Friday, May 30, 2014

Like a Villain: MALEFICENT


Maleficent, the sorceress who gives Sleeping Beauty her cursed slumber, is one of Walt Disney Animation’s greatest accomplishments. Frightening and elegant, she has a tall, statuesque presence, high model features, towering horns growing from her head, and flowing dark robes swooshing around her. She glows green with dark magic, and by the end uses her powers to conjure the form of a dragon to fight off the Princess’s chances for True Love’s Kiss. She’s an iconic image. Thus the challenge for Maleficent, a live-action retelling of the story from the sorceress’s point of view. How to fill the role with a mere flesh and blood actor? How to recapture the power of those drawn images, so striking and so fearsome? Luckily, the filmmakers were able to meet the challenge and cast Angelina Jolie, whose high cheekbones, piercing eyes, and elegant silhouette make her an imposing presence when draped in the makeup and wardrobe to match the character’s iconic look. Here her eyes are fierce, her face is sculpted and angular. She’s a perfect fit.

But making Maleficent the center of this story is not without its problems. In the 1959 film, as in the fairy tale upon which it was based, she’s pure evil, bestowing an awful curse on an infant for her parent’s crime of failing to invite the witch to a party. Maleficent is a force of destruction and looms large over the plot as pure threat, casting a dark shadow over innocent first love, worried parents, and sweet dotty fairies in a colorful Disney kingdom. Maleficent is out to make some changes, moving the title character into the position of protagonist. This isn’t Sleeping Beauty of old. It opens with a narrator (Janet McTeer) telling us about two lands that sit side by side. One is a kingdom ruled by man. The other is a magical forest ruled by no one, the better for fairies, living trees, sprites, and other fanciful creatures to frolic freely. In this forest a young Maleficent lives, carefree until the day a man (Sharlto Copley) appears, tells her he loves her, and then steals her wings.

The man presents the wings to the dying king in order to be named his successor. Now the new king, he has a daughter. She is cursed on the day of her christening by the vengeful, violated Maleficent who lashes out at the man who hurt her by attacking his child. Hidden away in the forest by three largely incompetent fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple, great actresses doing bad comic relief), the baby grows up to be Aurora (Elle Fanning). Something - lingering guilt, perhaps, over hurting a child for the crimes of her father – makes Maleficent hang around, offering unseen assistance to Aurora as she grows, becoming something like a fairy godmother to her. And so, regretting her curse, Maleficent and her raven sidekick (Sam Riley) try to undo it before it is too late. Meanwhile, the evil king is plotting to invade the enchanted forest and slay the sorceress once and for all.

Flipping the script on a classic villain, Linda Woolverton (of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) has written a screenplay that’s a bit of a mess, but at least finds thorny thematic issues with which to wrestle. Now it is not a fairy tale about unexplained evil and the pat True Love that will conquer all. Instead, it’s a movie about the marginalization of women, in which the king sees both Maleficent and Aurora as pawns in his life story instead of people with thoughts, feelings, and ambitions of their own. Just as surely as Maleficent is wounded for the sake of his promotion, his daughter is cast aside for his peace of mind. In the end, Maleficent made huge mistakes, but it’s the king who is the real bad guy.

That’s all interesting, but if only the film had the patience to stop and wrestle with the ideas. Instead, it’s content to only suggest deeper thoughts as it hustles its way through exposition and character beats with a sense of obligation instead of enchantment. Even the appearance of Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) is a huge non-event, which is at once a hilarious example of the movie’s welcome shifting of gender roles and an example of its half-hearted plotting. I love how it takes a story about a young woman whose fate is decided by her father and her love and makes it a story about misunderstood and victimized women and their complicated relationship with each other, but the movie is simply too frustratingly thin to support these deeper concerns.

While Sleeping Beauty is less emotionally complex, it has a stronger and more direct sense of storytelling. Maleficent has a vague understanding of what a story looks like, but often plays like a series of haphazardly connected scenes. Characters have changes of heart and evolutions of thinking for no other reason than because the movie needs them to do so. Consequently, there is not a lot of momentum here and the film grows mushy and aimless in the center as it spends its time telling us what we need to know instead of allowing it to unfold. The result is a small cast standing against flat, over-lit CGI backgrounds reciting dialogue that sounds like someone left all the subtext on the surface of the rough draft and never did a rewrite to bury it.

At least it fits the general phoniness of everything around them. There is never a sense this fantasy world is real. It just doesn’t look good. Director Robert Stromberg is a visual effects artist making his directorial debut. The picture is filled with competently visualized spectacle, with tree-creatures and strange little fantasy animals wandering around. When Maleficent flies about it’s with a convincing woosh and the dragon in the climax is as big, scaly, and fiery as you’d expect. But the action is repetitive and dull. The environments are stiff and dead. It never feels like a coherent vision of a place or time. It’s just disconnected digital frippery. If it was chintzier, you could almost accuse it of feeling like it was shot in a corner of the Disney backlot. Instead, it just looks like endlessly green-screened busyness. This is the movie’s biggest downfall. On a visual level, it simply isn’t as convincing, as inky dark and richly imagined as its lead performance.

Jolie stands in the center of the movie as iconic a screen creation as ever there was. The scene in which the screen darkens as shadows cast by scary green fire flicker over her face as she bellows sinister magic into a crib is genuinely spooky. And yet, Jolie sells her character’s hurt and regret, her elegance and her frozen mask of emotions that slowly melts for the child she has doomed. She’s a sympathetic, complicated creature, capable of glowering harm and glimmering compassion. It’s a great, full-blooded performance in a movie that’s simply not up to the task of working on her level. She’s so good I wished there was enough to the scenes to allow her to really sink her teeth in and chew. She’s big. It’s the picture that’s small.

Good Eats: CHEF


Chef follows a man who once cooked for the love of it, but who, in his comfortable position as the head chef at a decent middlebrow restaurant, finds his passion dimmed by churning out the same old menu night after night. After a high-profile explosion of frustration that ends in him losing his job, he decides to strike out on his own and along the way rediscovers the passion that made him a chef in the first place. It’s tempting to read the movie as a metaphor for its own making. Writer, director, and star Jon Favreau got his start with relatively small productions (Swingers, Made) before getting bigger and bigger budgets (Elf, Zathura, Iron Man), eventually arriving at Cowboys & Aliens, a movie so blandly wedded to the worst storytelling impulses of modern Hollywood that I’ve already forgotten it ever existed. Now he turns up with the small, amiable Chef that says he would rather make something small and likable all on his own, instead of something big and predictable for someone else.

Both he and his character want to take their art wherever the muse leads them and have an audience show up to try the results because they trust the impulse behind it. Some scorn is reserved for customers who just want comfort food that provides what the consumer already expects. (What this metaphor says about someone like me who really likes his Iron Man 2, a movie he’s expressed disappointment with, is probably better left unexplored.) In any case, Chef follows a comfortable path as Favreau’s Chef Casper gets his professional groove back, reconciles with his ex-wife (Sofía Vegara), spends more time with his 10-year-old son (EmJay Anthony), and figures out what he really wants to be cooking.

It is not exactly a scrappy indie, but it’s probably as close to it as a baggy, pleasant, modestly budgeted production filled with recognizable actors can be. It’s the same kind of comfort food cinema Favreau has always been making, but the perspective is smaller and the heart more recognizably bleeding out on its sleeve. It is a shallow movie, and a long and shaggy one at that, but it has surface pleasures that keep it light, loose, and agreeable. Kramer Morgenthau’s bright cinematography finds the sun always shining. The montages of food prep look delicious. The non-stop brassy Cuban and New Orleans-influenced soundtrack is always rocking toe-tapping tunes. The film takes pleasure in its tasty dishes and booming music, and in the easy rapport amongst its characters.

As Chef Casper tries to figure out how to continue his career and find fulfillment in different aspects of his life, the movie ambles along, moving from a work/life balance comedy into a road movie in its second half. Along the way, we meet an ensemble cast of thin characters filled out by familiar faces. Dustin Hoffman plays his ex-boss. John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Scarlett Johansson worked with him at the restaurant. Oliver Platt plays a famous food critic whose negative review is the inciting incident that gets the Chef fired. (More on that later.) Amy Sedaris has a funny scene as a determined publicist and Robert Downey, Jr. turns up in a very small role as an eccentric businessman who wants someone to take a busted old food truck off his hands. None of these characters are particularly well developed, but the performers are enjoyable presences, able to step into the film and be entertaining for a moment or two without pulling focus from the ensemble as a whole.

It’s too fuzzy and insubstantial to be called a character study, but it at least has a sense of self-awareness. That can all too easily slip away from a writer-director-producer-star driven production. Chef looks upon the creative personality of Chef Casper with an understanding that his ego, pride, passion, and self-doubt combine to create the drive that leads him to success and are the same traits that lead to his blow-up, then feed his drive to reinvent himself. A lazier movie would take the critic character and make him only a snarky villain, but it’s refreshing to see that he’s presented as a man doing his job just as much as the chef is. And when his bad review upsets the chef so much that he throws a fit in the middle of dinner service that ends with him storming out jobless, it’s because the writing picked at preexisting insecurities. The chef knows he could do better. Getting called out on it frustrates him, but that frustration quickly becomes determination.

The movie is confidently pleasant, cooking up an agreeable couple hours of entertainment. It’s no great thing, but it’s enjoyable. Its heart is in the right place, made with as much love as the tasty-looking sandwiches featured prominently in the movie’s final stretch. I bet theaters showing Chef would do well if they added them to the concession stand menu.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pitch Imperfect: MILLION DOLLAR ARM


In Million Dollar Arm, Jon Hamm plays a sports agent we first see giving a Don Draper-esque pitch to a potential client who turns him down, a rejection that threatens to take down his company. A brainstorm with his business partner (The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi) leaves him with one last idea to save his failing firm. He wants to travel to India and run a contest to find an amateur cricket player with a throwing arm powerful enough to be brought to America and converted into a pitcher for Major League Baseball. Easier said than done, and it doesn’t sound easy to me.

The movie is built around two culture shocks. First, Hamm’s agent is sweaty and confused during his time in India, befuddled by the cuisine, the way of doing business, and the local help (Bollywood actors Pitobash and Darshan Jariwala). Secondly, his young recruits (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal) go with the agent to Los Angeles where they’re dazzled and lonely. One of those culture shocks is more interesting than the other. Want to guess which one the movie focuses on?

We start in the world of the sports agent, following him through his company’s shaky financial situation and his no-strings-attached romantic life. Soon, though, he and a cranky retired baseball scout (Alan Arkin, who else?) arrive in India. During the time the movie spends there, the country is either exoticized or made a source of humor. Their local assistants are a study in contrasting stereotypes. One is drolly in favor of bribery to make their search move quickly. The other is eager to please and prone to misunderstanding directions. Told they need to find a pitcher with “juice,” he runs off to get them some juice. If the performers on all sides had less charm or energy, it’d feel offensive.

Soon enough, we meet the two young guys on whom the movie pins its rags-to-a-chance-at-riches plotting. They’re immediately sympathetic and engaging. Consideration is given to their lives in small Indian villages, where life is slow-paced and poor. They have close ties to faith, family, and culture. When they arrive in America, they’re sympathetically presented as small-town kids suddenly thrown into entirely unfamiliar surroundings. Given an opportunity to come to America and try out for a chance to earn millions, they’re nonetheless understandably homesick and discouraged. And yet they are still willing to give it a try.

Theirs is a stronger, more compelling culture shock, and yet we see them filtered through their agent’s viewpoint. He follows a predictable arc in which he’s a hard-charging career-oriented guy who sees his new guests as a project more than people. He needs to soften up and learn to love his makeshift family. We’ve seen that story before. No matter how well Hamm plays the plot points, it’s still obviously lacking compared to the more interesting story happening just outside his perspective. It’s a problem of point of view.

I wanted to know more about the interior lives and daily struggles of the kids. Instead, they make friends, learn baseball, and learn English almost entirely off-screen. Why push aside their training?  You’d think that would be a key point of interest. Besides, the coach helping them is played by the always-welcome Bill Paxton, and every time the film heads to the field, the imagery lights up and the thrill of the game is palpable. And yet we spend far more time watching their agent stumble towards the point at which he’ll realize the error of his ways. To do so he’s given a token love interest (the charming Lake Bell in an impoverished role), who exists here only to be a potential romantic partner and to give him pep talks.  

Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Tom McCarthy are usually better attuned to specificities in their characters. Gillespie has shown a fine eye for community responses to differences, especially in his Lars and the Real Girl. But I’m surprised McCarthy, in particular, ended up with a script with a perspective so out of whack. His The Visitor is a tender portrayal of clashing cultures that finds a bookish professor surprised and ultimately enriched by his entanglement with a couple of immigrants squatting in his apartment. His Win Win is about a troubled teenager taken in by a warm family willing to help him achieve a better life through sports. In other words, McCarthy has done aspects of the story before, but Million Dollar Arm approaches from an angle that feels wrong.

While the characters are for the most part compassionately drawn, and the visual style is glossy up-tempo Disney feel-good uplift, the movie is stubbornly fuzzy with the details and the balance in perspective remains wobbly. The movie is upbeat and well made, but I found the point of view naggingly askew. About halfway through, I started imagining a better version of this movie that started fully immersed in the villages of India, met Sharma and Mittal, got to know them better, and then saw the Americans and America through their eyes. Their characters go through massive changes, leaving their families behind to move across the world to a country where they don’t speak the language, to be taught to play a sport they’ve never seen, and to live at an income level they’d never imagined. That’s quite a shock. Why in the world are they the supporting characters in this story?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Future Shock: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST


Its first entry was released 14 years ago in the summer of 2000, making Fox’s X-Men the only superhero franchise to not be concluded, rebooted, remade, or canceled. There have been spin-offs and prequels, but all have fit into one universe, separate and distinct from the other superhero franchises crowding into the multiplexes with increasing regularity. Perhaps because their cinematic origins predate the flat, noisy, homogenous sci-fi slugfests that make up so much of the subgenre, the X-Men movies have managed to retain their idiosyncrasies. Following the plight of mutants, people who are born with strange and varied powers, from as helpful as telekinesis or regeneration, to as useless as a frog-like tongue, there’s an obvious and potent metaphor at the center. A minority group fights for the right to peacefully coexist with the majority. These movies work best when they tap into that real emotion and empathy.

The first sequel, 2003’s X2, has a quiet and unexpected scene in which a teenager comes out as a mutant to his family. (“Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” is his mother’s response.) It’s moving and human, an example of the kind of scene few other superhero movies have room for. Director Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two entries, got the series off on the right note, with slickly designed thrills and the characters showing off their powers in grounded yet comic-book ways, while taking the metaphors very seriously. It’s a good combination. After 11 years and 4 films of varying quality without him, the franchise is once again under Singer’s direction with the latest, X-Men: Days of Future Past, an attempt to bring together the various strands of timelines and plotlines the series has accumulated.

Days of Future Past is serious, a little silly, and geekily detailed. Simon Kinberg’s script features authentically comic-bookish storytelling, quickly lining up a thinly sketched conflict, presenting the powers, winding up the scenarios and then getting tied in time-travel knots before exploding in big full-page spreads of colorful commotion. It begins in a dystopian future where Sentinels, giant mutant-killing robots, have gone wild. Ruthless machines, they’ve turned the world into a wintry hellscape not unlike the future of The Terminator, filled with stray skulls and bands of resistance fighters. It is this dark future from whence the cast of the first few X-Men pictures, including on-again-off-again allies Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), must send the ever-repairable adamantium-claw-wielding Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to prevent the mass-extinction.

Conveniently, that sends him back into the 1970s where the characters of X-Men: First Class, including young Prof. X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), are about to inadvertently lay the groundwork for the Sentinels. The key line comes from Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who uses her powers to project Wolverine’s consciousness back into his 1970’s body. (See, I told you this was comic-booky.) “Whatever you do becomes our past,” she says to him. That line frees the movie from real-world history and its franchise backstory. Anything can happen. The movie includes the Vietnam war, Paris peace talks, and references to the Kennedy assassination. Richard Nixon consults fictional weapons manufacturer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, sporting a great 70’s stache) and unscrupulous scientists. It’s a free and excited blend of alternate history and retcon loop-de-loops enjoyable enough to distract from how completely incomprehensible it is the more you think about it.

It’s a movie that embraces possibilities for fun throwaway details in its plot. A Paris disco blares a Francophone cover of a Motown hit. How many blockbusters have time for that? It’s a movie in which a bunch of great actors chew over dopey expository dialogue and earnest character work with such gravitas and enjoyment that it reads as simply entertaining. The movie takes itself the right amount of serious, willing to wink in amusement at itself. Take this exchange between the fuzzy blue mutant known as Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and the time-travelling Wolverine. Beast: “In the future, do I make it?” Wolverine: “No.”

It’s all treated sincerely enough to keep the plot gears turning, characters intriguing, and action interesting. The filmmakers have thought through the ways various mutant powers can be used in action sequences, allowing the movie to escape the sameness that creeps into these kinds of movies. If heroes and villains are capable of great sci-fi/fantasy feats, why do so many movies of this type culminate in endless point-and-shoot, punching bag calamities? Any old hero can do that, no superpowers required. Here there are fine pop visuals, including a great sequence with a super-fast mutant who can zip around a room and take out a whole squadron of bad guys in the space of a blink. At one point Singer slows the action down, letting him get through a confrontation while all the regular-speed folks are moving so imperceptibly as to not be moving at all. It’s a neat concept cleverly staged.

Most welcome is the way the plot hinges on preventing violence to save the future. It doesn’t come down to a knockdown drag-out fight, but rather a race-against-the-clock to prevent an inciting incident that will lead to bloodshed decades later. There’s no shortage of action, with the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) playing the part of globetrotting villain and the 70s X-Men giving chase while, 50 years in the future, X-Men ready themselves for a confrontation with a massive fleet of Sentinels. But the thrust of the film is still the metaphoric, with mutants continuing to stand in for any oppressed minority group fighting over how best to fight for rights and protections. Days of Future Past adds to the mix commentary on drones, with the mindless robots meant to protect going horribly bad, and drug addiction, featuring a subplot with a character hooked on a substance that dulls mutant powers presented in a way that looks a lot like heroin.

That’s all just flavoring, though. After a certain point, Days of Future Past doesn’t have time for quieter human moments. It’s content to borrow emotion with quick flashes of previous entries as it hurtles to the plot contortions necessary to tangle together the various loose ends it’s required to bring together in order to move the franchise forward. This is a movie that slowly loses cleverness as it creaks towards necessary plot points and tidy franchise care. Its time travel narrative carefully clears one table while setting two or three more. That wore me out by the end, and makes my head spin trying to piece together the web of alternate universes and timeline fractures implied by the events. Those burdens hold this solid entertainment back from being one of the X-Men’s best.

Of course, maybe the novelty has just worn off. This one has the feel of a curtain call about it, bringing everyone back on stage for one last bow. It’s warm and comfortable to see old cast members returning, even as it’s coasting on the nostalgia of seeing actors inhabit characters they haven’t in nearly a decade. In the feeling of completion that’s brought about by the end, it feels like a satisfying series finale. And yet, barring catastrophe, it will go on. I’ve had affection for these movies, the first two buying a lot of goodwill through subsequent highs and lows. But after this one acts far more enjoyably like a conclusion, I’m not sure how much more I want or could take. At any rate, the X-Men will go on, borne back ceaselessly into days of future past. This entry is fun, even as it adds layers of complication and continuity wrinkles in the name of streamlining and simplifying. The characters are sharp, the acting sharper, the metaphors workable, and the spectacle bright and clear. It hits its marks well.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Looking and Seeing: LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE


The great director Abbas Kiarostami uses his films to trace the most delicate of shifts in his character’s lives. Emotions sit tenderly on the surface of his imagery, at once staggeringly beautiful and completely ordinary. He’s never been a plot heavy director, all the better to create scenarios that breathe, characters that come alive. You don’t realize how little most films get up to until you see how much Kiarostami can do with the sparsest of stories. His last feature, 2011’s Certified Copy, his first shot outside his native Iran, consisted of little more than two great actors having a conversation in a picturesque Italian village. And it was one of the most fully realized relationship dramas of recent years, with one of the trickiest, slipperiest plots. Even Close-Up, his great 1990 picture set in his home country, with its instantly grabbing based-on-a-true-story story about a man who fooled a family into thinking he was a famous director, is rich in suggestion, small gestures with big meaning, exquisite frames with still, simple splendor telling so much.

And so, if Like Someone in Love had been written and directed by anyone else, the rough outline of its plot would seem like the stuff of broad farce or melodrama. Perhaps such an approach would be equally fruitful, but Kiarostami brings to this story his patience, his considered intelligence permeating every frame and every cut. The movie follows a young woman (Rin Takanashi) in Tokyo whose part-time job as a high-class escort takes her to the apartment of an elderly widower professor (Tadashi Okuno) who wants some company. Soon, he finds himself drawn into a grandfatherly position regarding the young woman’s relationship. Complications arise from there, but Kiarostami isn’t interested in building a plot machine. Audiences expecting the story to develop to a conventional climax and dénouement will no doubt leave disappointed. Kiarostami looks at his characters and their situations with a calm surface and intensity of interest, finding great power in subtly drawing attention deeply into the compositions, and deeper into the rhythms of his characters’ thoughts, feelings, and lives.

Take the virtuoso and much praised opening scene. It’s a shot of a busy bar. We hear a conversation on the soundtrack, but none of the people milling about appear to match the dialogue. After several minutes, a reverse shot finally lets us see Takanashi. She was behind our vantage point, talking this entire time. We’ve heard so much from her, but only now do we get to put a face to the voice. The direction has the capacity to draw you into a mystery so simple that it’s hard sometimes to realize how complex it is. What does it mean to know another person? Kiarostami has us looking intently in Katsumi Yanagijima’s cinematography for information, knowing that the power of cinema sits not only in what we see and hear, but in the absence of information as well.

He keeps up this strategy of keeping details and actors off screen. The young woman has a grandmother who appears only in voicemails that she plays while in the cab on the way to her client for the night. The camera sits on Takanashi’s face as the anxiously optimistic grandmotherly voice fills the soundtrack. The neon lights of the city cast a lovely, shifting glow on the windows that dances across her as she listens to the old woman sweetly, invitingly implore for a meeting. Her grandmother says she’ll be waiting in a plaza in a certain part of town and would love to see her. We get the feeling the young woman hasn’t seen her grandmother in a very long time, and the grandmother doesn’t know what the young woman does to make ends meet. The cab passes by the proposed meeting spot. I felt myself straining to see if the grandmother was there. I dare not say more about that moment. The film is built out of such searching ambiguities, inviting you to search the frame, study the precision performances, lose yourself in the beauty of the picture and the depth of the feeling. It wants you to see for yourself.

The young woman is in a period of transition, literally alternating between stasis and movement as the film progresses. She’s in vehicles and rooms, both pinned down in Kiarostami’s style. Even when she’s on the move, she’s stuck. As her connection with her client evolves, we learn about his life and hers. In conversation, we hear about them as they maneuver around each other. When the film follows them out into the light of day, as their situation complicates, the studied intricacy of Kiarostami’s point of view is so fine tuned that we don’t get a romance or a tragedy or any developments a more conventional film of Hollywood or art house persuasion would lead you to expect.

What Kiarostami is up to here is a tender character study that never erupts into anything as disruptive as typical narrative demands. It’s a work of style and performance that’s aching with compassion for all involved, charting shifts and incidents so slight and yet so impactful. He’s stripped away all the frippery and drama that could easily be built up around this scenario, the better to go digging around in the most elemental of questions about knowledge of self and of others. We spend our lives interacting with other people. If we’re lucky, we make truly meaningful connections. But what do we know of others? For that matter, what do we know of ourselves? What is the difference between being in love and behaving like someone in love? How much can we really know just by observing those we come in contact with?

Throughout Like Someone in Love, characters go about their daily lives. What we see is not especially notable, at least at first. Through their routines we struggle to make sense of what others know about them. As their situation develops, they struggle with how much to let on, what shadings and half-truths to apply as they relate to one another. Kiarostami makes a film that literalizes its theme in the structure and style by leaving information dangling, eliding some moments with artful cuts and stretching others in something like real time, and ultimately starting the end credits just as the plot is at is most overtly startling. He lets us look and see, but asks us to work with our observations to understand. And even then, he asks how much we really know. The uncertainty the film leaves the audience is simply the uncertainty of life. We think we know these people because we’ve seen a couple hours of their lives. But how much do we understand? And what happens next? We don’t know any more than the characters do.

Friday, May 16, 2014

King of the Monsters: GODZILLA


There’s a difference between filling a movie with effects and setpieces and constructing a movie with effects and setpieces. Gareth Edwards illustrates that difference with great excitement and skill in Godzilla, the latest attempt to recreate the beloved 60-year-old Japanese franchise on American shores. Edwards succeeds where others failed precisely because he takes great care in constructing his imagery – steady, dynamic, clear – and pacing – slow and steady, building to an impressive crescendo – to create a vivid sensation of awe. His Godzilla is awesome in the most literal sense of the word, an overpowering feeling of astonishment and terror. He manipulates his film and his audience with a methodical Spielbergian brio, gazing up at his tense scenarios and massive spectacle with trembling fear and wonder.

Edwards’ shoestring 2010 indie Monsters was a meandering mumbly relationship drama set against the backdrop of enormous beings wreaking havoc off-screen, but with it he proved his facility with effects. It ended with a scene of alien monsters so tenderly photographed as to border on the sublime. Now with a massive budget and a requirement to amp up the action, he finds a similar core of respect for the biology and ecology of Godzilla. He’s presented as an animal like any other where it counts, part of the natural order of things. We should fear him and respect him.

The beast’s 1954 debut created him out of the atomic anxieties of post-World War II Japan. This new iteration places him firmly in modern environmental worries. It begins with two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) surveying a dig in the Philippines that has uncovered incomprehensibly large fossils, and evidence a creature has dug its way out into the ocean. Meanwhile, distant tremors collapse a Japanese nuclear power plant where two more scientists (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) struggle to contain the radiation. In an echo of our modern climate change and superstorm anxieties, there’s a clear sense that humans are about to learn we don’t control nature. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

We jump ahead 15 years. Scientists continue to study the strange readings around the disaster area of the film’s opening. Cranston and his now-grown Navy officer son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) explore the area and get caught up in the proceedings when an enormous beast breaks free, revealing itself to the world. In a nod to the franchise’s past, we learn that the military’s Cold-War-era nuclear tests in the Pacific were actually an attempt to put down the ancient beast they called Godzilla. They succeeded only in putting him in hibernation. Now he’s awake, hungry, and on the hunt for sustenance. It’s only a matter of time before he makes landfall in a few cities. The army, led by a tough general (David Strathairn), is in desperate pursuit, frantically cobbling together a plan to save the planet.

If you think all that sounds like it could be the generic plot description of many a monster movie, you’d be right. But where this new Godzilla really makes an impact is in its sensitivity in framing the disasters – the slam-bang monster battles, the peek-a-boo creature stalking, the crumbling buildings, rounds of ammunition, and billowing fireballs – against the consuming terror such a calamity would be to the people on the ground. It’s a monster movie stocked with flat characters run through a diversity of sequences of action and destruction as the low camera looks up at the creatures towering above causing their devastation. But because the people remain framed in the foreground, creating a sense of scale while stumbling away from unimaginable horror, gazing upwards in windswept confusion and terror, it matters.

So what if Taylor-Johnson, our lead, has an incredibly simple emotional through-line of needing to fight his way back to his health-care professional wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and adorable moppet (Carson Bolde) who are stranded in harm’s way? There’s no harm in such shameless emotional manipulation if it isn’t careless. This is also a movie that repeatedly puts barking dogs, small children, and the sick and elderly squarely in the path of chaos. But the movie seems to care about their plights, regards the destruction with a measure of real sorrow instead of mere CGI kick, and treats the events with the right mix of gravity and entertainment. It comes off less a series of jolts, more as a grand, relentless amusement park ride.

The movie is filled with complicated effects shots, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum booming brass on the score, and rattling sound design with deep bass footsteps that start as soft quakes until suddenly something is right on top of us. But it doesn’t add up to only a chaotic jumble of sensations. It’s a movie focused on process, troop movements, and monster behavior. Edwards, with screenwriter Max Borenstein, has shaped setpieces within this narrative to have peaks and valleys, tense escalations, teasing suspense, and dips of shaky, tenuous comfort. Take, for example, a great sequence set at an airport. The power goes out. There are explosions and commotion in the distance. The power comes back on, illuminating a monster towering over the runway. It’s a great tease, and Edwards takes amused pleasure in the construction of it while never losing sight of the scare. Like Spielberg’s Jaws or Jurassic Park or Ridley Scott’s Alien, Edwards knows how to get just as much entertainment out of not showing the monsters as revealing them to us in their entire enormity. No need to get the whole thing in the frame right away when one massive scaly flank striding past as people quake in their skyscrapers is even scarier. Even better, we aren't tired of the monster by the time the climax arrives.

This Godzilla is a full movie: big imagery telling a complete story. It’s not up to much beyond the sensations of its awesome creature feature spectacle. The stock characters remain flat. The ecological message doesn’t resonate or build as impactfully as it could. But it’s operating near the genre’s highest level. Edwards is working with impressive craftsmanship, visual intelligence, and moral weight that too few spectacle-wranglers can manage. Like the best popcorn entertainments of Spielberg, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, and Peter Jackson, he builds wonder with great patience, excitement, and skill. 

Mirror Image: THE DOUBLE


Richard Ayoade’s The Double is a movie that sounds intriguing. It’s about a man who discovers his new co-worker looks exactly like him. How interesting! It’s also a movie that looks great. Pass by it on cable and you just might linger, wondering what enjoyable goings-on take place inside the fanciful production design, dramatically lit and precisely shot. It is unfortunate, then, that the movie never develops much of interest within the confines of its compelling hook and fine design. It’s thin and empty, not so much inhabiting its looks and ideas as borrowing them. Like Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, which earlier this year doubled Jake Gyllenhaal to little interest, Ayoade, adapting a Dostoevsky story, has a terrific concept, a game cast, an interesting look, and nowhere to go.

The man at the center of the double dilemma is timid office drone Simon (Jesse Eisenberg). He does good work, but the world seems to crushingly ignore him, ensnaring him in bureaucratic red-tape mazes at best, skipping over him entirely at worst. The waitress at his favorite restaurant always brings him the wrong order. He nurses a crush on his neighbor and co-worker (Mia Wasikowska), but never acts upon it. He has great ideas to improve his office’s efficiency, but the boss (Wallace Shawn) brushes him aside, telling him to babysit his intern (Yasmin Page), a surly teenager who also happens to be his daughter. The world is a lonely, gloomy place for Simon.

In the peculiar world of the film, it always seems to be night. The characters are pale, their faces impassive, their words strung along into sentences of matter-of-fact, by-the-book knots. It’s a Terry Gilliam/Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Tim Burton kind of world with production designer David Crank providing flickering lights, oversized ducts and pipes, steaming vents, rusty mechanical contraptions, and spotty retro-futurist structures covered in elaborate alternative universe tech and bric-a-brac. The weight of all this busyness keeps Simon crushed down in the imagery, stark lighting highlighting his alienation from the busy people droning along through apparently much happier lives around him.

Enter James, a new co-worker the others in the office immediately take a liking to. He’s everything Simon isn’t: successful and confident to the point of arrogance. He also looks exactly like Simon, a funny coincidence and something no one else seems to notice or care about. The two men eventually get to know each other and even help each other out by switching places at crucial moments. But it’s all very strange and destabilizing for James, who is intimidated by his double. At one point he explains his insecurities, saying he “sees the man he wants to be, but can’t get there.” His wish is made real in the form of his double, allowing him to see the advantages and disadvantages of being a more forceful individual. On the one hand, he could go after what he wants. On the other hand, what if what he wants is wanted by his double as well? Ah, there’s the problem.

And so it’s double versus double or something like that as the story slowly drains down to its glum conclusions. Along the way, Ayoade exercises good formal control over the technical aspects of the picture, from the dim, whimsical production design to the precise blocking involved in doubling Eisenberg in many a shot, allowing him to interact with himself in tricky ways. Eisenberg is a performer good at suggesting jumpy neuroses, anxious intelligence, and tangled interior debates. No wonder he makes such a good scene partner for himself, playing essentially two halves of a whole character, a man’s inner emotional conflict made literal. Sometimes I got confused, not quite able to pin down which man was which, but he locates an emotional consistency that’s a solid anchor.

The character design is as sturdy and inscrutable as the dialogue is designed to be deadpan, the sets strikingly artificial, the plot cold and lost in its own thoughts. It’s a forced whimsy, happy to be odd and particular without much in the way of insight or inviting further consideration. There’s simply nothing pulling along the assemblage of influences and design choices into any sort of involving larger picture. There’s no reason to invest or care. Ayoade is a director of potential. His TV work, like cult favorite Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, is strong, but his cinematic efforts lag behind. This is his second film, after the coming-of-age Submarine, a similarly stylishly empty work of great control, thin substance, and borrowed imagination. I look forward to the day when he finds better material to match his talents. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Boys Next Door: NEIGHBORS


An R-rated comedy can sour quickly. There’s a tendency among Hollywood’s purveyors of that subgenre to rush to the R and forget the comedy when planning their edgiest jokes or letting the actors endlessly riff on the lines until scenes grow baggy and dirty. The surprise of Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors is that it gets the balance mostly right. You’d think a movie about a married couple and their newborn daughter who find their lovely suburban college-town lives disrupted by a rowdy fraternity moving in next door would lend itself to lazy stereotypes and general degeneracy. It does, but even though the movie is exuberantly vulgar, broad, and loud, it never loses track of the human qualities in its characters. There’s an allowance for some small nuance that avoids reducing the characters to their cheapest, ugliest selves.

We start with the married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) trying to adjust to life as parents. Unlike Rogen’s many man-child roles, this is a movie about two adults who are mostly happy to have matured to the extent they have. With movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five Year Engagement, director Stoller has proven himself interested in exploring the emotional shifts the continual process of growing as an adult entails. In his films, the relationships ring true and are treated with a degree of weight. Here our leads are doting on and toting around their adorable baby, enjoying life while still wondering if having a child has to mean leaving their carefree party days behind. Just as they’re figuring out their new, more responsible, fully adult selves, an explosion of youthful id moves in next door.

At first it doesn’t seem so bad. The frat’s president (Zac Efron) promises they’ll keep the noise down. The other boys (Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael, Craig Roberts) seem nice enough, cooing over the baby and saying they want to keep the neighborhood pleasant. But then the partying starts. It’s loud, long, and debauched, just as you’d expect. And soon the couple is forced to call in a noise complaint. When the responding cop (Hannibal Buress) tells the frat the source of the call, the frat takes it up a notch. They aren’t just loud and obnoxious partiers by night, litterers and loiterers by day. (That’s familiar to anyone who has lived in a college town.) They’re now actively antagonistic, pranking their neighbors in escalatingly dangerous and improbable ways. After a visit to the flighty dean (Lisa Kudrow) proves unhelpful, the couple decides to sabotage the frat and shut them down for good. The script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien follows a clear structure, with the frat behaving boorishly and the couple plotting ways to force them out.

With such a setup, it’d be easy for the movie to fall into characterization as simple and button-pushing as its preoccupation with bodily functions, body parts, and bodily harm. A lesser comedy would make the frat boys only villains and the thirtysomethings only virtuous. Here the terrible frat boys are, between raunch and bullying, allowed moments of surprising tenderness, self-doubt, and worry about their fast-approaching post-graduation prospects. One guy goes to a job fair where he’s told flat out he’s “too dumb.” Later, one frat kid earnestly tells another, “You don’t like them [the neighbors] because they remind you of the future.” As for those neighbors, they like smoking a little weed now and then, want to keep their sex life interesting, and have real doubts about the suburban bliss they feel pressure to want. These unexpected shadings go a long way towards balancing the broader, dumber moments.

Some of the situations are unlikely. (Wouldn’t the couple at least close their curtains at night?) Slapstick – like a violent and far-fetched airbags prank – and gross-out gags – like a breastfeeding emergency or, worse, a mix-up involving a discarded, unused prophylactic – might go too far. But the film remains largely likable because it has the right balance. Cinematographer Brandon Trost (who also worked on the better-looking-than-you’d-think This is the End) shoots with a slick, loosely held style that gives weight and a degree of realism to the proceedings. Maybe that’s why the more exaggerated moments feel a bit false, but it also helps sell the truth in the solid performances. Rogen and Byrne have warm chemistry and easy repartee. I particularly liked them arguing about who gets to be the irresponsible Kevin James-type in their marriage. Around them the ensemble – from Efron and Franco on down – is well-cast and well-deployed. And the baby is adorable, ready to give cute cutaway reaction shots while being kept nice and safe, sleeping peacefully when the most dangerous moments erupt.

Too often movies about frats want to wink, nudge, and enjoy the sexism, racism, carousing, and homophobic hazing, wallowing in celebratory immaturity. It’s good, then, that Neighbors finds itself squarely on the side of growing up, saying to do so means finding the proper balance between partying and responsibility. It likes its characters, even when they make mistakes, even at their most caricatured and stereotypical. It’s not a great comedy, a little low on laughs, but it’s pleasant enough to be a decent time at the movies. Without a mean spirit and with a relatively short runtime of 90 minutes and change, it’s the rare R-rated comedy that accommodates dirty jokes, bad behavior, and even a few unfunny scenes, without going sour. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Unhappy Ending: NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. II


Lars von Trier films inevitably conclude with pain, punishment, and hard-fought cynical enlightenment. In his best films, there can be a sort of ecstatic transcendence. Melancholia watches nothing less than the end of the world in its final images and finds in it sweet release. His Nymphomaniac reaches the end of its four hours and finds a shot in the dark, a forceful and dark death for what had started as a glimmer of kindness Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) had been able to find. In Vol. I, there was much humor and a sense of wry cinematic experimentation. As Joe told her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the kind older gentleman who found her beaten up in the alley next to his apartment, she seemed to be testing him, shaping her stories to get a response. And so was Von Trier, throwing stock footage, shifting aspect ratios, music both classical and rock, untranslated foreign languages, and a scattered chronology at the audience. It’s an excitable piece of punk juvenile fantasizing and frustrated philosophizing, a mix of goading hilarity and sharp castigation. In Vol. II, the darkness encroaches and the fun starts to fade.

Vol. II continues the teasing nature of its narrative, growing meta as Joe continues to recount her life of sexual and romantic entanglements and Seligman susses out metaphor and allegory, giving impromptu mini-lectures on a variety of subjects. After one such moment, Joe says to him, “I think this was one of your weakest digressions.” He later returns the favor, saying after one of her more disconnected memories, “What just happened? I didn’t get that.” They’re alternately the audience surrogate, commenting on the episodic, discursive nature of the long and winding film as it enters its final hours. It’s a film that’s teasing, generally around the question of how much it will show us, either explicit or coy, sometimes in the same sequence. Take a C-section, shown almost totally obscured visually by being shot in a reflection of shiny metal in the operating room, but presented with foley work so squishy it’s as if we saw it all.

The movie sets up all kinds of dichotomies: good/bad, suffering/happiness, pain/pleasure, literal/abstract, physical/cerebral, emotional/biological. It then methodically blurs the boundaries, drawing stark contrasts and then narrowing the gap until we have to ask ourselves what those differences actually are. With subject matter so explicit, the film could easily grow exploitative and cheap. It doesn't, not quite, a testament to the strength of the acting and the direction. But over the final two hours of this film what was teasing, exciting, and interesting grows dark, leaden, and empty. The controlled mess veers out of control as surface inappropriateness becomes deeper ugliness, drawing unflattering connections between moral judgments and moral lapses.

What is Von Trier saying here? In Vol. I, libertine expressiveness was refreshingly free of overt heavy-handed judgment. If anything, Seligman’s constant reassurances that Joe hadn’t behaved as badly as she feared provided nice balance to her apparent self-loathing. But by the end of Vol. II he tells her, “You wanted more from life than was good for you.” Leading up to that line, we hear about her experimentations with foreigners (Kookie and Papou), a professional sadist (Jamie Bell), and a young woman (Mia Goth). She becomes a shady debt collector for a sketchy man (Willem Dafoe). She’s chasing thrills, trying to feel something now that she so thoroughly conquered the art of simple pleasure. The movie pities her, but seems to think she in some way invites punishment. Rattled by her loss of desire, she went looking for dangers to get it back.

Narratively, stylistically, and thematically, Vol. II picks up right where Vol. I left off. It doesn’t skip a beat. No surprise there. It’s one whole movie split into two parts. The cleaving has left it clear that the first half is far more interesting and enjoyable than the second. You know how sometimes a critic will say that a movie is pretty great only if you leave halfway through and don’t learn otherwise? Releasing this four-hour-plus Nymphomaniac in two two-hour parts makes that easier. It starts out a confident narrative of empowerment and the complications thereof and ends up a cynical chastisement, coldly putting Joe in her place, whatever that means. As a whole, the film is as prickly, exciting, upsetting, contradictory, and compelling as anything Lars von Trier has made, worth grappling with, even if it doesn’t come together in the end.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bored to Death: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE


Living a life as long as the average human lifespan can get pretty boring. Days can pass slowly, tasks growing monotonous. Maybe depression sets in. The great George Sanders, the actor who gave us, among many fine performances, All About Eve’s droll theater critic Addison DeWitt, committed suicide at the age of 65, his note reading, in part: “I am leaving because I am bored.” It’s a tragedy, to be sure, and one that the pale and reclusive Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is contemplating. He simply feels he’s been alive for so very long, finding his days – no, his years – passing in a blur of moping around his dilapidated and cluttered house in an abandoned corner of Detroit. Occasionally he rouses himself to noodle with his beloved antique instruments and archaic technologies, sometimes composing a song. He orders a custom-made bullet to be made out of dense wood and thinks he might shoot into his heart for real this time. You see, he’s a vampire, and the endless centuries have grown dull. You think living 80, 90 years seems daunting? Try 800, 900 years, or longer.

This is the world of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire movie that thrums to its own frequency, vibrating on a chill and melancholic mood. It’s not a horror movie, or rather, not exactly a horror movie. It’s more a come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-vampirism party, a slow and consuming hangout movie with ghoulish and existential underpinnings. It doesn’t move quickly so as not to break the spell. Adam is quiet, still, contemplative. His wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), leaves her home in Tangiers to come for a visit, blaming all the time spent with Romantic poets a couple centuries ago for her husband’s current funk. They move on a different time-scale than ours, able to big-picture our mortal world, sighing at our stasis, our cyclical crises. They watch humans making a mess of the world from the helplessness of the shadows. They’re tired of us. Says he to she, “They’re still fighting over Darwin. Still.”

The vampires of Jarmusch’s imagination here are neither suave bloodsuckers nor skulking monsters and they certainly aren’t out stalking human prey. No, they sit at home, sleep all day and sulk all night. They’re cultured, have read all the great books, seen all the great art, heard all the great songs. They have all the time in the world to appreciate their surroundings, but are tired of doing it and seeing human failings endlessly repeated. When hungry, they just go the blood bank and bribe their usual accomplice (Jeffrey Wright) for the bags of liquid life they need to sustain themselves, sipping small amounts for nourishment and what seems like a bit of a high. The camera pushes forwards as they tip their heads back, eyes ecstatic, mouth agape in dopey fangs-baring grins.

The vampires rarely go out, at most driving down dark, empty streets. Adam has something like a human buddy, a young man (Anton Yelchin) who stops by with vintage music equipment for sale and acts as a middleman between the secret vampire and Detroit’s underground music scene. He and the blood doctor are the film’s only connection to the human world. Jarmusch spends the runtime immersed in the day-to-day drudgery of these vampires, intensely observing the loneliness and alienation of the marginalized. What’s more marginal, fringe, than being literally unable to step into the daylight? They are in the world without being of the world. There’s an authentic ice-cold elitism in their attitudes, superiority and isolation accumulated over the centuries.

Hiddleston and Swinton are convincingly vampiric with flowing hair and dark eyes in ghostly white faces accentuating their cheekbones. When they go out at night, they wear sunglasses. They’re cool. They move deliberately and with grace, totally comfortable with their bodies and with each other, romantically entangled for what seems like hundreds upon hundreds of years. Of course, after centuries of practice, you would be awfully comfortable, too. These are enigmatic performances, drawing focus in any given frame with nothing more than their presences. Confident performers, they use stillness and quiet to great effect, engendering great curiosity with a strong sense of history and sadness. The vampires have had time to cultivate both. They have seen and experienced so much and yet only have each other to share it with.

A few others of their kind drift into the picture. One is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Yes, that Marlowe. He’s just a little bitter that Shakespeare took credit for his plays on the small technicality that everyone thought Marlowe was dead. Oh, well. A secret is a secret. Another guest is Eve’s adopted sister (Mia Wasikowska). They haven’t seen her in 87 years. She’s clearly a younger vampire, relatively speaking. Inhabiting the body of a blonde party girl, she embraces entirely unselfconsciously her status as a flighty, impulsive, adorably energetic disruption and danger to her relatives’ stasis. She crinkles her nose in an ingratiatingly cute way, but she’s as needy as she is deadly. “You know how it is with family,” Eve deadpans. The story, such as it is, concerns the way these characters interact with each other and with the world of the humans, but it’s mostly an intoxicating mood piece and character study.

The film’s characters are written with bone-dry wit of a familiar Jarmusch style, speaking leisurely and precisely in diction that’s bookish, moody, and in keeping with deliberately paced actions, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s brooding slowly or unmoving shots, and the sound design’s extended patches of silence mixed with the low throb of a score. It coheres as a picture of a long, slow, philosophical existence. The vampires are often condescending, secure in the knowledge that they’ve seen so much and understand the world from a large first-hand sample size of history that the humans around them have no hope of catching up. They stick together because only another vampire can understand the particular, peculiar, entrancing boredom of immortality.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Caught in a Web: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2


What makes Spider-Man fundamentally engaging and enjoyable is his relatable humanity. Peter Parker is just a normal young guy with real problems with family, school, girls, and employment. That provides a ground-level rooting interest that’s a more direct emotional appeal in all his action sequences than in all the boring climactic near-apocalyptic scenarios that pervade the superhero genre. That’s what I found most charming about The Amazing Spider-Man. With Andrew Garfield the reboot’s filmmakers found, like Sam Raimi found in Tobey Maguire for their superior films, a likable guy. Even if Peter didn’t always do the right thing, you knew the decisions pile up and weigh on him without getting in the way of the high-flying fun of being Spider-Man. What was most refreshing about that retelling of Spidey’s origin story was its relatively self-contained narrative. It didn’t seem to be spending too much of its time teasing future installments or leaving storylines conspicuously hanging at loose ends like so many superhero movies do these days. It simply found good performers in a narrative that had a beginning, middle, and end.

But when it comes to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the charm of a complete story has been entirely thrown out. It consists of 142 minutes of scenes – some better than others – that never cohere. The whole production exists for the moment, chasing a this-happens-then-this-happens high where everything is pitched at a consistent level of spectacle and import. I thought of Ebert’s criticism of Michael Bay’s Armageddon as a feature-length trailer. The problem is, this Spider-Man isn’t just cut together like its own highlights. It’s cut together like a teaser for its own sequel. It’s all color, noise, and shapeless plot, stuffed full of subplots and character introductions foreshadowing and previewing where the studio would like to take this franchise in the future. As a result, the movie plays out busily with much happening, but little impact. There’s no clear through-line. Narrative, character, theme, and style exist in a haze, constantly threatening to take shape, but never getting there.

To even briefly summarize the plot seems a losing proposition. Instead I’ll describe some of the variables bouncing around. Peter (Garfield) is on-again-off-again with the lovable Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, continuing her appealing performance from the first movie). He’s also trying to hide his superhero identity from sweet Aunt May (Sally Field). Meanwhile, the heir to the CEO throne of the omnipresent and obviously menacing Oscorp Industries, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), skulks about looking to cure his mysterious hereditary ailment. A dweeby and unjustly ignored scientist (Jamie Foxx) gets electrocuted and then falls into a tank of genetically altered eels, an experience that leaves him blue, translucent, able to manipulate energy, and has rattled his brain in a way that leads him to decide he’s a supervillain and take the name Electro. He must know he’s in a superhero movie. The rest of the movie is filled with bit parts for the likes of Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Felicity Jones, and Sarah Gadon, all clearly sitting around hoping they get to play more important roles in a future installment.

Director Marc Webb, with cinematographer Dan Mindel, shoots it all clearly and colorfully, juggling the plotlines as best he can. It’s all broad and comic-booky, with cartoony fluidity to the bright special effects and shots of action that twist gymnastically around Spidey in sometimes-exciting ways. But it is when Webb gets the chance to narrow in on the human relationships that the movie works best. The scenes are not particularly well written, but Garfield and Stone continue to have nice chemistry and manage to have a believable romantic spark as they juggle their lives individually and together. He’s a freelance photographer and Spider-Man. She’s an Oscorp intern and wants to go to Oxford in the fall. The question of what their future looks like, and whether they’re a couple beyond the present, is treated with some gravity. It works only because the performances are convincing.

Garfield is enjoying himself, creating a Peter Parker who is having so much fun being Spider-Man, swinging down New York City skyscrapers and wisecracking with bad guys, that darker shadings of grief and mystery almost don’t have room to stretch out comfortably. Stone, for her part, is even better. Not just a prop or an object to be rescued, she holds her own. Smart, she helps think Spidey’s way out of a number of predicaments, and is her own independent-minded person. It’s a shame that she has to reenact one of the source material’s most famous plot developments, a decision that turns her into yet another female character we’re only supposed to care about because of how what happens to her makes the male lead feel.

But it’s not just her. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s screenplay makes the wrong moves by having every character and event become simply an overtly reverential and referential signpost on the way to the next spectacle, moving the pieces and gears into place for the next installment instead of becoming a wholly satisfying story of its own. (That Kurtzman/Orci scripts have sometimes made this a bad habit is not encouraging. I went into the film unaware of its writers and when their credit appeared I groaned and thought “makes sense.”) If I’m being charitable, the movie is an accidental post-narrative experiment. If I’m not being charitable, it’s desperately laying track just ahead of a franchise barreling down a route-in-progress. Either way, the flop sweat starts to show. It leads to a wobbly tone and confused plot.

Take Jamie Foxx for example. He’s delivering an amused big, campy performance that appears to belong in a different movie. Electro is a jumble of shifting personalities, goofy jealousies, and legitimate complaints, not to mention some serious-minded hints of metaphoric marginalization that remain largely inactive, all mixed into one convincingly weird persona. His scenes rise to match his nutty intensity and scattered evolution. I thoroughly enjoyed his scene opposite the exquisitely named Dr. Ashley Kafka (Marton Csokas), a man with a thick German accent who captures Electro in an Oscorp-funded insane asylum’s contraption that looks like a rubber body suit welded into a giant circuit board suspended over a hot tub. (Why would such a thing even exist other than to accommodate the plot of a superhero movie?) It’s a scene that feels one or two notches away from pure comedy.

But it is hard to square that tone with what we see elsewhere. We get straining emotional scenes of Dane DeHaan brooding with intensity in a heightened sickly torment that nearly breaks past the quick and dirty token characterization given to him. There is light relationship comedy, intimations of fatherly secrets for Spidey and Osborne alike, an opening phony-baloney plane crash flashback, a concluding manipulative little-kid-in-danger scene, a perilous blackout, a couple of winking references to the sadly still-unseen J. Jonah Jameson (the best of all Spider-Man supporting characters), and a funeral. It’s a sequel that does so much, it ends up feeling like nothing at all. I didn’t exactly have a bad time, but its diverting qualities are fleeting and its frustrations linger.
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