Reel Opinions

Monday, July 30, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

Even though I found myself enjoying Safety Not Guaranteed, the entire time I was feeling like I should have been enjoying it even more than I was. This is a charming and heartfelt offbeat comedy that just has a few too many rough edges for me to label it a complete success. It's brisk, if not a bit too slight for it's own good. But the performances and the overall tone of the movie kept me in mostly good spirits.

picDespite a running time just short of 90 minutes, the pace of the film is leisurely, and kind of meandering. But, you wouldn't guess that from the film's opening moments, which quickly introduces our main characters, and sets them out on their adventure within the first five minutes or so. During an article pitch meeting at a Seattle-based magazine, a writer named Jeff (Jake Johnson) brings everyone's attention to a classified ad he found in a newspaper. The ad reads that the person responsible for it is looking for someone to travel through time with. It goes on to ominously state that the person who accompanies them on this adventure through time must bring their own weapons, and that their safety is not guaranteed. Jeff wants to track down the person behind this ad, and find out his story. He takes two interns at the magazine along with him. They include the cynical and depressed college student Darius (Aubrey Plaza, giving a wonderfully understated performance), and the shy and introverted Amau (Karan Soni).

picWhen they arrive at the source of the mysterious ad, it turns out that Jeff really has little to no interest at all. This "story" was just an excuse to track down an old high school flame that he wants to reconnect with. This leaves most of the work up to Darius, who eventually tracks down the author of the ad. He is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a bizarre recluse who comes across as being paranoid, constantly afraid that he is being hunted by government agents. He claims that he has indeed learned the secret behind time travel, but before he can trust Darius with information about his project, he has to put her through a series of tests and survival training. As Darius and Kenneth spend more time together, an odd but sweet relationship develops between these two outcasts who have known their share of pain in their lives, and begin to find kindred spirits in each other. Indeed, the more time Darius spends around Kenneth, she begins to suspect that there may be some truth to what he's talking about. I mean, just why are those mysterious cars always tailing Kenneth, and eventually Darius, everywhere they go?

picIf I remember Safety Not Guaranteed months from now for anything, it will be for the possible star-making performance of Aubrey Plaza, who is best known for her work on TV's Parks and Recreation. While she has a lot of work to her credit, this is the first project that really made me sit up and take notice of her. Her deadpan humor carries this movie for the most part, but she also comes across as being very vulnerable. The relationship that builds between Kenneth and her is not exactly a passionate one, but there is genuine warmth, and the performances of Plaza and Duplass really convey that. It is an offbeat relationship, built more out of finally finding someone who understands you, than genuine love. Although, by the end, they do seem to be getting much closer. These are both guarded people. She guards herself with sarcasm and a general disinterest to almost everything around her, while he has essentially secluded himself, and finds it difficult to let someone in.

picIf the movie had been about just them and their relationship, I probably could have fully supported it. But it keeps on getting sidetracked with plots and characters that never really go anywhere. The whole plot with Jeff tracking down his high school sweetheart seems promising and sweet at first, but it never really ends up going anywhere, and ultimately slows the pace of the film down. Truth be told, his plot ends quite abruptly. Even less developed is the plot concerning shy young intern Amau being unlucky in love, with Jeff essentially assigning himself to be his coach. This seems to have been thrown in just to give the character something to do, since he serves so little purpose in the film's main plot.

This is ultimately a sweet and low key movie that never offends, and does have a lot of charm. The film is R-rated, which is mystifying to me, as there is absolutely nothing here that I think anyone would deem inappropriate for a teenager. This movie had a lot of potential, and while it manages to meet it in a lot of areas, it still needed some tightening up in order to truly win me over.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Step Up: Revolution

In Step Up: Revolution, the film's heroes are a bunch of young urban dancers who stage elaborate "flash mob" dance numbers, first to get attention, and later to protest a greedy villain who is threatening to tear down their homes so he can build some luxury skyscrapers. There's a scene late in the film where the dancers crash a dinner party held by the villain, and set up a dance that begins by tossing containers that look like gas bombs into the crowd. Then, the dancers themselves show up, wearing gas masks and dressed head to foot in black. Watching this sequence, it takes a superhuman effort not to think of the tragedy in Aurora just one week ago.

picI don't blame the filmmakers, as there's no way they could have known what would happen so soon before their movie was released. But what was Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate thinking not cutting this scene, or perhaps postponing its release? Case in point - Warner Bros.' upcoming release, Gangster Squad, had its trailer pulled and its release date changed from September 7th to January 11th, due to the fact that it depicted some gangsters shooting up a crowded movie theater with Tommy Guns. The scene in question will also no longer be in the final film. Did the studio behind Step Up look at their scene, and really think it wouldn't hit a little too close to home for some viewers? The fact that the song that plays on the soundtrack that the characters are dancing to features the sound effects of guns going off does not help the awkward feeling the scene creates.

picOutside of this extremely uncomfortable moment, everything else about Step Up: Revolution is a wheezy and worn collection of bottom of the shelf dance movie cliches. Our main characters are Emily (Kathryn McCormick) and Sean (Ryan Guzman). Emily is a "poor little rich girl" type whose wealthy real estate magnet father (Peter Gallagher, giving a completely phoned in performance) doesn't understand her dreams of becoming a professional dancer, and would rather see her follow in his footsteps in the luxury hotel business. Sean is a poor, but spirited, young man who just wants to dance. He's one of the head people behind the previously mentioned flash mob. They like to spontaneously break out into wildly choreographed dance numbers in the middle of public. Naturally, they pick places where there would obviously be no police presence whatsoever, like a busy highway, or a modern art museum. Well, at least these places have no police presence whatsoever in this movie's world.

picSean and his friends who make up the dancing flash mob (or "The Mob", as they call themselves) dream of winning a $100,000 cash prize in a Youtube contest, to see what dance video can get the most views. Sean and Emily happen to meet, since Sean works at a waiter at one of her dad's hotels. But, wouldn't you know it, they come from two different worlds! She's rich, he's poor - there's no way they could have anything in common! But wait! Sean learns that Emily longs to be a dancer, and he volunteers to help her practice. Before long, she's joined The Mob as well. And when her father starts threatening to tear down the poor neighborhood where Sean and his friends live so he can build a new hotel, Emily encourages Sean that they should start "dancing with a message", and protest against her father's plan. But how are they going to pull that off, when no one in The Mob knows that Emily is the daughter of their enemy? And when they do find out who she is, will they be able to trust Sean for keeping her secret from them?

picLook, I get that Step Up: Revolution (just like the previous three movies in the series) is not about the plot - it's about the elaborately choreographed dance sequences. The problem for me was that the stuff in-between the dancing was a lot more inane than usual for this franchise. The acting is a lot stiffer, which is no surprise, considering that the two leads have no previous acting experience whatsoever. Everyone in this movie was obviously hired for their looks and their dancing ability, so whenever the script requires them to emote, nobody's up to the challenge. The plot is also a lot dumber than normal, with a lot of logic holes stringing up the various cliches that make up the narrative. My favorite moment occurs near the end, when the city's Mayor (who has been supporting the greedy villain throughout the movie) suddenly changes his mind when he sees the kids dancing, and even begins getting down right along side them. It's one of the few moments I can remember literally groaning out loud at what I was watching.
While I have not exactly been a fan of this series in the past, I've often been able to admit that they were energetic, thanks to the spirited music and dance sequences. But, there's just something very lame and generic about this movie. Even though the dancing is as spirited as ever, I just couldn't get into it, due to the horrible stuff surrounding it. A movie like this requires you to shut down your brain in order to enjoy it. I guess I just couldn't comply this time.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Watch

If there's anything worse than a comedy without laughs, it's a comedy without laughs that squanders a perfectly usable idea. The Watch is guilty on both counts. It's the kind of movie where you want to demand a rewrite of the script while you're watching it. The filmmakers have gathered some actors who have been funny in other films, and a good idea, but seemingly no clue how to bring these elements together.

picThe Watch is the latest in the string of raunchy, adult-oriented comedies that seem to come out in droves every summer, ever since The Hangover and Bridesmaids proved that there was box office gold to be mined. The difference between those movies and this one is that the earlier ones were not just about vulgarity. This screenplay uses four letter words in much the same way that a 13-year-old trying to sound mature would. It's overkill, and it doesn't take long until we are bored instead of offended or shocked. The movie features comic actors like Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade (a British comic making his Hollywood debut), but it forgets to give them real characters to play. Instead, we're watching them unsuccessfully improvising off one another, and throwing vulgar language into their dialogue when they can't think of anything funny to say.

picThe plot kicks off with Evan (Stiller), the manager of a Costco store, arriving at work to discover that the night security guard has been murdered in a gruesome fashion, with a mysterious green ooze near the body. Fearing that there might be a serial killer stalking his peaceful suburban neighborhood, Evan organizes a Neighborhood Watch. Only three guys respond to his call, and they include a big lummox who is struggling with raising a teenage daughter (Vaughn), a young hothead with a passion for guns and switchblades (Hill), and an ethnic guy (Ayoade) who is given little to do in the script until the third act. Until then, Ayoade pretty much spends his American debut staring at the more successful Hollywood actors surrounding him, or standing in the background.

picThere is a smattering of character development here and there, such as a pointless subplot concerning Evan being unable to conceive a baby with his loving and understanding wife (Rosemarie DeWitt). What such a plot is doing in a comedy about four idiots trying to save their neighborhood, I have no idea. Later, we learn that the the string of mysterious murders happening around the neighborhood are the result of an alien invasion, and that the monsters have made their nest underneath the Costco store where Evan works. The reason for this is naturally so the action can return to the store as often as possible, and show more product placements that have been strategically placed in the center of the camera's focus. Of the numerous products on display in this movie, Budweiser and Trojan Condoms obviously put up the most money, as their products get held up to the camera by the stars more than once.

picThe Watch is chaotic, but it holds absolutely no inspiration. The actors are up their on the screen, trying to liven things up with their motor mouthed comic delivery, but nothing they say is all that funny. And once the aliens are revealed, the movie turns into a noisy and unfunny special effects spectacle. Granted, the aliens are well designed, but it's disappointing to discover that they exist simply to jump out and growl at the actors, ooze dripping from their mouths. Equally disappointing is when we discover the their weakness. Looking back, however, in a movie where the main characters make non-stop dick jokes, it's pretty easy to figure out the part of the alien anatomy where the men must aim their guns in order to destroy the creatures.
This is a movie that smacks of desperation. None of the jokes hit, and the various subplots seem to have been added in a vain effort to give some humanity to a project everyone knew was a dog early on. It's the kind of film that seems doomed to linger forgotten in bargain bins almost as soon as the DVD hits. Something tells me that Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill will be trying to forget this one long before then.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

WRITER'S NOTE: Before I begin this review proper, I feel I should briefly mention the tragic mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Pretty much everything that can be said has already been said, so all I can say is that my heart and thoughts go out to the victims, their friends, and families. And even though the person responsible is in captivity, there is no joy, as James Holmes has destroyed his own future, as well as the lives of his loved ones. The midnight screening of the film was supposed to be a joyous occasion for the fans who waited four years to see the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's trilogy, and it instead turned into a tragedy for everyone involved. I think George Takei put it best by saying...

"Many victims of today's tragedy were fans of science fiction/fantasy. They stood in line to be the first to see, to be inspired, and to escape. As a community of dreamers, we mourn this terrible tragedy and this senseless taking of innocent life".

Couldn't have said it better myself. I will end my thoughts on the matter here. The review of the film itself follows.

The Dark Knight Rises could be argued as the first Batman movie that almost didn't really need Batman at all. The fact that I think Bruce Wayne (once again played by Christian Bale) actually dons the cape and cowl for a grand total of 35 minutes tops in a nearly three hour movie kind of enforces this thought. More than that, though, it's based on the fact that I found the stuff surrounding Wayne's superhero identity the least interesting stuff in the film. He's up against a less interesting villain than Heath Ledger's Joker in the last movie, and up until the film's final moments, Batman does not really stand out all that much in this film.

picInstead of the heroics we expect, we get an apocalyptic story of Gotham City being torn apart by urban uprising and warfare. A cloud of doom constantly hangs over all the characters. Only one of the main characters, a woman known as Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), sees these clouds before they are too late. And by the time Gotham City has exploded in chaos and terrorism, even she is not as prepared as she initially thought. The cause of the near-destruction of Gotham is a villain known only as Bane (played by an unrecognizable Tom Hardy). He's a hulking, massive brute who wears a contraption on his face that kind of looks like an orthodontic tool from hell. This also forces him to talk through a voice synthesizer. Many have complained that he is hard to understand, and while some of his dialogue is definitely muffled, I found myself able to understand him enough that it was never an issue with me.

picWhat is a bigger issue surrounding Bane is not only is he not that interesting of a villain, but his motives seem to be very shaky. His reasoning is murky at best, and by the time he's trying to blow up the whole city with a nuclear bomb, I was left kind of wondering why he was so wrapped up with the whole class warfare thing, and turning society against each other. If you're just going to end with blowing everyone up anyway, it seems kind of pointless. I guess he's one of those people who does things simply because he can. But, I digress. The film has a bit too much plot for its own good at times. There's Bruce Wayne living in seclusion since the ending of the last movie, and trying to motivate himself to get back into action as Batman once again, there's battle for control of the Wayne Corporation itself, there's an energy device (which ultimately becomes a bomb for Bane), there's Wayne's faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine, who gets some wonderful moments here), who is torn by Bruce's decision to be Batman again, there's a young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who still believes in Batman despite his disappearance, and there's the previously-mentioned Selina Kyle, who not only serves as Bruce's potential love interest, but winds up getting better action sequences than him when she goes out on the streets as the Catwoman.

picAs jumbled as the plot can sometimes be, it still manages to work, because we find ourselves caring about these people. Since Bruce Wayne spends so little actual time in the movie as Batman, we instead get to focus on his personal struggle to move on past his own personal tragedies. This makes for a somewhat heavier and joyless experience than some audiences might be expecting, but I think it fits with the character. The film is mostly dour and serious, with only a few fast-paced action sequences thrown in, like Bane's attack on the Stock Exchange, and the resulting motorcycle/car chase that follows. It oddly ends up being Anne Hathaway who provides much of the film's action and fight sequences, and she is truly incredible. Her fighting is fluid and fresh, whereas when Bane and Batman go at each other, it feels almost sluggish in comparison. The fact that Bane's final encounter with Batman pretty much ends with a bad joke does not help matters.

picThe best way for me to sum up The Dark Knight Rises is that it is a great film on its own, but it lacks the intensity and non-stop momentum of the last movie. In the grand scheme of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, I would be this behind The Dark Knight, but above Batman Begins, so somewhere in the middle. The movie has a sensational final half hour, some great performances, and wonderful individual scenes that seem oddly human for a superhero movie. It simply does not have the growing sense of dread that Ledger brought to The Dark Knight. What it does do, and what ultimately makes the whole thing work, is that it wraps up the whole story quite well, and in a way that I expect to hear few complaints from fans. It also does nothing to betray the characters we have come to know and love over the last three movies.
My guess that the somewhat shaky and overstuffed plot is a sign that Nolan is getting out of the Batman business while the getting is good. He needs to move on, but he is at least leaving us with a satisfying conclusion before he does. And hey, it's a summer event movie that chooses not to be in 3D! That alone is noteworthy. I think the best complement I can give is that although Nolan's trilogy has had its ups and downs, it never sunk, and ended up being quite the ride right up to the end.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Ice Age: Continental Drift

At the very least, you can say that the Ice Age movies are pretty much a textbook example of a movie franchise that plays it safe. After ten years and four movies, the filmmakers haven't seen much of a need to change its kid-pleasing formula. This means that Continental Drift is just as harmless, inoffensive, and brightly colored as the previous movies. It also means that just like the last few movies, there's not a whole lot to grab the attention of accompanying adults, other than the occasional clever line.

picJust like before, the movie focuses on an unusual "herd" of prehistoric animals, which include Manny the mammoth (voice by Ray Romano), Diego the saber-tooth tiger (Denis Leary), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), and Manny's wife, Ellie (Queen Latifah), a mammoth who was raised by possums, and who still sleeps by hanging upside down from a tree branch by her tail. (And yes, the sight of a mammoth hanging upside down from a tree still makes me laugh.) This time, there are two new main cast members - Manny and Ellie's teenage daughter, Peaches (Keke Palmer), and Sid's somewhat senile Granny (Wanda Sykes). Peaches exists, so there can be a youth-oriented subplot about not leaving your real friends behind due to peer pressure. And Granny is here to deliver the film's best lines in Sykes' trademark sarcastic comic style. She's the best thing to happen to this franchise in a while, and I wouldn't mind seeing a cartoon short based around her.

picIn the film's opening sequence, the pathetic little prehistoric squirrel called Scrat (who has become somewhat of a mascot for the franchise, and whose jokes owe a great deal of debt to Chuck Jones' Road Runner shorts) causes the land mass that makes up the Earth to break up into continents during one of his ill-fated missions to grab an elusive acorn. As the land shifts and breaks apart, Manny is separated from his family by a massive fissure in the ground, and ends up drifting off to sea on a large chunk of land, along with Diego, Sid, and Granny. As the animals travel the open seas to reunite with Manny's family, they encounter a band of animal pirates, led by the evil monkey pirate Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage). The Captain has a large crew of followers, but the only one that matters is a female saber-tooth tiger named Shira (Jennifer Lopez), who falls for Diego, and ends up switching sides before the movie is over.

picIf you want to know how little Continental Drift is concerned with character, look no further than the relationship between Diego and Shira. I don't seem to recall the movie giving a reason as to why these two end up together, other than the fact that they're both the same animal, and of the opposite gender. The movie is also very sketchy on the details as to why Shira betrays the pirate crew to begin with, other than a tacked on message on how "family is everything". But then, this is the sort of movie where things just happen. It's not really interested in building its characters, or creating a compelling world for these them to inhabit. It's all about the fast-paced gags, which is sure to entertain the 10-and-under crowd, while the adults will find the whole thing tolerable, but not very exciting.

picThat's not to say there aren't any funny lines (many of which are provided by Sykes), or sweet individual moments. I thought the plot concerning a mole-hog (a cross between a mole and a hedgehog) named Louis was kind of cute. He's voiced by Josh Gad (from Broadway's Book of Mormon), and serves as a shy love interest for Peaches the mammoth. Just the idea of a mole and a mammoth getting together got my mind swimming in ideas that probably don't belong in a kids' movie. Regardless, the character and the plot are kind of cute, even if they both end up getting shortchanged by the movie's constant manic action with pirates and prehistoric fish creatures that can shape-shift somehow. Something tells me that if the movie would just slow down from time to time, I probably would have liked it more.
One final note: Before Ice Age: Continental Drift, there is a five minute Simpsons short titled The Longest Daycare. It's centered on Simpson baby, Maggie, after she is dropped off at the Ayn Rand School for Tots. What follows is a series of clever visual gags (there is no actual dialogue in the film) as Maggie tries to save a stray butterfly from a particularly violent baby who enjoys torturing insects. The film is witty, amusing, and will probably entertain adults more than the main feature that follows. Kids will like it, but will probably like the talking animals more.

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Saturday, July 07, 2012


Oliver Stone's Savages is the kind of movie that deflates, when it should be building up tension. There are some good performances within it, and the movie has been shot well (as if we would expect anything less from Stone), but there's absolutely nothing to care about. This has nothing to do with the fact that there are technically no "decent" people in the movie, and that everybody (even the heroes) are drug dealers, crooks, and back-stabbers. This has to do with the fact that nobody in the script has been given a personality.

picThings kick off with a narration from a woman named O (short for Ophelia). She's played by Blake Lively, and in her narration, she informs us that even though she's the one telling the story, that doesn't mean she's going to live to see the end of it. This sets up a sense that we're in for a twisting and deep story - a sense that does not hang around for long when we realize how little to this story there is. O is romantically involved with, and lives with, two men, who are best friends. They are war veteran Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and the calm and reserved Ben (Aaron Johnson). I would say that for the first 15 minutes or so of the movie, we listen to O describe her life with these guys. This wouldn't be so bad if the screenplay didn't provide her with such a laughably bad narration. When she describes having sex with Chon, she says that it feels like Chon is trying to "f*** the war out of himself", and describes it as "wargasms".

picThe three live together in a beautiful home on the shores of Laguna Beach. Both Chon and Ben have made a fortune in growing pot that's been smuggled into the US from overseas. Eventually their business grows so successful, it grabs the attention of a Mexican cartel, led by the vicious Elena (Salma Hayek, wearing a wig that makes her look like Cleopatra, just a little). She insists on merging their drug operations, and Chon and Ben refuse. Elena gets so mad, she sends her right-hand man, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to kidnap O, and force the boys into cooperating. What follows is a simple revenge plot that never grabs our attention, laced with over the top graphic violence that almost seems to have been thrown in as an attempt to wake up the audience. John Travolta also shows up in a supporting role, as a slimy DEA agent, playing both sides.

picI admit that this could be compelling material for a movie, but Savages takes the entirely wrong approach. It's leisurely and dull, when it should be frantic and tense. It seems to think that throwing in some random scenes of gruesome bloodshed is enough, completely ignoring the characters who should have been the focus. Speaking of focus, that's one thing the screenplay by Stone, Shane Salerno, and Don Winslow (who wrote the novel that inspired this film) never agrees on. It jumps around from one idea to the next, without really spending enough time on any one character or premise. A lot of this may have to do with the fact that the movie endured heavy cuts on its way to the screen. (A subplot featuring Uma Thurman as O's mother was removed.) But, this ultimately is an aimless screenplay that doesn't know how to make us get involved with these characters.

picAnd yet, everything outside of the script has been done with some skill. The performances are fine, the movie looks great, and it never really offends, at least until the final moments. That's when we get an ending so confused and wrong-headed, it pretty much kills what little good will may have been created. This is the kind of ending that had the audience at my screening laughing and groaning as it started to unravel. How did anyone involved with this movie think that this was the proper way to end the story? I've seen plenty of movies that have shot themselves in the foot with their ending. Savages takes things a step further, by shooting itself in both feet, then stabbing a knife in its kneecaps with its ending.
The more I think back on this movie, the more I realize how little it really is about. Stone and his team are not really trying to make any point on the drug trade, and it lacks the dark satire of Natural Born Killers (the closest Stone movie that this one resembles). It's just a grisly, moody, and uninteresting story told by people we care nothing about. And really, who needs that? Toss in the howler of an ending the movie gives us, and that question becomes even more valid.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

A lot has happened since the first Spider-Man movie hit screens exactly 10 summers ago. The Dark Knight happened. The Avengers happened. And of course, Jonah Hex happened. (Just kidding on that one. No one remembers Jonah Hex, which is for the best, believe me.) At least when it comes to those first two movies, they changed the way most people looked at superhero movies. Looking back on 2002's Spider-Man now, the movie almost seems quaint, and kind of campy in comparison.

picNow here is The Amazing Spider-Man, a reboot of the franchise just five years after the last sequel. Too soon? Most likely. Does the movie cover some of the same material that the first movie did? Undoubtedly. So, why did it have to be made, outside of the obvious reason that Columbia/Sony needed a big summer event back up just in case Men in Black III didn't click with audiences? Well, judging by the evidence up on the screen, they wanted to tell the story in a slightly more mature and emotional kind of way. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the original Spider-Man series. (Well, the first two in that series, anyway.) But it can't be denied that those films, entertaining though they may have been, veered on the side of goofiness a little too often. Under the direction of Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), we get a Spider-Man movie that is a lot of fun, without resorting to camp or silly cameos. (But don't worry, true believers, Stan Lee still pops up here.) And, maybe it's just me, but I found myself caring about Peter Parker and his love interest, Gwen Stacy, more than I did the Parker and Mary Jane relationship in the originals.

picParker this time around is played by Andrew Garfield, who at the age of 28, is fooling nobody when he tries to pass himself off as a high school student. No matter. I found him to be quite likable - He seems more like the kind of guy who would take to life as a superhero, pulling off fantastic flying and leaping stunts, as even before he dons the mask, he's a bit of thrill seeker with his skateboard. The first hour or so of the movie will likely seem to be the most familiar, although the movie does change things up enough so it doesn't feel like a complete retread. We have Peter being bullied at school by Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), we have him living with his loving Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), and we have him gaining access to a science lab, where he is bitten by a genetic-mutant spider, which gives him his powers. But, some of the details are different. This time, Peter goes to the lab to look for some information on his parents, who left him years ago, and were involved in some kind of experiment they would not elaborate on. This leads him to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who may hold some answers to Peter's past, and will play a big role in his life in the future.

picOne big change is the arrival of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who was Spider-Man's original girlfriend in the comics before Mary Jane came along. Yeah, they used the character in Spider-Man 3 (she was played by Bryce Dallas Howard in that one), but they did it all wrong that time. They fix their mistakes here by making Gwen a smart, capable young woman who not only has wonderful romantic chemistry with Peter, but proves to be more than a match for him when he becomes the web-crawling superhero. I personally was relieved to see that not once is Gwen treated as a damsel in distress in any of her scenes. She helps Peter out, and even fights alongside him once or twice. She even figures out that her new boyfriend is Spider-Man fairly quickly. Dating Gwen brings a lot of problems for Peter, as her father (Denis Leary) is the Police Captain, who doesn't like the idea of a masked superhero going around, doing the job that the cops are supposed to do, and wants to arrest him.

picFor a majority of its running time, The Amazing Spider-Man focuses on these different characters, and their relationships with each other, and is probably for the better for it. But, when the action sequences show up, the movie doesn't disappoint either. Remember Dr. Curt Connors? Well, not only did he work with Peter's dad on a secret experiment years ago, but he also recently has started an experiment with lizards to see if they can regrow lost limbs and skin tissue. He has a personal connection with the project, having lost one of his arms years ago. As often happens with scientists in comic book stories, the experiment goes wrong, and renders the previously good doctor completely insane. It also mutates him into a hulking lizard man, who likes to burst from the sewers and knock cars around with his massive tail. The effects used in the Spider-Man and Lizard battles are first rate. Both characters are obviously animated in a lot of their battles, but seem to have weight, and don't just fly around without boundaries.

picSpeaking of which, everything in this movie seems to have more weight than the previous entries. I cared more about the characters and what they were going through, and I was more involved in the fight sequences. There are a couple of great action sequences, such as when Spider-Man saves a kid from a dangling car, and a battle set within Peter's high school. I wouldn't call this movie darker or edgier, as it does still have a sense of humor about itself. But, it does feel a bit heavier than before. Credit the screenwriters, who obviously wanted to focus a bit more on the human side of the characters this time around. Not that the screenplay is perfect. I found the fact that the police seemed focused on arresting Spider-Man, when there is a mutant lizard threatening to unleash chemical warfare on Manhattan a bit hard to swallow. Someone needs to sit those officers down, and give them a long talk about priorities.
So, are the arguments valid that we probably don't need a Spider-Man reboot so soon? Probably. But, I think this movie sets itself apart from the originals enough that I didn't mind. It has its own tone, without aping the style of previous director, Sam Raimi. The cast is strong enough that we're not constantly comparing them to the original stars. Even the music score by James Horner seems to be a step up from the one Danny Elfman gave us previously. This is a rare case of unnecessary remake/reboot that becomes a little more necessary the more I think about it.

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Sunday, July 01, 2012

People Like Us

Alex Kurtzman's People Like Us is a strange movie. By all accounts, the movie follows the rigid formula of a romantic comedy-drama. However, there is no romance here. That's because the main characters are brother and sister, even though one of them does not know it. So, naturally, there can be no romantic angle, unless the filmmakers want to completely alienate any audience that might want to see it. And yet, the movie plays out the same way as a lot of romantic movies do, with music montages, a little kid who brings the two together, and a plot where everything could be solved if one character just said one thing, but decides not to speak up, because otherwise the movie would be over in five minutes.

picMuch like this weekend's Magic Mike, People Like Us is "inspired by a true story" of events that happened to co-writer and director, Alex Kurtzman, who is best known for writing blockbuster scripts like Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the Star Trek reboot, and two of the live action Transformers films. I'm all for the guy (and his writing partner, Roberto Orci) taking a break from big budget movies to do a sentimental drama based on something that happened to him, but it's ultimately pointless, since the movie ends up being so formulaic and completely by the book that all reality seems to have been sucked out of the premise. Magic Mike, which was inspired by star Channing Tatum's days as a stripper and male dancer, felt real and honest. This movie seems processed, manipulative, and melodramatic.

picAs the film opens, we're introduced to Sam (Chris Pine), a slick and brash young businessman who has a talent for making his clients think they've come out on top in their transactions with him, only to have him end up walking away with most of the profit. Sam has obviously been doing this long enough that he figures things will never go wrong, but they do, when he tries to ship some soup cans to a client in an unrefrigerated box, and they end up exploding before they can get to the buyer. Because of this, his boss (Jon Favreau) is breathing down his neck, and the Federal Trade Commission wants to investigate him. Right about this time, Sam gets news that his father has passed away. He never had a good relationship with his father, who was a successful record producer in the music business, but not a very successful dad to Sam. But, he needs a place to hide out from the FTC, so he decides to fly home to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde).

picJust in case we miss the point that Sam is supposed to be a selfish jerk who thinks only of himself, he deliberately misses the plane just so he won't have to sit through his father's funeral, and catches a later one that will make him arrive after it. His mother, Lilian (Michelle Pfeiffer), is wise to his tricks, however, so as soon as she sees him come home, she gives him a hard slap across the face before welcoming him back. It's the first of many emotional moments in People Like Us that just don't really ring true. The next day, Sam meets with his father's lawyer (Philip Baker Hall), who gives him $150,000 in cash, and a note from dad that says Sam needs to deliver the money to a sister that he never knew he even had. Looks like dad had a secret family on the side that he never told Sam about, though Lilian seems to know. Unfortunately, she avoids the issue every time he tries to talk about it. Therefore, he decides to track down this lost half-sister, all the while contemplating keeping the money for himself.

picThe sister is Frankie (played by a very good Elizabeth Banks), a down on her luck woman who is struggling to beat a past alcohol problem by going to AA meetings, and is equally struggling to raise a bright but troubled son named Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario), who is such a brat when we first meet him, we know that he has a heart of gold lurking underneath. He just needs the right father figure to bring it out. Wouldn't you know it, that's right about the time Sam enters their lives. He meets Frankie by following her to an AA meeting, where she conveniently reads their father's obituary in front of the whole group, which proves to Sam that she really is his sister. He continues to follow her around, until they strike up a conversation, and become very close friends. He even starts hanging around the house, and helping out with things and raising Josh.

picThis begins the forced plot from which the movie never recovers - Sam decides to keep their true relationship a secret from Frankie. If he would say just one simple phrase, "I am your brother", the movie would be over, so the screenplay naturally twists itself about and looks for opportunities for him to not spell things out. Therefore, we get some scenes between Sam and Frankie that almost seem like dates. They laugh over private dinners, they go on family outings together, and we can tell that poor, oblivious Frankie is starting to flirt with him just a little. Yet, even this does not inspire Sam to tell her the truth. He just keeps the lie going for reasons that make no sense. Of course, when the truth is eventually discovered, Frankie freaks out, kicks him out of their home, and we get a sequence where Sam almost throws everything away, but goes running back from the airport in a race to set things right again.

picPeople Like Us is the kind of movie where every emotion is directly on the nose, and spelled out for the audience. There's not a hint of subtlety in its entire running time. Of the performances, only Elizabeth Banks makes much of an impression. She has a weariness and a sadness to her performance that lets us know she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, which fits her character. Chris Pine, on the other hand, is somewhat more subdued, and not in a good way. His performance usually ranges from understated to a fault and unemotional, to too much emotion, such as the scenes where he's supposed to be angry, and ends up screaming his lines. As for Pfeiffer, she exists simply for her big scene where she gets to reveal everything to her son about his father's secret past with another woman. Up until that scene, she's underused.
This is a well-intentioned movie, and I'm sure its motives are sincere. I just couldn't get behind it, because I didn't believe a minute of it. The movie opens by telling us this is a true story, which is a mistake in an overblown melodrama such as this. Ultimately, the movie is harmless and it never really offends. It just ends up being kind of unnecessary.

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