A scene from 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.' (Sony Pictures Animation via AP)

Movie reviews: 'Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse' is a wild and woolly pop art explosion

Published Dec. 14, 2018 6:49 a.m. ET
Updated Dec. 14, 2018 12:09 p.m. ET

Film critic and Pop Life host Richard Crouse reviews four movies hitting cinemas this week: the unconventional animated flick 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," 'Mary Queen of Scots' starring Margot Robbie and Saorise Ronan, Julia Roberts' family drama "Ben is Back," and the non-traditional biopic 'Blaze."

Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, in a scene from 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.' (Sony Pictures Animation via AP) A scene from 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse'

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE: 4 STARS

Can't get enough Spider-Man? Check out "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse," a mega-origin story that features not one, not two, but at least seven iterations of the web-slinging superhero.

Shameik Moore, left, and Jake Johnson, right, attend a 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' event in New York, on Dec. 11, 2018. (Andy Kropa / Invision / AP) At a 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' event in New York

Before a radioactive spider bit Miles Morales (voice of Shameik Moore) he was a half-Puerto Rican and half-African-American, Brooklyn-born student with loving parents. Post-bite, his world goes topsy turvy. Unable to control his brand-new powers — he sticks to everyone and everything like glue — he needs help. Enter the real Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) who asks the younger Spider-Man to combat crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). 

The evil genius doesn't have superpowers, but he does have a "Collider" machine with the power to tear the world apart.

"It's a hell of a freakin' light show," Kingpin cackles. "You'll love this."

A scene from 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.' (Sony Pictures Animation via AP) A scene from 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse'

When Kingpin hits the Collider's on switch the various portals between Spider-Verse open, sweeping alternate Spider-People including Peter B. Parker (Johnson again), a "junky, old, broke-down hobo Spider Man," Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic animal parody of Spider-Man, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese-American middle school student adopted by Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a hard-bitten Raymond Chandler-esque type, into Miles's world. The inter-dimensional Peter B. becomes a mentor of sorts to Miles — "Disinfect the mask," he advises. "Use talcum powder. You don't want chafing." — teaching his the tricks of the superhero trade. "You're like the Spider-Man I don't want to be," Miles says to the frayed around the edges Peter. "I don't think you have a choice kiddo," Peter B. replies.

Before shutting off the Supercollider and saving the world, Miles must send the other Spider-types back to their realms or they will disintegrate.

Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, in 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.' (Sony Pictures Animation via AP) A scene from 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse'

"Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" is a cortex-boiling hit of boffo superhero theatrics. Visually, it's a pop art explosion, paying tribute, in its more restrained moments, to the work of original Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko. In the climatic multiverse showdown, however, it's as if M.C. Escher and Roy Lichtenstein did acid and conceived a psychedelic freak-out that mixes and matches op art, anime and everything in between. It doesn't look like any other superhero film you've ever seen. It's wild and woolly, a pastiche of styles formed into one seamless whole. 

Miles Morales voiced by Shameik Moore This image released by Sony Pictures Animation shows characters, from left, Peni, voiced by Kimiko Glen, Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, Spider-Ham, voiced by John Mulaney, Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, Peter Parker, voiced by Jake Johnson, Spider-Man Noir, voiced by Nicolas Cage in a scene from "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. (Sony Pictures Animation via AP)

It's fresh and funny, and yes, there is a Stan Lee cameo, but despite the eye-catching animation and the flippant time of the script, there is substance; the film has a point. "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" is a coming-of-age story for Miles who must tap into his inner strength to succeed. Uncle Ben's quote, "With great power comes great responsibility," comes up in the film's multiple origin stories, but is amended to reflect that great power also comes with an awareness of self. "Anyone can wear the mask," Miles says. "If you didn't know that before, I hope you know it now." It's a message about finding the greatness within, whether you can shoot webs from your wrists or not.

In a tweet the day Stan Lee died Seth Rogen wrote, "Thank you Stan Lee for making people who feel different realize they are special." Lee didn't write "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" but his powerful, personal message of self worth is alive and well here.

From left, Grace Molony as Dorothy Stafford, Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I and Georgia Burnell as Kate Carey in a scene from 'Mary Queen of Scots.' (Parisa Tag / Focus Features via AP) A scene from 'Mary Queen of Scots'

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS: 2 ½ STARS

Mr. Parker, my grade nine history teacher, believed in learning by rote. Once a day, thirty schoolmates and I would assemble in his class and were invariably confronted with Mr. Parker in his black suit dusted with chalk from writing, in perfect script, three chalk boards worth of notes. "Write it down and learn it." A mishmash of dates and names, his notes were detailed, but ultimately did not bring the story to life. 

Watching "Mary Queen of Scots," a new historical drama starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, I was immediately transported back to Mr. Parker's class. 

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in 'Mary Queen of Scots.' (Liam Daniel / Focus Features via AP) Saoirse Ronan in 'Mary Queen of Scots'

The convoluted tale begins in 1561 with Mary Stuart (Ronan) returning to Scotland after being raised Catholic in France and widowed at age eighteen. She comes home to a world of intrigue. Her half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle) would seem to be an ally, but holds resentment that he will lose his exalted place as King with her return. She also faces opposition from John Knox (David Tennant), a religious leader who brands the queen a harlot, unfit for the throne.  

Meanwhile, in England, Mary's twenty-five-year-old Protestant cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Robbie, under an inch of make-up) has a certain amount of sympathy for her long-lost relative. The monarch understands what it means to be a woman ruler in a world of men but her advisers, including her chief council William Cecil (Guy Pearce) see Mary as a threat who must be dealt with. 

Cue the intrigue and sharpen those axes. 

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in 'Mary Queen of Scots.' (Liam Daniel / Focus Features via AP) Saoirse Ronan in 'Mary Queen of Scots'
Guy Pearce as William Cecil, left, and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth in 'Mary Queen of Scots.' (Liam Daniel / Focus Features via AP) Guy Pearce and Margot Robbie in 'Mary Queen of Scots'
From left, Ian Hart as Lord Maitland, Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley, Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and James McArdle as Earl of Moray in a scene from 'Mary Queen of Scots.' (Liam Daniel / Focus Features via AP) A scene from 'Mary Queen of Scots'

There is a lot going on in "Mary Queen of Scots." Political backbiting, betrayal, toxic patriarchy, romance, more betrayal and equal parts empathy and cruelty are all on display, making an already expansive story — it spans roughly twenty years — feel overstuffed. Locations, dates and motivations blur as the courtly manipulations pile atop one another, leaving behind a nicely acted film that feels weighted down by an excess of intrigue.  

Robbie and Ronan, rivals for the Best Actress Oscar last year, share just one scene, an historically inaccurate meeting that features the film's best moments. As Mary shifts from pleading for sisterhood to imperiously claiming the crown of England for herself — "I am a Stuart, the rightful queen." — there is more drama in those few minutes than in the film's entire middle section. 

"Mary Queen of Scots" has some admirable, timely qualities. Colour-blind casting — most notably through the work of Gemma Chan and Adrian Lester — Mary's attitude toward the gender-fluid minstrel David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and the portrayal of Mary and Elizabeth as strong-willed women are thoroughly modern and to be commended. It's too bad the narrative machinations bog down what otherwise is a fine tale of political manoeuvring.

Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts in 'Ben is Back' Lucas Hedges, right, and Julia Roberts in a scene from 'Ben is Back.' (Mark Schafer / Roadside Attractions via AP)

BEN IS BACK: 3 STARS

"Ben is Back," starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges as mother and son, is a film about addiction, trust and love. 

"Ben is Back" paints a compelling picture of addiction but is almost undone by a silly plot twist that threatens to turn the movie into a thriller, diluting its effectiveness. Luckily, strong work from Roberts, Hedges and Newton keep it grounded.

From left, Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts in 'Ben is Back.' (Mark Schafer / Roadside Attractions via AP) Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts in 'Ben is Back'

It's Christmastime in a small bedroom community in New York. The church Christmas concert is looming and Holly and Neal Burns (Roberts and Courtney B. Vance) and their kids - teenager Ivy (Kathryn Newton), little ones Lacey and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser) - are rehearsed and ready. They arrive home after church to a surprise, Holly's oldest son Ben (Hedges), sitting on the front step, on leave from his Sober Living house in the city.

"I thought there was no way my counsellor would go for this," he says, "but he did. That's how good I'm doing."

Despite having left a trail of scorched earth behind him he looks good. Sober for seventy-seven days — "I just want to get to 78." — he's up a few pounds, has colour in his face and talks about living his life with "rigorous honesty." 

Still, Holly hides all the medication and jewelry in the house. Neal is welcoming but reticent. Ben's drug taking has ruined several Christmases and the last time he was home he was found strung out, overdosed on the stairs with a needle in his arm.

"I'm confused," Neal says. "Everyone knows it's in your best interest not to be home yet. There are too many triggers here for you." 

Courtney B. Vance, from back row left, Julia Roberts, and from front row left, Jakari Fraser and Mia Fowler attend the premiere of "Ben Is Back" in New York, on Dec. 3, 2018. (Evan Agostini / Invision / AP) At the New York premiere of 'Ben is Back'

The town certainly has a lot of ghosts for Ben. Hooked on painkillers after a routine accident as a kid, he became a small-time drug dealer and user, a teen who may or may not have been responsible for the OD death of his school friend Maggie. But Ben insists all is well, he does a drug test for his mom and attends the Christmas Eve concert with the family. 

The past catches up with Ben and the family when they come home to find the house trashed and their beloved dog stolen. "This can't be happening," Ivy says. "Not again." Ben isn't sure who is responsible — "There were so many people it could be," he says — but is determined to find out. "You're all still scared of me," he says. "That's the last thing I want to make you feel." With Holly, he confronts his past, journeying into the dark underbelly of his former suburban town to find the dog and test the bond of mother and son. 

Courtney B. Vance and Julia Roberts in 'Ben is Back.' (Mark Schafer / Roadside Attractions via AP) A scene from 'Ben is Back'

"Ben is Back" works best as a family drama of how addiction impacts loved ones. Cute as the dog may be, the movie works less so when it introduces the hunt for the lost canine. The dramatic tension is kept alive and well by carefully calibrated performances from Roberts and Hedges. 

As Holly, Roberts moves away from the persona she has spent a career crafting. On the surface Holly is precise, a suburban soccer mom who will only buy organic cranberries and who changes the Christmas ornaments because the old ones, Ivy says, "didn't fit the current aesthetic." Underneath, though, is a woman teetering on the edge, someone who believes in Ben despite having been disappointed so many times in the past. "This time will be different," she says. "You'll see." It's co-dependency and a mother's unconditional love wrapped up in one complicated package.

Hedges is a roiling mix of self loathing — " If you really knew me you'd be done with me." — and hope. He's a dark soul, tormented by what he has done and still vulnerable to falling back into the life that haunts him. Ben is revealed slowly and perhaps his most telling statement, the line that makes us question everything that has happened, comes late in the movie. 

"You can't trust addicts," he says to Holly. "All they do is lie."  

Ethan Hawke, far left, director/co-writer of 'Blaze,' poses with from left, Josh Hamilton, Ben Dickey, Charlie Sexton and Alia Shawkat in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 21, 2018. (Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP) 'Blaze' premiere at Sundance

BLAZE: 3 ½ STARS

Early on in their relationship Blaze Foley's (Ben Dickey) girlfriend and muse Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) asks, "Are you going to be a big country star, like Roger Miller?" The singer-songwriter replies, "I don't want to be a star. I want to be a legend."

Texas singer-songwriter Foley did indeed lead a legendary life. The "Let Me Ride in Your Big Cadillac" singer, who died in obscurity at age 39, wore duct tape on the toes of his boots to mock wannabe cowboys with silver-tipped cowboy boots. Later, the master tapes from his first studio album were confiscated by the DEA. Lucinda Williams dedicated the tune "Drunken Angel" to him and Ethan Hawke was inspired to co-write and direct the movie "Blaze" based on the novel "Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze" by Rosen.

Ben Dickey, left, and Alia Shawkat, right, attend a special screening of 'Blaze' in New York, on Sept. 5, 2018. (Andy Kropa / Invision / AP) At a special screening of 'Blaze' in New York

"Blaze" is as non-traditional as its subject. Non-chronological and bold, it's a study of creativity, relationships and struggle. The backbone of the story is a radio interview with Foley's friend, musician Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton). Chain-smoking, he details the events of Foley's life as a musician and companion to Sybil. As mythmaking takes over Van Zandt's storytelling, another friend, Zee (Josh Hamilton), jumps in, bringing the story back to earth. Zee's influence grounds the story. Far from justifying the usual bad behaviour essayed in music bios, "Blaze" looks to examine why Foley acted out. 

Playing Foley in the flashback scenes is newcomer Dickey. The heavyset Dickey captures Foley's lost soul status in a performance that is equal parts charisma and kindness. Because the singer died in virtual obscurity for most audiences there is no deeply etched idea of who Foley was. That gives Dickey the opportunity to take all the elements that formed Foley — creativity, a vein of self-destruction tempered by sweetness and talent — and bundle them into a portrait that captures what the singer was all about. It's a lovely, edgy performance that is the soul of the film.  

Like the man himself, there is nothing standard about "Blaze," the story of his life. Hawke takes chances narratively and stylistically, fracturing the timeline of Foley's life to make a film that proves, once and for all, that music biopics don't just have to be about famous people.

'Pop Life' host Richard Crouse 'Pop Life' host Richard Crouse

Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.