Tuesday, July 25, 2017

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

Written by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers


Directed by Jon Watts


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. July 8, 2017 5:45 PM


With the announcement that Spider-Man would finally be joining the cinematic Marvel Universe, the question that immediately came to my mind was do we really need another re-boot of "Spider-Man"? In the last fifteen years, there have been five features made with two actors (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) in the role and combined have grossed almost four billion dollars globally. So I guess we know the answer to that question.

The latest revival has surprisingly been given to Jon Watts, a relative newcomer to film whose previous credit is the well-reviewed yet little-seen 2015 road-thriller, "Cop Car". But Watts had a clear plan and with "Spider-Man: Homecoming", he brings a refreshing and thrilling spark to the series. He returns to the basics of the history of this character with a high school kid trying to figure out and come to terms to what the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility" really means.

As the third guy in the spider suit, Tom Holland, the twenty-one year old British actor who made an impressive film debut in the 2012 feature, "The Impossible" and also appears in this year's "The Lost City of Z", delivers a fresh take on Peter Parker, making him filled with all the anxieties, insecurities and raging hormones of a true teenager right down to a voice going through pubescent change (in a flawless American accent).

Thankfully we have been spared another origin story with this film beginning shortly after Spider-Man's brief cameo in last year's "Captain America: Civil War" which featured a major battle that caused a lot of destruction in New York. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his crew had been assigned to clean-up the city but Anne Marie Hoag (Tyne Daly), head of the U.S. Department of Damage Control, informs him that Tony Stark's company will be taking over the removal of the debris. Enraged by losing much needed income to a very wealthy man, Toomes decides to keep some of the alien technology left behind he had collected.

A few years later, Peter anxiously wants to become one of the Avengers but Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) doesn't feel he's ready to take that on full-time yet. He suggests he stay in school and "Happy" Hogan (Jon Favreau), Stark's driver and bodyguard, will contact him when needed. But the impatient Peter decides to put on the Stark-designed suit and go through the city fighting crime on his own.

One night on a practice run, Spider-Man witnesses a robbery of a bank's ATMs in progress and decides to intercept. However, these men are not only armed with standard guns and fire back on him with advanced weapons that can take down a building. After escaping, they return to their leader, Adrian Toomes who has created these powerful weapons to use in their crimes, sell to other criminals and even crafted an elaborately armed, flying costume for himself which he uses as "The Vulture".

I was concerned when I saw six names involved on the screenplay (including director, Watts) yet I was pleasantly surprised to find a cohesive script that tells a clever and witty story which is sharply focused on the awkward teenager struggling to become the crime-fighting hero he dreams of being while fighting against a disgruntled average guy who turns to criminal misconduct mainly to support his family.

There is stronger emphasis on Peter's life outside of the suit and we meet his best buddy and fellow nerd, Ned (Jacob Batalon) who discovers his secret identity. Ned wants to tell everyone at school so they would be cool but Peter is wise enough to know that would not be a good idea. If he was going to be tempted to reveal himself, it would be to take on Eugene "Flash" Thompson (Tony Revolori), a rich, school bully but also attract the attention of Liz (Laura Harrier) a pretty senior that Peter has a crush on. And we have Oscar-winner, Marisa Tomei playing a younger and hipper Aunt May who is quite concerned about the odd bruises and increasingly strange behavior of her nephew.

With Ned's help, Peter is able to study one of the weapons left behind to understand it's advanced power source and locate Toomes, with a tracking device he placed on one of his henchmen, to be able to get one step ahead of him. After discovering that his Spider-suit is set on training wheels, he also has Ned help override it's settings to release it to full capacity. Not a great plan since he doesn't completely understand all it can do but fortunately, much like Stark's Iron suit, there is a calm, disembodied voice (played by another Oscar-winner, Jennifer Connelly) to take commands and give advice on how best to solve any impending situation.

Now it wouldn't a super-hero movie without the requisite action sequences and "Spider-Man: Homecoming" has several big numbers, including the final battle between Spidey and The Vulture, that are all visually impressive yet ultimately generic. But what makes this film really noteworthy is how it makes this long revered character fun and interesting again by simply bringing him back down-to-Earth, filling him with youth, inexperience and uncertainty.

By the end of "Homecoming", we have a transformed Peter Parker and even Spider-Man, for that matter. He has matured somewhat, learning how best to use his extraordinary power to not only help mankind but also himself. No offense to any of the previous films but this is one thoroughly enjoyable Spider-Man adventure that will be remembered and long praised.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

WINNERS FROM THE 2017 OUTFEST FILM FESTIVAL

Grand Jury Awards

U.S. Grand Jury Prize: "Signature Move"

U.S. Narrative (Special Mention): "195 Lewis"



U.S. Narrative Jury Prize Best Actor: Luka Kain, "Saturday Church"

U.S. Narrative Jury Prize Best Actress: Ever Mainard, "The Feels"

Best Screenwriting in a U.S. Feature: Eliza Hittman, "Beach Rats"

International Grand Jury Prize: "The Wound"



International (Special Mention): "Body Electric"

Documentary Grand Jury Prize: "Chavela"



Documentary (Special Mention): "Girl Unbound: The War to Be Her"

Best Narrative Short: "Goddess (Devi)"

Best Documentary Short (tie): "Bayard & Me" and "Jeanne Cordova: Butches, Lies & Feminism"



Audience Awards

Best Narrative Audience Award: "The Chances"

Audience Award for Best First U.S. Narrative Feature: "A Million Happy Nows"



Best Narrative Short Audience Award: "The Real Thing"

Best Experimental Short Audience Award: "Pussy"

Best Documentary Feature Audience Award: "Chavela"

Best Documentary Short Audience Award: "Little Potato"

Now, here's a few brief reviews of films I caught at the fest. Touko Laaksonen, or as he is better known as "Tom of Finland", is now a national hero in his native country and even received first-class stamps issued in 2014 that feature his hyper-masculine, homoerotic images. That was not always the case for Laaksonen as we learn in the bio-pic from Finnish filmmaker, Dome Karukoski. Pekka Strang stars as Laaksonen who we first see as a solider in WWII. This traumatic event not only haunts him throughout his life but also shapes his sexuality and art. With homosexuality a crime in Finland, he would secretly draw illustrations of physically-enhanced construction workers, lumberjacks and bikers geared towards gay men and sell them underground under the pseudonym, "Tom". His work eventually found it's way around the globe and brought him a certain amount of fame and fortune. Laaksonen efforts to bring a sense of normalcy to his sexuality, at a time when the world told him it was wrong, was challenging and brave yet he wasn't trying to be a heroic. He simply wanted to creatively express himself through eroticism.



"The Pass" stars Russell Tovey and Arinze Kene as two rising star UK footballers who share an intimate encounter in hotel room before an important match that could make-or-break their careers. While Mr. Tovey delivers an impressive performance, this overly talkative drama, based on a play from John Donnelly, never shakes it's theatrical origin. Director Ben A. Williams, adding no cinematic flourishes, seems to have simply just filmed the play, even breaking the movie up literally in three acts.



Jeffrey Schwarz, the director who previously brought us documentaries on important figures in gay history, has delivered his latest with "The Fabulous Allan Carr", which examines the flamboyant producer/agent whose garish tastes brought him fame and infamy in all areas of show business. As an overweight kid growing up in Chicago who loved musicals, Alan Solomon had dreams of somehow making it big in Hollywood. He soon transformed himself in to "Allan Carr" (rhymes with "star") and got his first break as a talent coordinator for Hugh Hefner's local television show, "Playboy's Penthouse". After landing in Los Angeles, Carr began an extreme roller-coaster of a career. He first began a talent agency which he represented a diverse list of stars like Marlo Thomas, Dyan Cannon, composer, Marvin Hamlisch, "Mama" Cass Elliot and Ann-Margaret who was his first big client. This lead to a chance to produce and one of his biggest successes was a film version of the musical, "Grease". Carr's follow-up films, The Village People musical, "Can't Stop The Music" and a sequel to "Grease" had the opposite effect with them being labeled the worst movies of all time. He make a dramatic comeback on the New York stage producing an American musical remake of the French gay farce, "La Cage aux Folles" which won six Tony Awards in 1983 including Best Musical before falling from grace once more producing the infamous 1989 Academy Awards. This is a fascinating profile on a one-of-a-kind showman that doesn't really exist anymore.



Another compelling documentary, "Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & The Beast in Me" features another person I had almost forgotten about. The late Aucoin, adapted as a baby to a loving family from Louisiana, found great fame as a celebrity make-up artist in the '80's and '90's . Director Lori Kaye, a friend of Aucoin, was able to get her hands on hours of video footage that he shot of behind-the scenes during photo-shoots with the models (Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Andie MacDowell, Paulina Porizkova) and performers (Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Liza Minnelli) that he transformed and brought out their natural beauty with his skilled hands. But despite all of his success, he was still haunted by memories of being tormented for being gay by his school peers and the desperate search to find his birth mother.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

THE HERO (2017)

Written by Marc Basch & Brett Haley


Directed by Brett Haley


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  June 12, 2017


Sam Elliott has always been one of those underrated actors that have effortlessly uplifted many films with his reliably solid supporting performances. Following a string of television bit parts and dead-on-arrival shows at the start of his career, the actor got his first break as a lead in the 1976 sleeper hit feature, "The Lifeguard", a perfect fit for the West Coast-born actor. With his rich baritone voice, thick bushy mustache and handsome yet weather-worn mug, Elliott has played more than his fair share of cowboys, ranchers, bikers and detectives throughout his time in front of the camera.

The now seventy-one year old Elliott made a dazzling impression a couple of years ago with appearances in two notable films; one was the Paul Weitz comedy-drama, "Grandma" which also put a welcome spotlight back on star Lily Tomlin. The other was "I'll See You In My Dreams" from writer and director, Brett Haley. This hit baby boomer, romantic-drama not only reminded audiences that Blythe Danner is more than just Gwyneth Paltrow's mother, it gave Elliott a chance to play something rather unexpected; a romantic leading man.

This success inspired Haley to write something specifically for Elliott and the result is "The Hero", a Hollywood-set drama about a down-on-his-luck, aging actor seeking one more shot at glory. Haley doesn't let him down with an engaging yet simplistic script that gives him the rare opportunity to carry a film. And Elliott rises to the occasion with an impressive performance that has him displaying a wide range of emotions he doesn't get to do to often.

Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a faded movie star cowboy whose career has become as obsolete as the westerns that used to be a popular Hollywood staple. The only jobs he can now find are lucrative yet creatively unfulfilling voice-over work for commercials. Lee spends much of his downtime drunk, high or both with his drug dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman) who was once his co-star in a failed television series, as they eat pizza and reminisce about the past.

After receiving some distressing news from his doctor that he has cancer, Lee's initial response is to tell his family which includes an ex-wife (played by the actor's wife, Katharine Ross who some old enough may remember from "The Graduate" and "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid") and estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) yet decides against it, preferring to repair his relationships without the distraction of sympathy.

Lee meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), an aspiring stand-up comedian, when she drops by Jeremy's to pick-up some product. Sparks fly between them during a bit of flirting but after later running in to each other again (in very L.A. fashion) at a taco stand, the two begin to make a serious connection. That Charlotte is around the age of his daughter is a concern for Lee but she tells him to simply enjoy their time together.

The wide generational gap between Lee and Charlotte never comes across as creepy with the couple having an easy rapport and authentic intimacy. A Hollywood western appreciation organization wants to honor Lee with a lifetime achievement award and asks Charlotte to attend the event with him. She gives a nervous Lee something to help him relax before the ceremony and, in his very relaxed state of mind, delivers a highly irreverent speech that causes him to become a sensation on social media.

Mr. Haley is a modern filmmaker with a nostalgic spirit, making modest dramas with a great appreciation for admired talent that is no longer shiny and new. His approach, however, may be a little too low-key, offering no real weight to the story and fairly predictable plot developments. But despite this shortcoming, Haley certainly knows how to craft an expressive script and able to draw out some fine work from his actors. While his co-stars have brief opportunities to shine, this is clearly Mr. Elliot's show. Soft-spoken and understated, his character may not have much to say yet all of the hurt, frustrations and disappointments in his life are clearly expressed on his weary face.

On the surface, "The Hero" appears to be simply another take of a fallen star seeking attention and redemption before the final curtain closes. But at the heart is a fine, intimate, character-driven story filled with warmth and humor and a masterful turn from Sam Elliott who helps make this more than memorable.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

THE TEN ESSENTIAL ROLES OF MICHELLE PFEIFFER


After frustratingly sporadic appearances over the last few years, Michelle Pfeiffer seems poised for a major comeback to her acting career. This incredibly talented and beautiful actress was just recently seen as Ruth Madoff in HBO's version of the collapse of the Madoff Ponzi Scheme, "The Wizard of Lies" and will also be seen in two feature films later this year in a remake of "Murder on The Orient Express" and "Mother!", the latest from director, Darren Aronofsky.

Her first big break in the movies nearly derailed her rising career. The then twenty-three year old Pfeiffer was cast in a starring role in an ill-advised 1982 sequel to the musical, "Grease". This critical and box-office disaster made her appear less of a prized talent in the business with nobody wanting to hire Pfeiffer but fortunately one person recognized her potential. Producer Martin Bergman was preparing to make a remake of "Scarface" with Al Pacino and wanted her to try-out for a role although the director Brian DePalma was far from interested in the young actress. After a lengthy audition process, Pfeiffer won the role of Tony Montana's drug-addled wife, Elvira and the rest is history. She would go on to make memorable appearances in such films as "The Witches of Eastwick", "Dangerous Liaisons", "The Fabulous Baker Boys", "The Age of Innocence", "Dangerous Minds and "Batman Returns" to name just a few.

Now seems like a perfect time to look back on her illustrious career with Vulture selecting ten of Ms Pfeiffer's best film roles. I agree enthusiastically with this list as it even features her accomplished work in some films I had forgotten about.

Click below to read:

The 10 Essential Roles of Michelle Pfeiffer