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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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.
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Misused talent is disappointing. Although Jason Bateman who stars as Sandy Patterson in Identity Thief was fantastic on Arrested Development he's never quite hit the same rhythm when it comes to movie roles. His co-star Melissa McCarthy who is probably best known for her Bridesmaids shenanigans has been quietly putting out terrific work for years — especially in the show Gilmore Girls. She's Bateman's foil in her latest film playing Diana a lifestyle identity thief whose social engineering wipes out Sandy's bank account tanks his credit and jeopardizes his new job at a financial firm.
Cue 21st century financial distress plot point about the little guy just trying to make ends meet and how he's family man and blah blah blah. Too bad an accountant doesn't realize not to give his social security number out on the phone to a stranger.
It's so easy to root for McCarthy and Bateman — so easy in fact that one can almost overlook the most half-baked aspects of Identity Thief: the limp road trip the even worse car chases the stupid subplot that affords us a few glimpses of beloved Breaking Bad-baddie Jonathan Banks the exhausting make-over and last but never least the weirdly moralistic and touchy-feely ending.
Identity Thief asks a somewhat interesting question which is what could prompt a person to steal another's identity?
The answer of course is a "Hobbit-sized" woman with an orange-tinted fake tan and tacky makeup who on one hand is charismatic enough to talk her way out of anything but lonely enough that she makes up a never-ending stream of lies to tell strangers who aren't listening anyway.
In the end she's not a sociopath she's just an emotionally broken person who needs a cream rinse and some neutral eye shadow.
There's something amazing and pathetic in the first scene where we meet Diana. She's buying drinks for an entire bar and naturally everyone is shouting her name (well Sandy's name) and clapping and rallying around her because who doesn't like free drinks?
When a bartender gets tired of her hijinks he tries to take her down a peg by sneering at her that these strangers aren't her friends and they'll never be her friends and that they only like her because she's buying them stuff. So she punches him in the throat.
There's promise in this premise when Diana is allowed to be vicious and wily but as the story transmogrifies into a road trip/morality lesson she is awkwardly defanged in what could be assumed is an attempt to flesh out her character and give her a past that would explain away everything.
Sandy is a weak character to begin with; the ongoing jokes about how Sandy is a woman's name is all too typical of screenwriter Craig Mazin who's penned all three Hangover movies Scary Movie 3 and 4 and Superhero Movie. At least there's not a smoking monkey right?
Bateman is often typecast as an Everyman because only in Hollywood could someone who looks like Jason Bateman pass for a regular guy on the street. He's that Everyman here too — a doting dad a loving husband a hardworking employee an honest citizen — but there's an ugly edge to him that Diana brings out.
What's interesting about this dynamic is that Diana becomes much more empathetic even before Mazin et al throw in a ham-handed backstory for her. The people that encounter them on their road trip — and the explanation for that is too exhausting to get into — see Diana as a fun warm woman and they give Sandy a hard time for being a jerk to her. (Cheers to a great Ben Falcone cameo as one such gentleman.)
It's not clear if we're supposed to be on Diana's side or if we're to believe that she's using her prodigious social engineering skills to her own ends or if it's supposed to be hilarious that men would actually find her sexually attractive and cool.
I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and go with the former. The latter in particular would just be too much to swallow especially given the garish make-up and clothes she's wearing before she realizes the error of her ways both morally and aesthetically.
Identity Thief is better than The Hangover and on par with director Seth Gordon's Horrible Bosses which Bateman also appeared in. It's something you'll watch on demand one night when you don't feel like moving off your couch.
Why is it so hard for these two talented actors and comedians to find good movie roles? If we learned anything from This is 40 it's that any movie can be improved by letting McCarthy improvise.
How much longer do we have to wait to see their own respective projects get off the ground? And why isn't Gilmore Girls on Netflix Instant yet?
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Considering Parenthood had its last new episode of 2012 last night, this may seem like an inopportune moment to make a passionate plea with you to start watching the criminally underrated NBC drama. After all, the next new episode doesn't air until Tuesday, January 1, 2013. (Honestly, I can't think of a better way to ring in the New Year.) On second thought, that gives you almost three weeks to get up to speed on the first three (and a half) seasons of the series. Now in its fourth season, what started off as a touching, if not Hallmark-y spin on the 1989 Steve Martin movie of the same name, Parenthood is the best drama on television you're not watching.
Call it the blessing and the curse of the Katims. Jason Katims created the fan favorite and critical darling Friday Night Lights, which struggled desperately in the ratings and didn't receive any Emmy love until it went off the air. While Parenthood isn't in as dire straights as FNL was and if Emmy knows what's good for it, it'll nominate Monica Potter for her fearless performance this year, it is unfortunately down in the ratings this year. It's a shame really, considering this has been the show's best season to date.
Parenthood follows the trials and tribulations of the multi-generational, multicultural, multi-layered Braverman clan. Move over, Modern Family, this is the real deal. While some family members are unequivocally more interesting than others (Erika Christensen and Sam Jaeger's Julia and Joel are consistently the show's weakest links), some have better hair than others, and certainly story lines are undeniably schlocky, when the show hits, it hits right on the mark. The series has deftly handled weighty topics — alcoholism, Autism, and this season, breast cancer — without veering into overwrought or pandering terrain. Yes, Parenthood knows how to go right for the jugular when it comes to making its audience feel all the feelings and cry all the ugly cries, but it's never manipulative. The writers and actors have made the characters too genuine to do that.
Take for instance last night's Christmas episode. When Potter's cancer-stricken Kristina winds up in the hospital on Christmas Eve, the whole thing could have dangerously veered into cheap, tear-baiting Family Stone territory. Don't get me wrong, tears were shed. Oh, were they shed. But the scenes were done with with both high emotions and still-grounded-in-reality restraint.
But never mind that Parenthood is a rare well-acted, top-notch family drama: it's a television lover's dream come true. The cast is a veritable who's who of TV royalty, including Six Feet Under's Peter Krause, Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham, Coach's Craig T. Nelson, and Arrested Development's Mae Whitman. (Her? Yep, her. She's incredible in it, too. During last night's episode she had what was, without question, the show's best, most believable couple argument.) It's an even bigger treat for FNL fans, as Katims routinely brings his alumni on the show for recurring roles. Minka Kelly, Michael B. Jordan, and Matt Lauria have all made their way from Dillon, Texas to whatever unbelievably picturesque slice of Berkeley the Bravermans have set up shop in.
It's appointment television that doesn't rely on gimmicky cliffhangers every week, it's refreshingly uncynical in a television landscape overrun by that, it consistently allows its characters to make mistakes and evolve (when Sarah Ramos' Haddie leaves for college, she actually leaves for college), it makes damn good use of its guest stars (namely Graham's respective love interests Jason Ritter and John Corbett, who were Emmy-worthy in their own right), and it doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. This is a show that's about as as cool as the Bravermans' dance moves, but that's exactly what makes them and the show so great: they're not trying to be anything they aren't. It's a little bit corny and often times a bit too convenient, but like the Bravermans, the show's heart is in the right place.
Parenthood airs on Tuesdays at 10 PM ET on NBC. The first three seasons are available on Netflix and episodes from Season 4 are available On Demand and on Hulu.com
[Photo credit: NBC]
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