Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

I had originally dismissed this as a piece of television animation that was getting a theatrical release to boost interest in DVD sales and streaming. Well that turned out to be wrong. After hearing a number of my colleagues on “The Lamb” rave about it, and seeing a half dozen really positive reviews (which I scanned rather than reading), I became a lot more motivated. I can now see why there is a lot of enthusiasm, and while I am not inclined to say it was the best film of the year as some of the hyperbole had it, I can say it was excellent.

The story does take a while to set up and you have to be patient with it. Not only do most of us know the origin story, but when the various dimensions start crossing paths, we get it partially recapped, although with slight variations each time. The main focus in this telling is on Miles Morales, a kid from Brooklyn who is starting at a charter school where he stays in a dorm during the school week. This story is immediately different because Miles has a loving Mother and Father present in his life. He is not alienated from them but he does have some of the usual adolescent angst that comes from trying to be your own person but also needing your family. Miles is gifted but more in the arts than the sciences, and his radiated spider bite is not a result of his involvement with a science project but rather, a graffiti experience he undertakes with his uncle in the subways of N.Y..

The look of the film is interesting because it contains a variety of painting styles, animation techniques and comic book themes. There are multiple panels being used at once and the progression thru the story is sometimes abbreviated by that style. This really is a hip hop version of a Spider-man story, complete with street art and music to lead us through our hero’s tale. The backgrounds are textured with the kind of pixelation that you would see in an old school comic book or maybe video game. In the traditional Spider-man films, whether from Sony or from Marvel/Disney, the character does look like a cartoon in a real world setting at times. This movie makes all the world look like a drawing so you stop noticing how different the animation is in the action scenes. I had a slight problem because the image sometimes looked blurry to me, as if it was created for 3-D and I was not wearing my special glasses. I assume this was an intentional choice rather than an exhibitor error. It was the main fault I had with the way the movie looked.

The story is self aware, making slight insider references to the other films in the Spider-man universe. There is also a version of the character that looks like a Warner Brothers cartoon, and a Porky Pig reference is made. Multiple villain appear and they seem to be altered to some degree by the intersection of the dimensions as well. Dr. Octopus for instance will probably surprise you a bit. The Kingpin is the main antagonist and we are given just enough information to understand his motivations for the actions he takes and his desire for what he sees as revenge. Some new villains (or at least I assume they are new, I’m not a reader of the comics) also appear in the story, and there is a twist that comes but it is signposted well before it arrives so it is easier to swallow.

We end up with six different versions of Spider-man, aiding one another in trying to stop the scheme while also dealing with the possibility that they will glitch our of existence.  My favorite was Noir Spider-man, who looks like Darkman but even better, is voiced by Nicholas Cage. The mash up of styles for the different heroes is not as jarring as you might expect and in the end it all works pretty well. Some storlines could be a bit more complete but as a comic book film, “Into the Spider-verse” achieves its purpose. I was entertained and enjoyed expolring different variations on the same theme. Plus there is a really fun shot taken at Sam Rami’s “Spider-man 3”. That should give the comic book geeks something to look forward to as well. If you stick to the end of the credits, you will also get a nice nostalgia moment for old timers like me.

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2018 Film Year in the Rear View Mirror

55 New Films this year, here is a video inventory for you.

20 Posts Covering Older Films, Special Events and Assorted others.

5 Movies I Want Everyone to See

I have been restoring posts that were originally published on Fogs Movie Reviews back in 2013. Fogs closed his site so the material I wrote has to be re-listed. I’ve been doing it piecemeal, so here are the links for the five entries I updated this year.

Podcasting

I was a very active member of the LAMB community this last year. [Large Association of Movie Blogs for you neophytes], and I started off the last year with the Movie Of The Month Podcast I championed, Ishtar. You can listen here:

After being on at least seven other of the LAMBCast episodes, Jay, the Shepard of the LAMB, decided that he might as well just automatically fill a weekly spot and give himself the chance to take an occasional episode off, by naming me as Official Co-Host of the LAMBCast. Since assuming my position in June, I have co-hosted 20 episodes with Jay, and flown solo on another half dozen.

In addition, My daughter Amanda, joined the LAMB this year and was a participant on three of those podcasts, including hosting the December MOTM, a Christmas themed show on the film “Meet Me In St. Louis” which she championed to victory. You can listen here:

Three of the shows we did in the last year were Draft Shows, where the participants draft a slate of films in a genre or category and then the community votes for what they think was the best slate. Frankly, having lost on Lambardy a year earlier, I was determined to do as well as I could on these competitions. Thanks to friends, readers and enlightened members of the LAMB community, I went three for three. I won the Spielberg Draft,

The Modern Animation Draft

and the 1960s Draft.

Jay would like to attribute my victories to superior campaigning, and that might be the case, but if you look at the lists, I think you will see that the results are due to superior selections.

I also had a wonderful time talking with Todd, the host of the Forgotten Filmcast, about a Strother Martin film “The Brotherhood of Satan”

Click to find a link to the podcast

2018 Big Screen Re-visits

Between Fathom, The TCM Film Festival and The American Cinematique, here are the films I revisited on the big screen from years past.

Favorite Movie Related Posts

This is post in praise of Physical Media.

This was a special Screening of a film starring a Radio God and Podcaster, Mark Thompson of the Mark and Brian Show.

A Live Musical Performance of Jaws, with the Family

A Pop up Laserdisc Sale, and boy did we make out.

The L.A. Philharmonic does Kubrick

Not So Great

A few films that are guaranteed to be disappointing. Sometimes my review was more positive than my real feelings for the films.

10 Great Moments in 2018 Films

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The Favourite

I am new to the films of director Yorgos Lanthimos, who has been highly praised for a number of his earlier films. I don’t know how representative of his style this movie is, but I can say there are certain things in this movie that seems to be unique to the movie and were clearly director’s choices. Most of those flourishes are at the base of my reservations about the film, so I may be hesitant to sample his other work. Between the praise and Award talk about this movie, and the highly entertaining trailer, I was expecting something a little more light and maybe traditional. There is a core to this story that I think would make a fine film in another director’s hands, but in Lanthimos grip, the movie becomes a bit “arty” and pretentious.

Deserving of high praise, regardless of what I thought of the rest of the movie are the three lead actresses. Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, but especially Olivia Colman, deliver effective performances. Stone manages to run the table from naive, open innocent to secretive and manipulative with just a little bit of alteration in her demeanor. Weisz is coiled danger and iron will from the start of the movie and even as she becomes more sympathetic, her persona does not change. Colman as Queen Anne, gets the widest range of emotions to depict from the screenplay and she manages to make us sympathize with a needy, neurotic and selfish woman who is clearly beset by emotional damage from earlier in her life. At times she is charming but can instantly turn cruel and dogmatic. Her emulation of physical pain but also physical pleasure is marvelous. Even when she is costumed and standing or being wheeled around, most of the acting work is in her facial expressions. That is an incredible accomplishment when you see how the movie is shot from low angles and wide images.

So I mentioned that I have a couple of issues with the director choices. Let me begin with one of the most obvious ones, the fish eye camera work. In many of the scenes set in the Queens bedroom or study, the initial view is a distorted image that inflates the center, reduces the edges and keeps most of the image from being focused. This is an unnecessary choice that draws attention to the film directing rather than the story. It is an indulgence that took me out of the events occurring every time it came up. A second issue with the film and the director is the use of Chapter cards to organize the story into discrete parts. Some of this may be in the script, so Lanthimos may not be entirely responsible, but they basically serve no purpose. If, like in “Pulp Fiction” the chapter stops helped organize the time sequence of the story, or if the captions emphasized a theme for a sequence, then they may have been a use for them. Sadly, this was not the case. Words and sentences from each sequence are randomly chose for the transition slides and they mean NOTHING! They neither highlight or make comment on the events we are seeing, they are simply plugged into a random spot to break up a narrative. Something that is certainly a directors choice is the use of fonts and spacing on those transition slides. Once again, it is a choice that draws attention to the director rather than the scene. Like a cinematic e.e. cummings, Lanthimos screws around with the visual image of the lettering, to make it distinctive, but also harder to read. cummings may have had a reason for his predilection, but I cannot fathom what the director was trying to accomplish here.

The movie is also filled with crass sexual references and visualizations. Certainly the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara takes the inferences from the notes of the Real Lady Sarah to heart. The story includes completely superfluous moments of Abigail manually satisfying her husband on their wedding night and Lord Harly delivering salty descriptions of women and participating in a homoerotic game of dodge-ball featuring a nude man and fruit. Given the instability of the Queen and the sexual references, I was thinking that this film felt a lot like “The Madness of King George” with porn.

Dramatically, there is a solid story to be told about how favoritism is sought, manipulated and influential in the royal court. It may be that the court had sexual intrigue and back stabbing, but all of that is presented as the surface level of interaction here, rather than a secret and subliminal process. When the words come right out of the Queen’s mouth “I like the way she puts her tongue in me”, you know that this is not a subtle form of palace intrigue. The views of men about women in the time might be backwards and reprehensible, but the film makers reinforce those ideas with the way women are depicted here. Instead of a story about female authority and power in an era dominated by male chauvinism,  “The Favourite” focuses on the very things that men might believe about women, their pettiness and emotional cruelty to one another. Those are the things that seem to be at the base of political instability, at least according to this movie. The Pyrrhic victory of one woman is a lesson in the futility of women being in charge. It is emotionally successful as a epitaph, but it is an impolitic message to convey to a contemporary audience.

 

Bumblebee

I enjoyed the first of the “Transformers” movies, it was loud and full of explosions and destruction, but all that got a little tiresome as the sequels came. Since I was not a child in the 1980s, I barely knew what the Transformers were and probably missed the relationship that younger audiences had with the original cartoons. Still, it is a series based on a toy line, and that seems like the biggest product placement you can have. I assume it has been working, at least up to the last film which was apparently a bust and abysmal.

“Bumblebee” may not draw in the big bucks that the first three films managed, but it will go a long way to restoring some sense of purpose to the concept. This film still has big effects and robots bashing each other, but not nearly as much and the purpose is not to gawk at all the Metropolitan destruction on screen. The battles here are smaller, easier to follow for a number of reasons, and they are mostly connected to the story.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie, an alienated teen (is there any other kind in the movies?), who discovers that the VW Beetle she owns, is not really a Bug, but rather an Apoidea. We see how the robot from another world got here and we know it’s mission, but because of combat, it’s memory has largely been lost and Charlie and Bumblebee have to figure out was is going on as the story unfolds. The thing that this film seems to get right is the relationship that Charlie and Bee develop together. It takes it’s time evolving and there are bumps along the way, but by the end of the film, you can almost believe the tears that will be shed by these characters.

As usual, there is a subplot involving a secret organization of the military, tracking the presence of the robots on Earth. This film is set in 1987, so in essence it is a prequel/reboot of the original films, and thus humans can be deceived by Decepticons, even though we know that is what they call themselves. The smaller scale of the story allows for more coherent visualization of the battles. They are all almost one on one without having to shift angles and focus to close ups every 5 seconds. It made for a more relaxing but still exciting film. Jon Cena has the thankless role of the xenophobic military officer who needs to be enlightened. He is perfectly fine but he does seem like a stand in for Josh Duhamel or Mark Wahlberg.

To say that this is the best “Transformers” movie might be a little bold, but it is clearly more engaging than any of the sequels have been so it has that going for it. The 80s vibe is heavy so all the kids who really did love the cartoons should be happy and there is a good chance that a whole bunch of new wave acts will see a spike in their Spotify numbers in the next month or so. It is entertaining but not essential, go at your own level of desire to see this character, because that’s it’s real selling point.

Anna and the Apocalypse

We have a new entry into the Best Christmas film ever category. Oh all right, maybe not, but when there is a competition for the most fun to be had in a Christmas movie, “Anna and the Apocalypse” will be there on the top shelf. This is a silly little mash up of “High School Musical” with “Shaun of the Dead” and the result is a delightful ninety seven minutes that will make you tap your toes and laugh out loud. The songs are sappy and although they don’t consistently blend with the theme, they each have a winning charm to them that makes them worth listening to.

Just before the Christmas break at school, somewhere in Scotland, Anna and her father, the school custodian, have a set to over her plans at the end of her senior year. Anna and her best friend John, who is trapped in the friend zone, navigate the school’s social castes and administrative politics as everyone is preparing for the big holiday extravaganza. Steph, the lonely American lesbian has been abandoned by her parents for a Mexican Holiday and her ex is not interested in spending time with her. Chris the nascent film director is deeply in love with singing star of the Christmas pageant Lisa, and she so desperately loves him back that they will inevitably break out into song about it. Also on hand for the proceedings is Anna’s ex, Nick, the alpha bully of the cafeteria and about as deep as you expect. Throw in the self important, soon to be promoted headmaster at the school and your major cast is complete. All of these characters will get a spotlight moment or two in both song and plot development.

The Zombie horror is minimal and the Zombie humor is concentrated. There are three or four great visual jokes that land and a few that evoke nothing more than a chuckle. What makes this movie a success is the use of the musical aesthetic to keep us engaged. The songs and lyrics help lighten the mood, or entertain us for a couple of minutes, but they don’t plow the story ahead.  They are often stand alone moments that draw attention to the musical device, but they are so well staged and performed that you don’t really mind.  My favorite actually has the least to do with the Zombie Apocalypse and is mostly centered around a school pageant with lyrics that would make any adult a little uncomfortable when it is being sung by a teenager. Marli Siu provides the vocals and plays Lisa. Here is a sample for you.

I’d be perfectly happy if this was in the field with “Shallow” for the Academy Award.

This movie is a trifle filled with sweet treats for those with an off center sense of humor. If you think that the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a bad movie that has only the cult following to credit any worth to, then this film is not really for you. If you are a fan of Brian DePalma’s underrated gem “The Phantom of the Paradise”, you will most certainly appreciate the tunes and staging that make this story sing. And , if like me, you think “Gremlins”and “Krampus” are a nice antidote to over indulging in sentiment (which by the way I am all in favor of), then “Anna and the Apocalypse” is something you should seek out.

I’d hope that this would be a breakout success and become a perennial favorite at Christmas. Maybe TNT could run it 24 hours straight the day before Christmas. Unfortunately, the reality is there is no such thing as a Hollywood Ending. Which by the way, the movie already proves.

The Mule

The man is 88 years old and still working hard to make good films. I skipped the first of his 2018 movies, the poorly reviewed “15:17 to Paris”. I was initially interested in seeing it, but the reviews were so bad that even the idea of the actual heroes playing themselves was not enough to induce me. This film does not any gimmick to it, it simply has the one essential plus that could over power any doubts; Clint is acting in the movie. In addition to directing, which has been his main focus for the last decade, he has come out of semi-retirement as on on-screen presence to deliver a performance to potentially cap off his amazing career.

It’s unlikely that he will receive Awards attention, he will be stereotyped as playing a character that he is, an old man. That character can also be seen as not to distinct from Walt in “Grand Torino”, a man who today’s generation would see as a racist because of the generation he grew up in. He is also likely to be ignored because he has crossed some lines that politically are Hollywood landmines. Regardless of whether he gets some professional accolades, I’m willing to give him some personal ones. For most of his career, he has played steel willed characters with a streak of sardonic humor. He keeps the humor for this part but adds some personal weaknesses and doubts. A lot like his character in “Million Dollar Baby”, Earl, the ninety year old drug mule in this film, struggles to connect with family and sees the most selfish impulses as the easiest ones to choose. His stubbornness is the real reason the title describes him. Earl has always done things his own way, and the fact that it might inconvenience his cartel employers is one lesson he has trouble learning.

The fun and personable aspects of Earl’s character are shown in the early scenes of his horticulturalist success, and later in the film as he parties with the drug lords. Clint manages to make a flinty old man a subject of amusement and charm. At the same time, we see that he recognizes some of his faults. There is an opening scene where he should be reminded of his own daughter’s wedding, and he brushes it off without a second thought. Towards the end of the film, we get to see that he can’t do that anymore. He sincerely wants to be there for his mostly ignored family. The facial expressions on his phone call with his granddaughter are contained looks that are appropriate for the character and the film. When Clint plays against Diane Wiest as his former wife, you can see the frustration she feels, but the aura of sadness and realization and defensiveness that Earl feels is palatable.  There is a slightly manufactured scene where Earl comes across his counterpart, a younger version of himself, someone who is driven to succeed but may be doing so at the expense of his family. As he offers advice, the voice contains the weariness that should tell the younger man that this is a man with the kind of experience to learn from.

Although this is a family drama, the crime elements are barely in second place. We care about this head strong, recklessly casual nonagenarian. He jokes with the guys he is taking the drugs from, and we laugh as he struggles to figure out texting, or makes ethnically insensitive jokes with the wrong guys. You will almost certainly smile when Dean Martin is crooning and the gang is all a part of it, but when the timetable is upset or the actions of a uptight handler threaten Earl, you will feel tension and that is exactly the kind of thing that a director like Eastwood knows. He plays a old man, in over his depth, who is trying to get by on the same charm that works with his VA buddies and his friends, but we know that that is not the audience he is playing to, and disaster is on the horizon.

The cast is thick with talent, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia are all in small but valuable roles. Diane Wiest has only a few scenes but she shows again that she is one of the most talented character actors working. She is twenty years younger than Clint but you will not sense that difference in their performances. The cast that plays the drug cartel drones is chosen for their looks but they also are capable. Eastwood has picked an interesting story, put together an involving drama, and turned in a effective performance and he has done it as he himself is approaching Earl’s age. We should all be so talented and full of ambition.

Aquaman

Frankly, this movie is ridiculous. The premise of the Aquaman is one of the loopiest comic book concepts that was ever created. There is something fishy about the whole idea. (Yeah, prepare yourself for a lot of bad puns her). Despite the silliness of the whole thing, it turns out to be pretty entertaining. If ever there were bad movies that won me over by sheer will power, than “Aquaman” can be added to the list. This is a mash up of concepts that should not work together but somehow manage to overcome the complete incompatibility of those ideas to make something that is hypnotically watchable, regardless of how inconsistent it is.

First of all, this movie is cheesy.  In addition to the bad puns, you are going to get a whole lot of metaphor in this review.  Like the soft, cheddar flavored goop that covers your nachos, this movie drips warm flavor over the saltiness of the sea. It is a fairy tale to begin with. The title character actually narrates the opening and closing of the story and it involves a peasant and a royal, finding love and trying to overcome the obstacles they face. There is a return to the glowing sunrise that gives the film a “magic hour” look, which reflects like the crusty topping off of your baked Mac and Cheese recipe. I spent most of the movie trying to figure out who the actress was that plays Aquaman’s mother. I thought to myself, where did they find this Nicole Kidman look alike? Then it turns out it was Nicole Kidman, I had no idea she was in this movie. Her scaly costume must have thrown me off. Also, I did not know she was so Gouda at martial arts. Some of the action takes place in Atlantis, which looks a lot like the castle in “The Little Mermaid”, but also the more CGI heavy scenes in “The Lord of the Rings” films. Oh, and just to emphasize the fairy tale connection a little more, the romantic interest in the film is given the same red hair as Ariel.

The second genre that is sprinkled on top of this souffle, is a Sci Fi quest story. A little bit like “the Hero’s Journey” in most of these films, there are a series of steps the hero must follow to reveal his true nature. The grated Parmesan covering this concerns an attempt to unravel some clues which will reveal the sacred Macguffin at the end. If you thought the National Treasure movies were laying on the Provolone a little thick, than get ready for a panini  of ginormous proportions. For a movie set in the ocean, the characters end up on land, in the air and the middle of the desert for some very odd reasons. When the bottle has a secret code engraved on the bottom, which will only make sense in the hands of a statue that the characters find in a provincial Sicilian village, you know that fish oil is ripening and the cheese mold is finally curdling sufficiently to make you stop worrying about any consistency in tone.

A third genre that gets heaped onto this, like a slice of blue cheese that you don’t really need but over powers all the other flavors, is a war film with a Kaiju thrown in. There are elaborate effects creating different under water kingdoms which will battle one another at the climax of the film. Some of the characters look like elves from the Lord of the Rings in elaborate capes flowing in the ocean currents. Other creatures are orc like fiddler crabs with one enlarged claw and an exoskeleton covered in barnacles. They are approaching each other like Calvary battalions on seahorses and sharks. This is the most comic book type image you can fathom. On the page, these panels would stand out as illustrations of over stuffed imagination, but in the movie, which is already filled with a bunch of preposterous images, they simple seem to be the natural conclusion to someones gumbo recipe.

Aquaman is a comic book character, but from the D.C. Universe not Marvel. That does not stop the creators of this movie from flavoring the pot with some melted mozzarella on top of the French Onion. There is a revenge story with a pirate who steals technology for the Loki-like Prince who is Aquaman’s half brother. This character gets suited up like Iron Man or Ant-Man, and has crazy powers that he uses to try to kill our heroes. I think you will laugh out loud at the endomorphic head that the “Black Mantis” wears during the combat in the middle of the story. The top heavy look is another choice that makes this film a continuing bag full of Doritos.

The base that holds all of this mixed metaphor together is Jason Momoa. Having been introduced in earlier D.C. stories, he gets to be the lead here and he has the charisma to carry it off. Somewhere I read that this movie is basically “Wet Thor”, and that comparison is apt, especially to the first of the Thor Marvel movies. Both characters are masculine parodies, full of self confidence and blundering humor. They are battling against siblings who are plotting to take over a kingdom and launch a war. At one point they are outcast and seemingly disgraced. Thor has to regain the power to wield his hammer and Aquaman, cleverly named “Arthur” in a brie moment, has to pull the sword from the stone, no wait, I’m sorry, he has to recover the trident from the ossified king. Whiter we are dealing with Arthurian legend or Norse mythology, it doesn’t really matter.  It is all nonsense but it is like a curated plate of cheese with enough crackers and wine, you will not notice how much it all seems to clash.