Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

There’s a scene that I loved in Spider-Man: Far From Home that I wish I could explore in more detail than is really appropriate for an opening paragraph, even if the review is as late as this one. To be as spoiler free as possible, I’ll just say that we once again spend some time with a character who finds Tony Stark’s narcissism and egotism as obnoxious as I do, and I got a minor thrill out of the fact that, within this narrative in which (spoilers for Endgame) Stark’s corpse has barely cooled, the evil that he’s done lives after him and the good is interred with his arc reactors (or something). His former employees hated his freaking guts, with Stark’s careless dismissal of the “little people” in his sphere, despite their individual contributions to the technology that kept his empire alive, presented in a more honest way than we’ve seen before. Somewhere along the way, Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma tricked everyone into forgetting that Tony Stark is someone that would be very difficult to get along with, unless you were a gorgeous twenty-something he wanted to bed. That he died and left most of his legacy to a kid from Queens he barely knows is strange, to say the least, and Stark’s spurned employees don’t see a reason why they should have to honor that desire. Frankly, neither do I, and I have the benefit of living outside of the narrative and can recognize how weird it is that this Spider-Man isn’t really all that Spider-Manny.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland)’s going to Europe! Along for the ride are his pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), MJ (Zendaya), and Flash (Tony Revolori). Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice), seen in the last Spider-film only on the school’s video announcements, is also along for the ride. The aforementioned all disappeared for five years during what’s now being called “The Blip,” the time period during which half of all life was snapped out of existence by Thanos at the end of Infinity War, before being snapped back into existence by Tony in Endgame (ok, he’s not without a redeeming feature or two); some students return to discover that their younger sibling is now biologically older than them, even if they are still chronologically elder. To those who were gone during the interim, that means that there’s a whole new group of freshly-minted peers, with some of Peter’s classmates having, subjectively, grown from pipsqueak to hunk overnight. One such character is Brad (Remy Hii, who, like me, is 32, making me wonder if I could still pull off a potentially problematic Never Been Kissed investigation), whom Peter fastens onto as a potential rival for MJ’s affection. As soon as the group gets to Europe, element-based monsters appear and start wreaking havoc on all that priceless architecture, and Peter must team with new hero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to stop them, etc. Also part of this story are Tony Stark’s hideous sunglasses, which turn out to be linked to yet another A.I. that connects to an orbiting Stark weapons platform, among other things, and which Stark meant to go to his “successor.” But is Peter’s head adult enough to wear so heavy a crown? And if not, him, whom? Also, Samuel L. Jackson appears in his contractually obligated appearance as Nick Fury, and Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) is also there. And Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

There’s both too much and too little going on here. “Too much” in the sense that, with a release date a mere 61 days after the premiere of Endgame, there hasn’t really been sufficient time to let that film digest in the public consciousness; “too little” in the sense that, if we are going to dive straight back into this world, we don’t really get to spend sufficient time exploring the massive consequences of The Blip. I still remember the thrill of electricity that ran through my fat, greasy, balding 2009 body the first time I read in an issue of Wizard that there were going to be Captain America and Thor movies in 2011, and how that seemed so far away, and all the speculation and discussion and anticipation that created. Endgame truly felt appropriately consequential and, at the risk of coming across as sententious, iconoclastic. It was a capstone to a truly impressive decade of mainstream film; to break ground on something new so soon diminishes the poignancy and the potency of what we just saw in theaters two months prior. In my Endgame review, I noted that the film functioned as the “All Good Things” of the first ten years of the MCU, but even Rick Berman and Brannon waited at least six months before getting straight to Voyager. This analogy bears out in the content of Far From Home as well, where we find our intrepid band of heroes literally far from home, but the narrative quickly settles into something that’s so familiar it’s essentially the same old thing, just blanched of some of the color that made it special. Perhaps, like the franchise that once boasted the most films in a single series, we’re about to experience such diminishing returns that the next ten years of Marvel fail to penetrate the public consciousness the way its forbearer did.* Give my fat, greasy, balder 2019 body the chance to feel that excitement and anticipation again, Marvel.

I understand that fans are too hungry for new content to let the land lie fallow for a season so that the earth is sweet again, or at least I understand that this is the narrative. I also understand that the MCU is a machine that generates money, and that this is the real reason we’re not going to see a summer without an MCU flick until the well runs dry (if it ever will). But if we are going to head back so soon, we should spend more time really living with the aftermath of The Blip. As it is, an entire half of the universe just experienced a cataclysmic existential shift; half of all life just lost seven years, not to mention there’s very little exploration of the fallout from the doubtlessly widespread infrastructure issues that this creates. What we get is a single fundraiser for Aunt May’s homelessness initiative, which barely glances off of the surface of what kind of a massive housing crisis must now be a reality for everyone. The implications are boundless, but the most devastating event in the history of existence is used mostly as a source to mine for comedy in the fact that formerly sexually ineligible middle school nerds are now hot (32 year old) seniors.

I’m coming down pretty hard on this for a movie that I had a fairly good time watching. I’m not really upset with the product, just with the system of production. I mean, I’m never going to love the fact that Peter Parker’s whole deal–being a street-level superhero who had to balance all his great responsibility with his need to have some semblance of a normal life–is kinda defeated by having Tony Stark acting as Daddy Warbucks bibbedi-bobbedi-booing Peter straight out of Queens. Even when one considers that Peter’s desire to be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man is part of his external conflict in this film, Tony Stark’s presence looms so large and his shadow casts so far that it drags down the plot. The narrative connection between the former Stark employees and their complicated boss not only works for me because it’s critical of Tony Stark, but also because it makes the world feel larger in an organic way; having Peter’s story be so dependent on Tony’s makes it smaller. Gone is the relatability of the fable, in which perseverance is a virtue, replaced by the rhetorical distance of the fairy tale, in which you might be rewarded for hard work, but also sometimes you’ve just got a fairy godmother to do that shit for you.

There were a lot of things that I liked. There’s a series of illusions that appear throughout the film (to say more would reveal too much) that are really cool to watch. There’s also an appearance by J. Jonah Jameson, once again played by J.K. Simmons, which both comes out of nowhere and is a welcome addition, although it’s hard to wrap one’s head around what the larger implications of that might mean. Such as: is Jameson just the same across reboots? Do you think Simmons thinks its weird that he used to be 27 years younger than Aunt May when she was Rosemary Harris, but now he’s ten years older than Aunt May now that she’s Marisa Tomei? Are there really multiple earths? This film posits the existence of other dimensions and presents evidence for it, but the source is ultimately less than reliable.

I saw this one opening weekend, and in the time since, news broke about the potential dissolution of the contract that allows the MCU (under the Disney omnibrand) to use Spider-Man in their films, with much hand-wringing and corporate apologia and weeping/gnashing/sackcloth. But honestly, I’m not sure that getting a little distance from the larger MCU isn’t for the best right now. At least if we don’t see Tom Holland for a few months, it might give us time to miss him.

*In this analogy DS9 equates to the Netflix shows (more inspective of humanity’s darker impulses, tightly focused, “grittier” for lack of a more accurate term), and the original series is/are the comics (originating mostly in the sixties, socially conscious for both the time of origin and now, sometimes aliens steal character’s brains). Don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Psychic (1977) Goes Southern Gothic in Raimi’s The Gift (2000)

Boomer recently wrote about how August’s Movie of the Month, Lucio Fulci’s paranormal horror The Psychic, was initially confused by audiences to be a rip-off of its contemporary, Eyes of Laura Mars, despite being released in Europe before that American work. Constructing a paranormal murder mystery around a fashion photographer’s visions of crimes from the killer’s POV, Eyes of Laura Mars is widely cited as the only successful attempt to make an American giallo picture (although it’s arguable that the entire slasher genre is built on that same foundation). Eyes of Laura Mars held on tightly to European art horror aesthetics in its own version of a clairvoyance murder mystery, only serving as an American version of The Psychic in the means through which it was produced, not necessarily in its tone or aesthetic. The most fiercely American version of The Psychic wouldn’t come for another couple decades, when Sam Raimi would set a psychic visions murder mystery in the Georgian swamps of the American South. Raimi (working with a script penned by Billy Bob Thornton) would translate The Psychic‘s basic DNA from European art horror to Southern Gothic melodrama. The results aren’t necessarily a clear improvement, but they were undeniably more American.

The Gift (2000) features Cate Blanchett as a Georgian clairvoyant much more genteel in her demeanor than we’re used to from her steeled roles in works like Carol. Unlike in The Psychic (and most other media featuring a woman with psychic abilities), The Gift‘s clairvoyant protagonist is widely respected & believed within her local community, perhaps as a comment on the superstitions of American Southerners. Only a tough as nails sheriff (JK Simmons) & an incredulous lawyer (Michael Jeter) are skeptical of the psychic’s titular “gift” as she attempts to solve the mystery of a murdered local woman. Some even come to her for medical advice instead of consulting with a doctor. This psychic senses violence long before the central murder occurs, focusing on the intense energy of a pencil rolling off a table when she first meets the future-victim (Katie Holmes), much like how the protagonist of The Psychic has visions of the objects that populate a future murder scene: a lamp, an ashtray, a mirror, etc. Unlike with The Psychic, however, the visions frequently occur throughout the picture as she pieces together the image of Katie Holmes being choked to death in a nearby swamp with the other flashes of murder scene details that intrude her idle thoughts. The Gift doesn’t echo The Psychic‘s exact plot or tone, but the similarities are close enough to suggest what a Southern Gothic version of that giallo work might look like.

Something The Gift does share with The Psychic thematically, at least, is the tyranny of men. Like how the protagonist of The Psychic is isolated and made to feel insane by the skeptical men in her life, Cate Blanchett’s similar clairvoyant is surrounded by dangerous men who make her feel vulnerable for a “gift” she did not ask for. The Southern men who surround her are conspicuously abusive, threatening rape & other forms of violence in a way that extends far beyond the mystery of a single murder into a routinely monstrous way of life. This dynamic leaves plenty of suspects for the central murder: an abusive husband (Keanu Reeves) who regularly beats his mousy wife (Hillary Swank) for visiting the psychic, an on-edge mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) with a deeply fucked up familial past, the victim’s straight-laced husband (Greg Kinnear), her wealthy father, and the various men who participated in her extramarital affairs. Much like with all giallo pictures (and, I suppose, murder mysteries at large), the answer to this question is hinged on a last minute twist (or two) that disrupts the accusation of the most obvious suspect the movie sets up early on. The way The Gift manages to make the images in its protagonist’s psychic visions actually mean something in the film’s final reveal is a narrative feat, however. That’s more than you can say for Eyes of Laura Mars or Fulci‘s other clairvoyance horror, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which use psychic visions mostly for stylistic flourish and a device that obscures the give-away details of the murder.

The Gift is an excellent little thriller, worth seeing for Raimi’s unusual displays of restraint, (not unlike Fulci’s atypically mild-mannered The Psychic) and for novel performances from actors like the surprisingly genteel Cate Blanchett or Keanu Reeves’s Southern fried preview of the monster he would later play in The Neon Demon. Some of the Southern Gothic touches to its paranormal mystery can be A Bit Much (Reeves’s threats to retaliate with Voodoo & witness stand accusations that Blanchett is a witch both border on being outright silly), but the film gets by just fine as a deadly melodrama even with those impulses. I especially believe The Gift is worth viewing as a wholly American contrast to the similar plot filtered through giallo aesthetics in The Psychic. The Gift opens with slow pans of Georgian swamp waters and incorporates lightning storms & visits from the dead into its murder-solving psychic visions in a way that feels distinctly more Southern Gothic than its European counterpart. I’d contend that The Psychic is the better film of the pair, but The Gift is very much worthwhile viewing as as an American counterpoint, maybe even moreso than the directly-linked Eyes of Laura Mars.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and last week’s comparison with its hornier Fucli predecessor, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971).

-Brandon Ledet

Pom Poko (1994)

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The Japanese animation empire Studio Ghibli (most closely associated with the brilliant work of Hayao Miyazaki) is an intimidating force from the outside looking in. I’m familiar with the bigger works like Spirited Away & My Neighbor Totoro that dominate the studio’s branding, but there’s dozens of Ghibli titles I’ve never taken the time to approach partly due to the intimidation factor of the studio’s staggering output, despite the fact that most of their work seems to be of impossibly high quality in the medium of hand-drawn animation. If there’s just one Studio Ghibli film I wish I had seen years & years sooner it’d be the raccoon eco-warrior mockumentary Pom Poko. The small-community-vs-the-empowered-hegemony political tone, harsh mix of tragedy & black comedy, and ungodly amount of raccoon testicles that shape the story of Pom Poko would’ve made it a perfect fit for a movie night favorite in my younger, punker years. It’s all too easy to see how young anarcho-punks could empathize with the raccoons fighting the impossible-to-topple enemy of an encroaching housing development & even if they couldn’t align with the creatures politically, they’d still be able to draw a great deal of humor from the creatures’ ever-present, comically oversized testicles. Because it was a film we all grew up with, the movie that filled this niche when I was actually young & angsty was Ferngully. Pom Poko offers a much more beautiful, well-crafted, crass, and ultimately pessimistic version of the Ferngully sentimentality, though, and would’ve made a much more appropriate choice for repeated drunken viewings in my salad days.

The plot of Pom Poko is a fairly straightforward one, though its kookier details gradually escalate to heightened degrees of insanity over the course of its runtime. As a massive housing project threatens to level the forested area where a large tribe of magical raccoons reside, the woodland creatures decide to fight back through their limited means. Think of the guerrilla Ewok resistance on Endor in Return of the Jedi & you pretty much get the picture. The major difference, of course, is that these woodland creatures are not only cute, they’re also magically transformative. They can shapeshift from their natural raccoon shapes to look like supercute cartoon raccoons or an average human being or everyday inanimate objects or anything, really. Some use this skill to scare humans from encroaching on their territory. Some use to live among the humans to escape persecution. Some use it to transform their testicles into gigantic weapons to punish/kill human intruders, a move that positions Pom Poko as the premiere children’s film that deals in testicular homicide. As a small crew of wisened elders join the raccoons’ ranks, the transformations get more complicated & mythical from there, leading to stunning recreations from Japanese folklore (the exact kind you’d find in Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare). The ethereal display is supposed to intimidate the humans from encroaching any further, but any & all actions taken to protest the impending housing development seems doomed to fail. Business as Usual sees no threat big enough to discourage a potential profit & stopping the housing development proves to be a Sisyphean task.

Much of Pom Poko feels as is it may have been lost in translation from Japanese culture & language to its Western, English-speaking version. Firstly, despite what the English dub labels them, the tanuki portrayed here aren’t truly raccoons at all, although the two species do look remarkably similar. Tanuki also have a long history in folklore that justifies the excessive presence of their magical testicles in a children’s movie. The English translation (which features voice work from J.K. Simmons, Brian Posehn, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and at least three Futurama vets) does its damnedest to soften the oddity of its testicular content by translating “testicles” to “pouches” as if kids would mistake the creatures for being marsupials, having never seen themselves or anyone else naked. The yokai folklore on display in the film’s visually stunning third act might also fail to fully translate for Western audiences as well, even though it’s easy to tell from the outside looking in that there’s a rich history backing up its exquisite artistic craftsmanship. The film obviously didn’t have too hard of a time traveling to Western markets, though, since it was submitted for consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994 (not that it won any accolades or even an official nomination). That kind of pedigree is not too shabby for a children’s cartoon drowning in a sea of furry testicles.

What easily breaks through the language & cultural barriers in Pom Poko is the flm’s anarco-punk spirit. As a radical community uniting against a much larger, better-equipped enemy, the racoons of Pom Poko have many philosophical discussions about the acceptable levels of violence & the effectiveness of non-violent protest in their tactics to combat the housing development, which is a never-ending debate among young progressives, I assure you. Their youthful spirit is also a detriment to their cause, as they’re prone to celebrate small victories long before achieving any longterm goals. The little creatures just love to party. They’re all too easily distracted by beer, pizza, pro wrestling, sex, cheeseburgers, and all sorts of hedonistic temptations that also often distract human punks from organizing & enacting a significant socio-economic change. If you’re looking for proof that this metaphor holds any water, just look to the political chants the raccoons use to rouse their ranks in times of depression or distracted partying. With the right guitar & percussive backing track any one of their chants could easily pass as a song from the seminal anarcho-punk band Crass. The film even addresses the concerns of what happens when these kinds of communities grow up, give in, die off, or decide to join the enemy, which is pretty much the plot of every 00s mall punk’s cinematic handbook, SLC Punk.

Besides the incredible level of skill in the film’s hand-drawn craft, the aspect that makes all of this work in Pom Poko is in its matter-of-fact storytelling style. The film is presented as a documentary & a collection of oral histories, which saves it from delving into the broad, slapstick frivolity of its spiritual cousin, Ferngully. The film can be cartoonishly humorous, sure, but it also aims to break your heart with depictions of death & defeat that a lot of modern children’s films (unfortunately) avoid at all cost. It’s an all-the-more rewarding film because of this detached tone, too, since you not only accept that racoons for who they are & cheer for their victory, but you also fear the idea that it’s a fight they can never possibly win.

-Branodn Ledet