Monday, July 9, 2012

Good, But Not Quite Amazing....

In order to give a proper review to “The Amazing Spider-Man”, I must get the basic synopsis of the movie out of the way first.  The movie revolves around Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), an “average” high school kid in New York City who loses his parents at a young age and ends up growing up with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field).  One day, Peter is nosing his way around an expensive science lab when a genetically enhanced spider bites him.   Later on, Peter wakes up with abilities similar to that of a spider (climbing, jumping, and precognitive abilities).  Peter spends a little too much time chasing a girl named Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), behaves a bit selfishly, and puts Uncle Ben in a dangerous situation where he ends up dead.   Peter is then inspired by this tragedy to fight crime dressed as a masked vigilante known as Spider-man.
Meanwhile there is a misguided scientist named Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans) who gets a little overzealous and ends up making a monster of himself.   He has a couple run-ins with Spider-man and eventually plots a huge city-wide catastrophe.   Low and behold, Peter Parker’s personal life mixes with his secret identity and he has to save the city and the girl of his dreams.

Without telling you any great detail, that is what you would expect from a Spider-man movie, correct?  This is where the film’s director (Mark Webb) makes a big mistake.  He tries too heavily to give his audience what they don’t expect.  This leads to what is often known as an expectancy violation.  People predict the future and form expectations based upon pre-established beliefs, ideas, and history.   When someone behaves or something occurs that doesn’t follow the expected path, people can have two very different reactions.  They either take to it favorably or find that it just doesn’t sit well with them.  An expectancy violation isn’t always a bad thing, but it almost always warrants a significant reaction.

(Although I won’t make any direct descriptions of plot, some people might say I am getting spoilery in the coming paragraphs)

In the case of “The Amazing Spider-Man” audiences are likely to be annoyed by the creative liberties taken by the film.  We expect the basic plot as is described above.   However, we expect certain details of the characters and the intricacies as well.  For example, fans familiar with Spider-Man expect that Peter Parker needs to be drastically different than his masked alter-ego.  He needs to be socially awkward, average looking at best, have poor vision, and carry around the personal baggage of losing his parents.  Well, this movie decides that they need their Peter Parker to be an overly handsome young man with great hair, the athletic ability to skateboard like a pro, wear contacts, and appear generally charming.  Yes, I am saying that Andrew Garfield does not come off nerdy enough.  He was three times as nerdy in “The Social Network”.  Also, he doesn’t seem to appreciate everything his Aunt May and Uncle Ben have done for him.  Peter Parkers doesn’t give off the vibe that he owes his aunt and uncle everything.  Anyone who knows Spider-man knows that this is a pretty big component of the hero’s arc.

Now I understand that it is a reboot and an origin story at the same time, so they had to do some things differently.  What may have been more effective for them would have been to just speed up the whole origin aspect of the story and dropped with the dramatic changes to it.  Give the kid his super powers, throw in the new love interest, have the new villain show up, and take it in a new direction from there.  Instead they messed with the foundation of what made the Sam Raimi Spider-man movies work (not the 3rd one.  I won’t admit to that one existing).  That foundation was the ongoing internal struggles of a young man with more power than he should be allowed to have.  “The Amazing Spider-Man” makes Peter Parker look like a show-boat with his powers.   That only works half-way, which is when he is Spider-Man.

From everything I have ever seen and read about Spider-Man, I know he is a smart mouthed, fast talking, almost-comedian while he fights crime.  The comics, cartoons, and video games all have done a great job of showing this.  Webb’s version of Spider-man does this as well.  In fact, this is the one part of the Spider-man story he totally owns in comparison to Sam Raimi.  Kudos should be given to Andrew Garfield for his delivery of the lines behind the mask.    However, when the mask comes off, I felt like it was a clip from the CW’s Tuesday night line-up.  I was warned about this by a colleague of mine before I saw the movie, so I was probably looking out for it.  However, when a friend is right, he’s right.

Also, for those of you who consider yourselves Marvel Comics traditionalists, there is a major swerve from the general accepted histories of Peter Parker’s parents.  They apparently were super secretive and super scientist-like.   Mr. Parker had worked with Curt Conners.  Some of Parker’s work contributes to Conners’ transformation into The Lizard (the big baddie) and if you are connecting the dots, even Peter’s transformation into Spider-man.   If you take this stuff seriously, that won’t sit well with you.

Now I didn’t dislike the movie.   On the contrary, I enjoyed most of it.  I just wanted to like it more.  It deserved to be better.  It deserved to build on what already worked with this hero.  In fact, let me share what I specifically liked about the film.

The movie is visually stunning.  It looked better than any of the other Spider-man movies.  It always didn’t get stuck in the tendency of all the fight scenes taking place at night.   There are some great scenes in broad daylight and even at locations you wouldn’t expect.

Emma Stone shows once again that she has the charisma to steal every scene that she is in.  Also, it appears she may have lost that whole raspy voiced thing she had going on for a while.   Her portrayal of Gwen Stacy makes her the most likable and engaging character in the entire movie.  Also, Sally Field does what she can to make Aunt May likable.  The writing of the character wasn’t the most solid, but she at least plays the part so well that you root for her to bitch slap her nephew.

Ultimately, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is hard to swallow if you have any previous experience and/or admiration for the character.  It is by no means bad, but suffers because real fans have expectations.  Overall I give it **1/2 out of 4 *s.  It would get the other half of that star of Andrew Garfield wasn’t so pretty.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

My review of "Brave"

Pixar makes movies with great stories, great characters, and great moments.  They tend to do that better than any of the major movie studios and seem to collect Oscars every year.  The best part about all this is that their movies are animated.

There is a paradigm that suggests that animated movies are nothing more than cartoons for children.   Anyone who has seen a Pixar movie knows that is the farthest thing from the truth.  Pixar uses a niche form of media to tell stories in effective ways.  Their latest effort, “Brave”, follows an established tradition of quality storytelling and character building.  I enjoyed it immensely and am about to tell you why.

First, here is the cast:

Merida…  Kelly Macdonald
Fergus… Billy Connolly
Elinor… Emma Thompson
The Witch…  Julie Walters

The story of “Brave” centers around a Scottish princess named Merida.  She is a spitfire to say the least and has a craving for adventure.  She is not the typical young lady of royalty.  This is established early on with a flashback that shows how she got the bow she now wields like a professional.  The flashback also provides us with the glimpse of the movie’s villain, a ferocious bear named Mor’Du.   Merida’s father, King Fergus goes to battle with this bear, which results in the loss of his leg, which is replaced by a wooden peg.  Mor’Du manages to escape death on that fateful day, only to be seen at a later date.   

The story picks up steam when Elinor invites the lords of three neighboring clans to present their first born son in a competition of sorts for Merida’s hand on marriage.  It represents an age old tradition of arranged marriages.  This process is to be respected in the kingdom which our characters live.  Elinor, being the queen and Merida’s mother, believes whole heartedly in this process.   Merida, being an independent and adventurous young lady, doesn’t agree with these plans for her future.  This is the central conflict of the film.

Merida and her mother don’t see eye to eye on much of anything.  It is your classic teenage daughter argues with her mother, but in a more genuine manner than most movies use the concept.  Merida wants to choose her own husband or whether or not she even wants one in the first place.  In a nutshell, she wants to take control of her future.   Eventually she goes off to find a way around her predetermined fate.   That leads her to a witch in the forest that assists with the casting of a spell that will change everything for Merida.  Specifically, Merida asked for the spell to change her mother.  This being a movie, you know it doesn’t go as planned.

I’ll spare you the details as to what goes wrong.  To say more would spoil a bit of the movie’s plot.  What I can say is that the movie forces Merida and Elinor to confront their mother-daughter problems.  That is where the heart of the story is.  A lot of classic questions about the mother/daughter  dynamic come to the forefront in a thoughtful manner.    “Brave” handles these ideas how you would expect them to be handled by Pixar.  They do so realistically and by keeping all the characters likable in the process. 

There are two things that make “Brave” stand out as one of Pixar’s best works.  The first is the musical score/soundtrack.  Right out of the gate the music sets the tone of the film as adventurous.   There is a bit of Scottish flare in the score and the songs, which also enhances the experience.    Every bit of music helps push the story forward and even builds the characters, which is everything you’d want from the music.

My favorite aspect of “Brave” is simply how great it looks.  It is likely the best work Pixar has done in the animation department.  It works wonders with the 3D concept.  Only “Wall-E” compares in scope and detail.   Every time a wide shot of a landscape is shown, you can’t help but be impressed.  Most impressive are the smaller details, especially how they animated the simplest of things, like Merida’s hair.  

Ultimately, “Brave” is another hit for Pixar.  It will enjoyable for both the kids and adults.  However, I suspect that the grown-ups will enjoy it a little bit more as they reflect upon all their parental conflicts as they were growing up.  Hell, they may be going through it on the other end of the situation as well and might find some comfort in knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel.

All in all I give “Brave” **** out of 4.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (My Review)

The end of the world is a very bleak and grim idea.  Yet, it seems to fascinate the hell out of us.  That is probably because everyone secretly wants to know what happens after “all this”.   The quickest way for everyone to experience that next step together would be for the world to end.  Nobody wants to go into the afterlife alone, do they?  If the Mayans knew what the hell they were talking about, we could find out this December.

Were the Mayans onto something?  Probably not.   Well, maybe not.  Most likely not.  I suppose it isn’t impossible.  Regardless, they got people to talk about them for centuries.  They have inspired all forms of media into exploring the end of the world.  The most recent example of this is a little movie known as “Seeking a Friend to the End of the World”.  This is a movie that doesn’t get into the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, but more or less explores what such an event does to the world when we know it is coming.

The movie centers around Dodge (Steve Carrell), a seemingly unhappy middle-aged insurance salesman.  The story begins as an important announcement is transmitted over the airwaves via the radio and news broadcasts.   The hail Mary effort to fly a rocket into space to destroy an Armageddon sized asteroid named Matilda have failed.  There are roughly 4 weeks until impact and inevitable doom.   This news does not sit well with Dodge’s wife (Nancy Carrell), who gets out of the car and runs into the forest, never to be seen again.  Yes, the movie is bold enough to start this way.

As the movie goes on, we meet Penny (Keira Knightley), who lives in the same apartment building as Dodge.  She breaks up with her boyfriend and ends up having to sleep on the fire escape.  This is where she meets Dodge.  They build a rapport which leads to them making a deal involving their doomsday plans.  Dodge wants to go find a long lost love.  Penny wants to fly home to England to see her family before everything goes black.  Commercial flights have stopped at this point and Dodge says that he knows a guy who can fly her there.  Penny happens to have some wheels to get Dodge to his true love.   It is at this point the movie evolves into a dramedy of a road trip movie that follows the characters into the final days before that asteroid collides.

The previews make the movie to be a fun loving comedy.  That is basically not the case here.  “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is a drama that takes a humorous look at a gloomy topic.  The funny portions of the movie will make you laugh, but they are paced out throughout the film.  What the previews could never convey is just how much heart is in the story.  By the time the credits roll, you will be emotionally invested in Dodge and Penny.  I won’t give you any hint to the emotions to will experience as it will ruin the movie for you.  Part of the experience and feeling honest emotions is not knowing where this one goes.  Trust me on that.

The story excels when it is showing the truth.  You might ask how a fictional tale about the end of the world shows the truth.  Well, it shows a lot of honest and genuine behavior that will likely be exhibited when the end is eminent.  People will do some really irrational things.  Some people will let go of their inhibitions.  Some will try to knock things off that bucket list.  Others will want to take advantage of the situation for personal gain.   These situations are shown during the course of the film and lead to the funniest moments.

Steve Carrell gives what may be his finest performance to date.   You knew he was destined for greatness all the way back when he did “The 40 Year Old Virgin”.  Then he did “Little Miss Sunshine” and you saw more of his acting chops.  Then he did “Crazy Stupid Love” which was a performance that got him closer to being an Oscar caliber performer.  I wouldn’t be surprised if something comes of this role next February when the Oscar nominations are announced.   Carrell’s muted and deadpan delivery is what makes his character work.

Kiera Knightley is solid.  I can’t make any complaints of her performance.  She expected to deliver in a dramatic role, however.  Therefore, by relation, her performance isn’t as exception as her counterpart’s.  The real fun performances are the short appearances by the likes of Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Derek Luke, and William Peterson.   All of these people played characters that might seem to over the top in another movie.  Here they just make it work.  I can’t describe it any other way.

Should you go run and buy a ticket to “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”?   No.   See it when you can.  It is one of my favorite movies of the year, so I highly recommend it if you do have the chance.  If that is when it hits DVD, then so bee it.  (I rate it 4/4 on the Stars system)