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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The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
The holidays. It's a time of joy, giving, kindness, and time off of work. But all of that free time on your hands can sometimes seem intimidating, and going to see all of the big Oscar contenders in theaters can get pretty expensive, so we've decided to help you out by coming up with a better, less costly use of your time. We're sure there are plenty of television shows that you've been wanting to watch all year, but haven't had the time to check out. So, we've rounded up the best of them to give you a foolproof guide to catching up on television over the holidays. Consider it our gift to you.
The Ones You've "Been Meaning to Get To"With all of the shows currently airing on television, it's understandable that you wouldn't have had time to get to them all. But since you're likely to have some free time over the holidays, why not take the opportunity to catch up on those shows that you've had saved on your DVR for months, the ones you keep hearing your friends talk about, and the ones you want to start watching before they start winning all kinds of awards next month.
Rectify. When it comes to shows that you should be watching but just haven't gotten around to, Rectify is probably at the top of the list. Set in a small town in Georgia, the show picks up after Daniel Holden has been released from prison after spending 19 years on death row, and follows Daniel, his family, and the people who live Paulie as they try and deal with the aftermath of Daniel's release. The show has topped almost every television critic's end-of-the-year list, and has been declared to be a must-see. With only six episodes in the first season, it should be easy to catch up over the holidays - all of the episodes are available on DVD - so that you can finally check it off your list, and start feeling superior to your friends how haven't discovered it yet.
Broadchurch. You may have missed this British drama when it first aired at the end of the summer, but there's no excuse for not catching up on the mystery now. The show aims to portray how the death of a child in a small town affects all of the people living in Broadchurch, and shows both the human aspect of the murder as well as the investigation being performed by the two leading detectives, Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman). If you're looking for a twist on the standard crme procedural, are interested in seeing Tennant take on a completely different role, or were one of the few people truly upset by AMC's decision to cancel The Killing (again), then Broadchurch is the show for you.
House of Cards. Sure, Orange Is the New Black was the runaway hit of the summer, but if there's any show currently streaming online that you haven't gotten around to yet, it's probably House of Cards. Kevin Spacey stars as Francis Underwood, the House Minority Whip, as he schemes, plots, and deals his way through Washington DC. Even if you don't get sucked into the fascinating and addicting world of underhanded politics, it's worth watching House of Cards to see Spacey chew the scenery and mastermind every move the Senate makes. Plus, there's an incredible supporting cast, including Robin Wright as Francis' equally devious wife Claire, Corey Stoll as Peter Russo, the representative who is juggling his position in the House with his numerous addictions, and Kate Mara as the ambitious journalist Zoe Barnes. Trust us, when the second season is released on Netflix on Valentine's Day, you don't want to be the only one out of the loop.
The Ones You Forgot AboutSometimes the best shows on television don't earn dedicated fanbases or win a clean sweep of awards. Sometimes, you pass them by when flipping the channels on the way to something else. Well, allow us to point out a few of those smaller shows that are a much better use of your time than yet another Law and Order marathon.
Shameless. Most of the time, when US networks remake British shows, the result is a disaster that alienates fans on both continents. But occasionally, the result is a show that is somehow better and more compelling than the original. This is the case with Shameless, the Showtime series that showcases the up and downs of the Gallagher family, warts and all. Led by the alcoholic, thieving Frank (William H. Macy), the Gallaghers do whatever they need to to survive life on the Southside of Chicago. High school dropout Fiona (Emmy Rossum) works odd jobs to care for her siblings, Lip (Jeremy Allen White) uses his intellect to scheme his way out f responsibility and into some money, Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is closeted and carrying on an affair with his married boss, Debbie (Emma Kenney) is trying to navigate middle school and reconcile her father and her sister, and Carl (Ethan Kutkosky) keeps setting fire to everything. It won't take much for you to be drawn into the Gallaghers' struggles, and after the first season, you too will begin bemoaning the injustice of Rossum's lack of Emmy nominations. And if you catch up now, you'll be ready to watch the fourth season when it premieres in January.
Trophy Wife. With a title that terrible, it's no wonder you put this ABC sitcom out of your head, but it has turned out to be one of the best new shows on television. Malin Ackerman stars as Kate, a former party girl who fell in love with and married and older man (Bradley Whitford), and now must balance her new role as a stepmother, his two ex-wives and her old, still-partying friends. The show is surprisingly accepting, and is more about a blended family learning to love all of its members than drawing humor from its fish-out-of-water premise. But let's be real, here: the real reason to keep watching is Bert, who, played by Albert Tsai, is arguably one of the mot consistently funny characters on television right now. The show's still in its first season, so there's not too much for you to catch on before it returns from hiatus in January; what better way to bond with your own family than by watching this hilariously dysfunctional one try and balance it all?
The Hour. Part espionage thriller, part behind-the-scenes look at the makings of television and entirely brilliant, The Hour is probably the best show you've never seen. The British drama focuses on Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), the producer tasked with getting The Hour, the BBC's first nightly news program off the ground in the 1950s. She's joined by her good friend, Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), who s more interested in integrity and chasing the story than he is with catering to the network bosses, Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor), the worldly foreign correspondent who acts as Bel's mentor, and Hector Madden (Dominic West), the program's cocky new anchor. The acting is incredible, the writing is exquisite, and the stories are exciting and compelling, and once you've started The Hour, you'll understand just why it's "the hour you can't miss". Although it's no longer airing, having been cancelled after its second season ended on a cliff-hanger, but it's easy enough to find online,a nd is sure to be the perfect way to spend a few hours of your time.
The Ones With The Hardcore FanbasesSometimes, a television show connects so strongly with a particular audience that its fans become more than just causal viewers; instead, they feel the need to talk about their favorite show whenever they get the chance, constantly recommending that you watch it, and refusing to take no for answer. Well, sometimes, those intense fans are right, and the shows they love are actually really good, even if their fanaticism may put you off. Here are the recommendations you should be taking seriously.
Orphan Black. This is probably the millionth time someone has recommended that you give Orphan Black a shot, but that's because it really is worth a watch. Starring Tatiana Maslany as seven different and distinct characters, the show is probably best described as a sci-fi mystery as well as being one of the most addicting shows currently on television. The plot follows Sarah Manning, an English grifter who watches a woman - who looks just like her - commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. After Sarah decides to adopt the dead woman's identity, she is thrown into a major conspiracy that will force her to question everything she thought she knew about herself. his show definitely lives up to all of its hype, and once you watch it, you too will find yourself with a brand new favorite actress.
Sleepy Hollow. When Sleepy Hollow was first announced this fall, nobody thought it would turn out to be a decent show. And sure, it might be a lot more ridiculous and campy than many of the shows on this list, but if you're looking for a fun, entertaining way to spend some time this holiday, then this is the show for you. The off-the-wall plot, which centers around Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), who has been sent forward in time 200 years to modern-day Sleepy Hollow, New York, where he must team up with Detective Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) to stop the impending apocalypse, is balanced by compelling, engaging performances. It's got the perfect combination of self-awareness, goofy adventures, supernatural spookiness and well-rounded characters to make it perfect holiday comfort viewing.
Bob's Burgers. You may have noticed us recommend this show before, but we strongly believe this little show about the weirdest, funniest, most accepting family on television is one everyone should watch. Every episode is hilarious, well-acted and original, and it's rare to see a family on television who are so loving and accepting of one another, from Linda's inventive songs to Louise's appetite for chaos and destruction to Tina's hormonal awkwardness to Gene... well, being Gene. Just trust us on this one, and give it a try. You won't regret it.
The One You Gave Up On That Got Better
The Mindy Project. There's no denying that the first season of The Mindy Project was fraught with issues. However, when it returned for a second season this fall, it brought with it sharper jokes, better paced episodes, more character development, and a cast overhaul, all of which resulted in it being a much stronger show than it was before. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) is just as much of a mess as she was before, but she has wittier one-liners, and she has settled in to a much more comfortable rapport with her co-workers, who include a newly-added Adam Pally as the frat bro doctor Peter Prentiss. If you liked or were indifferent to the show before, the holidays are a perfect time to give the new episodes a chance, because you just might find that the show you gave up on has gotten better when you weren't watching.
David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.