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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You don’t have to be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy Joss Whedon's modern adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed at Whedon’s house in only 12 days with a cast of his friends from various past projects, the movie stays true to the playwright's comedy, but places his prose in a more relatable setting. Unlike another Shakespeare adaptation that keeps the original language but uses a modern setting, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, Whedon's black-and-white interpretation is more casual and subtle.
Although the dialogue may be a bit hard to follow for those who aren't familiar with the play, the actors deliver their lines in such a way that makes their intent clear. You can understand when they are teasing, when they are fighting, and when they are being sarcastic (and there is a lot of sarcasm). They aren't giving dramatic performances on a stage; they are having normal conversations with each other that just happen to be spoken in flowery language.
As it turns out, many of today's romantic comedy tropes are found in the 400-year-old text. Full-of-himself playboy Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and independent, quick-witted Beatrice (Amy Acker) despise each other and are constantly bickering. Even if you haven’t read the play, I think you can guess what happens between them. The plot also includes a called-off wedding between Beatrice's cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). Of course, there are elements of the story that wouldn't make sense in contemporary society, like Hero faking her death due to some big blow-up that arose because she might not be a virgin. But while there isn't always a happy ending in Shakespeare, for this rom-com, it's basically a given.
Much of the cast was already quite familiar with Shakespeare, because Whedon has hosted many readings of his plays over the years (one of which inspired this version of Much Ado). It's as though the audience was invited to one of Whedon's get-togethers... only there are also trapeze artists there for some reason. For Whedon fanatics, it's fun to see who the director rounded up to star in the film. (Look, it's Wesley! And Mal! And Agent Coulson!) Denisof and Acker pull off some physical comedy as they eavesdrop on conversations about each other, and Nathan Fillion is great in a small part as police officer Dogberry. It's obvious that the cast, as well as Whedon, have a sincere appreciation for Shakespeare's original work, but also had a fun time giving it their own twist.
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There are a few different types of comedy that need to be handled very delicately in order to be executed properly. Physical comedy is one example of this — there's a fine line between Buster Keaton-like genius and flailing around like a lunatic. Racial humor is another, easily nudged from satiric to offensive with just a few off-color jokes. And above all: dark comedy. This is a territory that has reached an apex in pop culture — today, almost all comedy veers towards the macabre. Searching for Sonny, a film by writer/director Andrew Disney, is no exception, embracing the inherent opportunities for laughter in twisted, often morbid situations. Oftentimes in the film, it works: the filmmaker sets up a world wherein horrors are plentiful, but not overwhelming. But occasionally, the line is crossed, and the film seems to be reaching for shock value.
The story follows 28-year-old loser Elliot (Jason Dohring), whose fate seems to have been sealed by a turn of events in high school surrounding a production of The Heated Moment: a play written by his former best friend, Sonny (Masi Oka). Hopelessly in love with the leading lady Eden (Minka Kelly), Elliot poisoned the play's star Sonny so that he himself could assume the lead role and get the opportunity to kiss Eden onstage. In light of all this, Elliot has been estranged from Sonny, Eden, and just about any semblance of happiness since high school graduation.
Shortly after his 28th birthday, Elliot receives an enigmatic postcard inviting him back to town for a high school reunion; he reluctantly attends in hopes of making peace with his old friends, but quickly finds himself ensconced in a mystery surrounding the disappearance of Sonny, who has been teaching at their old high school. Old flame Eden, their spineless classmate Gary (Brian McElhaney), and Elliot's much detested twin brother Calvin (Nick Kocher) engage in an increasingly complex and violent investigation of Sonny's whereabouts, gradually incriminating their old principal (Michael Hogan, who is Calvin's archnemesis) and Eden's father (who hates Elliot) in some highly dirty deeds.
The film's strongest points are its sweetest. The strained relationship between brothers Elliot and Calvin is the readiest source of comedy and sentiment onscreen. As Calvin, Kocher provides a steady flow of laughs and general screen charisma — the sideburns certainly don't hurt. But the movie's occasional proclivity toward dark-for-the-sake-of-dark, joking callously about killing off characters, seems bent on outshining the lighter elements. Unfortunate, in that the lighter elements are in this case the better elements.
Getting past some of the obstructively dark jokes, there are plenty of elements that work well in the movie. The over-the-top complexity of the plot does blend nicely with the simplicity of the story at heart: a bunch of shmoes just trying to do something right for a change. Depressed Elliot wants to save Sonny and win back his old pals; cowardly Gary just wants to profess his love to Eden once and for all, and perhaps escape his mother's oppressive grasp; and Calvin, the star of the show, just wants to win his brother's approval (and maybe exact vengeance on his old principal). The three highly inadequate crime fighters come together after ten years to prove that they, together, can do some good. Marginally, anyway.
The characters might not be expertly crafted, but they're fun and easy to root for... even though not a one of them is a particularly admirable human specimen. The visuals and fast-paced delivery of the film make for a fantastical, sometimes cartoonish feeling, which makes for a fun watch, especially when some of the more climactic "There's a mystery afoot!" twists take over. All in all, the movie has enough ups to outweigh the downs. It's hardly without its lumps, but it's worth watching just for some of Kocher's impressive turns of idiocy.
The Blu-ray's special features include a handful of Making Of segments, detailing the casting of Hogan and narrator Clarke Peters. The real winner among the features is Kocher's outtake reel, which offers a slew of the actor's improvised insults directed at frequent collaborator McElhaney's character Gary.
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