Ad Astra(9/19/2019)

Last year when I went to see First Man and this year when I watched Apollo 11 I came to a slightly depressing revelation: the 60s space program has lost a lot of its luster, at least for me and I suspect with a lot of people of my generation.  I think that’s in large part because at the moment space exploration seems like a bit of a dead end.  Back in the 60s people just assumed that landing on the moon was a giant leap for mankind and that by the year 2001 we’d be regularly traveling to space bases and traveling through trippy alien wormholes to reach our next stage of evolution.  Instead we’ve mostly just learned that the moon and Mars are both barren wastelands and that if there is life (or even worthwhile natural resources) out there it’s so astronomically far away that it would be ridiculously hard to ever get there.  Hollywood for their part has kind of given up on space optimism; they usually just go the fantasy route and jump to distant futures of the Star Trek variety without even suggesting how we got there.  The only movie in recent years I can think of which tried to do science fiction in a way that was closer to our current technology was The Martian, but even that movie kind of marginalized the actual space travel part of getting to the red planet.  Joining that film is perhaps the new James Gray film Ad Astra (which is the Latin for “to the stars), a film which looks at a distant but not entirely distant future which seems at least a little bit plausible.

The film begins with an action scene where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a massive antenna which stands so high that its basically in space when it’s hit by some sort of power surge and he plummets to the surface before being saved by a parachute.  We soon learn that this is one of many such surges that are wreaking havoc across Earth and McBride is brought into a top secret briefing where he’s told that these surges are the result of a mission from years ago called the Lima Project.  This mission, an attempt to find intelligent life in the universe which required a voyage deep into the solar system, was led by McBride’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who the public believes died heroically when that ship was lost sixteen years ago.  In the briefing its revealed that the government believes Clifford is actually alive and that these surges are somehow being caused by the Lima’s power sources.  As such Roy is being recruited to travel to Mars, via the Moon, in order to send out a personal plea to Clifford.  Roy accepts this mission and begins what is sure to be a fateful journey both for himself and for humanity.

What is immediately striking about the future depicted in Ad Astra is that, more so than in even the most grounded of science fiction, it manages to feel legitimately futuristic while also feeling like a fairly natural evolution of the modern world.  The space ships in it can apparently go to the outer-reaches of the solar system in a matter of a few months but they still resemble shuttles and need to use rockets to exit the atmosphere and the clothing and space suits everyone’s wearing are not wildly divergent from modern clothing trends.  They’ve apparently colonized the moon and Mars, but getting to them involves all the same mundanities we need to deal with at modern airports and parts of both are apparently unstable warzones.  All over the film you can tell that a great deal of thought and research was done to build all these futuristic things, but the film doesn’t feel obliged to stop and explain all of it.  Take that antenna thing at the beginning, what is that for?  I don’t know, and unless I missed something I don’t think the movie ever stops and explains it but it’s certainly a striking image and I do have a certain confidence that they thought it through.  The scientific things that don’t make so much sense to me are things that kind of seem like plot contrivances.  I’m not exactly sure why they would need to go to Mars just to send a signal to Neptune and it’s also a bit convenient that in the third act Pitt is able to travel a pretty vast distance in a relatively short span of time, which would seem to raise some plot questions.

Having said all that, the science fiction in Ad Astra is in many ways something of a background element more than the main focus.  This isn’t a movie that’s trying to be a headtrip in the lineage of 2001: A Space Odyssey so much as a human quest modeled after Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Pitt as Marlow and his father as Kurtz.  It certainly isn’t a one to one parallel and the overall thematic message is quite different but the basic structure is more or less there.  This also makes the film a rather inward piece of work that focuses almost entirely on Brad Pitt’s character to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else and as a result the film has to rest pretty heavily on a voice-over narration by Pitt that is a bit of a mixed bag.  I certainly wouldn’t want the voice-over taken out entirely because there are definitely sections of it that are needed but I do think it could have been reduced a little bit.  Pitt’s narration in and of itself is a bit monotone and was made to sound like it was recorded in an echoy spaceship, which may or may not have been the best call.  There are also some plot details that bug me in the film, especially a violent turn of events that leads into the third act which seemed avoidable and kind of undermined the film’s ending.

Honestly I do having a sinking suspicion that there are a lot of plot elements here which aren’t going to hold up overly well to strict scrutiny and I don’t look forward to the “everything wrong with” videos that are eventually going to be made because looking at the movie like that sort of misses the point.  At the same time, the film’s general straightforwardness does make it a bit more susceptible to that kind of criticism.  This isn’t the kind of brainy science fiction film that really forces you to untangle some crazy mind bending idea about aliens or time travel or something, it’s ultimately a character study and the journey at its center is about as literal as it is metaphorical.  While I was watching the movie, I really liked it.  It looks great and it has some very strong scenes, but it didn’t really leave me with the same level of food for thought that we’ve come to expect from this kind of science fiction.  It’s a movie that’s fairly straightforward in its messaging and there are plot elements which I just can’t completely overlook.  This is actually the feeling I get all too often when I leave James Gray movies, he’s a guy with clear talent but his movies always end up being a bit shallower than their trappings suggest.  Still, if the movie has failings they’re failings that are set up by high expectations, looked at in the wider world of commercial cinema this is definitely worth seeing especially for fans of hard science fiction.

***1/2 out of Five

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Spider-Man: Far From Home(7/4/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The unique business relationship that Sony and Disney are in when it comes to Spider-Man should be something of a disaster.  Honestly I’m kind of surprised either party were willing to do it in the first place.  It was in Marvel’s interest to keep letting Sony flail and make bad Spider-Man movies until they gave up the IP like Fox did with Daredevil and it was in Sony’s interest to make Spider-Man movies on their own in hopes that they could find a way to make it work and keep all the profits.  Instead they came up with a surprisingly user-friendly deal that would have Marvel’s creative team bring Spider-Man into the MCU while having Sony front the bills and distribute the final product.  And somehow it worked.  2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was a great Spider-Man movie and a solid piece of the MCU puzzle, it was a win for everyone involved.  Of course the downside of the deal is that while the core Spider-Man films with Tom Holland they can also pretty much do whatever they want with the rest of the IP, meaning the market gets to be saturated with Spider-Man product both good (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse) and bad (Venom) and if they’re not careful we could become very sick of this character very quickly.  Fortunately we’re not at that point yet and as such I was still pretty excited for Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Picking up the summer after the events of Avengers: Endgame, the film finds Peter Parker (Tom Holland) mourning the loss of Tony Stark but excited about his upcoming school trip to Europe.  He’s looking forward to this trip firstly because he needs a break and secondly because he has this elaborate plan to woo Mary Jane (Zendaya) out of the friend-zone over the course of the trip, but all those plans get put on hold when he’s contacted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants to use Parker to deal with a situation while he’s on his trip.  Parker is reluctant to help and wants to spend the trip being a normal teenager, but after his tour group is attacked by a water monster he realizes he’s going to be brought in one way or another.  So he goes with Fury and meets Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a person from an alternate dimension whose world was destroyed by the same elemental monsters that appear to be emerging on Earth now.  Mysterio seems to be a much more conventionally powerful hero than Spider-Man but will their combined powers be enough to do the job?

So, just from looking at that plot description you can probably intuit one of the film’s biggest problems: its first half is largely predicated on the idea that famous supervillain Mysterio is a good guy and the film seems to treat it as a genuine surprise when this turns out not to be the case.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Spider-Man’s history will immediately see through this villain’s scheme given that his whole thing has historically been to create illusions to manipulate his foes.  Even people who know nothing about the original character should more or less see this twist coming so it’s a little surprising that the film does bother to treat it like a genuine twist.  That having been said I do like what the film does with the Mysterio character overall.  The guy has style and even though his reveal was predictable the film actually did manage to make the inevitable exposition dump about what he’s been doing sort of work for him.  I also like how they seem to be establishing a continuity of sorts between the spider-man villains in this series by making them people who are disaffected because of the seemingly benevolent corporate actions of Tony Stark whether it’s the displaced small businessman take on The Vulture from the last movie or the disgruntled middle-management level employees who make up Mysterio and his team.

Lame plot twist aside I was a bit disengaged by the film’s whole first half, which needed to do a lot to reconcile the post-Avengers: Endgame world from the down to earth perspective of Parker’s high school while also going through the franchises’ established high school shenanigans.  At times during this first half the comedy goes a bit too far; characters make dumb decisions and get into contrived situations to accommodate punchlines, some of the jokes just flat-out don’t work, and there’s generally a feeling of the movie throwing a whole lot at the wall to see what sticks.  You’re still enjoying the proceedings but its sloppy and something just seems off about it.  However, once the film gets the twist out of the way it finally recovers and becomes the MCU Spider-Man adventure that we were waiting for.  Parker is finally given a real goal in all of this and we get to stop pretending that these goofy CGI elemental monsters are a real threat.  The mix of comedy, action, and character gets back on track and the film just generally seems to tighten up and things seem to finally matter again.  So, yeah, despite some early stumbles the movie manages to recover and become another pretty strong piece of studio entertainment from Marvel that manages to be both an effective sequel to the last movie while furthering the overall story, which is something that this studio routinely makes look easy.

***1/2 out of Five

Rocketman(6/1/2019)

It’s always been kind of amazing to me that there was a point in history where Elton John was the biggest rock star in the world.  Not because of the music, I certainly see why that would be big, but it’s amazing that for a period of time in the 1970s the picture of rock superstardom was an overweight bespectacled ginger homosexual dude who played piano ballads while wearing strange outfits.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, in fact it’s sort of a testament to his talents: this was a dude who did not skate by on his looks.  But as far as Elton’s music goes he’s never really been my favorite artist.  When I was a kid he was still sort of around and would show up at strange moments to do stuff like eulogize Princess Diana or perform random duets with Eminem but he was ultimately an oldies act that I didn’t have time for.  I didn’t really get into him when I finally did start exploring classic rock either, and I think that largely has to do with his choice of instrument.  To teenage me rock and roll was defined by one thing: guitars, preferably electric guitars, and the longer the solos were the better.  I could find time for David Bowie, but Elton John was a step too far away from what really seemed like “rock” to me, hell I still haven’t really come around on Billy Joel.  Instead Elton John was someone I only came to like pretty late in life when I really started to expand the music I was into and started putting together just how many of the catchy songs I’d been hearing over the years were by him.  I’m still not a huge fan by any means and some of his songs like “Crocodile Rock” still don’t do it for me, but I am interested enough in him to have been pretty interested in the new biopic Rocketman.

Rocketman begins with a rather surreal scene of Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking into an rehab group therapy session wearing one of his signature wacky costumes and begins to tell his life story to the group.  This acts as something of a framing story throughout and every time we cut back to it he’s stripped off part of his costume.  From there we get a more or less chronological telling of the musician’s life from his childhood struggles with his father (Steven Mackintosh) and mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to meeting his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his becoming a superstar while battling addiction and an emotionally abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden).

This film has the immense benefit of opening less than a year after the worldwide blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  This is fortunate firstly because it shows the public is primed for a biographical account of a gay British music icon from the 70s and secondly it’s beneficial because its close proximity to that movie invites comparisons between the two and given how lackluster that movie was these comparisons are rather flattering.  Critics hate Bohemian Rhapsody because it’s a movie that flagrantly ignores several decades of advice critics have been giving filmmakers about musical biopics and just shamelessly leans into each and every biopic cliché in the clumsiest way possible (a problem that may be less apparent to the general public, who hasn’t sat through every damn one of these movies).  Rocketman, by contrast, carefully avoids at least some of the pitfalls which that leaped into.  For one thing, the film doesn’t feel sanitized like Rhapsody did.  It isn’t hesitant to show the extent of Elton John’s drug use and to make him look like kind of an asshole at certain points while also exploring what’s leading him to behave that way.  It also isn’t as squeamish about his homosexuality (even if the film’s one sex scene has a Call Me By Your Name style cutaway), and Taron Egerton also sings his own songs and gives a more well-rounded performance than Rami Malek, whose Oscar winning performance did not really impress me beyond the visual imitation of Freddie Mercury.

Of course the film’s most radical difference from Bohemian Rhapsody and musical biopics in general is that it actually takes the format of a jukebox musical rather than a straight biography with various fantasy sequences in which people (and not necessarily just Elton) “burst into song” and perform Elton John songs with thematic similarities to what’s going on.  I say these are fantasy sequences, but in many ways the film doesn’t actually treat them like that.  Director Dexter Fletcher never “snaps back to reality” so to speak after one of these performances are done, they just kind of “magic realism” their way into the movie and aren’t commented upon.  The film also makes no attempt to present any of these songs in their historical chronology.  For instance the film shows Elton John playing “Crocodile Rock” at his first American performance at the Troubadour even though that song was actually from his sixth album and more than likely wasn’t written at that point.  This kind of messing around with facts got Bohemian Rhapsody into a lot of trouble given that it presented itself as a straightforward biography but it feel more natural here given much of the movie is presented as a sort of fantastical musical and that the more salient facts seem to be accurate.

Of course the decision to make this a musical does have a couple of drawbacks.  For one thing the whole conceit seems to be based in the notion that Elton John music reflected his personal life, which would seem to be a rather dubious notion given that he didn’t write his own lyrics and generally seem rather impersonal.  At times the film does seem to be stretching a little to recontextualize some of these songs, like when “Tiny Dancer” is turned into a song about Elton’s loneliness in L.A. while Taupin is off chasing tail and the movie sort of contorts itself at one point to make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fit a conversation.  In addition to that, the musical motif is in some ways a bit of a smokescreen.  The usual musical biopic clichés are still there under the seemingly unique wrapping.  This is after all the story of a bright eyed musician who shocks the record company with his talents and shoots to superstardom before almost losing everything to addiction and hedonism until he enters rehab and emerges victorious.  It’s kind of the same story that damn near every rock star has and to an extent cliché is inevitable, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie smooths out those edges and flows more naturally.  It actually feels like it’s put some thought behind what the rockstar life is like and isn’t just presenting the material out of some obligation to formula.

I do think that this movie is the beneficiary of lowered expectations to some extent.  It might try a couple of new things but it’s certainly not going full I’m Not There and really innovating with the form.  In fact I suspect that this kind of biopic by way of jukebox musical format is a bit more common on Broadway in shows like “Jersey Boys.”  However, the fact of the matter is that I’ve never really been as allergic to the musical biopic format as some critics and wouldn’t even have been all that mad at Bohemian Rhapsody if not for the fact that people were giving it goddamn Oscars.  So really, taking that usual format and using it in a way that has some actual thought behind it rather than half-assedly going through the motions probably is enough to sell me on a project.  If this had only been about a band or artist that means more to me this might have even been a slam dunk, but as it stands it’s a solid movie that will serve the fans of the artist well.

***1/2 out of Five

Long Day’s Journey Into Night(5/4/2019)

The first half of 2019 has proven to be something of a landmark year for Chinese arthouse films.  Earlier this year we got Jia Zhangke’s latest meditation on a modernizing China Ash is Purest White, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Standing Still played in very limited release (missed that one), and soon we’re going to see the release of Zhang Yimou’s latest film Shadow.  We’re also getting the release of the sophomore effort of a promising young filmmaker named Bi Gan called Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  For the record the film has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name and I’m not exactly sure why Gan opted to jack that title other than the fact that the film is quite literally set over the course of a long day and it eventually journeys into the night.  The film generated a lot of buzz at last year’s Cannes film festival both for its cryptic nature and for the fact that it has a fifty five minute long unbroken shot which is, unlike the rest of the film, in 3D.  That was enough to peak my curiosity even though it was almost too arthouse for the arthouses and instead played at a local modern art museum.

The film is set in a city called Kaili, which is a somewhat remote city located in Southwestern China and follows a guy named Luo (Huang Jue) who has returned to this town after a long absence to attend his father’s funeral.  We get only the vaguest details of what his life was like back in the town.  We know he had a friend named Wildcat (played in flashbacks by Lee Hong-chi) who was killed over some criminal activity involving a gun in a wagon of apples.  We also know that there was a woman in his past named Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei).  And that’s about all we really get in the way of conventional plot as much of the movie simply follows Luo as he goes through the city seemingly searching for Wan Qiwen but doing so in ways that don’t always fit conventional logic.  We see certain things which are ostensibly flashbacks, but don’t necessarily announce themselves as such and weave into the film in ways you don’t suspect.

I don’t know much about Bi Gan but I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that he’s really into David Lynch because this is definitely a movie trying to channel a similar kind of dream logic.  The film isn’t in exploring some of the darker depths and extreme imagery that Lynch occasionally dips into but he certainly shares his willingness to eschew conventional plot coherence in favor of mood. This certainly came as a surprise to the film’s opening weekend audience in China, who were actually drawn to the movie in large numbers because of an unconventional and wildly misleading marketing campaign that made the film seem like a romantic comedy that couples should see at one of several event screenings on New Year’s Eve.  It was a move that earned the movie $37 million during its opening weekend and also reportedly causing several walkouts and angry posts on Weibo.  I haven’t exactly seen those advtisements, but if they’re anything like as misleading as the stories in the trade publications make them sound I can see why people would be pissed.  It’s kind of like the people who went to see Drive expecting it to be like a Fast and Furious movie, but at least Drive did have some car stunts in it.  This movie, by contrast, is about as oblique and “arty” as a movie can be and isn’t much of a romance at all outside of the way it explores the depths of how much Lou misses Wan.

The part of the film that has gotten the most attention, by far, is the last fifty minutes which are a single continuous shot and unlike the rest of the film are in 3D.  Of course making a movie that’s only half in 3D is pretty strange and means that you find yourself sitting in a theater with a pair of 3D glasses sitting awkwardly on your lap essentially “burning a hole in your pocket” so to speak.  In some ways you can’t help but view the first 78 minutes as something of a prologue for whatever wild tone shift that last shot will presumably involve.  Indeed there is some truth to that as the 2D elements, while oblique and difficult in and off themselves do feel in some ways like they’re meant to give you the context for that final shot, which takes the film from being “dreamlike” to being what is almost certainly a literal dream sequence.  As a technical and logistical accomplishment this shot is certainly impressive and it manages to maintain a tone of melancholy reminiscent of the last episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” even when it occasionally stops to show off by indulging in 3D Ping Pong or Billiards.

I will say, however, that the whole promise of a 55 minute single take 3D shot had kind of led me to expect a movie that was a bit more visually adventurous otherwise.  Instead the movie actually has fairly drab digital cinematography that never quite captures the noir vibe that Gan is going for.  There are actually a lot of little things like that which hold me at a bit of a distance from this movie and truth be told I don’t feel ready to make a final judgement on it on a first viewing.  It’s a movie that is attempting to capture a certain state of mind and dream more than it’s trying to tell a story or make any kind of real statement about anything, so as an exercise I suppose it succeeds but as a viewing experience it can be frustrating.  It feels like it’s almost impossible to really “get” the movie after a single viewing, and yet its 3D gimmick almost discourages attempts at repeated viewings outside of theaters.  Maybe this is the Last Year at Marienbad of the 2010s or maybe the Emperor has no clothes.  Honestly I’d probably be more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt if it had been made by an old master rather than a 29 year old who frankly comes off as being a bit pretentious in interviews.  It’s not a movie I’m terribly comfortable about giving a traditional “verdict” on with a star rating.  I’m not prepared to declare the movie some kind of profound accomplishment today and it’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average viewer, but it certainly intrigued me and for the dedicated film enthusiast it deserves a viewing.

***1/2 out of Five

Avengers: Endgame(4/26/2019)

Review contains spoilers

Last year when I sat down and tried to review Avengers: Infinity War I found that going through the usual motions of a mostly spoiler-free review aimed at introducing a film to someone unfamiliar with it just seemed like a bit of a waste.  No one was on the fence about whether they wanted to see that movie but they might want to look back on it and deconstruct what made it work.  And that is what I did in the form of a review of sorts that was more of an informal discussion about the movie than what I usually try to do.  Now it’s a year later and Marvel has put out what is essentially the second half of that movie and I find myself once again having to write about a movie that everyone is already planning to either see or to ignore whatever I have to say about it and I find that once again the best approach is to just write up my own feelings in a relatively unstructured format.

Let’s start by considering what worked so well about Avengers: Infinity War, which is a movie I liked a whole lot and have if anything grown to appreciate even more in the last year.  That was a movie that had two tasks it had to accomplish: first it needed to bring the infinity stones together to enable the film’s bold cliffhanger and secondly it needed to serve as a fun Avengers movie where all our favorite characters came together for one last romp, and it manages to accomplish both of those things beautifully, and I also thought it managed to bring a fairly fascinating villain to the screen and did some clever things in the way it used the actions of its heroes in order to refute his insane philosophy.  That movie’s follow up, by contrast, has to do a lot more.  It needs to reckon with the fallout of Thanos’ snap and the effect it has on the characters, it needs to go through the “time heist” in all its complexity, and it also needs to get through a final battle against Thanos that will set up whatever the MCU will be going forward all while trying to be an entertaining action movie.  Rather than tying these three things together the movie essentially has to divide itself into three acts with each one devoted to one of those three things.

At the center of Avengers: Endgame is something of a catch-22: do you acknowledge the devastation of “the snap” and make a movie tinged in melancholy rather than superhero fun or do you minimize that, which would be something of a cop-out.  To the film’s credit they do mostly go with the former option right through and to some extent including the part where everyone comes back from the dead.  I had mostly expected them to go through a pretty pure undoing of the snap that would leaving society to go on unaffected, but instead they do the five year jump after boldly killing off Thanos like a chump and they stick with that all the way through.  In theory I like this decision a lot and I certainly respect it but it also opens up a lot of questions about how a society would react to a calamity like that and the movie really does not have the time to get into that.  It’s also a move that could really have major implications for whatever the MCU looks like after this as it basically means that these movies will now be taking place in a futuristic world removed from modern culture as we know it.  It also puts the rest of the movie into this very serious place that does remove some of that trademark MCU joy from the proceedings.  Like, the idea of seeing Marvel characters go back into their old movies Back to the Future Part 2 style seems like a blast but it’s maybe less fun than it should be simply because everyone is so shell-shocked.

That’s not to say the film is humorless, it isn’t, though I almost wonder if they should have leaned even harder into the grim tone if they were going to “go there.”  I was particularly unimpressed with the way they handled the Thor character.  Making Thor into someone who’s completely “let himself go” and fallen into a drunken stupor over the course of five years is an interesting idea, but the movie mostly just treats it like a sight gag that outlives its welcome.  You wonder why he’s even invited to participate in the time heist given that he was clearly a liability.  Like a lot of things this was a damned if you do damned if you don’t; just magically making him shed a hundred pounds and overcome alcoholism when convenient would have been lame (and in some ways they do indeed do this at the end when he becomes battle ready out of nowhere) but seeing him stay in this state and not even bother to shave is also kind of a bummer.  Outside of that the film does a pretty decent job of finding interesting ways to have the trauma of the situation manifest in different ways for different characters.  Robert Downy Jr. certainly puts on a pretty good swan song and I like seeing Captain America try to put on a brave face for what is in many ways a hopeless situation.  The Guardians of the Galaxy fare a bit worse; Rocket feels like a pretty one dimensional character when removed from his “family” and while Nebula plays an important role in the plot she’s kind of a monotone presence.  Oddly enough the film seems to have gone out of its way to set that franchise up for a post-Gunn and possibly Taika Waititi helmed future that they’ve already backtracked on.

Another odd thing about the movie is that, up until that final battle scene this really doesn’t function as an action movie.  There are certainly special effects all over the screen thanks to talking raccoons and hulks and we get some sequences like the two New York infinity stone heists, but there really isn’t a full on fight or chase or anything in the first two hours of the movie.  That’s kind of a bold move rooted in confidence that audiences have connected enough to these characters that audiences will follow them with or without the exact spectacle people are used to.  I’m not exactly sure it was the right move though, in part because I’m actually not in love with that final battle, which I found to be a bit too dark, crowded, and chaotic to serve as the cathartic release that it was clearly intended to be.  I found the Battle of Wakanda from Avengers: Infinity War to be much more effective and I also found their choice to bring Thanos back when they did was a bit off.  Thanos derived much of his intimidation factor in the last film from the fact that he was wielding the infinity stones, without them I would think that he would just be a big purple guy with a sword who shouldn’t have posed as much of a threat to the combined efforts of three superheroes.

I feel a little weird criticizing this movie when for so long the big complaint about these MCU films is that they didn’t take enough risks and followed a rigid formula and yet a lot of what seems off about this movie is that it diverges from the usual formula.  Maybe that’s unfair, but in some ways they’ve brought this on themselves by giving audiences every reason to expect one particular thing from them.  Avengers: Infinity War delivered on that beautifully, it was like the bigger and more developed evolution of that first Avengers movie, and to me it was clearly the better half of this story.  Avengers: Endgame by contrast almost feels less like a movie and more like a very expensive series finale for a popular TV show like Lost or Game of Thrones.  One which has to try to give some degree of closure while also serving as a sendoff and sort of a celebration of everything that came before.  It sort of does that, but like a lot of series finales it maybe stumbles a bit under its own self-conscious sentimentality and maybe gets a little too clever for its own good in dreaming up a conceit to make that possible.  All in all I don’t want to complain too much or come off too negative.  The movie certainly kept me interested and entertained for three solid hours, that’s an accomplishment for sure and with how difficult this assignment was it could have gone so much worse.

***1/2 out of Five 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse(12/30/2018)

2018 was generally a pretty bad year for humanity, but it was a pretty good year for one fictional character: Spider-Man.  The character was going strong coming off of his successful Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and also played a prominent role in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War.  On top of that he had a hit video game come out for the Playstation 4, which was a huge seller and one of the most acclaimed superhero games since the end of the Batman: Arkham series. Hell, even the dude’s villains are now getting majorly successful movies made about them.  With all that web-slinger content to go through I must say I wasn’t exactly doing much to anticipate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated feature film that Sony was planning to release late in the year almost as an afterthought separate from all the other Spider-Man related releases they were cranking out.  Was it based on some Saturday Morning cartoon I wasn’t familiar with?  Was it going to be something that was strictly for kids?  Was it going to be more like the dozens of animated movies that DC puts out for whoever it is buys those things?  Well to my surprise it’s being treated as something more substantial than all those things, in fact among critics it’s become one of the more universally liked animated movies of the year and something I probably couldn’t just ignore.

This Spider-Man film is set in an alternate universe from the one we’re used to seeing Spider-Man in.  In it Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is a blond guy who has been fighting the good fight as Spider-Man for many years and is pretty widely accepted as a superhero, but this film isn’t told from his perspective.  Instead it’s told from the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a middle school student who’s recently been accepted to a top end charter school but who feels stifled by his parents’ expectations.  One day his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) takes him to a hidden subway where he is (for reasons unexplained) bitten by a radioactive spider.  Soon he begins to obtain Spider-Man like powers that he doesn’t know how to control, and he’ll need them because shortly afterward he stumbles upon a giant particle collider that The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has built while Spider-Man is trying to take it down.  Spider-Man does damage it but is injured in the process.  He warns Morales that this collider could cause a full on apocalypse and gives Morales a USB drive that can be used to bring it down for good.  Unfortunately Spider-Man is found by The Kingpin and unable to help, Morales watches as Spider-Man is killed.  Morales escapes, but feels ill-equipped to finish what Spider-Man started, that is until he realizes that this collider has opened up some sort of inter-dimensional rift and he meets another alternate version of Spider-Man, and another, and another.

This highlight of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is almost certainly its screenplay by Phil Lord (of Lord and Miller fame) and Rodney Rothman.  In it they do a pretty good job of doing a new take on Spider-Man that feels quite distinct from the many other iterations of the character without feeling like it was trying to tear those versions down in any way.  The film also does a good job of having a rather sarcastic wit without constantly feeling more snarky and self-referential than it needed to.  I especially liked the creation of Peter B. Parker, an alternate universe Spider-Man voiced by Jake Johnson, who appears to be a perfectly competent superhero despite sort of being a fuck-up whose personal life is a mess and who just sort of “wings it” while out on missions rather than meticulously planning everything.  I love the way the film manages to pretty much mock this guy while still making him very clearly a hero in all the ways that count.  The film also does a good job of getting kind of serious when it needs to and prioritizing Morales’ character arc over gags.

So there’s a very solid stand-alone Spider-Man story here to work with, but I found the way that it was executed to be a bit… all over the place.  In particular I found the animation style they landed on to be quite the mixed bag.  Now before I get too deep into this I do want to say that I’m glad the people making this did at least try to use a somewhat experimental animation style for this relatively high profile film.  That kind risk taking is necessary and that kind of variety is necessary in the film landscape.  That having been said, I think what mars the look of this film is that it kind of has a whole lot of ideas and never really settles on a specific set of them.  It’s over-riding goal is seemingly to take on something of the look of a silver-age comic book but it also doesn’t want to go all the way and use traditional animation so it instead takes the form of a CGI animated film but one that uses cel-shading, kind of like a Telltale game.  The result really doesn’t look that much like a vintage comic book to me so I’m not sure why they still bothered with certain filters to try and give it that four color look.  Occasionally the film will use some overt comic book techniques like word bubbles and panel divides, but it never really commits to this and or consistently uses it as part of its film language.

On the positive side, the film does have its characters move in a way that feels unique and it also has a bit more of a sense of depth within the frame, and almost gives the illusion of the film being a work stop-motion at times, which is interesting.  I will also say that the film does a very good job of blending in the divergent styles of some of the alternate universe Spider-people and making them all cohere on screen, which was probably an even harder task than it appeared given that a couple of the characters really take on the features of traditional animation in ways that most of the film doesn’t.   On the less positive side, while this is still a movie that was made for $90 million dollars that’s still kind of low budget for a feature length animated movie like this (by comparison The Incredibles 2 cost more than twice as much), and at times that budget does show.  Certain elements of the movie like the cityscapes and the backgrounds during a scene set in a forest seem to really use their stylization to conceal corners that are being cut and certain elements just look kind of unfinished.  I must also say that for all of the film’s success in designing the alternate universe spider-people I think the film really dropped the ball in their designs for some of its villains.  The Kingpin just looks silly with his insanely large bulk combined with a sort of hump on his back, when the Green Goblin is briefly present he looks like an indistinct snarling monster, The Prowler almost seems to be hard to see on screen at times, and their makeover of The Scorpion just looks plain ridiculous.

That’s not to say I dislike the movie because of any of this.  Again, the writing in it is very strong and despite my misgivings the animation does have some things going for it.  The movie is certainly a whole lot better than it needed to be given that it looked like something of a weird side-project by Sony Pictures to exploit the one franchise they have that still seems to be working for them.  All that said I think I am a bit less into this movie than some people are, in part because I’m sort of part of a second wave of people who went to see it.  Unlike the first round of critics who were blindsided by it, I was going into it with higher expectations because of the hype and that probably made its shortcomings stand out a little more to me.

***1/2 out of Five