Friday, January 2, 2015

Heroes and Misfires

The Amazing Spider-man 2: based on comics by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, Ross Andru, and others; written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt; directed by Marc Webb; starring Andrew Garfield (Spider-man/Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Jamie Foxx (Electro/ Max Dillon), Dane DeHaan (Green Goblin/ Harry Osborn), Sally Field (Aunt May) and Chris Cooper (Norman Osborn) (2014): Not a complete misfire in the tradition of Batman and Robin or Ang Lee's Hulk, but also not a particularly good movie. 

Sony's desire to stuff in a whole bunch of crap about the Sinister Six didn't help things. Neither did trying to deal with both Electro and Harry Osborn's transformation into the Green Goblin into the same movie. Nor did all the ridiculous, exposition-heavy crap about Peter Parker's parents, their hidden Laboratory of Solitude, the Osborn family disease, Gwen Stacy's interview with Oxford University, and so on, and so forth. The whole goddamn thing ends up feeling like the second season of a TV series condensed into a sporadically draggy 2 1/2 hours.

You might want to watch it at home over two or three nights. You might also wonder why the film-makers turned C-list Spider-man villain Electro into a combination of Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan and Jim Carrey's version of the Riddler in Batman Forever. That's some nice borrowing, boys! Oh, and Gwen Stacy dies at the end. It was a bad idea in the comics in the early 1970's, and it's a bad idea now. God forbid superheroes just break up. Not really recommended.



X-Men: First Class: based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others; written by Brian Singer, Sheldon Turner, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Zack Stentz, and Ashley Miller; directed by Matthew Vaughn; starring James McAvoy (Professor X), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw), Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggart), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), January Jones (Emma Frost), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), and a cast of thousands (2011): Competent, occasionally plodding origin story for the X-Men of the 1960's. That it didn't gross enough money is why we got X-Men: Days of Future Past and not X-Men: Freshman 15 or X-Men: Second Class

This isn't really a movie where one suspends one's disbelief to believe in superpowers. It's more of a movie where one suspends one's disbelief so as to believe that Michael Fassbender would age into Ian MacKellan, or James MacAvoy into Patrick Stewart. It's completely ridiculous, but we go with it, along with Rebecca Romjin starting off as Jennifer Lawrence, because one must do as one needs must when the Devil vomits in one's tea kettle.

The whole thing plays out as a counter-historical spy thriller set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, only with more mutants. A lot of the story's events rely on people with super-powers either not using them at all, or not using them against the people they should use them against. They stand around a lot, these mutants, or they move frenetically and with lots of noise. There's really no middle ground. And how the screenwriters, all four hundred of them, managed to turn Moira MacTaggart from a geneticist into a CIA agent must make one hell of a writers' room story. Lightly recommended.


Cuban Fury: written by Jon Brown and Nick Frost; directed by James Griffiths; starring Nick Frost (Bruce Garrett), Chris O'Dowd (Drew), Ian McShane (Ron Parfitt), Rashida Jones (Julia), Alexandra Roach (Helen), and Olivia Colman (Sam Garrett) (2014): Delightful romp from Nick Frost and company. Frost plays a former teen-aged salsa dancing prodigy whose love for the dance was destroyed by bullies. 25 years later, he gets a crush on his new boss (Rashida Jones), who turns out to be a salsa dancer herself. So Frost's character goes back into training.

It's all somewhat familiar in its plot beats, but Cuban Fury's subject matter (salsa dancing? in England? with Nick Frost?) makes the whole thing zing. The writers give the characters decent lines to say. And for all the focus on bullying, the movie views most people as benevolent. Having Ian McShane as the grumpy salsa instructor is some sort of casting genius. And having Chris O'Dowd play against type as a complete jerk also pays dividends. Recommended.


Despicable Me: written by Sergio Pablos, Ken Daurio, and Cinco Paul; directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud; starring the voices of Steve Carell (Gru), Jason Segel (Vector), Russell Brand (Dr. Nefario), Julie Andrews (Gru's Mom), Will Arnett (Mr. Perkins), and Kristen Wiig (Miss Hattie) (2010): Jolly animated foray into the world of super-villains is far better than the vast majority of live-action superhero movies. And it makes about as much sense. Steve Carell's bizarrely accented super-villain Gru is hilarious, the three girls he adopts as part of his nefarious plan to steal the Moon are adorable, and Gru's seemingly infinite supply of yellow-skinned, semi-robotic minions are scene-stealers (which is probably why they'll soon have their own movie). Highly recommended.

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