Thursday, May 29, 2014

#748. X-Men: Days of the Future Past

I just saw X-Men: Days of the Future Past.  It's pretty good.  It may be the best X-Men movie yet.

Before you say that sounds a lot like what I said about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 recently, just know that the leading contender for that title for me is X-Men: The Last Stand.  (Wait a minute.  I'm not making my case any stronger.  I'm the guy who likes Spider-Man 3.  As in "the only guy."  Just like Last Stand.)

This was Bryan Singer's third X-Men.  His first two were also the first two.  Most fans considered X2: X-Men United to be the best comic book movie to that time (2003) and continued considering it at least the best X-Men movie until 2011's X-Men: First Class.  When Brett Ratner's Last Stand was released in 2006, most observers considered it to be a pale shadow of Singer's films.  (It may be worth noting that Ratner gets very little respect one way or another.)  They claimed it basically undid everything that was good about the series.  But hey, I thought it was the best one to that point.  I really did.

I thought so because it featured a much more cohesive story and a better climax than had been featured in its two predecessors.  I was never hot on X2 (very blatantly, to my mind, the first solo Wolverine movie by any other name, which is not necessarily a bad thing).  The "mutant cure" in Last Stand enabled the movie to explore the core issues of the series and its characters more effectively than ever before.

And that's also, by the way, why I like Days of the Future Past so much.  Well, that and Quicksilver.  Seriously, the Quicksilver sequence is now legendary in my book.

I wasn't too hot on First Class either.  Most of it was tepid.  It was competent but tentative at the same time.  By the time I realized that was Kevin Bacon, I just kind of wished he had made more choices like that in his career, not that First Class was so awesome.  Villains like that are a dime a dozen in movies based on Marvel characters.

Know what I mean, Captain America: Winter Soldier?  I haven't really talked too much about that one yet.  I liked it.  I liked it a lot.  I'd been planning for the longest time to write about how today's audiences may have just seen Robert Redford turn into Alec Guinness.  The poor guy's whole career might have been reduced to a single role.  Maybe he'll be better about it than the erstwhile Jedi was.  But as much as I liked Winter Soldier (Frank Grillo rules!  all over again!  which is a note for those who also enjoyed him in Warrior), I didn't like what I've called its action porn.  Everything it does right it kind of throws away with every action sequence.  I mean every action sequence.  Which just kind of happen.  Over and over again.  And the fact that although technically pretty much everyone is the villain in it, and that's really awesome in a contemporary Snowden/Assange kind of way, there's no decent villain.  Bucky doesn't really appear in the movie so much as make a series of cameos.  That's kind of weird.  But even the brilliant Ed Brubaker comics where this movie came from also didn't really know what to do with the characters besides come up with the best Captain America story ever.

(Also, why is Captain America a supporting character in his own movie?  Or at least, sharing it nearly equally with Black Widow and Nick Fury?  And who wouldn't've enjoyed Falcon in a role as big as all three combined?)

Anyway, I did like Winter Soldier.  I think this year has been an incredibly good one for superhero movies so far.  This is good, because I've been having a lot of reservations for Guardians of the Galaxy.  The new trailer in front of Future Past assuaged some of those.  But it could really go either way.  I think we're headed back into polarizing Marvel movie territory.  Apparently Amazing Spider-Man 2 already started us down that road.

Hopefully Future Past isn't really there, too.  It features a lot of pretzel logic (otherwise known as comic book logic, appropriately enough).  And it's basically exactly The Matrix but with mutants.  But it's possibly the best X-Men movie.  As a sequel to either the original movies or First Class it works remarkably well.  I think better of First Class because of it, even though Michael Fassbender has even less to do this time than the stuff that didn't really impress me last time.  (It's not that I don't like Fassbender.  When allowed to be awesome, like in Inglourious Basterds or even 12 Years a Slave, he's definitely awesome.)  James McAvoy is much better this time, more committed.  Jennifer Lawrence isn't as impressive, but then, a lot of her performance is under blue paint in action scenes.  Ellen Page is pretty great in a limited role.  Patrick Stewart probably has his best turn as Professor X, the first time he truly has something significant to do (which is exactly as insane as it sounds).

This is kind of basically another Wolverine movie, but there's much better integration than normal.  I haven't seen The Wolverine yet.  I've been petrified that it's the same as X-Men Origins, where half the movie is awesome and the rest is, well, the same as any Marvel movie (insert random action here).

I don't really get why they kept referring to Vietnam as a war America lost.  We gave up on it, yes.  We retreated.  But technically we didn't lose it.  So that was curious.  But it put the right kind of context on the whole story, a conflict that can be defined by how it's perceived.  Popularly Vietnam has always been a quagmire.  That's hardly a question.  It probably couldn't be won but I'm not sure it could be lost either.  As far as mutants go, however, Future Past is probably right that it's definitely a war that can be won or lost, and curiously both at the same time, too.  There's a lot of that existential philosophizing that I love so much, but with mutants.

Also, the Quicksilver scenes.  All of them.  Really, really excellent.

Monday, May 26, 2014

#747. The Mystery Box

I've just finished S. from J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.  Put simply, it's amazing.  Put less simply, it's kind of the answer to all the questions you ever had about a J.J. Abrams project.

The project you ought to keep in mind, if you ever read it yourself, is Lost.  You know, that mesmerizing, confounding puzzle of a TV show that fans alternately love and hate.  There're so many elements to S. that it seems a rank injustice to single out only a few, but a lot of them seem tailor-made to anyone still trying to figure out what happened on that mysterious island.  It's the answer to what's inside that mystery box that seems to be at the heart of every Abrams story.

And it actually helps put Abrams into better context than ever.  I started ticking off all the associations I could easily make: Christopher Nolan, M. Night Shyamalan, Orson Welles, Frank Miller, Dean Motter, J.K. Rowling, Grant Morrison.  All his stories involve people trying to sort out the vagaries of identity while pushing up against powers much more frightening than they ever wanted to confront.

Getting back to Lost, however, and how S. offers such rich parallels, it reminds me all over again how drastically the series changed after its third season, the one the fans hated so much it forced a course-correction and abbreviated run of only three more years.  The third season is the one where the fans thought things started to drag, become less inspired, more predictable.  But I never really saw that.  The opening suite of episodes are especially electric.  Jack, Sawyer, and Kate are being held captive by the Others.  Finally, we're finding out what the enemy actually looks like.  And other than Jack's initial's pretty mundane, actually.  It plays out a lot like the action in S., in which an amnesiac man finds himself thrust into a war of attrition between two sides who operate below the public radar, both completely convinced about the legitimacy of their actions and committed to eliminating the other.  He keeps ending up on the same boat, and struggles to connect with the woman of his dreams.  Just from the first moment we meet Jack in Lost, you can begin to see parallels.

The whole book is like that.  The approach, however, delves deeper.  It speaks to what Abrams might have thought as fans followed Lost's developments, whether in the series itself or the ephemera that gave secret clues about what lay ahead, such as the earliest references to the Dharma Initiative.  And just what did the mysterious organization turn out to be?  That's what the third season was headed toward, the same one where Jacob was referenced for the first time, who would eventually embody the war of black and white pieces Locke shows Walt from backgammon all the way at the beginning.

The moment the series acknowledged the wishes of the fans, I think Abrams felt it was the moment to give the series over to his collaborators.  The shift is so obvious, the approach altered in ways more profound than the length of seasons.  It becomes a lot more mythologized.  By the end of the series, the fans, who had become aware that they could affect the shape of the Mystery Box, felt it was appropriate to be disappointed when they realized the answers they thought they wanted didn't materialize.  And who is to blame?  The fans.  They scared off Charles Widmore.  The Dharma Initiative that showed up in the fifth season was as ineffectual as Widmore's role in the sixth.  I daresay both would have been far different with Abrams still steering the course.

None of this is to say I personally was disappointed with the series.  Abrams has explored the same story over and over, from Alias to Fringe to Person of Interest, the last of these most successful at hiding in plain sight the Mystery Box.  The Smoke Monster had different permutations, too, in Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens.  Once Upon a Time took a different approach to the same fantastic lives ordinary people experience when they encounter open the box.  Abrams (and the creators who will be forever linked to Lost) likes characters with daddy issues, surrogate families, and conspiracy theories.  I think all these things come to their best form in Fringe.  Fans can pick their favorite.

S. is a way of affirming that Abrams can be a genre all to himself.  You can enjoy the book on its own merits, for its own accomplishments.  You can approach it by way of Lost (and come to different conclusions if you like).  But I think you'll enjoy it, one way or another.  It's ambitious.  It's a way of approaching Abrams as a pure storyteller, someone who clearly enjoys what he does, no matter his motives or proclivities or the demands he asks of his audience.  That he asks anything at all has always been one of my favorite things about him, the moment the name "Milo Rambaldi" was uttered for the first time.  I like a challenge in my entertainment, and Abrams is one creator always game to provide one.  I'm glad his efforts exist in book form now.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

#746. Blockbusted Blogathon: Batman & Robin

To be perfectly clear: Batman & Robin is not my favorite movie.  It's really not even close.  That being said, I unabashedly love Batman & Robin.

I realize that this is not the usual position to take on this particular movie.  In a lot of ways, its popular reputation is absolutely earned.  This was as close to the 1960s Batcamp as the modern movies will hopefully ever get.  But there's so much to love about it.  

There really is.

Released in 1997, the second (of two) Batman flicked directed by Joel Schumacher (after 1995's Batman Forever), Batman & Robin closed the book on that particular wave of superhero movies, and it killed a four-film-deep series that had begun with Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).  It was the second one to feature Chris O'Donnell's Robin, and first (and only) to have George Clooney under the cowl.

In a lot of ways, there's nothing but logical progression behind what this movie became.  Easily best known for its villains, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy, and Jeep Swenson's Bane, chances are most of what you know and/or think about it is associated with one or all of them.

For the record, there's also Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl in the mix.

To my mind, the most egregious mistake of the movie is actually Thurman's Ivy.  She's the most irredeemably campy presence in the whole thing.  I love Uma Thurman.  I think my whole generation loves Uma Thurman.  She did what was asked of her.  Didn't ultimately hurt her career, whatever anyone might think of her Ivy.  Such is the power of Uma Thurman.  Schwarzenegger, O'Donnell, and Silverstone all basically kissed their popular movie careers goodbye after Batman & Robin landed as a turkey.  But Thurman, who was never herself considered a major box office draw, didn't really have to worry about that.  A half-dozen years later, she was The Bride in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill flicks.  Legacy assured.

And really, I can even redeem that element of the film.  While the character herself is like Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman stripped of all pretense (I'm not really a fan of that performance, either, clearly), Ivy serves as a strong impetus for the Batman/Robin dynamic that's...pretty important to the movie (if you weren't able to tell from the, um, title).

Associated with Ivy otherwise is Bane, who was only a few years removed from his biggest comics moment when he broke Batman in the "Knightfall" story arc.  Bane in this particular movie appearance is a very dim echo of pretty much every other depiction ever (hopefully).  But it's about as accurate a depiction of the Venom-fueled (read: super steroids) monster aspect as you could hope to find.  This is what baseball fans would be thinking in just a few years.  Just a year later, Mark McGwire would carry that particular era to its greatest popular heights.  But even he would crash back down to earth.  In recent times Captain America's super steroids enhancements fuel him to 1998 McGwire-like, but the truth is, as certainly Lance Armstrong will tell you, people really aren't that hot on this sort of thing.  So Bane in this movie makes perfect sense, especially in hindsight.

Schwarzenegger's Freeze is actually the most redeemable element of the movie.  Yes, I just said that.  I've already admitted that Batman & Robin pretty much destroyed his career.  But it may also be one of his greatest performances.  For years, the future Governator had been trying to be the perfect action movie/comedy star, setting a template his successors still follow (and that's how we got Tooth Fairy).  This is the movie where he combines them most perfectly, as well as his ability to deliver quips better than anyone.  Nearly every line Schwarzenegger delivers in this movie is a quip.  It's so ridiculous it's awesome.  Like Thurman's Ivy, there was every precedent for Freeze in his Batfilm predecessors.  Critics were charging that Jack Nicholson gleefully upstaged Michael Keaton from the start.  Is there really any arguing that?  Batman Returns not only features Pfeiffer's loony Catwoman, but Danny DeVito's cartoonish Penguin (who is arguably even more the star of that one than Nicholson in Batman), and Christopher Walken.  Who is Christopher Walken.  Batman Forever has Tommy Lee Jones mugging awesomely as Two-Face and Jim Carrey.  Who is Jim Carrey.

So by the time you reach Schwarzenegger's Freeze, it's really a heck of a lot more logical than anyone has ever cared admit.  The thing is, just like Thurman's Ivy, this is a Batman villain stripped of all pretense.  He has a great time being a villain.  But he has arguably some of the best moments of nuance for any Batman villain, too.

Really???  Really.

Because that's there, too.  Schwarzenegger's Freeze is a tragic villain, and the true genius (I just said that) of the performance is that his best moments are actually subdued.  The complete opposite of anything else you know about it.  Freeze has a wife who is mostly completely left offscreen except in her holding tank.  There's a flashback to Freeze's origin, and the end of the movie, which I will get back to.

What I love so much about Schwarzenegger's Freeze is that he set a positive precedent.  He really did.  Another of my all-time favorite superhero movie villains, Thomas Haden Church's Sandman from Spider-Man 3, might not have happened if it weren't for this performance, this depth in the heart of a movie that seems to lack it.  But it's there.  It's there in spades.  But I'll get back to that.

Another big precedent Batman & Robin sets is big action in a superhero movie.  Until then, the most outlandish thing fans could expect from them was believing a man could fly.  Technology just wasn't ready for anything bigger at that point.  The Batman flicks had been upping the ante with each entry.  By this point, all stops had been let loose.  Batman no longer resembled the Gothic vigilante.  There's very little about this movie that resembles Gothic.  Completely the opposite, really.  But this was one step along the way to reaching The Avengers, the most financially lucrative superhero movie ever.  In other words, a movie that the fans loved.  Big time.  But in order to reach that point, Hollywood had to know that big risks could pay off.  They could achieve the kind of action comic books had featured for decades.  And that started in Batman & Robin.  

The thing to love best about Batman & Robin, though, is its heart.  The whole thing, rather than being about the cartoon villains, is for the first time wholeheartedly about Batman.  This sounds like an odd statement, because this is perhaps the movie out of the first four with the least focus on Batman.  Clooney's Bruce Wayne receives the least screen time out of all three original actors to play the role.  It's pretty much the opposite of his predecessor, Val Kilmer.

And yet this is a Batman whose career has significantly advanced since the last time we saw him.  He's become a media darling.  But he also has a partner now.  Robin.  That was the true legacy of Batman Forever, too.  The decision to feature an older version of the character than was traditional in the comics had a significant impact.  Batman and Robin were from the start, in this version, far less a matter of hero and sidekick, and  By the end of Batman Forever, that hadn't really been resolved.  Batman & Robin is in a lot of ways a resolution of its predecessor.  Robin learns about what it means to accept personal responsibility both from the rivalry Poison Ivy ramps up with Batman as well as the introduction of Batgirl, who is really a means of forcing Robin to see things from Batman's point of view for the first time.

With a lot of dayglo, by the way.

Part of the reason I've always liked Batman & Robin more than is reasonably common, I admit, is that I'm a fan of George Clooney.  In an alternate universe, he would have been easily digestible as Batman.  He's a natural.  It's just, in his one appearance in the role, he's got a supporting role, just like Keaton in Batman Returns.  This was one of Clooney's first movie roles, and to this day still one of his few efforts to make a truly mainstream movie.  You might almost say that the failure of this effort allowed him to do what he wanted to do, and that's been pretty good for his career.

But the element I love best about Batman & Robin is Michael Gough's Alfred.  Gough played Batman's butler in all four movies from this era.  He was such a reliable presence (even moreso than Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon) that he was easy to take for granted.  In this fitting finale, he finally steps into the spotlight.

That's the arc you really ought to pay attention to.  Bruce Wayne has a love interest (played by Elle McPherson, by the way!), but the relationship that matters most in this movie is the one that endured the whole series.  It's a classic case of emotional manipulation, of course.  Alfred becomes significant because of a mortal illness.  But it works.  It works completely.

And it just so happens that Alfred's illness is the very same one that has been plaguing Mr. Freeze's wife.  This sets up the ending, where Freeze finds redemption by agreeing to work with Batman to cure Alfred.  It's the rare instance where the villain, who in comics is typically some kind of genius who "if not for..." would probably be of great benefit to mankind but instead is trapped in a loop of their worst impulses, actually steps away from their petty nonsense.

Granted, Freeze has very little left to lose.  He's already been defeated.  He's lost his wife (seemingly).  But Batman saved her.  And now everything he's been doing as a villain is actually...meaningless again.  So he can go back to what he was.  Which was actually a pretty nice guy.

Which, again, also saves Alfred's life.

So I love that.  Unabashedly.  A lot like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, if you mostly ignore the elements that don't work as well as its best elements, you end up with something pretty awesome.  Maybe it's harder to see with Batman & Robin.  But I've never really had that problem.

One last thing worth mentioning about it.  The soundtrack boasts the song "The End is the Beginning is the End" from the Smashing Pumpkins.  This song is awesome.  It was featured in the original trailer for Watchmen.  One of the best trailers ever.  Premiered in front of The Dark Knight.  That's a kind of redemption, too, isn't it?

This post was part of the Blockbusted Blogathon hosted by Girl Meets Cinema's Katy, which I learned about from the Geek Twins, who encouraged me to participate.  So you can blame them for this defense of a defenseless movie!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

#744. Overheard May 2014

Count me among those who won't be going.  I'd been living in New York a month when the attacks happened and saw the whole thing from my company's Learning Center, located on the Queens side of the East River, right across from the UN.  My "Prints, Plates, and Diagrams" class was on a break, so along with the rest of my class, I was down on the Center's back deck drinking coffee, enjoying what would otherwise have been one of the nicest days I'd ever spent in New York.  

I don't mind saying that the memory still haunts me.  I have absolutely no desire to relive it.
By the time the weekend rolled around, Hoboken was plastered with "Have You Seen This Person?" fliers.  They were on ever vertical surface in the Mile Square.  One poor guy lost his beautiful blonde wife or girlfriend.  I don't know the story.  But he kept putting those posters up for months and months and months.  I bet I saw her particular "Have You Seen This Person?" flier for a solid eight months after the attacks.  I still feel bad for that guy.
Anyway, that was a long time ago.  

I worked the phones for the telethon they held right after the attacks, and for awhile I jumped every time I saw a bunch of police cars rushing down the street to get anywhere.  But New York is eight million people and probably a million buildings, and for the most part, the City barely skipped a beat.  The Stock Exchange was out of lights for maybe four days, and I remember distinctly that when the mayor asked folks to go out and shop on Black Friday that year to help the City's economy, my mom came up, and we literally shopped 'til we dropped.  That was a pretty good day. 

Eh.  It's fine that they have a museum, but I think it's mostly for the tourists.  Anyone who was there won't need to see it to remember what it was like.
That's Dan Head over at Dan & Sally's Digital Domain reacting to the opening of the 9/11 Museum.  I've known Dan since 2006.  We both wrote about comics at the defunct Paperback Reader, and also overlapped at Digital Webbing (which is probably where we originally overlapped, in the message boards), so it was nice to reconnect with him in the blogging sphere.  9/11 is a subject that remains relevant to me.  Every time there's a piece of news concerning it (last week I read in the paper about the current status of unidentified remains) I still want to clip it and save it (which is what I did for years).  But I'm not a New Yorker (although, in some respects we're all New Yorkers since then), certainly not back in 2001.  That morning I was in a college dining hall.  Dan's memories are so much more...real.  I was fascinated to read his perspective years after the fact.  They're almost mundane.  I never really imagined it like that, what it was like to live there days, weeks, months after the fact.  The rest of us really only heard about the rescue efforts, the cleanup.  But those who lived with it...Anyway, just thought I'd send you some perspective.

Speaking of which:

I finally took a breath and dove into The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's doorstopper of a novel. It just won the Pulitzer Prize (like, a few days ago) and was also shortlisted for 2013's National Book Critics Circle Award, so go Donna! As with Chang-Rae Lee's novel, this was a coming-of-age story and chock full of adventure. Our hero, young Theo, goes through a delightfully Dickensian childhood full of misery and joy, hijinks and heartbreak ... just one damn thing after another. I adored the thrill ride, implausible as some of it was, but the ending was terrible. OK, so you know dramatic structure has five parts — exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement? It was all good until the denouement. When you get to that part, do yourself a favor and just stop reading. Because 90% of the book was excellent, I still recommend it. The ending doesn't kill the book, it's just boring.

I'm reading Goldfinch right now. I think the book lost the bulk of its momentum after Theo went to live with the Barbours. Tartt's best writing was easily her breathless opening sequence. So far she hasn't come close to recapturing it. And I don't much care for Boris, and I've gone ahead and saw that he comes back again. "Implausible" is a good way to describe the unnecessary sequence of histrionic events. Like a literary soap opera. 

I loved Boris! I really enjoyed the Barbours, too; and the bombing scene became almost unlistenable to me (possibly because it triggered some PTSD for me, but also because it was. so. incredibly. long.). We seem to have had opposite reactions to this book! :) But I agree that it is indeed a literary soap opera. 

That's from Stephanie over at Words Incorporated.  It's actually from the end of last month, one of several books she discussed for the Cephalopod Coffeehouse (yes, officially I'm no longer participating in that), then a response I made in the comments, and then her reply.  I finished reading it right around the end of that month, too.  Actually, "finished" isn't quite the word for it.  More like, "abandoned."  Because ultimately, I just never got back into it, once I realized I was no longer enjoying it.  The funny thing is, Goldfinch from Donna Tartt isn't really as random a topic to bring up along with 9/11 as you might think.  At the start of the book the main character finds himself in the midst of a terrorist attack in New York.  One of many things I would've changed about the book is that I would have just gone ahead and made it a 9/11 story.  It was all but one at that point anyway; I just didn't see the point in shying away, which is what I think Tartt did.  Instead it's just a random attack specifically on a museum, that's never really explained, just one of many inexplicable elements that the author uses to create unearned dramatic tumult.  Stephanie loved it, though, and as you can tell even a character who rubbed me the wrong way almost directly from his introduction, the wacky foreigner Boris.  But the thing is, she and I differ again, concerning the ending, and Boris is part of the reason I think Tartt managed to pull a late book redemption, because Boris actually finds some useful redemption as the story finally takes some shape after a lot of meandering through Theo Decker's life (which, as I said in my comment, was at its strongest in the opening sequence when Tartt's writing was at its sharpest and most focused).  But the contrasts between Stephanie's thoughts and mine, just serve to remind me that everyone's perspective is different.

Which is also what Dan's post made me realize.  But then, we all know that already, don't we?  I think we tend to forget that.  So this is a new feature where I will try and explore that, highlighting not just interesting things I've read, but thoughts that have made me think.  Because that's about as relevant as communal blogging is for me.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

#742. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was amazing

Spider-Man was my earliest favorite superhero.  As I got older, though, I came to realize that he didn't often have stories that lived up to the potential I saw in him.  It got to the point where I wasn't even sure what that potential was anymore.  The first couple Sam Raimi flicks from a decade ago were hugely popular, but they always kind of rubbed me the wrong way.  And I love Tobey Maguire, but I'm not sure Peter Parker was supposed to be so...dorky.  I think in hindsight those were as much Raimi flicks and the earliest attempts to keep superhero movies faithful to the comic book source material than anything I personally could really appreciate.

And yes, I was one of the few people to actually like Spider-Man 3, mostly because of how excellently Sandman was portrayed, one of the earliest true success stories in movie supervillainy.

So I was actually pretty excited when I heard about the Spider-Man cinematic relaunch a few years back.  I was already a pretty big fan of director Marc Webb.  (500) Days of Summer is easily one of my all-time favorite movies.  Andrew Garfield had also already proven a favorite from his appearance in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  There was also Rhys Ifans, whom I've followed since Dancing at Lughnasa (it's the movie where Meryl Streep is Irish, in the likelihood that you've never heard of it).  (Another note on Ifans was the wonderful juxtaposition of his appearance opposite another Peter around the same time in the SyFy Peter Pan flick Neverland.)  And I loved that finally someone figured out that Peter's story is intrinsically linked with the death of his parents.  The only thing I didn't love about The Amazing Spider-Man was that the villain becomes meaningless and almost spoils the whole thing once he actually becomes the villain.

The only thing wrong with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is what I can only conclude is studio interference.  I think this is more common than moviegoers think.  It was pretty clear in John Carter, for instance, the parts that seem blatantly Disneyesque.  I think this happens when the filmmaker maybe doesn't have enough clout to get things more or less exactly the way they want.  I'm even willing to believe at this point that Joel Schumacher, the great demon of the Batman franchise, was a victim of this, because it's so clear seeing the earliest scenes of Jamie Foxx's Electro the commonalities with Jim Carrey's Riddler, for instance.  Just the sort of thing studio executives think is necessary to make the end product kid-friendly.

Because otherwise this is a pretty dark picture, filled with foreshadow and foreboding, which began in the first installment of the rebooted series, made all the more clear by Denis Leary popping up periodically even though he's dead.  Because Peter Parker knows it's not just great power and responsibility anymore, but the danger to those he loves he needs to worry about.

Bottom line is, this is Marc Webb getting to make the superhero version of (500) Days.  That's what making really good smaller films gets you these days, the chance to replicate them as best you can in much bigger ones.  That's exactly how Christopher Nolan started out.  Maybe Webb is not exactly Nolan, but he's the next best thing.  He really is, and Amazing Spider-Man 2 is all the proof I need.  It's my new favorite movie based on a Marvel property.  Easily.  Easily.

The charm works all the way around.  Foxx eventually settles into the role, once he doesn't have to sell his character's weaker instincts.  It's the kind of role that reminds you that he used to be known as a comedic personality, just as Paul Giamatti's performance is a reminder that this is a guy who wholeheartedly throws himself into all of his roles, no matter what they are.  I once suggested that he could have taken up the role of the Joker after Heath Ledger's death.  And he easily could have.  Clearly Rhino is no Joker.  But he didn't have to be.  He's just a tease for what comes later.  These are movies that always have their pulse not just in the moment, but what comes later, sort of like Spider-Man himself (such as in the bravura moment where he saves dozens of people at the same time by figuring out how everything connects).

And I even love Emma Stone in it.  This is the first time I've really been able to say that.  I know she's adorable and all that, but she's normally so precious, as if she can't get past knowing how everyone thinks she's so cute.  Finally she's breaking away from that.  Who better than Webb, who was completely unafraid to throw romance under the bus at least once before?  Except Stone's Gwen Stacy knows better than anyone that happy endings can be complicated.

I love that the whole movie has its moving parts figured out.  It builds on and improves the legacy of Peter's parents, figures out where they fit in the mythology.  Maybe it's been done before.  But certainly not with anywhere near this prominence.  Even if the spider bite was an accident, it was still a matter of destiny.  And why anyone else trying to replicate it is doomed to fail.  I mean, there are two characters in this movie who are radically transformed.  They're as damaged as Peter was when his life was changed forever.  The difference is that he figured out a way to look outward.  Forget all those attempts to explain that he needed the death of Uncle Ben to become a hero.  Mistakes can be made, courses corrected.  But the strength of his character was always there.

This is a Spider-Man I can believe in.  It's the first time he truly looks authentic on the big screen, too.  Sure, they were able to make the character look convincing in 2002 (you believed a man could websling). It's not even just that Garfield is pitch-perfect with all his quipping, but that he's having fun, he's taking risks, he's going for broke.  And sometimes it doesn't work out.  But the strength of Spider-Man is that he always gets back up.  (I confess that I had some help realizing this from some of the recent comics, where Peter finally reclaimed, ah, his own body.  You really have to read those to understand what the heck I'm talking about.)

Assuming there isn't backlash from, um, everyone else's opinion of this movie, that it's a step back and a relative failure even at the box office, I want to see the next one really, really badly.  I want to see what Webb does next.  I want to see Peter meet Mary Jane.  (In hindsight it was absolutely the right move to cut her from this one.)  I want to see, by god, the Sinister Six.

Of course, regardless, I have this nearly perfect movie, and its predecessor, which shines brighter in reflection.  I love Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Shooks Run (Week 1) & A-to-Z Reflections

Join the reflections from the A-to-Z Challenge!
Shooks Run will be posted weekly for the remainder of the year and complete the story some of you may have been following in Eponymous Monk earlier this year, which kind of continued in April's Interrupting Cat feature for the A-to-Z Challenge.  Together, they finally complete a story I started writing back in high school, which has been given the title Zooropa (which is also the name of a U2 album).  I never knew how the story ended.  I stopped writing the story in high school, and stopped again when I tried to completely rewrite it in 2005.  So I'm glad that I've finally reached that point, and you hopefully might be as well by December (if you want to suffer that long!)...

(I can't pretend I made up Shooks' scale predicament.  Of course, Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll played around with that sort of thing, but it was Grant Morrison's modern classic Joe the Barbarian that served as my chief source of inspiration in that regard.  There's also the matter of dismissing Shooks as crazy.  Which is I'm sure how he ended up in the institution in the first place.)

Sunday, May 04, 2014

#740. May the Fourth Be With You

This is Star Wars Day.

Mainly because it's 5/4 and it sounds vaguely like something from the movies, but you know, it doesn't really matter.  I think people generally like Star Wars.  (Understatement alert.)  Although I've been looking at a book in a bookstore (it is still a thing) from a critic celebrating reviews he wrote back in the late '70s/early '80s and his only remarks on Star Wars are completely dismissive.  For some critics, you can never admit to liking something popular.  Then again, the only reason anyone ever hears about anything is that it is in some sense popular.  But I digress.  I don't mean to beat up on that unnamed critic.  His larger point is that he relished the days when it was okay to write at length about movies in reviews, which is clearly something I do myself sometimes.

And I could write at length about Star Wars again.  I could write about the prequels (which I unabashedly love) or the new movie that's coming down the pike (ooh! shiny cast photo that's been making its way around the Internet!) or the Dark Horse adaptation of George Lucas's original script (final issue being released this Wednesday, folks).

Or I can just make a vow to watch at least one of the movies today.  I think I can do that.  Hopefully.  I've been watching Star Wars my whole life.  I think I will still be able to say that in five years, ten, twenty, however long I've got.

Because I love Star Wars.  So may the geeky reference be with you!


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