Film Review: Live By Night (dir by Ben Affleck)


Remember Live By Night?

Released in December of 2016, Live By Night was one of those highly anticipated films that ended up bombing at the box office and leaving critics cold.  The anticipation was due to the fact that Live By Night was the first film that Ben Affleck had directed since Argo won best picture.  It was seen as Affleck’s next prestige picture, the one that would remind everyone that he was more than just the latest actor to be cast as Batman.  Live By Night was expected to be a huge Oscar contender.  As for why it bombed at the box office, that may have had something to do with the fact that Live By Night is not a very good film.

It’s a gangster film, one that takes place during prohibition.  Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the most boring gangster in Boston.  Or, at least, he is until he falls for the wrong woman and he ends up having to flee down to Tampa.  Once down there, Joe sets himself up as the most boring gangster in Florida.  There’s all sorts of themes running through Live By Night — racial themes, economic themes, even some heavy-handed religious themes — but ultimately, the main impression that one gets from the film’s story is that Joe Coughlin was a very boring gangster.

Anyway, Joe gets involved in all sorts of corruption and violence.  He brings down his friend, Dion (Chris Messina), to help him out.  Whereas Joe is rational and dull, Dion is violent and dull.  You spend the entire movie waiting for the moment when Dion will turn on Joe but it never happens.  I guess that’s a good thing since Joe and Dion are busy battling the Klan.  Joe may be a 1920s gangster but he’s got the political and cultural outlook of a 21st century movie star.

Joe knows that prohibition is going to end someday, so he hopes to make money through opening up a casino.  Standing in the way of the casino is a prostitute-turned-evangelist named Loretta (Elle Fanning).  Loretta is the daughter of the local police chief (Chris Cooper), with whom Joe has an uneasy friendship.  You keep expecting this plot to go somewhere but it really doesn’t.  Loretta’s just kinda there.  That said, we do get a hilarious shot of a tearful Chris Cooper repeating the word repent over and over again so there is that.

Zoe Saldana is also just kind of there, playing Joe’s Cuban wife.  Again, you expect a lot to happen with Saldana’s character but, for the most part, she’s mostly just a plot device who exists solely so that Joe can have some sort of motivation beyond simply wanting to get rich.

It’s a big, sprawling film that never quite feels like an epic.  A huge part of the problem is that Ben Affleck the director is let down by Ben Affleck the actor.  Regardless of what’s happening in the scene, Affleck always has the same grim look on his face.  At times, it seems as if he’s literally been chiseled out of a marble and you find yourself wondering if he’s actually capable of any facial expression beyond glum annoyance.  A gangster film like this need a bigger-than-life protagonist but, as played by Affleck, Joe always seems to be in danger of vanishing into the scenery.

I think part of the problem is that Affleck’s previous films all dealt with places and subjects that Affleck felt comfortable with, perhaps because he could relate their stories to his own personal experiences.  Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town both took place exclusively in Boston.  Argo dealt with the film industry.  Live By Night is a period piece set in the South and Affleck is obviously lost from the minute Joe arrives in Florida.

Live By Night, I think, could have been a good movie if it had been directed by someone like Paul Thomas Anderson and maybe if an actor like Colin Farrell played the role of Joe.  But, as it is, it’s just a rather stolid and uninspiring gangster film.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Capote (dir by Bennett Miller)


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The first time I ever saw the 2005’s Capote, I thought it was a great film.

I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise.  I love movies about writers and I love biopics and, as the title indicates, Capote was both.  I’m also fascinated by true crime and Capote told the story of how Truman Capote came to write the first true crime book, In Cold Blood.  Add to that, I was (and am) a Philip Seymour Hoffman fan and Capote provided Hoffman with not only a rare starring role but it also won him an overdue Academy Award.  Finally, to top it all off, Capote also dealt with Truman’s friendship with Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), the author of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Seriously, a film that dealt with the writing of both In Cold Blood and To Kill A Mockingbird!?  How couldn’t I love that?  While everyone else was outraged that Crash beat Brokeback Mountain, I was upset that it beat Capote.

Needless to say, I was really looking forward to rewatching Capote for this review.  But when I actually did sit down and watched it, I was shocked to discover that Capote wasn’t actually the masterpiece that I remembered it being.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  It’s still a good film.  At times, it’s even a great film.  I still think it would have been a more worthy Best Picture winner than Crash.  But still, there seemed to be something missing.  Much as with director Bennett Miller’s most recent film, Foxcatcher, there’s a coldness at the heart of Capote.  One can’t deny its success on a technical level but, at the same time, it keeps the audience at a distance.  In the end, we remains detached observers, admiring the skill of the film without ever getting emotionally invested in it.

Interestingly, the film suggests that the exact opposite happened to Truman Capote while he wrote In Cold Blood.  The film suggests that Capote got so invested in one of the killers at the center of In Cold Blood that the process of writing the book nearly destroyed him.  When we first see Capote, he’s at some social event in New York and he’s amusing his rich friends with charmingly risqué anecdotes about his other rich and famous friends.  As played by Hoffman, Capote is someone who is almost always performing.  It only with his friend Harper Lee and his partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) that he ever lets down his guard long enough to reveal who he actually is, a gay man from the deep South who was fortunate enough to escape.

That’s one reason why Capote grows close to Perry Smith (Clifton Collin, Jr.).  The subjects of In Cold Blood, Smith and Dick Hickcock (Mark Pellegrino) killed the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas.  Capote, who followed the case from their arrest to their eventual execution, becomes obsessed with Smith precisely because he sees Smith, with his dysfunctional background and his overly sensitive nature, as being who Capote could have been if things had gone just a little bit differently in his life.  Miller further makes this point by skillfully juxtaposing scenes of Truman dropping names and telling jokes at New York parties with the grim reality of life and death in Kansas.

Truman finds himself serving as a mentor to Perry.  (Hickcock is neglected by both Capote and the film.)  Of course, Truman’s also a writer and he knows that he needs an ending for his story.  As his editor (played by Bob Balaban, who seems to be destined to play everyone’s editor at some point or another) points out, Smith and Hickcock have to be executed if the book is ever to be completed.  Truman also has to get Perry to finally talk about what happened in the Clutter family farm.  As much as Capote seems to care about Perry, he’s ruthless when it comes to getting material for his book.  The film suggests that Truman Capote got his greatest success at the cost of his soul.

It’s a rather dark movie, which might explain why I was initially so impressed with it.  (I went through a period of time where I thought any movie with a sad ending was a masterpiece.)  Rewatching it, I saw that the film’s triumph was mostly one of casting.  Miller gets some seriously brilliant performances from the cast of Capote.  Yes, Hoffman is great in Capote but so is the entire cast.  Keener and Greenwood are well-cast as the only two people who have the guts to call Truman on his bullshit.  Chris Cooper gives a very Chris Cooperish performance as Alvin Dewey, the no-nonsense lawman who views Capote with a mix of amusement and distrust.  Clifton Collins, Jr. and Mark Pellegrino are both excellent as Smith and Hickcock.  In fact, Pellegrino makes such an impression that you regret the both Capote and the film didn’t spend more time with his character.

As previously stated, Hoffman won Best Actor but Capote lost best picture to Crash.  How Crash beat not just Brokeback Mountain but Capote as well is a mystery that Oscar historians are still trying to unravel.

Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2016: Demolition (dir by Jean-Marc Vallee)


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Jake Gyllenhaal is owed an Oscar.  We all know that.  He should have been nominated for Nightcrawler and, even more importantly, he should have won.  However, for whatever reason, the Academy snubbed him.  Ever since then, we — and by “we,” I mean “me” but “we” sounds better — have been waiting for him to get another nomination.

Last year, for instance, we thought he would be nominated for Southpaw.  Then the movie came out and it turned out to be not that good.

This year, we thought it would be for Demolition.  Then Demolition came out and it turned out to be worse than Southpaw

And really, it shouldn’t have been.  Demolition was directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, who was rightly acclaimed for his work on Wild and Dallas Buyers Club.  Not only did it star Jake Gyllenhaal but it also featured Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper!  I mean, how could you go wrong with all that talent?

But the thing is, Jean-Marc Vallee may have directed Wild and Dallas Buyers Club but also directed the wildly uneven The Young Victoria.  Naomi Watts is a great actress but it’s rare that she gets truly great parts.  Chris Cooper can be great but he’s usually at his least subtle whenever he’s playing a suit-wearing authority figure.  As far Jake Gyllenhaal, he is an actor who was born to play eccentric outsiders.  Whenever he has to play someone who is “conventional,” he can seem miscast.

Now admittedly, Davis Mitchell is only “normal” for a few minutes in Demolition but, for the film to work, you have to believe that he was once a successful investment banker who made a lot of money, lived in the suburbs, and never questioned anything.  Since you never believe that Jake Gyllenhaal could ever not be eccentric, it’s hard to be shocked when Davis starts destroying houses and dancing in public.  Everyone else in the movie is so shocked to discover that Davis had an eccentric side but we’re not because he’s played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

The reason why Davis is acting so strange is because his wife has just died in a horrific auto accident.  Now that she’s gone, Davis finds himself wondering if he ever loved her and questioning his entire life.  What little joy he gets comes from helping to tear down houses and corresponding with Karen (Naomi Watts).  Karen works for a vending machine company.  When the hospital vending machine didn’t give Davis the candy that he paid for, he wrote a long letter to the company and explained that his wife has just died and…

*sigh*

See, this is one of those films that is so relentlessly quirky and full of scenes that are supposed to be profound and thought-provoking that it’s kind of a drag to actually try to describe the film’s plot.  I mean, it actually kind of ticks me off to think about all of the contortions that Demolition goes through in its attempt to convince us that it actually has something important to say.  (I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t based on a Nicholas Sparks novel.)  It’s one of those films that obviously has the best of intentions but it’s so overwritten and overdirected and overly portentous that anyone who has ever had to deal with depression will get annoyed with the simplified and shallow way that Demolition deals with it.

Demolition was supposed to be an Oscar contender last year but it’s release date got moved back and I can understand why.  The movie’s a mess.

Here’s hoping that Jake Gyllenhaal gets a great role next year!

Insomnia File No. 19: Great Expectations (dir by Alfonso Cuaron)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you were awake at 2 in the morning last night, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1998 film, Great Expectations.

Great Expectations is an adaptation of the famous novel by Charles Dickens, the one about the orphan who helps a fugitive, is mentored by a bitter rich woman who lives in a decaying mansion, falls in love with the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella, and then later is helped out by a mysterious benefactor.  The thing that sets this adaptation apart from other version of the novel is that the 1998 Great Expectations is set in modern-day America, as opposed to Victorian-era Great Britain.

Actually, beyond retaining certain aspects of the plot, it’s interesting how little this version of Great Expectations has to do with the original novel.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  While Charles Dickens deserves to be remembered as one of the fathers of modern literature, he could also be a terribly pedantic writer.  This adaptation only touches on the novel’s overriding concerns about class and wealth in the most simplistic of ways.  It also abandons most of the novel’s subplots and instead concentrates on the love story between Estella (Gwynneth Paltrow) and Finn (Ethan Hawke).

Oh yeah, did I mention that?  The hero of this version of Great Expectations is not named Phillip Pirrip and we never have to listen to him explain that, as a child, he was nicknamed Pip because he apparently could not speak.  Instead, Pip has been renamed Finn, short for Finnegan.  If you believe the trivia section of the imdb, Finn was apparently the name of Ethan Hawke’s dog.  And again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  One of the main reasons why so many readers automatically dislike the narrator of Great Expectations is that he is named Pip.

Anyway, in this version, Pip Finn grows up in Florida, an orphan who is raised by his blue-collar brother-in-law, Joe Gargery (Chris Cooper, giving a very Chris Cooperish performance).  The escaped convict is played by Robert De Niro and, towards the end of the film, there’s a hilarious scene where Finn and the convict meet for a second time and Finn somehow does not recognize him, despite the fact that he still pretty much looks the same and still acts exactly like Robert De Niro.  The eccentric woman who mentors the young Finn, Mrs. Havisham Dinsmoor, is played by Anne Bancroft and Bancroft, made up to look like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, gives a performance of almost transcendent weirdness.  And, of course, Estella — who has been raised to seduce and then destroy men — is played by Gwynneth Paltrow and, as usual, Paltrow is a lot more believable when Estella is remote and self-centered than when she has to soften up towards the end of the film.

It’s an odd film, to be honest.  This is one of those films that you watch and you try to be cynical but it’s all so lushly shot and deliriously (and manipulatively) romantic that you can’t help but occasionally get wrapped up in its spell.  Hawke and Paltrow, both of whom are incredibly young in this movie, may not have much chemistry but they’re both so achingly beautiful that it almost doesn’t matter.

Great Expectations was the second film to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron and it’s just as visually stylish as his later films.  It’s a frequently shallow and somewhat silly film but oh my God, is it ever pretty to look at.

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Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #98: American Beauty (dir by Sam Mendes)


American_Beauty_posterWhat crap!

I know, I know.  “American Beauty is an incisive satire that looks at the stifling conformity of American suburbia with Kevin Spacey giving the definitive portrait of the male midlife crisis and blah blah blah blah blah blah.”  Listen, American Beauty is a terrible film.  I don’t care if it won a lot of Oscars, including the 1999 award for best picture.  American Beauty is a shallow film that, at its worst, is deeply misogynistic.

American Beauty tells the story of two people.  They’re married.  They live in the suburbs.  They have a teenage daughter who is a cheerleader.  They pretend to have the perfect life but actually, everyone’s extremely unhappy.

WOW!  OH MY GOD!  PEOPLE ARE SECRETLY UNHAPPY IN THE SUBURBS!?  MY MIND IS BLOWN!  WOW, NO ONE’S EVER HAD THAT THOUGHT BEFORE!  OH.  MY.  GOD!

Anyway, the husband is named Lester (Kevin Spacey).  Lester’s a loser.  He narrates the film and he’s played by Kevin Spacey so you’re supposed to think that he’s really this great guy who deserves better but honestly, Lester’s a whiny little jerk.  He’s upset because, now that he’s an adult, he misses being a teenager.  Life hasn’t turned out the way that he wanted it to.  Boo hoo.  As I said, Lester is kind of whiny but the film treats him like he’s an enlightened truth seeker.  In order to keep the audience from realizing that Lester is a loser, the film surrounds him with one-dimensional stereotypes.

And really, Lester is the ultimate male fantasy.  Everything that he says and thinks is wise.  His every thought and feeling matters.  To its discredit, the world has failed to recognize that Lester’s vapid thoughts are worthwhile.  Lester quits his job and finds employment working in fast food.  Lester fantasizes about fucking his daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari).  Lester starts to smoke weed with his teenage neighbor (Wes Bentley).  In real life, Lester would just be another pathetic guy having a midlife crisis but, in the world of American Beauty, he’s a seeker of truth,

Anyway, eventually, Lester gets shot in the back of the head and dies but that doesn’t keep him from still narrating the film.  You just can’t shut him up.

Meanwhile, Lester’s wife is Carolyn (Annette Bening) and wow, is she evil!  Get this — she actually tries to keep the house clean, is obsessive about her job, and wants her family to eat dinner together.  Oh my God, so evil!  She ends up having an affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and, when they have sex, we’re supposed to laugh at them because they’re so cartoonishly loud.  And when Lester catches them, the audience is expected to applaud and say, “Way to go, Lester!”  The film ridicules Carolyn’s affair but it idealizes Lester’s sexual fantasies.  Lester’s determination to be independent and do what he wants is presented as being heroic.  Carolyn’s determination to have a life that does not revolve around her pathetic husband is presented as being villainous.

And why is that?

Basically, it comes down to the fact that Lester has a penis whereas Carolyn has a vagina.

American Beauty is probably one of the most misogynistic films that I have ever seen, one in which men are exclusively victims of all those unreasonable and untrustworthy women.  Whiny loser Lester is presented as being a hero.  Ricky, the next door neighbor played by Wes Bentley, spends his time going on and on about the beauty of an empty bag and we’re supposed to see some sort of higher truth in his pretentious blathering.  Meanwhile, Carolyn is portrayed as being a shrew.  Lester’s teenager daughter (Thora Birch) is a spoiled brat.  Lester’s sexual obsession, the cheerleader played by Mena Suvari, is presented as being a suburban seductress but, in the film’s eyes, she’s partially redeemed when she suddenly admits to being a virgin.

(The film seems to think that the revelation that teenagers lie about sex is truly shocking.  This is one of those films that makes you wonder if the filmmakers have ever hung out with anyone outside of their own small circle of friends.)

One huge subplot deals with Ricky’s father, a military guy played by Chris Cooper, mistakenly believing that Lester is gay.  And, honestly, American Beauty would have been a better film if Lester had been a gay man and if, instead of buying a new car and getting a crappy job, Lester had dealt with his identity crisis by coming out of the closet.  Certainly, a lot of Lester’s anger would have made a lot more sense if he was a man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality as opposed to being a man who just doesn’t like his job and is upset that his wife no longer has the body of a 17 year-old.

(We are, of course, supposed to be shocked when Cooper suddenly reveals that he himself is gay.  But, honestly, the film’s plans for Cooper are obvious from the minute he first appears on-screen and dramatically squints his eyes in disgust at the sight of two men jogging together.  Cooper is a good actor but he’s terrible in American Beauty.)

It would have taken guts to make Lester gay and, at heart, American Beauty is a very cowardly film.  It attacks easy targets and it resolutely refuses to play fair.  So desperate is it to make Lester into a conventional hero that it refuses to let anyone around him be human.  As a result, a talented cast is stuck playing a collection of one-note stereotypes.  No wonder a lot of people love this film — it makes you feel smart without requiring that you actually think.

American Beauty was written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes.  Both Ball and Mendes have subsequently done far better work, which is good because American Beauty is a terrible movie.  The script is a pretentious mess and Mendes never seems to be quite sure what exactly he’s trying to say from scene-to-scene.

American Beauty did win best picture but who cares?

It’s a crappy film.

 

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”


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Seriously, folks, this whole contrarian role I seem to have either stumbled or , if you want to be grandiose about things,  been thrust into? Its actually getting pretty old.  Sure, I can’t do much about how my brain works, but once in awhile, maybe just for a day or so to see what it would be like, I’d love to at least like the same stuff everybody else does, and dislike all the same stuff that the rest of you do, too, just to relieve the tedium of seeing things in a fundamentally different way than everyone else. Mind you, I’n only talking about changing things up as far as my taste in films and other ostensibly “entertaining” media go here, these other perfectly mainstream ideas like “corporations are our friends and we shouldn’t tax them too high,” and “problems like racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are all in this past” — you can keep those, I’m happy to still keep tilting at windmills and telling Mr. and Ms. Middle America that they’re hopelessly deluded if they really believe the Hallmark Card pseudo-reality being sold to them while their pockets are being picked clean by the same rich assholes who then have the nerve to tell them that the real “moochers” are poor folks, or people of color, or single mothers, or any other group still that’s still easy to scapegoat and demonize.

At this point you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with reviewing the just-released (“just,” in this case, meaning last week) The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and I can’t say I blame you, so here’s what I’m getting at : received “wisdom” has it that this is just some bog-standard, average-at-best super-hero flick. And the same received “wisdom” has it that the reason this is no great shakes (and you can bet the exact same argument will be trotted out in a couple of weeks in regards to the new X-Men movie) is because it’s not a Marvel Studios product but is, in fact, a Sony/Columbia release under license from Marvel. And I’m sorry, but I smell a serious rat with that fallacious line of “reasoning.”

Let me tell you why : Marvel, and their bosses at Disney,  desperately want the Spider-Man property back “in house” (same goes for X-Men) and have a vested interest in promoting the myth that only they can do it “right.” To that end, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that they’re the ultimate source of this goofy idea that somehow Sony’s Spider-Man lacks the “magic” that they’d bring to the property (and that’s really what Spidey is at this point — a “property” — as opposed to an actual character) and I’d even go so far as to speculate that they’ve contacted their bought-and-paid for media mouthpieces and had off-the-record conversations with them designed to subtly kick up an orchestrated “whisper campaign” against this film.

Shit, as science has proven, always runs downhill, and soon the folks who make their living telling other people what to think have affected the opinions of the legions of unpaid armchair critics (like myself) who in turn affect the opinions of fans and more casual movie-goers, and before you know it, the meme that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 just ain’t all that great has taken firm hold in the public consciousness. Sure, it all looks spontaneous enough, and most of the people playing along with the scheme have no idea that they’re doing, essentially, pro bono work for one monolithic studio conglomerate in their covert “war” against another monolithic studio conglomerate, but there you have it.

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What’s especially despicable about this, though, is how rancid and idiotic “homer”-ism in the “fan” community is so easily manipulated to shady ends, yet seldom if ever turned in a genuinely positive direction. The same “fans” who are actively and openly rooting for Marvel to “get back their baby,” for instance, don’t seem to care too much about the situation of Spidey’s actual creator, Steve Ditko, who is 86 years old and has never seen a dime from any of the flicks his legendary creation appears in — hell, when Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie came out, Ditko was living under, to put it politely, reduced circumstances in a rented apartment above a New York City thrift store. If even a tiny fraction of the amount of energy fans put into campaigning for Marvel Studios were put into campaigning for the dozens, if not hundreds, of creators that Marvel has screwed over, who knows? Maybe the cause of creators’ rights would finally be getting somewhere. Let me be as blunt as possible here : if you care more about Marvel getting back the cinematic rights to Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four than you do about folks like Steve Ditko, Gary Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, or the heirs of Jack Kirby, then you’re either a complete asshole, being played for a sucker, or both. These actual people deserve your support — not the corporate suits who continue to profit off the fruits of others’ imaginations.

To that end, I don’t have any real personal stake in whether or not The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is “not as good as it could/would be with Marvel Studios in charge,” because I could care less about the bottom-line corporate balance sheets of either DisMar or Sony/Columbia. They’re all faceless, greedy bastards in my book. But after watching the film, the rat I smelled grew even more pungent, so I decided to put my little “homer” theory to the test via the modern “miracle” of social networking.

Don’t worry, I didn’t waste too much time on this off-the-cuff experiment, only about 30 minutes or so, but the results were telling. I went onto twitter, looked for the first dozen comments of the “this would be so much better if Marvel did it” variety (they weren’t had to find), and asked the folks making such statements why they thought that. Of the 12 folks I asked, seven never responded, three said variations of the exact same thing (“because it’s theirs and they’d know how to do it right”) and two said they flat-out didn’t know why, “it just would be.”

Not done making a nuisance of myself, I then asked all 12 people again “What’s so ‘wrong’ with this movie in the first place in comparison with Marvel Studios product?” and received only two answers, one of which was “it just is,” and the other being “you can tell just by watching that they don’t get it.”

Excuse me, but — what’s not to get? It’s not like I’m going to try to convince you here that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is necessarily all that great, but for what it is, frankly, it’s just fine, and in fact it’s a damn sight better than the last two Marvel Studios releases, the thoroughly uninspired Captain America : The Winter Soldier and the downright risible Thor : The Dark World, both of which were essentially big-budget TV movies-of-the-week (and overseen by television directors, no less). I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite a bit more enjoyable than Marvel’s most-ballyhooed cinematic endeavors, the incredibly over-rated The Avengers and the obviously-constructed-by-the-numbers Iron Man films.

It’s far from a terrific super-hero movie, mind you, like Christopher Nolan’s  Batman Begins or Richard Donner’s original Superman, but it definitely fits comfortably into the “above average, at any rate” group populated by flicks like The Dark Knight (which is nowhere near as good as  many seem to think, but is still fairly solid) and Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. So I guess my main argument isn’t even necessarily that this is all that much  better than at least the top-tier Marvel Studios flicks, like the first Thor and Captain America : The First Avenger, but that it’s in no way appreciably worse. Given that, then, and taking into consideration how positively homogenized and formulaic Marvel’s “in-house” product has become in the absence of genuinely talented directors like Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston, there’s absolutely no reason to believe they’d “do a better job of things” if the web-slinger’s rights suddenly fell back into their lap.

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Frankly, some of the criticism being leveled at this flick is just plain absurd on its face, and amazingly hypocritical. I’ve seen folks who gushed over The Avengers claim, with a straight face, that the problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that it “relies too heavily on CGI battle scenes.” And Whedon’s movie didn’t? I’ve seen many self-styled “opinion makers”  who gushed over the the “human”  characterization in Nolan’s Bat-films say that this movie “has too much Peter Parker, not enough Spider-Man.” I’ve seen people who applauded the revisionist origin story given Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel grouse about how director Marc Webb and his committee of screenwriters are “playing too fast and loose” with Spidey’s backstory here. And,  while I’ll grant you that Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon/Electro character is flat-out absurd in both its human and super-human iterations, and that getting shocked by a big cable and falling into a vat of electric eels is a pretty lame way for a villain to get his powers, it’s worth noting that many of the people poking fun at this have no problem with the idea of a chemically-enhanced “super soldier” being frozen in a block of ice and waking up, without having aged a day, in the Captain America movies, or of the Norse Gods being a real race of inter-dimensional super-beings in the Thor films, and are even willing to swallow the single-most laughable notion in all comic-book flicks, that of a spoiled billionaire rich kid who inherits his daddy’s company and still actually works for a living, as Tony Stark does in the Iron Man series.

There are plenty of folks out there telling you what Webb and company get wrong in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — from the aforementioned Electro stuff to Andrew Garfield’s take on Peter Parker being “unlikable” (news flash — he’s been a self-pitying, self-aborbed, flat-out selfish little prick in the comics from day one) to Sally Field’s Aunt May being “too young” (whatever ,  she does a really nice job)  to Paul Giamatti’s wasted and pointless cameo as the villainous Rhino at the end —let me take just a few minutes to tell you what this movie gets right.

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Dane DeHann is positively creepy as Harry Osborn/The Green Goblin and his origin/descent into villainy is portrayed in a way that actually makes sense. Likewise, even though his screen time is limited, Chris Cooper knocks it out of the park as his vicious, megalomaniacal father, Norman. There’s real chemistry between Garfield’s Parker and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, and the film does a nice job of updating/translating the legendary penultimate Spidey/Gwen story for the silver screen. The CGI effects work is solid and a represents a big step up from the lackluster graphics of Webb’s first Spider-film. The characters are allowed to age at least semi-normally, as evidenced by the fact that Peter, Gwen, and their classmates are  shown graduating high school at the start of the film (and a good thing too, since both actors are, what? Pushing 30?). Webb directs the action sequences that he’s being maligned for with far more aplomb than his more-praised counterparts like Jon Favreau or Joss Whedon, who just show one building after another being smashed to rubble in between those fucking interminable shots of Robert Downey Jr.’s face inside of his Iron Man helmet. And at least this movie gives us warts-and-all human beings at its core with plausible psychological motivations for doing what they do rather than mythological gods, science-whiz playboys, sexy Russian super-spies with no accents, or one-dimensional do-gooders fresh out of suspended animation.

It’s not enough to make The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a truly great super-hero movie, and a forced and tacked-on ending epilogue-ish ending doesn’t help (even if there’s plenty of reason for fans to “ooh”and “aah” when we get a sneak peek at the character designs for the members of the sure-to-pop-up-in-the-next-flick Sinister Six, and hey, isn’t that the Black Cat we get to meet — briefly and in her civilian identity — earlier on, too? Where’s the fan-gasming for that?), but it makes it a heck of a lot more involving than much-more-highly-praised (even if it’s dull and repetitious) fare that just so happens to carry the Marvel Studios logo above its title. And you know what? That’s all it would take for fans to love this one, and is the single, solitary reason why many of them don’t. You might call that loyalty, but I call it bullshit.

 

Super Bowl Trailer: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 “Enemies Unite”


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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 continues the reboot Sony began with the Spider-Man franchise minus Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire. While The Amazing Spider-Man did quite well in the box-office when it came out in 2012 the general consensus with fans and critics alike was that it was just another origins tale that rehashed events from the Peter Parker story that was already well-known to comic book and non-comic book fans alike.

This sequel will now bring in villains and some plot points that fans have been waiting for since the franchise first began in the early 2000’s. We have Jamie Foxx and Paul Giamatti as the villains Electro and Rhino finally appearing on film with hints that other iconic Spider-Man villains such as the Vulture and the Hobgoblin probably having a cameo. This sudden flood of villains looks to be Sony’s attempt to set-up a Sinister Six film that would be the studio’s way to counter the success of Marvel’s and Disney’s success with The Avengers.

Time will tell if this gamble will end up paying off for Sony and many comic books wish it won’t since there’s a chance it would return Spider-Man to Marvel Studios thus making him available to appear in future films as an Avenger.

Sony went to unprecedented lengths to make sure people knew about the new trailer arriving on Super Bowl Sunday. We had a teaser teasing the trailer for the Super Bowl. Then we had the brief teaser shown during the Super Bowl. Below is the full 3-minute plus trailer that was shown on-line soon after.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is set for a May 2, 2014 release date.

Lisa Marie Does The Company Men (dir. by John Wells)


The Company Men is the first film to be directed by veteran television producer and writer John Wells.  Previously, Wells worked on ER, The West Wing, Southland, Third Watch, and a whole host of other shows that I’d rather die than ever have to actually sit through.  With The Company Men, Wells attempts to tell the story of the current economic recession and what its like to go from being a high-paid executive to just another unemployed statistic.  The end result is a deeply uneven film that comes so very close to succeeding but ultimately fails.

The film opens in 2008 and indeed, most of the film takes place in ’08.  It always amuses me how any film that comes out now that deals with either the economy or the wars in the Middle East (the Hurt Locker being an obvious example), the filmmakers always go out of their way to let us know that their movie is taking place during the Bush administration and not the Obama Administration.  Some people would call that “ass kissing” but I just find it to be amusing. 

Anyway, getting back on track here, the films follows three corporate executives who all work for a fictional company called GTX.  There’s a rich, white guy played by Ben Affleck.  And then there’s a richer, white guy played by Chris Cooper.  And then finally, I guess to add some variety to the mix, there’s a white guy who is really, really rich and he’s played by Tommy Lee Jones.  Anyway, Affleck, Cooper, and Jones are all cheerfully doing their thing until one day, the recession hits and boom!  Suddenly, Affleck is told that he has become “redundant.”  He’s given a severance package and sent off on his merry way.  Meanwhile, Cooper worries that he’s about to face the same fate while Jones — who is one of the company’s vice presidents — tries to keep GTX’s satanic CEO from putting anyone else out of work. 

It’s Affleck and his story that commands most of the film’s running time and, to his credit, Affleck actually gives a surprisingly good performance here as he starts out as smug and self-centered before eventually becoming desperate and insecure until finally, by the end of the film, he’s reached a state of acceptance.  A lot of this has to do with the fact that he finally humbles himself into accepting a job with his blue-collar brother-in-law, a homebuilder played by Kevin Costner.

A word about Kevin Costner in this film: I could have done without him.  First off, I understand his character is supposed to be a blue-collar, plain-spoken, salt-of-the-Earth type but honestly, he just comes across like a overlymacho asshole who probably voted for Lyndon LaRouche at some point in the past.  I guess he’s supposed to be John Wells’ version of the noble savage or something.

But with that one glaring exception, The Company Men is a remarkably well-acted film.  Even though Jones and Cooper are saddled playing predictable characters, they both bring a real unexpected poignancy to their portrayals.  Cooper, especially, is strong and always sympathetic even though you know everything that’s going to happen to him from the minute he first shows up on-screen.  Rosemarie DeWitt has the rather thankless role of being Affleck’s wife but she brings a lot of strength to a thinly written character and she and Affleck have a real chemistry.  When they’re on-screen together, you believe in their marriage which is more than you can say for most screen couples.

The cast of The Company Men is such a strong ensemble that you really find yourself hoping (and sometimes even believing) that the overall film will succeed as well.  But, alas, the film fails and it manages to fail for all the obvious reasons.  John Wells is best known for his work in television and The Company Men never really shakes that made-for-TV feeling.  For every scene that offers up an unexpected insight or a subtle piece of characterization, there’s a hundred more that feel glib, smug, and ultimately forced.  For every honest note, there’s a false one waiting right around the corner to pounce on it and beat it into submission.  This is the type of movie where Tommy Lee Jones walks around a deserted shipyard and delivers a monologue about the way things use to be to a character who has absolutely no logical reason for being there beyond the fact that Wells needed to find an excuse for Jones to deliver the whole long speech to begin with.  Don’t get me wrong — Jones delivers the words beautifully but so what?  The scene still feels safe, predictable, and ultimately false.   

And what’s the deal with Maria Bello in this film?  She plays Sally Wilcox who is apparently in charge of “downsizing” at GTX.  She’s also having an adulterous affair with Tommy Lee Jones despite the fact that all Jones ever does is criticize her for even existing.  Never mind the fact, of course, that Jones is a part of the entire corporate culture that’s responsible for the Sally Wilcoxes of the world to begin with.  It’s hard not to feel that her character is there to largely let Jones off the hook.  It’s not Jones’s fault that everyone who works under him ends up unemployed and, in one really obvious plot development, dead.  No, it’s that evil Sally Wilcox with her blonde hair and black lingerie.  And what you can’t blame on Sally, put the blame on Jones’s wife and toss Cooper’s wife in there as well since they’re both portrayed as being heartless wenches (as opposed to DeWitt who is a good wife because she supports Affleck no matter what).  The Company Men is full of sympathy for depressed, self-pitying white guys but it has next to none for the women who have to live with them. 

Wells is obviously trying to say something about the Recession but what?  Obviously, he lays a lot of the blame at the doorstep of greedy CEOs like the one played, in this film, by Craig T. Nelson.  Unfortunately, you get the feeling that Wells seems to think that he’s the only person in the world who has managed to figure out that excessive corporate greed can be a bad thing.  He may think that he’s educating but really all he’s doing is preaching and the only ones listening are the choir.

Quickie Review: The Town (dir. by Ben Affleck)


If someone just five years ago told me that Ben Affleck would turn out to be a director whose work has been some of the better crime drama/thrillers of the past decade then I would declare shenanigans on that individual. Ben Affleck might have won an Oscar for helping write the screenplay for Good Will Hunting, but his career since could be labeled as being one of a joke (Gigli) interspersed with huge paycheck projects (Armageddon) that showed his range as an actor.

This is not to say that Affleck has no talent in front of the camera. I just believe that early in his career after winning his Oscar he got fooled into thinking that everything else since would be Easy Street paved in gold (financially and critically). To say that it hasn’t turned out to be that way (though he did make a ton of money) would be an understatement. But one thing happened while Affleck’s acting career was heading nowhere but down. He got behind the camera as a director and his very first time directing a feature-length film he would make one of 2007’s best films. I speak of his film adaptation of the Dennis Lehane crime drama, Gone Baby Gone. He didn’t just direct the life out of that film, but he also the screenplay with the help of Aaron Stockard.

The two of the them would collaborate once again on Affleck’s latest Boston-based crime drama, The Town. He wrote the screenplay and directed the film and pulled in some wonderful performances from an ensemble cast which included Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Blake Lively, Titus Welliver and Pete Postlethwaite. Fellow site writer Lisa Marie already reviewed the film in detail and her review pretty much put down into words exactly what I thought of the film. I will say that I would swerve slightly away from what she considered some of the flaws in the film.

The Town was adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel, Prince of Thieves. I would consider the screenplay and dialogue as a major strength of the film. While at times it did seemed to follow the step-by-step and by-the-numbers heist thriller story the screenplay itself didn’t ring false. I liken this film to another heist film which shared some themes and similarities. Michael Mann’s Heat also dealt with the cops-and-robbers foundation. Where Mann’s film had a much larger and epic scope to its storytelling it still boiled down to two groups of determined men playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse. The women in both film were written just enough that they had distinct personalities, but in the end they were motivations for the men in the film.

Affleck shows that he doesn’t just know how to direct, but continues is reputation as being one very good screenwriter. One just has to be reminded that he is now 3-for-3 when it comes to screenplays he has written which have turned out to be great ones. While he doesn’t have the same flair for words as Tarantino or Mamet when it comes to the screenplay. What he does well was to create an efficient script which flowed from scene to scene. Tarantino’s screenplays are great, but at times he does allow himself to overindulge his inner-film geek and create dialogue that might be Sorkin-like in execution. What I mean is that as great as the dialogue sound there’s no way people really spoke like this to each other. Affleck’s screenplay for The Town felt very natural and even with Jon Hamm’s less than great performance the film had a natural and genuine sound to it’s dialogue.

That’s one flaw pointed out by Lisa Marie that I would disagree with her on. The other two I can see her point, but it bothered me none. Though if I ever took on a life of crime I would hope I find someone just like Rebecca Hall’s Claire. Now there’s a woman who stands by her man no matter what.

I think in the long run this film might just be seen as one of the best of 2010 and some critics have already dubbed it so. While it’s prospects come awards season time is still up in the air I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up nabbing one of the ten Best Picture nominations when the Oscar nominations get announced. It would be well-deserved and would just prove that Affleck’s career in the film industry might just be hitting its stride. Who would’ve thought it would be as a writer-director and not as an actor.