Where to begin? I can’t recommend this to most of my friends, for a myriad of reasons. For those that want to be entertained, the film falls short, delivering a dark shot of confused and depressing nihilism in place of diversion. For film history folks, this is early Scorsese revisited but with less focus and a lot less edge (and therefore, less interesting). For fanboys of the genre, it’s confusing; it’s really more of a simple origin story of a broken psychopath shoehorned awkwardly into the Batman/Joker construct. And for many other in love with the art of film, it’s less than the sum of its parts, even accounting for a captivating performance by one of our great American actors, Joaquin Phoenix.

The film is a smash financially, and it is so full of so many ideas about society, parents, abuse, law and order, etc., etc., etc., that there will be many a conversation about its suggested topics. Since few of those topics are presented with clarity (except that yes, abusing children is bad and leads to problems), the film functions more like an icebreaker question and conversation starter than any kind of definitive artistic expression that must be studied in and of itself.

As a film, it’s grim and muddy and violent and almost never stops moving, with camerawork that seems to reflect its central character’s wandering and increasingly sick mind. That’s a choice, and it joins well with Phoenix’s off-kilter performance. But the film has to back off from that subjective imbalanced movement occasionally for the sake of narrative sense and the viewer’s patience, and those moments of calmer medium-distance perspective contribute to a kind of jerky rhythm to the film that tends to enervate rather than energize it.

One of the topics of conversation for those so interested is that this is a period piece—New York, oops, I mean Gotham, in the 1970s. The movies shown as playing in one scene are both from 1981—Blow Out and Zorro the Gay Blade—but this is the same landscape as Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver with a twist (in more meanings than one) of his 1982 The King of Comedy. The homages or at least references to Taxi Driver are too numerous to mention (see the streets, the taxis, the city, and of course, De Niro). The King of Comedy moments are less important here, but having De Niro be in the “successful” role instead of being the loser adds a certain frisson. Of course there are Dark Knight/Heath Ledger references throughout, some subtle and others deliberately not so.

The Dark Knight gave us a Joker in median res, with little to no explanation of how he got this way, and a more unreliable narrator of his own story is probably impossible to find in all of cinema. That leaves open a world of conjecture and yes, mental chaos, which tends to work better in the Batman stories. Here, the poor guy is just a victim of yes, society to a point (does everyone—adults and children—default to knocking people to the ground and then kicking them relentlessly when they get angry?), but mostly of a deeply mentally disturbed mother who created an environment of abuse. Plus he has no dad, found out that the dad he temporarily thought he had wasn’t, and he’s adopted. Ultimately, Arthur Fleck (worst name ever) is simply the product of his upbringing. Wherever he seems to have some agency, the film suggests that it is actually his free-floating mental illness that causes him to make what his mother might call “poor choices.” It’s not really him, and not really society. The film approaches the substance and development of his twisted character in a similar manner to how Phoenix/Joker stops to dance in the bathroom and elsewhere—fascinating but bewildering.

As committed as JP is to the role—and the commitment is total—this performance won’t overshadow Ledger’s character and work in The Dark Knight for two reasons. One is the rather pedestrian explanation of how Fleck got to be Joker; Ledger’s Joker insists that there is no logical explanation for him. The other reason is context. Joker as the main character is adrift if not connected to Batman, and functions better as a supporting character with Batman front and center. As great as Ledger was, and Phoenix is, the character of the Joker seems more like a spice that enhances the dish than the main ingredient, where it doesn’t quite work, and needs too many other ingredients to try to make a recognizable meal of it. Yes, there is a bit ‘o Batman here, but it doesn’t provide any kind of real balance to the Joker, and is rightly controversial in its inclusion in this story; it seems tacked on to somehow force this film into the DC canon.

Time will tell this film’s worth beyond the central performance and its providing a prosaic explanation for one of the least prosaic characters in comics and the films based on them. The current question is why—beyond brilliant marketing—this film is striking such a chord. Perhaps that will provide the film’s biggest shudder of all.

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Ad Astra

Ad Astra is an intimate emotional journey writ large (as in galaxy large.) It’s a combination of Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 127 Hours, with hints of A River Runs Through It, Road to Perdition, Field of Dreams, and Apocalypse Now. And it gives us the second great performance by Brad Pitt this year.

The plot is relatively simple, and almost slim. IMDB lays it out as well as any other source:  “Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his miss father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the world.” Pitt is Roy McBride, and Tommy Lee Jones plays his father. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland are in it, too, and they make an impact when they are on screen. But they are in the film for relatively short periods, and this is basically all Brad all the time.

The film tackles issues of loneliness, identity, fatherhood/sonhood, and isolation. Several questions arise, however, and they are the real story: “What/who are we in this universe?” “ Are we alone in the universe?” “What should the relationship be between fathers and sons, especially if they have a similar calling, or if one of them goes off the rails?” “Can we properly function without intimate human contact?” “How do we handle it when a loved one doesn’t want our help?”

The film is meditative, surprisingly quiet (albeit with a few action scenes), and thoughtful. To describe the various stages of  Roy’s internal journey would be to spoil the film, but it fits nicely with his outward journey. As quiet as the film is, there are notes that are not as subtle as they could be. Roy’s wife is named Eve, which is perhaps too on the nose. (And Liv Tyler, as she often does, plays less of a real character than an archetype, the beautiful woman—now not the beautiful girl—who represents all lovely womanhood, be it human or Elven). Also, Roy’s dispassionate description of his final psychological state is nearly a parody of his earlier descriptions and is a little too explicit.

Director James Gray is no stranger to journeys that are both physical and psychological (The Immigrant, and especially The Lost City of Z). Here he masterfully blends the personal and the intimate played against adventure that takes one across the universe. (It’s rather like Lawrence of Arabia, but with a personal journey that’s more direct and much less complex). Spoiler alert: Roy’s story begins with isolation and ends with the expressed need for connection. But nearly every person Roy “connects” with inhabits their own space, and seems contained and slightly remote and removed. Even at the end of the film, when it is suggested that Roy and Eve might/will reconnect, they each receive their own screen space, and there is no real physical connection.

A film like this lives or dies on its central performance, and Pitt gives what may well be his best performance, one that demonstrates both his strong points while extending his range. Pitt’s journey as an actor is receiving a good deal of thought and talk this year, and it’s true that this role fits where he is right now as few other of his films have. There has often been a certain removed quality to Pitt’s work, as if his energy is centripetal and every move and word is from a point of thoughtful and isolated observation. That works well here, as that is the character’s starting point. But as the film develops, so does the performance, and Roy’s isolation (aversive to touch at times) turns to connectivity (reaching out to Dad). At the same time, Pitt softens, opens, and even comes to tears; it’s a beautiful emotional arc.

To put on a more practical hat for a moment, it’s hard to see how this film will capture its audience after a few weeks. It’s not a rip-roaring space adventure, nor is it a quiet character study. There are a few exciting and tense moments, but this is a father-son film that follows an overly-controlled and isolated man as he deals with finding his father and realizes his need for others. Fortunately, it’s also a vehicle for the star-of-our-times as he gives a performance of richness and depth as he’s never done before. Perhaps that will end up being enough.

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Downton Abbey

Nothing really new here. If you liked/loved the series on TV, you’ll like/love the movie. It’s just a little bigger, a little more grand, a little more lush, and has perhaps one or two too many subplots. To give enough breathing room for all the secondary stories, the film would have to be at least a half hour longer, but the ability of its likely (older) patrons aren’t used to sitting that long—hence the two-hour running time.

The plot itself has been signaled well enough in the trailers (the King and Queen are coming!!), but creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes has a nifty twist prepared to keep things from becoming too predictable. What is predictable, and by predictable here I mean comforting and familiar, are all the characters, their personalities, their interrelationships, and of course the place and time. The well-appointed rooms, the gorgeous costumes, the elegant and moving music—they’re all there. Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is logistical—getting all those actors together long enough to get this film recorded. My guess is that it will never happen again.

And perhaps the near-zero chance of making this happen again is the reason Fellowes felt he had to tie up so many stories; he may well have felt that there was no way many of the stories he started would ever be able to be developed beyond these two hours, and so they had to be presented with some kind of closure or a promise thereof.

All these actors are solid. But a few performances are worthy of note. Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), featured so prominently in the past, is practically invisible here, and she is missed. The happy opposite is the case with Tom (Allen Leech) and of course the indomitable Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). Leech’s romantic subplot is rushed and unfulfilling, but he has some lovely moments remembering his wife and explaining how he looks at things now. Smith, whom I admire as both a line reader and actor (see, gets her chance to do the former (of course), but also has the chance to show her skills as a serious actor near the end of the film. Perhaps only Smith could have been called upon to wrap things up in such a believable and moving way.

The film’s major misstep (and it’s a significant one) is in handling Mr. Molesly (Kevin Doyle). Doyle was a surprise comic addition to the television show, and his comedy worked best in unexpected small moments. Here he is directed to go over the top from the word go, as if his drunken dance routine highlighted in the TV show were extended to an overly energetic performance throughout the entire film. It doesn’t work, and it makes his final exchange with Miss Baxter feel less authentic than it is written to be.

Some films are nearly critic-proof, and Downton Abbey might be accused of being immune to serious criticism. But not just matching but transcending a well-crafted television series can’t be taken for granted. There were many places where the story could have been overdone or underdone, or a performance might have fallen short, or an approach might have proven to be foolhardy, or the writer or director could have risked taking things in a “daring” new direction. Other than Doyle’s misconceived interpretation, none of these things is true of Downton Abbey. Yes, it’s as comfortable and generally unsurprising, but translating any television show to the big screen successfully, especially with a television director (Michael Engler) at the helm, is no small feat. For those who are looking to keep a show faithful to its TV series while expanding it for the big screen, Downton Abbey may well find itself a future model of how to do it right.

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Whales of August (1987)

Sometimes, seeing two films in a short period of time can lead to fascinating insights and comparisons that would otherwise not have presented themselves. I just saw Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in a movie theater on a large screen (thank you, RIT student John Dugan for letting me know this was happening) and saw The Whales of August (1987) at home. I don’t think I could have arranged a greater contrast in films if I’d planned it.

Lawrence is considered the greatest epic ever filmed, and I can’t disagree with that. It’s certainly of its time, with music that is far more dominating than in today’s films, with a scope that is beyond most filmmakers, and with a stately pace that rewards the patient but might test the attention span of many modern folks. This may be one of the great “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” films of all time. If someone wants to see a great big fat epic film, this is the one. But try to see it on the largest screen possible. It’s meant to overwhelm, and it did this past week.

I’d last seen Lawrence on the big screen after its restoration in the late ‘80s, and seeing it in 70mm back then was unlike anything I’d ever seen before; I felt as if I could walk out of my seat and into the image. This time it was presented in digital, but the newest restoration was still glorious, and the film presented a master course in cinematography by Freddie Young (Oscars for this, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, but also cinematography for the original Goodbye, Mr. Chips; 49th Parallel; Ivanhoe; Mogambo; Lust for Life; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; and Nicholas and Alexandra, to name a few.) This was likely Young’s and director David’s Lean most beautiful and expressive work before Lean’s becoming self-conscious about it.

This is also the film that many claim to contain the best performance not to win an Oscar, and some consider Peter O’Toole’s work here the best performance by any actor in any film. That’s subjective, of course, but the performance hasn’t aged over the years, and is as enigmatic and confident as ever. Alec Guinness’s performance as an Arab used to bother me, but the great actor (Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai and fame for playing Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in some popular space opera) was made to look the part, and clearly brought his considerable skills to creating a believable character. What surprised me was how over-the-top-yet-missing-the-mark Anthony Quinn was. Of course a Mexican actor playing an Arab was a stretch, but Guinness showed how the lack of background didn’t have to be an impediment to a believable performance. Quinn chewed up all the scenery in sight, and kept popping out of the fabric of the film. But it’s Lean’s and O’Toole’s film, and if the post-intermission (yes, there was an intermission) part of the film doesn’t quite add up to the first half, it’s still a must-see for everyone interested in what film can be. Look around and find out when it’s coming to a movie theater near you, and then don’t let anything get in the way.

The opposite of Lawrence is the delicate, lighter-than-air The Whales of August, which simply floats on the screen until it fairly evanesces by the end credits. It’s known for being the last film of legendary Lillian Gish at the end of her 75-year career in film, as well as Oscar-nominated Ann Sothern. It was also the second-last film of stroke victim Bette Davis, and one of the last films of Vincent Price. It’s a quiet chamber piece, with basically 3.5 characters. Gish and Davis play two sisters, one soft and kind and one edgy and attitudinal (guess which actress plays which). It was Sothern who got the supporting actress Oscar nomination, and she is fine if still held to a rather small part. Gish is lovely and doesn’t miss a beat, ever the consummate professional. She’s nearly lighter than air. Davis, of course, provides the cynicism and holds the drama down to a jaundiced realism before (spoiler alert) she decides that there is more to live for.

Price’s character is interesting, as he brings in the pre-Soviet Russian aristocracy into a New England context, and helps to pull the film out of its possibly too-constricted place and historical moment. His character was originally scheduled to be played by Alec Guinness, who would have connected this film to Lawrence of Arabia and would have added another texture to the film. But Price is surprisingly effective, bringing a soft Continental touch to his character, who has been physically unmoored due to the death of his dear female friend. The dialogue and acting around his attempts to investigate if Gish’s character might be his new dear friend is subtle, polite, and moving.

The film will always be remembered as Gish’s final effort (at age 93), the end of a 75-year film career. But a few other notes of interest add some delightful context to the film. Ann Sothern’s daughter plays her as a young girl, and Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen plays the young Bette Davis in that same short segment in the beginning of the film.

When you want to be rolled over with drama, beauty, sound, and scope, try Lawrence. If you need a quiet, lovely, and soft film experience, join Gish in her final performance. Both films are historic, and ring two very different internal bells.

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Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

This is the first time I’ve genuinely looked forward to seeing a Quentin Tarantino film. As my film students have come to learn, I’ve had an aversion to him and his films for a number of reasons, none of which I’ll go into here—though I greatly admire many of his sharply drawn characters, the generally high level of acting, and the cinematography of Inglourious Basterds.

[Spoilers galore—continue at your own risk if you haven’t seen it.] Where to begin with Once Upon a Time…? In some senses, it’s a mature departure from his earlier work, though it resonates throughout with references to those earlier works (especially regarding wish fulfillment, Inglourious Basterds, and fire.). It’s a rich blend of sound and image, with so many cultural and cinematic references that it’s going to be a guaranteed subject for conversation and writing for serious critics, film students, and Easter egg sleuths for years to come. It’s by far my favorite QT film, and it manages to build and build uniquely and creatively until he lets loose with what could be called a typical Tarantino ending that folks will either love or hate—or in my case, both love and hate.

But even before that controversial ending has a chance to either pull you in all the way or completely take you out of the film , QT has created a funny, serious, dreamy, surreal, parodic,  series of sights and sounds that shouldn’t blend together, but do. He uses diegetic music in so many different ways, for example, that one minute the viewer is grooving along with Cliff (Brad Pitt) and the next, is listening to music emanating from a scene that turns into nondiegetic accompaniment for the next scene before we’re aware of it–and it works.

Full disclosure: I was 16 in 1969, when these film events happened. Many think that the Manson murders were the unofficial end of the 1960’s (the film’s take), while some think that the Kent State murder a few months later has that dubious distinction. In any event, for Hollywood and for many who were coming of age at that time, those murders were as shocking and as culturally significant as President Kennedy’s was shocking and political. I hadn’t yet been freed from high school by this time, but was aware of the free-spirited music and mindsets that had been developing around me. Tarantino has captured the mood and feel and more, and has put his own stamp on it, including what is becoming his revisionist trope.

Tarantino is doing so many things in this film, from social comment to loving respect for 1960’s TV and Hollywood, to slight (or not so slight) satire on the same, to recreating and celebrating and undermining 1969 swinging Hollywood, that it might be dizzying trying to follow everything he’s doing–except for the fact that he’s created a dynamic blend of narrative and dream that keeps the viewer engaged, even when he stretches that viewer’s engagement to the limit (which is does more than once). To call it a rich stew doesn’t do this complex film justice. It justifies many more words than I have time or inclination to present.

The casting and acting combination may well be the best of the year, or many a year. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton (great name), a TV actor trying to make it into film, but whose career is in low gear. Dalton is much less intelligent than DiCaprio, often a great challenge to a smart actor. DiCaprio plays it humorously most of the time with a performance that is self-conscious about its character’s flaws and limits, but he doesn’t stay there. Rumor has it (or IMDB has recorded) that DiCaprio had a hard time doing second-rate acting as Dalton without visible condescension, but he manages to pull it off, and also nails it when Dalton has to pull out his best acting for one intense scene. This is a high-wire performance with great range and range of expression. Should the Academy have waited a few more years to give Leo an Oscar?

The owner of the film, however, is Brad Pitt, who does a star-making turn again by playing a character opposite of DiCaprio’s in many ways, from Cliff’s imperturbable unflappability to Pitt’s finally accepting and even celebrating how cool and good-looking Brad Pitt is. Pitt is supposed to be playing second fiddle to DiCaprio here as his stunt double/driver/personal assistant. But he ends up taking over the narrative at some points and finally becomes the primary agent of action at the climax of the film. Pitt has never looked so comfortable in his own skin, and he exemplifies the laid-back 1969 California dude perfectly and without irony while still carving out his character’s individuality. DiCaprio is all motion and range; Pitt is all internal stillness and consistency. They are both bravura performances, and while DiCaprio is the better actor in general, this film belongs to Pitt/Cliff.

There are so many other good-to-great actors in smaller roles that it would take too long to go into how they do, why they were cast in this role, and what meaning it has for the film. Lena Dunham as one of the Manson girls? Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme? Maya Hawke as the “Flower Girl” in the group?. Timothy Olyphant in just an extended but meaningful cameo? And Luke Perry in his last role? Then there is Bruce Dern, playing the real George Spahn of Spahn Ranch fame because Burt Reynolds died before filming, and bringing a meta sensibility to the role because of he turns his own career has taken in later years; is what happened with and to George Spahn similar to what happens to actors who are aging out?

Making the most of her role is Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, a fictional Manson girl. Qualley was most recently seen in her Emmy-nominated role as Ann Reinking in TV’s Fosse/Verdon, where she had to not only act but dance that legendary dancer’s part. She owns every scene she’s in here, which is miles away from her Reinking role. She’s everything an uninhibited flower child of the late ‘60s should be, and her role and performance add depth and layers of fluctuating meaning to the film.

I’ve enjoyed the brouhaha around Margot Robbie: “She doesn’t have enough agency in the movie” and “Her role doesn’t give her enough lines.” How do I say this nicely?: People who really don’t know what they are talking about should really stop talking. Her role as the doomed Sharon Tate (a.k.a. Mrs. Roman Polanski) is yes, the stuff of dreams, but this movie isn’t about her at the same time that it is about her world and how it soured. It might be said that any breathtakingly lovely blonde could have played this role, and that would be wrong. Robbie has an intelligence behind her beauty that keep us engaged long after we notice her looks. She represents the “look” and so-called “freedom” of the late ‘60s with her miniskirt and white boots. But she also shows a little-girl joy at seeing her image on the screen (watching the real Sharon Tate—wow, could someone please dig into that?) while also showing us a young woman who doesn’t quite know who she is but who has patterned herself after ‘60s clichés, to a kind and generous woman about to have her first child. It’s not a performance that insists that you watch, but instead invites you in to observe, to enjoy, and even to ponder. There’s depth in her character and greater depth around it.

Not every scene works. The Playboy Mansion scene doesn’t really add anything, and the current actors playing ‘60s actors is more distracting than meaningful. There is also a long unbroken take of dialogue between Rick Dalton (studying lines between shooting scenes) and the child actress Julie Butters, playing a child actress named Trudi (who looks like a combination of the young Brooke Shields and the young Elizabeth Taylor) who has to spout some of the funnier, more ironic, satiric lines about the Art of Acting. As usual, Tarantino’s dialogue is biting and intelligent. But coming out of the mouth of a genuinely young child in a long take doesn’t quite resonate. Butters does her best and she may well become the actress some think she will be, but the dialogue is too much for her, and the long take doesn’t allow for a back-and forth selection of the best takes of either actor.

What does work is the extended Spahn Ranch scene, which “interrupts” the narrative and pulls us away from the person we thought was the lead—Dalton. This is Tarantino at his bravura best, deviating from every expectation about plot and character to go on what could be considered an unnecessary side journey. Pitt is just about perfect here, and he gets to demonstrate his character’s tough exterior, fighting skills, and soft heart. But far more than that, this is a scene of developing dread and tension, feelings that began much earlier in the film with that reverse tracking shot that ended with the shot of “Cielo Drive.” There is great suspense here, and suspense that is stretched to the breaking point. But there is also deep dread mixed in. Since we know that Cliff is not a real person, we don’t know what might happen to him in this strange and unfamiliar setting. We do know historically what they group was capable of, so Cliff’s adventure here keeps us tied to Tarantino’s main character while building foreboding for what we (think we) know is coming.

That sequence is one of the most mature and daring sequences Tarantino has directed. It took exact pacing and a great deal of restraint to do it. I was hoping that restraint—which yielded such creativity here—would last throughout the rest of the film. But this is Tarantino, after all, so of course I was wrong. The end sequence at Dalton’s house is gonzo, all hell breaks loose, over-the-top-beyond-all-recognition action and violence. It’s at this point that QT seriously deviates from historical accuracy, but that important fact is all but drowned out in the moment by the utter insanity and unleashed carnage we view. Of course the irony is that this is violence that we want to see to some extent (cue Hitchcock), but it’s so overboard that it finally becomes funny. I understand that this is a QT trademark, but after my first viewing, I believe that while I see what he’s doing with the violence, the way he did it prevents this from becoming a great film.

Yet…yet…I was a sucker for the ending scene outside the Polanski residence. As in many of QT’s films, history is distorted in a way that delights the brain with “what ifs” while quietly acknowledging what we all know really happened. The film wraps up perfectly with the title coming just as we settle into the alternate reality that’s been presented to us. It’s a dream we wish could have occurred. And a number of themes are suggested by the words “Once Upon a Time” coming first, reminding us that we watching wishful revisionism, and then having …. “in Hollywood,” opening all the thoughts the film suggests in the combination love affair/satire QT has with the Dream Factory.

And yes, I’ll see it again. Probably more than once.





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Spider-Man: Far from Home

Spider-Man: Far from Home is a minor but delightful entry in the MC canon. It impresses because it doesn’t try to be more or weightier than it needs to be, and it slyly and subtly addresses a number of larger issues while being faithful to its teen superhero roots.

Unlike previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire (27 when his first Spider-Man was released) and Andrew Garfield (28 when his first hit the screen), who are actors I respect, Tom Holland looks and sounds right as a high schooler. Holland was in his late teens in his first Spider-Man film, but looks and can act years younger. You believe he’s a high-schooler, with every insecurity, umm, ahh, and undeveloped voice. He’s also been a dancer for most of his life, and is the smoothest, lightest, most gymnastic of the three Spider-Men, which adds a quiet elegance to his action sequences.

This film decides to take Peter (Holland) out of the country on an international school field trip (that keeps experiencing one humorously unbelievable change after another). I was afraid that this was going to be a Mission: Impossible version of the Spider-Man story, with exotic locations that overwhelmed the action. But the film stays rooted in the high school experience and the high schoolers themselves, with the requisite personal dynamics played well and credibly. Especially enjoyable is the ongoing friendship with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who is our stand-in just enough to help us stay connected while staying in his own character.

The love angle is provided with the mutual attraction of Peter and MJ (Zendaya), who is given more space in the film, but takes up little of it with her quietly snarky and self-protective attitude. Peter’s reluctance to share his feelings actually gets a little old and frustrating for the viewer, who is tempted to reach up to the screen, slap his face, and tell him to get on with it. (Spoiler alerts from here on in.) But the film finally takes us places after dancing around this issue and others—several places, in fact—in ways that are narratively and emotionally satisfying.

I usually read a little too much about films before seeing them, and I’m glad that wasn’t the case here. I knew that the Mysterio character was played by Jake Gyllenhaal, another actor I respect. But I found myself judging his performance in the early part of the film, feeling as if he never really found his character. Just as I concluded that he really missed it here, the big reveal comes, all makes sense, and he nails his character the rest of the time. It’s nice to be caught off guard every once in a while.

The film could have gone deep and dark with super-villain antics, but the film finds a way to layer humor in between scenes, and even between shots within a scene. It doesn’t jerk the viewer back and forth as much as it creates a lighter mood and prevents the film from ever becoming too heavy. Much of its humor is sly and even indirect. The opening of the film, for instance, is so heart-on-the-sleeve high school, with Whitney Houston’s classic “I Will Always Love You” paired with awkward high schoolers in a second-rate video, complete with copyright marks on their images. Then the (more spoilers here) requisite Marvel action/destruction sequences are revealed to be what they in actuality are—imaginary images that only look like the real thing. Anyone wanting to go deep into the subjects of illusion, within films or even just within the Marvel Universe, could have jolly ol’ time with this aspect of the film. It could also be read (and by that I mean, I want to read it as this…) that Marvel is spoofing its own tendency to  fill the last third of their films with noise and annihilation, going meta at last, even if quietly and subtly.

If you’re missing Tony Stark, this is also your movie. In many ways, it’s the latest (last?) Iron Man movie. His presence and legacy is all over this film, pulling on and putting upon Peter Parker from many angles, and helping situate Peter vis-à-vis Tony Stark in Peter’s life and in the MC Universe. Again, for those interested in the intersection of Stark and Parker and their respective superhero incarnations, this is a rather rich vein to explore.

The film is another opportunity to see Marisa Tomei, who is given a larger role as Aunt May, albeit a very different Aunt May than in the first two Spider-Man series. Tomei elevates every film she is in, and is finally allowed to be more of a character and something of a girlfriend to a major character here. Someday there will be reams of papers dedicated to this actress’s talent and the near-magic of her presence on screen. For now, we can just enjoy her warmth and cinematic charisma, which helps ground this film in reality—not a harsh one, but an affectionate and nurturing one.

There are other small delights in the film as well. Ned and Betty (Angourie Rice) go from “I don’t like you” to “I do like you” to “I love you—we’re soulmates” (and “let’s call each other ‘Babe’ on day two of our relationship”) to breaking up a few days later, “maturely” understanding the short-term high school infatuation as part of each person’s personal journey. It’s a minefield of clichés that are done believably and with affection rather than snark, and with only a small hint of satire. The two chaperones/teachers are a little over the top at times in their characterizations, but they contribute consistently to the layered humor.

The interactions of Peter and MJ, from their first “too cool to be real with you” conversations to their declarations of “like” to their first kisses, are right on the nose. They are filled with the awkward pauses, nervousness, and tentativeness of real teens, not Hollywood characters that go into a smooth and mature movie kiss as their first. Lastly, the way the film tosses off the missing years and devastation of Thanos by calling the Decimation “the blip” is both funny in its reductionism and a tipoff to the viewer that the film we’re just beginning to view is going to be lighter, funnier, and irreverent.

(BTW,  stay through the end credits for two—count ‘em, two—sequences that have provoked screams and will be talked about until Marvel explains all.)

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Late Night

Late Night is, well, occasionally diverting. Much of the promotion for the film has focused on the fact that current star Mindy Kaling wrote this specifically for legendary actress Emma Thompson, as if that fact had value in and of itself. What does have value is that Thompson actually made the film, and generally helps to make the film come as alive as it ever does.

The film is a updated version of The Devil Wears Prada set in television land. Thompson in the Streep role plays a late-night talk show host resting on her laurels who has been losing viewers steadily over the last decade. When she decides she must have a female writer on her all-male writing staff to re-engage her audience, lucky Mindy Kaling, who has just applied for a job on her team, gets hired. Kaling wrote the script, and it features many of her patented quips that tend to focus on the snarky, and which often elevate a scene by one last quick and funny phrase just when you think the scene has ended. The plot is predictable and threadbare, however, and except for one slight surprise (if you’re not paying close attention), you can see every turn coming a mile away.

There is also something of a tension between the screenplay and the direction. Director Nisha Ganatra, a filmmaker best known for her work in television, often seems to direct at a pace that is slower and therefore at odds with the verbal rhythms of the screenplay, particularly the snappy dialogue. Scenes are sometimes too slowly paced or go on for too long, and Kaling’s rhythms are sacrificed. (Kaling’s scene with a possible romantic interest who is clearly already “busy” is embarrassing not so for the “oops, I made a goof coming here” plot point as for how long it takes our supposedly sharp lead to get a clue.)

Thompson is a very good actress, yet not quite in the league of the “can’t do anything wrong British actresses” like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Maggie Smith. She almost nails the character, yet you can see her acting in the more outlandish and dramatic moments that don’t quite seem to come from her center. As an actress, Kaling is decent, and her moments of sincerity and earnestness—which are comically mocked by Thompson’s character—are well played and believable.  Her range is limited, but the film doesn’t give her anything to do that is beyond her. What is beyond belief is her storyline and her character’s developing closeness with a powerful late-night host. This is supposed to be based on Kaling’s experiences as the “token diversity hire” on “The Office,” but the credibility of the basic plot and several scenes stretches thinner and thinner as the film proceeds.

John Lithgow is credited as being in the film, but he’s alongside the film rather than in it, as if all his scenes were done off-line and at a different time. He doesn’t have to work particularly hard in the film, but the ways his scenes were filmed and cut in separate him even further than how the story presents him. Hugh Dancy (spoiler alert) as the office Romeo and cad is generally accepted due to the actor’s skill and personal charm, but the film demands that he function more as a plot point than a character at times, and the film is the weaker for it.

Probably the best male performance is by Tony winner Denis O’Hare, who brings a warmth and world-weariness to his role on the team that helps keep the film grounded and Thompson’s character from occasionally flying off the frame.

What the film is actually trying to say or portray isn’t always apparent, and actually is quite incomprehensible at times. Is this a story of success through hard work—when her big break is nearly beyond belief? Is it a sly take on Emma Thompson trying to gain younger viewers by pairing herself with Mindy Kaling? (I personally vote no on that, but the similarities are unnerving.) Is this an old-fashioned feminist and/or racial statement about the imbalance of power between white men and women, especially women of color? Or is this a simple success story about a hard-working, clever minority woman with a little romance thrown in that taps on all these issues without really digging too deeply into any of them? (I vote yes on that one.)

While the journey that Kaling’s character takes is not always believable but is always predictable, Thompson’s character apparently needs to get out of her rut, get real, and get woke. Unfortunately for the viewer and the film’s grosses, the supposed brave and breakout moment comes with a musty political stab and a plug for a particular “health” association that destroys young human life and often sells their body parts. (Did I just write that?) It’s divisive and is a classic example of Hollywood playing to itself. There are going to be many wondering how and why this film bombed. There is plenty to look at, but one might at least begin here.

The other scene is Thompson’s character’s “come clean” speech, which is supposed to be brave (again) and revelatory, and which supposedly resurrects her wounded career. It seems at first like it might make sense, and then ultimately doesn’t, and the rousing standing O it receives feels forced, to say the least. Then the last scene is what supposedly occurs in her writing and other staff after a year–an improbable collection of candidates that look like a Benneton ad of 10 years ago or a group hired simply for their contribution to someone’s idea of diversity.

In all, the film succeeds best as a vehicle for Kaling’s varied talents and a demonstration of the skills of one of our better supporting actors (O’Hare). Story-wise and message-wise, however, it feels easily predictable and oh, so yesterday.

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