being an origin point of sorts for this Spider-Man, as this marks the beginning of Peter Parker's experiences in concealing his identity from his fellow students -- as well as Aunt May, played splendidly by Marisa Tomei -- and keeping his life afloat after becoming a real hero. There's carefulness and precision involved with getting Spider-Man into this age bracket without completely sacrificing what happened in the prior movies.

Homecoming devotes its energy toward realizing this younger Peter Parker because it concentrates on this being a coming-of-age story in the vein of a John Hughes movie, only covered in a superhero outfit, something that another of 2017's blockbusters, Power Rangers, also attempted. Lots of elements need to stick for this to work, and all of ‘em don't land smoothly here, whether it's in trying too hard for that Hughes factor (the film even plays a clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) or missing the mark with support characters. Tom Holland effortlessly generates sympathy and makes the audience root for his Peter Parker, an enthusiastic kid who's spread too thin and underestimated at every turn, and his struggle to keep his identity secret while dealing with being the butt of endless ridicule works well. The high-school forces that create and impact his struggles aren't as convincing, though, from his kooky "sidekick" Ned (Jacob Batalon) to a flimsy nuisance of a bully in Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and a quirky, yet overt rebellious outcast in "Michelle" (Zendaya) who's only there to take others down a peg ... and even attends detention without doing anything wrong, just like Ally Sheedy. Unlike other versions of the character, Holland's Peter Parker doesn't seem that fazed by social ostracization.

That might have to do with this Spider-Man essentially being the product -- and neglected protégé -- of Tony Stark, whose presence in Homecoming cannot be ignored or tolerated as if he were just a cameo. Some fans might find this direct integration of Iron Man and Marvel's cinematic universe to be a rewarding, fleshed-out achievement of the Marvel-Sony relationship, and of Spider-Man's ability to interact with the characters of the wildly-popular saga of movies already on the books. Unfortunately, a lot of the script's intentions rely on Peter Parker's doting enthusiasm for becoming an Avenger, not so much for being a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man", and, more importantly, to him utilizing the high-tech gadgets interwoven in the suit crafted for him by Stark. Parker doesn't use his signature "spider sense" anywhere in the film, but why would he need to when his suit can locate threats for him? From electrified webbing and surveillance drones to an onboard AI assistant, all these toys given to Spider-Man detract from this iteration of the character coming into his own in a standalone movie because, well, he's never given a chance to really stand alone. Spider-Man has essentially become Iron Man Lite.

Luckily, Homecoming also taps into Marvel's lore in creation of the danger that Spider-Man works toward shutting down, spearheaded by a gristly, menacing, yet partly sympathetic villain in Michael Keaton's turn as winged arms dealer Toomes, aka Vulture. The action hinges on heists and fights that exploit the alien technology left around by the earth-saving battles undertaken by the Avengers, which gives a broader scale to the context of the threat while also keeping it somewhat confined to Spidey's neck of the woods. Bountiful computer-generated effects render Spider-Man's slinging between rooftops, zipping throughout a ferry boat, and brisk scaling up a large monument, producing thrilling superhero set-pieces held together by the personal and emotional stakes involved with Peter Parker's desire to prove himself to the broader hero community. Those who've seen other Spider-Man outings won't be knocked over with how original these feats of strength and resistance appear, constantly anchored by Stark Technology's gadgetry alongside Spider-Man's innate abilities, but they're exciting all the same and draw out the character's impish charisma while saving the day.

Up to a point, Spider-Man: Homecoming comes across as a tolerably more upbeat and youthful spin on what's already been done in the other Spidey cinematic ventures, landing on a middle-of-the-road impression where every step forward with Parker's high-school troubles takes a step back once Iron Man pops up. That is, until the film collides with the thematic twists and turns hinted at with the wording of its title, both altering the emotional stakes surrounding Peter and vindicating all the dependence that the script places on him being mesmerized by and reliant on his versatile suit. This adds an extra kick to the inevitable outlandish superhero blockbuster finale, and while the means in which certain revelations that take place might be hokey (perhaps not so much by comic-book standards), the expressive depth added to the bombast of the final act justifies how it happens. In a sense, Spider-Man: Homecoming guides the hero through the "with great power comes great responsibility" speech telegraphed by the School of Hard Knocks, landing on a gripping yet not entirely spectacular upshot of Marvel and Sony's collaboration.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Taymor's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' a Feast For the Senses

Directed by: Julie Taymor; Runtime: 145 minutes
Grade: B+

The expectations one has for watching a taping of a theatrical play will likely vary from person to person, hinged on how they interpret the statement: "It's as if I were actually there". Does that mean the camera stays predominately static, as if they're an audience member who remains in their seat and has a clear, unbiased view of the stage? Or, does that mean that the point-of-view closely moves with the actors and concentrates on the nuances of their performances, enhancing the cinematic tempo by zooming in and revealing character details that might not be so readily visible during a stage performance? Other productions have attempted to blur the lines of cinema and authentic theatricality with handcrafted recordings tailored for media -- take Kenneth Branagh's wonderful hybrid version of Hamlet -- but they often find themselves tilting to one side or the other, either as too much movie or too much theater. Julie Taymor's screened rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a game-changer in that regard, crafting visual allure and dramatic intimacy without sacrificing stage presence.

Taylor's run with A Midsummer Night's Dream lasted from October of 2013 to January of 2014 at Brooklyn's Theatre for a New Audience, utilizing a spacious yet intimate layout for the stage while retelling William Shakespeare's classic comedy of meddlesome spirits, young love, and a play-within-a-play. Hermia (Lilly Englert) has fallen in love with Lysander (Jake Horowitz), yet her father, Lord Egeus (Robert Langdon Lloyd), wishes for her to marry Demetrius (Zach Appelman); Helena (Mandi Masden), meanwhile, yearns for Demetrius. The complexities of their amorous affairs lead them to flee into the forest, to which they enter the domain of the fairies, especially that of Puck (Kathryn Hunter), servant to fairy-kind Oberon. Impishly, Puck contorts the desires of the young lovers, while also messing with the mentalities of workers in the midst of crafting a play for the stately wedding of Egeus and Hippolyta (Okwui Okpokwasili) … as well as with the headspace of Titania, Oberon's estranged queen. What ensues is a night of chaos, passion, and mischief that approaches realizations for all involved, while obscuring the line between reality and fantasy.

Those who have seen Julie Taymor's cinematic endeavors -- her award-winning biography Frida, her Beatles-driven homage Across the Universe, her prior Shakespearean efforts with Titus and The Tempest -- know that the language, inventiveness, and enthrallment of visuals are of chief importance to her. This transitions exceptionally well to her stage performance of A Midsummer's Night Dream: the costume designs for the fairy hierarchy reminds one of that textured, ornate, yet still sparse and effortless detailing from her Shakespeare films, though the enrapturement of the setting doesn't kick into gear until the characters venture into the woodlands. Once there, Taymor utilizes strategic lighting and the motion of those bamboo shoots, sometimes bathed in blue light and other times touched with almost-blacklight vivid greens and purples, to create a surprisingly alive, spellbinding setting. Both subtle and attention-drawing, the realignment and levitation of the woodland plays a pivotal role in the immersive properties of Taymor's environment.

In tone, tempo, and sporadic happenings, this A Midsummer Night's Dream evokes an attitude somewhat reminiscent of what a Cirque du Soleil performance of Shakespeare's comedy might look like without the circus-style feats of strength and agility, an infusion of modern and whimsical flourishes. Fittingly, Puck fills the role of a jesterly assistant to the forest's ringleader -- fairy king Oberon -- as the character prances between surreal imagery of sleeping spells, pillow fights, and prancing deer, embodied by Kathryn Hunter's entirely ambiguous and quirkily distinctive face-painted performance, one that'd fit in with the broadly animated characterizations of silent-era cinema. She bridges the gaps between such scenes involving subtle choreography of en pointe ballet dancers creating wilderness animals and an animatronic head bringing to life a donkey-human hybrid, elevating the fanciful nature of Shakespeare's gradient of love's turmoil with charismatic puppet-masters pulling the strings.

The intentions of A Midsummer Night's Dream hinge on both comedy and romanticism, but only one side of that emotional spectrum resonates in Julie Taymor's production, and it might not be the one you'd expect. Taymor directs her cast to telegraph their lines with fluid, almost contemporary comedic timing and staging, and their collective performances form into an updated, articulate, and genuinely humorous depiction of Shakespeare's zaniness, particularly underscored by Max Casella as the enthusiastic driving force behind the play-within-a-play's troupe of performers. While the rest of the cast members execute their characters with grace and power -- David Harewood is magnificent as a simmering, restrained Oberon; Tina Benko is a majestic Titania underneath her twisted blue dress and the small individual lamps shining on her face -- the dynamics of romance and sensuality are undermined by the younger cast members' lack of intimate chemistry with one another. Luckily, the fiery arguments that eventually erupt between them are another story, emphasizing where their rapport truly excels (and should ultimately excel), amplifying the foolhardiness of their affections in brave, funny clashes.

Shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and further scored by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal, this taping of A Midsummer Night's Dream was specifically tailored by director Julie Taymor to accentuate her play's many strengths, which includes closely following actors as they move about the stage. Something unique and noteworthy occurs in the synergy created by the quality of the performances, the vivid production design, and the specificity of the camera's framing and focus upon the actors: Taymor gets her theatrical presentation to feel natural and movielike without deliberately avoiding the constraints of the stage and the often-embellished projection of the actors. Duller stretches in the two-and-a-half-hour span can only be helped so much by this; coupled with overtly "industrial" costume and set decoration, the scenes involving the craftsmanship of the play-within-a-play feel detached and lethargic against the ethereal happenings. Regardless, Taymor's custom recording of her Midsummer Night's Dream goes beyond making the audience feel like they're there.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Ignore the Dull, Derivative Rapping of 'Don't Knock Twice'

Directed by: Caradog James; Runtime: 93 minutes
Grade: D+

Apparently, I'm a vigorous door-knocker, because it's tough for me to work out a scenario where I'd have the restraint to only knock twice on someone's door. Three or four times, sure, and certainly five if a quicker response seems necessary … but twice? It seems so calculated and brief. Yet, practically everybody tends to rap on doors exactly that many times in Don't Knock Twice, a British supernatural thriller from Caradog James, regardless of whether they're using a heavy knocker or if they're doing it by hand. Getting on this atmospheric flick for the way people knock on doors might seem like a nitpicky gripe, but it's a testament both to the forced, cliched design of the horror and the ineffectiveness of the mysteries contained within. Folklore, mother-daughter turmoil, and a strung-out performance from Katee Sackhoff come across as stock elements slapped together and molded into a banal, overly identifiable supernatural tale, triggering déjà vu as soon as one arrives at its doorstep.

Sackhoff plays Jess, a successful sculptor -- and wife to an even more successful businessman -- whose past with drug abuse led to her losing custody of her child, Chloe (Lucy Boynton). Nearly a decade has passed since then, and now Jess strives to regain custody from the state, so her daughter might move into their enormous house secluded from the urban environment. Chloe is, naturally, hesitant, but that changes shortly after the disappearance of one of her close friends. This happened, seemingly, in response to them both visiting the residence of a local person suspected of being a witch: a woman with unsolved accusations penned against her who, according to urban legend, will come to hunt down anyone who knocks twice upon her door. Fearful, Chloe seeks refuge with her mother; whether the distance will have an impact on the curse, and whether the mother and daughter will reconcile their differences, gradually takes shape through their labored interactions.

While Don't Knock Twice received a wide theatrical release in 2017, it actually hit smaller festival venues in the fall of 2016, just a few short months after the arrival of Lights Out, the successful feature-length "adaptation" of a spooky three-minute short film. This bears mentioning because several similarities, both thematic and plot-centric, can be spotted in their premises: child custody conflicts, said child hiding from a supernatural curse in the house of a family member who once abandoned them, and the ways in which the monstrous antagonist travels -- and hits obstacles -- in getting to its target. Beyond those textual parallels, the two films also simply feel similar in tone and objective, lurking in the shadows while family issues are hashed out between paranormal attacks and suspiciousness toward whether the kids are distorting reality around them. Perhaps it's a reflection of the symptoms of frequently-used tropes, or perhaps it's yet another classic case of cinematic dumb luck that they're similar, but Don't Knock Twice immediately feels like a retread and never shakes that off.

It doesn't help that the mother-daughter drama in Don't Knock Twice lacks effectiveness, and that's mainly because of murky characterization and the stiff chemistry between Katee Sackhoff and Lucy Boynton. Sackhoff evokes a similar wild-eyed presence to her character Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, only without the sassy charisma and determination, coming across as an unstable figure instead of someone whose instability has been controlled enough to entrust with her daughter. Working with unspecific, rote dialogue about the complications of parenting while dealing with addiction and/or sickness, the interactions shared between Sackhoff's mother and Boynton's impersonal turn as her semi-rebellious daughter result in vapid padding-out between mild ebbs and flows of eeriness. Ideally, this push-and-pull between family members reconciling a traumatic past would enhance the suspense by deepening concerns for their well-being and progress, but Caradog James struggles to make that happen with these actresses, assuming teary eyes and raised voices are enough.

While unsatisfactory, these aren't the main issues with Don't Knock Twice, the ones rooted in how well it functions as, y'know, a horror film. Caradog James lends some indie polish to the design, but he can't keep it from being a nonsensical, predictable paranormal exercise that doesn't cross the threshold between creepiness and scariness enough considering its dramatic endeavors come to naught. Using established folklore provides an inspired angle to the events, but hackneyed visual tricks -- overbearing red lights; cascading lamps going dark down a hallway; the face of a dead body changing to that of the person looking at it -- and the disquieting, yet mundane lankiness of the witch herself distract from those marginal hints at something more captivating. This only grows messier when the moving parts of this curse kick into gear, culminating in surrealism, misdirection, and an implausible amount of double-knock trickery that stumbles over its own internal logic. Once it approaches yet another of those trendy, obscurely bleak outcomes, you'll really wish Chloe simply hadn't knocked in the first place.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]