Movies: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Voices by: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by: Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman (screenplay); Phil Lord (story); from characters created by a whole list of people I can’t be bothered to type here
Columbia Pictures/Sony/Marvel, 2018
PG; 117 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)

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It’s no secret that I’m long over superhero movies. Marvel in particular has been crumbling under its own weight for a while now. A large part of the problem (though there are many) is that these movies have begun to take themselves too seriously. They’re constantly seeking to up the stakes and lay on the drama. Yet the result is the audience becomes numb to the would-be tension. Instead of feeling like stakes are higher, it has come to feel like there are no stakes at all. Everyone comes back, after all. “We can rebuild, rebirth, turn back time; we have the technology.”

But I still enjoy some superhero movies. Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are two of my favorites, and why? Because they don’t take themselves too seriously. Spider-Man: Homecoming was similar, though the need to shoehorn in Stark and tie it all to the Avengers… Ugh. Not everything has to be a crossover, guys. This isn’t fan fiction (though it sure does feel like it these days—except I’ve read better fan fiction than a lot of these scripts).

Okay, but what about this movie? I went in with no real expectations and no particular background knowledge of Spider-Man outside the films I’ve seen (Tobey Maguire, yes; Andrew Garfield, no; Tom Holland, yes) and what my husband sometimes tries to explain to me while my eyes glaze over. I’d heard, for example, that Gwen becomes Spider-Something at some point… That there were multiple universes… Yeah, that’s about it.

Into the Spider-Verse follows the origin story of Miles Morales, one of the many incarnations of Spider-Man. Miles is smart and awkward, new to a private high school where the expectations are higher. Meanwhile, he just wants to do his art (graffiti). While doing just that, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and… You can guess the rest.

One supercollider-that-opens-other-dimensions later, Miles is joined by a number of other Spider-Peeps. He learns the ropes while trying to get everyone back to their respective universes. Then he must destroy the collider to keep the world (or at least NYC) stable.

It’s a straight-forward plot, which I really appreciated. These days, all the plots feel so convoluted as to be nonsense, just a backdrop for character drama. This felt refreshing by comparison.

The animation style, too, was really nice. This is a visually pleasing movie, and it really is like watching a comic book.

Viewers don’t have to know much about Spider-Man to get anything out of this film either. Once again, so nice not to have to watch twenty other films first to understand the story or know the characters.

Of course, there’s the imminent danger that this did well enough that they’ll turn it into a long, complicated series in its own right. But let’s hope not. For once, maybe they could just leave well enough alone and let us have nice things instead of ruining everything in their pursuit of profits.

Sigh.

Things don’t have to be complex to be good. In fact, there’s a tipping point at which they get so elaborate they turn bad. You know, it’s like jewelry, or architecture. There’s a pleasant level of embellishment, but that one extra piece or detail turns it from stylish to tacky in an instant. The Marvel Universe has become just that: tacky. But this movie, over here on its own and minding its own business—it’s chic. Fun. Well worth viewing. It doesn’t stumble under the weight of anything before it, nor does it try too hard to be “important.” It’s just a really good movie. And in a world filled to the brim with superheroes of all sorts, this one somehow manages to stand out like a rare gem.

Books: The Black Opal by Victoria Holt

When I was a teenager, I gobbled up Victoria Holt novels. They were—still are, I suppose—the reading equivalent of candy. However, this one gets a bit stuck in your teeth. And not in a good way.

The Black Opal is told by Carmel, who as a baby was found under an azalea plant outside Commonwood House. The family at Commonwood grudgingly takes her in, and it’s bandied that Carmel is the daughter of the gypsies that return to the area each summer. Carmel doesn’t feel entirely welcome, except that the governess is kind, as is the neighboring family at The Grange. Lucien Compton makes it a point to include Carmel in teas and such, and to her he is a hero.

When the harridan wife at Commonwood dies unexpectedly, the children are sent away. Carmel is taken by Toby Sinclair, a sea captain, to Australia. She lives there for several years before deciding she wants to return to England. Alas, she learns that the doctor whose family she’d lived with at Commonwood was hanged for his wife’s murder. Carmel is so sure that he didn’t do it that she… Doesn’t do much of anything, actually, except write a few letters and visit old friends.

Carmel is not a very interesting character, and it’s difficult to understand why three men fall in love with her. The writing here, too, is quite pedantic, with a lot of tell and little show. Maybe that just shows how styles and standards have changed, but even if that’s the case, it’s difficult to ignore while reading. Meanwhile, the murder mystery isn’t much of one, and Carmel’s hesitation when re-connecting with Lucien doesn’t make for much tension either. The whole book feels like a wet rag.

I’d like to go back and read another of Holt’s novels now to see if the problem is just with The Black Opal, or if all of them were this weak. At the same time, I’m worried I’ll discover it’s the latter, and my rosy memory of these books will be shattered. The Black Opal was, I believe, the last one I ever read by her. She died not long after. So maybe her work simply began to fail towards the end? I have several other of her books on my shelf… I will have to pick one up and see how well it stands.

Movies: Mary Poppins Returns

Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee (screenplay); David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca (story); based on characters created by P.L. Travers
Walt Disney, 2018
PG; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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I really didn’t have any expectations going in. I recall enjoying Mary Poppins when I was young, and we took the kids to the stage play a couple years ago. Still, I wasn’t sure if they’d get anything out of this resurrection of an old character and property.

I needn’t have worried. My children loved this movie, and it was a joy to watch them watch it, especially my youngest. He was so very invested, bouncing in his seat, laughing like a loon. Meanwhile, my 10-year-old daughter kept checking on me to make sure I didn’t cry too much. (I did cry a bit, though, which is very unusual for me.)

Here we have a grown and widowed Michael Banks, raising three children: twins John and Annabel, and young Georgie. Due to their mother having died less than a year before, the twins have taken it upon themselves to grow up quickly and help run the household. They’re no-nonsense… Something Mary Poppins will soon fix.

The titular nanny arrives as the Banks learn they have only five days to pay back a loan to the bank else lose their house on Cherry Tree Lane.

It’s clear the goal was to evoke the feel of the original film in an almost one-to-one ratio of musical numbers and adventures. “A Spoonful of Sugar” is now “Can You Imagine That?”, “Jolly Holiday” becomes “Royal Doulton Music Hall”, “I Love to Laugh” equates to “Turning Turtle”, and “Chim Chim Cheree/Step in Time” has turned into “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” That said, all the charm remains intact (or it did for me, my husband, and family). Instead of a pale imitation, Blunt makes the role her own and Miranda likewise is endearing as earnest lamplighter Jack.

There is also more of a sense of a cohesive story here: the Bankses must save their home. Colin Firth plays the villainous banker intent on claiming the property. I do love Firth, and don’t especially like to think of him as evil, but he does the job with all the aplomb of a typical Disney villain. I’m only sorry he didn’t really get his moment of redemption at the end.

I’m very aware that, having just come out of the cinema, there’s a fair chance I’ll feel differently later as it all sinks in, but on the whole I call this one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Just purely enjoyable. It felt a bit like a gamble to make it, but the result is a delightful win.