Thursday, May 1, 2014

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" ★★

Crowded, Long, And Less Than 'Amazing' 

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

One of the pleasures of "The Amazing Spider-Man" was its attention to young love, illustrated wonderfully by Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). I felt that it added an extra layer that was missing from Sam Raimi's original trilogy, where the acting could be sidelined for dramatic camera movement. With "The Amazing Spider-Man 2", however, the scenes between Garfield and Stone come in small doses, in favor of developing the film's many villains.

It begins with a car chase where Aleksei Sytsevich, a.k.a. Rhino (Paul Giamatti), is quickly subdued by Spider-Man and locked away for later use. In the process of apprehending Sytsevich, Spider-Man saves the life of a lonely OsCorp electrical engineer, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx, who later becomes Electro after a freak accident involving mutated electric eels), which sets up Dillon's strange obsession with the web-slinging hero. Complicating matters further, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) shows up to inherit OsCorp from his dying father, Norman (Chris Cooper), and discovers that he needs Spider-Man's blood to cure him of the same illness that is killing his father. All of this and we're only about a half-hour in to the two-and-a-half-hour running time. Crowded is putting it lightly...

While all of these new characters are introduced, Peter is struggling with the promise he made to Gwen's father, George (Denis Leary, who shows up just to stare disapprovingly at Peter in several scenes), to keep away from her, while Gwen is making plans to attend Oxford University. The focus is constantly shifting from one story to the next for the obvious purpose of setting up the next movie, or series of movies in this universe. In other words, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is less concerned with itself than what will undoubtedly come next.

It's a shame, really, because Peter and Gwen's relationship is something quite special. The film's strongest scene is one that involves Peter and Gwen deciding if they can truly be just friends or if they'll always be something more. The rules they establish for one another show the charm and wit they bring to the series, as well as the heart of Peter Parker's quest. Should he sacrifice what he wants in favor of being a hero, or is the real heroic act being there for the woman he loves?

The problem is that 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2" cannot decide what it wants to be. It's as if a bunch of noodles were thrown to the wall and the ones that stuck ended up making it into the movie. With three credited writers (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner), and a fourth for the story credit (James Vanderbilt), you would think that someone would have spoken up about the need for crowd control. Characters are ignored for chunks of the movie because of all the storylines and plot points the writers need to hit. After the initial confrontation, Electro is locked away, Aunt May (Sally Field) is virtually unseen except to deliver truly pointless exposition, Sytsevich is onscreen for a total of five minutes, and Harry's development into yet another villain is quite rushed.

All of this is to say that the writers and director Marc Webb appear to have forgotten what made this new incarnation of the series special in the first place: Garfield and Stone. They're the reason to include "amazing" in the title and they deserve far more than being ignored for unnecessary, uninteresting characters.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Locke" ★★★½

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Shot over five days and five nights, Steven Knight's "Locke" is the story of one man's mistake and his endless desire to redeem himself, all while speaking on the phone as he drives from Birmingham to London. Yes, the film takes place entirely inside the title character's BMW and it is a mesmerizing experience, both in Knight's sheer inventiveness as a filmmaker and Tom Hardy's brilliant performance as Ivan Locke.

At first you may ask yourself how a film that takes place in a car could hold your attention for its eighty-five minute running time, but that worry fades the moment Ivan makes his first phone call. He's a construction foreman who leaves the most important job of his career because of a mistake he made in his recent past. (I won't spoil what that mistake is, especially since I went into this movie completely blind and was even more wowed than I otherwise might have been.) Ivan has a list of people he needs to talk to, as well as several personal goals to achieve as he makes the drive to London.

What's fascinating is the personal journey this character takes in such a short amount of time. Ivan goes from a man trying to control an uncontrollable situation to someone who accepts the fact that what he's done simply isn't fixable. It happens naturally, out of the many conversations he has on the phone, and also in his discussions with his never seen nor heard deceased father. He's trying to prove that one mistake isn't enough to condemn someone for the rest of their life and that he controls his own fate, not the other way around.

But Ivan is driving toward inevitability, and the closer he gets, the more unhinged and agitated he becomes. It's an honest and heartbreaking realization, and one that Hardy plays beautifully. Ivan's a man worn down by his actions, comforting to others but a mess on the inside, scruffy and more than a little rough around the edges, but he's built a life for himself. He's proud of the work he's done and just wants to get home to his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and two sons, Sean (Bill Milner) and Eddie (Tom Holland).

We only hear the voices on these phone calls, but these actors do great work and convey all the emotions they need to in their reactions to what Ivan is saying. Wilson is particularly good at bringing Ivan into reality, and Donal (Andrew Scott), Ivan's number two who must take over the job in his absence, adds some comedic moments to an otherwise dark story. You forget that you're only seeing one actor on screen and you become entranced. It's not your average car ride but you're more than happy to have made the journey.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Under The Skin" ★★★★

A Cinematic Odyssey

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

The one film in recent memory to make me question everything I know about life, death, and a general love of movies is "2001: A Space Odyssey". What Stanley Kubrick did with that film is something that should be marveled, analyzed, and written about for years to come. I did not think another film could come that close to brilliance until I saw Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin", a hauntingly intoxicating film with a stellar performance from Scarlett Johansson.

The film tells the story of an alien (Johansson) in Scotland who lures men with the promise of sex into a blackish blue liquid that preserves them for something far more sinister. The longer she's on Earth and the more she studies humans, the more curious and sympathetic she becomes. She's obviously not of this world, but "Under The Skin" itself feels like something otherworldly in its style. Glazer's images are best expressed as something Special Agent Dale Cooper would call "both wonderful and strange" bringing to mind the claustrophobic acid-trip of an ending that "2001" provided. From the opening minutes - with a score perfectly complimentary to the images on screen - to the quiet ending, Glazer never hesitates to make the audience squirm in their seats. Just when you think the story cannot possibly be any darker or stranger, he ups the anti.

The darker the story gets, however, the more I found myself sympathizing with the alien creature and less with her victims. In one sequence, she happens upon a disfigured man (Adam Pearson) who, as a result of his condition, has never been with a woman. She compliments his hands, they make small talk, and never once does she mention or seem to care about his appearance. Their exchange is essential to the journey her character takes, seemingly causing her to realize what she's doing to these people. She sees the best and worst in humanity and becomes more aware of the body she inhabits.

It's a brave role, that much is certain, and Johansson doesn't shy away from anything. Her performance has stuck with me, as I find myself thinking about this movie nearly every day since I first saw it. There simply are not a lot of movies that can creep in like "Under The Skin" does; a welcome respite from the summer blockbuster season. What Glazer and Johansson have accomplished here is Kubrickian in nature, but wholly original in style and form. This isn't a movie you watch, it's one you experience. Don't be afraid to let it in.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Revisiting "(500) Days of Summer"

A Look Back At This Wonderful Indie From 2009

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

There's something about the hopeless romantic character that resonates deeply with me. Perhaps it's because I am one myself, or maybe it's the idea of lost idealism rushing to the surface that creates a lasting appeal. Whatever the reason, "(500) Days of Summer" is a film that puts this archetype front and center, the result of which is a damn fine movie.

The hopeless romantic in this story is Tom, played by the always engaging Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an architect at heart but currently employed as a writer of greeting cards in downtown Los Angeles. Tom's belief in true love is expressed when he first meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the new secretary at the card company. What follows is the story of their strained relationship and eventual break-up, told from Tom's perspective.

Gordon-Levitt plays Tom's heartbreak beautifully, never making it sentimental or pathetic. He becomes withdrawn, depressed and, for a while, angry. Angry at Summer, yes, but mostly angry at himself for believing that he could change Summer's beliefs about love to fit with his. She tells him early on that she's not looking for a relationship, nor does she believe in true love. But Tom believes so earnestly that he's the man that will cause her to rethink what she already knows. Where your sympathy lies depends upon the character with whom you identify the most.

On one hand, there's Summer, who is upfront and honest about what she's looking for. She tells Tom how it is and asks if he is willing to accept her terms. On the other hand, there's Tom, a man whose judgement is clouded by his convictions. But that's what makes watching this movie such a rewarding experience: It nails both sides of a doomed relationship so perfectly, that no matter who you see yourself as, it's a pleasure to watch.

This pleasure, for me at least, comes to fruition in two key scenes of the film. The first is a small moment that sets up the second scene, when we're led to believe that Tom and Summer could potentially get back together. It's a few seconds on a train after they've left a wedding and it seems like they're falling in love all over again. Tom is awake in his seat and Summer's head ever-so-gracefully falls on his shoulder. The look on Tom's face is one of pure joy and relief. He's done it, he's won her back, or so he thinks. It's a small gesture, yes, but in the hands of a less capable actor it could have gone way wrong. Gordon-Levitt lives in this moment and reacts accordingly.

The second scene is when Tom shows up at Summer's apartment for a party. She invited him at the wedding, they had that moment on the train, so naturally Tom thinks this is his shot at happiness. Many will remember that this is the expectations vs. reality sequence, where the left side of the screen shows what Tom thought would happen and the right shows what actually happens. It's sad, yes, but contagious in its effect. What we're left with is a broken man who has to reconcile with his own ideals.

The one love Tom still has in his life is the city of Los Angeles, which is a character in and of itself. Out of Tom's loss comes the will to pursue his dream of being an architect and letting the city that surrounds him be his constant source of inspiration. Los Angeles is shown in ways we're not used to seeing on screen; there's an affection for the city. You could almost say that Tom is having a constant affair with it. And that's just one of many charms this movie offers, especially upon repeated viewing.

Director Marc Webb uses a variety of filmmaking techniques, all of which compliment the mood and tone of the characters. There's a musical number when Tom and Summer have sex for the first time, a reference to French New Wave films when Tom is "suffering", and interviews with the characters about their thoughts on love. None of this ever takes you out of the story because it's all so complimentary of what Tom is going through. "(500) Days of Summer" is love in its richest form: it loves the characters, story and setting, but it also loves every aspect of the filmmaking process.