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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Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Seventeen years ago, Harrison Ford grumbled four simple words that defined a genre, a demographic, and a country: "Get off my plane." In a pre-9/11 world, there was no shortage of jingoistic glee in a movie like Air Force One, in which a man's man American president doled out justice to a militia of Russian loyalist terrorists who made the silly mistake of attempting to hijack his flight home from Moscow. In 2014, we don't have the luxury of facing a plotline like this with reckless merriment. There's a damp gravity to the premise behind movies like Non-Stop, which in another time would have been nothing more than Taken on a Plane. But rigidly conscious of the connotations that attach to a story about a hijacking of a civilian international flight into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, Non-Stop doesn't play too fast and loose. It still plays, and has some good fun doing so, but carefully.
From the getgo, we're anchored into the grim narrative of Liam Neeson's U.S. Air Marshall Bill Marks, who settles his demons with a healthy spoonful of whiskey. A dutiful officer even when liquored up, Marks eyeballs every nameless face in London's Heathrow Airport, silently introducing the bevvy of characters who'll come into play later on. After takeoff, Marks finds himself on the unwitting prowl for the anonymous party who's attempting to take down the red-eye through a series of manipulative text messages, well-timed threats, and clandestine killings. Chatty passenger Julianne Moore and flight attendant Michelle Dockery join Marks in his efforts to identify the mysterious criminal before the entire aircraft falls to his or her whims. So less Taken, more Murder, She Wrote.
Our roundup of suspects challenges our (and their) preconceived notions, and quite laughably — most vocal among Neeson's fellow passengers are a white beta-male school teacher (Scoot McNairy), a black computer engineer with an attitude of entitlement (Nate Parker), a softspoken Middle Eastern surgeon whose headwear gets more than a few focal shots (Omar Metwally), a middle-aged white businessman whose latest account landed him more than your house is worth (Frank Deal), an irate black youngster draped in irreverence (Corey Hawkins), and a white, bald, machismo-howling New York cop who secretly accepts his gay brother (Corey Stoll). Just a few talking heads short of Do the Right Thing, Non-Stop manages to goof on each man's (notice that they're all men — Moore, Dockery, and a barely-in-the-movie Lupita Nyong’o are kept shy of the action for most of the film) distaste for and distrust of one another as they each try to sidle up to, or undermine the harried Marks.
Non-Stop plays an interesting game with its characters and its audience, simultaneously painting the ignorance of its characters with a thick coat of comedy while pointing its finger straight out at us with accusations that we, too, thought it was whoever we just learned it wasn't, and for all the wrong reasons. "Shame on you!" Non-Stop chides, adding, "But let's keep going, this is fun!"
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It is fun — that's the miraculous thing. Without any "Get off my plane"s or "Yippee ki yay"s, Non-Stop keeps its action genre silliness in check (okay, there is a moment involving an airborne gun that'll institute some serious laugh-cheers), investing all of its good time in the game of claustrophobic Clue that we can't help but enjoy. It sacrifices some of its charm in a heavy-handed third act, tipping to one side of what was a pretty impressive balancing act up until that point. But its falter is not one that drags down the movie entirely. Fun and excitement are restored, sincerity is maintained, and even a few moments of sensitivity creep their way through. We might not live in a world of President Harrison Fords any longer, but Air Marshall Liam Neesons could actually be a step up.
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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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Let me guess — you're having kind of a nothing day. Well, here's something to suddenly make it all seem worthwhile: joining their old friends Betty White and Georgia Engel on their TVLand sitcom Hot in Cleveland this week are none other than Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, and Cloris Leachman, resulting in a bona fide The Mary Tyler Moore Show reunion.
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The reteaming of these great comedic forces takes place when the show returns in June; in preparation, Katie has taken to the Hot in Cleveland set to interview the old WJM workforce. The conversation ranges from the upbeat and laugh-filled, with White cracking more than one provocative quip, to the sad and tearful, when the topic turns to Harper's present struggles with cancer.
Check out the videos below:
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Lucky Number 7: VH1 has decided to extend The Jenny McCarthy Show with an order for seven additional episodes. Since its February premiere, Jenny McCarthy’s pop culture talk show has maintained steady viewers and featured a handful of C-list celebrities including Bar Refaeli and Snooki. This extension comes amidst talk that funny girl is being considered to replace Joy Behar on The View, but McCarthy has dismissed the rumors stressing that her allegiance is to VH1. McCarthy will wrap her original episode order next Friday, March 29, and after a brief break the show will resume with new episodes on Friday, April 12. [Deadline]
Oh Baby! Just as production wrapped on season two of ABC Family's Baby Daddy, the network announced it has picked up the sitcom for a third season. The half-hour show has become the top-rated new comedy series in the history of the network. "Baby Daddy was an immediate success when it launched," ABC Family President Michael Ray said in a press release. "Based on the creative strength we saw during production on Season 2, and how the episodes, storylines and characters are developing, we decided to double down on this hit show and keep it in production for additional episodes." Fans can catch the season two premiere of Baby Daddy Wednesday, May 29. [Via release]
Hot Reunion For Mary Tyler Moore Show: Welcome back some old friends: Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, and Cloris Leachman will all guest star on an upcoming episode of Betty White's TV LandHot in Cleveland. All four actresses starred in the multiple Emmy-winning Mary Tyler Moore Show. Georgia Engel -- who also starred in the classic show -- will appear in the episode as well, as she’s had a recurring role on the sitcom since last spring. The episode is about White’s Elka and Engel’s Mamie Sue reuniting their old bowling team, which once included Diane (Moore), Peg (Leachman), and Angie (Harper). This will be the first time in more than 30 years that these five women have appeared on a sitcom together. Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson will also guest star in the reunion episode as a world-renowned, avant garde director with whom Wendie Malick’s Victoria would kill to work. But Ferguson's eccentric director wants to work with a different character, causing a complicated triangle to form. [Entertainment Weekly, TVLine]
Won't You Be My Neighbor? One Tree Hill alum Bethany Joy Lenz has just booked a recurring role on Dexter's eighth (and likely final) season, which kicks off on June 30 at 9 PM ET/PT. Lenz will play Cassie, an "an attractive former finance executive looking for a quieter life," and is slated to debut in the fourth episode. Since she will wind up moving in next door to our favorite serial killer, it looks like she won't find that quieter life she so wants... [TV Guide]
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[Photo Credit: Bob D'Amico/Getty Images]
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Even Lou would have to admire Valerie Harper's tenacity. Just weeks after revealing on Good Morning America that doctors have given her three to six months to live due to a rare form of brain cancer, it was announced that Harper would be joining a full-blown Mary Tyler Moore Show reunion on TV Land's Hot in Cleveland.
Valerie Harper Opens Up About Terminal Cancer Diagnosis
Deadline reports that, in an episode due to tape April 5, series star Betty White will stage a reunion of her old bowling team friends. The members of The Gorgeous Ladies of Bowling (GLOB) just happen to include Mary Tyler Moore, Cloris Leachman, Georgia Engel (who's already made Hot in Cleveland appearances), and Harper. It's the first time all these women have appeared together onscreen since the 1977 finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It may also be the last time we ever see Harper in an episode of scripted television.
Will you be watching when it airs later this spring?
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[Photo Credit: Adam Rose/NBC]
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Open Season follows a few different tired and true scenarios. There’s the fish-out-of-water setup: A 900-pound tamed grizzly bear named Boog (Martin Lawrence) is inadvertently released back into the wild—and has no idea how to wing it. See he was living a pleasant domesticated life with Ranger Beth (Debra Messing) who rescued him as cub. But when he meets Elliot (Ashton Kutcher) a wild mule deer with one antler and helps him escape off the hood of a truck belonging to the very evil hunter Shaw (Gary Sinise) one thing leads to another and Boog finds himself stranded in the woods right at the beginning of hunting season with an annoying Elliot by his side. The other woodland creatures aren’t much help either. Then suddenly Open Season turns into an us-against-them situation as a group of the potentially hunted led by Boog and Elliot decide to unite and fight back. It all gels rather hilariously. Like Laurel and Hardy Boog and Elliot are the classic big guy/little guy comedy duo. Works like a charm and Lawrence and Kutcher yuck it up with the best of them. Sinise’s voice is somewhat unrecognizable as the rotten-to-the-core Shaw while Messing is her kooky self as the do-gooder park ranger. Even Georgia Engel--sweet Georgette from The Mary Tyler Moore Show--lends her distinctive voice as a talkative camper. But what really makes Open Season zing is all the idiosyncratic side characters: Scottish squirrel McSquizzy (Billy Connolly) who gets all Braveheart on those he doesn’t like; a New Jersey-type construction beaver named Reilly (Jon Favreau); Buck Ian (Patrick Warburton) the arrogant leader of the deer herd; sassy Latina skunks (Michelle Murdocca and Nika Futterman); a sad but creepy porcupine (Matt Taylor); and a duck (Danny Mann) suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Then there are the rabbits a panicky bunch who never say anything but are always around by the thousands. They stick to things too if you throw them. Out of the glut of CGI-animated comedies this year Over the Hedge and Open Season are the true stand outs. Why? Maybe it’s because they are both created by comic-strip cartoonists (Over the Hedge is based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis) who by the very nature of their jobs have a certain wry outlook on life. Cartoonist Steve Moore (of In the Bleachers fame) thought of Open Season after reading stories about domesticated animals living in mountain communities who eventually outstay their welcome and are sent out into the wilderness. How would they survive? According to Open Season not very well. Obviously incorporating creative forces from outside the box gives Open Season a refreshing comical edge. It’s still hard to top the reigning kings Pixar and DreamWorks but the new kids on the block Sony Pictures Animation whose only other credit so far is Monster House (another standout for the year) are showing some mettle.