Secret Zoo (2020)

Written and directed by: Son Jae-gon

Secret_Zoo-P1

The last time I saw a Korean film it was a certain elaborate, quasi-horror piece about a family of tricksters taking a stab at class society. Secret Zoo is no Parasite. It is a simpler, less emotionally troubling work. But the comparison is an interesting one to keep in mind. Secret Zoo is also a story of tricksters; also a story of a family (of sorts). And most importantly, it also makes jabs at the capitalist class.

Secret Zoo’s critical politics start subtley enough. We are introduced to protagonist Tae-soo (Ahn Jae-Hong) an up-and-coming corporate lawyer. While he has the degree and wears the suit, he is in a struggle to attain job security. He also doesn’t quite catch on to the full character of corporate culture, as evidenced, for instance, when he doesn’t figure out how to register his office card key. 

While Hollywood lawyers are often seen defending alleged-criminals in court rooms, Tae-soo’s position is so corporate, it barely seems lawyer-ish at all. His first big assignment is essentially to be a business manager. One of the firm’s corporate clients has bought a struggling zoo, and Tae-soo is essentially sent in to save it.

It is from here that the film takes on its quirks. The zoo has sold most of its animals (save for meerkats, a racoon, and a mentally-ill polar bear that can’t be displayed). Caught between his careerist-focus on impressing his boss, and a non-careerist amicability, Tae-soo convinces the zoo’s mild mannered staff to take on an interesting scheme to save their business.

Secret Zoo is undoubtedly at its strongest when Tae-soo’s scheme is underway, and all kinds of physical comedy ensues. Messaging is also a key part of the film. A critique of zoos is worked in, even as the work is sympathetic to zookeepers.

More prominent, however, is the film’s cynical view of corporate culture. The critique works best if one asks questions about Tae-soo’s motives. The amorality of corporate law is made obvious from the film’s start, so why would someone like Tae-Soo get into it in the first place? The answer is that our society has contradictory values: on the one hand we promote standing up for the “little guy”: on the other hand we value career ascendancy in capitalist markets. This contradiction produces real-life Tae-soo’s: mild-mannered and thoughtful people who become mundanely-cutthroat in the context of their employment.

Secret Zoo doesn’t appear poised to make it to North American markets. Save for its theatrical and modest-budget-antics, the film doesn’t differ that much from American, mainstream feel good comedies. One of its subtle problems is how Tae-soo’s character arc is presented. When the realities of his corporate employment become apparent, Tae-soo is called out as if this is personally his fault. As a result, the film follows the emotional beat of a standard-young-man-learns-his-lesson comedy, rather than the young-man-challenges capitalism story that it could be. For me this was not just a shortcoming, but a point of emotional disconnection, as the story lost its unique voice. Perhaps you’ll feel the same way and won’t quite be happy with the film’s trajectory. But don’t let me be a downer. The “zoo” itself is absolutely worth the visit.

 

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Written by: Michael Arndt

Little_miss_sunshine_posterLate in Little Miss Sunshine there’s what could be an interesting interaction between characters played by two memorable actors: Paul Dano (as Dwayne) and Steve Carell (as Frank). Frank, a depressed-with-a-brave-face professor speaks to Dwayne, his rebellious Nietzschian nephew by telling him to embrace his suffering à la Proust. The scene, however, is emblematic of Little Miss Sunshine’s plot structure.

Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a family’s last minute road trip to ensure their seven year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) competes in a beauty pageant. The film is a road comedy. It is defined by a series of mishaps, its eccentric cast, and its protagonists spending substantial time in their whimsical vehicle. I am often intrigued by the synopses of road comedies and can see the temptation to make them. The idea of having adventures pop up as things go wrong on the road feels like the kind of thing a write could plausibly imagine happening to themself. As such, these stories provide a nice bridge between our realities and imaginations.

But the realness of road comedies are what makes them hard to ride. Their characters are physically confined by a vehicle, and this confining structure guides writers to strive (successfully or not) for dramatic and comedic burst in place of a more fluid storytelling structure.

Little Miss Sunshine has another structural limit that goes beyond the typical road comedy problem. One way road stories accumulate their quirky casts is by having them show up along the way. We see this structure successfully employed in numerous stories from “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” to The Land Before Time, to Labyrinth. Little Miss Sunshine, however, is the story of a family and, as such, all of its characters know each other (and are present) from the get go. In this way Little Miss Sunshine makes the same comedic mistake as do many animated, family-comedies. The story does not build up to its comedy, nor does it find an important narrative rhythm. Instead it throws silliness at you: “look everybody, this dad (Greg Kinnear) is a soulless motivational speaker, Dwayne hates everybody, this grandpa is a crude (Alan Arkin), LAUGH!” 

The film’s rushed-comedy also influences its emotional beats. In that scene where Frank and Dwayne bond, for instance, it doesn’t feel like an organic, built-to interaction. Instead it comes across as the script saying “look everybody, moody Dwayne is showing he can be reached: FEEL MOVED!” A similar comedy-to-heartfelt structure is employed in a scene with Olive and her Grandfather. In fairness, however, this scene comes across as a more thought out exploration of how a corrupted figure could be tender. This subtle distinction was enough to win Alan Arkin a best supporting actor Oscar, but nonetheless left me frustrated that he didn’t get another great scene going forward.

If I were to propose a fix for Little Miss Sunshine I would find a way for it to be more a first person, or protagonist-centred story: to show it through the eyes of a “normal” character, who is gradually tormented by their families difficulties. This would allow for a more flowing dramatic and comedic buildup. Perhaps that character could have been Olive’s mom (Toni Collette), though she is a bit too normal for my tastes. A better alternative protagonist could have been her brother, Frank.

Frank is not a larger than life character in the way that Dwayne, father Richard and grandpa Edwin are, but there is a case to be made that Steve Carrell should have been amongst those who received an acting nomination for the film. Frank, a middle-aged man, spends much of the movie cooped up in a passenger next to his seven-year-old niece. He is never put in a leadership position. He always looks vaguely sad, but remains a beacon of rationality. Frank is gay, something that  was far less normalized in 2006 than it is in 2020. He also, prior to the film, attempted suicide.

If Little Miss Sunshine has a theme, its about the difference between how eccentrics-and-outsiders are perceived versus who they are. Kinnear, Dano and Arkin play characters who we as viewers can guiltlessly ridicule; they are parodies, they were written to be laughed at. Real life outsiders, however, are more like Carrell’s character: marginalized not because they storm out into the world and ask for it, but because they have been subject to complex webs of trauma.

While Little Miss Sunshine is not Frank’s srtory, it is sort of the story of the other character that’s as three-dimensional as he is. Olive is the film’s best written character (and Breslin joined Arkin as an Oscar-nominee). She is “normal” and “likeable,” but she also has personality and struggles. And while Olive is brought in and out of focus for much of the film’s run time, she is the star of its conclusion.

The film’s third act sees the family finally arriving at the beauty pageant. The pageant is of course easy fodder for satire. Some reviewers might view this satire as too little too late, but then the film is hit with a late, dramatic twist. While I can’t describe the twist without spoiling the movie, it is yet another good illustration of the film’s theme. The twist re-establishes the family as outsiders, but it finally does so in a way that is comedically and emotionally resonant. While I don’t know how self-aware Little Miss Sunshine is of its early limits, the ending serves as an effective rebuttal of those flaws. True comedy and true emotional resonance don’t come through canned lines and personas; they come through subversive acts of rebellion and solidarity.

There are many reasons one can like a movie. Sometimes stunning cinematography, sets and costumes are enough. Sometimes it is because the movie makes a unique point or a few solid jokes. In the case of Little Miss Sunshine, I assert that the film is memorable because its saves itself from itself. Its script is a lesson in both how to and how not to tell a story. That’s not a combination you’re going to come by too often.

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Directed by: Stephen Anderson

Written by: Jon A. Bernstein, Michelle Spritz, Don Hall, Nathan Greno, Aurion Redson
Joe Mateo, and Anderson

Meet_the_robinsonsFrom 2000 to 2008 (or from the films Dinosaur through Bolt) Disney went through its “Post-Renaissance” era. That the era lacks a defined label is telling. It was a time period in which Disney transitioned from hand-drawn to CGI animation, and avoided its tradition of telling musical stories about fairy tale figures and/or cute, fluffy creatures. While the post-renaissance was not an era of bad films per se (The Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo and Stitch certainly have their fans, and I’ve written positively on Brother Bear), it was nonetheless a period in which Disney failed to produce a work that would become emblematic of the studio’s legacy (unlike, for instance, Snow White in the “Golden Age,” Cinderella in the “Silver Age,” The Lion King in “The Renaissance” and Frozen in “The Revival.”)

If I had to a name a film that best represents Post-Renaissance Disney, my choice would be Meet the Robinsons. While I recalled its release (I was in middle school at the time), I would not have remembered that Meet the Robinson’s was a Disney film. Therefore, it is the perfect representative of an era in Disney filmmaking, that as I recently wrote, had no coherent identity.

Inspired by the aesthetic style of children’s author/illustrator William Joyce (George Shrinks), Meet the Robinson’s tells the story of Lewis (Jordan Fry), a pre-teen, orphaned inventor who finds himself transported to the future by his new friend Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman). Wilbur lives in a mansion with his extended family, and while his is a techno-futurist story, its also one supplemented with fantasy and absurdism. Wilbur’s mother Franny (Nicole Sullivan), for instance, conducts a jazz orchestra of anthropomorphic frogs, and two of Wilbur’s Uncles live in plant pots, functioning as the family doormen. In short, as a CGI film rife with kooky details, Meet the Robinson’s looks and feels far more like Despicable Me and other more recent CGI releases than it does like classic Disney.

Disney’s search for identity and box-office profits is quite apparent in Meet the Robinson’s. Silliness pours from the screen in such a way that viewers cannot miss it. Alas, the movie is a great illustration of why silliness and humour are not the same thing.  Early in the film Lewis participates in a science fair, judged by an eccentric scientist (Laurie Metcalfe). And so the audience is left with no doubts as to the scientist’s eccentricity, almost instantly upon appearing, she reveals that her arm is covered in caffeine patches. This set up doesn’t go anywhere; it simply justifies the scientist’s over-the-top, fast-paced, absent minded manner. The scientist is not the only character in the science fair scene written in a “look-at-me-I’m-supposed-to-be-funny manner.” She’s joined by a stereotypical gym teacher, and a science-fair contestant who is a carbon copy of Wednesday Adams.

When discussing Meet the Robinsons with someone who liked the movie better than I did, I was asked why I found the caffeine-patch woman to be more annoying than say (the overwhelmingly forgetful) Dory from Finding Nemo. The answer is that Dory’s oddness is part of a greater character arc that prompts audience members to root for her, as well as those tasked with addressing her vulnerability. Everything Dory does, silly or serious, is underlined with an unmistakable sincerity. When Dory claims she can “speak whale,” for instance, it may be over the top, but it is also undeniably a plot point and not just a desperate bid for youthful laughter.

My negative relationship to Meet the Robinsons and perhaps post-renaissance Disney as a whole, is inevitably tied to when it was released. For the vast majority of my childhood I did not exercise any agency in what I watched, instead going with whatever TV or video rental my parents put on. Therefore in my early teenager years, much of what I watched was selected to be compromise viewing for myself and my younger brothers. My mind thus experienced films like Meet the Robinsons with a combination of  legitimate ability to process their artistic limits, as well as irrational pre-teen angst about enjoying things that were “for kids.”

Having grown past that point in my life, I can now judge Meet the Robinsons in a more nuanced light. The film’s Villain — “The Bowler Hat Guy” (voiced by director Stephen Anderson)— is undoubtedly one of Disney’s best, and the moral lesson that the film teaches (that family is an experience, not just a genetic fact) is well thought out. 

That said, I do think kids filmmakers general have to do a better job of considering what role “moral lessons” should play in their films at all. When I first watched Meet the Robinsons as a newly-turned 14-year old, I was not in a position to respect the way with which the film’s moral lesson had been crafted. Instead, already anxious about whether the film was “too young” for me or not, I had to deal with the additional pressure of having to hold back tears in the film’s bittersweet, climactic twist. 

Maybe Meet the Robinsons is the least-Disney Disney movie. Maybe it is the prototypical Post-Renaissance work. Either way, it is a fascinating product that I would readily recommend from a history of film perspective. How it holds up as a “kids movie,” however, is more questionable. Kids, in their senses of humor, are not as superficial as some screenwriters think. Until we build a world where crying is fully de-stigmatized, perhaps kids filmmakers should consider making pieces that don’t aim so directly for the waterworks. But if they do, they should counter balance it with top-notch, well developed humour à la Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. As an adult, I can appreciate the piece of storytelling that is Meet the Robinsons, but as a kid, I saw emotional depth as something that bolstered comedy; I did not care for the films that attempted the reverse.  And when it comes to pure comedy, caffeine patches simply don’t hold a candle to Dory and Mike Wazowski.

Eagle vs Shark (2007)

Written and Directed by: Taika Waititi 

Eaglevssharkposter          In his relatively brief filmmaking career Taika Waititi has undoubtedly developed a voice. His characters speak gently and sometimes childishly, in a manner that produces a plethora of subtle but undoubtedly funny quasi-jokes. Waititi has applied this voice to different kinds of stories. The first film I saw of his, What We Do in the Shadows is a straight-up comedy. Hunt for the Wilderpeople, by contrast, while undoubtedly funny, is unmistakably a character-driven drama.

Waititi’s feature-film debut, Eagle vs Shark , has the same voice as his later works. And as a blend of comedy and drama it is particularly akin to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Nonetheless, the film lacks a key component of Waititi’s newer works: an aesthetic theme. What We Do in the Shadows is an offbeat vampire movie. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an offbeat survival movie. Eagle vs Shark, using that same vernacular, is an offbeat love story, but needless to say, “offbeat love” is not nearly as unique a subject matter as “offbeat vampires.”

More so than the later Waititi films, Eagle vs Shark is a work that leaves one constantly guessing. This is not to say it’s a suspenseful thriller (it’s not), but it is a well crafted piece of world-building that evolves from comedy to dramedy in well-paced, unpredictable form.

Despite the strength of its pacing, Eagle vs Shark does not quite reconcile Waititian comedy with drama in the same harmonious manner as Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The film follows Lily (Loren Horsely), an awkward fast-food worker and amateur songwriter as she falls for and develops a relationship with Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), an electronics-store employee, who despite being a social misfit in his own right, strikes Lily as hot-stuff. Over the course of the film’s run time Jarrod’s flaws are exposed and Lilly is forced to decide whether she’s had enough of him.

The reason I say the film doesn’t quite reconcile the drama-comedy divide, is that the substance of Jarrod’s flaws is never satisfyingly laid down. One could argue the film is about how toxic-masculine mindsets permeate “nerds” (admittedly a more novel idea in 2007 when the film was released, than it would be now). This message doesn’t quite fit, however, given the silliness and naïveté that permeates Waititi’s voice, which in turn lends a core tenderness to Jarrod’s persona. The film could alternatively be interpreted as being about how people put on personas to navigate the world. In this reading, Jarrod is not a macho-free spirit, he just says he is. The problem with this reading, however, is sometimes Jarrod clearly is serious about engaging in reckless and selfish behaviours. Of course, real-world people are nuanced (Jarrod, “the real person,” could have both real and pretend flaws), but sincerely exploring a character at such a level of detail is a particularly hard thing to do in the Waititian voice.

Eagle vs Shark, in short, is an engaging work that shares the appealing tone that has made its auteur beloved. As such, it can be widely recommended. Its cinematography is also beautiful; a scene of Jarrod emerging from a red phone booth channels Jean-Luc Godard. What the film may lack is the thematic or comedic coherence to make it memorable and not just enjoyable. I say “may lack,” because, I was able to pull one, mostly-coherent idea from the film. Eagle vs Shark makes use of brief animated sequences starring a mostly-intact, but “rotten” apple and an apple core. These scenes teach that relationships require people have things in common, but not that they be the same: a mindset that could do wonders for inter-human harmony. I suppose, then, that how much one likes Eagle vs Shark comes down to how well one thinks the message of the apple scenes is integrated into the film’s main story. Myself, I’m on the fence, but a fence punctuated with Waititian comedy is still a relatively pleasant one to sit upon.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Directed by: David Wain Written by: Wain and Michael Showalter

Wet_hot_american_summer          Earlier this Summer I was struck by Yesterday, a film that despite being quite mainstream (and indeed at moments too cliché for me), won me over due to persistent originality in its story telling. The lesson for me from that experience is that not every film that subverts expectations has to do so via indie-strangeness or through asking the Star Wars fan base to accept that Luke Skywalker might have changed over the course of decades.

Wet Hot American Summer seems to fall into a tradition of movies based on the premise that sex jokes and obnoxiousness make for an easy laugh. Like other films of its nature and era it can also be criticized for centering straight-male sexuality in its sex-narrative and arguably making a joke out of gayness (in fairness, the joke is equally at the expense of two implicated straight characters). What differentiates Wet Hot American Summer from other films of this genre, however, is that through a few key lines it makes clear that it wants its legacy to be that of a comedy. This contrasts it both with its highbrow cousins (Eg Dazed and Confused) that call on viewers to identity with their “coming of age” premises, as well as lower-brow works that for whatever reason, feel the need to funnel their crude contents into feel-good conclusions.

While I’ll leave Wet Hot American Summer’s overall plot structure for viewers to discover, one thing that can be said is that its approach to comedic realism has far more in common with that of Family Guy than with other live action, lewd-rom coms. The film, which ironically stars a physicist (David Hyde Pierce), both perverts physics and has moments which resemble family guy cutaway gags. This style is, if anything, more effective in the live action-flicks than it is in cartoons, as the live-action experience makes it harder for audiences to differentiate between what is “real” and what isn’t.

Wet Hot American Summer’s main characters are supposed to be teenage camp-counsellors, despite the fact that they are played by adults. While having adults play teenagers is a common cinematic choice, Wet Hot American Summer seems to be self-aware of the awkwardness of this approach. Much of the film is derived from the immaturity of its stars, contrasting them with the campers who are played by sometimes cartoonish, but still comparatively believeable and mild-mannered kids. This comedic choice is also exaggerated by the vagueness of the exact status of the “teenager” counsellor’s in the camp’s system. Kevin Sussman (The Big Bang Theory’s Stuart) plays a misfit character who, given the actor’s age, is presumably a counsellor and not a camper, but this is never explicitly stated. The explicit counsellors, meanwhile, all refer to what they do as “camp” rather than “work.”

Playing with norms is a more general approach of Wet Hot American Summer that extends beyond its version of the adults-as-teenagers tradition. Throughout the film it is strongly implied that the titular camp is a Jewish one. The camp, however, is never explicitly referred to as a Jewish Camp, nor is religious-Jewish culture a major theme in the story. Instead, the film manages to get a surprising amount of comedic mileage out of occasional references to Ashkenazi names. Though it predates contemporary discussions about representation in cinema, Wet Hot American Summer is nonetheless an important part of the representation cannon, as it unabashedly and subtly tells a story where non-WASPs (albeit white non-WASPS) implicitly constitute the whole cast.

Wet Hot American Summer is undeniably a crude work: the kind of thing that can be safely recommended to some viewers and will be of no interest to others. But for those for whom it is a safe recommendation, it has classic potential. In addition to boasting an All-Star cast (Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks and H. Jon Benjamin are just the names that have had some staying power), the film has some memorable lines (look for the comment about a douchebag), is wonderfully unpredictable, beautifully sets up a subtle-till-the-last-minute joke about a Broadway musical and features an excellent double-performance from co-writer Michael Showalter. The film may not have been well-received upon release, but as Roger Ebert’s campy review shows, that may just be because critics of the early 2000s did not know what they were looking at.

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Written and directed by: Jim Jarmusch

The_Dead_Don't_DieWatch the trailer for The Dead Don’t Die, and you may think you’ll be going to see a zombie movie that tries to be subversive via its lightness. But one would be hard-pressed to expect that that is all Jim Jarmusch had up his sleeve, when Shaun of the Dead already exists. One might then rationalize that Only the Dead Don’t Die is qualitatively different than Shaun of the Dead, due to its reliance on offbeat, comically-subtle delivery. But then one might ask, does Jarmusch not know that Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows exists?

Of course movies are never entirely original. Its perfectly plausible a movie could have been made that was indeed derivative of Shaun of the Dead and/or What We Do in the Shadows. But know reader, that that is not what The Dead Don’t Die is. The movie stars a partnership of soft-spoken, small town cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver and sometimes Chloë Sevigny), whose unthreatening, laid-back approach to law enforcement indeed causes them to resembles Taika Waititi characters. What We Do in the Shadows in fact includes a pair of bumbling cops amongst its characters. But these similar characters are the subjects of remarkably different stories. What We Do in the Shadows is a film built more around vignettes than story. Only the Dead Don’t Die is very much a story film, if only by comparison to the former work.

What We Do in the Shadows’ cops act the way they do to entertain viewers. It can also be argued that they are rendered silly to nullify any political analysis of their police work (not that policing-politics would be all that relevant in that particular movie anyways). The Dead Don’t Die’s cops are similarly politically sanitized by their demeanors. Early in the film we are introduced to Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a homeless person regularly accused of theft by town racist Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi). In a traditionally serious movie this confrontation could raise questions about how law enforcement further-marginalizes the poor. By simply including the Hermit Bob character, Jarmusch can still be said to be putting the issue out there, but the non-confrontational approach of his mild-mannered cops, largely nullifies it.

The de-politicization of cops can lead to the creation of politically problematic content. Shows that celebrate trigger-happy, tough on crime officers can turn public consciousness away from critiques of police corruption, brutality and punitive justice. Jarmusch’s depoliticization of cops, however, does not fall into this category. Jarmusch rather, depoliticizes his cops in one way, to politically weaponize them in another.

The Dead Don’t Die quickly gets political. It is centred around an environmentally catastrophic event, distinct from but, clearly inspired by climate change. Through Farmer Miller’s character, the film more generally tries to make jabs at Donald Trump and the Republican party. But while the attitude of Miller is overt, like others in Only the Dead Don’t Die’s cast (including Waits, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry jones and Tilda Swinton) Miller never quite becomes a major character. The true power in the world of the Dead Don’t Die therefore, is not the racist, climate-change denying Miller, but apolitical state authorities. That means the cops.

One of the weirder elements of Only the Dead Don’t Die is a subplot about three kids in a juvenile detention centre (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker and Jahi Winston) who get in trouble for congregating together, simply because one of them is a boy. The three kids discuss the global catastrophe, and no doubt represent the idea that environmental destruction is primarily caused by older generations and happens at the expense of younger ones (they may also be an allusion to teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg in particular). I call this subplot weird only because it does not seem to reach a neat conclusion and it is never tied in to what happens in the town. It does, however, fit into the film’s broader logic.

The film’s politics are essentially pessimism. Therefore, Jarmusch is happy to leave ends untied (the kids) or to simply depict a zombie apocalypse as a slow, inevitable progression. Such anti-climacticism functions as a form of realism. While one could argue that pessimism alone does not constitute political savvy, I’d say Jarmusch’s most salient, if not particularly helpful, observation comes through his cop characters. Hannah Arendt famously argued that evil is carried out not simply by charistmatic, conniving villains, but by banal actors as well. Jarmusch takes Arendt’s logic a step further; he doesn’t condemn banal evil but the evil of inept goodness. His cops are not outright villains (like Farmer Miller), and they aren’t following-orders foot soldiers of evil either. Rather, they try their best to fight evil, its just their best is not particularly impressive. In short, Jarmusch’s message seems to be that climate change is so dangerous, because no one who holds power can conceptualize how to actually build a green society. It’s a bleak message, but at least its softened with a teaspoon of optimism (the presence of the kids).

Jarmusch’s pessimism lead him to produce what can only be called an anti-movie. It sometimes moves slowly, its conclusion is not satisfying, the fourth wall is arbitrarily (though amusingly) broken and character arcs don’t exactly arc. The most memorable of these characters is a new town resident (Tilda Swinton), who (presumably accidentally) is effectively a parody of Avengers: Endgame’s depiction of Captain Marvel. This accidental resemblance is a beautiful coincidence, since Endgame can reasonably be called the most mainstream movie of 2019, and The Dead Don’t Die has a case for being the year’s least mainstream release (at least amongst feature-length, American films). The Dead Don’t Die is too slow to be a comedy, too silly to be a horror film and too meandering to be a story. But it is also clearly the product of a lot of thought: everything that’s bad about it appears intentional. The Dead Don’t Die is not for everybody, but it’s a zombie flick that film buffs shouldn’t miss.

Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman Written by: Phil Lord and Rothman

spider-man_into_the_spider-verse_(2018_poster)When I went to see Into the Spider-verse I didn’t realize that it was produced in part by The Lego Movie creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But when the names rolled at the film’s end, I was not surprised. Superhero movies, for the most part, have a certain tone to them: its hard to describe, because while the word serious doesn’t feel quite right (many have wisecracking protagonists and rely on varying degrees of physical humor), Into the Spider-verse undoubtedly exposed that there was an element of fun lacking in today’s live-action, standard fare. In the tradition of The Lego Movie, Into the Spider-Verse found this fun, but it managed to do so while never feeling out of place in the world of superhero films. Also, unlike the fellow convention-breaking work Deadpool, Into the Spider-verse pokes fun at the tone of superhero films, while still being a work that can be enjoyed by superhero fans of all ages.

The film is largely the story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Morales debuted in Marvel comics only a few years, making waves as the first person of color to be a Spider-Man alter ego. When I first heard of his creation I had mixed feelings about the idea. On the one hand, having an Afro-Latin Spiderman did feel like an important piece of the representation. On the other hand, Peter Parker was already Spiderman, and doing representation via an already established figure felt like a dead end (at the time I figured it would be a better idea to hire a black actor to play Peter Parker in future film iterations). Into the Spider-Verse, however, solves that problem, and the fact that chose to solve that problem is part of what makes it a good movie. Unlike Peter, who, despite supposedly being a geek, quickly had to take on the burden of embodying one of the most iconic superheroes ever, Miles is given the chance to have a more natural coming of age story. When he is first introduced we see that he feels awkward about going to an “elitist” school, awkward about being academically successful and awkward about having a cop (Brian Tyree Henry) for a father (details that go under-examined: perhaps because they are too radical to fit into the film’s primarily plot direction). When he does acquire powers, he struggles to figure out how to use them, thus allowing the film to get a richer blend of an action and comedy than do some other superhero flicks. While, unfortunately, Miles does eventually master his (perhaps too-strong-skillset), for much of the film he is an engaging protagonist because his weakness is his greatest strength.

Another contrast between Into the Spider-Verse and other superhero films is its non-preoccupation with villain origin stories. While generally I would view this as a negative (I don’t like the idea of presenting people as “good” or “evil”), this approach allows Into the Spider-Verse to reinvigorate the humor of cartoon superhero-supervillain fights that are lost in live action films. Into the Spider-Verse’s  scenes with Doctor Octopus are particularly amusing.

Into-the-Spiderverse does admittedly include one particularly morally ambiguous character, and the absence of screentime devoted to this character’s origin story is frustrating. Nonetheless, I found the writing around this character clever as well. The film sets viewers up to anticipate a plot-twist in which this character is revealed as a villain. The trick is really on the viewers, however, because this supposed “plot-twist” is revealed quite early on in the film, setting up a more subtle twist: that this character will be the equivalent of an iconic figure from Peter Parker’s life.

If there’s a downside to Into the Spider-Verse, it’s that its selling-point itself (the inclusion of many incarnations of Spiderman) is not that great. While the Miles Morales-Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) relationship is well done, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with the other Spideys. This is largely because three of them are comedic, radical-re-imagining of the character: meaning they can’t be major players, despite being too essential to the film’s construction to be thrown in-and-out as quick gags. Lord noted in an interview that at one point he felt the film needed ten more versions of Spiderman, but ultimately decided that would be too ambitious. Perhaps he’s right. Still, I would have found Spiderman-Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn)and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) (who, no, unfortunately, is not a reference to The Simpson’s Movie) far funnier if they had appeared only after long sequences featuring more subtle variances on the Spiderman personality (also, I think the idea that there’s both an Amazing Spiderman and Ultimate Spiderman is far worthier of parody than the idea that there are some comic adaptations of the character out there). Finally, after The Lego Movie and even Deadpool 2, the gag of including an absurd collection of heroes in a single movie isn’t as funny as it once was (and it doesn’t fit as well in this film as it did in The Lego Movie, as the earlier piece is not a mere story but a celebration of the idea of free-play).

Into-the Spider-Verse offers a lot of things for a lot of people. For those weary of action it is a well paced coming of age story. For those who like cartoons and comics it is marks a rebirth for the two mediums. And for Spiderman film and comic nerds, the film is supposedly rife with references, some of which I didn’t appreciate. As for all other viewers, its harder to pinpoint exactly what’s great about Into the Spider-Verse, but there’s clearly something in its pacing, story and-or-sense of humor that pushes it over the edge. So give it a try, and don’t get fooled as I did by the gosh-darned movie theater turning the lights on: there supposedly is some great after-credits material as well!