Review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has experienced a great deal in his 15 years: He lost his parents and lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), he was bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him super strength and the ability to climb up walls, and he briefly joined the Avengers at the request of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) during the battle in Berlin. Stark is letting Peter keep the high-tech Spider-Man suit Stark gave him for that battle. Peter wants to be an Avenger but Stark thinks its best if Peter is just your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man and deal with mundane street crime in New York City. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is not your average street criminal. He was once a salvager working to clean up the mess left after the Battle of New York between the Avengers and Chitauri but he was shut down by a government agency taking over the clean-up, ruining him financially. Toomes kept some of the salvaged alien tech and began making very powerful weapons he sells on the black market. Peter, patrolling as Spider-Man, comes across a gang breaking into an ATM using some of Toomes tech and in the fight a corner store across the street from the bank is destroyed. Peter makes it his mission to find out where these weapons are coming from and follows a van containing some of the weapons when he is attacked by a man wearing jet-powered wings and with hydraulic claws on his feet. Toomes has made a flying suit with the alien tech and attacks Peter, nearly killing him. Peter is persistent and tries to capture Toomes and his gang during a weapons deal on the Staten Island Ferry that nearly leads to mass casualties. Stark, angry Peter is taking on missions that are above his experience, takes back the high tech spider suit leaving Peter feeling like a failure and unworthy of being an Avenger.

The cynical among us would look at “Spider-Man: Homecoming” as a blatant cash grab in the third version in 15 years of the character on the big screen. The hopeful among us would look at it, as the title suggests, as a homecoming of sorts for the character as Marvel Studios (owned by Disney) was directly involved in the creation of the story and allowed Tony Stark/Iron Man and Captain America to be used in this film made by Sony/Columbia Pictures. Everyone that enjoys superhero films was just hoping it would at least be an improvement over the Andrew Garfield version of the web-slinging teenager or the third Sam Raimi film. I am happy to report all is looking good in the Spider-verse.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” feels like a more hopeful and positive version of Spider-Man. Perhaps not completely rebooting the character back to the death of Uncle Ben (again) allows this version of Peter Parker to be more positive and less mired in the guilt of that character’s death. That’s not to say Peter doesn’t take the role of being a superhero seriously: If anything he takes it too seriously and devotes all his free time to waiting for a call from Stark to go on another Avengers adventure. This Peter Parker is shown living a dual existence between being a high school student with the responsibilities that entails and being a superhero looking for trouble in his neighborhood. Several times he decides he has to don his suit and face the dangers of his job while letting down his friends and classmates. He leaves a party, leaves an academic decathlon and leaves his date at the homecoming dance and most of the time despite the sacrifice of his personal life; he fails at being a hero. Even when he loses his Stark-tech-enhanced suit, he still feels the obligation to wear his amateurish homemade version and fight the bad guys. It’s his willingness to fail and not give up that makes this Spider-Man especially appealing.

Tom Holland makes a great Peter Parker and Spider-Man. He is obviously enthusiastic about the part, being quoted in interviews saying he’d like to be the web-slinger for the next 30 years. While that’s unlikely he is contracted for a total of six films and it should be fun seeing Holland and the character grow up over time as long as the scripts and stories are good.

Michael Keaton plays perhaps the best villain in any Marvel movie. Adrian Toomes is a menacing figure with a hair-trigger temper but Keaton has the talent and intelligence to play him with a quiet menace and makes his volatility that much more frightening. A scene late in the film could be used as a convincing argument for a best supporting actor Oscar for Keaton. There’s a chance we’ll see him again in future Spider-Man films and I fear Peter Parker is in for a rough time should the Vulture be freed to fly again.

The rest of the cast is strong and provides terrific supporting performances for the leads. Zendaya is especially good as Michelle, a bookish, oddly turned classmate of Peter’s. She is always close by to provide an ego deflating comment or dose of reality for Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Marisa Tomei’s version of Aunt May is the most modern and certainly the youngest in the character’s movie history. This Aunt May is a force to be reckoned with for Peter as she isn’t easily put off or deceived. It’s also a source of humor as more than Tony Stark is shown flirting with her or expressing interest in her. There is a great deal of potential in this version of Peter’s guardian including future scenes where she is able to extract herself from trouble without the assistance of her super powered nephew.

While the film is a good mix of humor, character development and action, there are times when the action looks muddy. The CGI battles frequently occur at night, making the fast movements nearly impossible to see. While the special effects are very good during the daylight scenes the nighttime set pieces tend to get lost in the darkness.

There’s also another little thing that bothered me about “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Peter’s friend Ned discovers his secret identity (not a spoiler as it’s in the trailer) but then he can’t stop talking to Peter about it in school, constantly asking him questions even when they are surrounded by other students. If I had a secret of that size I certainly wouldn’t want my friend chatting about it out loud around other people. There are numerous situations where Ned is asking question but he isn’t being subtle and there are always people standing or sitting nearby. It is a recipe for having your secret spread all over school in no time and inevitably discovered by the super villains you fight. That really stuck out to me.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief suggestive comments and some language. There are numerous fights but no gore. One person is turned into a pile of ash by an alien weapon. Spider-Man is shown being dragged behind a van and thrown into trash cans and mailboxes. There is a plane crash and other mayhem caused by the weapons. I do not remember anything that could be considered suggestive other than some very mild comments about Aunt May. Foul language is mild and scattered.

At the end of the film we are promised Spider-Man will return. We know he’s in “Avengers: Infinity War” as well as its sequel and two more scheduled solo movies. That, along with his appearance in “Captain America: Civil War,” would total Tom Holland’s six contracted films as the web slinger. While it is difficult for any series of films to maintain the quality of the original, Marvel seems to be more successful at it than most. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have this Spider-Man for a while and not need to reboot the franchise for quite some time. As long as the future films are as good as “Spider-Man: Homecoming” I’m perfectly happy with that.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” gets five stars.

Three new movies open in wide release this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Big Sick—

War for the Planet of the Apes—

Wish Upon—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “In the Heart of the Sea”

Author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has travelled to visit former seaman Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to interview him about the last voyage of the whaling ship Essex. Nickerson is reluctant at first but is convinced by Mrs. Nickerson (Michelle Fairley) to talk to the writer. Nickerson recalls setting sail as a greenhorn (played as a teen by Tom Holland) on his maiden voyage with first-time captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase should have been captain but the company that owned the ship was run by Pollard’s father. Pollard and Owen didn’t get along but worked together as best they could to fill their hold with whale oil and return to port as quickly as possible. A scarcity of whales drives the men and ship into the middle of the Pacific where they encounter a massive white sperm whale. In protecting its herd the whale attacks the Essex, damaging her beyond repair and forcing the men to abandon ship. Setting off in small whaling boats the crew soon faces starvation and must do the unthinkable to survive.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is epic film making. It takes a fantastic tale of survival against all odds and narrows its focus down to a few common men. Despite the presence of Thor and Spider-Man, there are no great heroes that save the day. These are merely men doing what had to be done to get home. It’s the kind of movie that features incredible visuals and small emotional moments in equal measure. It also has a strong environmental message that becomes a bit overbearing at times. It is far from perfect but it still manages to be effective in producing an emotional response.

While the trailer for “In the Heart of the Sea” sells the story as more of a monster movie with a man fighting against an unnaturally intelligent and aggressive whale, the beast plays a fairly minor role. It is the struggle between the survivors and the elements that makes up the biggest part of the story. There is also a secondary story of clashing egos as Captain Pollard and First Mate Owen Chase clash in an effort to establish who is in charge. Pollard has little experience and is the captain only because his father is a powerful businessman within the whaling industry. Chase is told by his bosses to make sure the crew respects Pollard but Chase quickly sees his new captain is in over his head. How can he make the crew respect Pollard if he doesn’t? It is a conflict that roughly mirrors the struggle the crew has to survive after the attack of the whale: The arrogance of Man believing he is ordained by God to control and use all the beasts of the sea is quickly and violently shown for what it is when a single whale destroys their boat and leaves them to die in the middle of the ocean.

The struggle for survival occupies about half of the film’s two hour running time and it gets bleak. Star Chris Hemsworth, best known of the physique he shows as Thor in the Marvel superhero movies, and the rest of the cast of survivors lost huge amounts of weight living on 500 to 600 calories a day. The gaunt faces, made even more so by makeup highlighting their cheekbones, are haunting. At one point, those left alive appear to barely have the energy to breathe. Director Ron Howard chooses to focus on the faces of those left alive, making it impossible not to feel a little guilty for sipping on the giant over-priced drink from the concessions stand while looking at the cracked lips, sun-bleached hair and burnt skin.

Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland are outstanding in their roles. Hemsworth plays the hardened whaler Chase with a tinge of playfulness that comes out around the greenhorn deckhand Nickerson played by Tom Holland. Chase acts as something of a father figure for Nickerson who is an orphan. Walker’s Captain Pollard is a man of privilege who knows he’s only captain because of his father. Seeing Chase scramble up the rigging to fix a problem, knowing he would be incapable to doing the same thing, makes Pollard embarrassed and jealous of his first officer. We see Pollard grow to respect and even like Chase as they struggle to survive. Cillian Murphy plays Second Mate Matthew Joy, a long-time friend of Chase. He seems to be playing both sides of the fence in his relationship to the two men, acting as a kind of peacekeeper and moderating influence on both. Tom Holland’s wide eyed wonder at seeing whales for the first time and then being introduced to the interior of one that’s been killed and in the process of being butchered gives him and the audience the introduction to both the beauty and the savagery of his job. Brendan Gleeson plays Tom Nickerson as an adult and gives a moving performance as a man being forced to remember all he had to do to survive over three months lost at sea. The pain and anguish play out over Gleeson’s face in a way that makes you worry for the sanity of the character.

Visually, “In the Heart of the Sea” is stunning. The TV commercials don’t do what the special effects team has accomplished justice. The scenes of whale hunting and when the sperm whale attacks the small whaling boats and the Essex are spectacular. We see the attempt at survival of a harpooned whale from the beast’s perspective, diving down deep in an effort to escape what is attacking it. We witness playful dolphins and huge whales gliding effortlessly through the water. We also see what happens when a whale is killed then brought alongside the ship to be butchered and its oil harvested. The beauty and savagery of nature and whaling are put on full display and in vivid detail.

The movie makes a point of stressing how wrong whaling is and that tends to bring the film to nearly a dead stop. At the time in the early 1800’s, whale oil was the best fuel to light lanterns and streetlamps. It made many people rich in the buying and selling of whale oil. With the discovery of petroleum products and the introduction of vegetable oils, the use of whale oil declined and was eventually outlawed by environmental laws. Despite all this history, the film makes a big deal about how wrong it was to hunt whales. The character of Pollard, who is usually shown on the wrong side of things, points out how God gave man dominion over the animals including the beasts in the sea and it is our duty to exert our control over them. Chase questions whether that’s the right thing to do. This happens, in one form or another, a couple of times in the film. While I agree we don’t need to hunt whales any more, it seems like a waste of time to include these scenes in the movie. We could have been shown Chase’s wife waiting and longing for her husband or the leaders of the whaling company lamenting the apparent loss of their ship and money. It feels like the time could have been better spent on the surrounding drama of their situation.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of peril, intense sequences of action, brief startling violence and thematic material. The attack of the whale on the smaller boats and the Essex leads to the death of some crewmen and the injury of others. There is a scene where one crewman is trying to escape the ship as it is sinking and on fire. One character is shown shooting himself in the head. What is done to survive at sea, while not shown, is discussed and described. Foul language is scattered.

“In the Heart of the Sea” tells a bleak and depressing story that doesn’t get much happier by the time the end credits roll. It shows men pushed to their limits and forced beyond them by nature and their circumstances. It wants to teach the viewer a lesson about how Man is a minor player on the stage of life and the elements don’t care if you live or die. The movie does a pretty good job pounding that into the consciousness of the audience but it continues that message to the point of assault. We get it: Whaling is unnecessary in the modern age. Perhaps those living in the most extreme polar regions need to harvest a few whales a year to survive but the rest of the world needs to leave these intelligent and majestic creatures alone. The aggressive environmental evangelizing degrades what is otherwise an impressive bit of film making. Despite the less than subtle preaching, “In the Heart of the Sea” is worth the time to watch.

“In the Heart of the Sea” gets four guitars out of five.

Animated animals, dissimilar siblings and a galaxy far, far away are on screens this week. I’ll see and review at least one (can you guess which one?).

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip—

Sisters—

Star Wars: The Force Awakens—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.