Category Archives: Now Showing

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Producer: Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Christina Steinberg
Director: Bob Persiichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman
Writer: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman
Stars: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Jorma Taccone, Marvin Jones III, Joaquin Cosio, Lake Bell and Zoe Kravitz
Studio: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

B-

In the Marvel Empire’s implacable drive to turn every screen in every theatre in the world into one long Saturday-morning-style TV lineup of superhero movies, new tricks are constantly being devised to increase product. In addition to the company’s own so-called universe of interlocking franchises, the comic book-based operation has happily fostered series based on characters controlled by other studios, including Spider-Man: they’ve encouraged Sony’s string of features starring the web-slinger, and even taken his latest incarnation into their “Avengers” pantheon.

They’ve also gone along with Sony’s plan to turn Spidey’s villains into a string of spin-off movies, beginning with the unaccountably successful “Venom,” which will inevitably become a franchise of its own and signal the production of movies featuring other bad-guys. And now they’ve joined with Columbia in returning to Spider-Man’s roots on the printed page with an animated feature based on some of the comic’s more recent narrative permutations, particularly the emergence of the younger, mixed-race Spider-Boy Miles Morales and other Spideys from different realities. With its array of new characters, “Into the Spider-Verse” not only invites sequels but spin-offs galore.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about it, though, is that it’s actually pretty good, especially in the visual department. That pretty much insures it won’t be a one-shot, but a geyser, more fuel for the realization of Marvel’s ultimate goal of cinematic domination—though to be sure, Disney’s other behemoths (the “Star Wars” universe, its own live-action and animated juggernauts) will be there to fill in any gaps.

What especially sets “Spider-Verse” apart is the animation style, which takes its cue from the look of vintage comic books, with their limited color range and explosions of action in almost strobe-light movement. The effect can be irritating at times, but overall quite satisfying, with individual scenes often looking like panels taken from an actual strip, with the usual exaggerations of perspective and motion. It’s certainly distinctive, and even without 3D adds a new dimension to Spidey’s world.

Or “worlds,” if one wants to be accurate, because the plot rests on the existence of alternate realities where different spider-beings reside. One such is that where the young protagonist, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), is being sent to a prestigious boarding school by his stern but loving father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), an NYPD cop who considers Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine) a showboating vigilante, and his loving mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez).

Miles, who resents being sent to his new school, has a special rapport with his father’s looser brother Aaron (Mahershala Ali), and it’s on an expedition into the subway tunnel system with him that the boy is bitten by a radioactive spider and begins to experience his new powers. Venturing back to the tunnel, he comes upon the “real” Spider-Man doing battle with the Green Goblin; Spidey is trying to prevent the ultimate villain, Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from starting up what looks like some sort of super-collider that can act as a portal between alternate realities—apparently Kingpin wants to use the device to connect again with his late wife and son—and rescues Miles in the process, offering to teach him the tricks of their joint trade. But before they can cement a partnership, Spider-Man is killed by Kingpin—not, however, before he hands over to Miles a flash drive that can shut down the villain’s mad mechanism, which begins humming.

From here the script juxtaposes two major threads. The first concerns Miles’s struggle to overcome his fears and learn to control his new powers, which include the ability to go invisible. The second involves the appearance of a bunch of new spider-folks from different dimensions. One is another version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), dissolute and overweight after suffering a tragic loss, who effectively becomes the boy’s new mentor. Then there’s Spider-Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a new girl at the school. Added to them are the black-and-white Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime-style heroine Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her Spider-Robot, and oddest of all, the cartoon Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Nor should one forget the dead Parker’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), who turns out to be sort of a den mother for new Spideys from various places.

All of them join forces to derail Kingpin’s scheme by taking on not only the hulking guy himself but his confederates, Olivia or “Doc” Octopus (Kathryn Hahn), Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone), Tombstone (Marvin Jones III), Scorpion (Joaquin Cosio) and, most importantly, the sinister masked enforcer Prowler, whose real identity proves one of those shocking Darth Vader-like surprises now common in genre movies.

There are enough extended fights and chases in “Spider-Verse” to keep any Spidey devotee happy, and relative outsiders to the Spider-Man domain as well. While the plethora of characters and esoteric plot elements might be fully appreciated only by extreme fan-boys and bewilder more causal viewers—those acquainted with just the live-action movies, or a few issues of the comic in its early, glory days—the dazzling visuals and jaunty verbal attitude should make the movie one that anybody can enjoy, at least in some measure.

As to sequels, one can expect as many of those as there are dimensions in the spider-verse. Whether that leaves you gleefully expectant or utterly depressed will be a matter of taste.

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Debra Hayward
Director: Josie Rourke
Writer: Beau Willimon
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle,Maria-Victoria Dragus, Eileen O'Higgins, Alex Beckett and Simon Russell Beale
Studio: Focus Features

B

The sixteenth-century conflict between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England, is hardly new to films: from John Ford’s “Mary of Scotland” with Katharine Hepburn and Florence Eldridge in 1936 to Charles Jarrot’s “Mary, Queen of Scots” with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson in 1971, the tale has been a big-screen favorite, and television hasn’t ignored it either.

In this new version screenwriter Beau Willimon, working from a book by John Guy, and Josie Rourke, another notable British theatrical director making a film debut, put a decisively feminist spin on their telling of the women’s story, presenting them as responding very differently to the pressures of trying to rule within a male-dominated world—with divergent results. It becomes a tale of what might have been a sisterhood of crowned heads turned into a competition for power that ultimately proved deadly.

To be sure, previous tellings—including Jarrot’s (written by John Hale)—have necessarily pointed to the problems faced by female rulers in an earlier period, but Rourke and Willimon put a spin on the story of Mary and Elizabeth that carries a modern feel in the days of Theresa May (and Hillary Clinton). While Redgrave’s Mary was tremulous, wistful and malleable, Saoirse Ronan presents her as strong-willed, imperious and implacable, even in the face of vitriolic abuse from the likes of fanatical churchmen John Knox (David Tennant), who, after all, famously wrote a jeremiad titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women” even before the widowed Mary returned to Scotland from France to claim her throne in 1561.

But as Willimon shows, Mary’s problems involved many men who surrounded her, jockeying for control. Her half-brother Moray (James McArdle) paid lip service to her but aimed at seizing power. Her marriage to the pleasure-seeking Darnley (Jack Lowden) fed into her desire to strengthen her claim to the English throne (which came through her grandmother Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII), but weakened her hold on Scotland. The murders of both her favorite Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and Darnley, along with the determination of her supposedly faithful supporter Bothwell (Martin Compston) to use her for his own political purposes, led to her forced abdication and flight to England in 1568.

Of course Mary’s Catholicism was an obstacle too, not only for the Calvinist Knox but her cousin Elizabeth, who was looked upon by English Catholics as a usurper because of what they saw as her illegitimacy as the daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn—a marriage the Roman Church did not recognize as valid. Whatever sympathy Elizabeth had for her cousin’s difficulties was certainly undermined by Mary’s decision to reject an offer of marriage from Elizabeth’s favorite (and potential spy) Dudley (Joe Alwyn) in favor of the Catholic Darnley, who also had a claim to the English throne through Margaret Tudor by her second marriage. Elizabeth’s attitude hardened under pressure from her council, most notably her chief minister Cecil (Guy Pearce), and when Mary fled to England expecting support, she was instead confined, only to be eventually executed in 1587 when she was accused—whether accurately or not—of conspiring against the queen.

Rourke and Willimon actually cover this bewilderingly complicated material fairly fully, though in a fashion that—understandably, in view of the director’s stage background—is extremely theatrical. To be sure, the film fails to convey the passage of time very well—it covers more than a quarter of a century, but hardly seems to—and it embraces some inventions that have no historical foundation (like a personal meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that never occurred, though it portrays it in a semi-hallucinatory way; but then the 1971 film did so as well). Overall, though, it certainly follows the record far more accurately than did the recent TV series “Reign” in depicting Mary’s earlier years in France, though that CW program admittedly set a very low bar.

While one might quibble over some historical details, in any event, the film presents Mary’s unhappy story well, in both visual and dramatic terms. The physical production is excellent, with cinematographer John Mathieson’s widescreen images giving the locations an almost tactile feel, and the production design by James Merifield and costumes by Alexandra Byrne evokes the period skillfully. Chris Dickens’ editing moves the complicated play of crosses and double-crosses along nicely, though even with a two-hour running-time some viewers might have some problem keeping up, and Max Richter’s score adds to the ambience.

Of course, the trappings would hardly matter without strong acting. The supporting cast is uniformly fine, though Tennant comes on awfully strong (so did Knox), and Pearce is oddly restrained (it even seems that his lines have been overdubbed). But all of them pale beside the two stars. Robbie gives Elizabeth a steely quality that encapsulates her determination to overcome the efforts of men to manipulate her by, as she admits, becoming manly herself; this queen overcame the prejudices of her time with the same sternness that she did the disfiguring effects of the pox on her face with heavy makeup.

As good as Robbie is, however, it’s Ronan who dominates as the passionate Scottish queen, who proves emotionally unable to take charge over the men around her. The actress, who actually bears a strong resemblance to Mary as she appears in contemporary portraits, delivers a powerhouse turn, forcefully conveying the monarch’s shifting moods and tragic downfall.

Rourke’s take on the Mary-Elizabeth confrontation is unlikely to be the final cinematic word on the subject, but among existing films about the doomed queen of Scots, it’s the finest yet.