Should we really be surprised a spider-based franchise has so many legs?
It wasn’t that many years ago when Spider-Man 2 was the conventional wisdom pick for all time best superhero flick. Then last year, Homecoming erased the memories of some disappointing installments with with a tonally perfect reboot.
And now, Spidey gets back to his animation roots with Into the Spider-Verse, a holiday feast of thrills, heart, humor and style that immediately swings to the very top of the year’s animated heap.
Teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore from Dope and The Get Down) is juggling a lot of teen drama. He’s trying to make friends at a new school, make nice with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), and practice graffiti art with his cool Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), so he really doesn’t need to be dragged into an alternate universe with Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) right now, okay?
But, thanks to an evil plan from Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) and Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn), that’s just what happens. And before you can say quantum theory, Miles is meeting kindred heroes from all over the Spider-Verse, including another Spider-Man (Chris Pine), Spider-Man Noir (classic Nicolas Cage), anime version Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham, a hilarious Looney Tunes-style crime fighting pig (John Mulaney).
Writer Phil Lord follows his winning scripts for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie with an even bigger bulls-eye, one that manages to honor franchise traditions as it’s letting in some fresh, hip, and often very funny air.
In the hands of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, the story bursts to vibrant life. The dazzling animation gives a big soul kiss to comic books and pushes nearly every frame to its action-following limit.
This Spider-Man is filled with everything you want in a superhero flick today. There are compelling characters and engaging conflicts within a diverse climate, and a vital, clearly defined message of empowerment that stays above the type of pandering sure to bring eye-rolls from a kid’s b.s.detector.
And man, is it fun. That still works, too.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE - Official Trailer (HD) - YouTube
It’s a great week to take a break from Hollywood bombast and invest in something independent. In the podcast this week we break down Tyrel, Maria by Callas and Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes. Plus, a few quick thoughts on the Golden Globe nominations before heading out to the lobby to sort through new releases in home entertainment.
The two most arresting interviews in the new documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes don’t involve any surprising new reveals about the Fox News media mogul himself. But it’s no accident of archival footage for director Alexis Bloom to let clips of Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose hang on the screen just a few beats too long.
In July 2016, Ailes resigned from the network he built due to sexual harassment allegations, including those from high-profile current and former Fox News anchors. It would be another year before Me Too crystallized as a movement, but Bloom convincingly frames the rise and fall of Ailes within this broader national reckoning.
Ample time is given to Ailes’s accusers. Their stories are powerful, and serve as a constant reminder that the tragedy of these harassment incidents aren’t the “great men” we lose but rather all the potential talent that was silenced or forced to leave the industry too soon.
The most refreshing part of Bloom’s perspective is that it means we’re subjected to a surprisingly little amount of armchair analysis. A few of the industry talking heads wonder about the paths not taken for Ailes, and glimpses of his white picket fence upbringing in northeastern Ohio certainly fit neatly within his guiding ethos for Fox News as a revanchist counterweight to supposed liberal anarchy. But these tangents either slip away quietly or are forcibly punctured by the reality of his legacy. It’s a satisfying irony to see Bloom take control away from Ailes and his persona, even posthumously.
If the broad outlines of Ailes as both kingmaker and mythmaker are familiar territory in Divide and Conquer—from his prescient television savvy with Nixon up through the perfect singularity Fox News achieved through its fusion with Donald Trump—Bloom makes a good case that this story is still vital. And, for better or worse, unfinished.
That a paranoid old ogre could have built any world he wanted to with his boundless talent is about as nice a sentiment as the film can coax from his former colleagues. But so what? Ailes is dead now, and can only look up at the rest of us as we figure out how to live in or fight against the world he created.
Divide And Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes - Trailer - YouTube
The subtle discomforts start early in Tyrel, writer/director Sebastian Silva’s perceptive and slyly intense slice of racially tinged mumblecore, a film that benefits greatly from yet another standout turn from Jason Mitchell.
Mitchell stars as Tyler, an African-American man who is grateful to escape a houseful of in-laws by joining his friend John (Christopher Abbott) on a birthday getaway in the Catskills.
But it’s not John’s birthday. It’s John’s friend Pete’s (Caleb Landry Jones) birthday, and it isn’t long before Tyler is meeting plenty of new faces and realizing his is the only one that isn’t white.
Plus, it just happens to be the weekend of Trump’s inauguration. Perfect.
Amid heavy dialog that’s fast and free-flowing with an improvisational feel, the crowded mountain home becomes a nerve-wracking metaphor for the state of race relations. Silva, the unconventional Chilean filmmaker who mined social anxieties effectively in Nasty Baby and The Maid, continues to subvert expectations through intimate, thoughtful characterizations.
After a long stream of memorable supporting roles (Straight Outta Compton, Mudbound, Detroit, Kong: Skull Island), Mitchell carries this film with a performance that is sympathetic from the start, a key factor Silva leans on to turn our insecurities against us. With each slight, appropriation and assurance that “he didn’t mean anything by that,” Tyler’s feelings become more conflicted, raising the level of concern we have for what might happen.
As is his wont, Silva steers clear of expected plot turns and veers in surprising directions, one of them concerning a friendly Catskills neighbor down the road (Ann Dowd).
Though it’s understandably easy to compare this film to Get Out (especially with Jones in the cast), that comparison itself may be one of the scabs Silva is picking. Why did Jordan Peele’s horror story resonate so brilliantly?
With a focus on casual affronts to identity and the privileged confidence that everything is fine, Tyrel‘s Catskills weekend offers some clues.
Tyrel - Official Trailer with Jason Mitchell, Christopher Abbott, Michael Cera, & Caleb Landry Jones - YouTube
Thank you Netflix for financing and distributing Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, Roma. No offense to the small screens that Netflix often lives in, but this one demands to be seen on the big ones.
A breathtaking culmination of his work to date, Roma pulls in elements and themes, visuals and curiosities from every film Cuarón has made (including a wonderfully organic ode to the inspiration for one of his biggest), braiding them into a semi-autobiographical meditation on family life in the early 1970s.
At the film’s heart is an extended group concerning an affluent Mexico City couple (Fernando Grediaga and the scene-stealing Marina de Tavira), their four children and their two live-in servants Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).
The family unit will morph, stretch and strengthen by film’s end as Cuarón envelopes us in a languidly paced but visually sumptuous exploration of Cleo’s point of view.
A remarkable Aparicio quietly observes all that goes on around her—the tumult and the quiet of life inside and outside the house—as Cuarón’s camera performs a cross between poetry and ballet to capture those observations.
Filmed in gorgeous black and white, the picture is showy without being showy, it’s realistic with flourishes of absurdism. More than anything, it is proof of Cuarón’s mastery as a cinematic storyteller. The same fluidity he brought to his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban serves a different kind of magic here, capturing the intimate and the epic, the simple and the wildly complicated with pristine clarity.
Sequence upon sequence offers a dizzying array of beauty, as foreground and background often move in glorious concert during meticulously staged extended takes that somehow feel at once experimental and restrained. The effect is of a nearly underwater variety, a profound serenity that renders any puncture, from a street parade moving blindly past the distraught woman in its path to a murder in broad daylight, that much more compelling.
Roma is filmmaking of the most consummate skill. Though it’s anchored in family strife that might feel at home in a Lifetime melodrama, the film achieves an intimacy that’s grand, detailed and perhaps more than anything else, inviting. Accept that invitation, and Cuaron will serve you a feast not easy to leave behind, even if you want to.
It’s an ambitious project to document the life of an international celebrity almost entirely in her own words. And that’s the task undertaken, not entirely successfully, by director Tom Volf in Maria by Callas.
The life of the mid-century opera singer is captured primarily through taped interviews, diary entries, letters to friends (read by the opera singer Joyce DiDonato), and, of course, recordings of Callas’s phenomenal performances.
We see the polished surface of a star born to humble beginnings in New York who rose to command stages across Europe and the Americas. It’s almost two hours of sweeping updos, elaborate costumes, chic evening wear, dripping jewels, swaddling furs, impeccable makeup, and pristine manicures.
Volf tracks Callas’s career from the 50s through the 70s, and lingers on close ups of Callas’s arias. She’s a waif—all bouffant hair, expressive eyes, and bird-like bones. You wonder how such a big voice can possibly come from such a tiny frame. She’s magnetic. Passionate. Commanding.
The singing is interspersed with autobiographical tidbits provided by Callas. But these are only sketches. Although she states again and again that she would give up her career to raise a family and it’s clear that at some point around her late 20s or early 30s she got married, the first time she utters her husband’s name in the documentary it’s to discuss their impending separation. We are left to wonder how genuine she is in saying that she’d give up her career for domestic life and how much she felt compelled to say that, given the prevailing gender norms of the years in which she was famous.
Much of the autobiography portion is consumed with Callas’s operatic 10 plus year affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, which occurred both before and after his marriage to Jackie Kennedy. Through interviews and letters you can see Callas’s attempt to put a positive spin on what must have been quite a tumultuous relationship. Even while he is pulling away from her, Callas writes to a friend, asking for agreement on how he has changed for the better.
The final moments of the movie show Maria kicking back in Florida. Her hair is down for the first time. She’s wearing loose lounge wear instead of a corseted bodice. Her hair flows down her back, and she’s sporting thick glasses that magnify her myopic eyes. It’s clear how much effort has gone into the package of the public Callas persona.
The contrast between the woman and the artifice would have been more effective with a bit more exposition. It’s an admirable goal to have Callas in control of her own narrative, but to do so leaves out information that would be helpful to provide context to this life. For example, Maria’s rivalry with an older sister who was considered to be the pretty one in the family. The scandalous headlines. The qualities of her vocal talents. The year Maria decided to lose some weight mid-career and lost nearly 80 pounds. How the weight loss may have contributed to her vocal decline. How her changing voice impacted her attempted late-career comeback. Without the biographical backstory, the documentary seems too surface level.
If you don’t know a lot about Callas, do your research beforehand and come for the music and her arresting performances.
Maria By Callas | Official US Trailer HD (2018) - YouTube
What does a serial killer have in common with an indie filmmaker? Quite a lot, or so suggests indie filmmaker Lars von Trier.
We’ll say this with all sincerity: The House that Jack Built—a 2+ hour peek into the mind and methods of a murderer—is von Trier’s most lighthearted picture to date.
It’s also as tedious and self-indulgent as Nymphomaniac: Vol. II.
LvT’s artistry lies in his ability to make the viewer uncomfortable. His films are punishing, which is why his first foray into horror, the brilliant and wildly unnerving 2009 film Antichrist, was such a perfect fit. He returns to the genre with Jack, here allowing a sadistic murderer the opportunity to shed light on the filmmaker’s own discomforting artistry.
Which can work—Julian Richards’s The Last Horror Movie and Remy Balvaux’s Man Bites Dog both offer blistering achievements on the theme. But Jack falters, and von Trier falters, in two important ways.
The film does deliver sadistic glory, yet in terms of violence or depravity, it feels oddly safe. Not safe for all viewers, mind you, but horror fans and von Trier fans have seen far more envelope-pushing than what Jack depicts. There is one sequence—the picnic sequence—that is among the most perfect horror movie episodes ever filmed. Beyond that, much of this movie is competently made but ultimately tired.
We follow Jack (Matt Dillon, making the most of a surprising casting choice) through various instances of homicidal mania. As voiceover conversations with the mysterious Verge (Bruno Ganz) pay homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Jack’s bloody exploits become less darkly comedic and more brazenly sadistic, testing his claim that “the soul belongs to heaven and the body to hell.”
Just as the Nymphomaniac films traded provocative ideas for fist-shaking admonishments from filmmaker to critics, Jack devolves into an instrument wielded even less bluntly. Again, von Trier channels his tale through two voices: the protagonist and a straw man. Verge serves up the proselytizations on art and morality so Jack can knock ’em down, with snippets of von Trier’s previous films peppered in for anyone who still isn’t getting it.
Not that LvT’s ideas on this topic aren’t interesting – far from it- but the line between personal and self-indulgent is the same one that separates uncomfortable questions that resonate (as in von Trier’s own Dogville) from spoon-fed answers that do not. One side makes for an engaging film experience while the other falls short, no matter how impressive the visual set pieces (which Jack does indeed provide).
Von Trier has unapologetically wallowed in depravity his entire career, and those themes have served the narrative in amazing ways. Now he seems more interested in narratives that serve grandiose debates of his own artistic value.
Let’s hope that road has reached an end. While von Trier remains an artist worthy of attention, The House That Jack Built stands as another missed opportunity.
The House That Jack Built - Official US Trailer | HD | IFC Films - YouTube
Only Women Bleed? Sunday Bloody Sunday? Let It Bleed? What song would we have chosen to open the new podcast? There are more possibilities than we might have imagined—in song and in film—as we celebrate the monthly curse with a talk about the best horror movies concerning menstruation. Do you have the stones to listen?
We open with some impressive aerial shots of the smoking, neon ruin of the Las Vegas strip. Cut to another gorgeous aerial of a sports car zipping up a desert highway. In it, a couple of coked-up strip club lowlifes, Molly (Brittany Allen) and Nick (Merwin Mondesir), are escaping to an airfield where they’ll meet with other lowlifes and head to an island off Mexico.
Naturally, this isn’t going to work out. But what co-writer/director Colin Minihan has in store will surprise you. He’s made a couple of fine choices with his film. The point of view character is not only an unlikely protagonist – an unpleasant thug with a drug habit – but she’s also female.
Soon the car goes off the road and one meathead catches her scent, and suddenly Molly’s stripper shoes are not her biggest problem as she faces a 30-mile trek across the desert to the airfield.
What develops is an often fascinating, slow moving but relentless chase as well as a character study. With a protagonist on a perilous journey toward redemption, It Stains the Sands Red takes a structure generally reserved for the man who needs to rediscover his inner manhood and tells a very female story.
Very female. Menstruation and everything.
IT STAINS THE SANDS RED (2017) Exclusive "Tampon" Clip - YouTube
4. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Writer/director Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil) spins a hypnotic tale of family and ghosts—both literal and metaphorical. Tale of Two Sisters is a deep, murky and intensely female horror.
A tight-lipped father returns home with his daughter after her prolonged hospital stay. Her sister has missed her; her stepmother has not. Or so it all would seem, although jealousy, dream sequences, ghosts, a nonlinear timeframe and confused identity keep you from ever fully articulating what is going on. The film takes on an unreliable point of view, subverting expectations and keeping the audience off balance. But that’s just one of the reasons it works.
No line of dialog, no visual is wasted. The seemingly simple moment of one daughter needing to borrow a feminine product from her stepmother works in a dozen ways: to introduce blended identities, to exacerbate the uncomfortable familiarity, to foreshadow future horror.
Tale masters the slow reveal in large and small ways. Whether you’ve begun to unravel the big mystery or not, Tale always has something else up its sleeve. Or, under its table.
A Tale of Two Sisters - Trailer - YouTube
3. Excision (2012)
Outcast Pauline (a very committed AnnaLynne McCord) is a budding surgeon. She’s not much of a student, actually, but she does have an affinity for anatomy. Especially blood. Pauline really, really likes blood.
A horror film focused on an adolescent girl as antihero is likely to involve 1) menstruation, 2) a mom. Excision is no different. Well, it is a little different.
The mom is Traci Lourdes, in what is certainly her most assured dramatic performance. Her arc is interesting: overbearing and cold and, eventually, probably correct in her unfavorable assessment of her eldest girl.
Writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. takes more of an unusual course when bringing in Pauline’s cycle, though. I’m not sure we’ve seen it handled quite like this before, although to be fair, it’s definitely in keeping with the peculiar and beautifully realized character he and McCord have created.
Official DVD Trailer for EXCISION - YouTube
2. Ginger Snaps (2000)
Sisters Ginger and Bridget, outcasts in the wasteland of Canadian suburbia, cling to each other, and reject/loathe high school (a feeling that high school in general returns).
On the evening of Ginger’s first period, she’s bitten by a werewolf. Writer Karen Walton cares not for subtlety: the curse, get it? It turns out, lycanthropy makes for a pretty vivid metaphor for puberty. This turn of events proves especially provocative and appropriate for a film that upends many mainstay female cliches.
Walton’s wickedly humorous script stays in your face with the metaphors, successfully building an entire film on clever turns of phrase, puns and analogies, stirring up the kind of hysteria that surrounds puberty, sex, reputations, body hair and one’s own helplessness to these very elements. It’s as insightful a high school horror film as you’ll find, peppered equally with dark humor and gore.
Ginger Snaps (2000) - Official Trailer - YouTube
1. Carrie (1976)
What else? Nobody did moms, the pain of adolescence, the horror of the onslaught of womanhood, or period quite like Brian De Palma’s 1976 original. Is there a more tragic scene? Is there a scene that better establishes a character, a context or horror?
De Palma films the scene in question, appropriately enough, like a tampon commercial, all cheese cloth and beautific music. And then Carrie White (Oscar nominated Sissy Spacek) desperately claws at her classmates, believing she is dying. It’s the most authentic image of vulnerability and terror you can imagine, matched in its horror by the reaction she receives from those she seeks: laughter, mockery and contempt.
Beyond the epitome of adolescent mortification that the scene represents, it also clarifies the unspoken relationship between Carrie and her as-of-yet unintroduced mother, who has never told her teenaged daughter that this was coming.
The result is the ultimate in mean girl cinema and an introduction to a nearly perfect horror film.