Monday, 17 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Peter Parker, with the help of his mentor Tony Stark, tries to balance his life as an ordinary high school student in NYC while fighting crime as his superhero alter ego Spider-Man when a new threat emerges. 

When Marvel and Sony got together to bring Spider-Man into the MCU, they knew they wanted him to first appear in Captain America: Civil War. A search for the right Peter Parker began. Tom Holland, the young British actor, who was 19 at the time (now 21) had been dancing and acting since childhood, starring in Billy Elliot on the London stage and in films like The Impossible. In him, the filmmakers found a kid who possessed the same infectious enthusiasm as his character.

The movie itself is not that bad, but it is very much down to earth. In fact, there is an aspect of comic-book superhero films that is encoded in the names of the heroes through the age. Like Superman, Batman, Iron Man, or Wonder Woman. They fly, they see through walls, they repel bullets, and they are all grownups. Peter Parker is different, especially in this film, where Tom Holland plays Spider-Man with an anxious deer-in-headlights teen innocence that is so ordinary it seems almost incongruous when he’s referred to as “the Spider-Man.” What he looks (and acts) like is Spider-Boy. Tobey Maguire, who, as far as I can remember seemed boyish at the time, was 26 years old when he first played Peter, but Holland was just 20 when he shot this film, and it makes a difference. It’s almost as if he is his own fanboy.

The film’s novelty is that Spider-Man, though he’s been blessed by Tony Stark an “Avengers apprentice”, barely has a handle on how to use his powers, or what to do with them. To a degree, the film’s novelty works. Though this Peter is such a normal, awkward dude that he is a touch inoffensive. Probably the closest Marvel Universe has come to giving us a superhero who wouldn’t look out of place on the Disney Channel. Holland has a likeable presence, but he is dutiful and imploring rather than captivating.

Though the biracial romance is a step in the right direction, at one point the two are poised in an upside-down kiss that never materialises, which only reminds you of how much the film is feeding off its legacy. It is fine, and true enough to Marvel to make a Spider-Man movie about a young adult, but Spider-Man: Homecoming has an aggressively eager and prosaic Young Adult flavour. Yet coming after the two Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films, which were the definition of super-forgettable skills, the movie is just distinctive enough to connect and become a hit. If so, it could be a key transitional film in the greater cinematic universe of comic-book movies. Homecoming tells its audience: This kid isn’t quite super, he is just like you. Ant-Man did the same thing, but we’ve never seen a character as mythical as Spider-Man portrayed in such a family friendly high school romance way.

Now onto the villain, played by Michael Keaton. He is very much an adult. Keaton brings all the sinister personality you could want to the role, though the movie should have given him more to do. It does, however, provide the character with a good twist, when he shows up where you least expect him.

Finally, midway through the movie, there is a sequence that speeds the picture up in that buzzy spectacular “Hey, I’m watching a Marvel movie!” way. His suit is equipped with devices he is just learning about. Yet the way the movie deals with all of it is strange as it is hard to tell where the suit’s powers leave off and Peter’s begin -  and judging strictly from Homecoming if he even has powers of his own. We all know the spider-bite basics of Spidey’s origin story, but too much rebooting has now resulted in a certain vagueness. As if the film couldn’t be bothered to fill in the blanks. That said, the flying action has a casual beauty in the technicity of it all, and it does get you rooting for Peter. The appeal of this Spider-Boy is all too basic in the superhero world: in his lunge for valour, he keeps falling, and he keeps getting up.

Overall, Tom Holland plays Peter Parker as Marvel’s first Young-Adult superhero. That is the novelty, but also the limitation of this mildly diverting reboot. Indeed, the superhero’s latest outing brings an unfortunate mixture of action and high-school romance. As if somewhere deep within the Marvel laboratories, genetic experiments have been taking place as the DNA of the comic-book action flick is mixed with one of other films. Spider-Man: Homecoming is the labradoodle of Marvel’s breeding programme: part superhero movie, part high-school coming-of-age story.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Not Swimming but Drowning

Devoted lifeguard Mitch Buchannon butts heads with a brash new recruit, as they uncover a criminal plot that threatens the future of the day. 

Andy Warhol got it wrong. It’s not that everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes; it's that all moderately successful, mediocre television shows are destined to be reborn as feature films. Baywatch manages to repackage every aspect of the series, except the reason it was popular in the first place. Indeed, just as nobody ever bought a Pirelli calendar simply to find out the date, the world didn’t tune into Baywatch for over a decade purely for the lifeguarding instruction. Let’s face it: it was all about the fantasy American lifestyle of sun, sea and semi-naked flesh jiggling along beaches in slow-mo. Apart from that, and those little red floaty things they carried around, can anyone honestly remember anything else about Baywatch?

That movie could have been a golden opportunity. Previous films based on retro TV shows have taught us: the only way to repackage such brand-name is with heavy measures of irony and self-satire. Of course, that is what you would from a movie based on a TV series that became famous for slow-motion shots of star Pamela Anderson jiggling down a beach in her bikini. Baywatch as a series, now looks jaw-droppingly goofy and harmless - actually, it did then too - and the movie would have been smart to satirize the show’s innocuous underworld drama and cheesy male gaze, playing up the dated absurdity of it all. But no. The film’s director, Seth Gordon and its screenwriters, Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, have shaped Baywatch onto the theme of the moment: a bunch of good-looking lifeguards, devoted to keeping their beach a safe cool magical place.

Dwayne Johnson makes a good David Hasselhoff stand-in, with his winning mix of comic charm, calm authority and absurdly pumped physique as always.  Plus, his chemistry with Efron is likeable. In fact, Johnson and Efron possess impressive muscles, but the performers have never done as much heavy lifting as they do here. And to their credit, they succeed to some degree. Johnson employs his big smile, effortless charm and surprising comic gifts to make the film watchable. And Efron, who has come to rely on his obnoxious frat-boy persona takes off his shirt … a lot.

Now onto the women. “Babe” lifeguards are smart, centred and self-aware. They are 21st-century women who aren’t about to turn into pin-up fodder for losers. They wear their butt-hugging red bathing suits with dignity and pride, which makes this a highly sexually responsible Baywatch. But while the female form is on ample display here - courtesy of not only the comic Rohrbach, but also Alexandra Daddario (who starred along Dwayne Johnson in San Andreas) and Ilfenesh Hadera as CJ’s female colleagues at Emerald Bay - Johnson’s massive physique and Efron’s abs receive equally generous exposure.

Similarly, the film directed by Seth Gordon, shows off its big budget with large-scale action sequences. The causal throwaway gags are actually far funnier, such as Mitch addressing Matt with a series of nicknames including “Malibu Ken” and, most amusingly, “High School Musical”. Finally, and naturally, there are brief appearances by original stars Hasselhoff (who seems to be making ironic cameos his late-career specialty) and Anderson, but those, too, are underwhelming. Anderson’s is so momentary, that you wonder why it was even included.