Spider Man: Far From Home

In the post Avengers, “Infinity War” world, the superheros are going to be faced with threats that will have to be inventive, compelling and for the moment, short term. I don’t really know how you build a long term storyline without the universal destruction suggested by Thanos and that story is now history. The approach that the caretakers of the Marvel Universe are taking, seems to be the right one. They are taking time building stories around the remaining heroes and allowing them to be at the center of their own tales. Here and there will be connections to the large universe of super heroes, but for the moment they will bask in the spotlight alone. “Spider Man: Far From Home” does exactly this. Peter Parker and his complicated relationships are the main thrust of the story.

The after effects of the “snap” are briefly discussed as the plot unfolds, but there is virtually no impact of the five year gap between the Earth’s non blipped residents and those who blipped back. Two or three visual jokes that also make no sense but are fun anyway, help set a more light hearted tone for the film. Moving the action to Europe helps the movie feel fresher than had it remained in the States and there are some more opportunities for cross cultural humor as well. Even with the shadow of the Infinity War hanging over the planet, life seems to go on. With just a few tips of the hat to Iron Man, Spider Man takes the lead and reluctantly seems to be the lynch pin character for future interwoven multi-universe situations.

The enigmatic “Mysterio”, shows up to battle elemental monsters that have supposedly destroyed the Earth of his dimension and now threaten our own home world. Nick Fury wants Spider Man to step up and lead when it comes to handling new threats and Tony Stark has left a mini version of Ultron, with the acronym E.D.I.T.H., to help out. Once again, Stark’s ingenious is the source of  conflict in the MCU. Peter has to choose what kind of life or leadership role he is going to follow, and of course it will not be an easy choice or one without complications. “Mysterio” is portrayed by the always enjoyable Jake Gyllenhaal, himself a one-time candidate for the Spider Man role. Frankly, you will be aware that a twist is coming from the start of the story, how could you not expect it after so many previous experiences. When it arrives, there is a three minute or so narrative sequence that tries to make sense of it all. There are a dozen dangling strings from other MCU films that are tied together to create the new threat. I think the retcon that happened in “Spider Man: Homecoming” was a lot clearer and made more sense. If you look at this one too closely, it may not hold up as well. Especially since the villain acknowledges that Nick Fury is the most paranoid man on the planet.

The narrative here reminds me of the Happy Potter film “The Half Blood Prince”. So much of the background is taken up by the romantic lives of our protagonists that it may sometimes feel like a different movie. There are however a sufficient number of tie ins to the technology and plot to make those “romance” points still relevant to the main story. MJ and Ned are both at risk down the line and it works to make the threat to them more meaningful when the ominous agenda of the villain reveals itself. I do think that the bifurcated nature of the antagonist is a bit problematic, and the self awareness of his own delusional role in the Stark legacy means that he needs to be a pretty good actor. The film is a little meta when it is disclosed how we are all being fooled. maybe all the technicians who create these movies need to have a bit of glory but this was a weird way of showing us behind the curtain.

That curtain however is still pretty dazzling as the action sequences and special effects continue to show that people are working at the top levels to make these movies as believable as they can.  I also loved the attempt to divert attention from Spider Man by inventing a pseudonym for the character and then referring back to it in several spots, hilarious. The idea of Happy and May makes me giggle a bit and hope for the best for both of them. Happy gets more to do in this film than any of the previous MCU films his character has appeared in, and May, re-imagined as a younger but still mature woman, finally pays off. Good for Jon Favreau and Marissa Tomei. If you stick around for the credit sequences that have become a hallmark of these movies, you will get a long awaited cameo that is a great surprise. There is also a reveal that makes the meta theme of illusion even more meta. I’m not sure it was necessary, but it does tie in to some other MCU plotlines and its is a lot of fun. More than half the audience at out screening had already left when these two bits came up, and I don’t understand how people can do that, knowing that there are some punch lines or gut punches coming.

Saying that “Spider Man: Far From Home ” is not top self MCU in no way is meant to diminish the entertainment value of the film. You should enjoy yourself immensely. It is simply a fact that with so many variations of these characters and the number of movies they have appeared in, we inevitably will make comparisons. Tom Holland continues to work as a youthful Peter Parker even as he grows older playing the character, maybe he was in a real blip event. The other high school kids provide some humorous diversions, and I thought the teachers were quite funny but I can see some slap stick that may put others off. The first half of the film feels like it is exactly what it turns out to be, but the second half makes that pay off.

LIFE

[This is traditionally a spoiler free site. This review may have content which indirectly gives away some plot elements. Sorry, but the movie turned me a bit reactionary.]

I will hold my powder dry until the end of this post. There are so many things I liked about this movie that it would be a disservice to start with the thing that irritated me the most. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the strong points at the outset and hope that my ire calms down enough to be fair to the movie. “Life” is a horror film in a science fiction atmosphere. That makes it sound derivative of “Alien”, but that’s OK because as great as “Alien” is, it is also a product of ideas that came before it, and it made a great film, so this could do the same.

An International Space Station, set up to process materials from other planets, (basically Mars), receives a sample back after the delivery capsule encounters some problems on it’s way to them. A group of six scientists and engineers are ready to take possession and begin analysis in the safety of space, above the Earth. Naturally things do not go as smoothly as expected. Proof of life beyond our planet becomes an international moment of celebration, but the initial joy of the scientists becomes dread as the life form begins to develop some dangerous characteristics.

As with all horror films, the group of potential victims is faced with a variety of options. Almost all of the choices are bad and most of the actions of the crew will in retrospect seem foolish. An early mistake that supposedly can’t happen allows the life form access to a larger area of the space lab. This sequence happens so fast that it is difficult to tell exactly what happened. However, the sequence that immediately follows is the best section of the film. Astronaut Ryan Reynolds attempts to rescue his comrade from a seemingly sudden attack. Just like in “Alien” someone has to break the protocol to allow events to play out. Immediately we get a sense of the power and potential intelligence of the new life form. Just as with Alien, the use of fire is not particularly effective.  The results are gruesome and frightening in a very tense five or six minute scene. It is exactly the kind of thing you hope for in a story of this type.

It begins to feel like we are playing out the “Ten Little Indians” scenario in a horror film one more time. We are given glimpses of the personalities of the crew and one by one they will be killed by the monster. A few red herrings are set up and the plotline plays them out reasonably well for a while. The visual effects of the activities on the station and the movement of the creature are very disturbing and effective. The actions of stars Jake Gyllenhaal , Rebecca Ferguson, and the rest of the cast, sometimes are heroic, sometimes lucky and occasionally clever. For most of the ride we get the kinds of action and suspense that we paid our money for. Just as I thought last year’s “The Shallows” was a reasonably entertaining variation of the “Jaws” concept, I found this to be a pretty effective variant on “Alien”. That is until we get to the Ian Malcolm moment.

[Potential spoilers. We wary of proceeding].

In “Jurassic Park”, the character of Ian Malcolm explains very simply that  “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is. …”Life” finds a way.” We might be lead to believe that this is a description of the science team, and that gives us the rooting interest that an audience will need. Unfortunately just as most of the characters make a mistake  or bad choice along the way, just as we think the writers responsible for “Deadpool” and “Zombieland”  are about to show that they can find a way the make “Life” work, …they choose poorly. The twist suckerpunch at the end of the film destroys most of the goodwill the film built up for me. There were a lot of other options that could have been more satisfying, but no, the film makers go for a big finish and they flop.

There will be people out there who like the choice made at the end, I think those people are wrong. It denies the value of most of what we saw for the opening hour and forty minutes of the film. I saw this coming as soon as a sequence continues past a natural stopping place. I guess I could do what some folks do, step out at that point, or turn the movie off before the finale. That’s not in my nature. Which is why, like Sky Masterson I say, “Daddy, I got cider in my ear.”

Nocturnal Animals

I’d considered a video post for this film comment so that you could hear the tone in my voice as I spoke about it. I have been told by family members and some of my students that I have a way of sounding that can be harsh and sharp and bitingly dismissive, often without any intention. Well let me say, I have every intention with this review but I thought better than to subject you to the bile of my notes in an auditory fashion and will leave them to your imagination instead. I hated this movie. I hated the characters, I hated the attitude, and I hated that I was so irritated by it. The trailer suggests that this is a thriller with a revenge theme built in. There is a revenge theme in the movie, but the thriller part is all a distraction to show off  creative story telling tools which only makes the movie more irritating.

Director Tom Ford made one movie before this, the well respected “A Single Man”. He is apparently best known as a fashion designer. In this movie it shows. The film is full of images that are designed to evoke a reaction. Amy Adam’s character Susan, has a house that is all clean lines, grey and black contrasts, and there is almost nothing to suggest that human beings actually live there. It is as if it were put together by a sales stager for Hollywood mansions. The offices she works in look like outtakes from the set of “2001”, round rooms with tiered levels all in white. Since she is an art dealer/curator and Ford moves in those circles, maybe he has it right, but the impact is to make the pretentiousness that he seemingly is mocking, feel even more pretentious. If you can get past the opening titles without thinking about how hypocritically artsy they are, maybe you will be able to enjoy this film. I prefer the way Susan sees it, she speaks of her opening that night as being “Shit”. You might think that Ford is saying the same thing, but that is not the attitude the camera takes nor is it the viewpoint of the editing. There is nothing subtle about the way this movie is made. Ford even goes so far as to have the word REVENGE, mocked up as a piece of art on display at the offices of Susan’s company.

The one aspect of the film that I do admire is the narrative structure of the film. There are three stories being told simultaneously,  and that works to make the connections between them understandable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two parts, Susan’s ex husband Edward and the lead character in the novel that Edward has written, Tony a husband and father. We get plenty of Tony’s stopry and if it had been the plot of the film without all of the literary and personal baggage surrounding it, this might have been an effectively dark thriller. Instead, it turns out to be a piece of work designed to be a big “FU” to his ex wife. We barely get any of that story and Ford the scrip[t writer relies on a five minute piece of exposition with Laura Linney, as a way of short cutting that part of the story. It just does not work. Armie Hammer plays Susan’s current husband and his moments in the film feel so thin that they might just be some applique that Ford is putting on his dress to try and make it more interesting. Again, it doesn’t work.

There were two references that occurred to me as I was watching this movie.The first is “The World According to Besenhaver” a novel within a novel, from the book The World According to Garp”. In that book, the violent and revolting story is told as a way of expunging a character’s guilt. The author becomes famous for the book but ultimately has very negative feeling about it’s success. “Nocturnal Animals” is the title of the book Edward has written and dedicated to his ex-wife. Rather than exorcising his demons, the story allows them to run wild and attempt to punish Susan for her abandonment of their life. In the visualization of the story, Tony’s wife and daughter are doppelgangers for  Susan and her own daughter. The anguish and destruction of Tony as a character is Edward vomiting his bile on Susan’s consciousness. The second reference that this film evoked in me was to a film called “The Rapture”. In that film, a woman who finds redemption in her life in Christianity, has it ripped away from her in the most cosmic manner imaginable. This film has two equally unfulfilling endings, one for the novel and one for the lead character. Having devoted two hours to the film, I felt ripped off by an incomplete resolution to one story and an unsatisfying but at least understandable ending to the other.

The performers are all fine in portraying characters that are flawed, but ultimately those characters are reprehensible. Susan is the shallow and unsatisfied woman her mother predicts she will be. Hammer never establishes any character that would matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a character that we all might enjoy seeing tortured to death. Gyllenhaal is sympathetic as Edward when he and Susan are together, but as the unseen author of the manuscript, he is a monster. Only Michael Shannon as the fictional Bobby Andes, a West Texas detective with a strong sense of justice elicits any of our sympathy. The film is clever and well shot and acted but it will make you want to take a long hot shower before you go out into civilized society again. The dark characters of Gyllenhaal’s movie “Nightcrawler” were also awful, but that movie had something to say about the world and especially the media. This movie is a cruel joke played on an audience who might be expecting a thriller and who are subsequently tortured themselves by having to endure the unpleasantness that passes for art in Mr. Ford’s film.