Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:10 pm

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of the 80’s, went from being a newspaperman to a TV reporter to a blogger, has died and been brought back, has died and been replaced by an alternate version, and has been the subject of several television shows, movies, and even a Broadway musical from the people who brought another comic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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Finders Keepers

Posted on September 24, 2015 at 5:27 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Sad offscreen deaths, discussion of child abuse, some disturbing images of a severed limb
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 18, 2015

You might not think that a documentary about two men fighting over a severed leg would be funny, touching, and insightful, but it is. You might think that it would be a carnival freak show for the age of YouTube and Twitter, and it sort of is that, too, but mostly in the clips from the various television shows that got involved in this real-life gothic mashup of Southern culture, reality TV, dysfunctional families, substance abuse, money, tragedy, and two men, one plummeting from a life of wealth and privilege and one desperately aspiring for fame and fortune, both seeing the approval of fathers who are no longer here. And they became two men who fought each other for years over something the rest of us cannot imagine anyone would want.

Shannon Whisnant in a small-time operator in North Carolina, always up to some scheme or other. So of course he showed up to bid on items from a storage locker that were confiscated when the payments lapsed. He bought a small, rusty smoker and was surprised to open it and find inside a severed human leg, about mid-calf down, with the foot and toes. The film plays his 911 call. “I got a human foot.” “A what?” “A human left foot.” I love that he thinks that additional detail will somehow make a difference.

The foot belongs to John Wood, or at least it once did. It was amputated following a plane crash and he wanted to keep it. It seemed very reasonable to him once he heard that Whisnant had it that he would get it back. But Whisnant saw it as the golden ticket he always knew was coming to him, his chance for the big time. Oh, he had already appeared on “Jerry Springer,” but he had not achieved that level of fame he just knew in his heart was his destiny. He went on news shows to talk about his find. He started charging admission — $3 adults, $1 kids. He had t-shirts made. I would like to say they were tasteful but they were not. His twitter account is @fottmannc.

Whisnant met with Wood — at the parking lot of the Dollar General — to talk about the ownership of the foot. The details of the conversation are still disputed, but the next steps involved litigation. And more reality television.

The great gift of the film, which is at times hilarious and at times deeply moving, is that it takes this absurd dispute and humanizes the story so profoundly that by the end we are a part of it. It deals with the endearing and the obnoxious sides of American celebrity culture. It is abashing but also reassuring that the multi-year fight is finally resolved — with Solomonic jurisprudential nuance — by television’s Judge Mathis. But is is the almost unbearably intimate conversations with family members and the two men themselves that show us the inherent vulnerability of even those who at first seem cartoonish or grotesque.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, discussion of drug and alcohol abuse, discussion of tragic deaths and child abuse, and some grisly subject matter and disturbing images.

Family discussion: Why did both men want the foot? How did their relationships with their fathers affect their views of themselves?

If you like this, try: “Sherman’s March”

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Documentary Movies -- format

Trailer: The Finest Hours

Posted on September 11, 2015 at 8:00 am

A heroic action-thriller, “The Finest Hours” is the remarkable true story of the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history. Presented in Digital 3D™ and IMAX® 3D, the film will transport audiences to the heart of the action, creating a fully-immersive cinematic experience on an epic scale. On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter struck New England, pummeling towns along the Eastern seaboard and wreaking havoc on the ships caught in its deadly path, including the SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker bound for Boston, which was literally ripped in half, trapping more than 30 sailors inside its rapidly-sinking stern. As the senior officer on board, first assistant engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) soon realizes it is up to him to take charge of the frightened crew and inspire the men to set aside their differences and work together to ride out one of the worst storms to ever hit the East Coast. Meanwhile, as word of the disaster reaches the U.S. Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders a daring operation to rescue the stranded men. Despite overwhelming odds, four men, led by Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), set out in a wooden lifeboat with an ill-equipped engine and little, if any, means of navigation, facing frigid temperatures, 60-foot high waves and hurricane-force winds.

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Trailer: Captive, Starring Kate Mara and David Oyelowo

Posted on July 16, 2015 at 8:00 am

Based on the stirring true story, Kate Mara and David Oyelowo star in the story of two desperate people whose lives are changed when he takes her hostage and she reads to him from Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life. Here’s an update on the real story.

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