Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


The Facts
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Synopsis: Miles Morales becomes the Spider-Man of his reality and crosses paths with his counterparts from other dimensions to stop a threat to all reality.

Stars: Shameik Moore, Liev Schreiber, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld

Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: With a seemingly never-ending supply of super-hero movies either in theaters or being hyped for release, a sense of same-ness has set in.  Even if the movie is entertaining when it arrives, audiences are getting hip to the fact that most of these big budget action adventures featuring various iterations of comic book heroes and heroines brought to life are just basic retreads of the same formula at their core.  Every once in a while, though, a film comes along with a new vision that raises the bar for its genre, pushing against the boundaries of the typical and setting its sights on the extraordinary.  In 2018, that film is surely Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In this Spider-Man tale, Peter Parker (Chris Pine, Star Trek) takes a back seat to newcomer Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, Joyful Noise), a teen just starting in a new boarding school that finds his life changing in a major way when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider.  At the same time, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy plot by Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin (Live Schreiber, Spotlight) that fractures his reality and brings together other characters with similar spidey-senses from different dimensions.  Now working with Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, Valley Girl), Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson, The Mummy), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld, Pitch Perfect 3), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and even Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Miles will have to stop Kingpin’s nefarious plot and get his fellow Spider Men, Women, and Pigs back to their own individual universe.

Working with a script from a team that included Phil Lord (The LEGO Movie) and is filled with deep Easter eggs for hardcore devotees, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman bring an animation style to the screen that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  The first few times I saw the preview for this movie I thought I must have been missing 3D glasses because the backgrounds tended to be so blurred while the action at the forefront was so clearly defined.  Turns out that’s the intended look and while it took me a bit to adjust to this bit of visual ingenuity, when my eyes settled in they were open wide so I could take in all the splendor of the action on screen.

Much like 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony has done a brilliant job at resetting our expectations when it comes to our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  A dazzling animated accomplishment, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the movie that will sway you if you’ve all but written off finding anything new under the superhero sun.  It’s wildly creative, savvy without limiting itself by being too specifically timely, and moves like a locomotive that’s doubled down on its coal intake.  In short, it’s the best animated film I’ve seen all year and will likely find itself staying in the conversation when people speak of the cream of the comic book crop.

Movie Review ~ The 5th Wave

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Four waves of increasingly deadly alien attacks have left most of Earth decimated. Cassie is on the run, desperately trying to save her younger brother.

Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Alex Roe, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe, Liev Schreiber, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff

Director: J Blakeson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As is tradition, January is proving to be a rough month at the movies…which is largely why The 5th Wave is only the second movie I’ve seen in the theaters so far in this new year.  While it’s not as pretentiously terrible as the other movie I saw earlier in the month (Anomalisa…oy), the latest big screen first installment of a Young Adult trilogy of novels struggles to set itself apart from the numerous other (and better) page to screen adaptations.

Coming off like a Muppet Babies retelling of Independence Day, The 5th Wave is the first novel in Rick Yancey’s trilogy following the after effects of an alien invasion that leaves the world in ruins. An electromagnetic pulse has destroyed anything with a current or engine, a super strain of the bird flu, and a series of catastrophic earthquakes that yield gigantic, yes, waves, has trimmed the population down by the millions.  The screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Akiva Goldsman (Winter’s Tale), and Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) often feels more mature than the characters speaking the lines, but that winds up helping the film overall.

At the center of the mayhem is 16-year-old Cassie and her younger brother Sam (spoiler alert if you miss the first 15 minutes of the movie: the parents don’t make it…), left to fend for themselves against an alien race known as the Others who are taking steps to rid the planet of its inhabitants.  When Cassie and Sam are separated by the kind of “just missed the bus” moments that can only exist in fantasy movies, the siblings find themselves split into two separate plot threads.  One thread follows Cassie’s rocky journey to reunite with her brother and the other tracks Sam as he is recruited into an army of children trained to exterminate the alien species by a grumpy looking Liev Schrieber (Spotlight) and a heavily made up Maria Bello (Prisoners, who, it must be said, gets the biggest laugh of the movie thanks to a sight gag involving her red lipstick).  There are a few twists that aren’t hard to predict, though to its credit the film doesn’t expressly telegraph each and every move.

It’s the end of the world as she knows and she feels…ok?  Though the first 1/3 of the movie is decently paced and mildly involving, its biggest problem is its bored-looking star.  Using flared nostrils and expressive lips as a substitute for deep emotion, Chloë Grace Moretz (Carrie, Dark Shadows) saunters through the majority of the movie killing time and collecting her paycheck. She gets a few good tough chick moments but they are weakened by the film feeling obligated to give her googly eyes for a hunky piece of could-be-alien man meat (Alex Roe, filling the man-meat qualifications nicely).

I actually found myself more interested in the parallel storyline of a squad of teens and pre-teens going through basic training, though overall it’s given unfortunately short shrift in favor of more Moretz moments.  Led by Zombie (Nick Robinson, Jurassic World) alongside interesting but underdeveloped characters (like Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel and especially Maika Monroe, Labor Day), had the film focused solely on the squad, it may have found its footing easier when it rounds the corner into its final act.   A brief side note, I’m growing a bit weary seeing kids killing kids and being put into such deadly harm so parents, even though its based on a book your kids can pick up in their library, this easily earns it PG-13 thanks to several overly violent and disturbing passages.

As to the conclusion of the movie, it’s no secret that this is the first in a planned trilogy so there’s little resolution to offer by the end…making the previous two hours feel like a large set-up to sequels that may not happen should The 5th Wave get deep sixed at the box office.  My advice would be to wait until the second (or third, or fourth if they dare to split it into two movies) is released and catch The 5th Wave from the comfort of your own home.

Movie Review ~ Spotlight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup

Director: Tom McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: More than anything, Spotlight reminds us what true journalism used to look like.  In this day and age of up to the minute coverage that often relies on conjecture, I think we as a public have forgotten what it meant to do your homework, cite your sources, and deliver honest news.  Sensationalism may have sold more papers but it wasn’t the driving force behind most true-blue journalists.

That’s the overall message I took away from writer/director Tom McCarthy’s slow burn look into the investigative unit of the Boston Globe (the Spotlight team) that first uncovered the molestation scandal within the Boston Archdiocese.  Setting into motion a global outcry for justice, the members of the squad took their time in gathering information, pounding the pavement, asking the tough questions, and documenting the horrifying answers.

Drawing justified comparisons to All the President’s Men and filled with several genuinely troubling passages where shocking admissions of guilt are made as off the cuff remakrs, there’s nothing salacious on display.  If anything, audiences may start to pull their hair out that Spotlight didn’t come forward with their evidence sooner…but to jump the gun before all the facts had been hammered out would have left them open to doubt when there was little to be had.  They put their careers on the line to tell this story the right way and in doing so they likely saved lives.

Singling out any one person doesn’t feel fair because Spotlight is the very definition of an ensemble film.  McCarthy has cast his movie well starting with Michael Keaton (RoboCop) as the team lead that ultimately makes the call when they bring their findings forward.  Mark Ruffalo (Thanks for Sharing) is the impassioned champion of the down-trodden that wants to push forward even though his journalistic side tells him Keaton’s path is the right one.  Rachel McAdams (The Vow) underplays her role so much that the actress basically disappears inside herself while Liev Schrieber (Fading Gigolo) crackles as the editor-in-chief that prods Spotlight to keep going.

The film isn’t flashy or overly sentimental so as a whole it’s not as ingrained in my memory like other films I’ve seen in 2015.  It does have several moments, though, that are hauntingly present when anyone brings up the film.  It’s easy to see why it’s been heralded as one of the best films of 2015, it’s old-fashioned in construct and forward thinking it its execution.

The Silver Bullet ~ Spotlight

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Synopsis: The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Release Date: November 6, 2015

Thoughts: A drama that looks to be along the lines of All The President’s Men, Spotlight is a glimpse into the investigation by the Boston Globe that wound up exposing a now-famous cover-up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. This material could have been delivered in any number of cinematic ways and has been covered in one way or another in documentaries already…but director Tom McCarthy has assembled some top-tier talent for this dramatization. Oscar nominees Michael Keaton (Minions), Mark Ruffalo (Thanks for Sharing), and Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer) join Rachel McAdams (The Vow) and Liev Schreiber (Fading Gigolo) as journalists seeking to uncover the truth and dealing with the landslide of backlash. It’s an important story to tell and I’m hoping that the roster of stars on board bodes well for its overall success.

 

Movie Review ~ Fading Gigolo

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Fioravante decides to become a professional Don Juan as a way of making money to help his cash-strapped friend, Murray. With Murray acting as his “manager”, the duo quickly finds themselves caught up in the crosscurrents of love and money.

Stars: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Liev Schreiber, Sofia Vergara, Sharon Stone, Vanessa Paradis, Max Casella, Bob Balaban, Aida Turturro

Director: John Turturro

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For his fifth time behind the camera, writer/director John Turturro brings to the screen another off-kilter slice of life dramedy that is advertised as being about one thing (man becomes gigolo) but is really about something totally different. Turturro is lucky that this other thing is actually more intriguing than the gigolo angle and while the film is enjoyable for the 90 minutes you’ll be in your seat, it fades from memory before your seat belt is in place for your journey home.

Let me back up – what made me most interested in Fading Gigolo was director Woody Allen making a rare appearance in a film that he didn’t write or direct. Moreover, Allen (who scored big with 2013’s Blue Jasmine) and Turturro (Gung Ho) aren’t familiar collaborators, with Turturro having a small part in Allen’s 1986 Hannah and Her Sisters and the two sharing some screen time in 2000’s Company Man. So what would draw Allen to the film?

Turns out, Turturro has given Allen a nicely Allen-esque role as a book dealer strapped for cash that winds up pimping Turturro out to a string of lonely NYC ladies that enjoy his services. It’s a peculiar film, to be sure, but one that feels based in some sort of reality and not the kind of reality that only seems to exist in NYC. At times, the film is so reminiscent of Allen’s work that I had to keep reminding myself who was responsible for the creation of the film.

Three stories are really told here. The first is Turturro’s burgeoning relationship with a Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis, coming across as Marion Cotillard lite) and how his presence in her life causes a ripple effect in her deeply traditional community. These quiet scenes between Turturro and Paradis are quite lovely in their simplicity with Paradis especially impressive as a woman torn between the rules of her faith and a need to feel love.

A very different relationship is found with Turturro and two women (Sharon Stone, Lovelace and Sofia Vergara, The Three Stooges) who want him for a ménage à trois. Stone looks like a million bucks and is granted some nicely bitter with a side of regret dialogue, though it’s really Vergara that has a breakthrough here…showing that she’s more than an overemphasized accent and nice boobs.

The final thread in Turturro’s cinematic knot shows Allen making a home with a black woman and her children. These scenes provide some nice comedic moments while giving Allen the chance to nervously hem and haw as only he can. Turturro’s set-ups are so richly interesting that they almost seem like a condensing of several scripts into this one film. I for one would love to see a full movie with Allen running around NYC with his brood of wise-cracking children.

Though its charm doesn’t extend past the closing credits, I found myself engaged and invested in Turturro’s tale of love in NYC. It’s not out to redefine the genre with snappy dialogue or contrived occurrences but is content showing characters that feel real to live their lives while letting us watch. A fine film with extra fine performances.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fading Gigolo

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Synopsis: Fioravante decides to become a professional Don Juan as a way of making money to help his cash-strapped friend, Murray. With Murray acting as his “manager”, the duo quickly find themselves caught up in the crosscurrents of love and money.

Release Date:  April 18, 2014

Thoughts: Making a rare appearance in front of the camera without also being the writer/director, Fading Gigolo finds Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine) as a nebbishly down on his luck guy that winds up pimping out his amicable friend, John Turturro (Gung Ho).  The film has the look and feel of a, well, Woody Allen film so I have to believe that director Turturro wrote the film with Allen and his influences in mind.  With Sharon Stone (Lovelace, Total Recall) and Sofia Vergara (The Three Stooges) on hand as oversexed vixens the film is ripe with possibility…but I’ve found Turturro’s previous work to be complicated and hard to warm to.  Perhaps a little Allen vibe will help smooth out his rough edges.

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat.  Here’s what a lot of the reviews for this work of historical fiction aren’t telling you – it’s not a very good movie.  I’m not quite sure why so many are reluctant to admit that but after seeing the movie maybe you will have your own opinion as to why.  While Lee Daniels’ The Butler is filled with an impressive array of award-winning talent, the film itself is a Forrest Gump-ish mish-mash of coincidence that winds up squandering opportunities for real watercooler discussion material in favor of shoe-horning in more brushes with historical figures.

Inspired by a real life White House butler who served eight presidents, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels go their own way and fashion Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand), his wife Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo , Jack Reacher) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) into figures they can move through history into situations that suit the overall scope of the film in retelling key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason to see the film is Whitaker and, for the incredibly curious, Oprah Winfrey.  Whitaker takes Strong’s history 101 kitchen sink script and runs with it, creating a man of impressive worth with a powerful story to tell.  It’s too bad that his story and the story of his family are merely a device for the movie to manipulate as the years go by.  As written by Strong, Louis is present at every major pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and each president has a moment of solidarity with Cecil.  Where Forrest Gump could play off these coincidences as accidental and therefore instilled a sliver of believability, here it just seems like the poorly constructed maneuver it actually is.

Absent from the silver screen since 1998’s misfire Beloved, Winfrey makes the most out of a bad situation (and at least two abysmal costumes) and seizes each moment that allows her to emote.  With a laid-back, casual acting style, Winfrey may not win any awards for the role (and really, she shouldn’t) but it’s respectable work that you can tell she fought for.  I just wish she was in a better film because as her debut performance in 1986’s The Color Purple showed us, she’s a more than capable actress.

Rounding out the trio of leads, Oyelowo has the trickiest of the roles because his plot line is the most far-fetched and least fleshed out.  Starting off as a peaceful protester in his Southern college town during the beginning of the race riots, he soon joins the Freedom Riders only to be swept up into the violence of the early days of the Black Panther movement.  Oyelowo and his girlfriend (gorgeous Yaya Alafia) take on not only Ruth E. Carter’s impressive array of period costumes but handle their historical movements with skilled dedication.

Playing presidents and others to largely successful results is a starry line-up that runs the gamut from spot on (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as The Reagans, Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to the “Okay, if you say so” (John Cusack as Richard Nixon).  Broadway vets Coleman Domingo and Adriane Lenox also turn in well-rounded supporting performances.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn favors a gauzy look which gives the film a humid fuzz that didn’t work for me.  It creates a swampy feel whenever we aren’t at the White House and as the years go by and some questionable old age make-up is applied to our actors, the movie feels deliberately out of focus.  The score by newcomer Rodrigo Leão sounds like a re-working of The West Wing theme and is neither memorable or telling of the talents of the composer.

The movie unspools like clockwork with pretty much every event foreshadowed in an earlier scene.  It’s so workmanlike and designed for mass consumption that I’m actually surprised director Daniels wanted to be a part of it.  Directing the hard-hitting Precious and the lurid The Paperboy, Daniels seems to like to take his audiences on a journey but here he’s merely a passenger like the rest of us.  Originally intended as a project for Spike Lee, the movie feels more convenient than timely…the kind of film viewers can see and pat themselves on the back afterward.

Aimed squarely at gaining Oscar nominations, the film made headlines before it was even released when Warner Brothers sued distributor The Weinstein Company over the title.  It seems like Warner Brothers had a short film in its vaults from 1916 also called The Butler that they didn’t want the public to confuse with this work from 2013.  The comprise was to include the director’s name in front of the title…something I’m sure Lee Daniels had no trouble with.  That anyone would confuse the two movies is a mystery to me because I’m sure the earlier film didn’t have a scene with LBJ on the toilet barking out orders.

That the film winds up with some small measure of success is thanks to the performances of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo with work that rises above Strong’s less than profound script.  It’s not a great film but it’s not boring or a total write-off.  If anything, I left the screening wanting to know more about the real characters and situations the movie touches on.  In the end, any film that brings up the discussion on the evolution of Civil Rights (however ham-fisted the discussion is scripted) in our country earns a qualified recommendation.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Butler

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Synopsis: A look at the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.

Release Date:  October 18, 20113

Thoughts: I find myself at a crossroads with Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels.  Though I felt his work on Precious was deserving of his Oscar nomination his other work has produced a strong reaction in me – a negative reaction.  His first feature, Shadowboxer was a rumpled mess even with star Helen Mirren and his Precious follw-up The Paperboy was an loony exercise that tested the mettle of even the most forgiving audience member.  So I’m approaching The Butler with some angst that it will be another Daniels pic with a strong cast that ultimately fails to deliver.  On the other hand, this first trailer hints at a movie without its own agenda that could conceivably call upon the strengths of many of the talented cast involved.  Releasing in October, I’m hoping this works because I think there’s a good story to tell here.

MIFF Movie Review ~ The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Martin Donovan, Shabana Azmi

Director: Mira Nair

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Every now and then a smaller movie rolls around that you feel like you should get a gold star for choosing to see over a more mainstream feature.  There’s a certain sense of back-patting that goes on for plunking down your cash to see something more intelligent and timely than the latest 3D action adventure film playing on nineteen screens.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one such movie, a film that feels very prescient in our world that is still reeling in a post 9/11 culture…but it’s also a movie that you exit feeling you should get at least two gold stars for sitting through.

Now let me say that I had high hopes for this one going in, though I’m weary of these types of international relations dramas I’m a fan of director Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) and of many of the people involved with bringing this adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel to the screen.  The end result of this collaboration, however, is a densely worded rehash of a plot that feels overly familiar and a little late to the party.

Not that Nair hasn’t delivered a decently oiled product for audience consumption because much of the film is rich with her trademark stylistic use of color and controlled narrative.  Told in flashback between 2001 and 2011, the movie lives and dies with its lead performance and star Ahmed ably handles the role of a conflicted man torn between his ideal life in the US and possibly more important obligations at home.  Ahmed is onscreen for nearly every frame and he fills up the space nicely.

As he moves from college campus to the offices of a Wall Street corporation, he develops a relationship with a troubled photographer and that’s where the film takes the first of its missteps.  I generally like Hudson and though she has a dynamite scene late in the film, for most of her short time on screen she seems lost in the role and abandoned by her director.  I don’t think Hudson is necessarily wrong in the role but she looks so washed out and idle that it’s hard to pinpoint what our lead character sees in her.

Schreiber’s character feels constructed to give Ahmed’s fundamentalist an outlet to spill his life story to and though we gradually see that there’s some complexity to the person Schreiber is portraying, the film never makes a case for why the two dialogue for so long with increasing unrest/danger outside their door.  The best performance in the whole film is Sutherland as Ahmed’s superior, a bulldog of a businessman so tightly wound you can practically hear the gears grinding against each other when he walks.  It’s through Sutherland’s scenes that the film has the biggest impact but sadly he’s not on screen as much as the audience wants him to be.

This is a talky film that requires a lot of your attention – and maybe it asked more of me than I was willing to give in the screening I saw at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  It’s not a film I’d choose to see again and not one I could recommend to anyone that doesn’t have more than a passing interest in political films of this nature.  It could use a slick trim of excess scenes (mostly Hudson’s) and a more focused approach to some final act business that feels unresolved.  Reluctantly, I say this was a disappointment.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.

Release Date:  April 26, 2013

Thoughts:   Director Mira Nair has given us some of the most visually sumptuous films in the last several decades; I loved the popular Monsoon Wedding and still wish that The Namesake had received more notice when it was released.  Now comes The Reluctant Fundamentalist and its shows the director moving away from themes that involve family relations and on to more political overtones.  Nair has assembled a surprising and diverse cast, couple that with an intriguing plot and you have a movie I won’t be fundamentally reluctant to see.