Thursday, July 27, 2023

Three Movies

I've fallen so far behind on writing my movie reviews that I'm scrambling here to post about the last three features I've seen at the local movie house.

First, there was Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the sequel to the magnificent Into the Spider-Verse, which I still consider the best Spider-Man movie. Box office-wise, this second movie in what will surely be a trilogy also seems to have knocked this year's crop of comic book-based films into a cocked hat. Miles Morales is back as his (our?) universe's Spider-Man, and his new adventure explores the implications of the fact that there's a multiverse full of Spider-Persons of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, species, art styles, etc. Not to mention the implications of how he picked up the web-slinger's mantle in a universe that already had a Peter Parker Spider-Man, when (as Highlander teaches us) There Can Be Only One.

In this installment, our Miles finds himself on the run from all the other Spideys in the multiverse, instigated by one in particular who refuses to accept him. He tries to find his way back to the Mom who told him not to let anyone tell him he doesn't belong, only to realize in one of those "blood runs cold" moments that he hasn't made it home after all. The whole movie has a brilliant, comic-bookish look to it with swooping movement, breathlessly paced action and reality-shattering flights of fantasy.

Shameik Moore is back as Miles, Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as another universe's Spider-Woman, Jake Johnson as an older variant of Peter Parker, Brian Tyrree Henry and Luna Lauren VĂ©lez as Miles's parents, and (spoiler warning) Mahershala Ali as an alternate version of the uncle Miles lost in the first movie. Joining the cast as various Spideys and/or villains are Oscar Isaac, Jason Schwartzman, Andy Samberg, Elizabeth Perkins, Rachel Dratch, as well as callbacks to live-action Spider-film characters played by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Cliff Robertson, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary, Alfred Molina and Donald Glover.

Only the fact that it comes to a "To Be Continued" cliffhanger, rather than completing its story in one go, detracts from this being as good as, if not better than, Into the Spider-Verse. The art is fantastic. The animation, writing and sheer creative energy of this movie run circles around anything coming out of Disney and Pixar these days, not to mention all the other superhero movies right about now. At a moment when popcorn movies seem to be on the ropes, and when anticipated box office cash cows are turning up as road kill instead, this movie is the one that's keeping fanboys/girls' hopes alive.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The madcap chase/melee across the reality that serves as headquarters for the Spider-Verse, with our Miles holding his own against a multitude of alternate Spideys each with his, her or its own unique powers – notably including one with a baby on board! (2) Miles's attempts to fight The Spot, the bizarre, interdimensional-portal-slinging villain who at first reminds you of Rorshach from Watchmen but who turns out to be infinitely zanier. (3) The last, dreadful sequence when Miles finds himself in the universe that never had a Spider-Man, in the clutches of a villain whose identity will leave you chilled. Expect a third movie, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, approximately next spring.

Next, I went to see the movie everyone was talking about at the time: Sound of Freedom, featuring Jim Caviezel as a Homeland Security agent who specializes in busting child sex traffickers until a former partner hits him with the question, "How many kids have you saved?" Turning on a dime, Caviezel's character risks (and eventually quits) his career to save children being trafficked in Latin America, including a pair of Honduran siblings who went to a talent audition and ended up in a shipping container bound for Colombia.

The publicity around this movie has already said all that needs to be said – about, for instance, this movie killing it while the fifth Indiana Jones flick fizzled; like the political left sneering at it and smearing it as a piece of coded alt-rightism to be disregarded out of hand while the right continues to chant, "yeah but what about child sex trafficking?" The movie did pretty well for a relatively low-budget movie whose soft-spoken star emotes on a level that can only be detected in extreme close-up. It is, after all, a moving story depicting a man who faces incredible danger to pluck one little girl out of her personal hell. And it has, I think, an Oscar-worthy supporting performance by Bill Camp as a former cartel strongman who rededicates his life to saving trafficked kids. The scene in which Camp's character, "Vampiro," confides to Caviezel what led him to turn his life around is worth seeing the whole movie.

Obviously, that's going to be one of the Three Scenes That Made It For Me. The others are: (2) The little boy that Caviezel saves early in the movie recognizes "Timoteo" as the saint who protects children, and gives him the St. Timothy medallion that his sister gave him when they were separated, along with a plea to find her. (3) The whole nail-biting sequence when Caviezel travels into rebel-held territory, where even the Colombian military and law enforcement are afraid to go. It seems so improbable that he will make it out alive, with or without the girl he seeks. Truly a powerful, emotionally hard-hitting movie, with a good cast that also includes Mira Sorvino, José Zúñiga, Kurt Fuller (TV's Psych) and lots of Latin American talent.

Finally, this past weekend I chose Oppenheimer over Barbie, and I take serious issue with the New Yorker review that calls it "a History Channel movie with fancy editing." The star of the film is, of course, director Christopher Nolan, who uses brilliant visual and sound effects to depict the disturbing psyche of the man who gave the world the atomic bomb. As Robert Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy (with a hard C) delivers a performance that should finally pull him out of the talent bracket in which you struggle to describe him other than as the lead actor in 28 Days Later – a Zombie apocalypse movie I walked out of midway through because it was too intense, and which I have yet to mention in person to anyone who saw it – or as the villain with bees all over his face in Batman Begins – which, again in my circle of acquaintance, I seem to be the only person who remembers. (I also remember his villainous turn in Red Eye and somehow didn't remember him being in Inception.) I'm not making award predictions or anything, because if I did I'd say this year is Murphy's the way last year was Austin Butler's and you know how that turned out, eh?

Also in the movie's oustanding cast are Emily Blunt as the wife who defended Oppie during his witch trial more passionately than the man himself, Matt Damon as the general in charge of the Manhattan Project, Robert Downey Jr. as an Atomic Energy Commission official who stabbed Oppie in the back, Tom Conti as Einstein, Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman, Casey Affleck as a terrifying security officer, and in other more-or-less recognizable roles Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz (Numb3rs), Tony Goldwin (Ghost), Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), James D'Arcy (Agent Carter), Jack Quaid (Star Trek: Lower Decks), Matthew Modine, Scott Grimes (The Orville), Florence Pugh, David Dastmalchian (a recurring villain on both Flash and the MacGyver reboot), Louise Lobard (CSI), Harry Groener, James Remar and Gregory Jbara (Blue Bloods). I'm sure I've omitted names that many people will recognize.

So, yeah, this movie does show how the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan to end World War II were developed, but the movie is really more about the political imbroglio surrounding Oppie's application to renew his Top Secret clearance and the confirmation hearings of a U.S. cabinet secretary (Lewis Strauss) who saw to it that Oppie's clearance was denied. To be sure, Oppie had made some questionable decisions, and his left-wing political associations hurt him. But seriously, the guy gave us the bomb. The movie dramatizes the situation as though destroying him was really about silencing his opposition to the nuclear arms race – and it also gives us some viscerally powerful insights into what lay behind that opposition. Which leads me to:

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) While giving a "Hooray, we really gave it to those Japs" speech, reality seems to warp around Oppenheimer and he ends up hallucinating that the audience in front of him is being burned by radiation. The gruesome climax is when he seems to put his foot through the ribcage of a charred, human corpse while stepping down from the podium. (2) When you finally find out what Oppie and Einstein said to each other that day at the pond, and how it ties up the question of nuclear proliferation in his mind. (3) The suspenseful countdown to the test detonation at the Trinity site in New Mexico.

All in all, it's a beautifully made movie, with gorgeous artistic design and cinematography, a great cast doing their best work, a dramatic conflict that will stir almost anybody's feelings and force them to reconsider politicial and historical beliefs, and surrounding it all, the directing work of Christopher Nolan (Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet) who, as always, creates a look and uses special effects that challenge reality, or the perception thereof. His movie carries its argument forward despite mixing up the story's chronology, paying out each particle of information at just the moment that generates the most power. It wrestles with difficult emotions in and around a difficult subject. It depicts epic heroes and villains across a huge canvas while acknowledging gray areas and keeping the audience guessing. That jackass with the "History Channel" quip shouldn't be able to spew his ignorance on a platform like The New Yorker.

No comments: