Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:10 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony Animation
The best surprise I got at a movie theater this year was “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” the all-around terrific new animated film that perhaps more than any superhero movie I’ve seen translates the jubilant experience of comic books to the screen. It has excitement, it has heart, it has humor, and it has a deep understanding of comics, comic culture, and Spidey himself. I was not excited about seeing yet another radioactive spider bite story, but this wildly imaginative film completely won me over and I can’t wait to see it again.

Just a bit of context: One fascinating element of comic books is that unlike any other story-telling in human history, they portray characters over decades, nearly a century in some cases, with different writers and artists telling their stories and alternative takes like “imaginary stories” with no canonic or precedential import. So, for example, Superman (and Clark Kent) began during the Depression, lived through WWII, the Cold War, the tumult of the 60’s, the yuppie years of the 80’s, went from being a newspaperman to a TV reporter to a blogger, has died and been brought back, has died and been replaced by an alternate version, and has been the subject of several television shows, movies, and even a Broadway musical from the people who brought another comic character to life in “Annie.”

Spider-Man has had one of the most successful superhero movie translations with three starring Tobey Maguire (the terrible third one is tweaked in this film), two with Andrew Garfield, and now another one plus the Avengers movies with Tom Holland. Throughout all of them, he has been the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” the teenager from Queens who lives with his elderly Aunt May, has a crush on Mary Jane, gets bitten by a radioactive spider, and learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Spidey is at the heart of Marvel’s re-imagining of the superhero as young, irreverent, still learning, living in a real place rather than an imagined Gotham or Metropolis, and dealing with real-life problems as well as super-villains. Memorably, he once got paid by check but could not cash it because he had no Spider-Man ID. There are a bunch of alternate versions of Spider-Man, and we get to see many of them work together in this film.

We don’t need to go into the mumbo-jumbo here, do we? Let’s just agree that multiple universes exist and that it is possible that every action or incident splinters off another alternate timeline so that if we could just find a way to hop from one to another, we could find the one where, say, Hitler never assumed power in Germany or where the government regulated sub-prime derivatives and prevented the financial meltdown of 2008. A mob boss in New York known as Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) wants to find the parallel universe, not, for once a super-villain who wants total world domination but because he wants to find the world where his wife was not killed. But his efforts open up portals to other Spider-Men (and a Spider-pig and Spider-girls) who get catapulted into this universe just as our Spidey (Chris Pine) dies (!!!), telling the newest radioactive spider-bite victim, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) that he has to carry on.

Miles can’t even manage carrying on his regular life. He’s the son of a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) who considers Spider-Man a lawless disruption and a Puerto Rican nurse mother (Luna Lauren Velez). Miles is under a lot of pressure because has just started at a new magnet school for gifted kids and because he knows his parents would not approve of the time he spends with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) tagging walls with graffiti.

The style of contemporary animation is usually hyper-reality, with every hair on every head moving and shining just as it does in real life. The style of this film is exuberantly stylized, comic-book style, and it is thrilling to see it translated to screen so skillfully. The interactions with the variations of Spidey are clever and exciting and the movie is serious about its world and its story and characters, but never about itself, which is very comic book-y, too. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the happiest surprise of this season, a gift that will tingle Spidey-senses in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and action/comic-book style violence, with characters injured and killed (it would be a PG-13 if live action), and some brief schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which version of Spider-Man do you like best and why? What do you imagine would be your parallel in an alternate universe?

If you like this, try: the live action Spider-Man movies and the comic books

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The Hate U Give

Posted on October 4, 2018 at 5:42 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, drug and drug dealing references
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, teenager killed by a police officer
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 5, 2018

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
“The Hate U Give” is one of the best and most important films of the year. Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel about a girl named Starr has become a profound and profoundly moving film. It is an of-this-moment, vitally urgent story about race, culture, and America in 2018, but it is also a deeply human, deeply moving exploration of the most universal themes: family, identity, growing up, forgiveness, and finding your voice.

The incandescent young actor/activist Amandla Stenberg (Rue in “The Hunger Games”) plays Starr, the middle child and only daughter in a loving family. She is completely at home in their neighborhood of Garden Heights. But you can get “jumped, high, pregnant, or killed” at the local high school, and so she and her older brother attend a private school called Williamson, where most of the students are white and wealthy. She calls the version of herself they see “Starr version 2.” When the white kids sing along to hip hop or use black slang, she smiles politely but knows that if she does the same thing she will appear too “ghetto.” But she has a nice (white) boyfriend named Chris (K.J. Apa), and some nice white girl friends she can complain to when Chris tried to push her into having sex.

At a party in Garden Heights, she feels more at home, but some of the people there are suspicious of her for possibly “acting white.” She runs into an old friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to drive her home. As children, they played Harry Potter together with a third friend, but they have fallen out of touch. Starr can tell from his very expensive, mint-condition shoes that he may be in trouble. Khalil has begun to deal drugs because it is the only way he can support his ailing grandmother.

They are stopped by a white policeman who thinks that Khalil is reaching for a weapon and shoots him. Starr sees it all. Starr is devastated. And she begins to see herself and her world differently. The Williamson students walk out of school to protest in support of Black Lives Matter — or to get out of school. Starr’s friend stops following her on Instagram because Starr connects the killing of her friend to tragic injustices like the murder of Emmett Till.

As we see in the opening scene, Starr has been told since she was a child how to respond to law enforcement. As we will learn later, this is not the first time she has lost someone close to her to violence. As she has to decide whether she will tell the truth about what she saw, putting her Williamson persona at risk and, because of Khalil’s involvement with a powerful neighborhood drug dealer, putting her family and her community at risk as well.

Every performance in the film is a gem, especially Regina Hall (“Support the Girls”) and Russell Hornsby (“Fences”) as Starr’s parents and Stenberg herself, who has extraordinary screen charisma and a remarkable control of detail to show us how Starr begins to integrate the separate versions of herself. The film brings in a remarkably nuanced range of perspectives, especially in two standout scenes: Starr talking to her police officer uncle (Common) about the ways he sees black and white suspects, and Starr talking to her mother about forgiveness. Every element of the story is handled with sensitivity, respect, and a deem humanity, from the specifics of Starr’s relationships to the big themes of how we interact with the world and how we work for change. This is a rare film that does justice to the characters and the themes as it reminds us that we can all do more to bring justice to the world.

Translation: Unarmed character shot by a police officer, peril and violence, protests, guns, vandalism, arson, some teen partying, drug dealing, some strong language

Family discussion: Should Starr speak out? What are the risks and how can she best make a difference? How can you?

If you like this, try: “Boyz n the Hood,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Blindspotting,” and the book by Angie Thomas

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Crazy Rich Asians

Posted on August 16, 2018 at 11:25 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 15, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 19, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

The Beatles song “Money” (“The best things in life are free/But you can keep them for the birds and bees/Now give me money/That’s what I want”) sung in Chinese begins to prepare us for the rarified world of the ultra-wealthy families of Singapore in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

It is a romantic comedy that lets us see over-the-top glamour, money, privilege, and parties through the eyes of a Chinese-American daughter of a single mother, which invites us to gawk and judge. It raises thoughtful, nuanced questions about the difference between traditional views of sacrifice for family and American views on pursuing individual dreams. It introduces us to a fabulous cast of talented, gorgeous performers all clearly loving the opportunity to be in a story with an all-Asian cast. And it presents the essential elements of a romance with great specificity of detail about the Asian and Asian-American perspective but also with great universality of experience. Most of us will never attend a $14 million wedding, but most of us have experienced the terror of meeting the family of someone we love and hoping we will be judged worthy.

A flashback scene set in 1995 gives us a sense of the scope of wealth so enormous it is a sort of superpower. A rain-drenched Asian family with young children arrives at a snooty London hotel, only to be told that the reservation they had confirmed the day before has somehow disappeared. “Perhaps you can find a place in Chinatown.” The mother (Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor) politely asks to use the phone. We next see her out in the rain again, talking in a phone booth. Then she is back in the hotel lobby, being greeted warmly by the hotel’s owner, or, to be exact, the former owner. She has just bought the hotel.

And then it’s on to the present day, where Rachel Chu (Constance Wu from “Fresh off the Boat”), a professor of economics at NYU, is showing off her expertise in poker as a demonstration of game theory for her students. “Game theory” is the study of the strategies people use in situations that give one person a chance to do better than another, whether in an actual game like chess or a contract negotiation, management of employees, or even family issues like who empties the dishwasher. This is a skill that can be a sort of superpower of its own, as we will see.

Rachel is in love with hunky Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding, host of the BBC Travel Show in his first acting role), who seems like an ordinary, if exceptionally good-looking and charming, sort of guy. He asks her to go with him to Singapore, to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family. He does not mention that he is a Crazy Rich Asian, but we begin to get the idea when a fellow Singaporean snaps a photo and sends it around the world in an amusing avalanche of “OMGs” and “Who’s that girl with Nick” messages. (Look very quickly to see author Kevin Kwan hashtagging away.)

Rachel begins to get the idea when they are greeted at the curb of the airport and escorted into the first class lounge, before being given silk pajamas and a suite with a bed on the plane. But she does not understand how far up in the stratosphere of wealth Nick and his family are until she visits her college roommate Peik Lin Goh (rap star Awkwafina, stealing every scene as neatly as she picked pockets in “Oceans 8”) and her nouveau riche parents. They proudly point to their vulgar furnishings. “It was inspired by Versailles Hall of Mirrors,” Mrs. Goh explains. “Or Donald Trump’s bathroom,” Peik Lin replies.

Peik Lin also explains just how crazy rich the Youngs are, and she also explains that the nice off-the-rack red dress Rachel brought is not going to make it, and offers a gown from her own closet. Rachel may be dressed appropriately for the party at the Young’s castle-sized mansion, but she is overwhelmed and, after a couple of minor faux pas (who knew the finger bowl was not soup?), she meets Nick’s family, and begins to realize that the obstacle is not the money but the mother.

Where there is money, there are people desperate to get it and keep it, and that leads to some mean girl moments at a fabulous bachelorette party and also to encounters with people who have different reactions to money — snobbery, obsequiousness, jealousy, resentment, and of course good old-fashioned greed. All of which would make a great lecture in her economics class.

Wu gives a warm, smart, sensitive performance, with a dimpled smile so irresistible that we don’t just feel Nick’s affection for her; we feel our own. It is a great pleasure to see the heroine of a romantic comedy have a serious academic position and not the usual cutesy rom-com jobs like blogger or proprietor of a bakery or gift shop. Her professional accomplishment gives her perspective and confidence and a few years more experience than the usual rom-com heroine. And it is a great pleasure to have Asian actors in such a wide variety of roles, every one specific, integral to the story, and lending the movie layers of meaning. “Crazy Rich Asians” is one crazy good movie.

NOTE: A mid-credit scene featuring “Glee’s” Harry Shum, Jr. hints at sequels, and there are two more books in the series, so here’s hoping.

Parents should know that this film includes non-explicit sexual situations, adultery, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Mrs. Young’s comments on Americans? How do you balance family obligation with individual dreams? Who are “your kind of people?”

If you like this, try: “Fresh Off the Boat” on television, starring Constance Wu, and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” starring Michelle Yeoh

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BlacKkKlansman

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:24 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 10, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 5, 2018

Copyright 2018 Focus Features
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is undercover through most of “BlacKkKlansman,” and not just on the job, but in the job and outside of it, too. The real-life Stallworth was the first black police officer, and later the first black detective in Colorado Springs, back in the 1970’s and he really did go undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan — over the phone. Spike Lee’s film, based on Stallworth’s book, tells how Stallworth saw a classified ad, called the Klan, and, with the help of a white partner who was “Stallworth” for the in-person meetings, ended up a member in good standing, having phone conversations with the head of the organization, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). (All of this really happened.)

Stallworth also really went undercover at a lecture by black activist Stokely Charmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture, and who is played here by Corey Hawkins, conveying Ture’s magnetism and fiery brilliance and making an impression so strong in his brief scene that it resonates throughout the rest of the film. This rally is really the pivotal, as Washington shows us as close unguarded as Stallworth gets, which opens him up to pursuing Patrice (Laura Harrier), a pretty activist he meets there. But of course he has to stay undercover with her, too — personally, not professionally — because she has strong political feelings about working within the system in general and about the police in particular. (This character and their relationship are fictional.) Adam Driver, as Stallworth’s white partner, has his own double-undercover moments. He thinks it does not matter that he is Jewish, but as Stallworth tells him, he has skin in the game, too. Near the end of the film, Stallworth is undercover at least two levels when he is assigned to Duke’s security detail and must stand close to the man who does not know Stallworth is the man he spoke to in confidence over the phone.

Law enforcement might have been an unusual choice for a black man of that era, but in every other respect Stallworth seems born to be in law enforcement, happy to accept the offer, and clearly aware of the challenges he will face, from the superiors who assign him safe but boring jobs to racist comments from some of the other officers. Washington (a former pro football player and regular on “Ballers”) projects an easy physical confidence, nerves of steel, and a personal meticulousness, from his perfectly shaped Afro to his neatly ironed shirt and shined shoes. Lee, working with production designer Curt Beech, costume designer Marci Rodgers, and director of photography Chayse Irvin, bring a light touch to a 70’s vibe that owes as much to the movies and pop culture of the era as to what ordinary people and settings looked like. There’s a nice nod to 70’s movies as well in the graphics and sinuous, jazzy camerawork and the way the handsome, athletic Washington is lit like Shaft or Superfly.

There could be no better depiction of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” than the Klansmen and women in this film, who chat casually about hatred and terrorism the way other small groups of like-minded communities might talk about an upcoming bake sale. We can almost sympathize with a 1970’s wife who just wants a chance to do something important like the men do or the men who get a sense of fellowship in a shared interest. Topher Grace shows us Duke’s silky, ingratiating manner, and Lee shows us that complacent hatred may be the most insidious.

It may seem to some viewers that an opening montage of racist imagery, including D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and a scene of Alec Baldwin as a racist businessman are over the top, until we see the footage from 2017’s white supremacist rally Charlottesville one year before the release of this film. Lee is one of my favorite directors, but he sometimes has more ideas than story or characters in his films. Here, with Stallworth’s remarkable true and timely story, a star-making performance by Washington, whose resemblance to his double Oscar-winning father is more in his voice than his face, he has made one of his all-time best, most purely entertaining, and most important films.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of terrorist activities with peril and violence and very strong and offensive language. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: How did Ron and Patrice differ in their ideas about the best way to solve problems and make things better? What has changed and what has not since the 1970’s?

If you like this, try: the book by Ron Stallworth and Lee’s films “Inside Man,” “School Daze,” and “Chi-Raq”

Recommended reviews: Odie Henderson on rogerebert.com, Travis Hopson on Punch Drunk Critics

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Black Panther

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 6:38 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book-style peril and violence, guns, fistfights, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 14, 2018
Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda forever! And all hail writer/director Ryan Coogler, the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, and everyone who helped to bring this next-level, majestic, and wildly entertaining superhero movie to life.

Quick primer for those unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe: Black Panther, the first major black comic book superhero, lives in a self-sufficient, almost completely hidden African country called Wakanda. An American CIA field agent describes it as a poor, undeveloped country: “textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” That is how they want to be seen by the world. In reality, thanks to a meteor that landed there in prehistoric times, they are the world’s only source of a metal called vibranium, which is extremely powerful, and which has been the basis for the world’s most advanced technology. Because Wakanda is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountains and rainforests, they have never been colonized and had very little interaction with the rest of the world. When they did, it did not go well. King T’Chaka spoke to the UN in “Captain America: Civil War,” and was assassinated. After a brief scene set in the past, we begin the story when his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take over as king.

Much of the film takes place in Wakanda, gloriously imagined by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, reflecting extensive research into African design. It is worth seeing the film a second time just to revel in the wonderfully vibrant shapes and colors, and in the African landscape.

Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda’s all-female military is called the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira). She advises T’Challa about a mission outside of Wakanda, where he is going to rescue his one-time girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who has gone undercover and has been captured by warlords. “Don’t freeze,” Okoye tells T’Challa. “I never freeze,” he replies. But he does. That’s the effect Nakia has on him. At first, she is angry that he interrupted her mission. But then he tells her that he wants her there when he becomes king, and she is glad to agree.

When they return, we see him honor his mother (Angela Bassett, regal and steadfast) and get teased by his sister, the tech whiz Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is this movie’s version of James Bond’s Q, except that she does not just provide the cool gadgets; she invents them. Her motto seems to be what she tells her brother: “Just because something works does not mean it can’t be improved.” That comment, made as a gentle taunt to a brother who is not as comfortable with change as she is, is just one example of the way that this film is able to raise profound issues in a way that resonates but is never heavy-handed or distracting. And the way T’Challa responds to being teased like the admonition not to freeze, helps to humanize the brilliant, brave, handsome, wealthy, powerful superhero.

T’Challa wants to continue to keep Wakanda away from the troubles of the rest of the world. Nakia tells him that they are obligated to share what they have to help protect others. She says, “I can’t be happy here knowing there are people out there who have nothing.” Of course, they are both right, and this conflict is reflected throughout the film in a way that is remarkably nuanced and thoughtful, not just for a superhero movie but in any context.

As I have often said, superhero movies depend more on the villain than the hero, and this one has one of the all-time greats. Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s two previous films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is nothing less than mesmerizing here, playing a man who represents the “other” to T’Challa, but who is connected to him as well. The film touches lightly but with insight on the difference between being an African, raised in a country where everyone is black and unqualifiedly patriotic, if insular, and being an African-American, deeply conflicted about the relationship with “home,” but better able to understand the plight of others. It touches on other vital contemporary issues like refugees and radicalization and it is all completely organic to the story.

And it is a full-on superhero movie, with a wild chase through an Asian city some very cool stunts, and a huge climactic fight scene involving a massive battle and at least two different modes of transportation, not including the battle rhinos. Yes, I said battle rhinos. I know, right?

The supporting cast includes an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), a rare on-screen appearance by motion-capture master Andy Serkis with his Tolkien co-star Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, Forest Whitaker as a priest, Winston Duke as the leader of on of Wakanda’s five tribes, and “This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown as a guy you’re better off not knowing too much about until you see the movie, which I hope you do, more than once. You’ll want to be a part of Wakanda, too.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive comic book-style action violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, spears, hand-to-hand combat, chases, explosions, and some strong language.

Family discussion: If T’Challa and Erik had grown up in each other’s environments, how would they be different? How should Wakanda resolve the conflict between tradition and innovation? Is it true that it is hard for a good man to be a good king? Why?

If you like this, try: the Black Panther comics and the Avengers movies

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