African-American Directors Series: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, 2018). I waited too long to watch this movie. It got critical raves, and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but I'm not a huge Marvel fan, not a huge Spider-Man fan, not a huge fan of animated features that don't come from Miyazaki. Plus, my wife, who is a fan of the Marvel movies, is the one who usually takes me to see them, and this one didn't interest her.
Well, I've finally seen it, and it is every bit as good as people said. Endlessly inventive and full of surprises. I guess fans of the comics weren't as surprised as I, who hadn't read any of the related versions. They knew that the Spider-Verse featured multiple versions of Spider-Man ... I was unspoiled and thus amazed.
Into the Spider-Verse is a bit like if Philip K. Dick had written a Marvel book. We get at least two Spider-Mans, a Spider-Woman, a Spider-Man Noir, even Spider-Ham ("Peter Porker"). Each has distinguishing characteristics, and not just visually ... time is taken to give depth to each character. It's an ambitious movie, but those ambitions are extended beyond the usual spectacle to include a human element.
I've often wondered if the use of big name stars is a good thing for animation. There are so many great voice actors out there that deserve the work. Nonetheless, there are some excellent voices here, a tribute to the actors and/or the person in charge of casting the film (Mary Hidalgo is her name). Not all of them were megastars ... Nicolas Cage plays Spider-Man Noir, and Mahershala Ali and his two Oscars have an important role, but they are outliers in cast with folks like Brian Tyree Henry, Kimiko Glenn, and Kathryn Hahn. (Stan Lee even manages to work in his last cameo.)
Champions of Into the Spider-Verse were right. To use a cliché, it's not just a good animated film, it's a very good film, period. Fans of Marvel will like it. People who don't often take in superhero movies will like it. I liked it.
Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989). Slowly but surely, I am working my way through the films of Jim Jarmusch. One thing I've noticed is how consistent he is ... I've given the same rating to every one I've seen (Down by Law, Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive). Mystery Train is no different. Jarmusch has a style, one that is recognizable and influential. Jarmusch is not intimidated by a low budget (under $3 million for Mystery Train). He doesn't rush things, and cinematographer Robby Müller, a frequent Jarmusch collaborator, ensures that Mystery Train looks wonderful, even when showing us the scuzzier sides of Memphis. There is nothing accidental here.
There are a lot of characters in Mystery Train, and Jarmusch and the actors make those characters memorable. The main narrative is broken into three segments that are marginally connected in terms of plot, but perhaps more connected by theme. Of course, Elvis is the key connector. Two young Japanese tourists come to Memphis to see Graceland. An Italian woman has a vision of The King in her cheap motel room. Joe Strummer's character is nicknamed "Elvis" for his sideburns, if nothing else. And Memphis is a character, as well.
The cast seems like a gimmick, until you realize that Screamin' Jay Hawkins gives arguably the best performance in the film (certainly the most enjoyable), that Joe Strummer makes a fine tortured man dumped by his woman, that many in the cast are connected to others we know (Cinqué Lee is Spike's brother, Nicoletta Braschi is married to Roberto Benigni, who appeared in Down by Law, Elizabeth Bracco is Lorraine's sister) and all are good.