by ANDY DURSIN
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Even if the Summer of 2012 hasn’t generated a truly groundbreaking picture so far, it’s been a good one overall, marked by quality studio fare for the most part – and a few notable flops (the Tom Cruise musical “Rock of Ages,” Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy” and the hideous-looking Steve Carrell picture “Seeking a Friend For the End of the World”). In addition to THE AVENGERS and PROMETHEUS (previously reviewed here and here), here are some of my thoughts on the season’s big pictures to date.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (**½, 136 mins., 2012, PG-13; Columbia): After three “Spider-Man” blockbusters (even the unfairly maligned third installment took in nearly $900 million worldwide), Sony made the surprising decision in 2009 to pull the plug on a “Spider-Man 4" with the same creative team (director Sam Raimi, stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst). Instead, the powers-at-be opted to not only recast the characters, but to stop the series altogether – and restart it from the very beginning, including a retelling of Spider-Man’s origin. It didn’t matter that all three films were huge hits and the last sequel was released just five years ago – the right move in their mind was wiping the slate clean and pretending that 2002 was the stone age for most viewers.
That very curious decision is one of the core issues of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a film that ultimately doesn’t have enough of a fresh perspective to justify this reboot’s approach. Despite having a lot of good things in it, the movie – likely due to the participation of writers and production personnel from the prior series – has the strange feeling of the Raimi films without Raimi’s involvement, causing a serious sense of deja vu throughout.
What does work is the central casting of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, who here is – once again – back in high school, and who – once again – gets bitten by a genetically enhanced spider while touring Norman Osborn’s high-tech science facility. This Peter is a sensitive sort who stands up for the little guy – even if it means being beaten up by some of his peers – and whose adroitness at science enables him to engineer a high-tech spider suit (designed by Cirque du Soleil!) after his powers kick in. Peter also finds out (I know, you’ve seen this all before) that he has a moral responsibility to do the right thing – a lesson that Parker learns the hard way when beloved Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is gunned down in an incident involving a petty thief that Peter himself could’ve avoided. Meanwhile, villainy is served up by Curt Connors, aka The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), an Oscorp scientist who tries to regenerate dead human tissue (including his own arm) but only ends up transforming himself into an awkward looking, dinosaur-like humanoid who wants to seek vengeance on all of humankind.
Director Marc Webb, coming off “500 Days of Summer,” brings a fresh visual sense, at least, to “Amazing,” with NYC looking like the real thing and not a CGI-enhanced cartoon city like we’ve seen in so many of these super-hero films. John Schwartzman’s capable cinematography is effective, and James Horner’s sensational score is the best Marvel soundtrack to date, offering a lyrical, heroic theme and plenty of emotional underscoring for Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), one of Parker’s high school classmates, who serves as this film’s requisite female lead. Alas, other than hair color, there’s not much separating her function to the story from Mary Jane’s part in the prior pictures, though Garfield and Stone – currently a real-life couple – generate sufficient chemistry together.
The script, credited to James Vanderbilt (who wrote the unproduced Raimi “Spider-Man 4"), Steve Kloves and series veteran Alvin Sargent, is much more of an issue. The script fares best with heartfelt, emotional moments between the characters, but can never shake the tedium of the film’s bloated first hour, which essentially hits the same dramatic beats as Raimi’s original Spidey, some more effectively (Uncle Ben’s death) but others not as well (Peter testing out, and adapting to, his new powers). Ultimately, the film doesn’t give viewers any good reason why it had to start over with another “origin movie” – simply recasting the roles and moving forward (as the James Bond and Batman films did for many years) would’ve been a wiser move. Even then, however, the Lizard isn’t very interesting in terms of a villain, and the larger plot element of Peter finding out what happened to his dead parents is completely unfulfilled by the movie’s finish.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” does have several well-executed set-pieces in addition to its fine performances, which rank as the picture’s most satisfying element (Denis Leary is also terrific as Gwen’s father and C. Thomas Howell chips in his most significant supporting turn in years). Ultimately, the picture lays the groundwork down for a new series that hopefully will find its footing the next time out – minus the narrative baggage this installment was unwisely saddled with.
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (***½, 142 mins., 2012, PG-13; Universal): In stark comparison to the frivolous Julia Roberts vehicle “Mirror, Mirror” is this lavish, entertaining fantasy adaptation of Grimms’ fairy tale, one that’s managed to become one of this summer’s bona-fide hits.
Kristen Stewart is Snow in this dark, compelling version from first-time feature director Rupert Sanders and writers Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini. In their decidedly more serious take on the subject, Snow’s father is murdered by her new stepmother (Charlize Theron), who promptly imprisons his daughter until she’s able to break free and seek refuge in the dark forest. Needing her back, alive, Theron’s Queen sends a washed-up huntsman (“Thor”’s Chris Hemsworth) after her, though he questions her motivations -- as well as his own -- after he runs into the young heroine.
Happily eschewing the CGI’d green-screen approach of so many other, recent genre films, “Snow White and the Huntsman” benefits enormously from its real-world UK location shooting. The film looks like an actual, lived-in environment, and its “realistic” visuals are matched by equally strong performances, especially from Theron (in one of her juiciest roles) and Hemsworth, who does some nice work in a scene with the cursed Snow late in the film. For her part, Stewart does as much with the character of Snow White as the script allows – I bought her in Snow's empathetic scenes with the natural world, but she doesn't really have much to do in comparison with the other leads. There are also the dwarves, here played by a collection of character actors CGI’d to smaller proportions (Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Ray Winstone among them), but the film doesn’t do nearly enough with that concept as it should have.
The plot itself is surprisingly rich and traditional – not in terms of it being a fairy tale, but rather an old-fashioned fantasy-adventure – and is backed by impressive cinematography, costumes, and a satisfying mix of character and action. Sanders draws you in and lets the film breathe, and while there are CGI beasts, the film’s emotional draw is human – rather than technical – in nature, and ends on a particularly satisfying beat (with a robust James Newton Howard score). Even more satisfying than the likes of “Willow” and “Dragonslayer,” this “Snow White” is a surprisingly good "revisionist" take on nearly every level.
TED (***, 106 mins., 2012, R; Universal): Seth MacFarlane, creator of TV’s “Family Guy,” leaps into features with this warm-hearted, raunchy yet not excessively crude comedy which took the box-office by storm in late June.
MacFarlane voices a big, fuzzy teddy bear who improbably comes to life as the Christmas present of a young Boston boy in the 1980s. The two grow up together and share in all of life’s experiences – but by age 35, Ted’s now-grown best buddy (Mark Wahlberg) is a pot-smoking slacker who can’t entirely commit to his gorgeous girlfriend (Mila Kunis) or get ahead at his job. Kunis, aware of Ted and Wahlberg’s tight bond, delivers an ultimatum for the two to quit their hazy days forever watching 1980's “Flash Gordon” and get off the couch and make something of themselves. This includes Ted moving into his own apartment and working at a local supermarket, while Wahlberg has to contend with Kunis’ sleazy boss (Joel McHale) and Ted’s constant yearning for one more big party.
“Ted” is most definitely R rated but the film, happily, is more than just 90 minutes of bodily fluid jokes. Unlike “The Hangover” or even your typical episode of “South Park,” the sexual content is mostly mild, with most of the big laughs coming through MacFarlane’s love of all things ‘80s – from Wahlberg crooning John Barry’s “All Time High” from “Octopussy” at Boston’s Hatch Shell or “Flash” himself, Sam J. Jones, appearing in several hilarious scenes. Personally I found the Tom Skerritt material to be particularly funny (although I think my wife and I were the only ones laughing at the sold-out screening we went to), and any film that ends with narrator Patrick Stewart trashing Brandon Routh and “Superman Returns” is tops in my book.
What is most surprising, though, about “Ted” isn’t that it’s mostly funny – it’s that the film has an engaging, likeable story line. It would’ve been easy for MacFarlane and fellow “Family Guy” writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild to simply parade out a features worth of irreverent stuffed-animal jokes, but “Ted” has a heart, and a focus more on the friendship between the characters than an interest in trying to outdo movies like “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids” on the raunch quotient. Wahlberg and Kunis work well together, and even though a subplot involving creepy Giovanni Ribisi (apparently incapable of playing anything other than sleazy/creepy characters now) doesn’t entirely work, “Ted” is an upbeat, fun directorial debut for MacFarlane, who branches out from his small-screen work in some unexpected, and satisfying, ways.
MOONRISE KINGDOM (***, 94 mins., 2012, PG-13; Focus): Wes Anderson's films are an acquired taste and it's been a while since one of his films connected beyond his core group of fans. "Moonrise Kingdom", however, is easily one of his sweetest and more accessible pictures, a visually captivating tale of two young teens (Kara Hayward and Jared Gillman, both making impressive feature debuts here) from a fictional coastal New England community in the '60s who seek to run away from their environmental confines (the girl from a pair of bickering parents played by Frances McDormand and Bill Murray; the boy from a foster home that's already said they won't be taking him back). As the two depart on their adventure, the townspeople – including her parents, a police chief played by Bruce Willis and the boy's camp scout master (Ed Norton) – go off in search of them.
As always, Anderson brings his idiosyncratic flourishes to "Moonrise Kingdom," which was almost entirely shot here in Rhode Island (some of it within walking distance of the Aisle Seat offices) in a movie with some evocative cinematography, offbeat touches (plenty of Benjamin Britten, on-camera narration by Bob Balaban, even some old school miniature effects from Fantasy II), terrific performances from the young cast, and a magical tone that's hard to dislike. Not all of it works – the story of the adults isn't nearly as interesting as the kids, there's no payoff to McDormand and Murray's thinly drawn characters, and portions of Alexandre Desplat's score are irritatingly repetitive – but it's often enchanting, and thankfully not as impenetrable as some of Anderson's other works.
MEN IN BLACK 3 (***, 106 mins., 2012, PG-13; Columbia): Having not been a big fan of the original “Men in Black” or its terrible 2002 sequel, this belated third entry in the series comes as a pleasant surprise.
Here, Will Smith’s Agent J finds his world being altered, wiping out the entire existence of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) along with it. As it turns out, an extraterrestrial menace has broken free from a prison on the moon, gone back in time and terminated K’s life back in the ‘60s. In order to save the galaxy and his partner, J heads back in time and meets with a younger K (Josh Brolin, brilliantly mimicking Jones’ mannerisms and delivery) in order to stop the vile Boris the Terrible (Jemaine Clement).
The first two “Men in Black” films got by due to the chemistry between the stars, although I found both pictures to be hollow, one-joke pictures that relied too heavily on special effects. Despite a great deal of trouble behind the scenes with this third installment (production had to be shut down for several weeks while the script was reworked), “Men in Black 3" relies more strongly on its characters and what turns out to be a poignant story line as opposed to a neverending succession of wacky aliens and make-up FX. The film does have – as cliched as it sounds – a lot more heart than its predecessors, with Smith seeming more engaged, Brolin giving a lively performance, and Michael Stuhlbarg chipping in a particularly noteworthy role as a benign, Mork-like alien who spends his life perpetually analyzing possible future outcomes.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld helms the material without as much of a frenetic hand this time around – something that might disappoint viewers expecting a larger and louder sequel, but a decision that makes for a more satisfying and developed dramatic experience than its predecessors.
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