Mini-Review: Spider-man Homecoming (No Spoilers)

Over the Thanksgiving Break, my family and I watch Spider-man Homecoming (SMH) and we liked it.  It wasn’t our favorite Marvel movie, but it was still fun and exciting.  I thought I’d do a Mini-Review for the blog based on my love of comic book movies, Marvel movies, and Spider-man movies.  This one was very good–not the best, but still very good.

Action AND Humor
One thing that SPH really gets right is the action sequences as well as the humor of the character.  One of the crucial things that filmmakers don’t really get about the character is that Peter Parker is a “sincere” human being having to react to some of the scummiest situations (both in terms of everyday life and over-the-top villainy) that are out there.  His defense mechanism is his ability to turn every situation into a joke or a wise-crack.  Yes, as Spider-man, Peter is insanely powerful and gifted, but it is the humor that helps him deflect much of the trials and tribulations that he goes through.  While not nearly as funny as say, Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s still a bit of that irrepressible mixture of deft humor along with very strong action scenes that help to sell the movie and Tom Holland’s performance of the character.  As much as I disliked the high school stuff (see below), I think that Tom Holland’s performance of Peter Parker might be my favorite so far (I’ll have to reflect more on that as the year ends and I see it more times to be sure).

Straight Outta’ High School
So why isn’t this my favorite of all the Spider-man movies?  In two words: high school.  The filmmakers decided to “reset” Peter as it were, and placed a significant portion of it in Peter’s high school life/activities.  Now, don’t get me wrong, this is where quite a bit of both the tension and the humor comes in, but I’m just not one who really likes (for the most part), high school narratives in movies.  In this case, while well done, these were (again, for the most part) some of the least interesting parts of the movie.  Yes, they were well acted and all the rest, but having collected Spider-man comics during my high school and early college years (freshman & sophomore years), I really think that the true strength of the Peter Parker narrative comes from his struggle to support himself as a young photographer at the Daily Bugle with J. Jonah Jameson.  Yes, I know Peter originally started in high school, but I personally don’t feel that the stories came into their own until his college/work years, and this perception colored my feelings towards the movie.  I liked it, but I would have liked it even more had the filmmakers chosen to “age-up” Peter’s character (as I assume they will in future movies).

Marvel Movie Genres (This would be the YA Movie)
The Marvel movies have been good with mixing different genres into the standard comic book movie formula (well, with the exception of “horror” movies which they don’t seem to want to do even when it is the most appropriate genre–Age of Ultron).  However, this one would the YA movie, if that’s the case.  Much like movies like The Hunger GamesThe Spiderwick Chronicles, etc., the reliance on such a young cast and the focus on quite a bit of high school drama/activities makes this feel more in line with a YA movie than it does with a typical Marvel movie–not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but something to be aware of.  I should note, however, that the performances by the cast, both younger members and older members, were excellent and well done.  I look forward to their next outing whenever Marvel and Sony team-up again to produce another one.  My only hope is that we move past the high school setting into college and work-life and that they can make that as compelling in the movies as it was in the comics.

Overall Grade: B (Solid performances, action, and humor, dragged down by an over-reliance on high school drama and a bit (not too much, but a definitely bit) of teen angst/drama).

Implications for my Writing: I have to understand that I don’t really like certain genres/things: the “heist” movie, “crime” movies, and apparently “high school” movies.  If I don’t like them, it’s probably not a good idea for me to try to write them in that I probably won’t be able to create a story that is credible and true to the genre because I can’t see past the “flaws” of the genre to do it justice.  There are probably genres that I won’t be successful writing, and the “high school drama” might be one of those genres.

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Mini-Review: Die Another Day

Okay, so I finally saw and finished Die Another Day (DAD).  Why is this so moments, you might add in the light of movies such as Thor Ragnarok Justice League releasing this month?  Well, it means that I have see ALL James Bond movies that have been released so far.  And, as expected, it was a slog–that was the reason why I missed this in the theaters and why I didn’t watch it all the other times it had previously been on streaming–it isn’t very good.

00Camp
It is way too campy, but played with a straight face.  It almost wants the audience to laugh AT it rather than WITH it.  Most of the blame for this comes from the story and script.  James Bond, particularly under the Roger Moore era, has some really corny and goofy things happen, but as I mentioned in a previous post, that was reflected in other movies of the era.  Much of the “campiness” of Bond during Roger Moore was a desire to appeal to American audiences who were far more likely to have seen/enjoyed a movie like Smokey and the Bandit–which is mostly campiness with a few places of seriousness.  However, DAD hit all the wrong notes.  Audiences in America  wanted a more realistic treatment of the spy genre–which is where Bourne (Jason Bourne) fits into this equation.  He was hyper resourceful and hyper capable, like Bond, but he was serious–no double-entendre, quips, or gadgets.  The honest-to-goodness down-home appeal and brutal/lethal moves when necessary.

00BadScript
As mentioned before, the script is really what hurt DAD.  From paper then characterization, to dialogue that didn’t work, to relationships that were unnecessarily muddled, etc., this is truly what kept this movie from shining–not necessarily the acting.  This wasn’t new Hollywood with its eye on the future and fingers on the pulse of the movie-goer, this was old Hollywood–you’ll like this movie because it is the next iteration of James Bond, darn it, and we know how much you like James Bond.

00Completionist
Still, for all my griping about the movie, it does feel good to have a complete repertoire of James Bond movies under my belt.  Until now, I’ve always had to put in that except or but when speaking about the franchise.  I really wish this could have been a stronger entry, but even successful teams don’t always get it right: Spectre for James Bond and the appropriately titled Jason Bourne for Jason Bourne.  Neither of these two movies did a great job in returning their characters to audiences in their last outings.  Both seemed to lose the thread of the character based on thrilling, climatic, and revelatory the previous outings before their respective latest movies arrived.

Implications for my own Work
I’m learning that character and story (plot) go hand-in-hand.  You can’t divorce the two.  For my writing, plot is what comes in first (99% of the time), but it is the characters that people fall in love with and invest with and I’m learning that I need to spend as much time developing the characters as I do the plot.  For the makers of Bond and Bourne, they perhaps need to do what I’m doing, but on plot rather than characters, as it is there plots that are hindering their characters.

Overall Grade: D (Below Average)

Mini-Review: Magnificent Seven (2016)

I just finished the 2016 remake of the film the Magnificent Seven and I have to say that I was actually quite impressed by the effort of the actors and the filmmakers.  I really enjoyed the movie and thought that it seemed to be a credible remake of an old classic for a new audience.  After seeing it, I was a bit dismayed by the lack of critical and commercial success for it.

Now, for full disclosure: I haven’t seen all of the original version.  I’ve only seen bits and pieces.  Somehow, it never seemed to come on network TV (as I recall) and when it was on cable, there always seemed to be something more interesting on that I wanted to watch.  Also, if I recall, the original is a black and white film, and it is MUCH harder for me (personally) to “suspend my disbelief” with black and white films as I’m always doing the “Wizard of Oz” game where my mind tries to fill in what would the movie look like in color (as the original Wizard of Oz starts out in black and white, goes to color, and then moves back to black and white for its ending).

However, this movie seemed to be very much in the spirit of the older classic.  It told a great story with some pretty good performances by the various actors.  The story, in many respects, had a tone much like the latest (as of this writing) Star Wars movie, Rogue One.  I really liked most everything about it.  Sure, there were a few cliche western moments, but it really doesn’t deserve its 54% Metacritic score.  Now, don’t get me wrong–even without the western “cliches,” there are still problems.  One the main ones is the main character’s motivation for helping.  The movie made him seem way too altruistic even though he is getting paid for his services.  While the movie foreshadows the reason behind this a before the midpoint of the movie, we don’t actually get the revelation until the final conflict with villain.  Because we don’t get to see Chissom (Denzel Washington’s character) struggle, 1) he comes off as emotionally distant–we never see why the plight of the town really matters to him and 2) we don’t see him struggle–he has it all too easy.  He doesn’t really have to struggle with the town accepting him, he doesn’t deal with any major conflicts between his team (outside one conflict with another old time associate).

However, even with these issues, I still enjoyed it.  I had only intended to watch about half of it this week (about an hour) and then finish off the other hour next weekend, but I found myself so engaged by it that every time I went to turn it off, I stayed my hand, so the actors, director, and filmmakers did something right, even if the critics and the majority of the audience doesn’t agree.

Overall Grade: B+ (It probably would have been a B- due to the way the protagonist’s motivation was written, but a couple of strong performances more than made up for that flaw in my mind).

Star Wars: Rogue One Mini-Review (No Spoilers!)

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Source: Starwars.com

A STAR WARS STORY

Star Wars: Rogue One (SW:RO) is a stand-alone story set in the Star Wars Universe.  It takes the exposition from the “story crawl” for Episode IV: A New Hope about stealing the plans for the Death Star and expands upon it.  While not flawless in its execution, the story is well told and is an enjoyable Star Wars experience.

CHARACTERS

This is an ensemble film and I really like the characters that are presented.  You can understand their motivations as they try to complete their mission.  Some characters get more screen time than others, but the Droid and the “Force-Believing” character are standouts.

TONE

For all that it is a Star Wars film, the tone is actually quite dark. Without spoilers, it is hard to clarify why this is so, but be assured this one is probably as dark as Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, maybe more so.  It does have the trademark humor, but most of it comes from one character in particular, so when that character isn’t on-screen, many of the scenes are fairly gritty.

3RD ACT

Where Rogue One comes into its own is its 3rd Act.  The characterization and Special Effects in that Act really emphasize the desperate nature of the characters’ struggle.  They are fighting for something that matters, both to them and to the plot.  The 3rd Act is truly where the film is elevated from merely good to great.

RATING/GRADE

So, on a A-F scale, I would rate this as an A-.  It is excellent with a few small flaws that keep it from being a perfect film.  The earlier action, while necessary to both plot and characterization, sometimes feels as if it is just going through the motions to get to the stupendous final act.  Also, some characters are given more time than others and we lose out on characterization of some of the more minor characters, but that is just the nature of ensemble films.

IMPLICATIONS FOR MY OWN WRITING

Having stakes that matter to both the plot and the character is a technique that I need to work on as a writer.  I often have things that matter in terms of the plot–if “character x” doesn’t do this something (usually bad) will happen.  However, I’m learning that I need to motivate the characters with some internal conflicts as well.  In Rogue One, Jyn Erso is motivated by a desire to find her father and later by her faith in her father’s words.  These are both internal to the character and intrinsic to the character.  Yes, the Death Star is bad, but that’s not why looking for the plans (can’t go any deeper without spoilers).  Her motivation comes not just from all the bad stuff the Death Star can do, but also how her father spoke about it and her relationship to him.  I need to do a better job of finding internal motivations for my characters.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Dr. Strange: Mini-Review (No Spoilers)

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Source: ComingSoon.net

MAGIC AND MARTIAL ARTS

This is a really interesting story.  In many ways it is the story that I was trying to write with my own story, I, Magi.  The creators manage to combine Magic with Martial Arts and the results come together surprisingly well.  Now, martial arts movies are a “guilty pleasure” of mine.  I know some of the earlier ones in the 70s and 80s aren’t really good narratively speaking and that the English dubbing is sometimes so awful as to have entered into the realm of cliche, but I love the action, the movement, and the artistry of the genre.  Recent entries, since the mid-90s have been much better and I feel they have come into their own thanks to great actors in the field.  I love (& have seen most of the practicing martial arts actors–male and female–and have enjoyed them immensely, but I have a personal fondness for Jackie Chan, mostly for the outtakes reel that he includes at the end of his movies).  There are two or three centerpiece fights in this movie and add in magic–and well, you have a strong action based movie.

If there is a downside, its that the movie is an origin story, so if you already know the origin of the hero, Dr. Stephen Strange, then you will have a pretty good clue to the first half of the movie.  Still, that is a minor complaint (similar to knowing the origin stories of heroes like Batman or Spider-man.)

A GOOD SENSE OF HUMOR

This movie has a pretty good sense of humor as well.  From other reviewers, some of the jokes seemed to be hit or miss for them, but for me, I chuckled at the jokes, even when the set-up was telegraphed a mile away.  There were some truly laugh aloud moments, but the movie didn’t set out to be a comedy.  In many ways, the humor is much more sedate, more dry than say, the Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy.  The humor seems on par with Ant-Man.

COMIC BOOK MOVIE FATIGUE

Many reviewers seemed to be noting comic fatigue for friends who they took to see the movie and reported not like it.  I think that they fact that it is also as much of a martial arts movie as a “Marvel” movie also has something to with one’s enjoyment.  If you don’t like Martial Arts movies then chances are really good you aren’t going to like this movie as many of its set-ups and structure follow that genre and its conventions.

In many ways, the director and writers of this movie did what I wished Joss Whedon would have done (if possible based on studio notes) for Age of Ultron. They completely went to another genre–martial arts movies, just as the last two Captain America movies have done to a larger/lesser degree political thrillers.  Imagine if Age of Ultron had gone for a completely “horror” movie vibe with Ultron (and the twins) hunting/eliminating Avengers in pursuit of the “Vision” prototype.

I wonder if it is truly a case of comic book movie fatigue or rather a miscommunication of what genre to which this movie actually belongs.

IMPLICATIONS FOR MY WRITING

Fight scenes need clarity.  As I mentioned above, this is what I’d hoped I, Magi would be like, except that Magic is limited, so they (mages) have to rely on fighting skills to make up for the lack of magic available to them.  In the movie, however, I noticed that the fight scenes were clear.  I think that at times (especially when I try for action scenes) my own description breaks down and it is unclear who is where.

I intend to try to work on that and make might fight/action scenes more clear and more visual in the reader’s mind.

Mini-Review: Deepwater Horizon (No Spoilers)

deepwater-horizon

Deepwater Horizon Mini-Review

Over the weekend, I went out to see Deepwater Horizon and I enjoyed it.  It was a good movie that looked at the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon and how a system of bad decisions and poor maintenance contributed to combine into a disaster.  While it is based on a real event, it is fictionalized so that certain elements are emphasized while other elements are downplayed.  The key the enjoying this movie is to look at it as a movie, not as a biography.  As a movie, it works well, similar to others in the genre: UnstoppableSully, and Captain Phillips, etc.  As long as you realize that they are trying to make a strong movie, but are not trying to give a complete accounting of who did what, when they did it, where they did it, and why they did it, then it is a very enjoyable and tense movie.

A Tale of Two Halves

Practically speaking, the movie can be broken up into two halves: the first part and the second part.  In the first part, we see the major characters get introduced and we are given a glimpse into the family lives and banter of some of the crew.  Many of the concepts of the oil industry are also explained for the audience using clever storytelling (i.e., show, don’t tell).  By getting us to care about the characters, we are invested when things start to go wrong on the oil platform.

The second half of the movie is pretty much devoted to the disaster.  We watch as it unfolds and the chain of events get worse and worse.  We care for the characters because of the time invested in seeing their lives and interactions at home and once they are on the ship.  The action set-pieces were visually stunning and were the highlights of the movie.

Implications for my Writing

I appreciated the way the movie was structured as it allowed for sufficient character development in order for us to care about the characters.  The fact that the characters were likable and talking about an occupation that I know little about from experience helped the audience to identify with the characters.

Secondly, the filmmakers used strong foreshadowing techniques to illustrate that while the scenes with the actors interacting might seem dull or passive, that these were necessary to show the “monster” that was about to be unleashed.  Foreshadowing the tension to come is an effective way to “hook” readers to stick around while you are character building.

Lastly, the action was intense.  We follow the main character, but we do also cut away to show other characters who we’ve seen in the first part of the film.  It is important to illustrate characters under crisis and to see how they will respond.  Again, the first half sets that up wonderfully.  These are three lessons that I took away from this movie.

Jason Bourne (No Spoilers) Mini-Review and Writing Implications

jason_bourne_movie_poster

Source: JasonBournemovie.com

So, before I start, let me say that I’m a huge Jason Bourne fan.  That wasn’t always the case.  I’m a huge James Bond fan as well, starting with the Roger Moore Bond in the late ’70s and early 80’s.  I’ve seen every Bond movie (except 1) all the way through at least once (including the George Lazenby).  For the longest, I resisted watching the Bourne films, but there was a sale on the 3 movie Bluray boxed set that I couldn’t pass up.  I watched the first one and I’ve been hooked every since.  This one was the one I was most excited about all summer (hoping that it would top Bourne Ultimatum after the disappointing Bourne Legacy.)

Good, but not Excellent

This is a good, strong, solid movie, but it did not surpass Bourne Ultimatum in my opinion.    Rotten Tomatoes (as of current writing gives the score: 57% Critics & 68% Audience.  I would give it a B- (80-83) if I were grading it academically.   That would put it right on the edge of being above average.

It is an above average movie that is hampered by two significant story problems (and several other smaller problems) that I think hold it back from delivering on its promise.  The characters are well done and their lives seem to logically transition from the old Bourne trilogy to where they begin this movie.

Unlike Star Trek Beyond, I saw two glaring problems that were large enough to affect the entire movie (& that’s why I think the review scores are a little on the tepid side.)

Problem 1: Good Beginning, Weak Middle, Strong Ending

The movie starts with a strong beginning.  All the pieces “are in play” to use terminology from the movies.  And it doesn’t take long for the set-up to pay off and for the action and intrigue that are the lifeblood of the Bourne movies to start.  However, after the good beginning, the Middle of the story seems be a series of moves all designed to get all of the relevant players into one city (you know it from the trailers–but I won’t name it less it may be construed as a spoiler) for the Ending.  You can almost “see” all the pieces being moved around on the “board” to get this person to the city, that person to the city, these two people to the city, etc.  There’s also a “ripped from the headlines” subplot that wasn’t very well developed and might have made the story better had the filmmakers not included it.

Problem 2: Deja Vu’

For me, who has watched the boxed set of the Bourne Blurays multiple times, I felt like the filmmakers made Jason Bourne too similar to another movie in the trilogy.  I won’t name which one specifically as I feel that would definitely be too “spoilery.”  My contention is that many of the things that happen between that movie and this one are almost beat for beat identical (story-wise).

While there were similar elements shared by the original trilogy, each movie presented an original idea and expressed it originally.  This film presents an original idea, but presents it derivatively.  

Implications for my Writing

Without spoilers, the resolution of the story was great.  But even better was the denouement, or the wrap-up, of the movie.  That one scene seemed to turn the audience (the ones that I saw it with in my theater, at least) from neutral to somewhat positive about the movie.

What I learned from watching the audience’s reaction to the end of the movie is that a strong denouement can turn the audience to your side even if your overall structure isn’t the strongest (although it really should be).  The movie’s denouement comes directly from who Jason Bourne is as a character.  It might even be the movie’s THEME statement about what Jason stands for as character in that film world.

So, when I’m considering what my character’s inner conflict should be, I might always want to consider deciding at the same time what is my THEME and what might be a really unique and inventive way of showing that through the main character’s action in the denouement of the story.