The Amazing Spider-Man would prefer if you didn't call it the fourth Spider-Man movie. See this ain't the Spider-Man your older brother knew from ten years ago — it's a reboot. The latest adventure to feature the comic book webslinger throws three movies worth of established mythology straight out the window swapping the original cast with an ensemble of fresh faces and resetting the franchise with a spiffy new origin story. "New" in the loosest sense of the word — the highlights of ASM mainly a sleek new design and spunky reinterpretation of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and gal pal Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) are weighed down by overpowering sense of familiarity. Nearly a beat for beat replica of the 2002 original with some irksome twists of mystery thrown in Amazing Spider-Man fails to evolve its hero or his quarrels. The film has a great sense of cinematic power but little responsibility in making it interesting.
We're first introduced to Peter Parker as a young boy watching as his parents rush out of the house in response to a hidden danger. Mr. and Mrs. Parker leave their son in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Fields) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) who raise him into Andrew Garfield's geeky cool spin on the character. Parker's a science whiz but faces the challenges of every day life — passing classes talking to girls the occasional jock with aggression issues — but all of life's woes are put on hold when the teen discovers a new clue in the mystery behind his parents' disappearance. The discovery of his dad's old briefcase and notes leads Peter to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a scientist working for mega-conglomerate Oscorp and his Dad's old partner. When they cross paths Connors instantly takes a liking to the wunderkind and loops him into the work he started with his father: replicating the regeneration abilities of lizards in amputee humans (Connors is driven to reform his own missing arm). But when Parker wanders into Oscorp's room full of spiders (a sloppily explained this-needs-to-be-here-for-this-to-happen device) he receives his legendary spider bite that transforms him into the hero we know.
Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) desperately wants Amazing Spider-Man to work as a high school relationship movie but with the burden of massive amounts of plot and mythology to introduce the movie sags under the sheer volume of stuff. Stone turns Parker's object of affection Gwen Stacey into a three-dimensional character. Whenever they happen upon each other an awkward exchange in the hallway a flirtatious back-and-forth in the Oscorp lab (where Stacey is head…intern) or when the two finally begin a romantic relationship the two stars shine. They're vivid characters chopped to bits in the editing room diluted by boring franchise-building plot threads and routine action sequences. Seriously Amazing Spider-Man another mad scientist villain who uses himself as a test subject only to become a monster? And another bridge rescue scene? Amazing Spider-Man desperately wants to disconnect from the original trilogy but it's trapped in an inescapable shadow and does nothing radical to shake things up. Instead it settles for the same old same old while preparing for inevitable sequels instead of investing in its dynamic duo.
There's a sweet spot where the film really hits his stride. After discovering his spider-abilities Peter hits the streets for the first time. He's superhuman but still a headstrong teen full of obnoxious quips and close calls with shiv-wielding thugs. The action is slick small and playful Webb showing us something new by melding his indie sensibilities with big scale action. If only it lasted — the introduction of Ifans reptilian half The Lizard implodes Amazing Spider-Man into incomprehensible blockbuster chaos. A gargantuan beast wreaking havoc around New York City promises King Kong-like escapades for the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man but the lizard man has other plans: to rule the world! Or something. Whatever it takes to get Lizard and Spider-Man fighting on the top of a skyscraper over a doomsday machine — logic be damned.
Amazing Spider-Man peppers its banal foundation with great talent from Denis Leary as Gwen's wickedly funny dad and the police captain hunting down Spider-Man to Fields and Sheen as two loving adults in Peter's life to Garfield and Stone whose chemistry demands a follow-up for the sake of seeing them reunited. But it's all at the cost of putting on the most expensive recreation of all time with new demands imposed by the success Marvel's other properties (except that franchise teasing worked). Amazing Spider-Man introduces too many ideas that go nowhere undermining the actual threat at hand. No one wants to be unfulfilled but that's the overriding difference between the original movie and the update. You need to pay for the sequel to know what the heck is going on in this one.
Now here is a reboot to cheer for. The Muppets heralds the return of Jim Henson’s beloved furry creations resurrected from pop-culture irrelevance and lovingly restored to their former greatness in a vibrant comedy-musical.
Jason Segel in addition to co-writing and starring in the film served as executive producer and the project's resident evangelist. His choice of collaborators is inspired. Directing is James Bobin best known as the co-creator along with Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords a show whose good-natured and yet slyly irreverent tone often recalled that of old Muppet Show episodes. (I’ve never quite recovered from its premature departure.) McKenzie served as music supervisor contributing several original songs to the soundtrack. Segel’s co-star Amy Adams is the rare breed of actress who can transition from playing a pugilistic potty-mouthed waitress (in The Fighter) to the role of an angelic schoolteacher with ease. And few actors portray cartoonish villainy with more verve than Oscar winner Chris Cooper.
The film opens with a montage introducing the character of Walter a Muppet raised in Smalltown USA who figures himself the first and only of his kind until he happens upon an old Muppet Show rerun after which he is inexorably transfixed. Together with his “brother ” Gary (Segel) and Gary’s fiancé Mary (Adams) he travels out to Los Angeles to meet his idols only to find their studio vacated and on the verge of being demolished by Tex Richman (Cooper) a sinister tycoon who covets the oil reserves beneath it.
The only way to save the studio naturally is a kick-ass variety show reuniting the Muppets long estranged after the demise of their television series. Kermit the Frog is now holed up in a sprawling Bel Air mansion which he once dreamed of sharing with his former flame Miss Piggy who has gone on to become Vogue’s “plus-size” editor in Paris. Consummate entertainer Fozzy Bear is slumming it in Reno with a tribute band dubbed the Moopets; Gonzo is consumed by his work as CEO of the plumbing company Gonzo’s Royal Flush; and Animal is seeking treatment at the Fresh Pathways anger management clinic.
Segel and company’s affection for the original Muppets property is clear so much so that some viewers may dismiss the film as a tedious exercise in nostalgia. Pay them no heed. Kermit and the crew are as fresh and funny as they were three decades ago and their anarchic brand of humor with young and old alike. The film suffers from an over-emphasis on its human characters (Gonzo’s miniscule screen time is particularly baffling) and McKenzie’s songwriting while more than adequate yields no memorable standouts in the vein of “Rainbow Connection” or “Mah Na Mah Na ” but these are minor quibbles. Only cynical curmudgeons like Statler and Waldorf would waste time finding fault with an experience this joyous.
If Transformers: Dark of the Moon is indeed Michael Bay’s final entry in the Hasbro toy-inspired franchise as he has repeatedly intimated then it is a fitting swan song for a director whose lust - and gift - for spectacle remains unmatched. Exhilarating and exasperating awe-inspiring and stupefying the third installment in the blockbuster alien-robot saga is less a movie than a prolonged manic episode. In other words it’s a Michael Bay film.
Any suspicion that Bay might have matured at all since his last film 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen vanishes immediately after Dark of the Moon’s opening credits when model-actress (in that order) Rosie Huntington-Whiteley replacing tempestuous Megan Fox as the franchise’s resident eye candy is introduced ass-first. The camera lingers on her backside mesmerized as she makes her way up the stairs to summon our hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) from the bed she inexplicably shares with him. For a director so notoriously ADD-afflicted as Bay he can show remarkable focus when circumstances require it.
Times are tough for our boy Sam who despite having saved the world on two separate occasions can’t find a job. With the Decepticon scourge abated (for now) Optimus Prime Bumblebee and the rest of Sam’s Autobot pals have gotten side gigs as mechanized Hans Blixes roaming the planet in search of illegal WMDs and eliminating the regimes that harbor them. Feeling left out and finding little comfort in the arms his undeservedly hot girlfriend Sam yearns for a shot at more world-saving action.
He finds it soon enough when he is drafted into a plot so sprawling and convoluted that to describe it in full would extinguish what little neurochemical reserves I’ve managed to replenish since last night’s screening. It’s built on an enticing bit of revisionist history which casts the war between the Autobots and Decepticons as the real inspiration for the Cold War space race. It seems that many years ago an Autobot spacecraft carrying a technology that could turn the tide in their centuries-long war crash-landed on the moon. Alerted to the crash JFK immediately initiated the Apollo program with the specific purpose of harvesting technology from the craft before the Soviets could.
But that’s only part of the story as Sam learns when confronted with evidence by a raving co-worker (Ken Jeong) at his new job. (The two have a tussle in the loo – setting the stage for a hi-larious gay-insinuation joke. Vintage Bay!) Turns out there there’s much more to that fallen craft than anyone realizes and if its undiscovered cargo falls into the wrong hands – say Megatron and the Decepticons who are quietly regrouping in Africa – the implications could be devastating.
Dark of the Moon can be roughly divided into two parts. The first is a conspiracy thriller with a surreal comic bent with Bay aiming for – and dare I say nearly achieving – a quirky Coen Brothers vibe as Sam delves headlong into the moon mystery. (The presence of Coen veterans Frances McDormand John Turturro and John Malkovich among the cast reinforces the connection.) Credit screenwriter Ehren Kruger for recognizing that material this preposterous requires a suitably ludicrous sense of humor. But there’s also a sharpness and irreverence to Dark of the Moon’s wit that previous Transformers films have lacked. (It’s still however steadfastly juvenile: When Sam locks eyes with his future girlfriend for the first time his mom exclaims “What a gorgeous box!” while gazing at an unrelated object in the background.) Dark of the Moon's screenplay is a vast improvement over Revenge of the Fallen's in that it is an actual screenplay and not a stack of index cards.
The second half of the film centering on the Decepticons’ extended siege of Chicago unfolds essentially in one long action sequence. It’s as if Bay having sufficiently answered the biggest complaint about the previous film – the lack of a discernible plot – is suddenly unburdened free to commence the all-out sensory onslaught he’s been planning all along. In doing so he all but disavows the film’s first half rendering much of its storyline superfluous.
The battle scenes are truly epic – unprecedented in grandeur and scale and utterly resplendent in 3D – but the endless spectacle induces a kind of delirium. Each frame is positively crammed with images far more than our feeble non-Michael Bay brains could ever hope to process at the breakneck speed he presents them. And no two shots ever look the same: Even a simple shot-reverse-shot dialogue exchange shifts perspective on seemingly every other word. The net effect of Bay’s frenzied handiwork is a state of joyful discombobulation: mouth agape bewildered basking in the dopamine blush.
If the railway thriller Unstoppable looks familiar it’s only because its director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington partnered just over a year ago on another railway thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. In Unstoppable the train is granted a bigger slice of the narrative pie than it received in Pelham serving not only as the film’s principal setting but also its primary villain. Stocked with a payload of dangerous chemicals Train 777 (that’s one more evil than 666!) hurtles unmanned towards a calamitous rendezvous with the helpless residents of Stanton Pennsylvania. Surely an upgrade over a hammy John Travolta no?
On whom can we depend to put a stop to this massive killing machine this “missile the size of the Chrysler Building ” in the ominous words of Rosario Dawson’s station dispatcher? Not the entry-level clods (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) whose ineptitude originally set the train on its fateful path. (In a chilling testament to the potential dangers posed by the obesity epidemic a chunky Suplee runs to catch up with the coasting train in the hopes of triggering its emergency brake before it leaves the station only to collapse in a wheezing heap unsuccessful.) Certainly not their supervisor (Kevin Dunn) a middle-management goon more concerned with impressing his corporate superiors than ensuring proper rail safety. And most definitely not the parent company’s feckless golf-playing (the nerve!) CEO whose disaster-containment strategy is dictated purely by stock price.
No sooner or later the burden of heroism must fall on the capable shoulders of our man Denzel. As Frank Barnes a resolutely competent locomotive engineer on a routine training assignment with a reluctant apprentice (Chris Pine unshaven) he emerges as the only force capable of preventing the Train of Doom from reaching its grisly destination. Of course in any train-related emergency such as the one depicted in Unstoppable a litany of things must go wrong before the task of averting disaster becomes the sole responsibility of the engineer of another train. And screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) trooper that he is takes care to cycle through every single one of them lest we question the believability of such a scenario. Because believability is so important in films like this.
Denzel’s most formidable foe in Unstoppable it turns out is his own director. As an alleged “old-school” filmmaker Tony Scott largely eschews the usage of CGI but he embraces almost every other fashionable action-movie gimmick occasionally to nauseating effect. When the camera isn’t jostling about or zooming in and out jarringly it’s wheeling at breakneck speed across a dolly track; countless circling shots of key dialogue exchanges give the impression that we’re eavesdropping on these conversations from a helicopter. No static shots are allowed and cuts are quick and relentless giving us nary a moment to catch our breath or recover our equilibrium.
These are the tactics of an insecure director one with startlingly little faith in his material or his performers. As Unstoppable nears it climax we’re invested in the action not because of the incessant play-by-play of the TV reporters who’ve converged on the scene — a ploy mandated by Scott’s frantic style which by this point has left the story teetering on incoherence — but because of our almost accidental bond with the film’s protagonists who despite the director’s best efforts have managed to make just enough of an imprint on our consciousness that we’d prefer they not perish in a fiery train wreck.