Monday, December 17, 2018

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE Is Crazy Cluttered Cool

Currently the #1 movie at the box office:

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

(Dirs. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman, 2018) 


I keep thinking is called INTO THE SPIDEY-VERSE because when I was a kid, my introduction to the character was on the The Electric Company, a kids show on PBS. The program featured the first live-action version of Spider-Man appearing in skits called “Spidey Super Stories.” This happened in the mid ‘70s, so yeah, I’m old.

But I’m not too old to appreciate Sony’s first feature-length animated Spider-Man movie as it’s a zippy, kinetic, and even psychedelic ride with a likable lead in the form of Shameik Moore voicing Miles Morales. Actually, maybe we should consider Morales to be the co lead, as, you know, this a Spider-Man film.

It starts off with our web-slinging hero being voiced by Chris Pine, who says through voice-over narration “let’s go over this one more time…” and we yet again get Spider-Man’s back story. In a BATMAN LEGO MOVIE way, we see that the canon of references are from all of the previous Spider-Man movies, and even include that embarrassing emo dance from SPIDER-MAN 3.

But Pine’s incarnation of the character doesn’t last long as he is killed during a fight with the Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone), and Kingpin (Leiv Schreiber). That’s right, killed. His death is witnessed my Miles, who had just been bit by a genetically modified spider so he’s got Spidey-sense too. So while the world mourns the fallen hero, Miles costumes up, and he goes through the comical motions of trying to climb walls, shoot webs, and swing through the city just like we seen time and time again.

(Spoiler!) Turns out that Spider-Man died in Miles’ dimension but is alive in another as a washed out, cynical, divorced (from Mary Jane voiced by ZoĆ« Kravitz), schlub voiced by Jake Johnson. I know he’s always been a wise-cracking character, but Johnson’s take on Spider-Man gone to seed seems more like Deadpool than Peter Parker.

So the plot has to do with this super collider thing that can open portals to other universes that Kingpin wants to use to get his wife and kid back from some alternate world causing a giant black hole under New York.

Coming to help Miles out from the multi-verse is an array of different Spider-people: Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese-American schoolgirl rendered in anime; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a hilarious hard-nosed black-and-white detective who looks like something out of the Watchmen; Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), who is actually from Miles’ universe, and, most amusing, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), aka Peter Porker, who seems to have come from the Warner Bros. cartoon dimension.

As for the non Spider-people, there are well chosen appearances by Brian Tyree Henry, Mahershala Ali, Kathryn Hahn Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, and maybe one of the best cameos in the whole Marvel movie franchise by Stan Lee.

The busy blend of all these different animation styles –shots can flicker from shiny, exquisitely rendered imagery to old school, hand-drawn, comic book flatness in flash after flash – wore me out in the second half. There are so many characters and plot points to keep up with, and the pacing of the action sequences came close to breaking my brain. It’s like they were trying cram every single idea that every digital artist for Sony Pictures Imageworks had into every frame.

Buthere’s a lot of energy and wit in Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s screenplay for SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, and the whole snazzy look of it is really cool despite being so damn cluttered at times. You’ll definitely get plenty of bang for your buck here.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Neither CREED II Nor RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET Suffer From Sequelitis

The top two box office champs currently playing everywhere:

CREED II (Dir. Steven Caple Jr., 2018)



T
his, obviously, is the follow-up to 2015’s CREED, the seventh film in the long-running ROCKY franchise, which makes this ROCKY VIII. But it’s also a direct sequel to ROCKY IV, as it features the son of that film’s villain, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), challenging Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) for the title of heavy weight champion of the world. Donnie’s father, Apollo Creed, was killed in the ring by Drago, and his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is one scary, big ass dude with a permanent scowl so Donnie’s trainer, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, of course) fears the worst and opts out.

Anyone who’s ever seen a ROCKY movie knows the formula of how in their first fight the antagonist will triumph (Viktor doesn’t win because of an illegal head shot, but his unstoppable round of punches to Donnie’s face and ribs hospitalizes him), then the film builds to a climatic rematch with a montage or two along the way. Well despite the over familiarity, the formula still works.

Jordan, who earlier this year stole BLACK PANTHER, puts in a just as confidently powerful performance as in the previous film, and shares some touching moments with the also returning Tessa Thompson as his singer girlfriend. As for the rest of the cast, Phylicia Rashad also reprises her role as Donnie’s stepmother, there’s a surprise cameo by another ROCKY IV face, and the dad from This is Us, Milo Ventimiglia, shows up as Rocky’s son (I forgot he played the part in ROCKY BALBOA).

Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Juel Taylor, will doubtfully get an Oscar nomination like he did for the first CREED, but he’s played Rocky so often that it’s beyond second nature for him. His reliably sturdy turn makes Rocky’s relationship with Donnie very moving, and enhances the excitement of the fight scenes in the ring, which were beautifully shot by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.

CREED II may not reach the heights of its Ryan Coogler*-directed predecessor, which I had called “one hell of a legacyquel,” but it still stands with the best of the series. Just don’t ask me to rank them as I’m so not into that

* Coogler Executive Produced on this round.

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
(Dirs. Phil Johnston & Rich Moore, 2018) 


While Wreck-it Ralph’s first adventure was what I called a “worthwhile retro romp,” his second go round takes him out of the world of ‘80s video games and sends him and his BFF Vanellope into cyberspace. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are back as Ralph and Vanellope, who live behind the walls of Litwak’s Family Fun Center and hang out in various games’ landscapes when the arcade is closed.

When Vanellope complains about being bored with her game, Sugar Rush, Ralph decides to surprise her by making a new track. Things go awry when a girl unable to control the game’s vehicle breaks the wheel off of the console, and the game has to be shut down because a replacement part would be too expensive.

Learning that one is available on Ebay (or Eboy as Ralph calls it), Ralph and Vanellope speed through optical cables into the internet which is depicted as a ginormous shiny city that looks like a mixture of Wakanda and Tomorrowland. This where users in the real world are represented by avatars, and companies like Amazon, Pinterest, and Google (Ralph: “I guess we know where to go if we ever need a pair of goggles”) appear as logo-bearing skyscrapers.

Our lovable duo (seriously Reilly and Silverman are again extremely adorable) encounter such new characters as Alan Tudyk as the quick-to-guess search engine KnowsMore, Taraji P. Henson as Yesss, the algorithm for the fictional site BuzzzTube, Bill Hader as a pop-up ad named J.P. Spamley and most strikingly, Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman!) as Shank, the protagonist for of an online street racing game called Slaughter Race that Vanellope so wants to be a part of. Brief returning turns by Jack McBrayer as Fix-it Felix Jr., Jane Lynch as his wife, Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, and Ed O’Neil as the arcade owner, Mr. Litwak round out the cast.

Jokes come fast and mostly land about viral videos, internet auctions, and in a central sequence, Disney princesses via cameos by Cinderella (Jennifer Hale), Aurora (Kate Higgins), Ariel (Jodi Benson), Belle (Paige O'Hara), Jasmine (Linda Larkin), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), and Merida (Kelly Macdonald).

With its infectious spirit, imagery that pops, big goofy nature, and zippy stylish energy, RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET is a lot of fun that has enough invention to keep it from suffering from severe sequelitis. It also has a last third that dares to go a bit dark, but pulls it off grandly. Sure, it’s a Disney family film, but folks of all ages should appreciate that it’s ultimately not just kids stuff.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Harping On The New HALLOWEEN

Now playing everywhere:

HALLOWEEN (Dir. David Gordon Green, 2018)


If you follow film, you most likely know that the #1 movie at the box office is David Gordon Green’s new take on HALLOWEEN. Despite that it’s the 11th entry in the franchise, we’re supposed to forget all but the 1978 original and consider this to be its direct sequel. Driving home that point is that it’s mentioned early on that villain Michael Myers - you know, the homicidal maniac in the bleached Captain Kirk mask - only murdered five people in his one killing spree way back when.

Taking place 40 years later with Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her iconic role as Laurie Strode, we return to the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois where Myers, played by Nick Castle, is scheduled to be transferred to a maximum security prison on, wouldn’t you know it, Halloween day.

The day before Myers’ transfer, he is visited by a pair of investigative journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) working on a true crime podcast. Hall, best known as Hugh of the Vale in Game of Thrones, takes out Myers’ mask to try to trigger a reaction (of course we never see Myers’ face - Hall is talking to his back), but all it does is make the other crazies in the yard have fits. It’s an effective opening, but it’s pretty silly if you think about it, so let’s not.

Let’s get to Curtis’ return as Laurie, who now has long scraggly mostly grey hair and calls herself a “basket case,” who the podcasters visit next. Laurie lives in a fenced in compound where she has a basement bunker filled with guns (canned goods and other necessities too), and she spends a lot of time performing target practice on various dummies scattered around her property.

We meet Laurie’s daughter, Karen, played by the always reliable Judy Greer, and her husband Ray (Toby Huss), and their daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who are all worried about grandma Laurie.

Unsurprisingly, the bus taking Myers to the new facility crashes which we don’t see – I can’t remember what the cause of the crash was, but I guess it doesn’t matter – and Myers escapes.

In one effective yet extremely implausible scene, the investigative podcasters played by Hall and Rees stop at a gas station that happens to be where Myers has just murdered the attendants and the mechanic and is still on the premises. It pays off in a riveting moment involving the screaming Rees crawling under the stalls in the restroom in a futile attempt to get away from Myers, but the whole sequence appears to exist mainly for the killer to retrieve his mask from the trunk of their car.

Myers kills more folks amid oblivious trick or treaters before making it to Laurie’s compound for the film’s climax, while Will Patton as Deputy Hawkins scrambles to catch him. For some reason it’s mentioned that Patton’s Hawkins was there the night of Myers’ original Halloween killing spree but I’m not sure why as it’s not like the actor was there or the character mattered much.

While not in the same class as the ’78 original, HALLOWEEN 2018 is a silly yet solid horror thriller, well scripted by director David Gordon Green, Jeff Fradley, and Danny McBride (yes, that Danny McBride). Of course, Curtis owns the show but a shout-out should be given to Greer, who isn’t a household name but should be as she’s a terrific actress who’s been in tons of things including major franchises as JURASSIC WORLD, ANT-MAN, and PLANET OF THE APES. Greer’s Karen goes from being embarrassed by her mother to standing by her in the satisfyingly fiery finale and it’s a convincing turn.

After the first one and its 1981 sequel, I haven’t seen the rest of the nearly dozen movies that make up the HALLOWEEN franchise – I intentionally avoided the Rob Zombie remakes – so I think I was in a good place to enjoy this follow-up. Hardcore fans may have issues with it that I haven’t thought of, but it feels like a worthy addition to me.


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