Synopsis: When their aging father is convinced his second wife is out to kill him, his four adult daughters gather over the holidays to help make things right, only to find themselves terrorized by a pitchfork-wielding maniac.
Review: Moving into October we’re about to hit the big three holidays of the year (Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) and today’s selection in 31 Days to Scare manages to touch on all three of them. First broadcast on ABC as a TV Movie of the Week on November 28, 1972, Home for the Holidays is a neat little thriller that doesn’t overstay its welcome and produces more than its fair share of chills along the way.
Produced by Aaron Spelling and written by Psycho scribe Joseph Stefano, Home for the Holidays revolves around four daughters returning home for Christmas at the behest of their father (Walter Brennan). Brennan is convinced his new wife (Julie Harris) is slowly poisoning him and asks his girls to help get rid of their stepmother before she gets rid of him. Before they can do much, though, a figure in a yellow raincoat starts picking them off one by one.
This is a surprisingly effective film, even viewed from a contemporary lens. True, for a horror film there’s not much in the way of blood or gore, but that’s what elevates this from being too run-of-the-mill. The focus is on the tension and mystery, not on encouraging bloodlust. The solution to the killer’s identity might be easy to discern but enough red herrings and misdirection are introduced that you may find yourself doubting your instinct.
What a cast! Three time Oscar winner Brennan is a hoot as a wily old codger plagued by paranoia…or is it all an act? Either way, with his pain in the butt ramblings you’ll sort of understand why someone may want to do him in. Harris (an Oscar nominee herself) keeps her cards close to her chest, never giving away what she may be hiding while Jill Hayworth (the original Sally Bowles in Broadway’s Cabaret) and Jessica Walter (fresh from her psycho stint in 1971’s Play Misty for Me) add some pep as two of the more troubled sisters. Best remembered as the Baroness from The Sound of Music, three time Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker is the eldest sister struggling to keep her family from imploding and two time Oscar winner Sally Field (Lincoln) dials up her terror as her siblings disappear and she slowly realizes she may be next.
You may catch this one and find it overly quaint and low impact but I’ve always had a real fondness for its small scale production values and dramatic act breaks. It is so short that it won’t take up too much of your time and might just be the hidden gem you’re looking for if you like to be good and spooked.
Synopsis: A self-help seminar inspires a sixty-something woman to romantically pursue her younger co-worker.
Stars: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Peter Gallagher, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tyne Daly, Beth Behrs
Director: Michael Showalter
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Some people watch scary movies peeking out from behind their hands covering their eyes. I do the same thing for movies with socially awkward people trying and failing to be heard. There’s something inherently not enjoyable about seeing a person already uncomfortable in their own skin being put through an emotional ringer. For the masochists out there that love a good grimace, you need look no further than Hello, My Name is Doris, a whiffle of a dramedy that ultimately finds success in its lead performers.
Sally Field is Doris, a data processer at a hip New York ad agency that has kept her around for politically correct reasons rather than necessity. Mourning the recent loss of her mother and avoiding the urges of her brother and his wife to sell their family home, she finds a ray of sunshine when John Fremont (Max Greenfield, The Big Short) joins the company. Newly relocated from Malibu, John is everything Doris is not…young, current, and confident. Doris develops a fixation on John and daydreams about him saying sweet words before locking her in a passionate embrace.
There’s more to the story thought, with a hoarding subplot that seeks to explain a little more about why Doris acts and reacts the way she does. Her friends (Tyne Daly, Caroline Aaron) chalk up the obsession to another wild fantasy Doris has dreamed up, before realizing too late that she’s doing more damage to herself in the process. When John starts dating another woman, Doris drinks away her sorrows and innocently sets into motion events that lead to an inevitable denouement.
You’ll wince through a lot of the movie; only because it’s hard to see a character so clueless learn such difficult lessons late in life. Shielded somewhat from the outside world and dreams of romance after caring for her mother for so many years, Doris sees John as a chance to reclaim some of the years she’s lost but can’t see that they’re on two different journeys running parallel to each other.
As usual Field (Steel Magnolias) is a treat, coloring Doris in a way that makes you feel for her even when she’s making a wrong move. I feel like every character in the film has at least one moment where they have a ‘poor Doris’ look on their face and Field earns those melancholy stares. Her best moments come near the end of the film, especially in one dialogue-free scene where the buttoned up woman literally lets her hair down and sees herself for the first time as she really is underneath all of her accessories.
Field is well matched by the appealing Greenfield, who manages to take a role that could have been your standard unattainable dreamboat and show some nuance to him as well with writer/director Michael Showalter (adapting this from a short film by Laura Terruso) making sure that John isn’t the image of perfection. At one point John tells Doris that he worries he’s boring…and you can see it’s a genuine fear of his. Because like Doris, he just wants to be noticed for who he is.
At 95 minutes, the film is well-paced and ever so slightly rough around its independent edges. More thought seems to have gone into Doris’s thrift store wardrobe and headscarves than continuity. Like Doris, it’s a bit thrown together and flat out drops certain central characters without much fanfare. A rather impressive roster of familiar faces pepper the supporting cast but their appearances are so brief that they become even more inconsequential to a film that only wants to focus (rightfully so) on the leads.
If you can muscle through an hour and a half of squirming uncomfortably every time Doris rocks out to electronic dance music or is caught embarrassingly daydreaming of romantic interludes, this might be the movie for you. It’s surely worth it for the performances Field and Greenfield turn in…but it’s not an easy watch.
Review: With the arrival of this sequel to a 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I’m still not at all sold that the world needed a re-imagining of the series so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy of films released between 2002 and 2007. That being said, with a more forward moving plot and a collection of interesting characters, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows a marked improvement over the moody and overly emo blockbuster that arrived two years ago.
I find that the first entries in most superhero series are always tricky because it’s necessary to tell an origin story detailing how the central character (or characters) became the caped crusaders or men of steel we know them to be. Very few films have been successful in that regard, with 1978’s Superman being the gold standard of origin story films in my book.
The Amazing Spider-Man faced an uphill battle because in my mind it had to provide some rationale for why we needed to go back to square one with Peter Parker and his arachnid powers. It couldn’t make the case and though it made a truckload of cash for Sony/Marvel and had some impressive special effects, it was slow and housed an uninteresting villain that provided more yawns of boredom than gasps of excitement.
The sequel sets to out to right some of those wrongs but winds up overcompensating for its lackluster predecessor by stuffing so much into its first hour that audiences should buckle up for tonal whiplash. Returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, People Like Us), Roberto Orci (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeff Pinkner have great difficulty finding their bearings in the further adventures of Peter Parker and it’s not until well into the second act of their film that they get into the groove.
Opening with a whiz-bang flashback prologue that shows what really happened to Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz) after they mysteriously left him with Aunt May (Sally Field, Lincoln) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) we jump right into a present that finds Peter (Andrew Garfield, less troubled here but still a tad whiny) and Gwen (Emma Stone, bringing valuable sparkle to her role) trying to navigate their relationship. Haunted by a promise he made to her dying father, Peter struggles with honoring his word and the love he feels for Gwen.
At the same time and in true sequel fashion, more time is spent on introducing several new villains to the mix than with our hero. The first foe Spidey has to deal with is Electro (Jamie Foxx, Annie) who starts the film as a dopey nerd desperate for attention that finds himself at the business end of a tub of electric eels. Foxx plays these early scenes as such a simpleton it borders on insulting stereotype though he does manage to find good but hardly electrifying moments when he gains his evil powers.
Also appearing is Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, Lawless,Chronicle) who, after the death of his father (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County) returns to manage Oscorp, the mega company that employs Gwen and seems to be the breeding ground for villains out to take over the world. Dying due to a genetic disease, Harry needs Spider-Man’s blood to save himself…a problem made more difficult when he discovers that Spidey is really his childhood friend Peter Parker. DeHaan and Garfield are both talented young actors, so it’s guffaw inducing to watch scenes that have them spouting douche-y dialogue with numerous “bro” and “dude” interjections.
There’s something to be said when the most interesting character has no superpowers at all. Showing once again why she’s such a value add to any film, Field makes the most of her limited screen time by creating a character designed to be the voice of reason but delivering her material with an honesty that seems out of place in a film otherwise populated with some fairly generic dialogue and plot developments.
Composer Hans Zimmer replaced James Horner and the resulting score creates an excitement the original was lacking. Aided by super producer Pharrell, Zimmer’s score is just as impressive as the special effects which are deployed in a spectacular fashion whether it’s in Spidey’s high flying opening pursuit of a gang of thugs or a final showdown with Electro at a power plant. T
he final third of the film is pure action, leading to a series of endings (there are at least three) that signal change is ahead for Parker and company. With a third entry on its way in 2016, there’s little doubt Spidey will spin his web for years to come and if this sequel is any indication, the series will continue to improve.
Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends a slew of supervillains up against him.
Release Date: May 2, 2014
Thoughts: While I wasn’t married to the idea of Tobey Maguire being the one and only Spider-Man forever and ever, I wasn’t convinced in 2012 that Sony needed to reboot our webbed hero with The Amazing Spider-Man. The film, while impressive visually, was missing that special spark that all lasting superhero films need to stand the test of time. History has shown that some franchise films need to work out some bugs at first so I’m going to put faith in director Marc Webb and the creative time that this second go ‘round with Spidey hits the bullseye. Adding rising star Dane DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks), and Jamie Foxx (White House Down, Django Unchained) to the mix, this special New Year’s Eve preview is shorter and more compact than the longer trailer released a month ago, truly teasing the audience with images of the nasty baddies that await them when the film is released in May.
Synopsis: Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there
Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott
Director: Herbert Ross
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Like the film adaption of A Few Good Men, the movie version of the play Steel Magnolias has ruined me for any future stage production. Playwright Robert Harling brought his auto-biographical play to the screen with a script that took the ladies out of the beauty salon and added male characters without sacrificing any of the charm, humor, and emotion that made the theatrical work so popular.
It can be a tough chore to adapt a play for film without making it seem too stagey or confined but Harling and director Ross (The Turning Point) avoided these pitfalls with ease thanks in no small part to a slam-dunk sextet of females in leading roles. It’s clear that the women enjoyed working together because their warmth and easy-going vibe really elevates the film from being a sappy Southern fried weepie to a memorably classic tearjerker.
I’ve seen Steel Magnolias on stage several times (even on Broadway with Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen, and the Noxzema Girl) and the shadow of the movie always loomed large…I know it’s unfair to make comparisons but it can’t be helped with a cast of this caliber.
It’s lovely to see the journey Roberts (coming off good notices in Mystic Pizza) takes as a young Southern belle. Earning an supporting Oscar nomination for her work here, she’d follow this up with a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later. She fits in well with other Oscar winners Dukakis (for Moonstruck), MacLaine (for Terms of Endearment) perfectly cast as funny biddies and Field (two time winner for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) as her kind but overly protective mother. They’re joined by a surprisingly effective Hannah as gawky Annelle and the still underrated Parton (Joyful Noise) as salon owner Truvy.
Though the film has several scenes throughout that may get you misty, it’s Field’s breakdown near the end of the movie that chokes me up each and every time I’ve seen it. There’s something raw and real about the internal struggle that manifests itself in a powerful cry for answers that hits a nerve within me. The beauty of the film, similar to Terms of Endearment, is how it injects humor in all the right places so just when the tears start to flow you find yourself laughing.
Yeah, one could describe Steel Magnolias as chick flick and it absolutely is – but more than that it’s notable for its strong performances, gorgeous score (by Georges Delerue), and sensitive direction by Ross (though it’s widely known that Ross was a real devil to work with – he hated Parton and was especially hard on Roberts). Tearjerkers don’t always come in this easily accessible a package.
Forget Thanksgiving and Christmas, we are now officially in my favorite holiday season…Awards Season. This Sunday are the Golden Globe Awards and you can click HEREfor a full listing of nominees. I enjoy the Golden Globes for what they are…the slightly tipsy foreign exchange student to the Oscars. A few weeks later on January 27th the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards are given out and these are enjoyable because they are only given for performance categories and are voted on by the true peers of the nominees/winners. That’s true somewhat for the Oscars but there’s something about the SAG Awards that make them feel like a valued win and not a popularity contest. The day before the Oscars are the Spirit Awards given out to independent films from the past year. If you’ve never watched these awards I highly encourage it…they are very much like the films they celebrate…independent and rough around the edges.
All of these are merely appetizers for the Academy Awards which will be given out on February 24, 2013. Sure to be a lavish affair (even if they are being hosted by the mostly funny but ego-centric Seth McFarlane, Ted), I’ve yet to miss an Academy Awards telecast or the live announcement of the official nominees.
Before the nominations are announced at 7:38 am tomorrow morning, let me go out on a limb and give my predictions as to what is going to be up for major awards and who is going to wake up an Oscar nominee.
Ever since the field was changed from 5 nominees to a possible 10, this one is always hard to predict…so let me start with five nominees and then go up from there….
Close Calls – While The Master was a huge buzz film before it was released, its actual reception was so chilly I’m not sure it will earn a place on the list.
If there’s any justice…Skyfall will be the first James Bond film to be nominated for Best Picture. One of the best films of the year and most definitely the best Bond film ever produced, this was a full serving of entertainment with more to it than just cool cars and spy adventures.
Close Calls – Again, The Master is popping up as a close call…but potential Best Actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix is such a puzzle in and of himself, he may have hurt his chances at a nomination by starring in an equally puzzling film.
If there’s any justice… Poor Richard Gere…he just can’t catch a break. Though he could possibly unseat Jackman, his work in Arbitage probably will go un-nominated.
Close Calls – Helen Mirren is also being mentioned in this category…and while she was wonderful in Hitchcockthe film itself wasn’t well liked. I think there are enough women who did great work in better films that should wind up with a nomination.
If there’s any justice… PLEASE let Quvenzhane Wallis be nominated! If anyone should go from this list it’s Watts…I’ve heard her film is strong as is her performance but let’s have the youngest ever nominee (Wallis) up against the oldest ever nominee (Emmanuelle Riva, Amour)
Close Calls – Leonardo DiCaprio may miss the boat on this, his work in Django Unchained was better than his last five films but he’s in good company with his co-stars Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson…both of whom could wind up here. Bardem might be the one to miss the mark if DiCaprio love fills the hearts of voters…but I wouldn’t count out Bardem’s recent surge of support.
If there’s any justice… Tom Cruise would get some love for putting it all out there in Rock of Ages. Yes, the film was a total mess but his performance is still one of the most memorable (in a good way) for me at the end of the year. It’s never going to happen but I had to go on record saying he deserves it.
Close Calls – I haven’t seen The Paperboy but boy is Nicole Kidman getting surprising recognition for her steamy work. Though it came and went pretty fast, Kidman may just pop up here, replacing Adams or Smith.
If there’s any justice… the Supporting categories are always where Oscar tends to throw a few nice curveballs so here’s hoping that Brit Kelly Reilly scores her first nomination for her haunting work alongside Denzel Washington in Flight. Director Robert Zemeckis could have cast any Hollywood female for the role but he made a killer choice by going with Reilly.
Synopsis: As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, Michael Stuhlbarg,
Review: Steven Spielberg has long been attached to a film regarding the life of the 16th President of the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s tenure as President coincided with several key moments in our history – but what would be the best way to tell his tale? The answer? Make the focus of the film on the road leading up to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery and involuntarily servitude. In doing so, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angles in America) have made the film less biopic and more legal drama…and the resulting work is all the better for it.
Any director worth their salt would be able to tell the story of how the young Abe rose from his very humble log cabin beginnings to become one of the most respected men in US history. Spielberg is no ordinary director and his commitment to telling human interest stories about the oppressed has been a staple of his movie canon dating back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Lincoln actually feels like a companion film to Spielberg’s 1997 Amistad in that both are stories about discrimination, fear, and salvation.
Long rumored to star Liam Neeson, the role of Lincoln was eventually handed to Day-Lewis. Known for his utter immersion in any role that he takes on, Day-Lewis is a man of many faces and facets but he plumbs new depths of his talents here. His Lincoln is a soft-spoken, gentle man that favors quiet direction to loud bombast. Without ever raising his voice he commands a room easily, listening with sincerity while others make their point or dispute his position. Without much to go from instead of first-hand accounts and photographs, Day-Lewis brings the aged Mr. Lincoln to life with a dexterity that’s pretty inspiring. Even his gait seems oddly perfect to how a man of his stature and slight awkwardness would have carried himself.
Kushner has used parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s doorstop of a historical biography “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” as inspiration for his wordy screenplay that at times seems like a series of monologues rather than a straight-forward script. That’s not saying that Kushner’s words lack for any power but on the other hand must every scene have a four page speech included in it? Lincoln was a natural storyteller, relaying his message via story or parable and Kushner hits the right notes in that regard. Still, in a movie that pushes the limits of 150 minutes it feels like two stories too many.
What Kushner’s script does brilliantly is provide some exceptional moments for exceptional actors. Aside from Day-Lewis (who probably could have made a Lincoln book report from a third grader sound like poetry), there is Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Jones as Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, known as the Dictator of Congress.
Field has been attached to the film from day one and at times I wondered if she were perhaps a titch too mature for the role. Going back and reading about Mrs. Lincoln I see that I was wrong…Field is more right than ever for the role. Often derided for her overly emotive style, Field works wonders with her screen time to give Mary (or Molly, as Lincoln affectionately called her) a backbone and frailty that surely made up the woman herself. Watch Field’s hands in her first scene and how they quake…an outward display of inner turmoil. Field also takes great delight in delivering one of the more enjoyable throw downs of the year to Jones’s Stevens while in a receiving line. It’s great fun that doesn’t feel out of place.
Jones knocked it out of the park earlier this summer with Hope Springs and he brings that hound dog face and scrappy nature to the field here too. Stealing every scene he’s a part of, Jones reminds us why he’s one of the better actors working today and more than just the grumpy Gus he comes off as. Bewigged in what looks to be a Joan Crawford hand-me-down, Jones nonetheless doesn’t let that stop him as he holds his own defense of the Amendment in Congress while working with Lincoln to secure the votes necessary for it to pass. Like Field, Kushner has written Jones several wonderful speeches that he spits out with verve. Expect Jones to be nominated for (and possibly receive) another Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
I’ve always been fascinated with Spielberg’s knack for casting. There are some films that he casts with almost total unknowns (like War Horse) and then films like Lincoln where he fills the screen with familiar faces. Spader, Nelson, and Hawkes are quite a treat as hired not quite semi-muscle tasked on the sly by Lincoln with scrounging up votes from members of Congress. Pace, Stuhlbarg, Holbrook, Jared Harris, and Jackie Earle Haley also turn in solid supporting roles as players in the game of politics. Gloria Reuben impresses in a small but heartbreaking role as an attendant to Mary Todd Lincoln. And the always dependable Strathairn is perfect as Secretary of State William Seward. These actors are only the tip of the iceberg in a cast that is uniformly in it to win it.
The only actor that I was surprised that I wasn’t as impressed with was Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son, Robert. Robert wants to join the war but is discouraged by his father and forbidden by his mother. As written, the character seems more of an angst-y John Hughes-esque character than any of the other characters Kushner has created. With his excellent contributions to The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, and Premium Rush, it’s not all his fault…he just feels out of place. I think the major problem lies with the feeling that this particular storyline feels a bit shoehorned into the proceedings to raise the stakes for Lincoln’s part in ending the war.
Speaking of stakes, they are never higher than they are as the film continues to ramp up toward the vote. Anyone that has taken a History class should know how this turns out but that doesn’t stop Spielberg from keeping you at the edge of your seat during this extended history lesson. Some knowledge of the Civil War and its complexities would help, I think, add to the enjoyment of the film…especially in its fairly dense first half.
Working again with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg makes sure that each frame has exactly what he wants in it. That’s what I love so much about his work, he’s a smart enough filmmaker to deliver his movies precisely in the way he has envisioned them. When I see a Spielberg film I know that what I’m seeing on the screen is what Spielberg wants us to take in so I make a point to keep my eyes locked in at all times. Aided by another diverse score by John Williams that employs his usual sweeping fanfares and more music of the period, this really is a film that fires on all cylinders and impresses on many occasions.
With Lincoln, Spielberg has presented to audiences another piece of US history that we may think we know the whole story on but wind up benefitting from more information. It says something about his prowess as a director that he can steer us into stirring emotions regarding pieces of history we learned about in our youth. Earlier this year I lamented in my review of the decidedly glum Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that that film actually had Mary utter the ominous line “C’mon Abraham, we’ll be late for the theater!” While the eventual assassination of the president is dealt with in Spielberg’s Lincoln too, it’s handled in a respectful way as only this caring director knows how to do. By that point the film had me swept away with its power and I admit to fighting back a swell of tears for our fallen president…and I didn’t feel manipulated into doing so either.
An epic that all involved should be proud of, Lincoln took the long road to get to the screen and the final product is a film worthy to be called one of the best of the year. Though it is occasionally dry and a bit speech heavy, the performance of Day-Lewis is one for the record books. An Oscar nominee without question, I wouldn’t be upset if Day-Lewis picked up his third Oscar for playing Abe…honestly.
Synopsis: As the Civil War nears its end, President Abraham Lincoln clashes with members of his cabinet over the issue of abolishing slavery
Release Date: November 16, 2012
Thoughts: Steven Spielberg is one of those directors who seem to churn out movies with the greatest of ease. Almost under the radar, he plans and plots his productions so the actual act of filming them is nearly secondary. The long in the works Lincoln is finally readying for its November release and it looks to be another winning notch in Spielberg’s well-worn cinematic belt. Daniel Day-Lewis looked great in the promo shots and looks/sounds better in the trailer. Being born on Lincoln’s birthday always made me feel a little closer to Honest Abe — after seeing him hunt vampires in the murky Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter I’m ready to experience his story told by a whole crew of master craftspeople. The Oscar gauntlet has been thrown down by Spielberg and Lincoln…can’t wait for November.
Synopsis: Peter Parker finds a clue that might help him understand why his parents disappeared when he was young. His path puts him on a collision course with Dr. Curt Connors, his father’s former partner.
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field, Martin Sheen
Director: Marc Webb
Running Length: 136 minutes
Random Crew Highlight: Metal Fabricator ~ John Kelso
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: The popularity of the “remake” has now given birth to the “reboot”. Instead of simply remaking a movie from years past, now studios are moving to wipe the slate clean from existing franchises and start anew. It’s worked wonders for Warner Brothers and their Batman franchise and Sony is hoping they’ll have the same luck by kick starting a new Spider-Man series with a younger cast and fresh director. If the results are more serviceable than amazing, it’s not the fault of the people up on screen or the idea behind the whole movie — The Amazing Spider-Man works chemistry wise but not in terms of execution.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man came out in 2002 and was followed by sequels in 2004 and 2007. I enjoyed the first one, thought the second broke new exciting ground, and felt the third entry was a stinker – so I can see why Sony wanted to scrap the lot of ‘em and try a fresh take. The slant here is decidedly younger and I think that works for the overall feel of the Spider-Man universe.
Peter Parker (Garfield) is a put-upon, parentless, high-school angst machine and even though he has a supportive aunt and uncle (Field and Sheen…two perfect casting choices) and is catching the eye of Gwen Stacey (Stone, more on her later) he can’t get over feelings of abandonment and loss. A discovery of old lab papers from his scientist father and a trip to medical pioneer Oscorp brings Parker face to web with a spider whose bite changes his path forever.
The film has a lot of ground to cover, resulting in a movie that feels rushed in certain places and heavy in the middle. I enjoyed Parker’s discovery of his new powers and the fact that they made his costume/utilities more practical than the Raimi version. Here Parker is protected from sight while in costume but not from serious injury. The webs he tosses come from a clever device and the tall buildings he swings between are sometimes juuuust out of reach. That gives his crime stopping a bit of a realistic edge by showing us that he can just as easily hurt himself as a criminal.
Still…director Webb (was he hired for his name?) is inexperienced in the action film genre (his only previous film was the snappy rom-com 500 Days of Summer) and it does show. There’s a lot of focus on impressive visuals – several scenes of Spider-Man flying through the streets of New York are breathtaking and crafted extremely well. However…the movie starts to achieve a bit of a stop and start feeling about halfway in and that caused me to feel jarred in the process.
The problem is that what could have been an elevated superhero movie starts to be boiled down to a formulaic action flick with lots of brawn but no brain. It will deliver for those looking for action sequences of stature but won’t fill your appetite for believable scenes in between to tie it all together. The film can never really decide what its tone is. Is it more concerned with Parker struggling with vigilantism after crime affects his family, or is it about Parker and Gwen’s budding relationship? Should we be interested in the baddie wanting to turn NYC into scaly lizards or do we want Parker to find out the truth about his family history? A smarter director/script could have struck a balance between all four plot points but The Amazing Spider-Man ends up half-assing everything.
My biggest beef with the film is that it leaves so many questions unanswered. Large plot points and characters are introduced and then totally forgotten. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to throw a lot of stuff on the table that they can weave back in in sequels. That doesn’t work in my book. Sequels need to build and expand the universe created by the first film…not clean up the mess the first film leaves. Parker’s main reason for becoming Spider-Man is forgotten as is Field who disappears for most of the movie until she’s needed for Wise Words with Aunt May near the end. I also felt the film didn’t follow through with the plot points it does focus on…and there seemed to be a choppy edit job done to reduce its running length as several scenes lead into others with large gaps of time in between. Again, I feel this was due to the film feeling the need to put way too much in…it’s like they combined two full length adventures into one but didn’t increase the running length.
With all of this exposition flying by, Webb needed to cast his leads with actors that can easily handle the material and do some heavy lifting on their own. If Webb doesn’t succeed in fashioning a perfect film, he’s absolutely cast the film with a smart eye. Brit Garfield (The Social Network) was an inspired choice for Parker and he brings out a vulnerability and charm that’s Parker to a T. His anger is fueled not just by his past but his present feelings of loneliness. It’s a nuanced performance that is a strong anchor to the picture and a good building block for future installments. He’s matched well with Stone’s forward thinking, funny, and delightful take on Gwen. Stone’s created Gwen as a female of today with her own opinions and motivations which meld well with Garfield’s questioning and shy Parker. The two actors have great chemistry and it’s no wonder they are involved off-screen as well. I did feel that Gwen was used as a bit of an obvious plot device in order to get Peter into Oscorp, but that’s just another example of the film being a bit lazy.
It is hard to describe a movie that zings by so fast as lazy but that’s just what some of it felt like. As the film chugs toward its non-ending I saw a lot of instances of the screenwriters just creating exit strategies of Spider-Man because they could. At one point The Lizard (Ifans – a weak villain) turns several NYC cops into Lizard henchman…yet we never see them transform…so what’s the point in showing this?
I’d now like to turn your attention to one of my favorite “howler” moments of the 2012 Summer. Near the end Spider-Man is injured and needs to make it across several city blocks. Pay attention to what a voice-over narration from a news anchor says about him. Then try not to laugh as the construction works of NYC (led by an 80’s star that Spider-Man conveniently helped out earlier in the film) bond together to help him get to his destination. It’s all pretty ridiculous.
The effects are spectacular but are only slightly enhanced by 3D and IMAX. It’s not necessary to see the film with these added expenses though if you wanted to submerse yourself into the movie it might be a nice distraction from the weak plot and pacing. James Horner contributes a nicely heroic score that plays nicely with a few impressive flying sequences.
I’m sure there will be a sequel in this new Spider-Man reboot and I’m hoping that a more experienced director is brought on and a tight script is developed. Sony has the pieces in place to make a smart and exciting franchise take off…they just need to give it a better game master to let it fly.