by Steve Habrat
Less than two years ago, Sony and Columbia Pictures rushed director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man to the big screen, just five short years after Sam Raimi’s overstuffed Spider-Man 3. With a brand new cast led by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man was a rush job of a summer blockbuster—a desperate attempt on Sony’s part to hold on to the rights of the Spider-Man character. It’s easy to see why Sony wanted to keep Spidey trapped in their web, as the beloved superhero is an audience favorite that guarantees the studio a big pay day. Yet for all the insistence that The Amazing Spider-Man was going to be a fresh start for the character, the film’s plot seemed awfully familiar and, frankly, a bit underwhelming when pitted against Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s The Dark Knight Rises, the two summer kingpins of 2012. Now here we are at the commencement of the 2014 summer movie season and leading the blockbuster procession is The Amazing Spider-Man 2—a cramped comic book epic that fails to live up to its colossal hype. Sure it’s made with all the splashy action, on-again-off-again romance, wisecracks, and confliction that we have come to expect from a Spider-Man movie, but returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alec Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner appear to have been bitten by the same excess bug that nipped Raimi when he delivered his Spider-Man 3 dud.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds brainy teenager Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) continuing to battle crime on the New York City streets as Spider-Man. On the day of his high school graduation, Peter’s spider senses lead him to a high-speed chase through the city streets involving a highjacked truck that is carrying a massive load of plutonium. The man behind the highjacking is Aleksei Sytsevich (played by Paul Giamatti), a ruthless Russian mobster who will stop at nothing to outrun the authorities. With the help of Spider-Man, the authorities are able to corral Sytsevich, but during the chase, the webslinger saves Max Dillion (played by Jamie Foxx), an OsCorp employee who is largely ignored by his coworkers. In the wake of the rescue, Dillion develops an unnatural obsession with Spider-Man, believing that he is the superhero’s partner. Meanwhile, Peter suffers from visions of fallen police captain George Stacy, the father of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone), who made Peter promise to distance himself from Gwen after his battle with the Lizard. Haunted by the promise he made, Peter grapples with his romance with Gwen, which leads to a nasty break-up between the two. Shortly after the break-up, Peter reunites with his long lost friend Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan), the son of OsCorp’s late president, Norman Osborn (played by Chris Cooper). Before his father’s death, Harry learns that he has inherited his father’s illness, and that he has to rush to find a cure before it’s too late. At the same time, a freak workplace accidently transforms Max Dillion into an electrified monster called Electro. After a botched attempt to calm the terrified Max in Times Square, Dillion develops a grudge against Spider-Man and vows to destroy him.
At two hours and twenty minutes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 attempts to juggle a staggering number of subplots, all of which seem to demand more time than they are allotted. Webb and his screenwriters continue to reveal tidbits of information about Peter’s late parents, and Harry’s quest to cure himself leads to the creation of a familiar Spidey super villain. And then there are the romantic quarrels between the impossibly cute Gwen Stacy and the stammering Peter, a couple that have to hold the record for the most make-ups and break-ups in a single motion picture. Honestly, trying to keep up with all of it is exhausting, and in the process, Webb practically forgets about one character that we’re left wanting quite a bit more from. After a while, this overcrowded tale begins to feel a bit like Spider-Man 3, the film that single-handedly killed off Raimi’s series. It appears that neither the filmmakers nor the studio learned from this mistake, although Webb avoids the cartoonish brooding and cringe inducing camp that made Raimi’s such a painful embarrassment. What’s clear is that Sony is putting pressure on the filmmakers to set up spin-off movies and lay the foundation for the next two installments in this Spidey saga. Sony has already made it clear that they intend to craft a cinematic universe much like Disney’s Avengers line, although, this world is threatening to be too villain heavy.
While the jam-packed narrative causes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to feel sluggish, the lighter moments between Peter and Gwen put a little pep in the film’s step. The relationship drama does get a bit tiresome, but the two stars have a chemistry that soothes some of the grumbles that are bound to slip out from many audience members who have grown weary of Spidey’s chaotic love life. It also helps that Garfield and Stone share an off-screen romance, which makes their on-screen relationship even cuter. On his own, Garfield continues to settle into the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, wisecracking his way through gunfights, car chases, aerial battles with Electro, and a final showdown with the charging Rhino. There is no denying that Garfield nails the cocky comedic side of the character, but he also proves that he can handle Peter’s darker demons that creep in when he’s not swinging through the concrete jungle. His inner angst is measured with a desire for answers about his parent’s mysterious death—a mystery that he grapples with in the privacy of his bedroom. Stone remains an actress you just can’t resist as her Gwen Stacy looks to a future without Peter by her side. In the final stretch of the film, she proves to be more than just a damsel in distress, daring to jump into the action and assist a desperate Peter as he fends off attacks from Dillion’s Electro and Harry’s cackling Green Goblin.
On the villain end of things, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds one half of the Sinister Six uniting to squash the Spider. If you thought that Lizard was a far-fetched villain, wait until you lay eyes on Electro, a glittery swirl of electricity given a tragic human rage by Jamie Foxx. Early on, Foxx really makes you feel for Max Dillion, a geeky engineer who talks to himself and frowns as his coworkers look right through him. As Electro, Foxx plays the character as a terrified monster that doesn’t wish to harm anyone, but this misunderstood monster performance is rapidly brought down through a sudden script shift that demands Electro get mean fast. DeHaan was born to play Harry Osborn, the chilly son of OsCorp’s late president who is doomed to become the leering Green Goblin. The scenes shared between Peter and Harry are pleasant enough, but there are far too little of them for us to really be shaken when Harry’s Green Goblin comes calling for Peter’s Spider-Man. Giamatti’s Aleksei is appropriately over the top, as he grunts and growls in a hammy Russian accent. Sadly, he’s reduced to an extended cameo, but when he jumps into that menacing Rhino suit and starts wrecking havoc in the streets of New York City, I promise your adrenaline will start surging, especially when he stares down quivering cops and proclaims, “I am zee Rhino!”
As expected, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features numerous action set pieces that will thrill viewers of all ages. The scenes of Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers are some of the most convincing we’ve seen so far, and Spidey’s first encounter with the skittish Electro shows off some impressive urban destruction. My personal favorite action moment is the confined fistfight between Spidey and the Green Goblin, a battle that ends with a shock guaranteed to blindside the packed theater. Another personal favorite is the Wall-Crawler’s showdown with Rhino, who charges into the battle guns and rockets blazing. As far as other complaints go, I found the score, which is composed by Hans Zimmer and the “Magnificent Six,” a super group led by Pharrell Williams, to be an absolute catastrophe. The chugging and whispering theme for Electro is just distracting as it attempts to get inside his glowing head, and the sudden lapses into shrill dubstep leaves your ears ringing. Overall, while there are things to like about The Amazing Spider-Man 2—the action, the CGI, the performances—the film doesn’t find Webb sending the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to soaring new heights. What we’re left with is a cluttered and disjointed superhero outing preoccupied with enticing the audience rather than satisfying them until Spidey inevitably swings back onto the big screen.
by Steve Habrat
I’m going to remember 2011 as the year that retro dominated at the movies. We have seen multiple releases throughout the year that have embraced a throwback aesthetic, ones that were evocative and nostalgic. They were all quite good too. We’ve had the candy-colored madcap The Green Hornet, 80’s horror nod Insidious, the Goonies/E.T. mash up Super 8, the dreamy pulp and Raider’s of the Lost Ark tribute Captain America, the ultra violent 80’s crime/actioner Drive, the arty silent film wonder The Artist, and we will soon see another Raider’s valentine when The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters. Many have been direct nods to the heyday of special effects and when escapism really dominated. In the late 70’s, Jim Henson’s Muppets took over television and went on to rally a group of loyal fans that have supported them through the years. After a long hiatus and being largely forgotten by pop culture, gargantuan funny guy Jason Segel, who is also said to be a huge fan of the felt critters, penned a fresh new screenplay along with Nicholas Stoller, wrangled director James Bobin and together they have delivered a winning piece of family entertainment that attempts to rally a new generation of fans while also making the adults who so enthusiastically watched their sketch-comedy mischief way back when inebriated with nostalgia of their youth. The Muppets is retro without being retro. It’s hilariously self-aware and willing to crack jokes on their absence. This world isn’t meant for the optimistic band of creatures ranging from the ringleader Kermit the Frog all the way to Sam the Eagle. And trust me, every Muppet you can think of pops up at least once. The movie almost isn’t big enough to contain them all. The best part of all of this is that The Muppets keeps things unadorned, making it even easier to love them.
The Muppets kicks off with the knee-slapping introduction of their newest member, Walter, a happy-go-lucky little puppet that is best buddies with his human brother Gary. The young Gary and Walter live in the perfect community of Smalltown, USA, and they both sit in their matching stripped pajamas and grin over The Muppet Show. Walter becomes a massive fan of Kermit and company, and as life gets tougher for the little Walter, he finds comfort in The Muppet Show. The film speeds forward to present day where the adult Gary (Played by Jason Segel) and Walter still live in Smalltown and are now shacking up together. They are still best buds and still do everything together, even hilarious musical numbers. We also learn that Gary is dating Mary (Played by Amy Adams) and they have been together for ten years. Gary plans a trip to Los Angles in celebration of their anniversary and he invites Walter to tag along to see the Muppet Theater. Mary is less than enthused but she understands how important Walter is to Gary and Gary to Walter. Once they arrive to Los Angles, Walter discovers that the world has left the Muppets behind and moved on. Their theater and studio lie in ruin and there is a plot by an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Played by Chris Cooper) to destroy what is left of their studios in an attempt to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter pleas with Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppet gang and help save the Muppet Theater.
It’s easy for us to wave off The Muppets and call it square. It features quirky puppets rather than fancy CGI creatures and, yes, it does seem a bit dated. It’s also heavy with musical numbers, which is also the furthest thing from hip. Yet that is what makes this film so irresistible. It’s simple and old fashioned, with a whole slew of cameos from big Hollywood names. Get ready to double over when Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez shows up and inquisitively asks Kermit if he’s one of the Ninja Turtles. Wait until you see Kermit’s reaction. Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris turns up too to deliver a real zinger. Truth be told, I’ve always been intrigued by the Muppets and how they convey so much emotion. When Kermit is sad, we can see it in his plastic peepers. It does fill you with a sense of wonder. It helps that the puppet work is punctilious and detailed. And yet this film is content with being square and a bit dated. In fact it is delighted by the very implication of it. It gives it fuel to crack joke after joke and believe me, the jokes come fast and furious. It’s a nice balance to Pixar’s films and the bizarre offerings like Alvin and the Chipmunks, where real actors interact with annoying CGI animals (Hollywood is forcing the annoying Chipmunks on audiences AGAIN! They showed the trailer before this film. I guess with every good thing, there has to be a bad.). With The Muppets, at least there is something palpable for the actors to work with.
The actors here all do a fine job playing old fashioned. Segel brings a gee-whiz energy with him and he really seems to be genuinely in awe at what is going on around him. It helps that he has a heart for this sort of thing. Adams steals the shows as Mary, as she just radiates girl-next-door charm. She looks like she stepped out of the 1950’s. Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones turns up as a straight-shooting television executive named Veronica who, in the words of Fozzie Bear, could shoot “a little more curvy”. Cooper’s oilman Tex Richman also provides some big laughs, especially his love of maniacal laughter. He also steals the show with a musical number so bold, I didn’t laugh until after it ended and I could register what had just happened.
The Muppets does have a handful of flaws that knocks it down a letter grade. The director handles some of that cameos carelessly, some are so brief; blink and you may miss them. There are some that shine (Emily Blunt turns up in a nod to The Devil Wears Prada) and some that should have been developed better (Sarah Silverman’s wasted potential as a diner hostess). Some of the Muppets themselves could have used a bit more screen time, but the film desperately tries to fit every single one of them into the film that it is almost overload. I was left wishing for more of daredevil Gonzo and Sam the Eagle. Walter ends up getting lost in the shuffle for about a half hour and it’s a shame because you really do fall in love with him. Every once and a while, it feels slightly unfocused, like a bunch of kids in a candy store.
Despite some minor hiccups, this is one of the best family films of the year. One that is not like Chinese water torture for adults and delivers slapstick laughs for children. I applaud Segel for making retro old-fashioned feel new again and I would gladly go back to the theater to experience all of this again. The film succeeds as a musical, with several numbers that really pop, the best one being shared by Mary and Miss Piggy. The Muppets finds itself on the retro list of 2011, one of the films where everything just clicks and it takes you back. Two of the people I saw it with were fans of the show when it was on and it left them beaming. My generation missed Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it still had me in a good mood after we left the theater. This film isn’t rocket science, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. It left me feeling all warm and felty inside. Who can argue with that?!