Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why It Doesn't Work: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a movie that really should have been incredible. The visuals are stunning, it has a top-notch cast with excellent chemistry, and the score is just weird enough to be fascinating. However, an extensive overabundance of plots and poor editing choices drag the whole piece down. Marc Webb expressed his wishes to build the film around Gwen Stacy's death and the theme of time, yet so many storylines diverge from this purpose that by the time the fateful scene occurs, the viewer is already fatigued.

Electro is a villain one feels was chosen mostly to look really cool, and he does, yet pretty action sequences do not a memorable villain make. Even before he becomes Electro, Max Dillon is ridiculously unhinged. The audience is meant to believe he is intelligent enough to have designed an entire power plant; however, he makes only poor decisions and is often hallucinating. Also, electricity fixing the gap between his front teeth? What?

While Electro is more intriguing once he becomes a villain, Green Goblin is far more fascinating when he is still the dying Harry Osborn. Dane DeHaan makes what could be a fairly one-note character crackle with a mix of compassion, genius, and deviance. Yet for all of his purported intelligence, he apparently knows there is a healing exosuit in the Special Projects department of Oscorp, and chooses to risk spider venom instead for no reason.

This lack of thought permeates the characterizations of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker are both hyper-intelligent, yet they make downright baffling decisions throughout the movie. They make a joint bad decision in breaking up near the start of the film, especially when one factors in the implication that they have been getting together and breaking up repeatedly since the close of The Amazing Spider-Man. So many movies are about unresolved couples that it would have been a much fresher take to simply make Peter and Gwen a happily together team. However, Peter's worst choices of the film take place in the final battle against the newly-transformed Green Goblin.

One of the most iconic scenes in Spider-Man's history is the death of Gwen Stacy. In the comics, the Norman Osborn Green Goblin throws her from a bridge and Spider-Man's web-catch is so abrupt that her neck is broken. In that case, there really was no better alternative. In the movie, there are multiple times where he has the opportunity to save Gwen from falling down within the clock tower setting, yet he still cannot prevent the web from snapping quickly enough to save her. Perhaps the writers intend it as a commentary on the futility of life, but it seems more likely that the new writing team somehow forgot that in the first installment, Spider-Man's web shooters could retract the web he shot provided it was still attached. He could have pulled Gwen toward him immediately or at least placed her on the walkway clearly shown on the inside of the clock tower.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Why It Works: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man is a slightly different type of superhero film. It is not primarily about Spider-Man - who does not appear fully within the movie's first fifty-four minutes - instead focusing on the man beneath the mask, Peter Parker. Though most superpowers or powered suits are extensions of the users, Spider-Man has an entirely different outward personality from Peter. To pull this off, the writers had to focus extensively on the human characters in order to rouse the support and sympathy of the audience.

 Peter is very approachable, yet standoffish enough that he does not easily make friends. He is striking while generally blending in. Note that Flash is mean to him only because Peter treats him like he is inferior, and that is only because Peter wants to save others from Flash's bullying by making himself the target. As Peter purges his frustrations through his deeds as Spider-Man, he becomes more of a visible high school presence (in multiple ways) and shifts his wardrobe from heavy layers to T-shirts. His superhero persona allows his anger and dejection to be lessened, initially through vigilantism and later through his accepting his role as a heroic figure. One gets the sense that without an outlet, Peter would be a mopey, lonely teen. Another major factor in his personality growth is his relationship with Gwen.

 Gwen Stacy is a likable female protagonist and a woefully uncommon one. She is extremely intelligent - top of her class, Oscorp intern, first seen reading Vonnegut - while being feminine and flirtatious. This even extends to her wardrobe. Instead of high heels and high-maintenance hair, she sports practical boots and pulled-back 'dos. Rarely do movies feature heroines brighter than the (super)heroes, Harry Potter's Hermione being the most famous example. Gwen's position as an intern to Dr. Connors also allows her to be integrated into the main conflict in an organic manner.

Dr. Curtis Connors is probably the most complex character amidst the proceedings. His back story is one of loss like Peter's, yet those he has lost and his methods of coping are very different. Where Peter turns to heroism, Connors shifts to villainy that he believes is heroism. Peter is haunted by the deaths of his parents and later uncle; Connors has driven his wife and child away due to his fixation on his missing right arm. He still wears his wedding ring and (a questionably canon) deleted scene reveals that he has a young son. His fallible humanity spurs his transformation into Lizard, which manages to walk a fine line between evoking empathy and revulsion.

Lizard has regenerative capabilities, making a battle against him nearly impossible to win. He can be temporarily halted by freezing, yet Spider-Man cannot defeat him while his serum is still working. Spider-Man must rely on evasion in Lizard's underground lair, during the school fight, and in the skirmish on Oscorp Tower's roof. Instead of the typical hand-to-hand or weaponry melee, ASM's action sequences rely on blocking and escaping, with a lot of webs expelled and swung upon. While this could be tiring, the changes in location and strategy keep each scene unique while allowing classic comics-Spidey poses to emerge. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Connections: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is one of the more divisive wide releases in recent memory, a befuddling canvas of six intertwined and still separate tales. The movie is a love/hate affair, but the point of this article is not to pick sides. Here, I'll compile some of the numerous connections between stories and characters to give a fuller view of the worlds inhabited in the film, yet first the nature of this particular book-to-film adaptation must be pointed out. 

For clarity, the six stories begin as follows in the film:

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: Pacific Islands, 1849; Lawyer Adam must battle a parasitic worm while also aiding escaped slave Autua. Adam's goal is to be reunited with his wife Tilda in San Francisco. (approx. 20 minutes of screen time)

Letters from Zedelghem (changed to Edinburgh in the movie): Cambridge, 1936; Wayward composer Robert Frobisher leaves lover Rufus Sixsmith to work with once-famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs. (approx. 20 minutes of screen time)

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: San Francisco, 1973; Rufus Sixsmith enlists Luisa to help uncover bad dealings with the Swanneke nuclear reactor. Luisa meets Isaac Sachs and he immediately feels that he could love her. (approx. 27 minutes of screen time)

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: London, 2012; Timothy publishes a book by a criminal that becomes unexpectedly popular after an awards dinner gone awry. Facing the threat of his author's violent brothers, Timothy is tricked into signing himself into a rest home by his brother Denholme as revenge for sleeping with Denholme's wife Georgette. He also laments his lost love Ursula. (approx. 25 minutes of screen time)

An Orison of Sonmi~451: Neo-Seoul, 2144; Sonmi~451 is a fabricant Papa Song's dinery server influenced by free-thinking Yoona~939 and later taken away from her slavery by anti-Union revolutionary Hae-Joo, who she falls deeply in love with before becoming a symbol of free thought and rebellion. (approx. 37 minutes of screen time)

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After: Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall; Farmer Zachry's family takes in the more advanced Meronym. He must escort her to the ominous Mauna Sol while fighting his personal demons in the form of Old Georgie and avoiding raiding cannibals. (approx. 32 minutes of screen time)

            As a book, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is structured idiosyncratically. Readers go through the first half of five stories, the entire sixth story, and the endings of the preceding five in reverse order. The movie ditches the approach and shows each narrative in no particular order and in differing chunks of time for maximum emotional impact. However, the biggest changes from the novel come in the alterations of stories five and six. The first four stories are in essence love stories in both mediums, though it is only in the film that five and six have been heavily rewritten to shape romantic love stories. The fifth story, that of Sonmi~451 and Hae-Joo Chang, pulls this off handily and becomes the most effective fable of the movie. Also notably, the sixth story's main "soul" - denoted by a comet birthmark - is Prescient Meronym in the book and Valleysman Zachry in the movie because each version has a completely singular conception of the traveling and rebirth of souls. Book-Meronym and Zachry have a large age gap between them and are together in the end facing uncertain fates and much death. Movie-Meronym and Zachry are close in age, and end up married and living on a foreign planet together.
Actors in the film play multiple characters each, but there is a lot of inconsistency as to what this practice actually intends to convey. For instance, in three of the stories Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are intimately involved (Journal, Letters, Ghastly Ordeal), yet they do not interact at all in the other three. Jim Sturgess is present in all six accounts, while Doona Bae only appears as his intended and destined love in three of them (Journal, Half-Lives, Orison). Perhaps the most careless issue arises when each actor is implied to have reincarnated between each tale, though Bae appears as two separate entities in Luisa Rey's segment. However, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving are villainous in all six pieces. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why It Doesn't Work: Kick-Ass 2

Kick-Ass is a film that is very dear to me. It was released in 2010 and - along with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Tangled - it proved that a movie could exist as entertainment and as a work of art. I was less than a month over seventeen that April and Kick-Ass was the first R-rated movie I attended without a parent. 2010 was the year that I finally decided to become a Film major in college, so I was inevitably hyper-critical of the sequel when it opened in 2013. Unfortunately, Kick-Ass 2 does not in any way live up to the legacy of its predecessor. A strange paradox is present in the sequel, a movie that can't decide whether it wants to be a clone of the first film or a different beast entirely. It fails on both fronts. Some argue that it is very similar to the comic book source material (it is), which would be acceptable only if it were not also meant to function as a sequel to the excellent (and comics-deviating) first film.
            A lot of series have specific styles. In every James Bond film, he will get in a fight, drive a fancy vehicle, and sleep with a sexy woman. Every Twilight movie has multiple minutes of people staring ( and each installment of The Lord of the Rings features a battle. Kick-Ass is a hyper-violent action comedy and this is not an easy genre crossover to master, though writer Jane Goldman and writer-director Matthew Vaughn manage it with technique to spare. The sequel places all of the characters in the shaky hands of writer-director Jeff Wadlow and his success with the subjects is dicey at best. His grasp on the darkness of the comics' story is steady, yet his visual flair does not reflect the meticulous color-coding of the first film.
            In Kick-Ass, villain Frank D'Amico has an orange office and bright tie to match. In 2, Chris D'Amico's lair is all gray. This lack of splendor permeates the film, even down to the costumes. In the first film, Hit-Girl's wig is bright violet and fits with the overall vibrancy. In the sequel, her wig is a washed-out duller purple and an unintentional indicator of the movie's general lack of excitement.

Kick-Ass strikes a somewhat uneasy balance of action and humor and usually comes off as successful in both arenas, by making the violence simultaneously realistic and heightened and portraying the characters as funny in dark and geeky ways. Everything feels likely while ringing as amusingly artificial. Kick-Ass 2 is gory though the combat is mostly uninspired and the fight scenes would seem right at home in any generic action picture of the last thirty years. In 2, you will find no bazookas, no magically locking semi-auto magazines, and next-to-no humanity.
            Audiences last saw Mindy Macready, a.k.a. Hit-Girl, ready to knock out the school bullies at the end of the first installment. In the second, she is picked on for absolutely no reason by a crop of Mean Girls wannabes. In the biggest deviation from the source comics, Mindy does not threaten her tormentors until after she has already been publicly humiliated on a fake date. Mindy has done nothing to draw ire from these teenagers. She is not shown to be a loser or a misfit, just a regular high school student. It is as if Jeff Wadlow was preparing her for her role as Carrie and simply forgot to give her any undesirable characteristics. Likely coincidentally, Carrie and Kick-Ass 2 have eerily similar shots of Chloe Grace Moretz's eyes unnaturally dilating. 

On the other hand, Kick-Ass 2's fatal flaw is not in its divergences from the first film; 2 fails in its misguided desire to essentially be a clone of its precursor without replicating the wit. The first scene in 2 is a nice homage to the first movie, but the attempts to duplicate should really have ended there.