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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TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
An hour and change into Pompeii, there's a volcano. You'd think there might have been a volcano throughout — you'd think that the folks inhabiting the ill-fated Italian village would have been dealing with the infamous volcano for the full 110 minutes. After all, volcano movies have worked before. Volcano, for instance. And the other one. But for some reason, Pompeii feels the need to stuff its first three quarters with coliseum battles, Ancient Rome politics, unlikely friendships, and a love story. But we don’t care. We can't care. None of it warrants our care. Where the hell is the volcano, already?
To answer that: it's off to the side — rumbling. Smoking. Occasionally spiking the neighboring community with geological fissures or architectural misgivings. Pretty much executing every trick picked up in Ominous Foreshadowing 101, but never joining the story. Not until Paul W.S. Anderson shouts, "Last call," hitting us with a final 20-odd minutes of unmitigated disaster (in a good way). If you've managed to maintain a waking pulse throughout the lecture in sawdust that is Pompeii's story, then you might actually have a good time with the closing sequence. It has everything you’d expect — everything you had been expecting! — and delivers it with gusto. Torpedoes of smoke running hordes of idiot villagers out of their homes and toward whatever safety the notion of forward has to offer. Long undeveloped characters rising to the occasion to rescue hapless princesses who thought it might be a good idea to set their vacation homes at the foot of a lava-spewing mountain. The whole ordeal is actually a lot of laughs. But it amounts to a dessert just barely worth the tasteless dinner we had to force down to get there.
TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
To get through the bulk of Pompeii, we recommend focusing all your attentions away from the effectively bland slave/gladiator/hero Kit Harington — sorry, Jon Snow (he's actually called a bastard at one point) — and onto his partner in crime: a scowling Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje — sorry, Mr. Eko (he and Snow actually trade valedictions by saying "I'll see you at another time, brother" at one point) — who warms up to his fellow prize fighter during their shared time in the klink, and delivers his moronic material with a sprinkle of flair. Keeping the working man down is Kiefer Sutherland — sorry, Jack Bauer — as an ostentatious Roman senator, doling out vainglory in Basil Fawlty-sized portions. When he's not spitting scowls at peasants, ol' JB is undermining the efforts of an earnest local governor Jared Harris — sorry, Lane Pryce (he actually calls someone a mad man at one point) — and his wife Carrie-Anne Moss — sorry, Katherine O'Connell from Vegas (joking! Trinity) — and finagling the douchiest marriage proposal ever toward their daughter Emily Browning — sorry, but I have no idea what she's from.
But questionable television references and some enjoyably daft performances by Eko and Jack can't really make up for the heft of mindless dullness that Pompeii passes off as its narrative... until the big showstopper.
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In truth, the last sequence is a gem. It's fun, inviting, and energizing, and might even call into question the possibility that Pompeii is all about how futile life, love, friendship, politics, and pride are when even the most egregiously complicated of plots can be taken out in the end by a sudden volcanic eruption. But you have to wade through that egregious complication to get there, and you shouldn't expect to have too much of a good time doing so.
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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.
At the box office this weekend, a mother-daughter comedy was no match for some good old cops-and-robbers action.
In its opening weekend, the bullet-riddled police drama S.W.A.T. infiltrated the box office and took the top spot at $37 million*, easily beating out its kinder,gentler competitor, the Disney family fare Freaky Friday. Despite generating great word-of-mouth since its Wednesday opening, the body-switching remake could only come in second with $22.3 million.
The ribald comedy American Wedding dropped from the top to take third place with $15.1 million, while the whale of a tale Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl remained steady as she goes at No. 4 with $13.1 million. The heartwarming Seabiscuit rounded out the top five with a solid $11.9 million.
Another newcomer, the Frenchified Le Divorce, did a fair job in its limited opening, raking in $533,233 in 34 theaters.
THE TOP TEN
Sony Pictures' PG-13-rated S.W.A.T. busted the box office to take the top spot with an ESTIMATED $37 million in 3,202 theaters. It's $11,555 per theater average was the highest of any film opening wide this week.
Newly trained LAPD S.W.A.T. team members are called in to save the day after an arms dealer makes a televised offer of $100 million to anyone who can break him out of jail--and L.A.'s criminal element comes out in force to do so.
Directed by Clark Johnson, it stars Colin Farrell, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J and Michelle Rodriguez.
Buena Vista's PG-rated Freaky Friday debuted in second place with an ESTIMATED $22.3 million in 2,954 theaters ($7,549 per theater).
On a freaky Friday morning, a busy psychiatrist and her 15-year-old daughter wake up to find they have magically switched bodies. Until they can figure out what to do, they attempt to carry on with each other's daily routines.
Directed by Mark Waters, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindsay Lohan, Chad Michael Murray and Mark Harmon.
Universal Picture's R-rated comedy American Wedding dropped to No. 3 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $15.1 million (-55%) at 3,175 theaters (+3 theaters; $4,756 per theater). This third installment of the American Pie series, in which Jim and Michelle get married, has garnered a cume of $64.9 million.
Directed by Jesse Dylan, it stars Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Thomas Ian Nicholas.
Buena Vista Pictures' PG-13-rated fantasy actioner Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl fell one spot to fourth place in its fifth week of release with an ESTIMATED $13.1 million (-30%) at 3,170 theaters (-220 theaters; $4,132 per theater). Its cume is approximately $232.8 million.
Directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated drama Seabiscuit fell a notch to No. 5 in its third week, taking in an ESTIMATED $11.9 million (-33%) in 2,428 theaters (+7 theaters; $4,901 per theater). Its cume is approximately $69.5 million.
Directed by Gary Ross, it stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper as three down-and-out men who find fame and fortune in an equally down-and-out racehorse.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Dropping off considerably was Dimension Films' PG-rated Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, which slipped four spots to No. 6 in its third week with an ESTIMATED $10.1 million (-48%) in 3,388 theaters (+24 theaters; $2,992 per theater). Its cume is approximately $87.4 million.
Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, it stars Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Sylvester Stallone, Salma Hayek and Ricardo Montalban.
Sony Picture's R-rated buddy actioner Bad Boys II moved down the list two place to take seventh in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $6 million (-53%) at 2,449 theaters (-573 theaters; $2,450 per theater). Its cume is approximately $123 million.
Directed by Michael Bay, it stars Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jordi Molla, Gabrielle Union and Peter Stormare.
Paramount Pictures' PG-13-rated, action-packed Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life dropped two rungs to eighth place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $5.2 million (-54 %) in 3,036 theaters (-186 theaters; $1,713 per theater). Its cume is approximately $53.6 million.
Directed by Jan De Bont, it stars Angelina Jolie, Gerald Butler, Chris Barrie, Ciaran Hinds and Noah Taylor.
Still a major success story, Buena Vista/Disney and Pixar Animation Studios' G-rated computer-animated feature Finding Nemo dropped two spots to No. 9 in its 11th week with an ESTIMATED $2.5 million (-35%) at 1,502 theaters (-275 theaters; $1,664 per theater). Its cume is approximately $319.9 million.
Directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it features the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe and Brad Garrett.
Warner Bros.' R-rated sci-fi actioner Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines finished in tenth place for the second week in a row with an ESTIMATED $1.6 million (-46%) at 1,275 theaters (-635; $1,271 per theater). Now in its sixth week, its cume is approximately $145.9 million.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow, it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes and Kristanna Loken.
Fox Searchlight's PG-13-rated Le Divorce opened with a healthy ESTIMATED $533,233 in 34 theaters. It's $15,683 per theater average was actually the highest of any movie playing this week.
Based on the best-selling novel by Diane Johnson, it follows the adventures of two American sisters living in Paris.
Directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant, it stars Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Leslie Caron, Sam Waterston, Glenn Close and Stockard Channing.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $ 127.3 million, down 3.68 percent from last year's take of $132.2 million. The Top 12 films were also down 3.29 percent from last weekend when they grossed $131.7 million.
Last year's top three included: Sony's PG-13-rated actioner xXx, which opened in first place with $44.5 million in 3,374 theaters ($13,191 per theater average). Buena Vista's PG-13 rated sci-fi thriller Signs, dropped a spot to take second in its second week with $29.4 million at 3,310 theaters ($8,899 per theater average); Dimension's PG-rated fun fest Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams opened in third place with $16.7 million in 3,307 theaters ($5,053 per theater average).