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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
S3E6: The third season of Justified seems to have a mission statement: shake Raylan Givens to his core, and leave him without so much as a grip on himself. We haven’t seen a lot of interaction between Raylan and his father Arlo—who one would suspect might be the hottest trigger to set Raylan off. Perhaps he is, in fact. But Wynona is at least a close second. Last week, Wynona left Raylan abruptly after promising him she wouldn’t (classy). To be fair, the reasons for her uneasiness in involving herself in a serious relationship with Raylan are completely understandable. But I think it’s easier to sympathize with Raylan in this circumstance, considering how many of his promises she has rejected, convincing herself and him that he’d never hold true to them in the first place.
“You going to hit her on the head and drag her back home?” – Judge
“I probably shouldn’t. She’s pregnant.” – Raylan
This week, Raylan spends a good amount of time looking for Wynona. All the while, he’s investigating a shooting that took place in, of all locales, his deceased aunt’s house—where Arlo just happens to be running an oxy operation under the reign of Boyd Crowder. Ellen May, a Harlan prostitute, witnesses the murder of two of Boyd’s men and her co-prostitute and friend Trixie at the hand of two rival oxy dealers—men working for the nefarious Mr. Quarles, whose disturbing factor skyrockets this week.
But before Raylan heads out on the prowl of these shooters, he looks into where Wynona might be. Her work computer shows signs of island destinations—he figures she might be looking to skip town and head to more tropical horizons. Regrettably, Raylan heads down to the evidence room—saying hi to ol’ Charlie, of course— and checks the money-filled locker once scoured by his beloved: it is completely empty. All of the stored money is gone. Naturally, Raylan assumes the worst.
“It’s them pills that keeps a roof over our heads.” – Delroy
Back to the homicide/drug robbery case. Raylan’s investigations take him through some pretty hostile terrain. He pays a visit to his father, voicing issue with the use of the late Aunt Helen’s home as an oxy ring, and goes a little bit mad. Then, Raylan finds himself in the company of Boyd Crowder. And for the first time in a while, Boyd seems to be really getting to Raylan. Our cowboy hero gets awfully riled up at Boyd over the dragging of his family name through his crooked dealings. But it’s more than that, we know. Raylan is emotionally distraught over Wynona. As such, he is unable to keep his cool in the company of Arlo, Boyd, or even the dimwitted pimp who has been beating and manipulating Ellen May in an attempt to find the men responsible for stealing the oxys she was meant to pick up for him. Raylan still manages to get the best of this man—and, to some degree, of Arlo and Boyd—but he’s clearly not on his game. But then again, when has he been lately?
“Don’t say you were honoring her memory by setting up an oxy clinic in her home.” - Raylan
Raylan does, via the word of Ellen May, get the identities of the men responsible for the shooting. After he shoots them in a “justifiable” series of events, word gets back to Quarles that two of his men are dead. Now, Quarles has seemed so far like a pretty cold-blooded, steady, businesslike criminal. But this week, we see a different man. For one, he has a prisoner in his bedroom—a naked man, bound and gagged and tied to a bed. Behind clothes doors, what we (and Winn Duffy) hear sounds like Quarles’ rape of the man. Obviously, super disturbing. But what disturbs me even more is the quavering space-out that Quarles gives shortly after his phone convo this week. I’m beginning to suspect that his son—the one he’s always chatting with on the phone—is dead. Call it a hunch, and one out of thin air. But there’s something weird about the whole ordeal.
“So that’s it? You’re gone?” - Raylan “I’ve been gone for weeks.” - Wynona Raylan’s conclusive conversation with Wynona (he finally tracks her down to her sister’s place) delivers him the closure he needs to at least put his wrath at bay. She explains that she won’t be able to raise a child with a man who is frequently shooting or being shot at. And she knows that if he truly wanted to change for her, he would have already. But more importantly, Wynona reveals that she did not, in fact, take the money. So who did? And why is ol’ Charlie driving down south in a brand new car? Meanwhile, some interesting stuff is brewing between Boyd Crowder and Mr. Limehouse. A business arrangement has formed between them despite Boyd's unfavorable reputation in Limehouse's community. But Limehouse himself is running a tight ship in his own circles, doling out threats in a way that lets us know some violence is coming. What did you think of this week’s episode? How will this affect Raylan’s personal and professional life in the future? Will we still be seeing Wynona week to week? And when are we going to start seeing more of Art, Rachel, and the near-invisible Tim? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, or on Twitter @Hollywood.com and @MichaelArbeiter.
Naomi Watts has joined the cast of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar in which she is set to play Helen Gandy, the personal secretary of J. Edgar Hoover of fifty-four years. She joins a stellar cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio as the infamous FBI founder/director. Charlize Theron was originally set to play the part, but backed out due to scheduling difficulties.
Here’s the fun part. You may not think playing a secretary in a government office is a great role, but Gandy was apparently a big deal. She was with Hoover for fifty-four years and had an unnaturally tight hold on the behind-the-scenes dealings of the institution. Which proves Mad Men to be more factual than we thought. The craziest thing about Gandy is that following Hoover’s death, she took it upon herself to destroy Hoover’s “personal” files that supposedly held a lot of incriminating evidence. Loyal, much? It’s an intriguing part of American history and it’ll be interesting to see how Eastwood handles it.
As for the rest of the cast, I’ll let Deadline block quote for me:
Ed Westwick is set to play Agent Smith, a clean-cut operative hired by Hoover to write his biography; Josh Lucas plays aviator Charles Lindbergh; Damon Herriman plays Bruno Hauptmann, the German immigrant accused of kidnapping Lindbergh's 20-month baby in 1932. Called the crime of the century, Hauptmann’s trial was a major case for Hoover; Ken Howard is playing U.S. attorney General Harlan F. Stone and Armie Hammer is set to play Clyde Tolson, Hoover's alleged lover.