Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
As grand as the themes of good and evil, needs and deservings, power and responsibility and such forth are, superhero movies are generally pretty straightforward in premise: hero stops villain from wreaking havoc. As off-putting as this kind of simplicity might sound, it's usually the right way to go. If you pack enough substance into your characters and adhere your plot to these linear margins, you can actually wind up saying a healthy amount (and having a lot of fun). The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gets half of this formula down pat. Although Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker is still a moreover undistinguished identity, his emotional magnitude (re: his relationship with Gwen Stacy) is enough to keep him valid through the storm of lunacy that is his second feature. And it's not even that lunacy that holds him back. The problem isn't how wild his conquests are, how silly some of the action sequences feel, or how absolutely bonkers his villains turn out to be. It's all the other stuff (and yes, if you can believe it, there's a ton more going on in this movie than what I've already mentioned — that's the issue). All the plot twists, tertiary mysteries, ominous flashbacks, abject reveals, and weightlessly sinister pawns in this brooding game that, save for its fun with the baddies, takes itself way too seriously. All that stuff that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 thinks is necessary to make Peter Parker matter? It actually does just the opposite.
Peter is at his best when he's playing Tracy and Hepburn with the girlfriend he's perpetually disappointing (the eternally charming Emma Stone), or trying to win back the favor of the only remaining parental figure from whom he's rapidly slipping away (Sally Field, reminding us why she's a household name), or angling to connect with the mentally unstable engineer who just wants people to notice him (Jamie Foxx working his comic shtick with a frightening zest). We have the most fun with Peter when he's playing the simplest games, and we connect best with him on similar ground. But Peter and company, at the behest of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise's Sandman-sized aspirations, spend so much time exploring new avenues: the secrets surrounding the death and work of Richard Parker, the behind-the-curtains operations of OsCorp, the nefarious goings on in the waterside penitentiary Ravencroft.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
As a result of the grand stab at world building, there is just so much stuff that Peter has to wade through in this movie, dragging the likes of Gwen and his boyhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, mastering angst, menace, and upper-class privilege all at once) into the dark crevasses of narrative waste. With so many diversions into the emotionally vacant, deliberately joyless explorations of Parker family origin stories, secret brief cases, and underground subways — The Amazing Spider-Man 2 rivals Captain America: The Winter Soldier in complexity, but forgets the necessary ingredient of fun — we barely have enough energy left when the good stuff hits.
And in truth, the good stuff isn't really good enough to sustain us through all the duller periods. Garfield and Stone do have laudable chemistry. Foxx is a hoot as Peter's maniacal new foe, especially when paired with the grimacing DeHaan. And the action, while often straying from any aesthetic authenticity, is nothing shy of neat-o. It's all passable, occasionally worthy of a hearty smile, but rarely anything you'll be definitively pleased you took the time to see.
But beyond coming up short in the micro, the film's regal downfall is its scope. With so much to do, both in accomplishing its own necessary plot points and setting up for those to come in future films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn't seem to take time to make sure it's having fun with its own premise. And if it isn't having fun, we won't be either.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to don his cyber alter ego once again in the third Terminator installment, tentatively titled T3: Rise of the Machines, but will do so without the help of his T1 and T2 cohorts. Although the sequel will still follow the adventures of now-twentysomething John Connor, Edward Furlong will be replaced in that role by a new actor (yet to be casted). Jonathan Mostow (U-571) takes over directing duties from James Cameron and Linda Hamilton will not return as Sarah Connor. Principal photography is set to begin in April.
Tom Cruise, an outspoken supporter of the Church of Scientology, visited the U.S. ambassador in Germany Wednesday and asked him to help improve the organization's status in that country. Why, you may ask? Apparently Germany views the group as a moneymaking venture rather than a valid religion, and has barred Scientologists from government jobs.
Joel and Ethan Coen, the quirky creators of Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There, are in negotiations to remake the 1966 British caper comedy Gambit. The story revolves around a British thief involved in a heist of a lifetime and is being touted as a vehicle for actor Hugh Grant.
Universal Studios is suing MGM for false advertising and unfair competition in regards to the current ad campaign for MGM's February release Rollerball, a remake of the 1975 camp classic. The studio is upset that the broadcast spots claim Rollerball comes from the creators of Universal's The Fast and the Furious, when in actuality only one screenwriter, John Pogue, is credited on both films. A temporary restraining order was issued by a federal judge Tuesday to stop the ads from running.
Jude Law is in talks to star in David Mamet's Diary of a Young London Physician, an updated take on the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. Spanish beauty Penelope Cruz is also being considered for the female lead. Hmm, didn't she say she was taking a break?
CBS will maximize its chances to get ahead in the May sweeps by moving the two-hour final episode of the upcoming Survivor: Marquesas to Sunday, May 19, instead of waiting until the following Thursday. During the last week of the May ratings book, CBS will air no fewer than fours of the hit reality show. Smart move.
The Stephen King miniseries Rose Red, the first two parts of which aired Sunday and Monday night, gave ABC a much-needed boost in the ratings. The spooky three-parter about a haunted house in Seattle took in 20 million viewers Sunday and 18.7 million on Monday, mightily beating the competition. The third part airs Thursday.
For the first time ever, Fox News Channel beat CNN in viewership during a one-month period, which hasn't been accomplished by any other cable news channel in nearly 15 years. You realize, of course, this means war.
ABC has announced that The Wayne Brady Show will be taking over the timeslot currently occupied by The Rosie O'Donnell Show when the talk show goes off the air. This leaves Caroline Rhea, whose show was widely thought to be taking over Rosie's slot, to find a new time of her own.
There might be a little life left in the VHS format after all. Based on a new digital VHS (D-VHS) format, Fox, Universal, DreamWorks and Artisan have announced they will release high-definition movies on videocassette in June. We'll see if can they really compete with DVDs.
Rocker Courtney Love is one step closer to getting her way. In her counter-suit against record company Universal, the California Court of Appeals granted Love clearance Monday to pursue her challenge of California labor laws that hold recording artists to contracts longer than artists in other fields. Universal originally sued the singer for breach of contract when she refused to record for them in 1999.
The sexual harassment trial against the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, began Tuesday in a L.A. court. A former employee who claims she was fired after refusing the 68-year-old singer's sexual advances filed a $2 million lawsuit against Brown in 2000. Brown has issued a statement denying the accusations, which he calls "baseless and outrageous."
Singing legend Carol Channing was hospitalized in New York Tuesday after she became ill backstage before a scheduled appearance on The View. Apparently stricken with a virus, Channing will remain at the Lennox Hill Hospital for a day or two, according to her publicist.
R&B singer Chante Moore married fellow crooner Kenny Lattimore in Jamaica New Year's Day, Lattimore's record label Arista Records told The Associated Press Tuesday. Moore was previously married to actor Kadeem Hardison and they have one child together.
Author Susan Sontag will be providing liner notes to rebel rocker Patti Smith's retrospective album. The album will feature lyrics, notes, original artwork and previously unavailable photos of the legendary rock 'n' roll singer.