Tag Archives: B-

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.

THE FRONT RUNNER

Producer: Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook and Aaron L. Gilbert
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Matt Bai, Jay Carson and Jason Reitman
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Josh Brener, Bill Burr, Oliver Cooper, Chris Coy, Kaitlyn Dever, Tommy Dewy, Molly Ephraim, Spencer Garrett, Ari Graynor, Toby Huss, Mike Judge, Alex Karpovsky, Jennifer Landon, John Bedfor Lloyd, Mark O'Brien, Sara Paxton, Kevin Pollak and Steve Zissis
Studio: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

B-

How times have changed in American politics. A bit over half a century ago, it was conventional wisdom that a divorced man couldn’t be elected president. Then it was assumed that an adulterer was unelectable. Reagan and Clinton, in order, shattered those ideas, and now a twice-divorced fellow who’s boasted publicly of being a serial adulterer and sexual harasser—while also denying it, of course—holds the Oval Office. It certainly represents a sea change in attitude among voters.

Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner” is about what in retrospect was a major episode in that shift—as well as one showing the morphing of American political journalism in the direction of crass tabloidism: the abbreviated 1988 presidential campaign of Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Based on a book by Matt Bai, as adapted by him, Jay Carson and Reitman, it shows how a politician who seemed to have a clear path to the presidential nomination of one of the two major parties was forced to pull out of the race after only three weeks because a team of newspapermen decided to stake out his house to collect evidence of adulterous behavior and then published the result, creating a firestorm despite the fact that their reporting was, at best, imperfect.

Reitman begins with a prologue recalling Hart’s unsuccessful presidential run in 1984, when Walter Mondale, the eventual Democratic nominee, eviscerated the boyish lawmaker by asking of his hazy policy suggestions—after a Wendy’s commercial popular at the time—“Where’s the beef?” Four years later, Mondale was back in Minnesota, Reagan remained in the White House, and Hart was riding high in the polls. As played by Hugh Jackman, he’s handsome, articulate and athletic (a bit too much so, in fact—Hart was actually more professorial and wonky); he also a strong-minded, confident wife (Vera Farmiga), and a dedicated campaign manager (J.K. Simmons) presiding over an enthusiastic staff, many of them idealistic young volunteers.

Hart pretty obviously cultivated a Kennedy-esque persona, and unhappily that proved to extend to an attitude toward marital fidelity that was not exactly in tune with middle American values, though it certainly wasn’t unlike that of many previous presidents. The difference was that in 1988, after the messes of Vietnam and Watergate, questions of character loomed larger in assessments of candidates, and what reporters looking for dirt considered appropriate subjects for investigation expanded to include their private lives—something that had been considered largely off-limits in recent times, though eruptions of scandals sometimes became headline news.

That was the backdrop against which the staff of the Miami Herald reacted when an anonymous source (later identified as a woman named Donna Weems) reported that a friend of hers—Donna Rice (Sara Paxton—was having an affair with Hart. Several reporters, including Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis] and one who here goes by the name of Pete Murphy (Bill Burr), apparently a pseudonym—were assigned to check on the report, and confirmed via their Washington stakeout that Rice did indeed visit Hart; the even accosted the senator outside his Washington townhouse and pressed their editor—another apparent composite called Bob Martindale (Kevin Pollak)—to publish the story.

The explosion of bad publicity was immediate, and Hart, pleading privacy rights, was unable to handle it effectively. His campaign imploding, he withdrew so as not to be, as he put it, a distraction, though what the film doesn’t add was that he later reentered the race, only to do poorly in the primaries.

Reitman’s film gives a decent overview of the aborted Hart campaign, though its point of view is pretty narrow and the overall treatment rather superficial. He and Jackman paint a reasonably truthful external portrait of Hart, even if they never dig very deeply into his character, tending to let him off rather easy; and the other figures associated with him are depicted in pretty one-dimensional terms (Simmons’ manager in particular), with only Farmiga getting an opportunity to demonstrate the rage of a wife wronged by her husband’s misconduct.

The representatives of the Fourth Estate, on the other hand, are very negatively portrayed. Zissis’ Fiedler, for instance, is depicted as a sweaty, weasely sort, torn between whatever vestige of principle he might retain and the pull of his skuzzy partner Murphy, who revels in pushing the story as far as it will go. Fielder certainly gets his comeuppance in an interview with Ted Koppel, during which he squirms under questioning. (In reality he went on to a distinguished journalistic career at the Herald, later taking a deanship at Boston University.) The Herald’s editor, the pseudonymous Martindale, also gets blasted in a face-off with Hart in which he comes off looking slippery and evasive.

The film also makes much of the argument that the Herald justified its tactics by referring to an offhanded remark Hart made to another reporter to follow him if he wanted to check out rumors about him. The point, repeated several times, is that the remark hadn’t yet been published when the Herald initiated its investigation, and was taken up as a post-factum rationale for the tactics the paper adopted.

We’re also shown other newspapermen being dragged unwillingly toward the National Enquirer style of gotcha journalism (it was that paper that published the infamous photo of Hart and Rice on the yacht unfortunately called the Monkey Business, as a clip from Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show reminds us here). That’s shown in the newsroom of the Washington Post, where editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina, far softer than the portrait of him Jason Robards, Jr. drew so unforgettably in “All the President’s Men”) wistfully recalls the pass the press gave to JFK and LBJ on their womanizing and young reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie)—another fictionalized character—wrestles with his conscience about taking on the story, though he eventually does so, earning him a scornful look from Hart.

People will debate how accurate Bai and Reitman’s account of the whole sorry business is, but after all “The Front Runner” does not pose as a documentary; and as a docu-drama, with all the caveats that category necessarily carries, it makes the points it wants to with economy and dramatic urgency, and political junkies in particular will enjoy it, if only to nitpick at its flaws. Steve Saklad’s production design and Danny Glicker’s costumes are unobtrusively correct in period terms, Eric Steelberg’s cinematography is atmospheric, and Stefan Grube’s editing is smooth, especially considering Reitman’s penchant for combining archival material with newly-shot footage. One annoyance is Rob Simonsen’s score, which, in the campaign sequences, bounces along rhythmically at inordinately loud volume.

Nobody comes out well in this sad story—neither Hart, who despite good qualities is portrayed as a man with feet of clay, nor the staff at the Miami Herald, portrayed as more interested in a sordid scoop than accuracy. Some might believe that the American people should be added to that list, since the eventual Democratic nominee was Michael Dukakis, who lost to George H.W. Bush, establishing a dynasty that led to the election of his son, to “weapons of mass destruction” and to the war in Iraq. We’ll have to wait to see what Adam McKay’s upcoming “Vice” makes of all that.

Of course, “The Front Runner” doesn’t offer a persuasive argument that things would have been appreciably better if Hart had won the Democratic nomination, and the presidency.