"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Shadow: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A wonderfully made, visually stunning and dramatically and psychologically satisfying Chinese action film in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Shadow, directed by iconic Chinese film maker Zhang Yimou, is the story of Jingzhou who is trained from a young age to be a double/shadow for military leader Ziyu. The film stars Deng Chao in a dual role as Jingzhou and Commander Ziyu, with supporting turns from Sun Li and Zheng Kai.

Shadow is best described as a Wuxia film, which is a genre of Chinese fantasy/fiction that revolves around “martial heroes” in a world of magical realism. Notable examples of Wuxia films are Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and House of Flying Daggers by the same director as Shadow, Zhang Yimou.

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Yimou, who is one of the great directors of his generation, has a flair for unique fight choreography and paints his films with a striking palette and dramatic visuals. In Shadow, Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding use a muted grey, black and white as the dominant color scheme but the film’s visuals crackle with a stunning intensity. The film is beautifully shot, highlighted by Xiaoding’s gorgeous framing (just look at the poster above) and use of a crisp and clear contrast between the blacks and the whites, the shadow and the light. Yimou and Xiaoding’s masterful use of contrast creates a visual clarity and coherence that is a joy to behold.

Shadow is a psychologically and dramatically rich story that deeply mines the Jungian concepts of the shadow. The most obvious example of this is that Chao plays both Jing and Ziyi, who are essentially the same entity with two different elements of its psyche projected into the outer world, each vying for control. Jing “the shadow”, must be identical to Ziyi, and in a delicious bit of Jungian symbolism, must have the identical “wound” as Ziyi. Ziyi in turn must integrate his “shadow” in order to make himself whole again, or face the consequences of being overcome by his psychological shadow.

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The shadow is a complex and dramatically potent psychological premise used to great effect by other film makers from the East, most notably Japanese master Akira Kurosawa in the terrific film Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior). Like Shadow, Kagemusha also effectively used a single actor (the great Tatsuya Nakadai) to play both the role of the man of power and his shadow. Yimou dives even deeper into Jungian shadow psychology than Kurosawa though by emphasizing the anima (the feminine) and the imperative to also integrate that feminine power in order to become whole.

The ying and yang and wholeness are dominant themes throughout the movie (again look at the poster above) and Yimou emphasizes that battle/balance between the opposites not only visually with the black versus white color scheme, but dramatically with opposing masculine roles and opposing feminine roles. Just as Ziyi has Jing as his literal shadow (and vice versa), Ziyi’s wife, Xiao Ai has a symbolic opposite/shadow in Princess Qingping. That sort of balance in the narrative makes the film dramatically and subconciously very satisfying even while it maintains a pronounced assault and challenge upon our storytelling expectations.

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Wholeness is also represented in numerous ways in the film, most notably by the umbrella. A circle is the symbol for wholeness and in Shadow, Jing integrates his masculine and feminine sides by using a circle, an umbrella, as a weapon not only of defense but of offense. Jing’s learning the use of the umbrella is an integration dance between the masculine and the feminine. The use of the umbrella is not only psychologically resonant but is visually striking as well.

The cast all do solid work with Deng Chao in his dual role and Sun Li as Ziyi’s wife being the most notable. Chao is really remarkable as both men and it is easy to forget the same actor is playing both roles. Sun Li’s work is incredibly layered and she brings a palpable humanity and fragility to the role that profoundly accentuates the drama.

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The fight sequences are all so unique, original and compelling that they are a wonder to behold. Since The Matrix and Crouching Tiger became such big hits twenty years ago, slow motion martial arts moves have become passe, but Yimou fantastically turns everything on its head in Shadow and creates vibrant and vivid fights that are gloriously choreographed and cinematically mesmerizing. Yimou also wisely uses water and rain to further visually enhance the fight sequences.

While Shadow can be a bit confusing at first, especially if you go in unaware of the plot, once it hits its stride it is truly fantastic. I loved the film because it is such a dramatically, psychologically and cinematically rich example of the magical realism of Wuxia in action. If you are a fan of Wuxia or Yimou, rush out and see this movie in the theatres immediately. If you are less a Wuxia enthusiast, but enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Shadow may be a little tougher to penetrate because it isn’t as easily digestible or romantically sweeping as Ang Lee’s epic, but it is equally beautiful to look at. But with all that said, even if you are on the fence about going to see Shadow, why not give it a shot….the shadow you save might just be your own.

©2019

Spider-Man : Homecoming - A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating : 2.35 out of 5 stars.

My Recommendation : SKIP IT IN THE THEATRE. SEE IT ON CABLE OR NETFLIX.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts, is the coming of age story of Peter Parker and his superhero alter-ego Spider-Man. The film stars Tom Holland as Spider-Man, with supporting nods from Michael Keaton, Marissa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first installment of the second re-boot of the third Spider-Man series of films. If that sounds confusing to you, you are not alone. The original cinematic Spiderman was Tobey Maguire who starred in three films produced by Sony from 2002, 2004 and 2007. Sony then re-booted the series in 2012, with Andrew Garfield as the new Spiderman and Emma Stone his love interest. Garfield lasted for two films, the second coming out in 2014, then he ran afoul of Sony's studio head and was summarily exiled from Spideydom. Now, just three years later, Spidey is back, this time with Disney/Marvel producing after the two mega-studios made a deal to bring Spider-Man back into the Marvel fold, adding one more branch to their gargantuan money tree. Tom Holland dons the signature blue and red tights this time for his first star turn in the Spider-Man franchise. Holland has played the character once before in a supporting role in Captain America : Civil War

I enjoyed the first two Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, they were solid, well-made movies with a distinct aesthetic and style and that I enjoyed. The third Maguire Spider-Man was an abomination that was so atrocious it stopped the franchise in its tracks. I admit I have never seen the Andrew Garfield Spidey films because at the time they seemed to be a gratuitous money-grab being that they were re-booting the franchise just five years after the last series ended. This time around they are re-booting after only three years, but it is a true re-boot where Spider-Man is absorbed into the Avenger's universe, so that somehow seems a bit less artistically bankrupt as the Garfield versions.

I am a fan of the Spider-Man character, so I had high expectations going to the theatre, but sadly I must report that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a very mixed bag of a movie. It isn't awful, but it certainly isn't great either. There are good elements and bad elements. In keeping with my optimistic nature…*please stop laughing*...I will get to the good points first. 

First off, Tom Holland does excellent work as Spider-Man. In this re-boot, Spider-Man is fourteen and fifteen years old, in other words he is a really annoying teenager. Holland does an exceedingly good job of capturing teenage angst and ennui, as well as the frustrations, social fragility and mental chaos that encompass adolescence. His voice even has a subtle crack to it that lets you know this is a boy thrust into a man's world. Holland seems to have a very bright future, and I hope he can use the monstrous success of this Spider-Man movie to spread his artistic wings and do more than carry water for the Disney money machine.

Holland is not the only bright spot in terms of acting. Michael Keaton plays the villain, Vulture, and he gives a terrific performance. There is an underlying menacing quality to Keaton in this film that he wears very well. It is great to see Keaton back in the game and crushing diverse, quality roles after his years of exile from the big stage. In some ways, Keaton's Vulture character is like his fictional alter ego in the movie Birdman, which can make for an ironically enjoyable perspective on his work in Spider-Man. 

Robert Downey Jr. reprises his iconic Iron Man role in the movie. Downey is the quintessential Iron Man. He is the perfect mix of charisma, charm and emotional fragility to bring a superhero to life on screen and he is uniquely qualified to never be overshadowed by all the pyrotechnics surrounding his performance. 

The film also does something very smart which a lot of television shows have started to do as well, namely, that they use music from earlier eras in order to conjure a sense of nostalgia in older audience members. Make no mistake about it, Spider-Man is a movie for teenagers, but the music in it is the music of the 70's and 80's, in other words the music from the teenage years of late baby boomers and generation X. Television shows like 13 Reasons Why and Stranger Things have used this musical technique to great effect in the last year. This is a brilliant device to bring older audiences into the story without alienating younger viewers. 

Another wise move by the filmmakers is that they do not try and do too much right out of the gate. Too many superhero films are unbalanced between superhero and villain, and superhero and task. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-man and Vulture are a pretty evenly matched, and Spider-man is not entrusted with having to save the world, just his little corner of it.

And now for the bad news…as I stated earlier, Tom Holland is fantastic at portraying a teenage boy, in fact he does too good a job. Spending two and half hours with a teenager is not something anyone in their right mind would want to actually do…hell, not even a teenager would want to spend that much time with a teenager. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, we are stuck with an annoying, whiny teenage idiot who makes the same moronic decisions most every teenager would make. Teenagers will relate to him, but adults will want to slap him silly for being so continuously stupid.

Another issue is that the portions of the story that deal with Peter Parker's high school life and friends are pretty unbearable. All of the teenage characters are painfully one-dimensional and are numbingly predictable and corny as hell. Peter Parker and friends are a drag on the entire film.

The story also suffers from a lack of clarity because the film makes large jumps in time and doesn't fill in the gaps properly in order to flesh out the characters and drama. For instance, the movie open with crews cleaning up in the wake of the destruction created by the Avengers in their New York City brawl with aliens in the first Avengers film. Then the movie jumps eight years ahead and we never get to see the critical moments in the development of Keaton's Vulture character, which to me would have been the most interesting part of the film, and we never got see it. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming also suffers from two things that afflict the Marvel films in general, namely that they are visually flat and stale, and also that they are thematically much too paltry and light-hearted. In terms of the visuals of the film, director Jon Watts, whose resume isn't exactly inspiring, is in way over his head. This movie is aesthetically more akin to a made for television movie than it is a cinematic enterprise. To be fair to Watts, Disney/Marvel run a very tight ship and are not interested in artistic vision, only franchise conformity and box-office returns.

As for the light-hearted nature that permeates all of the Marvel films, Spider-Man: Homecoming is definitely no exception. Like all of the Marvel movies, there is a tsunami of zippy one-liners and a flippancy that seeps out of its every pore. I understand that "entertainment' is the goal with these movies, but that doesn't mean they have to be so shallow and frivolous. Christopher Nolan proved with his Dark Knight trilogy that superhero movies can be entertaining and also artistically and archetypally illuminating at the same time. Even Sam Raimi with the original two Spider-Man films was able to pull that off, as was Ang Lee with his much maligned, Jungian inspired, Hulk. Just this year we have seen the superhero game elevated to a much higher level with James Mangold's superior Logan and Patty Jenkin's well-crafted Wonder Woman. Spider-Man fails to live up to the standards set by these quality films, but the truth is the same can be said of all of the Marvel films and Disney doesn't care as long as the money train keeps rolling. 

The final issue I had with Spider-Man: Homecoming was that the rules of the cinematic universe were never clearly defined. What I mean by that is that superhero movies are pretty incredible to begin with, so you have to have a set of rules for the film that the movie sticks to or else the story loses much needed credibility. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, for instance, Spider-Man is knocked out by bumping his head on a roof, but when he gets punched by a super-arm or is in a car crash, he comes out entirely unscathed. It is a little thing, but sometimes the little things add up to a big thing. 

There was one thing that was both good and bad about the film. There is a B-story sub-text about class in the film that is pretty fascinating, which is the good thing, the bad thing is it is so minor as to be quickly forgotten. Spider-man is a local, working class hero, or as Iron Man tells him, he has a whole "Springsteen vibe" going on. I think if the film had fleshed out this idea it would have been a very rich topic to explore. Keaton's Vulture is the same as Spider-man, a blue collar local guy, whereas Iron Man and the Avengers are a globalist bunch of elitists trying to impose their values on the locals. Politically, this is a potent narrative that we have seen play out across the globe and even in our last election. A superhero movie can sometimes be the best place to hash out archetypal and mythic conflicts so that viewers can find nuance, or clarity, whichever they most need. Sadly, Spider-Man: Homecoming spent more time with adolescent pursuits and mostly turned a blind eye to the class struggle that was taking place at the heart of the story, and the film is lesser for it. 

The bottom line is this, Spider - Man: Homecoming is just…ok. It is an admittedly fun but basically mindless movie that will no doubt entertain millions and make billions. If you are a superhero fan you will see the film regardless of what I say, but if you are lukewarm on these types of films, I think you can skip it in the theatre and see it when it's on cable of Netflix. 

In conclusion I will share this, that over the years many readers have emailed me to tell me that they think I am a vicious misogynist, racist and xenophobe, and with my tepid review of Spider-Man: Homecoming, they will no doubt add "incorrigible arachnophobe" to the list of evils that afflict me. I will simply say this in my defense…I am not an arachnophobe (some of my best friends are spiders!!), I am just a cinephile who yearns for a bit more from the standard summertime popcorn movies that Hollywood continuously uses to separate fools like me from their hard earned money. My spidey-senses are telling me I'm going to need to lower my standards. 

©2017