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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In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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Jeopardy! whiz ends 74-game streak
Jeopardy! whiz Ken Jennings' 74-game winning streak came to an end in an anti-climactic episode televised Tuesday on ABC, but the computer software engineer from Salt Lake City has something to write home about: $2,520,700 in winnings. Rumors of Jennings' loss circulated on the Internet yesterday after video clips of the episode, which was taped in September, were leaked. Jennings' downfall started when he blew two Daily Double questions and then got stumped in the Final Jeopardy round. The answer in the Business & Industry category was: Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year. Contestant Nancy Zerg, a California real estate agent, had the correct reply: "What is H&R Block?" But Jennings guessed Federal Express as a shocked audience gasped in unison. The final score was Jennings $8,799 to Zerg's $14,001. But Jennings, who gave more than 2,700 correct responses during his stint on Jeopardy!, said getting use to the post game show life has been difficult. "I miss it quite a bit," Jennings told The Associated Press. "It didn't really hit me that that was going to be the hard part. I thought the hard part would be the loss." During his Jeopardy! reign, Jennings' average daily haul was $34,063.51, but the show benefited, too. Ratings were up 22 percent over the same period last season.
Sheryl Crow stalker acquitted
After deliberating for about three hours Tuesday, a jury found 38-year-old Ambrose Kappos not guilty of stalking singer Sheryl Crow for 15 months, the AP reports. Kappos was accused of stalking Crow from July 2002 until his Oct. 6, 2003, arrest at a concert hall in New York City where the singer was appearing. During that time, he also visited the singer's sister in Tennessee and her father in Missouri. Kappos told reporters outside the court he was "delusional" when he thought he was communicating telepathically with Crow and blamed two unhappy marriages, an infatuation with the singer and other emotional difficulties for creating the "perfect storm" psychologically.
CBS takes November sweeps
With one day to go, CBS claimed a November sweeps victory among viewers aged 18 to 49, while ABC and NBC were fighting for second. November is one of the four sweeps month where Nielsen Media Research ratings are used to set local advertising rates. According to Nielsen, CBS won the week, averaging 13.9 million viewers, followed by ABC with 11.1 million, NBC with 10 million, Fox with 7.5 million, the WB with 3.9 million, and UPN with 3.4 million. For the week of Nov. 22-28, the top 5 shows, their networks and viewerships: Desperate Housewives, ABC, 27.2 million; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Thanksgiving Special, CBS, 24.4 million; CSI: Miami, CBS, 22.1 million; Without a Trace Thanksgiving Special, CBS, 19.8 million; and Two and a Half Men, CBS, 18.9 million.
Bill Maher fights ex-girlfriend's lawsuit
HBO's Real Time host Bill Maher is asking for the dismissal of a $9 million palimony lawsuit against him, claiming he never promised to marry and support his ex-girlfriend Nancy "Coco" Johnsen, the AP reports. "He never supported her financially, and he never promised to support her or to purchase any house for her," said the filing, calling Maher "a confirmed bachelor, and a very public one at that." In her lawsuit, the former model and flight attendant claimed Maher, who began his relationship with Johnsen in 2003, convinced her to quit her job and promised marriage, children and a house but became "verbally abusive" once she did. The relationship ended in May.
Sundance unveils film premieres
The Sundance Film Festival has announced dozens of films that will premiere in January at what has become the leading U.S. showcase for independent movies. This year's festival will feature 120 films with 87 world premieres and 19 U.S. premieres, including: Happy Endings, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold and Lisa Kudrow; The Matador, featuring Pierce Brosnan; Loverboy starring Sandra Bullock; Upside of Anger with Kevin Costner; The Jacket with Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley; Game 6 with Michael Keaton and Bebe Neuwirth; and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The festival, backed by actor Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, kicks off for 10 days on Jan. 20.
Drake sweeps British indie awards
Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, a moving portrayal of a back-street abortionist in 1950s London, cleaned up at the British Independent Film Awards Tuesday, taking six awards, including best film and best director, Reuters reports. Drake's stars Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis also took the top prizes in the acting categories. This makes the second win for the indie film this year, after snagging the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival in September.
Soap actor David Bailey dies
Soap star David Bailey, who played the ruthless Alistair Crane on NBC's Passions, died in an accidental drowning at the age of 71, the AP reports. Bailey was spotted submerged in his apartment pool in Los Angeles on Nov. 25. According to an investigator's report, Bailey swam almost daily. An autopsy performed Sunday determined drowning was the cause of death. Bailey joined the Passions cast in September, finally giving a face to Alistair Crane, who had only been heard via speaker phone since the program debuted in 1999. He also portrayed Russ Matthews on Another World as well as Alan Spaulding on Guiding Light, Ben Forrest on As The World Turns and Teddy Malcolm on Ryan's Hope.
Opera singer Pavarotti to retire
Opera legend Luciano Pavarotti said he plans on retiring after he completes a 40-city tour. In an interview with Reuters, the tenor, known as "The king of the high C's," said he will bring down the curtain on a 43-year career with an international tour taking him from the Balkans to Buenos Aires via London, Paris and New York. "The tour is long but I never perform like a rock star night after night. I shall do a maximum of two or three concerts a month," he said of his global finale. When pressed, Pavarotti could not put a date on when the tour will end or where. "I don't know. When they are finished, I am finished."
Lucas donates cash to California university
Star Wars creator George Lucas has donated $100,000 to California State University, Long Beach, for film department scholarships as well as repairing equipment damaged in a heavy rain storm, the AP reports. Although Lucas attended the University of Southern California, close friend director Steven Spielberg is a Cal State Long Beach alum.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.
Top Story: Actor Patric Arrested on Intoxication Charge
Jason Patric, star of the upcoming The Alamo and films such as The Lost Boys and Speed 2: Cruise Control, was arrested in Austin, Texas, on misdemeanor public intoxication charges, The Associated Press reports. According to police, Patric, 37, was with a group of people standing in a downtown street about 3 a.m. when they were asked by officers to move. The actor moved slowly toward the sidewalk, but then took an aggressive stance, police told AP, and when they tried to arrest him, he resisted and shoved an officer. The arrest warrant says Patric insisted he was not drunk and that officers should test him, but no test was administered. Patric's publicist, Michelle Bega, said in a statement that the actor "believes he has done nothing wrong. He hopes for a rapid resolution to clear his name," AP reports.
Jackson Says Breast Incident Was Unplanned
In her first television interview since her sensational Super Bowl stint, Janet Jackson appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman Monday and insisted the breast exposure "was an accident." The singer, wearing a revealing red dress, was on the show to promote her new album Damita Jo, due in stores Tuesday. Censors bleeped the singer when she exclaimed "Jesus!" in response to Letterman's bringing up the topic. She went on to say, "It truly was an accident. It was very embarrassing for me to have so many people see this little breast," Jackson said. "It was supposed to kind of happen like that, but I wasn't supposed to come out of it the way I did." When asked if she and stint cohort Justin Timberlake were still friends, she responded, "at some point, he and I need to talk."
Veteran Broadcaster Cooke Dies
Broadcasting icon Alistair Cooke, best known for his long-running BBC radio series Letter from America and for hosting the PBS series Masterpiece Theater, died in New York Tuesday from apparent natural causes. He was 95.
Studios, Independents Settle Screener Ban
Officially putting an end to a legal battle that sparked much controversy in the entertainment industry late last year, Hollywood's major studios, led by the Motion Picture Association of America, and a coalition of independent filmmakers have settled a lawsuit over the use of videotape ("screener") copies to promote films vying for awards, Reuters reports. The battle erupted last September when MPAA members issued a ban on all screeners, citing piracy issues. Indie filmmakers, who consider screeners a helpful tool to get lesser-known films noticed by Academy voters, then filed suit, claiming the ban would bias voters toward big-budget films. Last December a federal judge in New York sided with the indies and effectively stopped the ban. Details of the agreement were not disclosed, according to a statement issued by the groups suing the studios. In a statement made Monday, the Motion Picture Association of America chief executive Jack Valenti said he was "pleased that we have put this matter behind us."
E.R. Actor Wounded by Father
Actor Keith Diamond, whose real name is Vincent Ford Jr. and who has made guest appearances on shows such as E.R. and The Drew Carey Show, was shot by his father Sunday while eating at his family kitchen table in Queens, New York, AP reports. He was visiting his parents from California when his father, Vincent Ford Sr., 81, allegedly walked in and shot him three times with a .32-caliber revolver, police told AP. The actor was taken to the hospital, where he was listed in stable condition with face, chest and arm injuries. The elder Ford, a retired postal worker, was arraigned on charges of attempted murder, assault and weapons possession and did not enter a plea, AP reports.
Leno Cops $100 Mil
Late-night talk show host Jay Leno has signed a $100 million deal with NBC that will keep him on The Tonight Show through 2009, Reuters reports. Leno has been the undisputed ratings champ in late-night talk since the mid-1990s after taking the reins from Johnny Carson in 1992. The Tonight Show generates about $100 million in annual profits for NBC, according to a report in the February edition of Fortune magazine.
Reality TV Tackles Serious Subject
Reality TV guru Mark Burnett, producer of hits such as Survivor and The Apprentice, has set his sights on the very serious subject of abducted children. According to Variety, CBS has ordered episodes of Recovery, which will track a special team of experts in covert missions as they set out to find and rescue kidnapped youngsters. "The show is like Without a Trace, but it's with a kid who really has been taken," Burnett told Variety, referring to the CBS drama series about the FBI's missing persons unit. "There's nothing bigger than this. It's more than just television."
Role Call: Black Stomps Into King Kong, Aniston Makes a Gambit
Jack Black has been cast opposite Naomi Watts in director Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Black will play Carl Denham, an adventurer filmmaker who is trying to make a name for himself in 1930s New York. Robert Armstrong played the role in the 1933 original … Jennifer Aniston has signed on to star in Gambit, a remake of the 1966 British caper starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. The trade paper reports the film revolves around a British thief who comes up with a foolproof plan to steal an expensive statue from one of the richest men in the world. His strategy involves the participation of a beautiful woman (Aniston) who happens to be the spitting image of the rich man's late wife. Igby Goes Down's Burr Steers is set to write and direct.