A review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) isn’t a bad movie.  To the contrary, it’s a very good one — I would even rate it a 9 out of 10, if a little reluctantly.

The action, humor, surprises and special effects are all top-notch; it’s got a slew of fun Easter eggs and great continuity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and Michael Keaton hits it out of the park as the story’s villain.  (As Ed Harris did recently with HBO’s “Westworld,” the sublimely likable Keaton really surprised me with how he could become so intimidating.)  Furthermore, the screenwriters wisely omit another redundant re-telling of the web-slinger’s origin.  (Even a die-hard fan like me is sick of seeing or reading about it.)

I think your enjoyment of this movie might vary according to what you want Spider-Man to be.  This isn’t a movie in which Peter Parker or his alter ego stand out as his own man (despite its plot resolution’s heavy-handed efforts to tell us that).  I submit that it’s fairly undistinguished as a standalone superhero film —  it feels like an ancillary, companion film to the “Avengers” movies, including last year’s de facto installment, “Captain America: Civil War.”  Indeed, fan-favorite Tony Stark is “Spider-Man: Homecoming’s” most significant supporting character — far more than any of the many friends, family, love interests or villains that have long inhabited the iconic hero’s mythos.  Peter’s primary motivation throughout the movie is his desire to become an Avenger, like a normal kid would aspire to the varsity football team.  Many of his powers stem from a ultra-high-tech costume designed and given to him by Iron Man; it even has an advanced A.I. that is a femme fatale equivalent of J.A.R.V.I.S.  (Fun fact: that alluring voice belongs to none other than the alluring Jennifer Connelly.  The actress is the wife of Paul Bettany, who is the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. and then the actor portraying The Vision.  And Connelly herself played the love interest of 1991’s mostly forgotten “The Rocketeer,” a World War II-era hero with the a similar character concept to Iron Man.)

I was a big fan of Spider-Man in the 1990’s, and, believe me, the ol’ web-head did just fine with his own powers, intelligence and character — and without any sort of “internship” with Iron Man, either metaphorically or otherwise.  He was also a far more popular character with readers.  I was buying comics regularly between 1991 and 1996 — while Spider-Man books and merchandise were everywhere, I don’t think I ever remember seeing an “Iron Man” comic on the racks at my local comic shop.  I kept thinking inwardly of Spider-Man during this movie as “Iron Man Jr.,” and, for me, that wasn’t a good thing.

I also found myself musing during the film that this felt like “Spider-Man Lite.”  While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was fun, it doesn’t have the depth, character development or gravitas of the Sam Raimi trilogy.  (Yes, I even liked the third one, despite its bizarre flaws.)  I know that critics are praising the movie’s lighter tone, and I realize the need to avoid a simple rehash of the Raimi films.  (Nobody would want that; we can rightfully expect more from the excellent MCU.)  I actually prefer the Raimi films, though.  While Tom Holland might be the better Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire was a strange casting choice), the Raimi movies were more … heartfelt.  They were an earnest exploration of the Spider-Man of the comics, and they felt … truer.   “Homecoming,” in contrast, is yet another cool installment in the “Avengers” series.  “Spider Man 2” came out 13 years ago, and I can still remember how that movie made me feel — not to mention how its sheer quality vindicated “comic book movies” like no other film before it.  This new movie will not be memorable that way.

Anyway, although my criticisms above are obviously lengthy, please know that this is only because I love the source material so much — and we comic book fans have a tendency to analyze.  I certainly enjoyed the movie, and I’d cheerfully recommend it.  (Note my rating.)  The MCU continues to entertain with quality movies; its consistency, even with its expanding group of ongoing Netflix series, is kind of astonishing.

Go see this.  You’ll have fun.

 

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A few quick words on “The Rogue Cut” of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

If you are a die-hard “X-Men” fan, then I do recommend checking out Bryan Singer’s non-canonical “The Rogue Cut” of “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”  You might enjoy it just for its novelty — it actually is a very different version of the original movie.  It has a lot of scenes that are either entirely new or shot and edited quite differently.  (The most notable difference, obviously, is an entire subplot concerning the rescue of Anna Paquin’s Rogue, which was deleted from the 2014 theatrical release.)

I get the sense that this will come across as a better film to “X-Men” purists.  There is greater attention to a multitude of characters, far more character interaction, and greater detail about the apocalyptic future segments.  (I myself was happy to finally figure out why the dystopian mutants were housed in such a strange looking building.  It turns out they were hiding in a Chinese temple as part of an ongoing global evasion strategy.)  “The Rogue Cut” also has greater continuity with more of the prior films — it feels integral to the films’ ongoing mythos, and less like a standalone adventure.

But “The Rogue Cut” might not be better at pleasing general audiences.  It clocks in at just under two and a half hours, and the overall result did feel far slower to me.  There is a reason why movies are edited down — their unabridged versions have problems with pacing that really can affect the average viewer’s enjoyment.

I will also point out that this version of the film fails to rectify what I’ll reiterate is the theatrical version’s biggest story flaw — why would the shape-shifting Mystique be the key to developing the Sentinels power-stealing technology.  Why not the power-stealing Rogue herself?

Anyway … speaking of what is canon and what is not, there is a damned interesting fan theory floating around about the “X-Men” movies following this year’s release of “Logan.”  That movie stood out for many reasons, but two in particular are relevant here.  The first is the radical change in its tone and storytelling, which makes it feel like it takes place in “the real world.”  The second is its odd, apparently meta-fictional inclusion of the “X-Men” comics themselves within the story.  (Copies of the comic books are discussed by the characters, and even serve as an important plot element; Wolverine complains that they are horribly inaccurate.)

Many fans are having fun wondering if there has, in fact, been only one canonical “X-Men” movie — and that is “Logan” itself.  The brutal, subdued reality of “Logan” alone is “the real world” of the X-Men; all of the fantastical prior films (which occasionally contradict one another anyway) are merely the stories inside the last movie’s comic books.  I thought that was pretty damned clever.

 

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“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Happy Independence Day, all!  Enjoy any celebrations you might attend, and please be safe.

The quote above is attributed to Benjamin Franklin.  Upon exiting the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was asked by a bystander what form of government the delegates had created:

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

His reply was documented by Dr. James McHenry, the delegate from Maryland.

The imperative implied in Franklin’s words is the same as what Thomas Jefferson expressed when he warned us that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

 

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Photo credit: By U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos (120504-M-IX426-237) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A few quick words on “47 Meters Down” (2017)

Yes, “47 Meters Down” is silly in places, and I don’t think it will ever be held up as an example to students of good screenwriting.  But I can’t slam any horror-thriller that scared and entertained me.  And the sharks here (which were surprisingly well rendered by CGI) made me jump a few times.  Furthermore, there are a couple of surprises late in the story, and I thought that one of them was wonderfully well executed.

This movie actually reminds me a little of last year’s “The Shallows.”  Neither movie is 1975’s “Jaws,” but neither pretends to be.  They’re both perfectly serviceable monster movies that present horror movie fans with a great way to kick off the summer.

I’d rate this film an 8 out of 10 for being a fun, if forgettable, shark flick.

 

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Botetourt County, Virginia, June 2017

At left is a Bradford Pear tree, at right is a Cleveland Pear.

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Bradford Pear.

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This Bradford Pear tree was felled by a derecho windstorm.

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Termites?  A mutant steel-billed woodpecker?

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I have no idea what this … organism is, but it looks like the inside of a dog’s ear.

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A short review of the premiere of “The Mist” (2017)

I couldn’t help but feel just slightly disappointed by the premiere of “The Mist” (2017).  It wasn’t bad … it just wasn’t as amazing as its trailer made it look.  I’d rate it a 7 out of 10.

The first episode’s horror elements felt rote, rushed and cheesy.  The pre-credits teaser was nearly campy.  Director Adam Bernstein just isn’t Frank Darabont.  (Curiously, each episode seems to be helmed by a different director.)  And what seems like “The Mist’s” milquetoast main protagonist is played somewhat anemically by Morgan Spector.

Still, the show displays some promise.  Instead of rushing straight into its otherworldly-monster MacGuffin, it goes to great lengths to set up some interesting human drama, and it mostly succeeds.  Besides Spector’s ostensibly likable Dad, the characters felt fresh and interesting.  (And regarding that human drama?  I strongly suspect the individual accused of the crime here is not the actual perpetrator.  That’s what the clues are telling me, anyway.  It would be devilishly clever, I think, if his accuser turned out to be the one guilty.)  “The Mist’s” attention to characters here is something of which I think Stephen King would approve.

The show also seems pretty ambitious.  It places its diversity of characters in a number of locations throughout its small-town setting, and a couple are embroiled in some kind of interesting conflict even before the titular mist arrives.  For just a single episode, it feels tightly plotted.

Anyway, if you’re curious about what the mist really is … there is an explanation in King’s source material — and I’m not talking about only the vague allusions in the novella of the same name.  Die-hard King fans know it was further described in his “The Dark Tower” series.  It’s been named as “todash space” by the denizens of one of King’s many worlds — it’s a monster-filled limbo that falls between myriad parallel universes: http://stephenking.wikia.com/wiki/Todash_space.

 

 

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Mary Washington’s grave and the Gordon Family Cemetery, Fredericksburg, VA, June 2017

The entrance to Kenmore Park/Memorial Park on Washington Avenue.  The obelisk itself is the grave of Mary Washington, George Washington’s mother; right behind it is the Gordon Family Cemetery.  Although George’s father died when he was just 11 years old, his mother saw him ascend the presidency.  She died in 1789.

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Looking east from the park’s entrance, you can see First Christian Church, on the intersection of Washington Avenue and Pitt Street.

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Washington Avenue looking south.

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Gordon Family Cemetery.  The Gordons lived at Kenmore; the gravestones date from 1826 to 1872.

If you were a Mary Washington College student returning from a party downtown in the 1990’s, you could pass the cemetery on your way back to campus at night.  I saw a group of high school kids inside the cemetery one night; they scattered in a panic when they realized I’d noticed them.  (To my knowledge, no Mary Wash kids were involved in shenanigans like that here.)  I believe it is illegal to enter a cemetery like this at night … and I have it on good authority that Southern cops take such an offense very, very seriously.

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Behind the cemetery is Meditation Rock.  This was an occasional destination for college students out for a walk.  Shortly after I arrived at Mary Washington in 1990 from New York, a patient group of upperclassmen “adopted” me and kindly resolved to keep me out of trouble.  (One of them is still my “big brother” today.)  This is one of the first places they showed me when they gave me a tour of the town.

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Am I a weird guy if I suggest that images of Meditation Rock can have Freudian undercurrents?  Is that wrong?  There is a whole “Picnic at Hanging Rock” vibe here.  (The sad thing is, I was actually studying Freud at about the time I first saw it, and it never occurred to me then.)  The juxtaposition with the nearby images associated with death and godliness is aesthetically striking.

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The Kenmore Apartments are still across Kenmore Avenue on the other side of the park.

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