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
Date Released to DVD: March 18, 2019

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. It also has an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. 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of the 80’s, went from being a newspaperman to a TV reporter to a blogger, has died and been brought back, has died and been replaced by an alternate version, and has been the subject of several television shows, movies, and even a Broadway musical from the people who brought another comic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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Green Book

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:50 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 11, 2019

Copyright 2018 Universal
Before I tell you how good the Oscar-winning Green Book is, let me tell you how many ways it could have gone wrong. First, it is based on the true story of a trip through the deep South in 1962, before the Civil Rights Act, taken by two men who were opposites in every way. One was Don Shirley, an elegant, sophisticated black musician with two PhDs who lived in an apartment filled with exquisite works of art above Carnegie Hall. The other was a crude, provincial Italian bouncer from Queens known as Tony Lips. It is almost impossible to make a story like that without falling into the White Savior trap or the Magical Negro trap.

Next, the movie is co-written by the real-life son of Tony Lips (real name, Tony Vallelonga), so there was a high risk of a lack of perspective, and probably a lack of experience. And the director, Peter Farrelly, is known for working with his brother, Bobby, on movies known for often-shockingly crude humor like “There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and “Movie 43.”

And yet, they pulled it off. “Green Book” is wonderfully entertaining and guaranteed to warm even the hardest of hearts. The music is sublime, and the performances by Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lips are superb. Yes, lessons will be learned and racial harmony will be kumbaya-ed, but resistance is futile. This movie will win you over.

Tony needs a job, but not badly enough to accept an offer from some mob-connected friends. When he hears that a doctor needs a driver, he goes to the address for the interview and it is not a home but the legendary Carnegie Hall. It turns out that Don Shirley lives above the performance space, in an apartment filled with antiques and objects d’art. He is (twice) a doctor of music. He appears in a gold and white caftan and conducts the interview from an actual throne. He is sophisticated and a little effete. He is, as is usually the case in road and buddy movies and especially in buddy/road movies, the id to Tony’s unrestrained ego. He immediately knows that Tony is not the right guy and turns him down. But later, he offers him the job, even though when he tells Tony he is going South, Tony thinks he means Atlantic City.

It is 1962. The Civil Rights Act has not yet passed, meaning that the Jim Crow segregation laws are still in effect throughout the South, and there are very few hotels and restaurants that allow black customers. Don will be traveling with two other musicians (the group is called the Don Shirley Trio), and they are white and driving a separate car. The record label guy gives Tony a copy of the Green Book, a travel guide for black Americans who wish to “vacation without aggravation.” And he tells Tony that if Don does not make every single performance on the schedule, he will not get paid.

Tony, in an early scene put a glass in the garbage because a black plumber working in his kitchen drank some water from it, has lived a life as insular as Don’s has been urbane. Tony is expansive and chatty. Don is reserved and cerebral. Tony is devoted to his wife and family. Don is a loner. Tony loves food. Don loves music. Ahead are plenty of conflicts with each other and plenty of conflicts that will put them on the same side against pretty much everyone.

It teeters toward overly cutesy at times, as when Tony teaches Don the joys of fried chicken. But we see Tony’s spirit enlarge as he sees for the first time the beauty and brutality of America outside of New York, as he is touched by the music and Don’s artistry and horrified by the bigotry he faces. And we see Don open up a little to someone outside his world. Watching that opens our hearts a little, too.

Parents should know that this film includes depiction of Civil Rights Era racism with some peril and violence, strong and racist language, drinking, smoking, some sexual references and non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Why did Don Shirley pick Tony? If you wrote a movie about your parents, what would it be?

If you like this, try: listen to the music of the Don Shirley Trio and watch “In the Heat of the Night”

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Trailer: The Green Book

Posted on August 21, 2018 at 5:09 am

Viggo Mortensen and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali star in “The Green Book,” based on the true story of black musician Don Shirley and the white driver/bodyguard who took him on tour through the America South of the early Civil Rights era. Before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, public accommodations like hotels and buses were allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. The Negro Motorist Green Book was a guide to the places that black people could stay in the South without problems. (About Comics has re-published the original 1954 edition.)  The movie is directed and co-written by actor Peter Farrelly (“Twilight,” “The Big Kahuna”), and it will be in theaters this November.

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Critics’ Oscar Wishes

Posted on February 25, 2017 at 8:00 am

Copyright A24 2016

Many thanks to my friends at Rogerebert.com for including me in their round-up of tributes to the people we’re rooting tomorrow night at the Oscars. I was thrilled to get a chance to write about Mahershala Ali’s performance in “Moonlight,” and I hope the Academy will recognize his superb performance. The all-star line-up writing about all-star filmmakers includes:

Best Documentary: “I Am Not Your Negro” — Essay by Omer Mozaffar
Best Foreign Language Film: “Toni Erdmann” — Essay by Matt Fagerholm
Best Adapted Screenplay: “Moonlight” — Essay by Peter Sobczynski
Best Original Screenplay: “Manchester by the Sea” — Essay by Scout Tafoya
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight” — Essay by Nell Minow
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis for “Fences” — Essay by Christy Lemire
Best Actor: Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea” — Essay by Patrick McGavin
Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert in “Elle”— Essay by Susan Wloszczyna
Best Director: Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight” — Essay by Brian Tallerico
Best Picture: “Moonlight” — Essay by Matt Zoller Seitz

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Breakthrough Star: Mahershala Ali

Posted on December 12, 2016 at 8:00 am

Mahershala Ali is one of the busiest actors today, so versatile that audiences might not realize that they are seeing the same performer in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” “House of Cards,” “Luke Cage,” and “Alphas.” As Juan, the compassionate drug dealer who befriends “Moonlight’s” main character, he was recognized by the Washington Area Film Critics Association as the best male supporting performance of the year. He plays a military man in the upcoming “Hidden Figures,” based on the true story of black female mathematicians at NASA in the 1960’s. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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