Sunday, July 30, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: (Play-Along Department): Deliverance

The Story: Harmony (noun): 1. agreement; accord; harmonious relations. 2. the simultaneous combination of tones, esp. when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm. 

One of the things missing in most modern movies these days (possibly because audiences might find it "corny") is "the sing-along," where a group of characters participate in a collective musical performance that shows they can work together as a group to a common purpose. Corny? Maybe. But it's a great audio-visual short-hand for communicating a dramatic idea—the resolving of differences. Just as an orchestra can combine rhythm, brass, and strings to a unified whole, so, too, can disparate personalities and talents come together to create a sum greater than the parts. We see this work in music groups all the time, and there's no more obvious example in the movies than the Beatles documentary Let It Be, where the four writer-musicians bicker and back-bite, but manage to put it all together in their final concert on the Apple Studio roof-top, a meshing performance that shows just how good they could be. 

This month, in our "Don't Make a Scene" section, we'll present four sing-alongs from movies that display dramatically, through music, the putting-aside of differences in the creation of a unified effort—harmony. And as music is the important element here, and really doesn't work one note at a time, we will temporarily dispense with the usual frame-by-frame breakdowns, and present the scenes in their full 24 frames per second vitality. Here, we deviate slightly from that formula; there is no singing involved, but—for a very short idyll—there is harmony.


This is the very famous scene from the admittedly near-perfect adaptation of James Dickey's novel, Deliverance, that John Boorman crafted in 1972. That this is the film's most played scene and most familiar is probably due to it being one of the few parts of it that doesn't need to be censored in some way.

It is also the emotional high-point; the rest of the film is all down-stream from here. It comes quite early on, once the four middle-class adventurers reach their first intended stop at a filling station to get drivers to take their trucks down-river. There is immediate animosity between the locals and the tourists, abated only briefly by the duet that makes up the heart of the scene.

Even that is a far cry from convivial—the piece is called "Dueling Banjos" (adapted from the 1955 piece "Feudin' Banjos" created by Arthur Smith and Don Reno, but not credited to them, which resulted in a copyright infringement case) and implies a contest, a competition, two players at odds. Even the title invokes conflict.

The banjo player was portrayed (at the age of 16) by Billy Redden, who still lives in the locale of the film's filming, Rabun County Georgia, where he runs a cafe. He will occasionally do cameo's in films—like Tim Burton's Big Fish, playing essentially the same role. He can play a bit of banjo now, but at the time, he was just faking it, the playing being done is by a hidden musician with his arms sticking out from Redden's shirt.

It is a momentary lapse of hostilities between cultures...that will never be repeated throughout the rest of the film.

The Set-Up: Four good ol' suburban Southern boys (Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds, as well as Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox in their film debuts) decide to take a weekend adventure canoeing down a river that will soon disappear due to the construction of a dam nearby. The area will become flooded, the Cahulawassee River lost in the reservoir the dam will create. At the urging of Lewis Medlock (Reynolds) the four drive up into the Georgia hills to the head of the river, hoping to contract drivers to take their trucks to the end of the rapids of their return home. As this scene opens, they have stopped to gas up and attempt to get the help they need, but maybe not the attention they want.

1-2-3...






Words by James Dickey (and John Boorman)

Pictures by Vilmos Zsigmond and John Boorman

Deliverance is available on DVD and Blu_Ray from Warners Home Video.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

T-Men (1947)

T-Men (Anthony Mann, 1947) "T-Men" stands for "Treasury Men" or agents for the Department of the Treasury. Before 9/11, they were just behind the FBI in terms of domestic crime investigation, dealing with tax fraud, counterfeiting, bootlegging, illegal arms, as well as housing the Secret Service. The ATF and the Service broke off in 2003 to be a part of Homeland Security, but at the time this film was made it was still all under one bureaucratic roof...and probably looking for some publicity.

Now, an FBI movie could get an A-list budget. But, T-Men was strictly a B-picture, consigned to the bottom half of what they used to call in the movies "a double-bill" (look it up, you kids), but it had the great good fortune to be directed by a young up-and-coming director named Anthony Mann, who'd made a name for himself directing low-budget films for RKO and Republic. Mann brought to the mix a brilliant cinematographer John Alton, and together, the two would craft some of the more interesting examples of "film-noir" in cinema.


But, Lordy, it doesn't start out well. After a brief introduction to the work of the Treasury Department by a stern announcer (who will serve as narrator for the film), there is an introduction by former Treasury Law Enforcement Head Elmer Lincoln Irey, who flatly introduces the film as a case-study from the annals of the Department. The only notable thing about the sequence is that it's filmed, not across at the former director, but at desk level looking slightly up, giving him a slightly more authoritative air—especially to audiences naturally looking up at a screen from theater seats. But, from there, the film takes a decidedly dark turn.


In a dark-Los Angeles-alley behind a stadium, there is a rendezvous in progress. A Treasury Agent is going to be meeting a snitch. But before he can reach him a figure comes out of the shadows (literally) and cuts the contact down. End of the road. End of the investigation. The Department needs to take another tack.

Two agents are called to Washington: Dennis O'Brien (Dennis O'Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), who are called upon to go undercover and infiltrate the gang of counterfeiters, who have been passing bills with a superior paper very similar in composition to that used in legitimate currency. They travel to Detroit posing as former members of a crime ring that have been subsequently killed, leaving no traces of contacts that might blow their cover. They manage to do enough research of their cover identities as "Vannie Harrigan" and "Tony Galvani" that they work themselves into a counterfeit liquor stamps business, getting a lead on an overseas smuggler of the paper, known as "The Schemer" (Wallace Ford). The two split up with O'Brien going back to Los Angeles tracking down The Schemer, while Genaro stays in Detroit and continues to make in-roads with the counterfeiters.

O'Brien manages to find The Schemer eventually, as he's a frequenter of turkish baths, and after several steams—"I think I lost eight pounds," he tells his superiors—he makes contact with the older hood and gains enough trust that he proposes a joint effort. If "Schemer" can provide the paper, he can provide engraving plates for currency far superior to what's making it into the streets. The Schemer, though, wants to make sure that O'Brien is legit and has two of the gang's enforcers, Moxie (Charles McGraw) and Brownie (Jack Overman) to work over the agent to try to determine why he's so interested in the business. O'Brien's failure to "crack" wins him and Genaro a visit to Schemer's boss "Shiv" Triano (John Wengraf), who is interested in the venture, but wants to run tests—O'Brien only turns over one of the plates and says he'll only deliver the other to Triano's boss, a shadowy figure that is never mentioned by name.

A chance encounter in San Francisco makes Schemer suspicious of Genaro, just as O'Brien gets to meet the next tier of command, Diana Simpson (Jane Randolph), who is suspicious of any betrayal. She orders a hit on both The Schemer and Genaro: The Schemer being roasted alive in a steam bath and Genaro shot in front of his partner, who can only stand and watch helplessly as Genaro implicates himself, taking suspicion off O'Brien, and is executed, gangland-style. 

But Genaro has been clever enough to leave O'Brien clues to where he can find The Schemer's coded notebook, which the agent turns over to his superiors, bringing them closer to cracking the case, even as O'Brien has to overcome greater suspicion, due to his closeness to Genaro.

He has one advantage, however, he still has the other engraving plate that the counterfeiters now want...very much. But, as he's being watched closely—too closely by the assassin, Moxie, he has to find a way to complete the transaction, with the added incentive of bringing the ring to justice and avenging his partner.

T-Men is filmed in that "semi-documentary" style popular in the 1940's whenever a studio wanted to lend an aura of verisimilitude to a story "based on a true story" (as they like to say these days) by using real locations whenever possible. However, no documentary, semi or otherwise, has been as artfully shot and lighted, here by Mann and his cinematographer John Alton, who make the photography as oppressive as it is beautiful, enveloping the government agents in precipitous angles, uncomfortably close close-ups, and an ever-encroaching darkness that seems to swallow them up in the frame. The danger is so visually palpable you can practically smell the sweat, with or without the benefit of steam-baths.

It's a fascinating portrait of professionals, good and bad, just "doing business" with a restraint of attitude in the "Dragnet" manner, but explodes into ferocity when the guns come out. In fact, there's an energy to the finale that almost has a supernatural "horror" quality to it, of implacable hate that pulses through the veins of wounded men, rather than blood. The darkness veils emotion throughout the movie—especially in the scene where O'Brien's hat-brim shadows his eyes after witnessing Genaro's murder—only the spare splashes and flashes of light betraying the character's inner thoughts and rages. Despite good restrained performances, there's almost no acting needed, when Mann and Alton are presenting all the drama in their choices of light and dark. T-Men is one of the greatest of film-noirs, of the forces of light trying to penetrate the darkness. 



Thursday, July 27, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

Ape-ocalypse Now (The Beginning and The End)
or
"What Would Caesar Do?" ("Jesus Christ, You're Impressive...")

The more steps you take away from War for the Planet of the Apes, the more interesting a film it is. Maybe it's the way the FX now make you "buy" the apes as credible characters and not motion-capture constructs (They always looked good, aided immeasurably by the at-the-core ape-performances of Andy Serkis and crew). Maybe because Matt Reeves doesn't do anything "fancy," just directs with an eye toward verisimilitude and not for the cutesy-kitsch (ala the first movie from 1968). Maybe because the movie touches so many cultural reference points (and not just the first "Planet of the Apes" tetrology) that you get the feeling you've seen it all before—you have, just never like this, and never from this perspective. It is a film of so much incident (although quite compact), that the Big Picture the film is aiming at doesn't become apparent until you're out of it. Like the apes in their California forest, you can't see them for the trees. It's because evolution has been upended, and Man has made his successor in the form of his ancestor. The apes become humanity...and that's not a good thing. We have met the enemy and "he is us." The humans have played God with evolution...and God's really pissed.
Those expecting a big apocalyptic nuclear set-piece will be disappointed (although I was rather expecting it when I saw a reference to Beneath the Planet of the Apes in one of the sets). The world doesn't end with a bang, or a whimper, for that matter. As George Carlin once groused about Earth Day: "The earth will be just F-I-I-NE. But WE'RE fucked!" The world doesn't end at all. It just hits "reset" as it occasionally does ("Okay, everybody outta the gene-pool!") and begins again. Cosmically speaking, The Earth bases its fiscal year on dominant species. And the new King in town is the one Evolution left behind, and that Evolution's beneficiary unknowingly gave a kick-start to in its attempt to improve itself. The next species would do well if it never invents irony.
It's been two years since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which saw the sentient Ape-Tribe created by the green-eyed laboratory-experiment Caesar (Serkis) going through its own Civil War, ending with the death of Caesar's Iago and rival for power, Koba. But Civil Wars never really end, and those divisions haven't quite healed, and for the human survivors of a population-consuming flu (which grew out of the same experiments that created the intelligent apes—ya  know, irony), there hasn't been any sign of Caesar and his followers, as they have dug even farther into the Muir woods outside of San Francisco.
But, just because you don't see anything doesn't mean you can't hunt for it...just ask "Bigfoot." After a brief summation of what has gone before ("Reading" is what they'll say on CinemaSins), over a darkened forest shot, we see a well-armed Special Forces team stealthily track forward. On their helmets are slogans like "Monkey-Killer" and "Bedtime for Bonzo!" Humorous cultural references aside, they're on a mission: they've come from the north of the country under the command of one Colonel McCullough (it will turn out to be Woody Harrelson) to eradicate Caesar's ape-tribe for specific reasons that will be explained later, beyond merely fear and loathing. 
The attack initially goes well, decimating forward ape-guards standing at the ape-colony's outer defenses. But, a lone ape escapes on horse-back to bring reinforcements and the superior weapons of the unit are soon overcome by sheer force of numbers in an attack consisting mostly of a coordinated arrow attack. The Special Forces are overrun, save for four prisoners, including a gorilla, recognized as one of Koba's followers.
The prisoners are defiant. "How long do you think the woods will protect you? The Colonel has more power." They have every expectation to be killed, even inviting it, but after questioning them, Caesar sets them free. "Tell your Colonel you have seen me now. Tell him leave us the woods." And he sends them packing, tied back to back, astride horseback, and the tribe attends to their dead, putting their bodies in the river to send them to the sea. 

Caesar's son, Blue-Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones) comes back to the encampment after a long sortee to report that he's found a potential permanent home for the apes across a wide desert that might provide them safety. Caesar makes plans to evacuate the current refuge in the Muir woods and head for his promised land with the surviving apes and his family.
But, that night, other plans come to fruition. In his cave with his family asleep, Caesar sees green lights through the cover of their water-fall camouflage—an attack is coming and he runs after his commanders to seek out the soldiers and defend the encampment. He tells Blue-Eyes to stay behind and guard his family as he bounds into the interconnecting tunnels to coordinate the attack.
But, coming back to his quarters, he finds his family dead, riddled with bullets...and...just about to escape the scene of the assassination, the Colonel, who fires on Caesar as he prepares to be helicoptered away. Enraged, Caesar leaps after him, grabbing onto his rappelling line and starts to climb. But McCullough cuts through the chord and Caesar falls into the lake below, his family's murderer, escaped.
The next morning, it's a different Caesar making the plans. He instructs the tribe to head to the area found by Blue-Eyes and start again. But, he won't be going with them. Instead, he's going to go to the Army compound and kill McCullough, to later re-meet with the tribe should he survive. But, at this point, that's the least of his ambitions. His face is now an almost permanent scowl not—as one reviewer has said—dissimilar from the face of one of Clint Eastwood's revengers
It's apt. Because there's a lot of The Outlaw Josey Wales in War for the Planet of the Apes, as well as The Searchers, The Great Escape, shades of Apocalypse Now (but not much) and more than a salute to "Monkey Planet" author Pierre Boulle's "other" famous work "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and before the movie's through, you'll see hints (actually, more than hints) of Spartacus, Moses, and Jesus Christ, as well as Othello and MacBeth. That's a lot of iconography to be shouldered by one ape, but, at this point, short of martyrdom, there's not much more this risen ape can do to become a mythic figure to his followers. Myth is precisely what War for the Planet of the Apes is going for. And History repeating itself, as sure as the turning of the Earth, or its era.
But, Caesar has unwelcome company on his way to McCullough's compound; he's followed by orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), who refuse to leave his side on his journey. Before long, they come across another chimp, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo escapee who has also learned to talk, and a mute girl (Amiah Miller), who will soon be called Nova. They soon discover others, of McCullough's troop, who have been shot, abandoned and left for dead, who also exhibit signs of mutism, apparently a mutation of the original simian flu, carried by the survivors, that affects their speech centers.
So, let's see...

Apes Talk
Humans Fewer in Number
Humans Become Mute

All we need is a doll that goes "Mama" and a couple ruined national monuments and we're back to the beginning.
But, we've got a ways to go still. At one of the bases of the Alpha-Omega troop (the name of McCullough's forces), the small primary band of priimates learn something else. While on their exodus, the Muir apes have been outmaneuvered, captured by McCullough's forces and taken as prisoners back to his main base. Now, Caesar has another mission besides his personal revenge—free the apes so they can continue on their exodus. What he sees at the camp enrages him. The apes are back in cages and during the day, they are brought out to (without food and water) work a quarry and construct a large defensive wall for a coming attack—not from apes, but from other humans, who think, quite rightly, that McCullough has gone off his rocker and plan to (and here's the Apocalypse Now part) "terminate the colonel's command with extreme prejudice."

I guess Caesar and the humans have more in common than thought.
"Apes strong...together."
While Caesar goes after McCullough, Maurice, Nova and the others do some planning behind the scenes on trying to break the Muir apes out, and this is where the center-piece of the action starts. Now, I'm starting to read comments on IMDB* that fuss about War being being mis-titled, that it's not so much a war as a skirmish. Numbers aside, this is a whiny comment, born of a diet of super-hero movies pumped with more adrenaline than craft. There's a lot going on here, besides orange-flamed flowering explosions and gymnastics (although there's plenty of that to satisfy anyone not eating their Wheaties with RedBull). Revolutions are made with more than bullets. And, given the cultural references brought to bear in War..., the film is hardly revolutionary, even if it's depicting one. This is good, old-fashioned film-making with a lot of thought and a lot of care. I think the IMDBullshitters are reacting to the rather glowing interviews of the mainstream critics, who are probably just relieved about seeing a good story well-told. Maybe they're pissed about the military being depicted this way. But, one should be reminded that McCullough is an outlier, an extremist, opposed by even the traditional military who have been satisfied to leave the apes in peace and have no interest in what he calls his "Holy War." If you're going to defend something you have to be able to recognize extremism...even if it's in the mirror.
If there's a failing, it's one of scope. What's the rest of the world doing? (The credits of Rise... indicated that the "simian flu" became a pandemic). The experiments that created Caesar and his kin was all based in the United States, so one can forgive this; the "action" of The Planet of the Apes should be focused on where the mutated apes are and that will be where Caesar is. So, one can forgive the U.S. base (I would rather like to see what the French are doing—it's their story, after all).
So, there's action aplenty and food for thought, as well. That's in keeping with the entire series, which has always been satirical, often heavy-handedly so. This prequel series of Rise..., Dawn..., and War... has been more cunning, and far more subtle, often defiantly so. One of my favorite shots of the three films is in War... where a captured Caesar stands up for his troop in their captivity and resists, taking the whipping that one of his followers started to endure. The weakened ape is dragged to McCullough who stares at him, mutters "Jesus Christ, you are impressive" and orders him to order the apes back to work. When Caesar refuses, he takes his gun and points it Caesar's forehead...and he defiantly leans into it, staring his oppressor down. That is powerful stuff, more than explosions, more than fire-power, more than mega-tonnage.
So...how does it all end? Aptly, actually. With an ending and a beginning. 
But the POTA prequels leave one thread dangling...suspended, as it were. Back in Rise... there was the hint of a mystery that was buried in background television newscasts and newspaper headlines...of the Mars Mission Icarus that was poised to enter the Martian atmosphere but became (as the headline read) "Lost in Space." Nothing of that seemingly doomed mission is mentioned in either Dawn... or War..., but it's still out there, somewhere. War for the Planet of the Apes ends (not with a bang, not with a whimper) with a shot of the former Muir-Ape-troop in their Promised Land, as the camera tilts up to the sky and lingers there for more than a moment before the final fade-out. This may not be to connotate the freeing of a spirit, but more probably to await the promise of...something...falling to the Earth. The circle in this trilogy is now complete, but with that completion of the turning, another one has begun, in the grooves of what has come before. Is it the end of The Planet of the Apes...or just the beginning?

* I've also seen comments that it's "communist propaganda" (I'm mystified as to how, but any thought I put into it would be more than was put into the original comment) and objecting because "humans are the bad guys." Well...duh. In the POTA series, they always were. The humans were the ones in charge of the nuclear weapons that decimated the human population and created the power vacuum that the apes filled. One only has to remember the last lines of the original: "So, we finally, really did it. YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!!" (I'm surprised I didn't see THAT reply in IMDB).

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Don't Make a Scene (Sing-Along Edition): Once

The Story: Harmony (noun): 1.  agreement; accord; harmonious relations. 2. the simultaneous combination of tones, esp. when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm.

One of the things missing in most modern movies these days (possibly because audiences might find it "corny") is "the sing-along," where a group of characters participate in a collective musical performance that shows they can work together as a group to a common purpose.  Corny?  Maybe.  But it's a great audio-visual short-hand for communicating a dramatic idea—the resolving of differences.  Just as an orchestra can combine rhythm, brass, and strings to a unified whole, so, too, can disparate personalities and talents come together to create a sum greater than the parts.  We see this work in music groups  all the time, and there's no more obvious example in the movies than the Beatles documentary Let It Be, where the four writer-musicians bicker and back-bite, but manage to put it all together in their final concert on the Apple Studio roof-top, a meshing performance that shows just how good they could be.

This month, in our "Don't Make a Scene" section, we'll present four sing-alongs from movies that display dramatically, through music, the putting-aside of differences in the creation of a unified effort—harmony.
And as music is the important element here, and really doesn't work one note at a time, we will temporarily dispense with the usual frame-by-frame breakdowns, and present the scenes in their full 24 frames per second vitality.

This one is the simplest of all.  Two people, just met, one a busker (Glen Hansard), the other, a street flower-seller (Mark√©ta Irglov√°), both musicians, each interested in the other's music.  She's heard him play on the street and likes his songs.  He follows her, intrigued, when she says she plays piano, but only has the opportunity to at a local music shop.

So, hearing her play, and impressed, he wants to see what she can add to a song of his he likes.  It, "Falling Slowly," eventually won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Song.  But the scene, before you hear the song that would eventually become familiar, evolves.  She gets the music, he explains the chords (to which she replies, matter-of-factly, looking at his fingers on the guitar neck, "I can see"—my favorite line of the film), and they begin.  Simply quietly, following the chords first, but, eventually, together, exploring the song's possibilities on their own.

It is vulnerable, tentative, then courageous and beautiful.  They get swept up in it, both a little surprised at what they can accomplish together, on something and an arrangement so new.  It's the start of an unspoken love affair—not completely unspoken, the only declaration is in Czech, which he doesn't understand (and as it isn't sub-titled, neither do we—nice touch, that)—that will have an ending, but will not resolve.  It will be a brief moment in time, when things are special, and everything is good, like a good song performed, in memory an echo.

It is part and parcel of a nearly perfect little movie, with a single-word title that reflects the melancholy, transitory nature of the encounter, its uniqueness in time, and the special pleasure—and pain—of its pastness: Once.

Brilliant.





Thursday, July 20, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

With Great Power Comes Greeeeeat Flakiness
or
"You Say that a Lot. What Are You Sorry For THIS Time? ("...Previously on 'Peter Screws the Pooch'")

At one point in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter—Spider-Man—Parker (Tom Holland) says to Tony—Iron Man—Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) "I wanted to be just like you!" and Stark counters "...and I wanted you to be BETTER."

Precisely my feelings towards the Spider-Man 3.0 reboot, which I found a generally disappointing mess, with some very good things about it that did things differently...and refreshingly.

I like the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously—the Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield versions had their moments of mirth, but got mired down in the soap opera aspects of the character and the weight of the "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" philosophy. This Spider-Man entry feels like a hyper-After-School Special that dispenses with the "Life with Archie" aspects of the traditional mythos ("Hmmm: Gwen or Mary Jane?") and features a cast far more diverse than merely blond and brunette. That's good. It plays around with the teen-hero aspect of Spidey—he's supposed to be 15 in the movie and Holland is 21 (McGuire started at age 27 and Garfield at age 29, the latter two abandoning High School for college) and sticks him in the very awkward high-school years of the character's origins in the early days of Spider-Man's history.


I like the fact that we don't have to go through the motions of seeing his origin story—bitten by a radio-active spider and suddenly finding himself with out-sized strength, sticky appendages, and the acrobatic skills and balanced of a headlining Cirque du Soleil performer. Here, Spider-man simply is. Doesn't matter how, and that he's young, eager, and learning is part and parcel of the origin, anyway. So, I'm glad we don't have to watch Krypton explode again...or his parent get shot in an alley...again. Let him be...in media res.

I like the fact that—like the recent Wonder Woman—there is no revenge plot. He's not trying to avenge the murder of his Uncle Ben (portrayed earlier by Cliff Robertson and Martin Sheen) or even girl-friend Gwen Stacy. He wants to be Spider-Man because being Spider-Man is cool! He also wants to be just like his hero Tony Stark—who has provided him with a too-gadgety Spider-Man suit (which gets very tiresome after awhile, more on that later).

But, the best part about it has little to do with Spider-Man or the new guy who's portraying him—it's the "villain." The best part of Spider-Man: Homecoming is Michael Keaton (former Bat-man, former "Bird-Man"). His Adrian Toomes aka "The Vulture" starts out as a blue-collar guy (actually he remains a blue-collar guy although he starts sporting a full collar later on—a neat touch) who's salvage company is in charge of cleaning up Stark Tower after the big dust-up The Avengers had with the Chitauri in downtown New York. "The world had changed," he opines to one of his grunts as they pick through the rubble, finding all sorts of neat other-worldly tech.

While he's ruminating on that and instructing his crew how they should use the alien gadgets to take other alien gadgets apart, they are interrupted by a police-escorted group from Stark Industries (including Tyne Daly!) telling them to cease and desist. Stark Industries has used their political clout to take over the salvage operation—Toomes and his crew are out of a job. "Times are changing," says Toomes as he pockets a couple items in secret. "We need to change, too."
It's curious. The focus of the Spider-Man movies should be Peter Parker, but here, with the puerile adventures of kid Parker and his High School buddies not providing anything of depth and his general dorkiness, you gravitate to Toomes, whose character is at least competent. He's not unbalanced, he's opportunistic, entrepreneurial and he's got a well thought-out defense for doing everything's he's doing. Yes, his "crew" is selling alien and extra-dimensional tech to criminals, but to hear Toomes tell it (to Parker), he's no different than Parker's hero, Tony Stark, who started out—and, for all intents and purposes, still is—an arms-dealer. But, Toomes sees a difference: "People like Stark—they're not like us—you and me. We build their roads, fight their wars, eat their table-scraps..."
He thinks he's doing what he has to do to survive and to keep his family afloat and solvent. He's seen people go off the path and do well, and, for his family...why not?

Keaton is at the top of his game here. Laconic, thoughtful, dangerous, he has a lot of every-man bonhomie and you're drawn to him. But, the best scene in the film (which would be a crime if I spoiled by revealing it in any way) is his. And, it is played mostly silently with looks and deflecting casual dialog. Then, he delivers terms of engagement and he threatens, his eyebrows arched, a smile on his face. What Keaton is doing is a bit reminiscent of what his co-star Jack Nicholson did playing The Joker opposite his Batman—there is a theatricality to it, but tamped down, malevolent but smoldering, and stated not as threat, but as fact. It's no wonder Tom Holland looks scared shit-less during the scene—Keaton is the villain and has stolen his movie.
So, that's the good parts: some good casting, some clever dialog here and there. Peter has an interesting story-arc—he begins wanting to be an Avenger like he was in Captain America: Civil War (Peter has done a selfie-video of his adventure in the other movie—from another studio) and realizes, eventually through the course of the movie, that he shouldn't be an Avenger, but can do the most good just by being "your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man" (as the saying goes). And to have that arc, Spidey 3.0 has inserted itself into the tangled web of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so, yes, there's a lot of the MCU poster-boy, Tony Stark—some of which is necessary (Toomes' motivation is squarely on the shoulders of Stark), but a lot of which is Robert Downey, Jr. collecting a pay-check. Chris Evans shows up in a running gag as Captain America keeps turning up in Public Service Announcements "for the kids"*P

Here's the issue—it's all for a gag—it's tied to the Marvel movies, sure, but it also undercuts one of its major characters, doesn't respect him. I'm not sure what the internal logic of having Captain America be a role-model/spokes-hero "for the kids," since, after Civil War he's now considered an "outlaw" in the Marvel movies. But, hey, it's for a gag and another tie-in to the popular movies, right, so what's the harm? That it makes no sense probably shouldn't matter, as it's a "Spider-Man" movie, which should be it's own "thing," a Universe in a bottle...but for marketing purposes—to make sure there aren't any entries like the third Tobey McGuire and the second Andrew Garfield movies that have a slight down-tick in revenues to make studio executives nervous—they bring in popular characters from other Marvel movies...and...diminish them. Curious strategy, that.

Also, the presence of Stark contributes to something I find just annoying, but it's annoying for a significant amount of running time in the film: Spidey's suit. Looks good, okay. But, over the course of the movie, you find that there are so many goo-gah's and other gizmo's in it that you could imagine that given a good remote control, you don't even need a person in it.** The eye-holes respond to emotions (a trait picked up from Deadpool) and the mask has a "heads-up display" like Iron Man, they can control the types of webs he shoots, and, most egregiously, he has a "Siri" voice in his suit (voiced by Jennifer Connelly), who gives him so much information that there is no need for him to think. But, it does give him plenty of time to talk, which he does incessantly while he's trapped overnight in a weapons warehouse. Guess it beats trying to find an exit somewhere.
Need a lot less of this.
The thing is, it's not the suit that people like—it's the character inside it—although Marvel Studios tried to make him as much like Iron Man as possible, it will all be for naught if audiences don't respond to Holland and the character they've written. The movie makes the point, itself; after a botched confrontation with "The Vulture" on a Staten Island ferry, Stark's Iron man comes to save the day and dresses Spider-Man down...by taking away his tech-suit. "I'm nothing without the suit," bleats Peter. "If you're nothing without the suit, then you shouldn't have it!" Stark replies. Hopefully, when he gets it back, they'll have dialed down the tech. The character is fun enough when he has to improvise a get-up in the third act. And more competent.

But, the thing that really disappointed me is a problem that past Spider-man films have had—a needlessly frenetic pace and editing by a cuisinart. It's happened in Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (the ones fewer people saw and caused the respective re-boots). The timing is off on a few things because there seems to be an attempt to shoe-horn as many bits of business and details as possible, but not to dwell on them (one isn't given enough time to notice them!). Look at that fight gif above. See how things don't seem very smooth and jerk around a bit. That's because the director—or it could be 2nd, even 3rd unit-director—didn't have a basic design strategy that would make the fight work. They basically took bits and pieces of sequences, added some inserts and just thought it would come out looking good in the editing room. It didn't, and it doesn't. 
"See? Superman isn't the only hero who's a Christ-allegory!"
And once we get into the big battle set-pieces, the action (which is now more CGI than practical stage work) just becomes nearly incomprehensible and hard to follow—you can't see who's where and what spatial relationship they have with each other to determine the sequence of danger. It's just individual shots that are supposed to give you a sense of action highlights, but not how they relate to each other. Combine that with the tendency to have the Spider-Man fight sequences run a little too fast, especially in the swooping-and-dodging departments (which I suspect has more to do with trying to make the CGI pass scrutiny than anything else—come to think of it, the worst fight sequences of the previous "Spider-Man" films also occurred at night as this one does, and it makes you wonder if all the various FX houses go into a room to actually coordinate what the sequences will look like, as opposed to individual shots. They might be technically brilliant, but do they share the same framework to make the collection of shots legible? Not very. In fact, the last time, they had really good action sequences was way back in Spider-Man 2 (Series 1.0).

So, there's less doom-and-gloom in this Spider-Man movie. But, I can't say things have noticeably improved. In fact, the character seems even less important in his own series than when he started to be crowded out by villains. Maybe someday there'll be another good one along the lines of Spider-Man 2—still one of the best movies in the super-hero genre—but this one isn't it. The third time has some charm, but it's not enough to keep it off the bargain racks at your friendly neighborhood supermarket.





** The punch-line of which is Cap showing up in the completely superfluous Final Credits Teaser that completely nerd-bashes the idea of sitting through the Credits to watch to the teaser: "Hi, I'm Captain America. Here to talk to you about one of the most valuable traits a student or soldier can have. Patience. Sometimes, patience is the key to victory. Sometimes, it leads to very little, and it seems like it's not worth it, and you wonder why you waited so long for something so disappointing... How many more of these?"

** There's an antecedent in the comics for this: Spider-man has an enemy named "Venom"—he was briefly in Spider-Man 3 (the only #3 there has been), which is essentially a Spider-Man costume that possesses people (yeah, don't even ask...)