CineScene

Three New Titles, But Only ‘Spider’ Sticks

‘House’ Loses, ‘Beguiled’ Didn’t
By BILL GEIGER | Jul 26, 2017

After the big Spider-Man tease in last summer’s “Captain America: Civil War,” Marvel’s film division has rolled out a full-blown “Spider-Man” feature, which the comics company aptly subtitled “Homecoming.” While we may not be calling for another reboot, the Tom Holland-starring “Spidey” is worth the blockbuster price tag. After all, it has been one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the summer. It doesn’t disappoint.

But like all good film weeks, “Spider-Man” was not the only film on the docket. Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler headline “The House,” about a couple of suburban parents whose daughter gets into Bucknell University, and they come to the realization they can’t afford to send her there. Hmmm – what to do?

The other new film is a remake of a rather curious Clint Eastwood movie from 1971 called “The Beguiled.” The story centers on what happens when a student from a sheltered all-girl’s school in rural Virginia finds a wounded Union soldier in the woods, then brings him back to the school to get fixed up. Adding a randy male into the closed environment of the girls’ school is bound to stir the pot a bit, and “The Beguiled,” which can mean several different things in English, some of which are actually opposite the other, stirs it up good and proper.

But let’s start with “The House,” directed by Andrew Jay Cohen, who also has a writer credit on the film. Poking fun at the dilemma many parents face is a dangerous thing. The filmmakers are betting that the comedy inherent in the story, and of course the personas of the stars, Ferrell and Poehler, will dissuade anyone from taking offense – since this one is played broadly for laughs.

That might work with the story in general, but the moral ambiguity the story unfolds, that stealing people’s money in illegal betting games in an illegal gambling house is OK as long as it’s not embezzling money by a township commissioner in a fraudulent scheme to build a pool and recreation park, is a tough idea to parse. A wrong is a wrong, right?

The township that Ferrell and Poehler, who play Scott and Kate Johansen respectively, reside in is fairly affluent and had for years given one full college scholarship to a resident, but the commissioner reported to everyone at a recent meeting that there was no money for such a scholarship this particular year.

Scott and Kate are beside themselves since they were depending on that scholarship, and daughter Alex had done extremely well in school, so she was certainly deserving. But the crooked township official in charge of the money, Bob Schaeffer (Nick Kroll) was earmarking it for that recreation park, so there was no scholarship this year. In fact, Commissioner Bob may have even earmarked that money for himself.

So Scott and Kate, with Alex totally unaware, team up with neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to open up an illegal casino in Frank’s house. In the film Frank is going through an ugly split with his wife, Raina (Michaela Watkins), so the casino is a welcome diversion. Frank welcomes diversions.

People can park in the lot of the local deli, then go around the back, through the woods a bit, to get to Frank’s house. He doesn’t want all the casino people parking out front. All goes well until Frank, Scott and Kate, catch someone cheating. They try to intimidate him, and things go downhill for them in a hurry. The customer who was counting cards was mobbed up and brings his boss, hilariously played by Jeremy Renner, to shoot up the casino.

Bob is suspicious, and when he finds the casino he extorts all the money from Scott, Kate, and Frank – so after the bad casino idea, that’s wrong number two. Then Scott, Kate and even Alex decide to go to the township building and steal the money back. Keeping track, that’s wrong number three.

This is a film of extremely dubious morals. There are laughs, but also some cartoonishly-played violence, and overall, “The House” is lacking some worth. Well, maybe a lot of worth, I would say.

I would also say “The House” lacks verisimilitude because of the cartoonish way it develops a casino out of nothing and then treats the violence that attends this type of gambling as though it is nothing. Is it worth the money for a ticket? I would say no as well. Outside of a couple of laughs, there is not enough levity to sustain the film. They say the house always wins, but this is the one example that disproves that rule.

*   *   *

The Spider-Man story on film reads like a history of the 2000s. The first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man debuted in 2002, then there were sequels in ’04 and ’07. Then the series underwent a reboot with Andrew Garfield, called “The Amazing Spider-Man,” in ’12 and a sequel in ’14. Now, in 2017, we have a new Spidey in the youthful-looking Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Did we need another reboot? Did Dr. Pepper go to medical school?

But Spider-Man has always been a hero of the middle class. Even though the atomic spider that supposedly bit him, giving him the Spidey edge, was the product of the research and development of weaponized atomic devices by a multi-million-dollar firm, the hero was always just an average high school kid named Peter Parker whose biggest worry should have been whom he should take to the prom, not how to defeat the Green Goblin.

In the Spider-Man backstory, the parents of Tobey Maguire’s Spidey were killed when he was young, and he was raised by his uncle and aunt. Ben (Cliff Robertson), his uncle, is also murdered in the first “Spider-Man,” so he essentially is raised by his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) – until the soulful Andrew Garfield replaced the nerdy Tobey Maguire in the next reboot.

Then his parental units were again Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen this time), but his upbringing was startlingly average, again strongly middle class. In “Homecoming” there’s only Aunt May (a youngish Marisa Tomei), who, once on Peter’s case, doesn’t let up. She’s the prototypical working mom.

I go through all this Peter Parker backstory because to understand Spider-Man, one has to understand his New York upbringing. Harris and Field were geriatric stand-ins for Mom, but though Tomei might be 30 years older than Parker, she doesn’t look it. So she gives Peter a very youthful vibe, one he uses again and again in the film, all while wearing a very formidable superhero suit.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who utilized Spider-Man in the Captain America film last summer, is kind of Peter’s mentor in the film. He keeps Peter on a short leash, and lets his Spidey suit do only certain things, calling this his “training wheels” protocol. But Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is a young computer genius who first of all knows Peter’s secret, then finds ways to circumvent Stark’s prohibitions. Soon Peter is able to literally swing around town looking for bad guys to take down.

He finds one in Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), whom we first see some eight years previously heading the salvage effort in New York City after the Avengers had battled the alien race Chitauri. Alien technology is up for grabs and Toomes is hot on the trail until shadowy government types, headed by Ann Marie Hoag (Tyne Daly), show up and confiscate all the salvaged equipment.

Toomes makes an eloquent speech asking for permission to keep some of the salvaged stuff, but to no avail. So he recruits some of his staff and manages to spirit some of his stash away. Eight years later, Peter learns about one of these things, an alien power core, finds it and gives it to Ned to hold for safekeeping.

Meanwhile Toomes is still finding alien stuff, but now as the Vulture, a kind of armored flying creature, built with all the alien technology he’s found over the years; and beyond that, all that technology has made him famously wealthy.

Peter finds out about his operation and learns that something big is going to go down in D.C. It just so happens that Peter is on the Academic Decathlon team, and that team happens to be going to D.C. to compete for the decathlon championship.

So Peter goes with the team to D.C., then goes off in Spidey mode, and after a disastrous situation at the Washington Monument, Peter as Spidey manages to save the team but exposes way too much of the Spider-Man for Stark’s liking, and he takes Peter’s uni away from him to give him something to think about.

As the story unfolds, Peter has plenty to think about, and as Toomes enters more and more into his life, and not only as Vulture, Peter has several hard choices to make. Some involve his personal life, and some involve Stark Enterprises, for the Vulture has set his eyes on a very formidable aircraft that Stark built, so the final confrontation and epic battle are for something very dear to Parker. You could call the final part of the film Peter’s “homecoming.”

It’s difficult to look at Keaton as a villain. Come on, he’s Birdman; he’s Ray Croc. He’s not a villain. He knows he’s not as wealthy as Stark, but he’s made a tidy sum of money, most of the time doing illegal things, and when he challenges Parker in that epic confrontation, he comes at him touting those middle-class values.

“The rich (read Tony Stark) don’t care about anyone, and we (read middle class) build their roads, and make everything for them, and we get nothing from them …” I paraphrase most of his speech, but it was something like that. Those middle-class values make Toomes a subversive villain since he hits home more with that idea than a Tony Stark-like character would.

And that’s what makes “Spider-Man: Homecoming” a pretty good movie. Is it a great movie? Nah. Jon Watts did a solid, workman-like job as director, and the story is exciting in some parts. Does it pass the verisimilitude test? In a way it does, since the viewer goes into a film like this knowing to suspend disbelief on some of the scenes. It is, after all, a superhero film.

Do you as a viewer get your money’s worth? I think you do. Holland is a youthful-looking Spidey, not as soulful as Garfield or nerdy as Maguire. But he makes a good Spidey, one who likes to joke, save the neighborhood bank, then go home and study for a Spanish quiz. He handles his fights and the action sequences with aplomb, and until the final fight, which does suspend our verisimilitude rule a bit, Holland is a strong Spidey.

History tells us that if middle-class values are strong, a particular country will not only survive but thrive. This new Spider-Man is a good addition to the canon of the work.

*   *   *

Merriam-Webster tells us that beguile can mean to trick or deceive, or to attract or interest. Those are very nearly opposite definitions. So for our final movie, the title “The Beguiled” could refer to the Union soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), or it could refer to the gaggle of Southern girls/women who take him into their very insulated and isolated school so he can heal from a gunshot wound to his leg.

Having a man stay at their school is a mighty distraction for the women, but headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) does her best to try to keep the girls grounded despite the intrusion. And McBurney for his part takes notice of spinster-in-training Edwina (Kirstin Dunst) and uses his considerable Irish charm to beguile her and turn her away from her compadres at the school and toward him and his ends.

The film begins with young Amy (Oona Laurence) searching for mushrooms, which Miss Martha or Edwina will use in that night’s dinner. It’s difficult to see just what she is collecting, however, and even though she does it several times in the film, it really doesn’t make much sense. McBurney first spots her, and she him, as she is collecting, and she realizes he’s hurt, and takes him to their school. It’s only near the end, when Amy is looking for specific ’shrooms, that we can see what she is really collecting.

Miss Martha runs a fairly tight ship, but when she gives McBurney a pretty friendly sponge bath, her agitation is palpable. Soon he tries to beguile her, but she’s strong, and only when plied with several draughts of wine does she drop her guard. In the early going, the girls are friendly with McBurney and wish him to stay. They ask Miss Martha, who is very wary, if she’ll permit him to stay. She finally relents. She’s been beguiled.

Soon McBurney is working on Edwina, and he clearly wishes to gain her favor. She’s also been beguiled. But as the affection grows, so does the suspicion, and McBurney may have had too many aces up his sleeve for the film to end nicely.

It doesn’t, and maybe the addition of Alicia, played by Elle Fanning, puts too much female sexuality into the mix for this one male to handle. One plus one did equal three with Edwina and Miss Martha, but Alicia, being one of the students and therefore somewhat young, mixes things up completely. It’s McBurney who’s beguiled in that situation.

“The Beguiled” was directed by Sophia Coppola, and someone, like maybe her father, Francis Ford Coppola, should tell her how to pace a film.

Much has been made about how this is a feminine take on this film. To be sure, the 1971 version with Clint Eastwood was directed by Don Siegel, who was a man’s man. So yes, I would agree that with Sophia Coppola, we have a distinct feminine sensibility overshadowing this new version of “The Beguiled.” To my male mind it doesn’t make it much better.

It does have verisimilitude, at least in the way the drama unfolds. The women try to make the best of the situation, and so does McBurney. But Farrell has some trouble holding onto that Irish brogue he tries to use. To bring the battle closer, Coppola has the deep rumble of cannon fire punctuate the film; I thought the cannon rumbles somewhat effective.

Is it worth the money? I’d say no. I have trouble liking Sophia Coppola films, and this one is no exception. I did like the Don Siegel version better. She tells the story well, and there’s lots of beguiling going on, but the ending is rather lame. And Dunst’s Edwina is rather lame as well. Her transformation in the film is, in a word, beguiling also, but it’s us, the viewers, who get beguiled.

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