Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Movie Reviews: Spider-Man: No Way Home, Hearts Beat Loud, Jagged, Respect, Under the Skin

Spider-Man: No Way Home: I find it impossible to review this without spoilers, so here be spoilers ...

Tom Holland is back as Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, and we pick up moments after the last movie ended. His identity is revealed to the world, causing him, and all of his friends, no end of trouble. This is compounded by rumors that Mysterio, who Spider-Man defeated in the last movie, was actually the good guy, while he (Spidey) is the bad guy who caused all of the destruction and killed this great superhero (for reasons unknown, I guess). Those who believe this find new reasons to believe this as events in this movie unfold (this is a political commentary, I believe).

Peter tries to get Doctor Strange to cast a spell that will erase the memory of his identity from everyone. While Strange is trying to cast the spell, Peter continually interrupts him with requests for changes to the spell (MJ should remember him, ... and also Aunt May, ... and also ...) resulting in a botched spell that Strange has to contain. While doing so, he breaks small cracks in the multiverse, enabling many villains from the Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies to appear, apparently moments before these villains were killed in these movies (none of this makes any sense, but whatever). Naturally, the villains are confused, everyone in the MCU is confused (except for Doctor Strange), and so is everyone in the audience.

Strange says that he and Peter have to round these guys up with some McGuffin device that he has (this turns out to be super easy, barely an inconvenience). While doing so, Peter and his bleeding heart decide to "cure" them and so save them from death when they get sent back to their own universes. Again, this makes no sense. Strange disagrees, so he and Spidey fight. Spidey forces Strange out of the picture for a while, but also enables the bad guys to escape and regroup (with one who received the cure helping to face off against the others who did not). Meanwhile, Peter's friends MJ and Ned try to call Peter using some other McGuffin device, only to end up bringing into their universe both Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield's Spider-Men (or "Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" and "Amazing Spider-Man"). Much bonding, inside jokes, touching stories, and mutual support ensues, as well as a final battle that also brings back Doctor Strange. Peter has to make a final sacrifice in order for Strange to fix the rupture in the multiverse.

This movie has broken records, as the first pandemic-era movie to get to $100 million on its opening day, and the first to top $1 billion. It is the second-highest (or tied for second-highest) rated MCU movie, just behind Black Panther. It squashes together not only a dozen villains, characters, and heroes into one movie (ala End Game), but also squashes together three cinematic universes, which is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. So I was prepared for another boring fan-service Marvel movie that is a) well-made and entertaining, b) shallow, a collection of irrelevant actions scenes with superficial emotional "growth", c) watchable, but not good.

I am pleased to say that it is better than the usual Marvel movies, although still not a great movie. It was entertaining, well acted, and well shot (of course). It was not too shallow. The characters and the story moved and developed more than usual. Yes, it was a collection of action scenes, but the scenes between the kids (Peter and his friends) and between the Spider-Men were interesting and contained depth. These are actual characters who have real backstories and real arcs to use as backgrounds for their reactions and dialog, and this helped. Tobey and Andrew were particularly welcome and captivating, as was William Defoe's Green Goblin. Still, a few scenes with depth is not a deep movie, like a real drama movie.

On the down side, unless you have seen all previous Spider-Man movies, as well as the Avengers Infinity Wars/End Game movies (and some Daredevil, and maybe some other MCU, television shows), some of the backstories and characters will be new to you, and therefore will have less depth. You will then watch the film and feel less, since these backstories, with some notable exceptions, are not explained. This detracts from the movie for such viewers. Also, the extended fight scenes, while pretty to look at, as usual were eye candy with little dramatic depth.

If you are a fan of these kinds of movies you will love this one. If you are not, you probably won't change your mind but it will not feel like a waste of time. If you actively dislike these kinds of movies, this one won't change your mind.

Hearts Beat Loud: A little independent movie starring Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons as father and daughter Frank and Sam. Sam and Frank play music together informally in their house. Sam is off to college soon. They create a song that Frank thinks might give them a chance at music success, so he pesters Same into recording, playing, an maybe touring, while Sam is more interested in her new girlfriend and upcoming college.

This plays almost like a John Carney movie (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street), with original music interspersed with scenes and dialog pregnant with emotion. The lyrics and music, written by Keegan DeWitt, counterpoint, recapitulate, or develop the story. The movie and some scenes may be a bit slow, and the story may be unoriginal, but it is sweet, the music is pretty, and everyone does a fine job. Other featured actors include Toni Collette and Ted Danson, who shine (understatedly) when they are on screen.

I didn't know anything about Nick Offerman before watching this, other than that he is Megan Mullally's husband and a comedic actor of some kind. It was a nice surprise to see him perform in an appealing comic/dramatic role, and do it well. Worth watching if it comes your way.

Jagged: A documentary about Alanis Morissette, told in her own (current) voice and the voice of her band, from the time of her childhood up until Jagged Little Pill came out and upended music in the 1990s. I have seen many documentaries about musicians lately; this one stands out. It might be because I love Alanis' music, especially from that period. Or it may be that she is a great musician, this is an important piece of music, and it is a decent story. Not a fantastic story, just a decent one (a decent story seems to elude most other music documentaries).

Alanis has famously distanced herself from this film, saying that she was betrayed in its making and that it represents distorted facts. I am not sure what her problem is, and I wish she would clarify. There are only two negative insinuations that she makes. One is that she was involved with adult married men in the music business when she was 15 years old, and that, over time, she has learned that these men took advantage of her and were, in fact, pedophiles and abusers. I don't think this is a huge revelation, since she sings about this in Hands Clean and other songs. She does narrow down the people to specific times and companies where she was working in the documentary. The other negative comment is about her all-male band-mates who attracted and slept with many female fans during their first tour, which she found, in retrospect, to be distasteful and anti-feminist. Again, I don't think this is a huge revelation.

Worth watching if you are into the subject at all, at least until we hear some kind of clarification from Alanis.

Respect: A biopic about Arethra Franklin, the Queen of Soul Music. Jennifer Hudson plays Arethra (before she died, Aretha actually picked Hudson to play her), Forest Whitaker plays her father, and Marlon Wayans plays her (first) husband. Marc Maron plays the famous producer Jerry Wexler who releases most of her music, and Mary J. Blige plays family friend and singer Dinah Washington. The movie takes us from youth until her 1971 Amazing Grace gospel performance.

This film follows the same cookie-cutter story of every other musician biopic: early struggles, a troublesome marriage, first success, a fight with a music label that results in a change of labels, a troublesome addiction, too much success leading to bad behavior, and a denouement that involves a re-centering and launch into future success with a heartfelt performance at a special place. Maybe that's just the story of all successful musicians. The movie hits all of these tropes, without getting anything deep or original out of any of them. Its distinguishing factor is her struggle with religion and her deeply religious (yet philandering) father.

It was enjoyable. While it is technically well done, it is not amazing. Everyone does a fine job, even if some parts of her life are left unexplained and unexplored. And Hudson is a great singer in her own right.

Under the Skin: Scarlett Johansson plays one of two aliens. She drags women and (mostly) men off into some kind of death or stasis in order to understand them or transport them to her planet or something. She wanders around, sometimes naked, talking little. Weird scenes occur in some kind of odd space where her naked victims follow her as she walks on a flat surface while they descend, step by step, into some kind of black oil, in which they float and can still see. It must be metaphorical, but I didn't see the point.

Looking up on Wikipedia ... From a synopsis of the book on which the movie is based, the themes are supposed to be about animal cruelty, environmental decay, sexism, and immigration. I didn't get any of that from the film. All I got was nice scenery, tedium, confusion, lack of a comprehensible story arc, and an unsexy look at Scarlett Johansson. The film took a chance by being different from the usual sort of films we see. It fails spectacularly, but I give it some credit for that.

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