Saturday, August 25, 2012

It Came From The Cineplex: The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dictator, The Dark Knight Rises, Total Recall, The Campaign

You've been warned.

The Amazing Spider-Man
Director Sam Raimi released the first of his Spider-Man movies in the incredibly distant year of 2002. That was only ten years ago, for you non math nerds. So we're remaking ten year old movies now? That seems a tad too soon. Next we'll be remaking films while they're still in the theater.

There was absolutely no reason to start over at square one in this movie. Many internet accounts (which of course are always 100% accurate) state that Sony was displeased with Raimi's work on the third film and also felt that Tobey Maguire had become too long in the tooth to play Spider-Man. Fair enough. So hire a new director, recast Peter Parker, call this one Spider-Man 4 and be done with it.

That certainly would have been preferable to forcing us to sit through Spider-Man's origin yet again. Is there really anyone out there who doesn't know his story by now? Or anyone who wants to see it again? Doubtful. If Sony absolutely felt the need to rehash his origin, the least they could have done was do so in a five minute prologue or through a short flashback.

You know the plot by now: Nerdy kid becomes a super-hero and has to learn to use his powers responsibly. Meanwhile someone he knows becomes a villain and threatens his city and loved ones, and it's up to him to stop them.

The operative word in this film is coincidence. Pretty much everything that happens is the result of coincidence and convenience. Peter walks into his basement for the millionth time but this time just happens to find his late father's briefcase, which coincidentally contains an equation that will complete the life work of Dr. Curt Conners, who just happens to work for OsCorp. Peter's crush Gwen Stacy also conveniently works as an intern at OsCorp. Peter sneaks into the building and into a secret research room where OsCorp is coincidentally using genetically modified spiders to create some sort of organic super fiber. He's bitten by one of the spiders, which conveniently passes it's genetic code onto him. Later he develops a mechanical web shooter which uses the very same organic fiber material he coincidentally obtained from OsCorp. It becomes mind numbing after a while.

Credit where credit is due: Andrew Garfield makes a much better looking Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire did. Spider-Man is supposed to look like a thin, lanky kid, a look which Garfield pulls off brilliantly. I always thought Maguire was a little too thick and buff to be Spider-Man. On the other hand, he doesn't make as good a Peter Parker as Maguire. Garfield just doesn't look nerdy enough in his civilian guise.

Martin Sheen makes a decent Uncle Ben I suppose; Sally Field less so as Aunt May. They both seem way too young for the parts. Cliff Robertson sadly passed away, so I get the recasting there, but there was no reason not to use Rosemary Harris again as Peter's aunt.

This time out we've ditched the Mary Jane character and are going with Gwen Stacy. Emma Stone does an adequate job of portraying her, but she and Andrew Garfield have zero onscreen chemistry. Plus using Gwen Stacy as the love interest is an odd choice. If you know anything at all about comic history, you'll know that this relationship is doomed from the start.

Where the hell is J. Jonah Jameson? You can't have a Spider-Man movie without JJJ. Well, not a good one, anyway. Maybe the producers knew they'd never find anyone better to play the part than J.K. Simmons and just gave up.

The Lizard makes an OK villain I suppose, but once again we're treated to the "sympathetic bad guy who's connected to Spider-Man" trope that's been the hallmark of this franchise from the beginning. Every single villain so far has had some connection to Peter Parker, and has accidentally and unwillingly become a super villain. Just once can't we have a true villain who's just plain evil? Why do they always have to be forced into their villainous ways by outside circumstances? Why can't the Lizard just be a big evil asshole?

This new version of the Spider suit looks a bit better than it did in the previous movies, but I still think it's way too complicated and looks like it's made out of basketballs. It's supposed to have been put together by a high school student working in his bedroom. So why does it look like it was constructed by a team of skilled special effects artisans using professional sculpting and molding techniques? 

Did I doze off or did Spider-Man never find Uncle Ben's killer in this movie? I suppose they're saving that revelation for the inevitable sequel.

Looks like we're back to the mechanical web shooters, which I think is a good idea. I never bought the idea of Spider-Man having organic web shooters. The whole idea just seemed wrong from a physical standpoint, as well as downright gross.

• Andrew Garfield makes a great looking Spider-Man.

• Mechanical web shooters are better than organic ones.

• Andrew Garfield makes a less than satisfactory Peter Parker.

• A script riddled with coincidence, the crutch of the lazy writer.

• Starting over at square one tedious and unnecessary.

• Still not happy with the overly complicated spider-suit.

A totally unnecessary reboot of a franchise that's only ten years old. I give it a B-.

The Dictator
The latest from Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame. For the first time he forgoes the documentary style and goes with a traditional narrative. That's probably not a bad idea, considering that well was pretty much dry.

I very much enjoyed Borat, Bruno less so and honestly there's really not much to recommend here. I hate to say it, but I'm starting to get the feeling Sacha Baron Cohen may be a one hit wonder (in terms of his films at least).

The plot, such as it is, plays out like a cross between The Prince And The Pauper and Coming To America, except not as good as either. 
Cohen portrays a dictator who, as the result of an assassination attempt, is left homeless and penniless in New York City. He then has to find work and survive until he can figure out a way to reclaim his position.

Overall it's a pretty grim affair, with very few laughs.

The one bright spot comes at the end, and is almost worth the price of admission (provided you see the film at the second run theater as I did). Cohen makes a speech (no doubt modeled after Charlie Chaplin's speech in the 1940 film The Great Dictator) in which he tells the assembled UN dignitaries that dictatorships aren't a bad thing. It's a very telling and very relevant speech; it's just too bad we had to sit through so much dreck in order to get to it. For the record, here's the speech:
Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1% of the people have all of the nation's wealth. You can help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wire tap phones, you could torture foreign prisoners, you could have rigged elections, you could lie about why you to go war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group and no one would complain. You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interest.

I know this hard for you Americas, but please try. I will tell you what democracy is. Democracy is the worst. It is talking and listening to every stupid opinion and everybody's vote counts no matter how crippled or black or female they are.
• A couple of genuine laughs, but they're few and very far between.

• Great speech at the end, but alas it's not enough to save the film.  

• Pretty much everything else.

It deserves a D, but I'll be generous and give it a C- for the final speech.

The Dark Knight Rises
The biggest and most anticipated movie of the summer: the Batman movie with fifteen minutes of Batman in it.

I have a confession that's not going to be very popular with the internets: I am not a fan of Christopher Nolan's bat-movies. 

There. I said it. Let the flaming and hate mail begin.

It's not that I hate the movies. Far from it. I recognize that they're well made, well written and generally well acted. But for whatever reason they just don't do anything for me. I have no emotional attachment to them. I can quite literally take them or leave them. 

Why don't I much care for them? It may be that I'm growing weary of Batman. This is, after all, the SEVENTH Batman film we've had since 1989. I may be just a little Batmaned out. Or it could be that I've just never been a Batman fan. Other than the Adam West TV series of the 1960s, I've never really cared much for the character. I like SUPERheroes. People with amazing powers, like Superman or the Flash. Batman's just a guy. He doesn't have any powers. Anyone could be Batman, if they applied themselves.

But I think the biggest reason I'm not a fan of the Nolan movies is that they're just no fun. In his attempt to ground the movies in reality as much as possible, he's drained every last potential drop of fun from them. Compare this film to this summer's The Avengers. The Avengers movie was the most fun I've had at the theater in many, many years. The sight of seeing so many of my childhood heroes come to life on the same screen and in the same story made me squeal with fanboy glee. 

Compare that to this movie, in which I sat stone-faced throughout, shifting uncomfortably in my seat and checking my watch to see if we were nearing the end of the eight hour running time.

Anyway, this movie ain't gonna review itself, so let's get it over with, shall we?

The cast of Inception stars in The Dark Knight Rises, directed by auteur Christopher Nolan. You can tell this is a "serious" superhero movie, because they don't say Batman in the title. He's the Dark Knight.

Eight years after the last no-fun movie, Batman has retired and there's now inexplicably no crime in Gotham City. Something about the Harvey Dent bill, which now strikes so much fear in the criminal element that they'd rather play it safe and stay home and watch Pawn Stars. Seriously. 

Catwoman, who is never once called Catwoman during the entire nine hour running time, flits around the city stealing jewels and whatnot, like a cat burglar (hey!). She meets Bruce Wayne while stealing his mother's pearls from his safe. By the way, unlike the Julie Newmar version, this Catwoman doesn't wear cat ears. She's got the skin tight unitard down, but god forbid she wear cat ears. Laws, no. That wouldn't be realistic, don't you see? Instead she wears some kind of goggles that when flipped up sort of look like cat ears if you squint. Ah, that's much more realistic and fun!

I will give her credit though and say that the movie picks up considerably whenever she's onscreen. She brought a breath of fresh air to the otherwise dreary tone of the film. Too bad she didn't have more screen time.

There's also a cop named John Blake who as a child once saw Bruce Wayne and made the incredibly intuitive leap of correctly guessing that he's Batman. He "saw it in his eyes" or something. Oh, and at the end of the movie we find out his name is really Robin and it's strongly implied he'll take over the Batman mantle. Hey Nolan, I thought you said you wanted these movies to be realistic.

Then of course there's Bane, a hulking villain on steroids who wears a Darth Vader mask and, in a shocking twist, speaks quite eloquently, like a Rhodes Scholar. When we can understand him, that is. Half the time I had no idea what the hell he was saying. Anyway, Bane has this brilliant plan to blow up the bridges leading into Gotham City, effectively isolating it from the rest of the world (which I guess doesn't have airplanes, helicopters or submarines) and then hold it hostage with a makeshift atomic bomb... with a five month countdown! I sh*t you not. He gives the government or the Pentagon or possibly the Girl Scouts five months to meet his demands or Gotham gets destroyed. Five months! 150 days! Wow! Now that is realistic! Remember how all those real world terrorists always give us five months warning before they blow up buildings? No? Neither do I.

Oh, and Bane also fights Batman in an epic hand to hand battle that should have been jaw dropping, but made me snore. I've seen more exciting slap fights! Then Bane breaks Batman's back, but not really, and even though they're in Gotham he somehow dumps him in a prison pit somewhere on the other side of the world. Bruce lays there feeling sorry for himself for a while, watching the HDTV flatscreen in his cell (seriously!), then a fellow prisoner literally slaps a protruding vertebra in his spine back into place, instantly healing him. Because that's how back surgery works, dontcha know. Realism!

Bruce then summons the power of a montage and regains his former strength, climbs out of the pit, fights Bane again and gets stabbed by his girlfriend. Yes, even though he wears a suit of Kevlar-ish armor, his girlfriend somehow stabs him in the gut with her penknife. I think somewhere along the way Not-Catwoman shoots Bane in a very anticlimactic manner. In fact his death was so anticlimactic that afterward I had a hard time remembering what happened to him, and had to look it up on the interwebs. Then Batman recovers yet AGAIN and flies the five month old bomb out over the sea, seemingly perishing as it explodes.

I would have been more than happy if Batman would have actually died at the end of this movie. It would have made a nice end to the no-fun trilogy and given some much needed emotional weight to this film. They could always bring him back and reboot the franchise in a couple of years. But Nolan couldn't resist being coy and dropping hints that Batman is still alive. The capper was when Alfred sits down at a cafe in France or somewhere and sees a totally not dead Bruce Wayne having coffee with Not-Catwoman. I actually groaned when I saw that scene. I half expected to see Alfred look down at the table and see his totem spinning merrily away. Kill him or don't, you can't do both.

I know, I've been pretty hard on this movie. Honestly it's not quite as bad as my smart-assery would have you believe. Ah, who am I kidding, yes it is. Try as I might I just don't care for these films. Thank god they're over, so DC can reboot the franchise and maybe make a new series that's a bit more fun.

• The Inception cast does a good job here as always.

• Not-Catwoman brightens up the proceedings but is sadly underused.

• Batman appears for all of fifteen minutes in his own movie.

• Bane might have been a more terrifying villain if he didn't sound like someone doing a wheezy and unintelligible bad Sean Connery impression.

• Ridiculous plotting. A bomb with a five month long timer? Curing a broken back by slapping a protruding disk back into place with the palm of your hand?

• Why does Batman bother to wear a mask, on the rare occasion he shows up? Virtually the entire cast of the movie intuits his true identity well before the end. 

• "He's dead. Or is he?" ending, which torpedoes any emotional weight the scene may have had.

Overlong, overwrought, underwhelming and ultimately just no fun. I give it a C+.

Total Recall
The Total Recall remake asks the burning question: Is there a God, and if so, why does he allow his children to suffer so by letting Hollywood issue remakes such as this?

It is my considered opinion that 99% of all remakes are completely unnecessary. This one is so utterly and completely unnecessary that the word doesn't do it justice. We need a new word to adequately describe its unnecessaryness. SuperMegaUnnecessary perhaps?

The original movie was over the top and fun, like a pulp science fiction novel come to life. This remake hits all the same beats but of course manages to wring every drop of fun out of them (just like the Dark Knight Rises!).

Don't believe me? We don't even get to travel to Mars in this film! The entire thing is earthbound. No aliens, no ancient alien technology, no terraforming, nothing. Just a guy with a faulty memory running around Earth for two hours.

The plot, such as it is: It's the future, and the Earth has become so poisoned by chemical warfare or hairspray or something that the only two habitable areas left in the world are England and "The Colony," better known to us as Australia. Colin Ferrell lives in the slum-like Colony but travels every day to his job in England (don't ask), where he builds RoboCops (I'm not kidding). And you thought YOU had a rough commute! He decides he's bored with his life, despite the fact that he's married to the incredibly hot Kate Beckinsale. What is he, an idiot? Why yes, yes he is, as we'll soon come to find out.

To alleviate his boredom he goes to ReKall, a service that implants fake memories into your brain for a price. He chooses to have the super spy memory package, only to discover that apparently he already is a super spy whose memory has been erased. The rest of the running time is pretty much one long drawn out chase sequence as his superiors want to get him back in order to restore his true identity while he tries to avoid this.

And that's pretty much it.

The film looks good, I will give it that. The depiction of a vast and futuristic megacity looks good in a Blade Runner-y way, but... it somehow feels cold and soulless. The original Total Recall was one of the last big budget Hollywood movies to use traditional old school special effects-- models and matte paintings and such. This one is all obviously computer generated and just doesn't have the same feel. I know, get off my lawn. 

Apparently at some point in the future, Australia, er, I mean The Colony, becomes mainland China. The majority of the extras in the Colony scenes appeared to be Chinese, 90% of the storefront signs and billboards are in Chinese, the architecture and interior design look Chinese... I'm not sure why they didn't just say it was China.

This film tries to hit all of the same beats of the original version, but sadly the wonderful sense of weirdness that permeated the first one is absent here. The original gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing an unforgettable fat lady suit that split apart to reveal him inside. This one makes us think we're going to see something similar by including a heavy woman in a yellow coat, but then instead switches gears and gives us Colin Ferrel wearing a malfunctioning holographic facial projection collar. Wow, that was... unexciting and bland.

The original also gave us the infamous three breasted prostitute, as well as Kuato, a philosophical mutant who was really a parasitic twin living in the gut of the man who is presumed to be the leader of the rebellion. The remake does give us the prostitute, but her appearance is puzzling to say the least. In the original she was a mutant who lived on Mars, whose condition was caused by cheap domes that let in too much solar radiation. Here she has three breasts because... I'm not sure. I suppose she could be a mutant here as well; a tragic victim of the chemical warfare? If so it's never mentioned during her literally five seconds of screen time. Maybe it's futuristic cosmetic surgery? Whatever the reason for her appearance, the writers feel it's none of our business as it's never explained. She seems to have been included for no other reason than boobies.

Sadly, there's no Kuato, just Bill Nighy in a trenchcoat. Seriously.

Why even bother including these bits and pieces from the original if you're just going to normalize them into mediocrity? Did they realize there was no way they were going to be able to top a squishy parasitic twin so they just threw their hands in the air and said, "Screw it, just put a normal guy in there."?  If that's the case, then why remake the stinkin' thing at all?

The centerpiece of stupidity in the film though has got to be The Fall. As previously mentioned, war and toxic waste have made the Earth uninhabitable except for England and Australia, er, sorry, The Colony. As a result, the downtrodden people of The Colony get up every morning and commute to their jobs in England by... hold onto something... riding a giant elevator through the center of the Earth.

I am having a difficult time describing just how monumentally stupid an idea this is. Ed Wood wouldn't have come up with something this dumb on his worst day.

We could sooner transport the entire state of Rhode Island to Mars than build something like this cockamamie elevator.

First of all, even if the Earth was solid rock all the way through, which it's not, it would take centuries, perhaps even millennia to dig a shaft through the center of the planet (and of course we're told that the film takes place "near the end of the 21st Century"). The Earth is big, you know. You'd have to tunnel through around 7,900 MILES of rock.

But the Earth isn't solid rock. It's got a molten, liquid core. A liquid core that's under unimaginable pressure. How would you build an elevator shaft through what is basically molten lava? There's no substance on Earth that could withstand the heat or pressure. How would you insulate your workers from the heat (around 12,000ยบ F) and radiation while they built the thing?

Plus we're repeatedly told that this is a world that's been ravaged by an economic collapse. How exactly does a society that can barely feed itself pony up the dough for an elevator through the center of the Earth? Where did the machinery, materials and manpower come from? A project like this would cost trillions. Maybe more. 

Not to mention little details like where is all the material they excavated from the shaft? Generally when you dig a hole you're left with a corresponding pile of dirt. Did they haul it out to the uninhabitable zones? Dump it into the sea? Is there a 7,900 mile high pile of dirt nearby?

Credit where credit is due: they did manage to get one small part of The Fall right. When the elevator reaches the center of the Earth, everyone inside experiences weightlessness. This is what would really happen, as the mass of the Earth pulled at you equally from all possible sides. So see, screenwriters, it is possible for you to do something right. You just forgot (or ignored) the parts about heat, pressure and deadly radiation.

In short, such a project is impossible, plain and simple, now and forever. I know what you're thinking, it's sci-fi and I should lighten up. It's called suspension of disbelief. But you can only stretch your belief suspension so far before it snaps like a dried out rubber band. That's what's happening here. Sci-fi, good sci-fi, needs to have a grain of possibility at its core. This is like having characters breathe in outer space or sunbathe on the Moon. 

• Sigh... I guess the production design was OK, if a little too Blade Runner-y.

• Another absolutely pointless remake.

• All the fun of the original has been drained.

• Many of the same characters and set pieces from the original are here, but are very weak and pale imitations.

• The Fall is hands down the dumbest sci-fi concept ever. 

Poinltess, needless. lackluster and dull. I give it a C-.

The Campaign
Will Farrel and Zach Galifianakis star in The Campaign, directed by Jay Roach of Meet The Fockers and Austin Powers fame.

The plot: North Carolina congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell) is seeking his fifth unopposed term, when Marty Huggins (Galifi... nackus) appears out of nowhere to challenge him.

I don't have a lot to say about this movie. The political satire and commentary are not as sharp as they could have been, but overall it's not a bad film. It has quite a few laughs and is better than most of the so-called "comedies" I've seen recently.

One thing I did notice: Galifianakis' character here (the goofy, sincere, slightly effeminate schlub) seems very similar to others he's played in recent films. Whether that was the choice of the studio (give 'em more of what they like) or if that's just the limit of his range, I have no idea. It would be nice to see him try a different type of character next time. 

Surprisingly, Will Farrell isn't nearly as annoying here as I usually find him to be. See, Will, I knew you could do it!

• A decent comedy with some genuine laughs.

• Timely, in this interminable election year.

• Hey, a movie that doesn't appear to be a remake! How rare.

• It would be nice to see Zach Galifianakis try a different character for a change.

Probably won't win any awards, but it was a decent comedy. I give it a B.


  1. This movie stank on ice. I agree with you. Can the villain please be villainous? How about Mysterio as the villain and a wall-to-wall library jazz soundtrack like in the 1967 cartoon? Also, no love interest. Give the lovelife a rest.

  2. Heh. A couple years ago, before they decided to reboot the series, I came up with what I thought was the perfect plot: Dr. Conners experiments on himself and becomes the Lizard and goes on a rampage. Then Kraven the Hunter arrives in New York, determined to bag the Lizard as his latest trophy. Spider-Man then has to try and stop them both before they destroy the city. Would have been better than what we got this time.

    And you can't have a Hollywood movie without a love interest. It's the law!


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