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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Gun to my head, I might be able to say something positive about 300: Rise of an Empire. In a vacuum, I suppose I'd call its aesthetic appealing, its production value impressive, or its giant rhinos kind of cool. But these elements cannot be taken alone, embroidered on a gigantic patch of joyless pain that infests your conscious mind from its inceptive moments on.
It's not so much that the 300 sequel fails at its desired conceit — it gives you exactly what it promises: gore, swordplay, angry sex, halfwit maxims about honor and manliness and the love of the fight. It's simply that its desired conceit is dehumanizing agony. Holding too hard and too long to its mission statement to top its Zack Snyder-helmed predecessor in scope, scale, and spilled pints of blood, Noam Murro's Rise of an Empire doesn't put any energy into filtering its spectacular mayhem through whatever semblance of a humanistic touch made the first one feel like a comprehensive movie.
Now, it's been a good eight years since I've seen 300, and I can't say that I was particularly fond of it. But beneath its own eye-widening layer of violence, there was a tangible idea of who King Leonidas was, what this war meant, and why Sparta mattered. No matter how much clumsy exposition is hurled our way, all we really know here is that there are two sides and they hate each other.
When Rise of an Empire asks us to engage on a more intimate level, which it does — the personal warfare between Sullivan Stapleton (whose name, I guess, is Themistokles) and Bad Guy Captain Eva Green (a.k.a. Artemisia) is founded on the idea that she likes him, and he kind of digs her (re: angry sex), and they want to rule together, but a rose by any other name and all that — we're effectively lost. With characters who don't matter in the slightest, material like this is just filler between the practically striking battle sequences.
But when the "in-between material" is as meaningless as it is in Rise of an Empire, the battles can't function as much more than filler themselves. Filler between the opening titles and closing credits. A game of Candy Crush you play on the subway. Contemptfully insubstantial and not particularly fun, but taking place nonetheless.
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Without even a remote layer of camp — too palpably absent as Rise of an Empire splashes its screen with so much human fluid that "The End" by The Doors will start to play in your head — there's no victory in a movie like this. No characters to latch onto, no story to follow, no joy to be derived. Yes, it might be aesthetically stunning (and really, that's where the one star comes in... well, half a star for that and half for the giant rhinos), but the marvel of its look shrinks under the shadow of the painful vacancy of anything tolerable.
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Universal via Everett Collection
Lone Survivor isn't a film for the faint of heart. It's a film that beats you down and only lets you up for a few precious moments before the credits roll, but that emotional throttling is what helps make the film such a powerful experience.
Peter Berg's Lone Survivor tells the story of Operation Red Wings, primarily focusing on a group of four Navy SEALs who are sent to the mountains of Afganistan to capture or kill a member of the Taliban. The plan goes wrong, and the team has to fight for their lives to escape the enemy-infested area. The film does a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension before collapsing into its main action sequence, one that is as thrilling as it is unsettling. The long sequence brings forth memories of the infamous D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, except this film's fire-fight stretches out the violence like a medieval torture device. The langourous scene is, at times, hard to sit through. Each moment slips by in coiled tension. It's undoubtedly uncomfortable, and the film makes a point to never make the violence fun or enticing. The action isn't consequence-free, and every bullet fired carries weight, making the scenes brutal and unrelenting because of it. The film takes on the aura of a horror movie that wants you to feel every second that ticks by, and director Berg makes sure that a pressing hopelessness starts to weigh on the viewer just as it does on the soldiers.
Mark Wahlberg is plenty capable as Marcus Lutrell, a member of the SEAL unit that is sent on the mission. The supporting cast plays its parts admirably by believably infusing a diverse set of personalities and values into the soldiers, while still keeping them in tune with the same military culture that governs much of their thoughts and actions. There's a great scene where a difficult decision has to be made, and the viewer gets to see the different directions to which some of the character's moral compasses are tuned. Sometimes the right thing can mean different things to different people when the risk of death is on the table. The real standout in the cast is Ben Foster, whose SO2 Matthew Alexson swirls with barely contained fury. He is darkly intense and has electric screen presence that really starts to manifest when the bullets star flying and things become dire.
Universal via Everett Collection
For all the good will that the film builds up in its first and second act, the final third of the film hits some snags as history demands that the story take itself to a different location, sacrificing some of the tension that it has built up. In the last 30 minutes of the film, there are some odd tonal choices that don't gel with the tension brimming in the first half. A comedic scene involving a language barrier stands out in particular.
The movie makes a point to steer clear of any political judgment, and it doesn't try to lay blame for the botched mission on any one head. And while the film never outwardly states and opinion on the conflicts that America found itself embroiled in during this time period, the searing brutality depicted in the movie highlight that no one should be subjected to the pain that these men were faced with. Made abundantly clear is the soldiers' willingness to drop everything and serve their country the best way they know how. Lone Survivor tries to honor the soldier, but not glorify war.
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Lone Survivor is at its best when it makes you feel the worst. It gives soldiers their due reverence by showcasing the true terror of the battlefield, and while the film does start to sag a bit in its third act, it's still more than worth the experience in order understand the consequences of war, and its toll on the people in the trenches.
Antiwar celebs are making their political views known via--what else? the small screen. Martin Sheen, who plays fictional U.S. President Josiah Bartlet on NBC's The West Wing, headlines a TV ad that debuts in Los Angeles and Washington today. Sheen and other stars including Janeane Garofalo and Mike Farrell are part of a group called Artists United to Win Without War that is urging Americans to join a Feb. 26 "virtual march" on Washington to oppose war with Iraq. Groups advocating a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis have had a difficult time buying national air time for antiwar spots because CNN and other networks are reluctant to air any advocacy ads, regardless of the issue, Variety reports. The ad will air on CNN and Fox News Channel in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., through next week.
A superior court judge ruled Wednesday that Michael Jackson's response to a lawsuit brought by his former business manager will be included in the pop singer's upcoming trial, The Associated Press reports. Myung Ho Lee, head of Union Finance and Investment Corp., sued Jackson last April, claiming the singer owes him $13 million in back pay. Jackson, however, alleges Lee breached contracts and did not act in good faith while giving him business advice. If the matter isn't settled in mediation scheduled for April 17, it will go to trial on June 18.
R. Kelly claims a 24-year-old woman's allegations that he sexually abused her at a recording studio on Chicago's North Side are an attempt to damage his career, the AP reports. The statement by R. Kelly's camp said the allegation came on the same day R. Kelly released his latest album and is "nothing more than an outrageous and blatant attempt at character assassination." Police say all they are dealing with at this point are allegations against the singer.
Adam Rich, who played Nicholas on the 1970s TV show Eight is Enough, was charged Tuesday with a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence, the AP reports. Rich was arrested Dec. 18 after California Highway Patrol officers said he drove onto a closed section of Interstate 10 and nearly struck a patrol car. Rich failed a field sobriety test and officers said they smelled the odor of marijuana in his car, but didn't find the drug. Prosecutors said they didn't immediately file charges because they had to wait for results of an additional chemical analysis.
Country singer Johnny Paycheck, best known for his blue-collar anthem "Take This Job and Shove It," died Tuesday in a Georgia nursing home after a long battle with emphysema and related respiratory ailments, Reuters reports. Paycheck had nearly three dozen hits, beginning with the hard-driving 1965 song "A-11." He earned two Grammy nominations during his career, the first in 1971 for the single "She's All I Got" and the second in 1978 for "Take This Job and Shove It." In 1997, he was entered into the Grand Ole Opry.
Alfred Molina, who recently starred as Diego Rivera in the Frido Kahlo biopic Frida, has been cast in the role of the evil Doc Ock in Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man sequel for director Sam Raimi, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "Alfred Molina has a remarkable facility for everything from classic drama to mainstream comedy, and he is the ideal choice for Doc Ock," Columbia Pictures chairman Amy Pascal told the trade. Principal photography begins in April for a 2004 release. Stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco are back for the sequel, as are producers Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad.
The romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding set a DVD sales record last week for its genre, selling more than 4 million units during its first five days in release, reports The Hollywood Reporter. According to Video Store magazine data, the HBO home video was also a hit in the rental charts, earning an estimated rental revenue gross of $19.56 million after five days on rental shelves. That equals the first week estimated rental gross earned by Warner Home Video's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone released last year. Although HBO executives were mum on exact sales figures, Nielsen VideoScan data showed that Greek Wedding topped both the DVD and VHS sell-through charts by a wide margin for the week ending Feb. 16. Hey, as Gus Portokalos would say, "There are two kinds of people--Greeks, and everyone else who wish they was Greek."
Trista Rehn picked poetic firefighter Ryan Sutter over looker Charlie Maher in ABC's two-hour finale of The Bachelorette Wednesday night. Sutter immediately dropped to his knees and asked Trista--the woman he's known for six weeks--to marry him. The former Miami Heat cheerleader said yes. "This day is a day I dreamed about my entire life," Rehn said. "I see smiles and laughter, I see babies and grandbabies, I see comfort and safety. I see me in a white dress and I see it with you." The show, which faded in appeal compared to Fox's Joe Millionaire, was ABC's most popular show last week.
Jud Taylor, who has directed more than 40 telefilms, will be presented with a special achievement honor at this year's Directors Guild of America awards on March 1, City News Service reports. Taylor, who was DGA president from 1981 to 1983, will receive the Robert B.
Aldrich Achievement Award for his "extraordinary service to the guild and its membership." Taylor won a DGA award in 1987 for Foxfire and received an Emmy nomination in 1977 for Tail Gunner Joe. He has also directed episodes of series such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Fugitive and Star Trek.
Hip-hop star Nelly, whose 2002 Nellyville was the second best-selling album, has postponed his planned tour of Britain until the fall, citing "an unforeseeable personal matter," his promoter Clear Channel said in a statement. Nelly was to perform with fellow rapper Eve next month in cities in England, Wales and Ireland. The statement did