Category Archives: Reviews

Review: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ is one of the year’s best films

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) in the new animated film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” (Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment)

I wrote a parents guide on “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” for the Buffalo News; here is my full, four-star review.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the seventh big-screen entry for Marvel’s beloved webslinger, is the only animated film this year that can comfortably fit on the Top 10 list for a 10-year-old superhero junkie and a paunchy, late-thirtysomething film critic.

It is the finest superhero film in a year that featured some pretty darn good ones — “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Incredibles 2,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Teen Titans Go to the Movies.” And its meta approach to storytelling makes for an invigorating experience that also carries powerful messages (the importance of self-belief, the support of family and friends) for wee Spideys.   

This is all rather unexpected. After all, despite the success of 2017’s entertaining “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” starring Tom Holland, and the character’s appearances in “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” Spidey qualifies as a hit or miss character on the big screen. The Andrew Garfield-Emma Stone entries are already forgotten (thankfully), and the last Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-flick came out in 2007. (And it was terrible.)

What a difference 10-plus years makes. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is utterly fresh, thanks to stunning animation, legit humor, and the most likable onscreen Spider-Man yet.

We’re talking about Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales, who becomes the Spider-Man of his reality and crosses paths with a diverse group counterparts from other dimensions — an alternate Peter Parker, Spider-Woman, 1930s-styled Spider-Man Noir, an anime version (Peni Parker), and, most delightfully, Spider-Ham (a.k.a., Peter Porker).

The LSD-flashback visuals and brisk story are key elements to the success of “Spider-Verse,” but the characters are its greatest asset. Miles is a charming lead, and the same can be said for almost every character in the film, from comics’ favorite Gwen Stacy to Miles’ loving parents. (Not to mention porcine powerhouse Spider-Ham.)

The entire voice cast is strong, including Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, Brian Tyree Henry as his police officer father, Jake Johnson as the offbeat Peter B. Parker, Hailee Steinfeld as Spider-Woman, Mahershala Ali as Miles’s uncle, Lily Tomlin (!) as Aunt May, Liev Schreiber as gargantuan gangster Kingpin, and, quite memorably, John Mulaney as Spider-Ham and Nicolas Cage as Spider-Man Noir.

It’s worth noting that a viewer need not be a serious Spidey scholar to enjoy the film. There are some razor-sharp jokes for those in the know (including a killer “Spider-Man 3” reference a few minutes in), but the focus on Miles Morales lends a real freshness to the proceedings. There are moments that recall some of the character’s greatest big-screen adaptations. (We’re talking the first two Maguire films and “Homecoming.”) But “Spider-Verse” swings to its own bold beat.

Credit must go to the stellar creative team, including directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, as well as co-producers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord. Famously given the boot from “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” Miller and Lord are back here in a big way. “Spider-Man” is an even greater success than the duo’s “Jump Street” series and “LEGO Movie.”  

After seeing many superhero films, kids race from the theater desperate to browse the toy aisles. “Into the Spider-Verse” is no exception. The difference is that this time, thanks to the freshness of the film and its messages, you won’t mind that slow crawl through Target. Yep, Spidey is that good.

Review: ‘First Man’ is another inspired effort from Damien Chazelle

I wrote a parents guide on “First Man” for The Buffalo News, but expanded that piece into the following review.

“First Man”

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, and Kyle Chandler

Rating: A-

One of the indelible movie-going moments from my childhood came in 1990, when my parents took me to see R-rated Civil War drama “Glory.” I was a 10-year-old with a deep interest in history, and while I certainly was not in the target audience, the film had a profound impact on me. It left me wanting to learn more. This is the power of historical cinema, and “First Man” is a fine example.

“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle’s look at the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong is strong, stirring stuff. While the recent Toronto International Film Festival selection is too pulse-pounding and emotionally complex for viewers younger than 12, teenagers should be spellbound and perhaps even inspired.

“First Man” is a you-are-there look at the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. It was a process fraught with tragedy and calamity, and took a deep toll on Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”), and his wife (Claire Foy, “The Crown”).

Viewers younger than 13 might have a difficult time connecting with this story of space exploration for many reasons — the historical setting, the deliberate pace, Gosling’s dorky haircut. But teens can and should see the film. While these younger audience members might see it as history, Chazelle’s use of (occasionally distracting) handheld camera and tight close-ups plunges the viewer into the action. The claustrophobia, the discomfort and the sense that every moment teeters on the edge of disaster make for an intense viewing experience. Teens will come away with a newfound respect for all it took to get to the Moon.

The film is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. The latter includes one use of the F-word; it comes during a marital argument, and packs a wallop. That alone should not preclude parents from bringing their teens to see the film. What must be noted, however, is that “First Man” is a somber epic, with a steady stream of upsetting deaths. None are graphic, but all are gut-punchers, specifically one involving a child.

Some will find the stoicism of Gosling’s Neil Armstrong a negative, but that won’t deter teenagers. If anything, Armstrong’s ability to bury his emotions and plunge ahead feels very much of-the-moment. “First Man” is also helped by stunning special effects work and strong performances from Gosling, Foy, and a top-notch supporting cast (Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit). It all makes for another cinematic victory for Chazelle following “Whiplash” and “La La Land.” In fact, “First Man” has far more in common with the former, Chazelle’s story of a young drummer and his abusive mentor, than the latter.

At just 33 years old, Chazelle has an Oscar win for Best Director behind him and a resume of three gems. With “First Man,” he’s directed a story of pain, sacrifice and, ultimately, triumph, that will resonate with audiences of varying ages. It’s the tribute Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the astronauts who came before them deserve.