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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Last week, I had absolutely no interest in watching the presidential candidates debate. I'm not one of those mythical "undecided voters" that you hear so much about. (Seriously, who are these people who haven't made up their minds yet? I've never met one. They're like the millions who actually watch Two and a Half Men.) Rather, I know the issues I care about and how each candidate stands on them, so I don't need to listen to them blather on for hours. It seems so boring and I have already made up my mind.
But you know what's not boring? Reality TV! And the election is sort of like a great reality show, where there are contestants, the audience voting for an eventual winner, and all of those judges in the press. Like one of the lamer seasons of The Real World, the casting got all messed up (Sarah Palin, I never thought I'd miss you so!) and the election has been especially boring. Why don't we steal some tricks from the reality TV handbook to jazz things up a little?
Challenges: Everything from Survivor to RuPaul's Drag Race has challenges where the winner gets some sort of advantage. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are pretty physically active, maybe we can have them run an obstacle course, like American Ninja Warrior or solve some sort of crazy puzzle. Why not both? Give the winner all the electoral votes from a state like New Hampshire or Iowa. That's what they get for holding their primaries first, they get their election decided like this.
Bring Back Old Cast Members: This is a trick that Big Brother relies on year after year, letting old contestants back in the game for another shot at winning the big prize. We already had Bill Clinton giving a rousing speech at the convention, but what if he was actually in the race? Where has Ross Perot been? Or Ralph Nader? Don't you think they deserve a slot just to keep things interesting? We like seeing people we recognize other than the guy who's already in office.
Celebrity Mentors: What would The Voice be without all those celebrities teaching people how to sing? It would just be a bunch of spinning Barcaloungers, that's what. Let's get some celebrities to tell these guys what to do. Obama can get his good friend Oprah Winfrey and Romney can get, I don't know, a famous Mormon like Marie Osmond. I bet Kelsey Grammer would be there for him. Or maybe we can get the actors who played fictional presidents like Martin Sheen from The West Wing and Cherry Jones from 24. I don't know what they would say, but famous people make everything better.
Have Them Work with Other Contestants: The best part about every season of The Apprentice (either celebrity flavored or original recipe) was the final challenge where the two competing for the big prize had to use all the people they had defeated to get there as lieutenants. Half the time the losers would be all lazy or try to sabotage things and it would be awesome. So Romney would be saddled with Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and all the other wonderful Republican nominees. Obama would joust with Hillary Clinton and that rapscallion John Edwards. Now that would be a show no one could stop watching.
Change the Judges: All we talk about these days is who is going to be on the judging panel for American Idol or The X Factor. Maybe we should get some squabbling political judges to host these here debates. Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly got tons of press for their recent debate, why not let them duke it out on national television? Same thing goes with Bill Maher and Ann Coulter, who debated publicly several years ago. Why get one person who is impartial when you can get two really partial people to balance each other out and squabble the whole time? It's working for Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj.
Bring Out the VPs: The best part of The Amazing Race is that everyone is saddled with someone who can improve their standing, bring them down a notch, horrendously embarrass them, or ruin the race altogether. In politics, this person is known as the Vice Presidential candidate. Look at what Sarah Palin did for John McCain. It was genius. I think that Joe Biden and that guy who looks like Nathan Scott should be a lot more involved. Let's really get them front and center so that the pairs' destinies are really linked. I think that is just good TV.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.