Archive | December, 2018

News and Cantabrigian Views

30 Dec

News or views? Newsletter on loss of trees sparks confusion, questions – and answers

 

The Cambridge News was delivered by mail to residents shortly after Christmas. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Shortly after Christmas much of Cambridge received what looked like a newspaper in the mailbox: the “Cambridge News.” Its eight pages held plenty about trees – including a cover article headlined “Tree Canopy Collapsing” advocating for maintaining and expanding green space – with some familiar and friendly bylines, including city councillor Quinton Zondervan.

Still, the who, what and why remained a mystery to many who missed a box on Page 6 describing the Cambridge News as a project of the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods, a citywide citizens’ nonprofit launched in 1994.

“I would just like to know the individuals behind an expressed view, not it parading as ‘news,’” said Ruth Ryals, of the Porter Square Neighborhood Association, a self-described supporter of the environmental message of the publication. Mayor Marc McGovern was more pointed in his reaction: “Talking about our tree canopy and other environmental matters is extremely important. What concerns me about this mailing is that it’s not upfront as to who is producing it.” A commenter in the Cambridge Trees! group on Facebook said “part of the problem is this brand-new newspaper came with no introduction – just a big scary headline. No one bothered to write a simple paragraph that said ‘We’re a group of Cambridge residents worried about tree loss. We think you might be too once you know more.’”

Inspired by another publication 

That is exactly what the ACN was trying to say, according to responses provided by the group late Friday.

“This is called ‘Cambridge News’ because this is important news for the people of Cambridge. Our goal was to bring information together from a variety of sources – including the city’s own experts – and present it in a comprehensive format so the reader can understand the magnitude and speed that climate change is happening to them while they are sleeping and assuming the city is taking care of them,” said ACN clerk Charlie Teague, a green activist and North Cambridge resident whose work previously resulted in the formation of an Outdoor Lighting Ordinance Task Force.

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Vice

27 Dec

‘Vice’: Bale submerges self into role of Cheney for an overall shallow look into the Bush years

 

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For all the gonzo intelligent narrative devices laid down in “The Big Short” (2015) – a film rightfully regarded for its unconventional tact and devilish skewering of Wall Street greed – “Vice,” the latest from “Short” director Adam McKay, takes a stumble into the pool of smug self-indulgence.

First it must be said that Christian Bale, under tons of makeup and with a harsh, whispery intone – almost like his Batman voice – brings the incarnation of former “Vice” President Dick Cheney to life with astonishing credibility. What doesn’t work in this “W”-esque biopic is the singular throttle of Cheney as the Darth Vader of backroom politics. The film is a series of vignettes: The young Dick, an underachiever working on oil rigs, drunken and failing out of Yale, but then the rise in business, the union with wife Lynne (Amy Adams, underused in the thankless role of garnish) and Halliburton raking it in after Desert Storm. The Cheneys are rich and, at 45 minutes in, the credits roll. That’s one of the many McKay-infused shenanigans (like Margot Robbie in a hot tub with a glass of champagne to explain complex investment vehicles in “Short”) that don’t quite aid the satire, but more stoke the flame as things begin to wane.

After the “fake” credits roll, the call from W comes. During a man-to-man backyard barbecue Cheney casts a dark spell over Bush (Sam Rockwell, restrained and spot-on in the small part) growling about special power if he signs on as VP.  From there it’s a mad shell game, pulling strings from behind the curtain, undermining foes with glee and raking it in. That weapons-of-mass-destruction declaration goes ka-ching to Cheney’s ears.

The Scooter Libby scandal and that infamous shotgun blast all make it in via campy digs that feel more vindictive and skewed than they are of validating some truth. The whole film’s narrated too by some kind of Nick Carraway voice, and when you finally find out who it is, you might have a heart attack over the revelation. Kitsch is where the heart is.

The Cheneys’ biggest humanization comes in the defense of their gay daughter at multiple turns, but even there, McKay paints Cheney as an arduous manipulator worming and working for the win-win – giving the conservatives ins on the gay marriage issue while taking his daughter off the table.

If you’re looking for the real Dick Cheney, there’s probably plenty of nuggets here, but the portrait is so lopsided and skewed you’d almost think it was Michael Moore behind the lens. Bale, while totally convincing and immersed, is afforded only the opportunity to do SNL skit impersonations. Besides the bro barbecue with Bush, Cheney’s not much more than a hiss or a head cock from his Vader throne, using his force to manipulate the universe for evil gains.

If Beale Street Could Talk

26 Dec

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: Young and in love, but shackled by brutally cruel racial injustice

 

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The love between two black men at the center of Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning “Moonlight”certainly had the texture and mood of something wrested from the pages of a James Baldwin novel. It wasn’t – it was an original screenplay – but it is fitting to learn that for his follow-up Jenkins has adapted the culture-rattling author’s 1974 work, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The title, while simple, is telling, reflective of the dangerous complacency of silence and, worse, those eager to score justice without evidence or cause other than the color of skin.

The film begins with a series of lushly jazzy romantic framings of lovers Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) – something that hasn’t really been seen on screen with such poetic resonance since Spike Lee’s great run in the late ’80s and early ’90s (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Mo’ Better Blues”). The soulful score, imbued with melancholy by Nicholas Britell, wells up inside you as the pair’s tightly framed countenances convey deep love, but also the brimming prospect of trouble. Jenkins leverages it for his orchestration of Baldwin’s material: hope and idealism undercut by harsh reality and social injustice. 

Trouble in “Beale Street” (the reference to a throwaway in Memphis from 1916 W.C. Handy blues song, though the action takes place in 1970s Harlem) comes from all angles. Tish, 19, and Fonny, a few years older, have known each other since childhood. When they finally consummate their affection, Tish gets pregnant. The sell to Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both excellent) is a bit of a challenge, but nothing compared with the fracas that ensues when Fonny’s devoutly religious – and over the top – mother (Aunjanue Ellis) swings by with sisters to learn of the news. With fire and brimstone ire, she professes Tish a temptress and not good enough for Fonny. But then again, Fonny’s not there to speak for himself; he’s in jail for a rape he did not commit.

Yes, this is where Baldwin and Jenkins take us. The palpable helplessness of a person of color snared in a rigged justice system, where getting a rap – whether you did it or not – is simply part of the process. Tish and her mother fight back hard. They get an attorney convinced of Fonny’s innocence and later there’s a harrowing sojourn to Puerto Rico to track down and confront the accuser, who has her own set of unhappy circumstances to contend with.

Throughout it all Jenkins tempers the present with delicate, carefully curated flashbacks, be it the lovestruck Fonny and Tish shopping for an apartment, often turned away because of their pigment, or Fonny catching up with old mate Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, smoldering quietly) just out of jail himself and with volumes of wisdom to share. The film is at once intimate and universal. Fonny is the face of everyman of color, and yet he isn’t. Jennings finds the perfect balance between social critique and personal tale, and palpably so. 

In the end, however, “Beale Street” is not about vindication – if that’s the movie you’re hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed – but about the sad state of racial affairs that as penned by Baldwin remain too true today. At the heartbreaking epicenter loom star-crossed lovers kept apart by forces with cold, aloof agendas. “Beale Street” is “Romeo and Juliet” for the racially divided now.

Jenkins has done it again: “Beale Street” didn’t just make the Day’s top 10 of 2018, but won Best Picture, Best Score and Best Supporting Actress from the Boston Society of Film Critics this month. Expect more to follow.

Bird Box

22 Dec

‘Bird Box’: Talent stumbles down blind path with thriller that leaves bit too much unseen

 

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Much will be made about the similarities between “Bird Box” and a “A Quiet Place,” which at once is understandable and also a complete crime. Sure, both take place in the wake of a near-future apocalyptic event – in “A Quiet Place,” sightless aliens who look like “Venom” extras are snapping up the last of humankind; in “Bird Box” it’s … well, you never really know what it is, and that’s the bulk of why the film never really takes hold, feeling ultimately like a cheap parlor trick. How can you have something wiping out humanity and not know what it is? An airborne virus, radioactive fallout or the sudden lack of oxygen – things we’re aware of, operating outside the purview of the eye, sure, but something that rattles forest shrubbery like a Bengal tiger, causing leaves to whip up, but is never seen? That’s not going to fly.

It’s actually floating that proves to be the final desperate measure as a mother and two children drift haplessly down a river, hoping for a new beginning yet never able to see around the bend. The other big surprise to “Bird Box” is the impressive throng of talent involved – and their inability to lift the project. The unexceptional script written by Eric Heisserer, a scribe who not too long ago adapted another slack sci-fi story (“Arrival”) into a sharp, thinking person’s flick, adheres hard to the flat source material by rocker-turned-novelist Josh Malerman. There’s plenty of gold in the mix too: Lead actress Sandra Bullock has an Academy Award to her credit, and director Susanne Bier also has Oscar pedigree from her 2010 Danish film “In a Better World.” What gives? For one, the producers probably held Heisserer to the best-selling book for fear they might disenfranchise their ready-made target audience. It doesn’t help that Bier shoots this in a way that feels more like a TV miniseries than a big-budget, two-hour, end-of-the-world burn. Continue reading

The Best in Film 2018

21 Dec

Besides “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” it was pretty much a down year domestically for films, critically and at the box office. But there was a surge of compelling foreign-language films (“Zama,” “Cold War,” “Capernaum” and “Border” to name a few not listed below)  – a segment largely underrepresented in the recent past – and a remarkable (if not stunning) return to the black-and-white format (“Roma” and “Cold War”). Mostly it was a strong year for women behind the lens, with notable entries from Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?’’), Debra Granik (“Leave No Trace’’), Chloé Zhao (“The Rider’’), Josephine Baker (“Madeline’s Madeline”). Tamara Jenkins (“Private Life’’) and Lynne Ramsay (“You Were Never Really Here”), among others. The year saw an uptick in socially minded films (“If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Blackkklansman”) and the rising presence of streaming platforms Amazon and Netflix as major studio players who look poised to alter how the game is played. Below are my Top 20 of 2018.

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1 Blackkklansman
2 Isle of Dogs
3 Roma
4 Shoplifters
5 Burning
6 Can You Ever Forgive Me
7 The Other Side of the Wind
9 Cold War
9 If Beale Street Could Talk
10 Sorry to Bother You
11 The Favourite
12 The Rider
13 Won’t You Be My Neighbor
14 You Were Never Really Here
15 Brisbee 17
16 A Star is Born
17 The Sisters Brothers
18 The Old Man & the Gun
19 Annihilation
20 Eighth Grade

Also strong in the running, “First Reformed,” “First Man,” “Capernaum,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Leave No Trace,” “Border,” “Zama,” “Lean on Pete,” “Madeline’s Madeline,” “Museo,” “Caniba”

 

Theater Updates

21 Dec

Trip to the movies changes for the luxurious, with more upgrades on the way along red line

Theaters by Alewife, Kendall, Davis and Harvard are all being refashioned

 

Apple Cinemas at Fresh Pond has received a refresh that includes luxurious recliners and reserved seating. (Photo: Apple Cinemas via Facebook)

Christmas and the usual slew of seasonal film openings is right around the corner, so after the tinsel trimming, paper shredding and eggnog overload, a trip to the cinema may be just what’s needed to take the edge off all the holiday cheer. Maybe a family excursion to Apple Cinemas at Fresh Pond, or perhaps a somber arthouse seating at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema? If you haven’t been to these venues recently, there’s been considerable change – and more is coming.

For one, both theaters replaced their old stadium-style seats recently with recliners (Kendall has a mix of recliners and rockers, which are a bit less like a La-Z-Boy) and Apple Cinemas now features reserved seating like the AMC in Assembly Square, as well as self-serve ticketing and concessions. All of this is part of a trend in cinema-going sparked by lux-experience theaters (see: Showplace Icon at Seaport or the Showcase SuperLux Chestnut Hill). Almost two years ago Landmark added beer and wine, with general manager Howard Sandler pointing to the local brewers among the offerings.

Also this month, the parent company of the Kendall Square Cinema, Landmark Theatres, was sold by Mark Cuban’s group to Cohen Media Group, an independent film distribution company formed in 2008 with such credits as “Frozen River.” The deal ends months of speculation that saw Amazon and Netflix in the running. Just how the deal will affect the chain and Kendall Square location specifically is unclear, but the group’s head, Charles S. Cohen, is a cinephile. The news is likely only good and comes at an opportune time: The site has been affected greatly by a two-year construction buildout out front that has made getting to the theater difficult and confusing.

Across the line in Davis Square, the Somerville Theatre just renovated downstairs theaters 2 and 3 with new seats, a Dolby sound system upgrade and wide screens that pretty much ensure there’s not a bad viewing angle in the house. Director of operations Ian Judge says renovation of the restrooms and lower-level lobby area is next. 

Richard Fraiman – owner of Frame One Theatres and operator of the Somerville Theatre and Capitol Theatre in Arlington – is slated to add the theater space in the old Harvard Square AMC on Church Street whenever a new structure is ultimately built out. According to attorney (and former Cambridge mayor) Anthony Galluccio, who represents property owner Kirche and billionaire developer Gerald Chan, demolition of the old building is scheduled for January with an ongoing review by the Cambridge Historical Commission. Traffic counters have been posted to help gauge traffic impacts from demolition and construction, as well as for business use when the 60,000-square-foot structure is finally built. Given the congestion in Harvard Square and proximity to the T, demolition and construction will need to be done with some care. 

The theaters there have been dark since since AMC sold it to Charles Hotel owner Richard Friedman back in 2012 for $6.5 million. Kirche picked it up for $17.5 million in 2014. Amid allegations of real estate warehousing, the city pressured Chan for development plans. Estimates for the building’s completion are early to mid-2020s. The mixed-use building will have two below-ground theaters that Frame One will program. Judge said it’s hard to say anything else beyond that until there is an actual space to lease.

The Brattle Theatre carries on meanwhile as the square’s cinema stalwart, but the future for cinephiles seeking screenings off the red line looks bright.

Aquaman

21 Dec

‘Aquaman’: Once we’re in the swim of things, there’s too much for newly hip hero to handle

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On film, DC Comics heroes seem to have heavier backstories than those from the Marvel Universe. You know: Most comes from another planet or an isolated island or underworld and could crush a human with a super burst of flatulence, yet somehow they love us, and there’s deep lore and rules we must be spoon-fed for at least 45 minutes before they ingratiate themselves into our society and ultimately take on the noble task of saving us from certain annihilation.

“Aquaman” is no different. Even before the buff surfer dude – Jason Momoa, who looks like The Rock draped in long tresses and with an extra battery of tribal tats – dips his toe in the water, we get a lighthouse caretaker named Tom (Temuera Morrison) toiling away in the chilly northern coast of Maine and one stormy day finding a beauty washed up on the rocks, glistening trident still in her clutch. This fantastic vision, something of a blend of Daryl Hannah in “Splash” and Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman” is, in fact, Nicole Kidman with a touch of CGI to make her look more in her 20s than her current vintage – not that she needs it. Kidman is Atlanna, the escaped sea warrior daughter of one of the kings of Atlantis. After eating much of Tom’s goldfish Daryl Hannah style, the two become lovers and bear a son: Arthur, who on a class trip to the New England Aquarium is able to summon the biggest shark in the tank to scare the bejesus out of the class bullies.

The film, directed by James Wan – who cut his teeth on the “Saw” and “Fast and Furious” franchises – is a busy, busy affair. Think of it as swimming through an endless school of silvery fish. Atlanna is kidnapped from the rocky coast of Maine, a pirate by the name of Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is out to kill the now mature Arthur/Aquaman in a poorly justified blood feud and there’s the seven kingdoms of Atlantis that Arthur’s half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to unite to destroy us land dwellers because of all the plastic and shit we dump in the sea. I can’t say I disagree, and in a neat payback trick he sends wave after wave of plastic bags, bottles and beer rings awash onto our beaches. Willem Dafoe has a role as Aquaman’s avuncular counsel and Amber Heard, toting a shock of Christmas-red hair, gets wedged between the bros as love interest. Dolph Lundgren even lends his square-jawed mug for a few nanoseconds as one of the seven kings.

Since this is an “aqua”-tale, much of it takes place below the ocean’s surface, except those early scenes in Maine and and one later in Sicily where the senseless destruction of ancient relics and structures will make archeologists in the audience reach for a vomit bag. The big undersea finale turns into the kind of wham-bam animated affair we’ve become accustomed to with films such as “Ready Player One” and “Avatar.” The wow factor is gone – it’s a bubbly undersea yawn.

Aquaman traditionalists, yearning for the stiff and square-jawed incarnation from Saturday mornings, are unlikely to be roped in. Momoa, who played the beefy barbarian incarnation Drogo in “Game of Thrones” as well as Conan in an ill-advised “Conan the Barbarian” reboot (2011), plays the part with a hip, feral flair. The character’s never given much of an opportunity to speak before his hands are busied. In shards, we know he has a sense of humor, making a “Fight Club” crack to break the ice with Heard’s undersea princess. The film’s funniest moment comes when our wet superhero walks into a New England biker bar. He can drink like a fish and the scene’s wrap-up is a smart departure, but after that it’s all down the drink.

Mary Poppins Returns

20 Dec

 

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It’s been almost 55 years since Julie Andrews and her magic umbrella descended on Cherry Tree Lane in “Mary Poppins” back in 1964. Given that jubilee-plus swath of time, it’s amazing no one attempted a sequel, but perhaps the real snag was trying to find an actress with the right blend of creamy, wholesome strictness Andrews so imbued into that beloved nanny role. The wait, however, proves worthwhile, and the casting of Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppins Returns” is something of an inspired choice. She mixes in a dash of sass and sauce to make the role her own while paying respectful homage to Andrews.

The story, penned by David Magee from P. L. Travers’s 1935 novel, “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” revolves around the now grown-up wee ones from the original, Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), with Michael widowed and living in his parents’ old home with his own charges to care for. It’s a busy house, fraught with near chaos but full of love and integrity – and the bank Michael works for (a barbed twist) wants to repossess it. The time is the economic downturn in London known as the Great Slump, and while the cruel circumstance feels like something from the pages of Dickens, it also suggests something executed with cold military precision by the current administration.

You could imagine Magee and director Rob Marshall wrestling with the idea of trying to update the tale for contemporary times, but smartly the pair hold fast. Remember, this is the Marshall who made the Jazz Age sing in the raucous Oscar-winning “Chicago” (2002); and it’s also still Disney, which built an empire off wholesome family fare before the blockbuster wham-bam of Star Wars and the Marvel Universe. For folks who know primarily about the derrière lifts of Kardashians and the assorted dealings of former presidential attorneys, “Mary Poppins Returns” is destined to be a pure wintergreen breeze of prim revelation. In short, it’s transportive, with apt dashes of magical digression. Buttoned-up fantasia, if you will, lush and infectious.

Marshall knows musicals and gets the sets, staging and numbers down to a science, but it’s Blunt – who’s partaken in such diverse works (and with mixed results) as “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), “A Quiet Place” (2018) and “Sicario” (2015) – who powers it all with her indelible Poppins’ resolve, finding a whole new gear here the way Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones did in “Chicago.” Her nanny’s aloof affect and strong nature endears from the get-go, and she slips into into the musical numbers seamlessly. If there was any question she could sing or dance, they’re put to rest.

There’s also the funny, silly magical excursions – remember Dick Van Dyke and those penguins back in ’64? – such as a bath time under-the-sea adventure that add to the film’s frothy, innocent lather. The cast has many little charms as well. “Prada” co-star Meryl Streep shows up in gypsy garb as Poppins’ Cousin Topsy, who can fix anything and lives in an upside-down emporium. There are also cameo turns from a spry Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, who sells balloons with an uplifting sense of justice; Colin Firth rounds out the cast with suavity as a stately banker who may have a foot in some devious subprime doings.

The wonderful thing about this “Poppins” is its innate infectiousness. It’ll win over the cynical and charm the faithful. Dour and bleak times call for a nanny with a stiff upper lip and take-charge can-do fixes for everything from untidy bedrooms to dicey doings in the boardroom. She’s a marvel we could use now. 

Post-review note: I attended the “Mary Poppins Returns” press screening with my 9-year-old daughter, Jane, who reported that Emily Blunt was fine, but no Julie Andrews. She also observed that this Poppins seemed less “responsible” than the 1964 nanny.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

15 Dec

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’: Bite later, heroes abound and with so much in common

 

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“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’’ is a wild spin with a web of plots that not only passes the torch but also reinvents the Marvel comic on screen for a new generation and set of eyes. For starters, it’s animated, a cool blend by directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman that’s a bit of the old TV cartoon, a bit of the blurry three-color printed comic and a lot of the creamy rich CGI we’ve come to know since Pixar punted out “Toy Story.” Also, there’s more than one Spider-Man – in fact, there’s a posse of spider-people, but more on that later – and this “Spider-Verse” includes a coming-of-age tale about a Brooklyn kid name Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore) who, like Starr in “The Hate U Give,” is an African-American kid attending a private school outside the neighborhood. Dad’s an overly cautious cop (Brian Tyree Henry, so good in “If Beale Street Could Talk”) and uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali, “Green Book” and “Moonlight’’) strikes a hip big-brother figure, though pa considers him something of a black sheep.

Miles is a kid at the crossroads of figuring out who he is and who he wants to be. Uncle’s tips on how to woo the other new kid at boarding school, a cute, sassy girl named Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) doesn’t work out so well. But by now you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with Spider-Man? Well, one night Aaron and Miles break out to tag a wall in a subterranean annex and Miles, after laying down his final aerosol flourish, is bitten by a radioactive spider. Paper, a girl’s hair and even some pigeons stick to his palms – talk about adolescent confusion – and he can walk on walls. In a return to the site, Miles encounters Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Chris Pine) fighting a giant demon goblin and a someone known as the Prowler. Spidey wants to shut down a collider set up by a mad mastermind with the self-aggrandizing tag of Kingpin (Liev Schrei­ber), but needs Miles’ help, while Miles needs Spidey’s help to make sense of his new powers.

Long and short, the collider goes off and uni-“verses” (Marvel’s, something Looney Tunes adjacent and slivers from the past and future) blend and merge. Now we’ve got a new Peter Parker/Spider-man (Jake Johnson), a paunchier, saucier version. The quest to shut down the collider remains, though this gruffer Spidey has ill-timed glitches the way Venelope does in the “Wreck it Ralph” films. Also now there’s spider folk from the pulpy noir past (Nic Cage, voicing an incarnation that seems right out of “Sin City”) a Japanese anime lass (Kimiko Glenn) and her trusty spider-bot and a wise-cracking spider-pig-toon (John Mulaney) who carries a massive mallet in his pocket. Lily Tomlin’s also in there as Peter’s take-no-shit aunt; Katherine Hahn is naughty and nice as a dour lab director with a deviously far-reaching grasp; and Stan Lee’s voice and countenance make a perfect last appearance in perhaps his best cameo ever. 

The directing trio and writer Phil Lord (“The Lego Move”) do a deft job deconstructing both the film franchise and the comic series with wit and verve. If you’re a Spider-Man fan, there’s lots packed in here for you as insider nuggets while it all shoots off in a new direction. It’s packaged to cut smartly across cultural and generational lines, with animation that’s also something new and something old. “Verse” takes the web-head series to a new level that looks bound to catch on.

Vox Lux

15 Dec

‘Vox Lux’: A little more comfortably numb, please, for traumatized girl turned pop diva