Short takes: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver & Beatriz at Dinner

Spider-Man: Homecoming — For better and worse, the rebooted-yet-again story of Spider-Man thrusts the hero into the digital age. First introduced as a DIY filmmaker enthusiastically chronicling his semi-induction into The Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) soon learns the challenges of balancing high school and super hero life. Should he use his costume to impress a crush and silence a bully?  Will his parental guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, shamefully but not surprisingly under-utilized) find out why he’s sneaking out at night?

The Parker of Homecoming longs for more than thwarting ATM robbers and recovering stolen bikes. He wants to play with the big kids, though Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) periodically shows up to remind him he’s not ready. Director Jon Watts balances the whimsical innocence of the high school portions of the movie with the slightly grave mission Spider-Man undertakes: combatting the Vulture (Michael Keaton, a manic delight), a disgruntled public works employee who steals secret technology from the military and eventually The Avengers.

Homecoming develops an unintentional ugliness as the story develops and Parker’s understanding of his powers develops. When he has his spider suit’s limitations bypassed by his tech-savvy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), it takes the suit off “training wheels” and gives him access to every ability imaginable. This includes hundreds of different web shooting functions and little web wings for gliding as well as a mini spider drone, and an “instant kill” function.

Spider-Man gleefully deploys nearly all of these functions except the last, which he greets with horror.  Homecoming presents the hero as a miniature embodiment of digital surveillance but doesn’t interrogate it, slathering a chipper sense of discovery over nearly every new ability. (In fact, the suit’s “enhanced interrogation mode” is played for a queasily straightforward laugh). The movie’s main subject is its hero’s adolescence as both asset and limitation; he’s old enough to fight crime but too young to kill, for now.  I wish Homecoming did more than skate by on charm, though the movie and Holland show enough potential that the series could easily mature past this debut’s shortcomings. Grade: C

Baby Driver — B-A-B-Y, baby” a young woman sings when she arrives to work at an unassuming Atlanta driver. The tune catches the ear of a guy in one of the booths, both because he feels an instant connection to her and because, well, his name is Baby. Not long after a flirty conversation with the waitress, Debora (Lily James), Baby (Ansel Elgort) rushes out to a record store to track down a copy of the original song, by Carla Thomas. When Baby isn’t wooing Debora or caring for his aging foster father, he’s attempting to make good on a debt he owes to a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) by being a getaway driver for several robberies.

Edgar Wright’s latest is obsessed with Baby’s connection to music, and even goes so far as to time much of the movie, its car chases, heists and shootouts, to the rhythm of whatever’s on Baby’s earbuds at the moment.  While fun at first, this formal conceit becomes exhausting and annoying as the movie goes on.  Aside from the charming central romance and a slew of memorable supporting turns from criminals played by Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González and Jon Hamm, I felt more pummeled than thrilled.  Grade: C-

Beatriz at Dinner — Salma Hayak gives a tremendous performance as the title character in Miguel Arteta’s latest film, about a holistic medicine woman who clashes with the One Percent at a dinner party. Beatriz initially came to the swank mansion of her friend/client Cathy (Connie Britton) to give her a massage, but she’s invited to stay for dinner when her car won’t start in the driveway. To say she doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the crowd would be the understatement of the year.  When two other wealthy couples arrive to celebrate a lucrative business development with Cathy’s husband, Beatriz finds herself morally opposed to nearly everything the rest of them say and do. This is especially true of Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a mogul famous for exploiting workers and leveling forests and communities to build his projects.

Arteta mines every squirm-inducing moment from Mike White’s screenplay. The simple way he holds on reaction shots while another person speaks during the central dinner scene is unnerving and effective. Hayak instills Beatriz with a serene confidence; she does not hesitate to challenge the endless swath of unchecked entitlement. Cathy does her best to act as an intermediary, telling her friends how much of a help Beatriz’s treatments were when her daughter was battling cancer. The empathy of these rich white people only stretches so far, though; as soon as Beatriz breaks with polite conversation and confronts Doug directly, they’ve had enough. The movie doesn’t always handle the transition between its group conversation scenes well, but overall it is an insightful and understanding portrait of a woman who’s over it. Grade: B-


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