Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (2000)

3. Bring It On

Following his two stints in the Wonderful World of Disney, Peyton Reed started to distinguish himself as a director of respected sketch comedy shows. He handled episodes of “Mr. Show,” “The Upright Citizens Brigade” and the entire run of “The Weird Al Show.” With this experience under his belt, he would begin work on his first theatrically released feature. (He made the transition because the “Upright Citizens Bridgade” producers worked on this movie too, because Hollywood really is usually about who you know.) “Bring It On” would become a surprise hit in 2000, staying atop the box office charts for three weeks. Somehow, despite being highly watched among people of my generation, I have never seen this motion picture before.

For the last several years, the cheerleading team of Rancho Carne High School have won championships. Now, the leadership of the cheer team is being transferred to someone new. Torrance Shipman might be a quality cheerleader but she's not doing as well in grades or social graces. Her relationship with her now college-age boyfriend is dissolving. The other members of the cheer team are starting to turn against her, especially once she begins to support new recruits like the feisty Missy. Upon discovering the previous cheer captain was stealing the routines from an all-black neighboring school, and with regional championships coming up, Torrance is sent into a full-on crisis.

A big reason why I never got around to watching “Bring It On” before now is because of my aversion to sports movies. “Bring It On” doesn't go out of its way to avoid the typical “inspirational” story beats you expect. Despite being reoccurring champions, the Rancho Carne Toros suffer misfortune after misfortune. After discovering their former cheer captain stole their routines from a rival school, the team is humiliated when the other cheerleaders show up at a game and mirror their moves. They hire a choreographer who is a huge asshole and also sold his same routine to other teams. This make these regular winners seem like plucky underdogs, who have to rally their team spirit and work hard to succeed. Naturally, the new team members disagree at first but become great friends in time. Most of these moments hit exactly when you expect and there's never any doubt what's going to happen.

Despite being unapologetically formulaic, “Bring It On” does a smart thing. The film begins with a sequence where the cheerleaders perform a sexually teasing routine full of intentionally artificial dialogue and elaborate choreography. Though this is quickly revealed to be a dream, it immediately sets a precedence. “Bring It On” does not take place in our world. Much like “Heathers” before it, the characters speak in cartoonish slang that clearly isn't meant to reflect reality. The politics of high school are exaggerated, the bullies being nastier, the rivalries more extreme, the competitions fiercer. That allows “Bring It On” to get away with all the expected story beats, because it's not like the movie ever attempted to be real. It's a live action cartoon, well aware of it, and has a good time embracing that quality.

The dialogue and clearly goofy story are not the only way “Bring It On” hyperbolises the high school sports comedy. Apparently, as written, “Bring It On” was much rauchier. The movie was toned down to a PG-13 during filming. However, the finished product is still surprisingly naughty. (You don't see too many PG-13 flicks with fingering jokes.) The cheerleading routines are highly sexualized, the uniforms showing lots of skin and the girls' skirts often flying upward. There's a bikini car wash sequence, which doesn't back away from being leering. The conversation is frequently crude, even politically incorrect at times. There's even a strip tease as part of the cheer auditions. And yet, somehow, “Bring It On” avoids ever feeling sleazy or exploitative. Its horny tone reflects the hyper-extended libidos of its characters. Moreover, most of the actresses are in their twenties, so it never feels too seedy.

Reed occasionally showed some energy in his television movies. Being a movie about the acrobatic world of competitive cheerleadering, “Bring It On” rarely sits still. The camera is moving from early on. As we explore the high school setting for the first time, there's a sense of free form roaming energy as we glide from location to location. The dance and cheer sequence are shot with a similar zest. Reed's camera is often tumbling along with the girls as they somersault, spin or flip through the air. He even sneaks in some pretty fun shots, such as framing some in-between the girls' legs. It is a fast-paced film in the way its executed.

That “Bring It On” is so energetically directed brings something else to mind. This is basically a musical. Granted, there aren't very many traditional singing moments. Yet the chants of the cheer squads are more-or-less songs, a group of people pumping out rhyming verse to a recognizable rhythm. The cheers are essentially the same as dance numbers. And they are super elaborate, with people being lifted into the air and flipping over themselves. It's a comparison Reed is obviously eager to present, as the opening dream sequence is obviously shot like a classical musical moment. And the soundtrack isn't half bad either, even if R&B influenced pop like this really isn't my genre. (The connection is such that a stage musical, with music from that “Hamilton” guy, hit playhouses in 2011.)

“Bring It On” is also pretty funny, maybe the biggest reason why I enjoyed watching it. The surreal dialogue is a frequent source of giggles. The sequence devoted to the asshole choreographer, who does nothing but neg the girls after he arrives, takes that exaggerated quality as far as it'll go, making such a ridiculously overblown moment that you can't help but laugh at it. This is present, and even more intentional, in Torrance's flashbacks to Cheer Camp, where she believes she cursed herself. Reed ramps up the silliest of these moment with melodramatic camera movements, drawing the ridiculousness of these social beliefs into sharp focus. My favorite funny bit in the film is near the end, when we get a quick glimpse at some of the other cheerleaders competing in the finals, who are dealing with physical issues – a broken nose and vomiting – in their own upbeat ways.

Perhaps a reason “Bring It On's” popularity lived on beyond its intended ephemeral theatrical release is because of its surprisingly progressive politics. You do not expect a high school comedy/inspirational sports story to acknowledge the cultural divide present in American society. The largely white students of Rancho Carne High copy the hard work of their black rivals, flat out stealing it and taking credit. With the exception of Torrance and Missy, the other cheerleaders are largely okay with this. They don't care as long as they win. Later on, the black team can't put together the fiances necessary to enter the tournament. Torrance rallies support for them, getting them into the contest where – spoiler alert! – they win. While this plot turn has its own political pitfalls – the black characters can only succeed with the white girls help – a movie of this level acknowledging topics like racial division and cultural appropriation is totally unexpected in and of itself.

Another element that makes “Bring it On” work way better than you'd expect is its winning cast. The film is largely a vehicle for Kristen Dunst. Dunst's character is a little more complex than you initially assume. She isn't just a blonde cheerleader, mean girl queen bee. She has struggles with her parents, who are expecting her to do better with her grades. She questions the status quo of the cheer world. This gives Dunst more to chew on as an actress but that almost doesn't matter. She has so much bubbly charm as Torrance, that you just love watching her have a good time. So much of “Bring It On” floats by on Dunst's winning smile and easy-going charisma.

”Bring It On” follows the expected beats of the sports comedy which includes, of course, a romantic subplot. Like the rest of the movie, this proves shockingly compelling. Torrance is introduced with a lunk-head, jocko boyfriend. After he goes away to college, it becomes increasingly clear that he's not being faithful. Around the same time, she develops an obvious chemistry with Cliff, Missy's brother. Cliff is a punk rock enthusiast, allowing Reed to sneak in a lot of those indie rock references he likes. (I didn't spot a Superchunk T-shirt, though I might've missed it.) The relationship is largely free of drama and develops in a smooth and likable way, best shown in an adorable scene where Torrance dances to the mix tape Cliff made her. Dunst and Jesse Bradford have a really sweet back-and-forth.

That's not the only person Dunst has a winning rapport with. For most of the film, Torrance is paired up with Missy. Initially, the two couldn't be more different. Missy is a snarky and tough girl that only wants to join the cheer team because the high school, which she newly transferred to, doesn't have a gymnastics department. However, Torrance quickly learns to appreciate the girl's grit and attitude while Missy learns cheerleading isn't all that bad either. It's a buddy movie arc we've seen a hundred times before but it works because Eliza Dushku, playing one hundred percent to type, plays off Dunst so well. You know it's coming but watching these two warm up to each other is pretty fun, in fact.

After its success in theaters, “Bring It On” would continue to be popular on television and home video. This would turn it into a cult classic of sorts, among both male and female audiences. Teen girls liked the strong female characters and teen boys probably responded to the attractive cast. Universal Studios would embrace this success with a long line of direct-to-video sequels. There's five in total, with the most recent coming out in 2017 and featuring a hashtag in the title. (No, I'm not reviewing them.) Considering the enduring value of the “Bring It On” brand name, I'm surprised there hasn't been an attempt at a theatrical reboot. While I dismissed the movie for years, I probably should've given this one a chance sooner. It is a charming and funny flick. [Grade: B] 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (1997)

2. The Love Bug

I feel like calling the 1995 television version of “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” a “success” would be really overstating it. However, the Disney overlords must have been pleased with it. Two years later, Peyton Reed would be assigned another reboot of a classic Disney property to air as part of the Wonderful World of Disney TV movie series. This time, Reed would be handed the keys to the Herbie, the Love Bug franchise, which was hugely popular when new – the first was the third highest grossing film of 1968 – but had been dormant for 15 years. Once again, I don't think calling this obscure television movie a “success” is fitting but it at least got a VHS release.

While sharing many similarities with the original film's plot, 1997's “The Love Bug” is not a remake but actually a sequel. Herbie, the magical Volkswagen Bug with a personality all its own, has fallen into the hands of vain race car driver Simon Moore III. Disgusted with the car's malfunctions, he sends it to the scrapyard. There, mechanic Hank Cooper and his artsy-fartsy friend Roddy pick Herbie for a junkyard race. Revitalized by his new driver, the Love Bug suddenly shifts back into high gear. Noticing this success, Moore commissions Herbie's original creator to build an evil counterpart to the Love Bug. Soon, Herbie and the Horace the Hate Bug are facing off in a race. Hank, Roddy, and auto-magazine reporter – and Hank's ex-girlfriend – Alex are behind the wheel.

Once again, one assumes that a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week probably didn't afford Peyton Reed much of a chance to stretch his skills as a director. However, I must say that Reed's “Love Bug” does look a lot better than his “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.” When the Hate Bug is introduced, there's cool shot of the car silhouetted against some lights as it rolls out. Its next introductary scene also features some cool lightning effects, bouncing off the shiny black hull. Herbie's origin story is depicted in black-and-white in a way that seems to recall classic sci-fi/monster movies of the forties and fifties. Moments like these show that Reed was, perhaps, a little better than the humble television material he was given at this point.

Despite these interesting touches, this “Love Bug” is still a bit of a snore. Compared to the zippy pacing of Reed's last movie, “The Love Bug” moves so slowly. The film treats Herbie with an almost mythic importance. Much of the dialogue is devoted to talking about how magical this car is. Midway through the film, Herbie actually dies, being beaten into wreckage by the Hate Bug. (The actual violence is kept off-screen, hopefully keeping the real young kids from being further traumatized.) He gets a funeral and everything. Herbie is then resurrected with the help of Dean Jones' original protagonist. These scenes have a maudlin, even solemn tone to them that totally kills any energy the already sluggish movie had up to that point. This “Love Bug” never recovers even with the action packed last third that follows.

There are other examples of how weirdly invested Reed's “Love Bug” is in the Herbie character. None of the previous “Love Bug” media felt it necessary to provide an origin for the magical Volkswagen. The 1997 film, meanwhile, gives Herbie a comic book style origin story. He was built after World War II by a German scientist brought to America by the government, mistaking his invention of “the people's car” for a car that was actually a person. (One hopes the movie's scientist wasn't a Nazi.) Despite assuming that creating a car with a mind was impossible, Dr. Stumpfel succeeded when a picture of late wife fell in with the metal oar used to create Herbie... So, yes, Herbie the Love Bug was built by an ex-pat German scientist and owes his magical abilities to being possessed by a dead woman's soul. Mull that information over for a while.

To go along with his new comic book style origin, the 1997 “Love Bug” also gives Herbie a comic book style archenemy. While I doubt Walt would've approved of such a thing, giving the Love Bug an evil counterpart only seems natural. Horace the Hate Bug, on a surface level, is a funny enough sight gag. An all black chrome Bug who can shoot lasers from its front bumper and toss grenades from its muffler is an amusing concept. However, Horace doesn't get as much personality as Herbie. Instead of honking expressively, he just growls and rumbles threateningly. So the idea is fun but not developed into anything deeper. I can't believe I'm complaining about a car not having enough personality... I'm just saying, “The Car” did it better.

While no one would ever expect a “Love Bug” movie to be comparable to “Gone in 60 Seconds” or “Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary,” this is technically a racing film. And, you know, the stunts here are about as good as you could expect from a television film. The last act even features a pretty cool moment where Herbie is cut in two, so we have two halves of the Volkswagen racing up the mountain road. A subplot about a rich car designer also features some oddball custom cars that look like spaceships or giant sharks. However, Reed's film also employs some CGI effects. Which have aged about as well as you'd expect. Herbie pitching a wheelie or the ultimate fate of Horace the Hate Bug look embarrassingly rubbery.

For me and people like me, this “Love Bug” is most interesting because of its star. That's right, the star of “Evil Dead” appeared in a Disney movie. (A couple of them, actually.) Bruce Campbell had a number of television gigs at the time – reoccurring guest roles on “Hercules,” “Xena,” and “Ellen” being the most prominent – so this was actually totally within his wheelhouse. Bruce is actually perfectly suited to the kind of wholesome hero you'd expect to see in a Disney movie. He has that old fashion movie star look after all and knows his way around gee-shucks, wholesome dialogue. While Campbell can't truly bring the movie alive, it is nice to seem how versatile his acting abilities can be. He does have decent chemistry with Alexandra Wentworth as Alex.

There are, in fact, a surprising number of recognizable names and faces in “The Love Bug.” In an oddball coincidences, the film features two cast members that would later co-star in Stephen Sommers' “The Mummy,” in roles almost the opposite of what they play here. Kevin J. O'Connor is the wacky, comic relief sidekick, playing an amusingly spacey artist type that is largely out-of-place in the world of racing. (He also wears a Superchunk t-shirt.) John Hannah, meanwhile, appears as a sniveling villain and enjoys hamming it up as such a vein and obnoxious character. Clarence Williams III has one or two good lines as the owner of the garage, especially when starting the race at the film's end. Mickey Dolenz shows up as the eccentric custom car designer, never truly defining his part but adding some quirky energy to the movie.

If its Letterboxd reviews are anything to go by, 1997's “The Love Bug” is not well regarded by Herbie devotees. (Yes, such people exist.) It's hard for me to imagine any human being getting passionate about a movie like this, that lacks so much energy and produces so little emotion in the viewer. If “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” was at least mildly amusing, Peyton Reed's second “Wonderful World of Disney” entry is exactly the lackluster kind of made-for-TV entertainment you'd expect from that description. But would I guess I would rather watch it again than “Herbie: Fully Reloaded,” if only because I'd rather watch beloved character actors slum it in a weird family flick than watch Lindsay Lohan's digitally decreased bust line play second fiddle to a CGI car. [Grade: C-]

Monday, August 19, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (1995)

In the unlikely situation that you've been regularly reading Film Thoughts for the last year, you might have noticed the unusual way I've been going about reviewing the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero movies. Instead of simply doing a Series Report Card devoted to this highly profitable and hugely popular franchise, I've been doing Director Report Cards devoted to some of the filmmakers who have been involved with Disney's license-to-print-money, throwing in extra reviews of the various other films in the series along the way. This extremely convoluted path through the M.C.U. has now led me to Peyton Reed, a director who has mostly made undistinguished comedies and rom-coms until he hooked his train to the Marvel machine.... At least, that's what it looks like. Will I, perhaps, find something of value inside Reed's non-”Ant-Man” movies as I watch my way through them? Let's find out.

1. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

Throughout the nineties, the Walt Disney Company began to ramp up its television presence. Beginning in the mid-nineties, the Disney Channel started to slowly go from a premium network to a basic cable network. Fittingly, the studio began to invest more in their network, producing a number of TV shows and television movies that would become highly popular and beloved. In 1997, Disney would buy ABC wholesale, giving them another avenue to expand the Disney brand on television. Before any of that, the popular Wonderful World of Disney anthology series would be relaunched in 1991. As part of the long-running series, Disney would start to remake some of their quasi-classic live action films from the sixties. Among these was “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” a new version of a popular sci-fi comedy starring Kurt Russell. The remake would be the feature debut of Peyton Reed, who previously made promotional shorts for television.

I've never seen 1969's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” so I can't say how Reed's version compares to the original. However, the two films seem to share the same general premise: Medfield College student Dexter Riley is struck by lightening while working on a computer and has the machine's stored knowledge downloaded into his brain, turning him into a super genius overnight. In this telling, Dexter is a slacker who lives on-campus with his two friends, conspiracy theorist Will and super-nerd Gozin. After gaining all the information contained on the college's newly connected-to-the-internet PC, Dexter leads the faltering college's trivia team to televised success. Becoming a celebrity, Dexter is involved in politics behind the scenes at the college and even in the government.

Made to air within a television time slot, 1995's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” runs around 87 minutes once you take out the commercial breaks. Fitting such a compact run time, Reed's remake moves along at a breezy pace. The film moves from its various plot points as quickly as possible, making sure the audience isn't too worried about the internal logic of the narrative. “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” is ostensibly a comedy and includes many jokes along the way. Most of these don't get more than a chuckle out of the viewer, such as a pre-teen boy being booed off a television show or the increasingly desperate antics Medfield's dean employs to keep Dexter at the school. The movie's humble charms are sufficient enough to even make a potentially offensive scene of Dexter attending an international conference in DC actually fun to watch.

And it's a good thing that Reed's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” blows by so quickly because the script is absolutely nothing special. The film follows a totally standard story outline we've seen in a hundred other family movies. A normal guy is suddenly gifted with some special ability or attribute. This gift causes him to become rich, famous, or powerful in some way. It quickly goes to his head and he's soon pushing away his friends with his egomaniacal, dick-bag behavior.  Naturally, by the end, he learns a lesson in humility by loosing his abilities, apologizing for being a jerk, and regaining his friends. 1995's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” hits every single one of these points exactly when you expect it too.

While “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” made me laugh a few times, the funniest part of the film was likely completely unintended by the filmmakers back in 1995. You see, this film was made just when personal computers were becoming common features in regular homes, when the internet as-we-know-it was still in its infancy. So, naturally, this obscure television film's depiction of both is hilariously antiquated. As depicted in this film, the internet is a purely educational tool. You just type in a subject and you're taken to a website that contains tons of information about it. The website devoted to the Battle of Gettysberg, for example, features animated recreations of the historical conflict. Later, when a virus infects a computer, it's announced with a big pop-up on the screen. Afterwards, this same virus is spread to Dexter's brain via the telephone. The villain is a hacker that can apparently do anything, like turn up the heat in the White House. This kind of “computers are magic!” writing was common at the time and it's pretty funny to see such a straight example.

While “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” seems like it has a simple enough story, the scriptwriters really went out of their way to add more depth to it. So we get a surprising number of subplots to go along with the primary story. Dexter, naturally, has a love interest, in the form of Sarah, who is seemingly charmed by his slacker behavior even though that makes no sense. The film devotes a number of scenes to Gozin finding a girlfriend, which Dexter helps him with. (Because apparently the internet can instantly match-make lonely nerds.) Most contrived is the movie's villain, a hacker known as the Viper. There's even government agents following Dexter along, because they suspect he might be the Viper. The bad guy's real identity is easy to guess but it's totally unexpected that this goofy Disney movie has a plot with so much political intrigue in it.

Most of Peyton Reed's previous directorial credits, before this, were the live action segments for the “Back to the Future” cartoon adaptation and short TV documentaries about “The Honeymooners” and “Forrest Gump.” I imagine these were not projects that afforded much in the way of creative vision. So, for the most part, “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” is as undistinguished as you'd expect a TV movie from 1995 to look. The colors are flat, the cinematography sitcom-like. However, Reed does occasionally show some visual flair. Such as some zippy whip-pans during a montage of Dexter's game show supremacy. Or the musical choice that highlights the scene of Gozin and his girlfriend first meeting. (Also, a character wears a noticeable Superchunk T-shirt, the first of several references Reed would make to the band.)

While the original “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” had a young Kurt Russell to support it, the remake has to settle for Kirk Cameron. Now we all know what a sanctimonious douche nozzle Kirk Cameron is. In 1995, he was just a wholesome television star. After “Growing Pains” but before “Left Behind,” “The Compute Wore Tennis Shoe” was part of Cameron's time as a television movie star. (See also Disney Channel Original “You Lucky Dog.”) All his personal dingbattery aside, Cameron is suitably charming as the updated Dexter Riley. He's got a big smile, a laid back screen presence, and can crack a joke with ease. It's a part well within Cameron's wheelhouse and that's perfectly fine for a movie like this.

The supporting crop of actors are similarly well cast. Larry Miller is absolutely delightful as the unscrupulous dean of Medfield. He gets most of the movie's laugh, such as in a bizarre scene involving beach towels, or when he pretends to be a waiter and then abruptly stops pretending. Jeff Garlin and Eddie Deezan appear as the FBI agents tracking The Viper, a truly oddball pairing that made me laugh. Dan Castellaneta, wearing a bad wig and sounding nothing like Homer Simpson, appears as the game show host. A gravelly voiced Dean Jones appears as the dean of a rival school, bringing some gravitas to this silly television production. Matthew McClury is fittingly petulant as Dexter's pre-teen rival, a child genius that is appropriately obnoxious.

There's really not much to say about 1995's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.” Like most of Disney's television, it's totally inoffensive. Competent but not extraordinary, mildly amusing but never truly rising above, cheaply produced but by no means ugly. Almost by design, it was intended to air once or twice on TV and be forgotten. While the Kurt Russell original would spawn two sequels of its own, the remake has disappeared into the pop culture void. It doesn't even have a home video release, instead surviving as a bootleg recording. Yet that also doesn't  mean I regret watching it. If I had seen this as a kid – I'm really shocked I didn't – I probably would have liked it a lot. [6/10]

Monday, August 12, 2019

Director Report Card: Alexandre Aja (2019)

8. Crawl

For horror fans that don't really keep track of this stuff, it probably seemed like Alexandre Aja just disappeared for a while. After his hyper-violent breakthrough “High Tension,” he found mainstream success with gory remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Piranha.” After that, he tried to branch out with more distinguished material. “Horns” was still basically a horror movie but it skewed more on the psychological side of things and had a major star, in the form of Daniel Radcliffe. But not many people saw it. “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” got buried and that was probably for the best.

Now, sixteen years after first catching horror fans' attention, Aja has finally got a movie in megaplexes all over the country again. It would seem he's gotten back to his populist roots, directing a trashy genre picture. Set in Florida but shot on Serbian sound stages, the film was produced by Sam Raimi, a combination that seems irresistible. (And one I'm surprised didn't happen during Sam's Ghost House Pictures days.)  “Crawl” is another down-and-dirty, waterlogged killer animal flick from the French auteur. The undeniably catchy premise of “woman trapped in a flooding house, full of pissed-off gators” caused the movie to crack my list of most anticipated features of 2019. Because I, for one, can appreciate some glossy gator-sploitation.

Haley is a competitive swimmer who lives in Florida. She has a somewhat complex relationship with her recently divorced father, who is having trouble letting go of the family home he shared with his daughters' mother. Hurricane Wendy, a category five storm, is blowing into the state. When her sister can't get a hold of her dad, Haley drives right into the storm's path to figure out what's going on. She finds her father in the house's crawlspace, where he's been attacked by a pack of seriously angry alligators. Soon, the two are trapped inside the building as Wendy rolls in and entirely floods the area. They'll have to battle the weather and fight the gators if they hope to survive.

“Crawl's” script comes from the mind of the Rasmussen brothers, a screenwriting team that previously wrote John Carpenter's “The Ward” and a bunch of other low budget horror stuff I never noticed before. I can't speak much for the quality of their other films but the script for “Crawl” delightfully takes advantage of its ridiculous premise. For Haley and her dad, things just go from bad to worst. What starts as two gators grows to an entire pack. The water level just keep rising and rising, dad pressing his face to the floorboards for one last gulp of oxygen. Just when it seems our characters get a break, that's when the levees break and a tidal wave rolls in... “Crawl” amusingly exploits every possible outcome of its delightfully pulpy premise.

More than pluming just about every situation you might think of after reading that long line, “Crawl” actually functions decently as a thriller. As unlikely as a Floridian home right in the flood zone with a basement might seem, it proves a tense location to set a creature feature. For most of the film's first half, Haley and her dad are hiding in different corners of the tight location, sneaking between pipes that the giant reptiles can't quite squeeze through. There's not even enough room for either of them to stand up. It's definitely the last place you want to be trapped with some angry gators and “Crawl” takes full advantage of that. You feel the danger the characters are in, more room becoming unavailable as the water rises and the beasts close in.

There have been many crocodilian thrillers over the years, ranging wildly in quality. “Crawl” distinguish itself from the scaly lot by making its gators especially aggressively. In real life, American alligators are usually not going to attack people. In this movie, they tear humans apart without a moment's notice. They are also shockingly sneaky for reptiles that can weight upwards of 500 pounds. More than once, “Crawl” engineers surprisingly effective jump scares around its reptilian antagonists. The gators fall suddenly onto stairs, are revealed by lightning brightening the room, or leap from a doorway to attack. Though largely brought to life via CGI, the creatures still have a surprising amount of weight and heft to them. They hiss and roar, slinking across the ground but swiftly navigating the water.

Alexandre Aja largely founded his career on his ability to deliver intense sequences of gory mayhem. After backing away from the gore a bit with his last two films, Aja brings the grisliness back in a big way with “Crawl.” These incredibly pissed off gators sure like to tear people apart. The water is flooded with red many times throughout the film's run time. The gators grab limbs in their powerful jaws, crushing them, stabbing them, and graphically tearing them apart. Interlopers are introduced into the story largely to beef up the body count, looters or cops being pulled apart by a whole pack of gators. Aja, like before, makes every attack as painful as possible. Even the non-gator gore, like a scene of the dad setting a bone all by himself, are fittingly upsetting in their own way. The sound design is full of cringe-inducing crunching and popping.

In fact, all of the sound design in “Crawl” is surprisingly good. In the early scenes, before the flood water really starts to rise, an uneasy tension is built by the dripping water from the leaky pipes and the static of a radio Hailey's dad brought down with him. Once the flood waters truly start to roll in, Max Aruj and Steffen Thum's fittingly noisy musical score ramps way the fuck up. “Crawl” is a well produced motion picture, is my point. You also see this in Aja's stylish direction, which utilizes several underwater effective P.O.V. shots and other tactics to keep the tension on the upswing. My favorite of which is when Aja sends the audience on a death roll with one of the victims.

“Crawl” is a star vehicle for Kaya Scodelario, an actress I keep hearing people talking about even though I've never actually seen her in anything else before. I can now say I definitely get the hype. Scodelario gives an impressive physical performance. She spends pretty much the entire movie submerged in water. That's in addition to being torn up and battered around by gators and waves. Through it all, Scodelario brings an unerringly tough – I'm tempted to even say plucky – protagonist to life. She even manages to inject some humor into a role that mostly has her facing down death, drowning, and gory dismemberment.

“Crawl” is practically a two-hander, between Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper. (Three hander, if you count dog Cso-Cso. And you should, because she's a very good girl.) Pepper is not as convincing as Scodelario. Sometimes, he does not seem as paternal as the script calls for him to be. Pepper isn't always willing to totally buy into the emotions of the material. However, Pepper is similarly up to the physical demands of his character. In fact, that's the part of the film he really seems to enjoy. Struggling with a broken leg and numerous other injuries throughout the film, he similarly grasps a certain toughness.

The team behind “Crawl” was clearly working hard to make this more than just a movie about gator carnage. There are obvious themes of family and survival here. Though Haley and her dad have had many disagreements over the years, they clearly still love each other. That clear affection for each other is part of what keeps them fighting through this crazy situation. The film attempts to link this idea with the movie's scaly villains.  Midway through the film, we learn why the alligators are acting so extraordinarily aggressive. It turns out they've built a nest of eggs in the house's drainage pipe. So the gators are also motivated by a love of family, a need to keep their off-spring safe, through this story.

Disappointingly, this plot point is dropped more-or-less the minute after its introduced, “Crawl” getting on to the more pressing matter of in-coming flood waters. It's not the only way the writing, though admirable, is a little underdeveloped. I know survival is a big theme of the film because the characters lay it out. More than once, Dad tells Haley exactly what her special skills are, precisely how and why she should can keep fighting. The script lays that on a little thick, connecting it back to Haley's life as a pro-swimmer and the challenges she faces. I'm all for adding more depth to our trashy horror flicks but that needs to be paired with some subtly too.

Ultimately though, I really enjoyed “Crawl.” As grim as the material can be, a tongue-in-cheek end credits song choice makes it clear we aren't suppose to take these events too seriously. The whole film is in-and-out in less than 90 minutes, the kind of speedy runtime I didn't think showed up in theaters much anymore. But that's exactly the kind of run time needed for a low-demand, gory, and intense creature feature like this. I'm pretty pleased to see the film has done well at the box office, so hopefully Aja won't spend quite so long in exile after this. [Grade: B]

Friday, August 9, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

Following the release of “Avengers: Endgame,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe certainly seemed like it had reached its climax. (That this was timed so closely with the death of Stan Lee, the MCU's mascot and the self-proclaimed creator of the comic universe, seems like the most major of cosmic coincidences.) Yet the Disney corporate beast will not be sated until it owns all of popular culture and a proper conclusion is no reason to kill the billion dollar franchise. And so the next phase of Marvel's hugely ambitious cinematic adventure kicks off with “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” It's a smart choice for an opener, considering how well-liked “Homecoming” was, how Spider-Man is one of the few truly iconic Marvel heroes left standing from “Endgame.” Smartly inviting back director Jon Watts, “Far From Home” has been another crowdpleaser from the biggest name in Hollywood superhero theatrics.

Explicitly picking up from “Endgame,” “Far from Home” explores what happened to the world in the aftermath of Thanos' defeat. Millions of people suddenly flashed back into existence, an event called the Blip, at the same age and moment where they left, in a world that has grown five years in their absence. Yet Peter Parker is eager to get back to normal. His high school class is visiting Europe at the end of the semester and he hopes this'll be a break from being Spider-Man. He also hopes that it'll give him time to confess his feelings to Michelle, the quirky classmate he has increasingly romantic feelings for. The world has other plans. With Iron Man gone, Nick Fury is eager to recruit new heroes, like Spider-Man, to protect the world from incoming threats... Such as Elemental entities supposedly from another world. Yet is Mysterio, the survivor of that doomed planet who is warning of the Elementals' arrival, all he claims to be?

While “Homecoming” was a film largely devoted to establishing this version of Peter Parker, to send the young Spider-Man on a quest of self-realization in a sometimes uncertain world, “Far from Home” reflects more explicitly on our own world, here in 2019. This is a film about deception, a “Spider-Man” movie perfect for our era of fake news, deep fakes, and alternative facts. Peter Parker questions his own eyes throughout the film. He questions who he can believe or who he can trust. This is nailed home rather astutely with the post-credit scene, which brings back a familiar face in a more timely guise. And it's cool that “Far from Home” is attempting to discuss these themes, of living in an uncertain world where the concrete morality of reality is constantly denied by those in power. Of course, Marvel/Disney wimps out, painting certain authority figures as ultimately correct, evil acts only being committed by “evil” men. Yet I guess a massive corporation deserves some kudos for even sort-of, kind-of acknowledging these distressing ideas.

This half-assed approach, of wanting to critique our disturbing modern age without actually incriminating those in control, isn't the only thing that miffs me slightly about the latest Spider-Man adventure. The Marvel movies have gotten really, really serialized. “Far from Home” is not just a sequel to “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It's a direct follow-up to “Endgame,” which was a sequel to “Infinity Wars” and well over a dozen movies. On one hand, it's neat that a Spider-Man movie can reference Doctor Strange or casually include Nick Fury. On the other hand, “Far from Home” lives in the shadow of Tony Stark, the film never going long without his face appearing. Peter Parker feels overwhelmed by the world wanting him to become the next Iron Man. Me, the viewer, also feels overwhelmed by this sequel carrying the weight of so many other movies on it. Can't a Spider-Man movie just be a Spider-Man movie? Must it also be an Iron Man movie, a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, an Avengers adjacent movie? Must Peter Parker, poor kid from Queens, be casually utilizing high-tech equipment willed to him by a dead billionaire?

More pressing than any of this, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” drags a little in its first half. Anybody who knows anything about comics knows that illusion and deception is Mysterio's entire gimmick. That he's a fishbowled trickster with a fleet of convincing holograms at his disposal. The sequel, at first, treats the villain as if he's a hero. It presents his story of inter-dimensional travel and elemental monsters that threaten the world at face value. Everyone, from Peter Parker to master spy Nick Fury, believes him. (Though the film does eventually justify Fury buying into such an obvious deception.) We savvy viewers know a reveal is forthcoming, making these scenes feel somewhat protracted and listless. Furthermore, Spider-Man feels slightly out of his element exploring Europe. When he gets back to New York at the end, things finally feel balanced again.

Mysterio is one of my favorite Spider-Man villains, a classic bad guy who has long been crying out for a cinematic portrayal. Considering Marvel's frequently revisionist approach to their villains, I was really worried Mysterio would be extensively revamped. No need to fear, it turns out. Though his origin is needlessly linked to Tony Stark, like every MCU villain, Mysterio is otherwise perfectly handled. He cloaks himself in occult symbols, like a crystal ball and the Eye of Horus, but Mysterio is ultimately an egomaniacal conman. Amusingly, the film portrays himself as something like an unhinged movie director. His crew includes a writer, a production designer, effects specialists, and even a costume expert that he brutally orders around. Jake Gyllenhaal, finally in a “Spider-Man” movie after fifteen years, portrays the character's rakish grin while never forgetting the rotten heart that drives him.

Jon Watts' grasp on Spider-Man and his world remain strong. Visually, this is a solid film full of high-flying web slinging. Honestly, sometimes the action scenes are a little too elaborate. Spider-Man weaves some truly complex webs, spinning around Mysterio's drones in a way that's almost too fast to follow. “Far from Home's” visuals truly shine when focusing in on Mysterio's illusions. Once Peter realizes Quentin Beck is tricking him, the film launches into an especially impressive fantasy. Reality shifts around Spider-Man, mirrors reflecting endless copies. The eyes of a giant spider become an army of marching Mysterios. The New York skyline erupts from an earthy graveyard, along with a few Marvel Zombies. Mysterio's huge fist tosses Spider-Man into an uncertain nightmare world. And it's pretty bitchin', everything I've always wanted from a cinematic adaptation of Mysterio.

As satisfying as its villain is, as fun as the action sequences are, maybe the best thing about “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is its perfect supporting cast. Yes, it's a little weird that Happy Hogan is a regular player in Spider-Man movie, more-or-less filling the role of Peter Parker's comic relief sidekick. Yet Jon Favearu is really funny in the part, playing off Peter, Marisa Tomei's Aunt May, and the rest of the cast fantastically. Jacob Batalon as Ned, a highlight from “Homecoming,” gets even more fun stuff to do here as he's throw into a hilariously all-consuming overnight romance with Angourie Rice's Betty Brant. Martin Starr is a little to goofy as the most incompetent of Peter's teachers but he made me laugh a lot, so I can't complain too much.

Especially charming is the growing romance between Peter and Michelle, the MCU's largely unique riff on Mary Jane Watson. Zendaya's hyper-snarky take on the character is often funny in a dry and unexpected way. This contrasts nicely with Tom Holland's utterly sincere Peter Parker. Yet these are still teenagers and they are prone to certain awkwardness. Their courtship hits many bumps, as Peter tries to outsmart a seemingly more charismatic romantic rival. It's really adorable the way the two stammer around each other, clearly interested but a little too shy and inexperienced to outright say the things they are feeling. These small character moments are increasingly becoming the true high points of the Marvel Cinematic Universe brand. Holland and Meechee being such likable performers makes this movie even better than it would've been otherwise.

I didn't like “Spider-Man: Far from Home” as much as I liked “Homecoming,” which is still among my favorite MCU films. (Though “Into the Spider-Verse” might've topped it as the best Spider-Man movie.) It has its strong points, including a fantastic villain, a supporting cast that expertly plays off each other, and some highly entertaining visuals. Yet the script is also somewhat strangled by the needs of the larger cinematic universe, an uncomfortable disconnect between the subtext and reality, and a first act that takes too long to get going. I do appreciate the shout-outs to deeper Spidey lore – such as the rough approximations of obscure villains like Hydro-Man, Molten Man, or Cyclone – though am slightly bummed it'll prevent “real” versions of those characters from appearing later on. That's my geekiness getting in the way of my nerdiness. But, hey, I still had a great time at the movies with this so I can only bitch so much. Marvel's Spider-Man films are still greatly entertaining. [7/10]

Thursday, August 8, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Venom (2018)

Evil counterparts are among the most common supervillain types in comic books. Probably because it's easy to take the good guy, flip his costume around some, and say it's the thematic opposite of the hero. Among comicdom's most successful evil counterpart is Venom. A bulky, evil Spider-Man with monstrous tongue and teeth, the character was insanely popular in the nineties. So much so that he eventually became an anti-hero, held down an on-going series and gained an evil counterpart or seven of his own. So it makes sense that Sony would try to make a “Venom” movie. They had been trying to make it since Marvel forced Sam Raimi to include the character in “Spider-Man 3.” (And apparently there was an earlier attempt by David Goyer in 1997.)

Following the premature collapse of Sony's proposed cinematic universe of Spider-Man movies, surely the idea of a “Venom” movie must've seemed absurd. Especially since the legal agreement the studio had with Marvel/Disney meant Spider-Man himself would be barred from appearing in the spin-off. Yet Sony went ahead anyway. And then the strangest thing happened. Tom Hardy, a leading man who usually does interesting projects, agreed to star. “Venom” was largely presumed to be a fiasco. But then it won some decent reviews, a passionate fan following, and did very well at the box office. A year later, how does this Spider-Man Movie Without Spider-Man hold up?

Eddie Brock's evolution into Venom revolves around Peter Parker but, as previously established, this movie couldn't touch that stuff. At least Eddie is still a journalist. A muckraking investigative reporter, Eddie is asked to interview Carlton Drake, the head of the Life Foundation, an obviously evil bio-engineering company. After the interview, Eddie looses his job and his wife, Anne. Unbeknownst to him, the Life Foundation has been experimenting on slimy alien organisms they discovered in space. After sneaking into the building, Brock bounds with one of these symbiotic lifeforms. Calling itself Venom, the oozy alien begins to direct and control Eddie's life. Soon, the two are reluctantly working together to prevent an alien invasion of Earth, which Drake is at the center of.

Shockingly, most of the cult following that quickly sprung up around “Venom” had nothing to do with the edgy comic fanboys who ate the character up in the nineties. Instead, people reacted largely to the oddball relationship between Eddie and the Venom symbiote. (And also wanting to fuck the titular monster.) Maybe because “Venom” works so much better as a strange buddy flick and comedic romance. Venom's affinity for tatter tots and his slow grasping of Earth culture is worth a laugh or two. The script, amusingly, has the two characters – human reporter and slime alien – bonding over their mutual status as losers and outcasts. The way Venom bluntly states this fact, among others, made me chuckle. The relationship between Eddie and Anne is shockingly well realized, largely due to Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams' chemistry. By the time the symobiote is offering romantic advice to Eddie on how to win her back, “Venom” had officially charmed me.

In fact, “Venom's” goofy streak and the titular pair's homoerotic relationship might be the only thing redeeming the film. The movie's plot is as generic as can be. There's awkward exposition, Venom barking out his weaknesses over the course of a cab ride. An evil corporate executive, my least favorite supervillain type, motivates the story here. Carlton Drake's eventual bonding with the Riot symbiote, his decision to lead an alien invasion of Earth, happens very quickly. The Life Foundation is so cartoonishly evil, murdering homeless people with glee, that you wonder how anyone could take them seriously. Obviously, various factors conspire to push Eddie and Venom apart, forcing that tedious middle secton of the buddy movie where the buddies break up. You always know where the story is headed.

As an action movie, “Venom” doesn't impress much either. Director Ruden Fleischer, previously of “Zombieland” and “Gangster Squad,” employs a lot of cheesy slow motion. While Venom and his adversaries' shape-shifting abilities should've lent themselves to interesting action, the film mostly just has the aliens impaling people with tentacles. A fight scene in a office building lobby is largely a hard-to-follow blur, the film obscuring Venom's oft-stated preference for eating people's brains. A motorcycle vs. drone chase scene has one or two decent beats but largely relies on awkward green-screen effects. For the big finale, “Venom” degrades into a blur of indistinct CGI effects. Making the villain of the movie Riot – one of half a dozen evil symbiotes introduced during the “Separation Anxiety” story arc – wasn't a great idea. Devoting the last act of the movie to a fight between two nearly identical looking CGI slime monsters wasn't a great win for the movie's general coherence.

And yet, as I said, “Venom” almost works in spite of its obvious narrative and directorial flaws. Tom Hardy shoulders much of that success. Adopting another goofy accent, Hardy gives an amusingly eccentric performance. Once Brock bonds with Venom, Hardy fully transforms into a twitchy weirdo. A highlight of the entire film is his intrusion into a fancy seafood restaurant. It's a hammy performance that is certainly never boring to watch. The supporting cast is largely indifferent. Jenny Slate is mildly entertaining in a supporting role. Riz Ahmed plays Drake as a wide-eyed egomaniac, with little variation or humanity. I don't know what the hell a classy actress like Michelle Williams is doing in big budget schlock like this but, hey, she does work well with Hardy.

If not for its oddball streak and hilariously strange lead performance, “Venom” would've been a totally forgettable superhero success-grab, inoffensive but bland, comparable in quality to a number of the pre-MCU Marvel adaptations. Yet those positive attributes do count for something, making “Venom” far more entertaining than it otherwise would've been. Sony's gambit unexpectedly paid off and they fully intend to ride this cash cow for all its worth. In addition to “Venom 2,” which is gratuitously set up by a flashy mid-credits teaser and recently gained a director, they rushed another movie based on a Spider-Man-villain-turned-antihero into development. While “Morbius, the Living Vampire” has also had his own book from time to time, I kind of doubt he has the same box office appeal as “Venom.” But who the hell knows? This one shouldn't have worked at all either. [6/10]

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Despite grossing nearly as much as the first “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Amazing Spider-Man 2” was such a colossal clusterfuck, such an industry embarrassment, that Sony smothered its entire cinematic universe in its cradle. With few other options remaining to redeem this massive boondoggle, the company touched upon an idea that must've seemed inconceivable only a few years prior: Spider-Man would be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney and Sony maintaining dual ownership of the character's film rights. Yes, another reboot was happening. However, with Marvel steering the ship this time, fan reaction was enthusiastic. Spider-Man's supporting role in “Captain America: Civil War” was unanimously praised. When “Spider-Man: Homecoming” hit theaters in 2017, it was widely considered as the best cinematic depiction of the web slinging wall crawler ever.

After Tony Stark recruited him to help capture Captain America, Peter Park returns to Queens. He's eager to help out the Avengers, who seem resistant to returning his phone calls. Iron Man encourages him to focus on smaller adventures, not world-saving endeavors. Meanwhile, Peter tries to balance his superhero life with his high school life. His best friend Ned discovers his identity, he's bullied by Flash Thompson, his debate team duties are often interrupted, and he struggles with asking Liz, the girl he likes, to homecoming. That's when Peter discovers Adrian Toomes, a blue collar family man who is stealing alien tech, making weapons from it, and selling it on the black market. Inevitably, conflicts arise and secrets are revealed.

This Spider-Man is deeply entrenched in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that really changes things. Marvel smartly skips the traditional origin, Uncle Ben's fate only being hinted at. Instead, Tony Stark fills the role of Peter's deeply snarky, often aggravated, paternal mentor. Iron Man builds Spidey's suit, outfitting it with an on-board A.I. and a plethora of gadgets. Happy Hogan is a supporting character. Captain America and Thor are mentioned, while the events of “The Avengers” informs the entire story. However, connecting this “Spider-Man” so explicitly to the M.C.U. does makes some stuff a little awkward. The plot revolves around the Vulture attempting to steal from a Stark jet full of Avengers artifacts. In other words, “Homecoming” is about a poor kid from Queens risking life and limb to help a billionaire protect a mere fraction of his innumerable assets. That's, at best, kind of fucked up and, at worst, a complete betrayal of everything Spider-Man should be about.

Yet the politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have always been contradictory and poorly thought out. I guess that's inevitable when a war profiteer is your flagship hero. As is usually the case, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is so funny and entertaining, that you rarely notice. The film establishes an irrelevant sense of humor early on, showing us Peter's energetic video journal of his trip to Europe. From there, we get amusingly awkward school news broadcast and Spider-Man making a hilarious trip through the suburbs. Maybe my favorite sequence has Peter befriending the A.I. built into his suit, which proves surprisingly conversational. As it is with Marvel's best films, “Homecoming” is a well oiled entertainment machine. Never more than a few minutes passes between a funny quib or an exciting action sequence.

Receiving most of “Homecoming's” critical praise was our new Peter Parker. Many have gone so far as to say that Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man ever. Holland is a fantastically entertaining performer. He has a boundless youthful energy, seeming excited and totally sincere about almost every opportunity that comes his way. This is not a Spider-Man burdened by the responsibility of his power but energized by it. Holland's innate likability and boyish charm makes the movie an absolute joy to watch. Whether he's the best Peter Parker is debatable. However, I think it's fair to say he's the best Peter Parker for this movie, a funnier and hipper interpretation that keeps the angst a little more under the skin.

During Phase Three of their cinematic endeavor, Marvel would really begin to respond to criticisms that most of their villains weren't very good. “Homecoming” largely reinvents the Vulture, a somewhat corny classic villain that wasn't that different from Iron Man. In fact, Adrian Tooms becomes the inverse of Tony Stark. He's a small business owner, desperate to take care of his family, and decides to redistribute some of the super-rich superhero's wealth. In other words, he's right. Tooms' ruthlessness is what makes him a villain, creating a number of tense sequence. The reveal that Peter is much closer to the bad guy than initially assumed is fantastic, leading to a wonderful tense conversation in a car. Michael Keaton, returning to the superhero genre after thirty years, borders his steely intensity with some wry humor. Combining such intimidating power with totally understandable motives makes for a more compelling villain and film.

Marvel scooped director Jon Watts out of relative obscurity because of his dark but nevertheless energetic boys-on-an-adventure thriller, “Cop Car.” (And probably not because of his pitch black body horror comedy, “Clown.” Though I liked that movie too.) Yet Watts is clearly a Spidey fan. He engineers a number of iconic moments, right out of comic book splash pages, for the webslinging hero. An exciting action sequence on the Manhattan ferry concludes with the instantly iconic image of Spidey attempting to hold the boat together with his webbing. Later, Watts reprises the classic panel of Spider-Man pushing against a pile of rubber fallen atop him, in a surprisingly more vulnerable way. While Watts is great at creating big Spider-Man moments, he's equally adapt at the smaller, more irrelevant moments. Peter goofing around in-between adventures, like walking on a tight rope between buildings, is equally endearing.

A truly unexpected plus of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is its phenomenal supporting cast. One of the film's smartest decision is to give Peter a best friend aware of his secret. Jacob Batalon's Ned – loosely inspired by Ned Leeds – is such an entertaining presence. His interaction with Holland is fantastic and his own lines are frequently delivered with perfect comedic timing. (His reaction to being caught in the school library is priceless.)  Marisa Tomei, vivacious and fairly young, seemed like odd casting for Aunt May. The movie leans into that in the best way, resulting in an adorably sweet May seemingly unaware of the effect she has on men around her. Zendaya has a surprisingly dry wit as “Michelle,” her sarcasm proving a nice contrast to Peter and Ned's enthusiasm.

Where “Homecoming” falls in the pantheon of “Spider-Man” movies is hard to say. Its detailed link to the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes it so very different from any prior “Spider-Man” movie. The film is as much reinvention of these classic characters as an adaptation. Yet it is very much a likable reinvention, successfully bringing this cast of characters into the modern age without loosing sight of their soul. A fantastic cast combines with the Marvel formula for satisfying story telling, pacing, and structure to make perhaps the most consistent Spidey movie, if not exactly the best. [8/10]