Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Wow, I can’t believe both of Rey’s parents were Porgs! Why didn’t I see that one coming?

Oh, sorry. Spoilers.

Just kidding, of course. Anyhow, after a brief and unnecessary sidestep, leaving the dreary and self serious Rogue One: A Star Wars Story spin off in the rear-view, we’re now officially back on track with the Star Wars franchise proper and more at home within the reliably optimistic and classical-feeling main thread with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. At the very least, it’ll be nice to take a break from our increasingly dystopic reality and once again escape into a fantasy world where a hideous looking, fascist-adjacent ruler and his supreme force of unquestioning followers and useful idiots face off against an earnest but hopelessly outmanned resistance trying to prevent the evil regime from taking over the world and spreading their evil across the entire – oh, godammit…

Seeing as how this is a Star Wars film, and fans are understandably more wary of spoilers here than with any other franchise out there, I’ll try to keep plot details to a minimum and just cover the basics off the top: The Last Jedi quite literally begins right where The Force Awakens left off, and continues the story from there…..Yup… Well… that’s really all you need to know, if you want to go in completely fresh. For more casual viewers, it merits mentioning that Luke Skywalker (a returning Mark Hamill) plays a larger role in this, having been successfully tracked down by the person who emerged as the true hero in The Force Awakens (as well as the trilogy overall), Daisy Ridley’s scavenger turned Jedi-in-training, Rey. Meanwhile, the Resistance is still here, fighting the good fight against the First Order and Adam Driver’s conflicted Sith-in-training Kylo Ren, and are still being led by General Leia, portrayed once again by the late Carrie Fisher, who fortunately finished shooting all of her scenes in this before her untimely passing almost a year ago. Aided by another reliably thumping John Williams score, we’re back in the Star Wars universe! Oh, and there are Porgs now, too. Lots and lots of Porgs.

Much like the recently premiered second season of Stranger Things, it seems like the creative minds at work were paying attention to the fan reactions from the first time around and knew what people liked and didn’t like about The Force Awakens, so they were more aware of what not to do here and also what people wanted to see more of. This includes giving side characters from the first film more screentime and development, namely Oscar Issac’s cocky pilot Poe Dameron, who has a much larger role to play in the story this time around, apart from his more preferred mode of just flying around in an X-wing and blowin’ shit up. Also improved upon from the previous films (and I would include Rogue One in this as well) is the enlarged sense of scope and scale to the film. The world-building on display here is unparalleled in the rest of the franchise, feeling at once massive in size while also somehow seeming nurtured and lived in. In terms of the sheer size and weight of the settings, The Last Jedi more closely resembles the Lord of the Rings trilogy at times, moreso than anything else we’ve seen from this series up to this point.

While The Last Jedi is no doubt another satisfying and enjoyable entry into the Star Wars series, it is most certainly not without fault. That being said, this one is interestingly flawed in a different way than its predecessor, The Force Awakens. Whilst that film was fundamentally more conventional and derivative, The Last Jedi is more ambitious and genuinely surprising at times, but is also overstuffed and crowded to a fault, with enough subplots and side characters to fill a whole other feature. Despite its overarching similarities to A New HopeThe Force Awakens at least moved a lot better and had a stronger pace and kept its story going forward with a sense of urgency and purpose, whereas The Last Jedi completely screeches to a halt at some points and could’ve been trimmed by at least ten minutes, and not have lost much in the long run.

There’s one midpoint side-quest in particular that distracts from the main thread of the film considerably (involving a brief diversion to a casino planet, which features some unusually forced social commentary about animal cruelty and child slavery, of all things), and once you see where it all leads, it could’ve quite easily have been glossed over without much detriment to the overall flow of the narrative; to say nothing of the fact that it almost feels as if it hearkens back to – dare I say it? – the Prequel trilogy (dun dun DUN)! Director Rian Johnson commented before this film’s release that his first cut of the film ran for over three hours long, and while the version that’s in theaters now sits at a much more comfortable 2.5 hours (the longest Star Wars film yet), I’d be lying if I said that one more pass in the editing room would’ve been a waste of time.

Warts and all, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a wholly satisfying and enjoyable entry into the ever growing and expanding Star Wars series. In both the context of the fictional universe of the film and the broader real-world cultural context, this film is about honoring the past and giving it proper consideration before literally burning it to the ground and making way for a brand new generation to take over and inherit the mantle.

While the film may be a bit too crowded and overly-ambitious for its own good at times, it needed to give us enough meat to chew on for two whole years until the next Star Wars flick comes out (ignoring the pointless and sure-to-be-garbage Han Solo prequel spinoff), so who are we to complain? For all its faults, The Last Jedi provides more than just fleeting, momentary thrills and spills, but it changes and advances the whole mythology of the Star Wars canon forward and usurps the status quo of the franchise in such thoughtful, unexpected ways that is really clears the path for the series to go in any number of interesting directions, which is more than we could say for this franchise in quite some time.

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Dispatches from the Philadelphia International Film Festival

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For the 26th year in a row, the Philadelphia International Film Festival (or PIFF for short) has been going strong, and is showing no sign of slowing down. For this Northeastern Pennsylvania denizen, making a yearly trek all the way into the city for this event is always a worthwhile venture, and is a tradition I look forward to every year. Here’s just a small sampling of the many, many films which were selected to screen at the festival this past October, and some of the ones I was fortunate enough to see either during the festival’s run, or shortly thereafter:
 

Beloved (Jonathan Demme)

Earlier this year, acclaimed director Jonathan Demme passed away at the age of 73. Demme is most well known for scoring Oscar gold with his modern horror classic The Silence of the Lambs, and also for directing the film which nabbed Tom Hanks his first Best Actor win with the aptly titled Philadelphia. The PIFF therefore selected a number of Demme’s features to screen over the course of the season’s festival run, among which is his criminally underrated 1998 drama Beloved. Based on the Toni Morrison novel of the same name, the story of Beloved takes place in post-Civil War America, where we follow Oprah Winfrey’s Sethe as she tries to navigate somewhat of a normal life at home with her daughter after living the majority of her life in slavery. But that all changes when a mysterious young woman who calls herself “Beloved” shows up at her house, and after a series of unexplained paranormal phenomenon begins occurring in their home, is eventually is revealed to be the ghost of Sethe’s long dead daughter.
And if that premise sounds a bit unusual and even potentially un-filmable to you, then it’s a true credit to Jonathan Demme’s talents as a director that he’s able to take this genre-bending premise and turn it into something not only worth watching, but also dramatically satisfying, in addition to being just plain unnerving. But unfortunately, Beloved didn’t fare quite as well with critics or audiences as some of Demme’s other past successes, and the film has since faded into obscurity, with only a small but vocal cult following dedicated to sharing its memory. The selection of this over some of Demme’s other, more recognizable works might seem odd at first, but to anyone who was willing to give it a chance, they’re probably thankful now for the opportunity to see it played once again in big screen form.
The Florida Project (Sean Baker) a.k.a. American Honey Jr. A smash hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and a follow up to his acclaimed 2015 feature Tangerine, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project takes place right on the outskirts of the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth” – the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida. Similar to Baker’s previous Tangerine, this film largely consists of non-professional actors in almost all the prominent roles (save for Willem Dafoe as the manager of the Magic Castle Motel, where the majority of the film is set). And despite Dafoe’s much Oscar-buzzed supporting turn, the real stars of this show are the mini-ensemble of child actors at the center of the film, featuring Brooklyn Prince as the true protagonist of this story, and whose perspective the majority of the film’s proceedings are seen from. Also noteworthy is the way in which this was filmed; unlike Tangerine, which was famously shot entirely using iPhone 5S smartphones, The Florida Project employs a more traditional style and is shot more formally than Baker’s previous works, and yet somehow feels entirely distinctive and vibrant from a purely visual standpoint, as well as being in complete harmony with everything else Baker has made thus far, both tonally and aesthetically. There’s really nothing like it out there right now, even in the ever-growing field of American coming of age dramedies.
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Thelma (Joaquim Trier)
Also a centerpiece at this year’s PIFF was Norway’s entry into the forthcoming Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film race, Thelma. Based on the trailers, one couldn’t be blamed for drawing comparisons between this project and Stephen King’s Carrie (in book form or any of the onscreen adaptations), with both properties containing the premise of a young woman’s coming of age being heavily symbolized by each stories’ central heroines either gaining or being made aware of their own supernatural abilities. Having seen the film myself, I can verify that, apart from a number of surface level plot similarities, the two properties are vastly different in terms of tone and narrative goals. While both stories operate with a seemingly identical central conceit, Carrie is famously more shocking and horrifying in nature, whereas Thelma takes a sweeter, more empathetic and romantic approach to the story – not necessarily in how the titular protagonist’s newfound abilities are depicted, but rather in regards to the surrounding circumstances which awaken and/or strengthen said abilities.
Chief among these are Thelma’s increasing sense of independence from her overbearing and deeply religious parents after moving away to college, as well as the exploration and questioning of her own sexuality, and also dealing with a blossoming romance with an older female classmate. And it’s this central, manifest emotional sincerity that not only separates it from the aforementioned King work, but also what makes Thelma such an original and deeply effective film in its own right. It’s one of the year’s most pleasant surprises and is well worth seeking out if and when it becomes available to the public. *ending spoilers follow* There’s also one more aspect in which Thelma is incredibly noteworthy – dare I say damn near revolutionary – in that it actually features a *happy ending* for it’s central queer pairing; yes, you read that correctly. Stop the presses, everyone: I think we may very well be experiencing film history in the making here!
Visages, Villages / Faces, Places (Agnes Varda, JR)
In our ever darkening, seemingly hopeless modern world full of worsening climate conditions, record-breaking mass shootings, and the Trump administration, it’s important that we continue to embrace the little things that make us happy and hold onto whatever brings us joy in this world. Case in point, the new documentary Faces Places, a collaboration between French New Wave director and just all around delightful human being Agnes Varda and photographer/muralist JR. Another big winner from Cannes 2017, the film follows Varda and JR as they travel together around rural France, meeting with the communities and creating large portraits to plaster on the surroundings. Together, they work to create these portraits of the various types of people they come across along the way, be it in the form of murals, or the film itself. The film has also been generating considerable amounts of awards buzz leading up to the beginning of this forthcoming Oscar season, and while awards recognition is rarely an indicator of quality by itself, hopefully Faces, Places should be able to crack into the lineup within the increasingly competitive documentary categories. At the very least, it should manage to succeed in bringing joy to the audience members viewing it at any given time. And in this day and age, is that really something we can afford to skip?
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Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

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As much as my distaste for resorting to overused, commonplace platitudes has been well documented within my reviews on this site, I once again find myself needing to resort to one in order to best describe a film I’ve just seen. In this particular scenario: “The truth really is stranger than fiction”. Case in point, the real life backstory concerning the creator of the Wonder Woman comics and his rather… “unconventional” romantic entanglement with his wife and one of his university students, whom they both find themselves falling equally in love with. Rather than waste time on a useless love triangle sort of situation, the three decide (both in real life and in the film) to engage in a fully committed poly-amorous relationship, one which spanned multiple decades, and left a significant impact on all three of their lives. Such is the plot of the new historical biopic Professor Marston & the Wonder Women.

For the sort of story Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is about to really work and be able to be taken seriously, it needs to have three very good, committed actors at the center of it; and fortunately that’s what we’ve got here. Luke Evans plays the titular role of Professor Marston – a college professor (imagine that!), the inventor of the lie-detector, and the eventual creator of the Wonder Woman comics – and does so with capable amounts of likability and gravitas. Bella Heathcote also stars as the student that has caught the eye of both the titular Martson and his wife, but the real standout of this trifecta is Rebecca Hall as Marston’s devoted wife Elizabeth. Once again, Hall continues to cement herself as one of the most reliably engaging and also one of the most underappreciated currently working actresses. The three of them all have very solid chemistry with one another and each person registers as a unique individual within the group, each one bringing something different and completely their own into their decidedly uncommon venture.

For all that Professor Marston & the Wonder Women purports to tell an unconventional romantic tale, and succeeds in doing so, the constant reliance on token, previously established historical biopic cliches is a little disappointing. The biggest offender herein being an intrusive, and in hindsight, fairly unnecessary framing device. I honestly couldn’t think of one beneficial reason to include such a structure for this film, apart from occasionally reminding the audience that this story involves the Wonder Woman comics somehow and we’ll be getting to the point eventually. Add to that the fact that the film at certain points seems to be brushing over or just completely omitting what seem like key elements or component of the story, that seem both like important details to add to the proceedings and also just missed opportunities to add more drama to the plot. For instance, how do the trio’s children feel about their parents’ arrangement? Do they even know the truth? If not, then how do the three of them keep up their relationship without letting anyone on the outside find out? I wouldn’t exactly qualify these things as plot holes, but they’re questions that could potentially be raised by viewers, and these elements are left largely unaddressed, and it’s to the overall detriment of the film at large.

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is a good, solid presentation of an otherwise quite unique and decidedly unconventional story. The more formal, restrained directing approach doesn’t necessarily match the red-hot eroticism and overall kinkiness of the subject matter at hand, but the film certainly never downplays or criticizes these elements either, which is arguably a more commendable feat. Besides, if a film’s central message ultimately boils down to “If everyone in the world was more sexually open and liberated, the world would be a better, more peaceful place”, then who am I to argue with that?

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Blade Runner 2049

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We all knew this was coming. Given Hollywood’s seemingly endless preoccupation with reboots, remakes, sequels, etc. over the last decade and a half (at least much moreso now than any other period of time in film history), it’s no surprise that Blade Runner would eventually be given some sort of newer addition to the legacy, especially considering its increasingly revered status as a science fiction classic, thanks in no small part to the parade of Director’s Cuts and Final Cuts that Ridley Scott has been fooling around with ever since the film’s initial release back in 1982.

Fast forward to 2017 where a much belated (if completely unnecessary) sequel has finally made it into theaters, helmed by one of the most interesting filmmakers to emerge as a major player this decade in Denis Villenueve, with the participation of Harrison Ford reprising his role from the first film, and also having Ridley Scott in a producing role, which is perhaps for the best considering how poorly Scott’s recent return to the Alien franchise fared earlier this year. The resulting film herein being Blade Runner 2049, a flawed yet ultimately satisfying continuation of the Blade Runner franchise, which I guess now is officially a thing. Huh.

To keep plot points and details to a minimum, I’ll just go over the basics to start with: Blade Runner 2049 centers on Ryan Gosling in the leading role this time around, as a titular “Blade Runner”, whose job it is to “retire” (read: kill) any replicants (synthetically born humans, bred for the sole purpose of slave labor) still hanging out from the 2019-era of the first film. When given his next assignment, Gosling’s futuristic bounty hunter is suddenly thrust into a case that’s – surprise, surprise – much bigger and more far-reaching than he or the audience was expecting. Soon, Gosling’s officer, know only as K, finds himself embarking on journey of self-discovery that leads him to Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard from the first film. As far as the thematic links between Blade Runner 2049 and its predecessor go, the central questions of morality and humanity from the first one are largely kept intact here, which helps tonally link the two films together, instead of this one seeming like a pale imitation of the ideas and narrative threads brought up in the original.

Among the many influences the 1982 Blade Runner had on the science fiction genre, one of its biggest was in regards to the design and art direction of any potential future landscapes and settings. In that respect, Blade Runner 2049 certainly had a lot to live up to, and on that front it definitely does not disappoint. In a very wise move, the aesthetic of 2049 doesn’t try to copy or… replicate (awwwww yeah!) the exact look or feel of the original film. Instead, it updates it for our more modern sensibilities, both in terms of the glossy design of the city-scapes and in terms of the technological advances that have occurred since 1982. What we’re seeing isn’t a faithful, nostalgia-driven recreation of everything we’ve already seen before, as well as dozens of pale imitators since then but rather the logical continuation of what was presented to us beforehand, and a carefully thought-out update, making it more believable that this is what the world shown to us in the original Blade Runner would conceivable look like thirty years after we last left it.

With all the good that’s here, it falls into another trap many recent studio offerings had found themselves in: Sony gonna Sony… again. While the case of obvious studio meddling isn’t as blatant or egregious here as it’s been with other Sony produced films of past years, there’s still a number of moments where it’s extremely noticeable and bothersome. To say nothing of the usual parade of product placement that in this case is at least fairly well hidden and doesn’t much call attention to itself, a lot of the action or attempts at excitement here feel unusually out of place and forced in. While of course a certain level of action and chasing is to be expected in a multi-million dollar spectacle film from two major Hollywood studios, some of the action beats feel like an afterthought; just added in during a latter pass on the script in order to add some punches and explosions to make the trailer seem more exciting to the average moviegoer who has no idea what Blade Runner even is.

These included setpieces like a brief shootout in a junkyard that’s quickly cut short by missile fire, as well as a prolonged fistfight between Gosling and Ford during their first meeting. Scenes like these just come and go with so little impact on the story or characters that the constant breaks in the narrative just to deliver these sequences don’t feel entirely justified, and probably could’ve been cut short to tighten up the runtime a bit without impacting the overall flow of the film much at all. Also worth mentioning is the surprisingly rushed and underwhelming climax of the film, though I at least give the creative minds at play here some credit for not trying to recreate or outdo the magic of the iconic “tears in rain” finale from the original film.

Overall Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy companion piece to the original. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, how could we possibly expect it to do so? The first one revolutionized the aesthetic of mainstream science fiction for decades to come, so the best we could hope out of any follow-up would be that it add something new to the mythos without copying from the original too much, and that’s thankfully what we got here. While not an instant game changer in the way the first was, 2049 is a damn good piece of modern sci-fi that holds up well enough on its own and doesn’t detract much, if at all from the beloved cult classic is hails from.

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Flatliners

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Sony gonna Sony. Whatever sense of creativity or originality their film company may have once possessed has now been diluted down to a revolving door of endless remakes and reboots of their previously established properties, whether anybody was asking for them or not. These have ranged from the failed The Amazing Spider-Man series, to the infamous Ghostbusters reboot, and even the unexpectedly good remake of The Magnificent Seven. This brings us up to speed with Sony’s latest attempt at reviving one of their older properties in Flatliners, a half remake, half soft-reboot of the 1990 Joel Schumacher horror/sci-fi vehicle, complete with a returning cast member (Keifer Sutherland) who surprisingly doesn’t reprise his role from the original film (or perhaps he did in an earlier cut of the film). Like most of the other modern remakes we’ve been forced to acknowledge over the past decade and a half, it’s a slick, well-polished, and competently made Hollywood product that takes zero chances and is perfectly content aiming right down the middle. Nothing new in that regard, but you’ve probably seen a lot worse than this – and you may take that however you like.

If you’ve seen or at least heard of the original film, then you’re already aware of how ludicrous the premise of Flatliners is, but for those who remain unawares, it concerns a group of medical students who suddenly become preoccupied with the sensation of having their hearts stopped and being revived after a few moments, especially when it’s discovered that peering onto the other side seemingly enhances the brain activity of whomever does the “flatlining” (and yes, they do refer to it as such for the entire film). It goes further from there into some supernatural and horror-lite areas, but you get the gist. In the casting department, the film is more or less hard to fault. It’s good to see Ellen Page back in a starring role, and she does a solid enough job here, for what she’s given. Diego Luna unfortunately has yet to be cast in the Jabba the Hutt spinoff he apparently wants so badly, but he’s well utilized here as the sole voice of reason in the whole cast. Rounding out the leads are Nina Dobrev, Kiersey Clemons, and James Norton, all of whom do a perfectly fine job with what amounts to some pretty underwritten roles.

Let me state for the record that I am, in fact, not a doctor. But as a Joe Everyman with the most basic, commonplace understanding of medical practice and implementations of such, even I was getting irritated by the level of unprofessional and irresponsible behavior of these “doctors” – and not even when it comes to the central gimmick of flatlining (damn, now they got me doing it). Even the most standard, everyday medical practices are bungled by these wannabe Victoria’s Secret models posing as med students. I understand that film logic dictates that certain liberties must be taken and corners cut for the greater good of storytelling, but suspension of disbelief can only grant you so much forgiveness. And when the actions of these characters would not only result in their expulsion, but possible incarceration in certain circumstances, and yet they continue to get away with everything without lasting consequences (apparently being responsible for the accidental death of a patient under your care AND altering the report to cover you own ass only gets you on academic probation at worst), then you’ve broken whatever viewer/film trust we had, which wasn’t much to begin with, considering the goofy-as-hell central premise we’re dealing with here.

Oh yeah, this was also supposed to be a horror film, wasn’t it? Uhmm… I guess so. To be perfectly frank and honest, I think the film itself forgot as well. For the entire first act of this film, there isn’t a single moment, shot, musical cue, etc. to indicate whatsoever that this was going to teeter into spook-house territory. But once the titular gimmick gets underway, Flatliners takes a sudden shift into your token, generic PG-13 horror nonsense. And given the otherworldly elements of the premise, the people behind this film couldn’t even be bothered to provide us with any creative or substantial imagery to depict it all. Just some glossy, forgettable CGI pastels that I guess are meant to symbolize the afterlife or something? I dunno. Clearly I’m putting more thought into this than anyone involved in the project seemed to.

There’s also just one detail of the entire film that’s relatively minor, but it deserves its own paragraph: I just wanted to make sure that we all know that once your heart stops and blood is no longer flowing to the brain, your brain cells start dying off after a short period of time. Common knowledge, yes? And if your heart stops and you’re out for a full seven or eight minutes, you can’t just come back to life with the exact same amount of consciousness and brain activity as before, right? OK, just checking.

Overall, Flatliners is a wholly unnecessary and toothless remake of its flawed but otherwise perfectly solid original. It doesn’t use its creative central premise to its fullest potential, but the actors all do a solid enough job at selling the completely ludicrous proceedings. At the very least, this reviewer certainly wouldn’t say it’s deserving of the measly 0% rating it’s received on Rotten Tomatoes; but if that’s the level of venom and vitriol it takes to end Sony’s parade of unnecessary remakes and reboots, then who am I to complain?

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The Glass Castle

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Well, I think we now know why this one didn’t get a more Oscar-friendly release date…

Adapted from the 2005 best selling memoir of the same name, The Glass Castle is based on the real life experiences of author and protagonist Jeannette Walls, who spent the entirety of her childhood and adolescence constantly moving in and out between many different homes, all the while living in extreme poverty with her parents and growing number of siblings. This film also reunites the actress/director team of Brie Larson and Destin Daniel Cretton, who were both behind the criminally overlooked Short Term 12 from 2013. Unfortunately, those hoping this project would recapture the magic of their previous collaboration will likely be disappointed here, as The Glass Castle is, despite a number of solid performances and some moving individual scenes, one of the most tonally conflicted and manipulative dramas this reviewer has seen in quite some time.

Above all else, the greatest strength of The Glass Castle is its assembled cast, though even this comes with a few caveats. Seasoned professionals like Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts aren’t doing anything we haven’t seen from them before, but they both fit their roles well enough. This also marks the whopping third(!) film this year that completely wastes the acting talents of Brie Larson, who (despite having the leading role) isn’t really given all that much to do other than look stern and ashamed of her family, until the final twenty minutes finally call upon her to flex her Oscar winning acting chops. The only actor in this that’s really given consistently good, juicy material to work with is Ella Anderson as the teenage version of Jeannette, who really is quite good in this and does a lot of the heavy dramatic lifting. Both the actresses playing Jeannette, as well as Woody Harrelson, have the largest roles in the film and even when the writing is at its most hokey and mawkish, all the actors in this do a commendable job and try their best to elevate some otherwise very troubling material.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the most significant and crippling flaw in The Glass Castle is its extremely confused, misguided tone. Throughout the course of the film, we’re shown all manner of poor decision making and irresponsible behaviors regarding the Walls parents’ treatment of their children, all of which ranges from slightly troubling at best to borderline abusive at worst – and most of it is shown in an flattering, tone deaf manner that’s way too unfitting given the gravity of the situation. For example, the film at times makes a point to focus on moments where all the kids are starving and forced to make a meal out of water, a stick of butter, and sugar – and another early instance involves the family busting a severely injured young Jeannette out of the hospital because they wouldn’t be able to pay for the bills.

These repeated instances of poor decision making are I guess meant to be cheered on by the audience, meaning to show a blue collar, working class family sticking it to the system that’s supposedly keeping them down; but the way the film is trying to make the audience feel is in such conflict with what’s actually being shown that the end result is beyond jarring; and it’s all accompanied by one of the most overbearing, manipulative musical scores these ears have heard in quite a while. We spend the entirety of The Glass Castle dwelling on the poor, irresponsible behavior of the parents and apart from being expected to find them quirky and charming all along the way, there’s even a completely forced final reconciliation between Jeannette and her parents which is supposed to redeem them somehow, but doesn’t feel earned one bit, and the attempt to make these monsters seem at all likable or sympathetic isn’t at all appreciated to say the least.

Despite being not only based on a true story but also written by a member of the family that the film is centered on, The Glass Castle has a surprisingly large number of underdeveloped supporting players herein. Again, it comes across as especially odd considering the angle this story comes from. Perhaps this approach as seen through the film adaptation was meant to put more focus on the father/daughter relationship at the center of the proceedings, but everyone else in the story feels like such an afterthought that it can’t help but draw attention to itself.

As I mentioned beforehand, the performances across the board are solid, but once again it’s the writing and the way this story was adapted to the screen that hinders and downsizes the roles of many of Jeannette’s brothers, sisters, friends, etc. These people might have, and most likely did play a pivotal role in the rather unconventional upbringing of this family, but based on the way The Glass Castle handles it all in film form, you’d swear that the father and just one of his children were the only people that had any major impact in how everyone in the family was functioning during the period of time the story chooses to focus on.

While no doubt being well intended, as well as nicely acted on all fronts, The Glass Castle is still one of the most tonally misguided major releases of the year. A truly great film could’ve been made from this source material, had it been approached with a darker, more objective sensibility attached. But director Destin Daniel Cretton, despite showing noticeably improved visual and stylistic confidence since his last feature, turns the majority of the proceedings here into a hokey nostalgia trip that asks the audience to be enchanted by constant child endangerment and starvation, among many other things. Life living under those conditions may never have been boring, but it was often stressful and needlessly dangerous, and seeing it portrayed onscreen with such fondness and reverence gets tiresome very quick.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given the increasingly accelerating rise in ‘geek/nerd’-friendly cinema within the blockbuster scene the 21st century, one of the most popular and profitable film series of this era has been the Spider-Man franchise. With his being among the most popular comic book properties of all time, multiple interpretations of the character are to be expected, of course. However, few would disagree that attempting to adapt the franchise for the big screen not once, not twice, but *three times* over a period of only fifteen years seems a bit excessive. But such are the demands of current blockbuster tentpole franchising, and here we have the third modern adaptation of the beloved webslinger.

What makes this one stand apart from the previous two versions, first portrayed by Tobey Maguire and then again years later by Andrew Garfield, is that this Spider-Man is officially part of the timeline and continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, something which many comic book fans have been asking for ever since the whole experiment kicked off with Iron Man back in 2008. And after a brief but memorable appearance in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man finally gets his own feature-length film to shine and prove to both Tony Stark and audiences all over the globe that he can carry his own solo-outing in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

This might go without saying, but it needs to be addressed up front: Spider-Man: Homecoming is by far the best solo Spider-Man film since 2004’s Spider-Man 2. Of course, the middling level of film quality we’ve gotten from this franchise since then sort of puts a damper on that praise, but it just feels so good to finally have another one of these fall into the positive category for a change. Tonally, Homecoming comfortably fits in with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe outings (unsurprising, since their flicks are known for a tonal and stylistic consistency maintained throughout all of them), and its more lightweight approach to the character and his world even compliments the attempted ‘high school comedy’ angle pretty well.

Apart from Tom Holland’s solid turn as the titular superhero in training (I’m not entirely confident declaring him as the best of the three actors to play Spidey just yet, but he still does a perfectly fine job of making the role his own and standing out from the rest), supporting players like Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori, and Disney Channel alumni Zendaya all fare pretty well, and are dealt a solid balance of smart comedic writing while blending their own unique, likable personalities into their roles. Here’s hoping we get more out of them during inevitable future installments. Also worth mentioning is the villain du jour in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. While he doesn’t single-handedly solve Marvel’s villain problem (don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about), Keaton gives a solid turn in the role and has more than a few really memorable, intimidating moments to balance out the otherwise hokey looking Vulture suit.

For all that Spider-Man: Homecoming is really trying to distance itself from the previous installments in the franchise and be seen as its own singular interpretation of the Spider-Man universe, it sometimes can’t help but get bogged down with constant references and easter eggs to both Marvel characters and films of the past – the first twenty minutes or so in particular are dominated with these elements to a distracting degree, but they thankfully become less and less present (or at least noticeable) as the film goes on.

All that being said, I also give the creative minds behind the film a decent amount of credit for at least attempting to make Tony Stark’s presence herein somewhat tied into the plot, as well as making him a key part in Peter Parker’s emotional journey. It’s just that now that Spider-Man is officially a part of the MCU, it feels pretty redundant to be so reliant on references and canon-stroking to continue emphasizing his role in the grander scheme of things. This feels especially needless when considering that this one film also needs to shake off the memory of both Maguire and Garfield’s versions of the character on top of everything else. This might seem like an odd point to focus on, but hopefully they can at least balance all of these elements with better success in the upcoming installments.

On the whole, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a pretty rousing success, considering all it had to live up to. At the very least, it’s definitely the breath of fresh air this character needed so desperately after three wishy-washy at best solo films, and is just an all around entertaining film in its own right. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first two Sam Raimi directed films, that’s almost an unfair standard to judge this interpretation of the character just yet, since we’re only at the beginning of his tenure. Judged on its own merits, it’s a solidly enjoyable flick and well worth checking out if you aren’t fatigued by the constant rebooting of the same characters time and time again.

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