January Film Reviews

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Spider-Man swings in to save the day—and movie theaters—in what may be the most ambitious and crowd-pleasing superhero film to date. Following the closing moments of the previous entry, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been outed to the world as being the web-slinger’s secret identity. With his friends and family also catching backlash over the revelation, Peter seeks help from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) by asking to have the whole world forget that he is Spider-Man. Unfortunately, Strange’s spell backfires and causes Spider-Man villains from other realities to appear in Peter’s universe.

Superhero stories have become such significant pillars in the fabric of pop culture that for many audience members these spandex-clad characters’ origin stories are well known and their histories carry great weight. None more so than Spider-Man, who has been a mainstay of cinema since the release in 2002 of Sam Raimi’s live action interpretation starring Tobey Maguire. And No Way Home utilizes its audience’s shared history and intimacy with the character in unexpected, and often thrilling, ways. As the trailer revealed, the visitors from the multiverse are actually villains from previous iterations of Spider-Man, such as Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) from the aforementioned Raimi trilogy, as well as the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) and Electro (Jamie Foxx) from the largely forgotten Marc Webb films. But it is the original villain, Norman Osborn/ the Green Goblin, played by the indelible Willem Dafoe who steals the show, as he glides in to cackle his way to reminding audiences he isn’t only the archetype for comic book movie villains but remains among the best ever to do it in the genre.

Modern blockbusters are often promoted with the cliched lip service that they were made for the fans of the original property, but No Way Home is the rare exception that can wholeheartedly claim to be made for multiple generations of Spider-Man fans. It clears the canvas for future stories of the character and also reinvigorates his past installments.

The Power of the Dog

This slow burn thriller from acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion has become a frontrunner for this year’s awards season and offers a premier demonstration of the talents of its excellent ensemble of actors. Set in the early 20th century, a cruel rancher, Phil, (Benedict Cumberbatch) humiliates and emotionally terrorizes his brother George’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife, Rose, (Kristen Dunst) and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The film unfolds at a deliberately glacial pace, as Campion allows the initial sweetness of George and Rose’s relationship to quickly turn sour as Phil sinks his claws into her happiness. Cumberbatch delivers a strikingly magnetic performance, playing against type as a decidedly wicked, and filthy, individual. Dunst, who is rarely less than excellent, plays her fall into depression and alcoholism with heartbreaking control, while Plemons adds another strong entry to his impressive resume. The film deals with timeless themes of masculinity and repression with subtlety; as the revelations come forward, the characters’ motivations become clearer. The Netflix film is a cinematic magnum opus, the sorts of which traditional studios seldom produce.

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar winner for Best Picture, The Shape of Water follows a hustler named Stan (Bradley Cooper) on a descent into darkness as he tries to make something of himself. The film opens with Stan hiding a body beneath the floorboards of a decaying house, which he then burns to the ground. Stan soon comes across a traveling carnival seeing it as an opportunity to restart his life. He learns the trade of being a mystique showman and starts conning audience members, hoping to contact their deceased loved ones, out of their money, but he eventually becomes bored and begins looking for bigger scores. Del Toro is a master filmmaker and his ability to craft a fully visualized world is on display here, as well as his skill of compositing memorable shots. The performances are also uniformly strong; however, the film stalls as Stan’s inevitable downfall takes far too long to arrive after he has become a skilled grifter, who shows no signs of possessing any shred of morality. Not the director’s best effort.

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