‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Gives the Web-Slinger a New Lease on Life

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The thought of another “Spider-Man” reboot had me rolling my eyes as this comic book character has already gotten through one too many versions already. But after watching Tom Holland portray him in “Captain America: Civil War,” I found myself getting excited about where the character could go from there. So, it’s my relief and delight to tell you all that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” proved to be a really good movie which successfully breathes new life into a franchise suffering from misdirection and too many chefs in the kitchen. With Holland, we also get the best incarnation of Spider-Man/Peter Parker yet as he gives the role a spirited turn full of youthful energy and boundless enthusiasm.

Director Jon Watts and the screenwriters, too many to name here, wisely avoid regurgitating Peter Parker’s origin story the way “The Amazing Spider-Man” did, and they instead hit the ground running. Peter has received a new Spidey suit courtesy of Tony Stark (the always welcome Robert Downey Jr.), but he is not quick to welcome Peter into the Avengers fold. Instead, Peter has to spend his days at high school like any other teenager and with his equally intelligent best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). But when a new villain who even the Avengers don’t see coming called the Vulture starts wreaking havoc in Queens, New York, Peter finds himself too impatient to just sit on the sidelines and let him get away with his felonious deeds.

Holland really hits it out of the park here, and his boundless enthusiasm is set up perfectly through a home movie Peter Parker makes which encapsulates his time with the Avengers and battling Captain America. While the character remains the conflicted superhero who has trouble balancing out his school life with his crime stopping job, Holland makes the role his own and brings such an infectious spirit which makes the proceedings endlessly entertaining. Whereas Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield made Spider-Man too emo for his own good, Holland doesn’t go the same route, and his interpretation is much closer to the character we grew up reading in the comic books. I was frightened he might become too enthusiastic for Spider-Man’s own good, but his performance never becomes ingratiating and he also shows us a vulnerability which feels genuine and not easily achieved.

Of course, comic book movies need a good villain, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has one and, thank goodness, only one. The Vulture is an interesting choice as the person who inhabits him, Adrian Toomes, is as regular a guy as Peter Parker is a regular kid. Adrian is not so much a bad guy as he is a man who feels betrayed and left behind by those who have it all. His belief is that those in power couldn’t care less about the little man or anything he could possibly contribute to society, so he does many villainous things for his own benefit. But unlike many James Bond villains, he is not out for world domination. He just wants to provide for his family like any parent does.

It is a great pleasure to see Michael Keaton return to the world of comic book movies, and he arrives here just as “Batman Returns” celebrates its 25th anniversary. As Adrian Toomes/The Vulture, Keaton renders him into someone all too human even as he lays waste to Queens, New York and anyone foolish enough to get in his way. Even as the character sinks deeper and deeper into the criminal life, Keaton gives Vulture a humanity, albeit a corrupted one, which makes him seem more threatening and morally complex.

The rest of the cast is excellent, and it’s great to see Jon Favreau here as Happy Hogan gets more screen time here than he has in previous Marvel movies. One of the last scenes he shares with Holland is especially good as Hogan comes to see just how much attention he really should have paid to Peter. Downey Jr. continues to bring a sharp attitude to Tony Stark/Iron Man, but he also allows the character to evolve as Tony finds himself becoming a father figure to Peter, albeit a reluctant one. Even Chris Evans shows up in a cameo as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and he steals every scene he is in.

There has been a lot of talk of how Marisa Tomei was too young to play May Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” but that’s ridiculous. If May Parker is the sister to Peter’s mother, she wouldn’t be as old as Rosemary Harris now, would she? Either way, she brings a wonderful sass to this role, and she remains an enormously gifted actress after all these years. All the same, I wished we got to see more of her here as she has a wonderful chemistry in her scenes with Holland. I kept waiting for Tomei to be the Yoda to Holland just as Harris was to Tobey Maguire, but I guess we will see this come about in the inevitable sequel.

Watts previously directed “Cop Car” which was about two young kids who steal a police car from a corrupt sheriff. Essentially, that movie was about kids getting into the kind of trouble they would be smart to avoid, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has the same thing going on. Peter eventually comes to see he is in over his head to where Tony has to take away his Spidey suit. This sets up the third part of the movie where Peter has to see there is more to being a superhero than having a really cool suit. With great power does come great responsibilities, but this Spider-Man comes to see how great power needs to come from within as it cannot simply be co-dependent on nifty gadgets.

Some of the action scenes are a little too frenetic to where it’s hard to tell what is going on, and I was hoping for a little more in the way of emotional gravitas which highlighted Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies. Still, it is a surprise to see how wonderfully inventive “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is as it gives us what appears to be a formulaic story, and yet it keeps giving us one surprise after another, all of which are too clever to spoil here. Just when you think you know how things will play out, the script veers in another direction you don’t see coming, and it makes the movie more interesting as the conflicts become increasingly intense.

I came into “Spider-Man: Homecoming” believing it could never top “Spider-Man 2” which has earned its place among the best comic book/superhero movies of all time. This one doesn’t, but it lands at number two among the “Spider-Man” movies as it is endlessly entertaining and wonderfully cast. My hat is off to the filmmakers for breathing new life into this franchise during a summer where so many others are suffering from fatigue, and I am infinitely eager to see where Spider-Man will go from here. For now, Columbia Pictures appears to have learned from the mistakes made with “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” as this iteration is neither an overstuffed bird or a 2-hour long trailer for movies which never materialized. Here’s hoping the filmmakers keep from making those same mistakes in future installments.

And yes, there are two post-credit sequences, and both are worth sitting through the end credits to get to. The second one is priceless and brilliant. Trust me, you’ll see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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Will there be a more perfectly executed movie in 2014 than “Birdman?” It’s hard to believe there will as director Alejandro González Iñárritu succeeds in giving us a truly brilliant movie going experience which combines amazing technical aspects with a strong story and actors who give some of the best performances of their career. Your eyes will remain glued to the screen from start to finish as “Birdman” takes you on a cinematic journey we seldom go on, and you will leave the theater feeling mesmerized and in awe of what everyone managed to accomplish with a budget which is a mere fraction of today’s average blockbuster.

I’m always happy to see Michael Keaton in any movie he appears in, and he is crazy brilliant as Riggan Thomson, an actor who became a star after playing the superhero Birdman in a movie trilogy. As we catch up with him, he is now a washed-up actor whose glory days have long since passed him by. In an effort to restart his career and achieve true greatness as an actor, he decides to mount his own production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a play which is based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. Riggan has put everything he has into this project and has even mortgaged his home to put up the capital for it. It’s hard not to sense his desperation as this play which he adapted to the stage, produced, directed and stars in threatens to become a total disaster.

Suffice to say, things are not going well as one of the cast members gets seriously injured before previews are set to begin, Riggan is trying to repair his relationship with his family while having an affair with one of the actresses, his daughter has just gotten out of rehab and is working as his assistant, and he has just cast a new actor whose ego is every bit as big as his talent. As his stress level increases, he begins to lose touch with reality and soon finds himself haunted by his most famous character who constantly urges him to take matters into his own hands.

Now many are calling “Birdman” Keaton’s comeback movie, but this is not entirely fair. Keaton never disappeared from the limelight, and while his career may not be as hot as it once was when he appeared in Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies, he remains a standout in each film he appears in whether it’s “The Other Guys” or “Toy Story 3.” But with “Birdman,” Keaton gets a role which is more than worthy of his talents, and he makes the most of this opportunity and then some. As unlikable as Riggan may be when it comes to how he treats others, Keaton makes you empathize with him as he tries to do right by himself as the play’s premiere comes at him sooner than he thinks. It’s a tour de force performance, and hopefully it will bring Keaton the Oscar nomination he should have gotten years ago for “Clean & Sober.”

But the real stars of “Birdman” are Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who brilliantly succeed in making this movie look as if it was all shot in one take. They make us feel like we are floating along into these characters’ lives as they struggle to make this play the best anyone in New York has ever seen. Even if you think you can spot where and when Iñárritu cuts from one scene to another, the movie still feels remarkably seamless from start to finish. Some filmmakers value the visual aspects of a movie over the acting or vice versa, but Iñárritu manages to balance out both to brilliant effect, and it makes for one heck of a cinematic experience. Heck, you can’t even help but wonder about what the cast and crew went through while making “Birdman” because there’s no way this could have been a walk in the park for anybody.

It’s impossible to think of an actor other than Edward Norton who could play the infinitely egotistical actor Mike Shiner so perfectly. Director Brett Ratner once described Norton as being someone whose mission it was to save a movie and of how this can be your best asset or your worst nightmare. I couldn’t help but think about what Ratner said as I watched Norton burst onto the scene and insinuate his character into a play about to be previewed to an audience. When it comes to method actors, they can take things too literally and Norton shows just how ridiculously far one can go. It’s one of his best performances to date.

I also loved watching Emma Stone who plays Riggan’s daughter, Sam. Stone has been a fiery actress ever since we first saw her, and you can’t take your eyes off of her whenever she’s onscreen. Stone makes Sam into a wonderfully realized character who is trying to stay one step ahead of what has brought her down in the past, and she gives a riveting performance which shows just how far her range as an actress can stretch. While she may not have been able to save “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (in all fairness, no one could), she is a truly unforgettable presence here.

Other great performances in “Birdman” come from Naomi Watts who plays the amazingly insecure actress Lesley, and I have yet to see her suck in any movie she appears in. Andrea Riseborough, who stole a number of scenes from Tom Cruise in “Oblivion,” is wonderful as Laura, the actress Riggan may or may not have gotten pregnant. Zach Galifianakis takes on an unusual role for him as Riggan’s best friend and producer, Jake, who goes through hell in order to get this play off the ground. And then there’s Amy Ryan who plays Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who still has feelings for him even as he continues to do her wrong. Ryan never disappoints, and I love how she finds the good in Riggan when no one else can.

“Birdman” is the kind of movie which makes seeing movies on the big screen a sheer necessity. It challenges the realm of cinema to show what can be accomplished, and it gives us quite the kind of ride movies should be taking us on in a much more frequent way. In a year overwhelmed with tent pole franchises and a barrage of superhero franchises, this movie stands out as brilliantly unique and impossible to dismiss or forget.

* * * * out of * * * *

Michael Keaton, Laura Dern and John Carroll Lynch Talk About ‘The Founder’

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The Founder” recently had its press conference in Los Angeles, California, and it took place the week before President Barack Obama is set to leave the White House and Donald Trump will move in. While no one brought up their political views during this press conference, the movie felt more timely than perhaps its filmmakers intended as it illustrates the birth of unrestrained capitalism. Considering we have a die-hard capitalist set to be the next President of the United States, it’s hard not think about the corporate world and corporations as we watch Michael Keaton play Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois who discovered a different kind of restaurant run by Maurice and Richard McDonald and eventually turned it into a billion-dollar franchise. But in the process, Ray convinces just about everyone around him that he was the one who founded McDonald’s, and he eventually steals the brothers’ business right out from under them.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” deals with a number of different subjects like capitalism (sustainable and unrestrained), business, greed, the corporate world, etc. The movie also makes you wonder if it is even remotely possible to run a corporation without losing your heart and soul in the process. But most of all, it makes you see how everyone doesn’t see the American Dream in the same way.

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Laura Dern also stars in the movie as Ray’s wife, Ethel, and it was fascinating to hear her talk about the elements in the story which were hiding just beneath the surface. Also, she talked about seeing the movie with her daughter and how they reacted to a key scene involving the McDonald brothers.

Laura Dern: The piece that interested me, which was probably the piece I knew about Ray Kroc or McDonald’s, was this question of the introduction of the filler. I was fascinated that the film pointed it out, but also this question of how did it turn from real food to how we can make a fast buck and potentially poison people. What is that? And the subversive question which interested me the most was this question of, can capitalism hold compassion, and what is that story? And so, that moved me so much when John (Lee Hancock) first spoke to me about it, and hearing all these amazing people were involved. I would just love to add because I thought it was so incredible, I got to see the film last night with my daughter who is just turning 12, and to hear from her perspective, because I like to think it’s politically subversive and a commentary on this question of empathy versus corporations and can there be a place for both; I was talking about my favorite shot which just brings me to tears of these two gentlemen with their arms around each other watching the McDonald’s section of their sign be removed. I was talking about it, and when we go in the car my daughter said, “Mom, you know when those brothers were holding each other at the end?” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “That’s how I felt after (President Barack Obama’s) farewell address. We just don’t know what’s next.” And that was the film to me, and I just loved for a 12-year-old the details of the story, the point was she got what I think you all intended, and I was really moved by that.

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John Carroll Lynch (above on the right) co-stars as the hard-working Maurice McDonald who is excited to see his brother’s restaurant become an even bigger success than it already is. He excitedly spoke about what he knew about Ray Kroc, but more importantly, he described how Ray’s level of thinking has become the typical kind of thinking for everyone in this day and age.

John Carroll Lynch: I knew Ray Kroc in kind of the way that Michael (Keaton) was talking about. I thought of him as the founder even though I knew there were the brothers before him. I also knew that he had owned the (San Diego) Padres, and I also knew that after his death particularly that his wife gave away massive amounts of money, and I would hear her name on National Public Radio all the time. So, that was my personal relationship with it, but knowing the story a little bit and seeing the things that are absolutely bedrock, admirable American traits of entrepreneurship, of persistence, of salesmanship, of a sense of seeing something and how far it can go, of vision, all of those things are incredibly attractive. And what I love about the way the movie unfolds was how there’s a moment when he could tell the truth about the origin of the company, and you might not feel so badly about what happens if he could just give somebody else credit. If he could just be humble enough to go, there were these two brothers who had this amazing idea, and I figured out a way how to make it on every street in America with this other guy’s help. He could have said any of those things, but every moment he has any opportunity to tell the truth, he can’t do it because he needs to be the guy. There’s also a moment in the story where you watch him kind of digest the lie over time, and it becomes the truth to him. That is very indicative of where we are right now which is what we are told is in some ways, to many of us, more important than the actual truth, and we just want to believe the easy part of what’s said and not the hard parts, and I include myself in that. I don’t want to have to deal with the hard parts. I don’t want to have to deal with the fact that people are destroyed or land is destroyed. I really, really like Egg McMuffins (everybody laughs), and that’s where my dilemma is.

Now whatever you may think about McDonald’s before and after you see “The Founder,” their breakfast menu is simply delicious. Even if eating there threatens my cholesterol levels, I have to have a Sausage McMuffin with Egg or an Egg White Delight every once in a while.

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Then there was Keaton who talked at length about how the meaning of the American Dream has changed drastically over time into something which is largely unrealistic. The more he talked about it, the more one had to wonder if it even exists in its most simple form anymore. With wages failing to catch with cost of living increases, you have to wonder if it is even within one’s reach these days.

Michael Keaton: I did some press early on in Europe. I heard it there and I heard it from a few journalists from outside the U.S. yesterday, and this morning on the phone they bring it up. It’s interesting because the U.S. journalists don’t bring this up, and that is the issue of the American Dream. This is fascinating to me unless I missed something. We can go on and on about consumerism, waste, greed, etc., etc. Their perception of what the American Dream is, and let me be a little more specific, not to miss the issue with such a generalization, when they talk about the American Dream, they do it in relation to billions and mansions, and they kind of make the assumption of an extravagant lifestyle of private jets, owning islands and everything. That’s fascinating to me because my concept of the American Dream, unless I missed something here, in its simplest form, is work hard enough and there will be a job available and you can buy a house, and you can buy a car to get you back and forth from work so where you can afford that house, and have couple of kids who can attend a good school, you get a good vacation maybe, and maybe a second car. Unless I missed something, that ain’t a bad thing. I think that’s what it was. That’s not what the perception is. It’s this other thing. I want to say it is an ugly thing. I have no problem with billionaires, especially billionaires like Bill Gates who do the things they do or my friend Yvon Chouinard who I keep referring to. Pick one. There are a bunch of them out there. But there’s this other perception out there. Am I nuts? That’s not what the idea was.

Now while these discussions might have taken away from talking about the making of “The Founder,” they stayed with me long after the press conference had ended. The movie is largely about capitalism and of how it can be exercised in both healthy and unhealthy ways, and it’s hard not to think about our dysfunctional relationship with the corporate world in the new millennium. Whatever way you want to look at it, “The Founder” is a compelling cinematic experience which chronicles the rise of a franchise we are all very familiar with and which plays a significant part in our lives whether we want it to or not.

“The Founder” opens in theaters this Friday, January 20th. Be sure to check it out!

Poster and photos courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

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Check out the video, courtesy of Movie Maniacs, to view the entire press conference.

The Founder

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Watching Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who acquired McDonald’s and turned it into a billion-dollar franchise in “The Founder,” reminded me of his role as Hunt Stevenson in “Gung Ho.” Granted, there’s a number of fast-talking characters from Keaton’s long resume which could have come to mind, but “Gung Ho” proved to be one of my favorite Ron Howard films. Like Hunt, Ray is eager to convince everyone around him he knows what’s best for everyone, but while Hunt’s efforts are altruistic, Ray’s speak more to the kind of capitalism which is very unrestrained. Either way, you know you have the right actor portraying someone eager to get things his own way or no way at all.

“The Founder” is, yes, “based on a true story,” but we don’t even need to be told this because it is far too easy to invent a character like Ray Kroc these days. The movie opens up in the 1950’s when Ray, a salesman from Illinois, is trying to sell milkshake mixers to drive-in diners and failing to do so. While his face is filled with confidence, his mind is being subjected to countless scores of rejections as failure haunts him at every corner. As we watch Ray alone in his motel room, listening to a self-esteem record where a narrator talks about the importance of confidence, we see him desperate to outrun failure as he is now in his 50’s, a time where most men hang it up and enter retirement (back in that decade anyway).

Then one day, Ray comes across a little hamburger stand out in San Bernardino, California called McDonald’s. Immediately, he is stunned and amazed by the speedy system its owners have come up with which produces high quality food in a very short period of time. Upon taking the brothers who own the restaurant, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), out to dinner, he soon offers to turn their restaurant into a bona fide franchise. From there, we know it’s going to be an interesting ride, albeit one filled with countless speed bumps and strong disagreements.

Now it would have been far too easy for the filmmakers to vilify Ray Kroc as he essentially stole the McDonald brothers’ business right out from under them, but director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel have more on their minds than reducing this man to a mere villain. From the start, we see the desperation on Ray’s face as he is at the age where most men retire, but he still sees the potential of success waiting for him regardless of how many road blocks get put up in his path. His fear of failure becomes the driving force behind his business decisions, and while it eventually reveals him to be ruthless in his quest for dominance, we can certainly understand where the drive comes from.

The role of Ray was made for Keaton, and it’s impossible to think of another actor who could have played this businessman as effectively as the “Birdman” actor does here. It fits perfectly into his talents as a fast talker and as someone who can convince you he is on your side even when the character he plays is not. As portrayed here, Ray is a complex character whose motivations are controlled by desperation and fear of failure, and Keaton nails every complexity perfectly to where we are completely sucked into Ray’s realm of business dealing even as Ray begins to take credit for things he did not create.

I also admired the portrayal of the McDonald brothers as they are shown to be decent Americans who struggled with failure themselves until they found success with their little hamburger stand. It should be noted that the brothers were never uninterested in turning McDonald’s into a franchise (early attempts to do so did not work out for them), but were instead interested in a form of capitalism which allowed them firm control over the quality of food and service at each restaurant to where they could make a healthy profit and live comfortably without trying to overrun their competition.

It also helps that “The Founder” has two terrific actors portraying Mac and Dick McDonald in John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman. Lynch, in particular, has one incredible scene which involves him going into a five-page monologue where he vividly describes how the first McDonald’s restaurant came into existence. It’s an exhilarating moment to watch as the creation of this now globally dominant fast food chain reminds us of the greatness of America as it is a country where just about anyone can succeed in business if they try really hard enough and are persistent as well.

Laura Dern also shows up as Ray’s long-suffering wife, Ethel. Now this could have been a thankless role as we mostly see Ethel staying back at home while Ray is on the road trying to make a sale, but Dern makes the most of it as she shows how Ethel represents the kind of life anyone else would be satisfied with. Dern never portrays Ethel as a constant whiner, but instead as a sympathetic person who struggles to support and understand her husband, a man whose appetites extend far beyond the dining room table and evenings out at local social events.

There’s also strong support on hand from actors like Patrick Wilson, B.J. Novak, Ric Reitz, Justin Randell Brooke and Wilbur Fitzgerald who play characters that come to inform Ray’s business interests, interests which soon evolve into infinitely greedy ones. Another great stand out is Linda Cardellini as Joan Smith, the woman who would eventually become Ray’s second wife. Cardellini is fantastic as she sees in Ray a strong ambition which she wants to help advance, and she proves to have a strong chemistry with Keaton right from the first moment he spots her playing the piano.

Most of Hancock’s movies, “The Blind Side,” “The Rookie,” “The Alamo” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” have dealt with true-life stories, and like those movies, “The Founder” conveys these stories in a way which feels remarkably down to earth. No one involved in this motion picture gets overwhelmed by the iconography of McDonald’s or the people involved in its making and its dominance, and it makes for a deeply involving cinematic experience. Hancock gets all the period details down perfectly to where we are believably transported back to a time where it seemed unthinkable to eat any meal without the use of silverware.

In some ways, I wished “The Founder” had dug even deeper into its subject matter to where the McDonald brothers were included more in the story, but it is still a compelling motion picture which makes the term “based on a true story” feel like it means something for a change. I also love how it is a movie which cannot be boiled down to one sentence. It deals with many things like the American dream, business, greed and the cost of success to a fascinating degree. But looking back, it is primarily about capitalism and of how it can be both good and bad. And considering how capitalism has become such an unrestrained thing to the detriment of many, it makes this movie all the timelier as it shows where capitalism in its most dominant form was born, and Gordon Gekko isn’t even in it.

“The Founder” ends with footage of the real Ray Kroc as he explains how McDonald’s came into being, but in his own way. Many things can be said about Ray as the final image of him in front of a McDonald’s restaurant leaves us in silence as he clearly claimed something which wasn’t even his to begin with. Then again, would it have become such an enormous enterprise without him? It’s hard to say otherwise.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to read what Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, and John Carroll Lynch have to say about “The Founder.”

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