This Is a Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Entertainment

This post was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Liev Schreiber, Bryan Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage, Kimiko Glenn, John Mulaney, Kathryn Hahn, Chris Pine, Zoë Kravitz

Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: PG for Superhero Bumps and Bruises and Dimension-Altering Explosions

Release Date: December 14, 2018

Even if you prefer Tom Holland or Andrew Garfield’s versions of Peter Parker, it is fundamentally outrageous that the cinematic Spider-Man has been rebooted multiple times so soon after the massively successful Tobey Maguire chapters. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse avoids this pitfall by forgoing the same old Peter Parker origin story, or even the same old Peter Parker himself. Instead, the focus this time is on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Puerto Rican and African-American teenager who inherits the Spider-Man mantle after he too is bitten by a radioactive arachnid. Additionally, while Miles is the primary protagonist, room is also made for just about every parallel universe version of Spider-Man that has ever existed in the comics (including noir, manga, and porcine iterations). I would love it if the live-action Marvel action movies were similarly diverse, but there is more space to be bold within animation (at least according to how the blockbuster industry currently operates).

A running gag throughout Spider-Verse is each version of Spider-Man giving us the rundown on his (or her) origin story. The film assumes that the audience is significantly familiar with the web-crawler’s mythos, and thus we get shout-outs to iconic moments from both the panel and the screen, like the murdered uncle and the upside-down kiss in the rain. These moments could play as cheap nostalgia, but instead they are far from it because there is so much visual information to digest. The effect is more one of self-awareness and reinterpretation.

Spider-Verse follows in a line of recent animated franchise films like The Lego Movie and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies that benefit from their deep wealth of knowledge about their own histories. They all comment on their own pasts, avoiding snark in the name of favoring celebration while also managing to craft new adventures that stand on their own. Spider-Verse takes its unique place as one of the most visually vibrant entries in the history of CG-animated cinema, with a cornucopia of expressive and energetic styles. Add to that a sterling voice cast, and this is one of the witties (vocally and visually), and just plain most satisfying, experiences you’ll have in all of 2018.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is Recommended If You Like: Every Spider-Man Comic Ever, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, The Lego Movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 Alternate Dimensions

 

SNL Review November 10, 2018: Liev Schreiber/Lil Wayne

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

This post was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Love It

Pete Davidson and Dan CrenshawPete Davidson’s commentary last week about various electoral candidates understandably caused a bit of an uproar, though I imagine I was not the only one who thought that Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw demanding an apology was a bit of an overreaction. True, Pete made light of a combat injury sustained by Crenshaw, but saying that an eyepatch makes you look like a detective in a porno isn’t necessarily an insult. It’s more like a weird observation. After all, it’s strange that in 2018 an eyepatch is still the prescribed way to handle certain ocular injuries.

Anyway, while Pete’s joke wasn’t exactly high-minded, it wasn’t like he was attacking Crenshaw’s character.  And it turns out, Crenshaw understands that! He’s not thin-skinned or humorless (or, more cynically, he’s not making a bad faith argument to gin up controversy). It looks like everyone involved came up with the best solution, as Crenshaw stops by the desk to in turn make fun of Pete in an awkwardly personal matter. Fighting fire with fire is usually a bad idea, but fighting comedy with comedy is often the best idea.

Dave’s Outside the Women’s Bathroom – This is exactly the sort of off-the-wall, experimental, possibly terrible idea that the last sketch of the night should be. It helps that nobody really knows what is going on and that there are a variety of reactions to the situation, some reasonable and some absurd. The women walking out of the bathroom are understandably confused and horrified, while Heidi Gardner slays as Dave’s uniquely passionate girlfriend, who is more worried that she will “look like a prostitute” while sitting alone and that Dave might leave her if his ridiculous talk show somehow becomes a runaway success. And through it all, Schreiber fascinatingly plays Dave as not a creep, but a weirdly earnest hustler and dreamer.

House Hunters demonstrates that relentlessly throwing a bunch of crazy details out there works if the characters delivering them maintain a straight face the whole time.

Keep It

Booty Kings – This hip-hop club banger is not the most hilarious music video parody SNL has ever presented, but it does have one of the best messages. Those who tout the importance of consent are sometimes (wrongly) accused of taking the fun and the sexiness out of sex, but the Booty Kings demonstrate that the room can still be hot and heavy if you take a second to ask someone if they are okay with their backside being worshipped. I think we can all benefit from making “booty ally” a part of our vernacular.

As we witness the Jeff Sessions Farewell, I just want to say how thankful I am that in 2018, we can have a political impression as silly as one in which the departing attorney general’s family tree is filled with possums…Liev Schreiber’s Monologue is like one of those monologues of yore in which the host is “managing expectations” by simply explaining to the audience who he is…Good Day Denver reveals that gremlins must be running the graphics department at morning talk shows…Unity offers an admirable message of, well, unity, but I gotta say, “crotch” and “moist” are perfectly decent words…Colleen Rafferty is back, this time for a Paranormal Occurrence, and hoo boy, it is quite the stunner that she is only 27 years old AND she’s a surrogate mother. But the biggest laughs this time come from Liev Schreiber’s love of tiny things…Michael and Colin are reliable for more jokes about Florida, Gritty, and RBG defending her UFC featherweight title…The Poddys deeply understand podcast culture and tropes (and what with it taking place at the “MeUndies Theater,” it almost sounds like the awards will be for “potty” excellence)…I won’t soon forget Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney as a pair of pantsless, feuding tween Brothers. Mad props for those Rasta-style Looney Tunes shirts.

Leave It

No Leave It sketches this week. Not too many outright classics, but no duds, either.

Liev Schreiber

On a scale of serious actors I never would have expected to host SNL, Liev Schreiber fits squarely within that classification. Despite his relative lack of an impact in the zeitgeist, he has the sort of dramatic intensity that could be hilariously slotted into sketch comedy if deployed correctly. And for a decent number of sketches, that is what happens. Schreiber does flub quite a few lines throughout, but interestingly enough, it appears that that is how his characters were written.

Lil Wayne

On a scale of the greatest living rappers, Lil Wayne is often included on that list, and man, I just don’t get that. His two performances in this episode don’t do much to change my opinion. He’s certainly confident and in the zone with his unique flow, and I appreciate that he has what looks like a gulag of backing dancers for one song. Maybe these tracks aren’t the cream of Wayne’s crop, and there are better offerings that can convince me of his prowess. (I’ll let those who are more in tune with the rap game sort that out.) Ultimately, what he has to offer is perfectly fine to listen to.

Letter Grades:

Jeff Sessions Farewell – B-

Liev Schreiber’s Monologue – B-

Good Day Denver – B-

Unity – B-

Paranormal Occurrence – B

Lil Wayne ft. Halsey performs “Can’t Be Broken” – B

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B
Pete Davidson and Dan Crenshaw – B+

The Poddys – B

House Hunters – B+

Lil Wayne ft. Swizz Beatz performs “Uproar” – B-

Brothers – B

Dave’s Outside the Women’s Bathroom (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – A-

This Is a Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance

Director: Wes Anderson

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Dog-on-Dog Violence and Dictatorial Tendencies

Release Date: March 23, 2018 (Limited)

“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Nothing, right? We human beings still love dogs, and that cannot possibly ever change! But what if something so terrible happened that it could make us turn on them? One of the functions of fiction is training ourselves to handle horrible hypotheticals. Thus, with the stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson has delivered an invaluable how-to guide for if the world should ever turn so severely on our furry companions.

Twenty years in the future, Japan has banished its entire canine population to the bluntly literally named Trash Island, due to a widespread outbreak of snout fever and dog flu. The two conditions appear to be connected as how HIV can lead to AIDS. In this dystopia, the fear from those in charge that the disease could spread to humans is enough to override any bounty of puppy love, despite promising progress for a cure. So intrepid folks must step up on their own to save the dogs, like the young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin), an orphaned ward of the state adopted by his distant uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). Atari ventures to Trash Island to save his canine protector Spots (Liev Schreiber), who also happens to be the outbreak’s Dog Zero. Joining up with him in his quest are a group of other cast-off dogs with variations on the same sort of name – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – as well as Chief (Bryan Cranston), the fiercely independent stray who has always lived on his own.

An island entirely populated by dogs might sound like the pinnacle of Wes Anderson giving into his most indulgent instincts, but the darkness of the premise is enough to assuage any of those concerns. Plus, the animation does not hold back from the more aesthetically displeasing elements. These pups are mangy, with fur falling off and distorted pupils. They are also fairly irritable; one early standoff results in an ear getting bit off. Isle of Dogs works as an adventure film as well as it does because it does not back away from the danger, while still bringing plenty of fun to that peril. Fight scenes are portrayed in cartoon chaos clouds, while an accidental trip through a trash incinerator is met with droll acceptance. The set pieces are whimsical, but the stakes are life-or-death.

Isle of Dogs could easily be appreciated just for its surface level sensations, but like so many talking animal flicks, there is an allegory lurking not too far below. And considering current worldwide political trends, Wes Anderson’s anti-fascist storytelling is profoundly welcome. Quarantining a contagious population is an understandable disease control tactic, but what happens to these dogs is more banishment than quarantine. And when a solution appears to be possible, Mayor Kobayashi hides that development for the sake of retaining power, trotting out clearly fraudulent election results in the process. BoJack Horseman-style anthropomorphic dogspeak (“my brother from another litter”) helps it go down easy, but these are heavy ideas that deserve and are granted careful consideration.

A few more items worth noting: even though the setting is Japan, the dogs just about exclusively speak English, even when communicating with humans speaking Japanese. In fact, there is a good deal of American and Japanese cultural mixing. All the political machinations are translated by an interpreter (Frances McDormand), apparently for American and other English-speaking audiences, and an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) leads a revolt against Kobayashi. The bilingual setup feels woven together mostly seamlessly, though I do wonder if Asian audiences might have a different take on the matter than I do. And I would be terribly remiss if I did not mention Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score, pounded along by unrelenting taiko drums, keeping the tension both constantly uneasy and delicious.

Isle of Dogs is Recommended If You Like: Wes Anderson Symmetry, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Animal Farm, Zootopia, The Goonies, BoJack Horseman

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Puppy Snaps

 

This Is a Movie Review: My Little Pony: The Movie

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CREDIT: Lionsgate/Hasbro

I give My Little Pony: The Movie 2.5 out of 5 Hippogriffs: http://newscult.com/movie-review-my-little-pony-the-movie-keeps-equestria-buoyant-and-simple/

This Is a Movie Review: Spotlight

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SpotlightNewsroom

There is an inherent drama and urgency in the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal that a film about it does not need to do any work to tease out. But just perfunctorily putting the Boston Globe’s investigation of this story does not automatically make for a great movie. Luckily, director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer make plenty of astute filmmaking decisions alongside their similarly tuned-in cast and crew.

Recognizing that the story itself is plenty powerful (the epilogue text detailing the extent of the abuse is perhaps the most overwhelming moment in any movie this year), the actors on the Spotlight team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) keep it understated. As victims’ lawyer Mitch Garabedian, Stanley Tucci is labeled eccentric, but he is actually also low-key. The production design, cinematography, and costumes are all also appropriately drab.

The plot manages to legitimately earn the descriptor “action,” with the editing favoring cross-cutting between various story threads. This plays out as such: Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) tracks down evidence at the courthouse, and before we find out if he uncovers the right puzzle piece, we check in on Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) interviewing a victim, but before she gets out all her questions, it cuts back to Mike, and then it cuts around to the rest of the team. This is just Filmmaking 101, creating tension and establishing engagement. Spotlight makes a difference, and it is thrilling.