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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Trimspa defends Anna Nicole Smith
The American Music Awards may be over, but the buzz over Anna Nicole Smith's odd behavior at the Sunday night event isn't.
The hubbub began when the newly svelte Smith stepped on to the stage to introduce hip-hop artist Kanye West. "Like my body?" the former Playboy model turned Trimspa spokesperson slurred while attempting to strike a pose. West's band, meanwhile, was cued to start playing before Smith was able to finish stumbling through her preamble, which host Jimmy Kimmel dubbed the "performance of the night." Smith's eccentric conduct snowballed during yesterday's post-show coverage, leaving many speculating on the entertainer's condition and her continued association with Trimspa, the diet plan that helped her shed close to 70 pounds. The star of the reality series The Anna Nicole Show told Entertainment Tonight reporter Kevin Frazier she takes two pills a day to maintain her weight. "Clearly, last night's award ceremony has become more about Anna's introduction of Kanye West than about who won the prized awards, which is unfortunate," Alex Goen, founder and CEO of Trimspa, said in a statement Monday, adding: "Like all our customers, we stand by Anna. More important, we stand with her as our friend." Smith's weight loss garnered media attention with Trimspa's TV ad campaign, in which she tells paparazzi on a red carpet how she lost all that weight: "Trimspa, baby!"
David Lee Roth training as paramedic
Former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth is reportedly training to become a paramedic. The AP reports Roth, 50, has been riding along with ambulance crews in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn several nights a week. "I have been on over 200 individual rides now," Roth told the New York Post Tuesday. "Not once has anyone recognized me, which is perfect for me." Roth, who said he did not want the neighborhoods he was working in named so that he would not draw attention to himself or co-workers, even saved the life of a heart attack victim several weeks ago in the Bronx by using a defibrillator. "You would never know you were dealing with a rock-'n'-roll guy," Roth's EMS consultant and tutor Linda Reissman said. "His commitment really is touching. He wants to help people."
Polanski wants to sue Vanity Fair from abroad
Lawyers for Roman Polanski, who lives in France, will ask England's highest court Wednesday to overturn previous court rulings barring the director from suing Vanity Fair via video link from Paris, Reuters reports. Polanski wants to sue the magazine over an article that claimed he propositioned a woman in a New York restaurant on his way to the funeral of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered in 1969. But Polanski is scared to come to Britain for fear of being extradited to the United States as a fugitive from justice. In 1977, Polanski pleaded guilty in a California court to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, but fled the country before sentencing. The Court of Appeal ruled last year Polanski should not be allowed to testify from Paris because it would be allowing him to use judicial process when it suits him, but avoid it when it does not.
Garrett absent from Raymond honoree bash
The cast and crew of Everybody Loves Raymond were honored at the Museum of Television and Radio's annual fundraiser at the Beverly Hills Hotel Monday night--minus co-star Brad Garrett, The Associated Press reports. Garrett's conspicuous absence was a reminder of last year's bitter salary dispute between CBS and the cast, who secured generous increases for the show's 10th and final season. CBS chief Leslie Moonves joked: "Negotiating with Doris (Roberts) is like negotiating with your mother ... You can't win. Negotiating with Brad (Garrett) is like negotiating with John Gotti." Star Ray Romano, one of TV's highest-paid performers with a per-episode salary of more than $2 million, said of Moonves: "Like my father, I go to him when I need money."
UPN brings back TLC
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, the remaining members of the hip-hop trio TLC, have teamed up with UPN for a reality series titled, R U the Girl With T-Boz & Chilli. Reuters reports the series will focus on resurrecting the '90s group--who tragically lost their third member, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, in 2002 after she died in a car crash--and will go through the rigorous challenges of finding a replacement who will join them for a concert and recording session. "We want to find someone with the right chemistry and magic to work with us," Watkins and Thomas said. "We have been blessed with great success, and this is a chance for our fans to join us as we give someone a once in a lifetime opportunity to fulfill their dream."
More on reality television...
Former supermodel Rachel Hunter is set to join TBS' reality series The Real Gilligan's Island as pampered movie star Ginger, the AP reports. Hunter, who is also Rod Stewart's ex-wife, "shares the flightiness and aloofness of Ginger," a statement on the TBS Web site said. The series features several stranded castaways, including a skipper, first mate, professor, movie star, millionaire and his wife, who must pool their resources to get themselves off of a deserted island--including challenges modeled after episodes from the original 1960s series Gilligan's Island. The show also stars Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann, the pretty but unworldly young woman from Kansas.
Peter Fonda files suit against clothing company
Actor Peter Fonda has sued Dragonfly Clothing Inc. for more than $123,000, claiming the clothing company violated a licensing agreement that allows it to market apparel bearing his image, the AP reports. According to an amendment agreement attached to the lawsuit, the Fullerton, Calif.-based Dragonfly failed to pay Fonda guaranteed minimum royalties. Dragonfly markets clothing bearing the logos or likenesses of a number of famous personalities, including Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, James Dean and others.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.