REVIEW: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

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While it certainly wasn’t a bad film, I can’t say that I was amazed by “The Amazing Spider-Man”. Maybe it was just too soon after the previous trilogy and a rebooted origin story simply felt too familiar. I liked the movie but it didn’t stay with me. As you would expect in today’s modern Hollywood, a big budget sequel was already in the works and it arrives only two years later in the form of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”. It is director Marc Webb’s $250 million continuation of the web-slinging superhero’s story, at least this version of it.

Spider-Man is probably the most popular superhero in the Marvel Comics universe and he has been box office gold for Sony Pictures. That trend has proven to continue. This film has already raked in over $350 million worldwide only one week into its United States release. People flock to Spider-Man pictures. But are they flocking to a good movie? Quite honestly the trailers for this film did little to excite me. Still, I’m a comic book guy so any chance to visit these great characters piques my interest at least to some degree.

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Andrew Garfield returns to play Peter Parker and Emma Stone is back as Gwen Stacy. It’s high school graduation and the two are still romantically involved although Peter still struggles with a promise he made to keep her out of his dangerous crime-fighting life. He’s also still haunted by the truth surrounding the disappearance of his parents many years earlier. We are also introduced to Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) who returns to Manhattan to see his dying father Norman (Chris Cooper). We also meet a lonely, unassuming man named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx). He works as an engineer for OsCorp and he has a longing to be needed and noticed. All of these characters plus more find their way into this busy story.

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is the perfect definition of a mixed bag. Several of the film’s components work really well while others drag the film down or hinder the storytelling. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the movie tries to cram in too much story and too many characters. This results in some characters who are thin and who feel terribly underdeveloped. More importantly there are significant story angles that are never given the time they need to build. This makes certain parts of the story feel forced and shortchanged which ultimately waters down their effect.

On the flip-side, the movie does shine in the more human emotional moments. Garfield and Stone create a strong and truly believable romance hindered by the complications their lives have brought. The two have really good chemistry and they share several fantastic non-superhero scenes together. I do miss the changes made to the Peter Parker character. Gone is the nerdy awkwardness that has always been a defining quality. There are also some good scenes between Peter and his Aunt May (Sally Field) as well as one particular good scene where Peter catches up with his old high school buddy Harry. The movie was at its best when focusing on the human elements.

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But this is a superhero movie so naturally you look for and expect certain things. First off, Garfield is very good behind the mask. He has a lot of personality and I found several of his quips to be quite funny. Of course the majority of his fighting is presented through CGI. Sometimes it looks good, other times the animation is obvious. But even he suffers due to the film’s lack of a bankable villain. Jamie Foxx’s Electro is a huge stretch from the comic book inspiration and frankly this version is not that interesting. I’ve never been sold on Foxx as an actor and he is very dull and uninspired here. But it’s hard to put the blame squarely on him. He’s given flimsy material and he doesn’t have the chops to rise above it. I also didn’t care for DeHaan’s Harry Osborn. He barely resembled this important character in Spidey lore and there were times when he was just painfully bad. The movie needed these characters to work and I didn’t buy into either of them.

So basically this movie works on the human level but only occasionally where it needed to the most as a superhero movie. It’s a cramped and underdeveloped story which is surprising considering the film is a long 2 hours 20 minutes. There are so many plot lines that feel shoehorned in and that barely contribute to the movie as a whole. There isn’t a good villainous presence and the rebooted series has yet to find itself an identity. It does have its moments, but in the end it doesn’t feel like the movie that this character and his great history deserves. Despite its scattered good scenes, I still felt Spider-Man deserved better.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “August: Osage County”

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“August: Osage County” is a hard pill to swallow. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and could be categorized as a dysfunctional family drama with pinches of dark comedy. It features a star-studded cast led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and a premise that may have a lot of appeal to some audiences. But underneath all of the big acting from big stars lies a coarse and abrasive film that never knows when to pull back the reins. It ends up being a movie I could never wrap my arms around.

Tracy Letts (who also penned the play) writes the screenplay and John Wells (better known for his television work) directs the film. It’s set in Osage County, Oklahoma during a sweltering hot August. Violet (Streep) is a mean and contentious women suffering from mouth cancer and a heavy addiction to pain pills. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a calmer sort who seeks refuge in his books and liquor. One day Beverly hires a caretaker for his wife and soon after disappears.

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Distraught over her husband’s disappearance, Violet calls in her family and a parade of family dysfunction follows. First to arrive is her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Shortly after, Violet’s three daughters come. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is a shrill carbon copy of her mother. She’s at odds with her mom for leaving home and moving to Colorado. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the spacy middle daughter who hasn’t been home in years. And there is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the youngest daughter and the only one who lives close to home. Each of these characters have a wheelbarrow full of flaws and baggage that all comes into play as the film moves along.

But if that assortment of maladjusted individuals wasn’t enough, we also have Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) who apparently has an eye for younger women and their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) who is bearing the fruits of their horrible parenting. Then there is Karen’s fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a phoney and moral-free Florida businessman. Oh and then there is Charles and Mattie Fae’s awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) who may have a weird little secret.

It’s almost impossible to like any of these people. With the exception of the caregiver, practically every character reveals an appalling secret, spits out hateful insults, or does something vile. And the film is relentless. It bludgeons you to death with one dysfunctional family scene after another. I found it to be smothering. The story never allows any breathing room or provides any variation with its characters. And the constant barrage of bad behavior and disgraceful revelations is a bit ridiculous. It’s as if Letts wants to trump one disgraceful act or insult with another. And so on and so on…

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Again, the cast is a laundry list of big names and the performances are good. However many of the scenes are so big and the characters so loud that it can be difficult to really appreciate the performances. It’s one of those cases where the material hurts what the actors are doing. Streep is fine as the venom-tongued Violet but she is so big and brash. It’s definitely how the character is written but Streep does her share of scene chewing. Julia Roberts has been applauded for her work but it too is a loud and showy performance. Roberts is never overmatched by the character and she shows brilliance in some scenes. But the character is crassly written and some of her dialogue is so over the top. The other performances aren’t getting the same attention, but they’re generally good when the screenplay allows them to be.

I’ve heard that the stage version of “August: Osage County” is very good. Sadly I don’t think it has translated well to the big screen. This is a crude and unyielding adaptation that has a powerful and potent potential. The idea is appealing and every so often we get glimpses of what I hoped the film to be. Unfortunately I was put off by these characters, their endless dysfunction, and their profane spite. This was a tiresome watch and tough movie for me to endure. It’s a shame because with this much talent I was expecting more.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

“THE MUPPETS” – 3 1/2 STARS

The Muppets have been missing in action for years now making them complete unknowns to a new generation of children. Now they are back in a feature film simply titled “The Muppets” and in many ways, it’s a fun and nostalgic step back in time. It’s based off “The Muppet Show”, a parody-driven variety program which ran from 1976 to 1981 and branched out into several full length movies. The whole cast is back and the result is a family-friendly experience that will bring back some fond memories for parents while introducing these wonderful characters to a new younger audience. And while the movie certainly retains that Muppet magic in places, it’s not without it’s problems.

Jason Segal wrote and stars as Gary, a human and brother to Walter who is a puppet. The two are incredibly close and as adults still live together. Throughout the years, Walter has become a huge Muppets fan. He watches all of their old shows, has a Kermit watch, and has a bedroom wall plastered with Muppet posters and stickers. Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) plan a romantic vacation to Los Angeles to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Walter ends up coming along and gets an opportunity to visit the old Muppet Theater. There he overhears the plot of an evil oil tycoon, appropriately named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), to tear down the theater and drill for oil in it’s place. Walter makes it his mission to save the theater by convincing the Muppets, who have long since parted ways, to get back together for one last show to save the theater.

Both Gary and Mary are simple and sometimes cheesy characters and for the most part that’s ok. Segal and Adams make them both likeable even though their cluelessness is sometimes overplayed. Chris Cooper is a lot of fun as the stereotypical cold-hearted businessman and he hams it up without short-changing the character. But the Muppets are the real stars and while there are a few different voices, they all pretty much have the same personalities I remember from the show. They’re all here and I was surprised to see how much I remembered about them. Being this is a fairly concentrated movie, I was disappointed that some didn’t get as much screen time as I wanted but there’s not a lot you can do about that.

The story, while straightforward and predictable, does offer some pretty good laughs. There are several musical numbers throughout the film some of which are quite fun. Cooper’s bad guy rap is hilarious and works so well due to it’s absolute absurdity while others fall pretty flat and add little to the movie. But often times jokes are made at the song’s expense and they’re actually quite funny. “The Muppets” features several scenes that are like nostalgic flashbacks but it also has a few dull moments. The story drags in places and doesn’t maintain a steady pace. These lulls certainly don’t kill the picture but keep it from being as good as it could have been.

“The Muppets” may not be a great movie but it did leave me feeling like I had stepped back in time. I really enjoyed seeing these characters that I loved as a child back together again and there were several instances where I gave a hearty laugh at the genuinely funny jokes. There are also some fun cameo appearances by James Carville, Emily Blunt, Mickey Rooney, Selina Gomez and several more. While the movie hits a few speed bumps along the way, overall I did have fun and I guess that’s all that counts.