The Amazing Spider-Man 2


Spider-Man goes electric.

Spider-Man goes electric.

(2014) Superhero (Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Jamie Foxx, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Chris Cooper, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Marton Csokas, B.J. Novak, Michael Massee, Louis Cancelmi, Felicity Jones, Max Charles, Sarah Gordon, Jorge Vega, Bill Heck, Helen Stern, Kari Coleman. Directed by Marc Webb

It is inevitable that when a superhero shows up, eventually a super-villain will as well. With great power comes great responsibility but also comes great angst and great greed as well.

Despite Peter Parker’s (Garfield) a.k.a. Spider-Man promise to stay away from Gwen Stacy (Stone), daughter of the police captain (Leary) who died in the first ASM film, the feelings between the two are so strong that they can’t stay away from each other, at least until Peter starts seeing disapproving visions of her dear old dad and the guilt forces him to break up with her. Or she gets tired of all the on-again, off-again stuff and tells him to take a hike.

Peter is also haunted by the death of his parents, dad Richard (Scott) who once worked for the evil Oscorp empire, and mom (Davidtz) whom Peter remembers only fragments of. He finally confronts his Aunt May (Field) about them. May, who sometimes comes off as too saintly in both the comic and the first film trilogy, actually acts with a completely understandable anger – wasn’t she there for him? Wasn’t her love enough?

He’s also busy taking care of things in New York City, including taking down a crazed Russian mobster who will eventually come to be known as the Rhino (Giamatti). His best friend Harry Osborne (DeHaan) returns to town as his diseased and despotic father Norman (Cooper) lays dying, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces, take over Oscorp and fend off the scheming Donald Menken (Feore) who has an agenda of his own. Harry also discovers that he may soon share his father’s fate and only the blood of a certain Spider-Man might contain the clue that can cure him.

On top of that there’s a new super-villain in town. Mild mannered Max Dillon (Foxx) who develops a man-crush on Spidey after he saves him from being hit by a bus has a terrifying accident as he is shocked by high power lines and falls into a tank full of genetically altered electric eels which leave him badly burned but with the ability to shoot electric charges from his hands and eventually turn into living electric current.

Max, now going by the name Electro, has felt ignored and marginalized all his life. He is tired of being invisible (which ironically becomes one of his superpowers) and now that he can cause so much carnage feels vindicated that people can “see” him now and his freakish appearance is a small price to pay. He also feels betrayed by Spider-Man, his buddy who forgot his name.

All this leads to a pair of climactic battles as betrayals lead to rage which leads to a tragic confrontation that will alter Spider-Man’s life forever. Which is essentially how the second installment in any superhero franchise tends to go.

The second film in the Sam Raimi Spider-trilogy turned out to be one of the best superhero movies ever. This one, sadly, falls more into the category of the third Raimi movie which was sunk by too many supervillains and not enough memorable characters mainly because the film doesn’t get to develop them too much other than Foxx’s Electro and even he doesn’t get a whole lot of background.

What does get some background is the romance between Gwen and Peter which is a double-edged sword. Some of the most natural sequences in the movie involve those two and the banter between the two of them reflects the real-life romance that has developed between Stone and Garfield, eerily reflecting the real-life romance between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst that developed in the first Spider-trilogy. However, spending as much time on the romance as Webb does tends to mess with the momentum of the film, creating awkward breaks between action sequences and a sense that Webb is trying to make a movie that is all things to all audiences. Columbia execs have a history of becoming too involved in the Spider-Man films and I get a sense that studio interference may have occurred here as well.

Webb shows some deft touch with the action sequences and his vision of Electro is nothing short of amazing, worthy of a high-profile superhero franchise such as this one. One sequence in which Electro disappears into an ordinary electric outlet to go and wreak havoc is so well done that it looks as if it could have actually happened. That’s excellent effects in my book.

The character of Gwen Stacy doesn’t work as well for me. Stone described her as the “brains” of the operation which is a bit of a departure from the comic book in which the nerdy Peter, one of the first true science geeks, was capable of being the strategist but it is Gwen who comes to his rescue time after time by figuring out solutions to problems Spider-Man is having and incredibly, as an intern at Oscorp in biochemistry for whatever reason has learned how to work the electric grid of New York City which Oscorp runs. That part doesn’t ring true at all and took me right out of the film. I don’t mind smart women in movies but make her realistically clever please.

Garfield however continues to impress as both Parker and Spider-Man. In the latter role he has the fluid movements that make him look just non-human enough to be different. In the former role, he isn’t quite as brooding as he was in the first film (until near the end) but he certainly shows the inner conflicts that come from wanting to do the right thing but knowing that doing so could potentially put those he loves in danger. Some critics have groused about the smartaleck wisecracking that Spider-Man does, but that is part of the comic book personality of the character and is Parker’s way of coping with his own self-doubt.

This isn’t the sequel I was hoping for. I’m a big fan of Webb and I like the way Garfield plays both Peter and Spider-Man. I was hoping after the unnecessary second origin movie in ten years for the character that they might take Garfield’s strong performance in the title role and build on it. To some extent they do but their ambitions exceed the realistic here and they wind up making a movie that is a bit of a mess. It’s still plenty entertaining and has all the thrills, action and emotions that you need to make a great summer blockbuster, but they also failed to learn from Raimi’s mistakes. It’s worth seeing for the action, for Garfield and for some of the emotional sequences but the movie is nonetheless very flawed.

REASONS TO GO: The Electro sequences are amazing. Some emotional high points.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and subplots. The flow of the film doesn’t quite work. Logical issues.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of superhero violence and peril, plus a brief scene that may be disturbing for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Spider-Man movie to film in New York City where the series is set – it is also the largest production to date to film in the state of New York.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Words and Pictures

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Frankenweenie


Frankenweenie

Good doggie!

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchatta Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tom Kenny, Christopher Lee, Frank Welker, Dee Bradley Baker. Directed by Tim Burton

 

The bond between a boy and his dog is something that ranks right up there with the closest relationships that we know of. Lonely boys, in particular, seem to become more attached to their canine companions. It is that feeling of unconditional love that is reciprocated; the dog can do no wrong, whether they bark at passing cars or leave an indiscretion on the living room carpet. These same boys as men will rarely love anyone or anything as much as they love their childhood dog.

Victor Frankenstein (Tahan) lives in the quiet suburban neighborhood of New Holland with his parents (O’Hara, Short). He is a smart kid, a science whiz who is something of a loner. He doesn’t have friends and doesn’t want any. In fact, he doesn’t need any – he has Sparky (Welker), an affectionate dog of indeterminate breed. Sparky goes everywhere with him, although he sometimes annoys the neighbor, the Mayor (Short again) by tearing up the flowers and marking the territory (ahem).

The mayor’s niece – Elsa (Ryder) is staying with her uncle, along with her poodle Persephone (Baker). She and Victor are in science class together at school, being taught by the somewhat haughty Mr. Rzykruski (Landau), a sinister looking soul but one who loves science with a passion. Along with Victor and Elsa are Edgar (Shaffer), an unlovely hunchback who can’t keep a secret; Bob (Capron) a rotund young boy with an easy-going nature and an insatiable appetite and Toshiaki (Liao), an Asian boy with ambitions of winning the science fair that go well on the road to obsession.

Tragedy strikes however when Sparky is killed. Victor is inconsolable, despite his mom and dad’s best efforts to cheer him up. He misses his dog terribly – his only companion. Victor watches a film that he made with his dog over and over again, unable to let go. Then, a lecture by Mr. Rzykruski that involved stimulating a dead frog’s muscle with an electric charge suddenly turns a light on in Victor’s brain. He would bring Sparky back to life.

He digs up his beloved dog from the local pet cemetery and turns his attic into a lab using whatever he can scrounge from around the house. There are lightning storms in New Holland regularly and that very night he uses one to revivify Sparky, whom he’s had to patch together with sewing thread. Still, the dog seems no worse for the wear (with an occasional ear or tail being thrown off when he gets excited) but Victor realizes most people will fear what he’s done and certainly nobody will understand it. Sparky needs to remain hidden but there’s not much chance a dog as rambunctious as Sparky will remain cooped up in an attic for long.

This is more or less an “old home week” kind of project for Burton. Way back in 1984 he did a “Frankenweenie” short which this comes from, albeit far more involved and expanded upon both from a cinematic and story standpoint. This is stop-motion animation just like The Corpse Bride was and has a similar spindly pipe cleaner leg oversized head saucer eyes kind of look to it, kind of like a gringo Day of the Dead look.

SCTV vets Short and O’Hara work nicely together as the parents while Tahan, whose Victor resembles Burton facially (and is likely meant to be his surrogate) doesn’t overplay, which sometimes happens in animated features. Landau does an excellent job with the science teacher who looks like a kind of cadaverous Vincent Price. The Eastern European accent also brings Bela Lugosi to mind.

There is a definite love letter to classic horror films here (as mentioned below), with appearances by Frankenstein, Dracula, Ghiderah and the Mummy. There is also a good deal of heart here, particularly when it comes to a boy’s devotion to his dog. I cried twice during the movie (no points if you can guess when) which takes some doing. There is also a certain amount of quirkiness that you would come to expect with a Tim Burton movie – his trademark, I’d say. It’s different from indie quirkiness in that it has a more ’50s suburban feel as interpreted by Roger Corman.

While the movie seems to have a difficult time deciding what era it’s in (at one point there are references to home computers but the look and feel is definitely more 1950s Americana), there is no doubt that this is a movie that knows its own roots and sticks to them. I hadn’t expected much from Frankenweenie after Burton’s misfire with Dark Shadows earlier this year but I should have known better. This is certainly one of his best movies in the last 10 years.

REASONS TO GO: Hits some powerful emotions. A return to form for Burton after his last misstep.

REASONS TO STAY: A little mannered in places. Some era confusion.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a tad scary for younger tots. The theme of losing a beloved pet might also be too much for sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Tim Burton-directed movie not to feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter since 1996.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews have been strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nightmare Before Christmas

CLASSIC HORROR LOVERS: There are homages throughout the film to various classic horror films and genres from the obvious Frankenstein to Vincent Price, the Toho giant lizard films, gothic Hammer horror and Gremlins among others.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Taken 2

The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour

Emile Hirsch mistakenly thought his scavenger hunt list said "gremlin."

(2011) Science Fiction (Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Joel Kinnaman, Veronika Ozerova, Dato Bakhtadze, Gosha Kutsenko, Nikolai Efremov, Vladimir Jaglich, Arthur Smoljaninov, Anna Roudakova, Pyotr Fyodorov. Directed by Chris Gorak

 

Some movies have little or no potential and make the most of what they have. Others take wonderful ideas and go absolutely nowhere with them. Which one would you rather see?

This is one of the latter. Hirsch and Minghella play a couple of net entrepreneurs who fly to Moscow to pitch an app to a bunch of venture capital bigwigs, only to see their idea stolen by Skyler (Kinnaman), a slimy Swede. The boys, furious and with uncertain futures, decide to go to a sleazy disco to drown their sorrows. There they meet Natalie (Thirlby) and Anne (Taylor), American and Australian (respectively) tourists who are apparently globe hopping in order to meet boys. Guess there weren’t enough slimy club hounds in their own neck of the woods.

While in the club, Moscow gets invaded by – wait for it – Christmas lights. Well, that’s what it looks like at first until the aliens actually arrive and are completely invisible. They are also deadly, reducing any organic matter they touch into ash. Whenever they’re around, they generate an electrical field that turns on car alarms, light bulbs and cell phones, all of which have gone dead (we assume an EMP has passed through the city but are never shown that definitively).

After a week in the club’s pantry, the four (who have been joined by Skyler who turns out to be even more of a dick than they thought) set out on foot to find other survivors and to find food, shelter and water. Eventually they learn of a nuclear submarine which intends to ferry survivors to a safe place (the aliens can’t see through machinery or glass – they detect humans by their bio-energy or some such gobbledygook) which I would imagine is somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

Director Gorak’s last film was the much-superior Right at Your Door which made a lot more from a lot less. That film adequately captured what humans do in impossibly stressful situations (in that case, the detonation of a dirty bomb in a metropolitan area) and made his characters non-heroic at times. Here, he also makes some of the characters non-heroic although Hirsch’s Sean character falls into the mold of the brainy hero.

The problem here is that none of the characters are given much in the way of characteristics. They’re all pretty much unremarkable, all given a single characteristic (Anne’s fear, Skyler’s amorality) in which their character pretty much uses as a means of reaction to every situation. They come off as one-dimensional not because the actors are bad, but because they’ve only been given one dimension to work off of. Whereas Gorak’s last film was filled with real human beings, that doesn’t happen here.

Another missed opportunity is the aliens themselves. They are invisible through most of the film, which gives the filmmakers an opportunity to develop a great deal of tension and paranoia. That also never happens here; the aliens appear with such regularity that you just assume that wherever the characters go there’s going to be an invisible alien trolling about waiting to turn someone to ash (including a hapless dog). When the aliens finally are revealed, they are less than satisfying.

This is pretty bloodless. Not only the humans turn to ash but when the aliens blow up they turn into hunks of what looks like volcanic glass. Even gorehounds will be irritated by this movie.

The Russian locations aren’t used to their best effect in most cases, although there’s a really nice scene in Red Square. By and large, producer Timur Bekmambatov (director of such fine films as Night Watch and Wanted) should have done a better job of showing off his city; for the most part it looks pretty dull and boring.

The concept was good here; the execution was lacking and mostly due to lazy writing and poor decision making on the parts of the filmmakers. If you’re going to use Moscow as your backdrop, don’t trap your characters in malls and pantries. If you’re going to have invisible aliens, use them sparingly – make our spines tingle. If you’re going to write a science fiction picture, don’t baffle us with bull-crap; cut down the scientific jargon to a minimum and give the poor actors something to work with. I was sorely disappointed here.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting premise and some nifty effects shots.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity; none of the characters are drawn all that well and the plot is awfully predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words, some disturbing images and lots of action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production was suspended for three weeks due to air pollution caused by the wildfires that surrounded Moscow in the summer of 2010 while production was underway. After production resumed, there was still some smoke in the air that had to be digitally removed in some shots.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 16/100. The reviews are extremely poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skyline

ALIEN INVASION LOVERS: Should be high on your list but be warned that when you finally do see the aliens, it’s a bit of a letdown.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Roommate