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Entries in ethan peterson (45)

Monday
Jul102017

In Which Maybe Andrew Garfield Should Have Been The Last

Kids

by ETHAN PETERSON

Spider-Man: Homecoming
dir. Jon Watts
133 minutes

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) looks really old for high school, let alone to be a sophomore. Fortunately, his love interest in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the most "How do you do, fellow kids?" of perhaps any movie, is Liz (Laura Harrier) who is an absolutely mind-boggling 27 years old. At least director Jon Watts gives us the courtesy of never having Liz and Peter touch at all, possibly because on some level that would be child endangerment. When Peter finds out that Liz's father is arms dealer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), he leaves a dance they were scheduled to attend and goes off to kill her daddy. This is a very confusing movie, even more confusing than Inception or Cars 3. Fortunately I am here to break down everything that happened for you, so you can sit back and marvel at how Robert Downey Jr. gets paid for acting.

Let me switch the discussion to a character called MJ (Zendaya Coleman), a classmate of Peter Parker's. MJ is one of Peter's two friends, because good-looking white guys whose physiques resemble professional wrestlers are regularly relegated to being bullied by Latinos. In one important scene, MJ is reading W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, which is not only utter shit, but is completely unrelated to what MJ is actually interested in. Probably the filmmakers chose the novel because it appears by its title to be about social concerns, but it is actually about no such thing.

In one key scene, MJ is hanging around the Washington Monument. She refuses to go up its elevator system, claiming that she is choosing to do so because the structure was built by slaves. This is not even true, but it makes for a funny line. The scene is really notable because it is the longest sentence she is allowed to utter in Spider-Man: Homecoming. She never addresses Peter Parker directly, speaking to him only as a unit with his Filipino friend, Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), with whom Parker shares his important secret.

Not content with one Mary Sue in this deeply misguided portrait of Queens, NY, which looks like a lot more like Beverly Hills, Liz appears one day in the hall. Although 27 and the tallest student in this high school, she is still the captain of the school's science team, and she clearly has a good head on her shoulders. Despite this, Peter never confides anything of what he discovers about her father to her, or asks for her advice. She is just a girl in a bathing suit, and Watts makes sure to squeeze in a scene where we see her sashay down a hallway to the pool in her one piece. Later, Peter observes her in the water from the hotel's roof.

Her father's crime is this: he discovers some alien technology left over from the unsuccesful Chitauri invasion of New York. He decides to repurpose what he finds as weapons, and he sells them to whoever wants them. Perhaps he does not vet his clients very closely, since one of them, played by Donald Glover, appears to be a ne'er do well of some kind. Others use the weapons to rob an ATM, where Parker discovers them.

Although the weapons are dangerous, they are most notable for being very effective in robberies. In their lethality they are no more special than munitions and firearms widely available today. To purchase such things for small crimes or acts of violence would be silly; they would only be useful to cut into a bank's vault and steal what was in there. Such money is insured, and anyway the organizations that hold it are not really in need of protection by a high-schooler.

Theft is a disturbing crime, and the deprivation of property is awful. However, Peter Parker is the one who deprives Toomes not only of his property, but his livelihood as well. It is not even wholly clear what Toomes did that is prosecutable, let alone worthy of being killed, which he thankfully is not in this movie. Combining this debatable criminality with the fact that Peter maintains a vague romantic interest in the man's daughter, and you have a deeply intriguing moral dilemma.

Instead, Spider-Man: Homecoming elides over this issue rather quickly. Parker causes hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to city and private property trying to prevent the sale of a few guns. (This is never mentioned because it is the central and only theme of Avengers: Age of Ultron.) The most amusing of these events is when he destroys the Staten Island Ferry for some reason, endangering over 100 lives before Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) shows up and saves the day.

Downey Jr. looks very old at this point, and is wisely no longer interested in portraying this character. Not coincidentally, no one is very interested in writing for it either, and the ostensible "comedy" in Spider-Man: Homecoming could not fall more flat. Downey Jr. even looks weirdly upset at points, and replacing him for the scenes they did not want to pay him for is his assistant, Happy (Jon Favreau), who is actually a good performer but never establishes any kind of deeper relationship with Peter.

Sam Raimi's Spiderman films struck a very weird tone and were the ultimate seed for the destruction of the character, since ultimately Parker became a parody of himself permanently ensconced in childhood. Despite the horror that was Spiderman 3, at least Parker had relationships with people and there were those in his life that he truly cared about, that he lived for. The death of his uncle motivated his desire to save innocents, and finding a woman with whom he could share everything was on some level his basic reason to continue living.

This Peter Parker is actually a sociopath in the making. He has one person he sort of cares about, his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who he treats like complete shit. He can barely even listen to what she is saying during the one dinner they have in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which occurs at a Thai restaurant and is merely a pretext for an Asian waiter to admire May. The conflict between Aunt May and Tony Stark really worked in Captain America: Civil War, so of course there is none of that here. When she finds out that Peter skipped out on a school trip and was rewarded with detention for cutting class, May's response is to kiss him on the head and close the door to his room.

On some level, a movie has to be about something. It can't just be an origin story for Parker's participation in the next Avengers movies. Now that Joss Whedon has switched over to DC for Justice League and Batgirl, Kevin Feige has a group of directors that are passable technicians. Spider-Man: Homecoming's action is rather pedestrian compared to what the brothers Russo are planning to offer, and the writing is nowhere close to what Whedon was able to manage. It's fine to barrel through various plots that were offered in the comics decades ago, since they will be completely fresh to the fellow kids, but is the plan to strip them of artistic integrity completely as well? At least James Gunn's movies have a story: the disastrously dull Spider-Man Homecoming cannot even manage that.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

 

Thursday
Jul062017

In Which Preacher Becomes A Cross For Ruth Negga To Bear

Prayer for the Dying

by ETHAN PETERSON

Preacher
creators Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg
AMC

"Wouldn't it be great," said no one ever, "if we introduced the entire cast of a rural Texas town, and then savagely murdered them at the end of an anticlimactic first season of this adaptation of a graphic novel no one in their right mind has ever read to completion?" Garth Ennis' writing on his long-form comic Preacher always paled to his run on The Punisher. The difference between the two stories was crucial: one story, Preacher, believed that it was hilarious, and the other took itself seriously.

Preacher was not hilarious, and decades after its original publication the shock value has largely worn off as well. Sadly, the same is true of this second season of Preacher, airing on AMC. Through three episodes of this generic gods and monsters story, there has been exactly one moment worth savoring. Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is wandering aimlessly around New Orleans, which looks something like a sewer. He asks everyone he sees if they know where God is, and boy does he ask a lot of people this. Amazingly, no one wants to talk about the subject with Jesse, which runs counter to my experience of the American South.

Eventually he arrives at a bartender eager to help him find God. They take him to the basement, where a card-carrying member of the AARP hands him a blue dildo and shows him this:

You see God is Dog backwards. This would maybe be good for half a laugh, except Preacher refers to this knee-slapper like three more times. This humorous moment was preceded by the intro to the episode, wherein a teen girl shot herself in the head with a shotgun because she kissed a friend of hers.

Preacher had an intriguing slate of characters they decided to kill off; I still don't quite understand why they thought it was necessary to do this so soon. Lucy Griffiths played this really attractive churchgoer, for example. We are left with Jesse's two traveling companions: Tulip (Ruth Negga) who would be somewhat interesting if she were not hopelessly devoted to Jesse already, and the vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) who transparently explains every single emotion and thought that comes into his head. These two dullards turn Preacher into the biggest snoozefest of a road trip you can imagine.

Included to spice things up are Jesse's various enemies, who virtually all resemble caricatures of Nazis. It's weird to see the malefactors that Ennis came up with, since the villains of The Punisher are all very subtle: a whoremaster with a nose for business, a Soviet general with a novel concept of patriotism, a fearful, homosexual spy. I can think of many plausible enemies of God, but the only ones who could really manifest themselves as a threat to Him are human, since they cannot conceive of the fullness of His existence.

Instead a litany of angels and demons are paraded before us. They cannot die, but they can be rendered inert, like a dangerous gas. They have no individual agency that could lead to a meaningful choice; instead their are destined to have problems identical to those they sought to overcome at the moment of their creation. This gives Preacher all the narrative momentum of a Saturday morning cartoon series.

Jesse's essential power, of course, is that he can make any human being do exactly as he wishes. This is a gimmick entertaining for a scene or maybe half a scene. Sometimes his instructions have slightly unintended consequences, but mostly they afford him a slight advantage in combat or a way to put an end to any pending negotiation. How they turned the idea of a reverend who could fight and have sex into such a boring production I will never fully understand.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.


Friday
Jun302017

In Which We Remain By Jamie Foxx's Side At All Times

Real Blaxploitation

by ETHAN PETERSON

Baby Driver
dir. Edgar Wright
113 minutes

No film has ever represented the abduction of black culture into dominant white paradigms so much as Baby Driver; few films have ever been so brazen as to celebrate the same. When Baby (Ansel Elgort) meets Leon (Jamie Foxx) in the basement hideout of robbers intent on going after the U.S. Postal Service for some reason, Leon is immediately suspicious of a young white man who purports to embrace crime. (It turns out, subsequently, that he has a similar distrust of all such white people.) Leon implies, not so subtly, that he cannot understand why someone who is white and lives in the American South would ever resort to crime. What is the point of pissing in Paradise?

Edgar Wright, the stylish British director who frequently feuds with clueless studio executives, writes a marvelous scene to illustrate this misunderstanding. Baby is listening to "Tequila!" a 1957 song by the son of Mexican immigrants who was forced to sign away his royalties to the tune. That music, constructed by a person of color for the pleasure of all, is overheard by Leon. He instantly bristles at the appropriation. "I have enough to listen to with the voices in my head," he informs the crew's driver, who mainlines tracks in order to soothe his tinnitus.

The suspicion that Leon focuses on this young Atlanta resident is justified later on. Despite the fact that Leon never threatens him with violence or even speaks to him in anything like a raised tone, Baby wishes him harm, and ends up acting on his hatred in Baby Driver's most mystifying scene. Baby never even thanks Leon for saving his life when a militant witness to a bank robbery chases them from the scene. This is the hero of Baby Driver – a white man with no idea how good he has it.

In Baby's private moments, he fantasizes about his dead mother, who drove into the back of a semi because she was distracted. Baby sees a local Atlanta waitress named Debora (Lily James), who is five years his elder, working in the same restaurant his mother did before her untimely demise. He immediately begins imagining Debora in the role of his mother in similar "memories." This transference is not even subtle, and it suggests that Wright is consciously or unconsciously as disgusted by the life choices of his main character as we are. For her part, Debora has no qualms about pursuing a relationship with a wealthy criminal.

In order to humanize this thief, Edgar Wright has him live a double life as the kindly caretaker of his foster father (C.J. Jones). You see, we might feasibly theorize, it is fine that Baby derives his own identity from music composed by others, since he is a caring son to this mute, wheelchair-bound African-American. We never learn how Baby's foster father became mute, or how was ever able to take in an orphan boy in his condition, because Baby Driver is about as interested in the plight of an elderly black man as I am in the plight of an attractive white 23 year old.

The first hour of Baby Driver marches on quite blissfully without a single non-musical moment. Once Wright runs out of licensed music by blacks, Latinos or gays, the film sort of comes to a thudding halt. Attempting to spice up the diegesis is Buddy (Jon Hamm), who has been living as hard as the actor who plays him, sampling the finest cocaine with his wife Monica (Eiza Gonzalez), a former stripper. The two do not really have much in the way of chemistry and spend most of Baby Driver's running time making out gratuitously.

It is Elgort's magnificent performance as the title character that makes Baby Driver possible at all. Wright often obscures or brilliantly covers for the weaknesses of his stars, but outside of Hamm's broad, not-so-splendid performance, the entire cast is well-suited for these flashy roles. Elgort in particular makes every line meaningful and renders his silent moments as enthusiastically as his quiet vehicle operator is able.

Even among this group, Foxx steals the show as the only character in this milieu with any sense. Despite taking on a series of lesser projects that he needed in order to presumably pay escalating debts, Jamie finally seems to be growing into himself as an actor now that he has reached the place we all arrive at eventually: middle age. That Baby Driver consigns Leon to such an ignominious fate means that it misunderstands the events it describes about as thoroughly as this handsome young white fellow ignores his privilege.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.