Monday, October 20, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

A quick glance at Tom Cruise’s recent projects might give the impression that his career is slumping. Jack Reacher, Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow all struggled to build a large audience in this country and didn’t match their reported budgets. Is the once bankable star losing his clout? Yes and no. It’s true that Cruise hasn’t been able to open a big movie in the U.S. without a connection to a larger franchise like the Mission Impossible series. That’s more of a symptom of current trends than anything else, however. Will Smith has also discovered that star power isn’t the currency it used to be. The worldwide box office is a different story, however. Oblivion more than doubled its domestic take in other countries, and Cruise is the main reason it sold well overseas. Franchise properties like Marvel have taken over here, but we’re just a modest part of the growing market around the world. 

I mention this topic because it helps to clarify the progression of Cruise’s career. He knows that his films will do well in other countries, so he can pursue unique projects. This isn’t more experimental fare like Magnolia, but it’s hardly mindless trash. Despite being a rich star with strangely young looks, Cruise conveys an everyman quality. The 52-year-old actor rolls out the winning smile in Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s undercut right from the start. Major William Cage is a cowardly military public affairs officer who sells the war yet avoids the conflict. His attempts to charm General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) put him on the front lines for certain death. This never would have happened to Cole Trickle! It’s interesting that our hero is hardly the courageous sort who will do anything to save the world. He’d rather blackmail someone than go near the fight. There’s plenty of room for growth for Cage, and that keeps him from being a one-note dullard.

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow

The story opens with a montage of news that introduces us to the situation of the Mimics threatening Europe. The barrage of clips is a clever way to introduce the setting without spending too much time on it. We don’t need to know every detail of how the enemy works or what happened earlier. Guillermo del Toro employed a similar strategy with Pacific Rim, but this approach works even better in setting the stage. The action moves briskly and barely takes a breath during the 113-minute running time. Edge of Tomorrow is directed by Doug Liman, and he used a similar approach with The Bourne Identity. Both films pack a lot of action and humor and don’t cross the two-hour mark. It’s a pivotal skill that should have been employed in bloated movies like The Amazing Spider-man 2. Liman recognizes the need to dive into the material without an unnecessary build-up.

It takes very little to get me excited about time loop stories, especially those that use the Groundhog Day premise. If done well, they can offer an interesting combination of ingenuity and humor. When Cage finds himself repeatedly dying in the same battle, it’s a scenario with no easy answer. Many have made the comparison to playing a video game, and I can’t think of a better description. Cage is playing a game with no continues and must start over every time. It’s like having to start at the beginning of the maddening NES Castelvania level with the Grim Reaper. What keeps this movie from getting tired is the humor, which finds the fun in watching Cruise keep dying. When Cage tries to be an action hero and roll under a moving truck, it’s fitting that he’s run over in his first try. He might knock a fellow soldier out of harm’s way, but he gets killed instead. Despite the significant amounts of death and destruction, there’s an airy feeling that’s hard to get right. Bill Paxton adds to the fun as a patriotic sergeant who hams it up to just the right level.

Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman

Another factor in the success is the work of Emily Blunt, who plays the film's real action superstar. Rita Vrataski has experienced a similar loop, and her no-nonsense attitude is just what Cage needs. She’s ready to pull out a gun and shoot Cage at a moment’s notice, and there’s great fun in watching her act so decisively. The highly entertaining training montage includes repeat examples of her penchant to shoot first and ask questions later. Blunt brought a similar weight to her role in Looper and is even stronger here as the ultimate warrior. The semi-love story doesn’t feel out of place because Cage has spent so much time with Vrataski. The hints at a similar partner during her loop also give them a unique connection. She understands what he’s experiencing and has developed the hardened shell to combat regrets about her failure to save the day. Cage is hardly the best guy to receive this gift, but it’s their only chance to avoid complete destruction.

Despite the fun approach, Edge of Tomorrow includes harrowing war footage that gives a believable portrait of the chaos. The Mimics appear out of nowhere, and death is only seconds away. The camera throws us inside the battle and rarely provides a warning before death arrives. Even with the futuristic weaponry, humans can do little against the agile foes. The creatures strike with tentacles and inflict major blows in a heartbeat. How can anyone defend against them? The best choice is to run, but that move offers little chance of survival. We rarely get a clear look at the Mimics, which adds to the mystery of the nearly unstoppable beings. How can you defeat an enemy that’s always many steps ahead of you? Of course, they also have a trump card for understanding human tactics.

The Alpha Mimic in Edge of Tomorrow

It’s unfortunate that Edge of Tomorrow didn’t find a larger audience. Most critics raved about it, but the unfortunate title and better-known competition led to the disappointing crowds. Warner Bros. emphasized the tagline “Live. Die. Repeat” to the cover to diminish the importance of the original title. The movie is based on the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and that title remains the best of the three options. I can understand why it wasn’t used by the studio, however. It sounds like the name of a cool genre movie instead of a summer blockbuster. Regardless of its initial results, this film should continue to build its reputation during the next few years. It’s hardly a throwaway blockbuster and delivers great entertainment that few big releases have matched this year.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon - Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

It’s been interesting to watch how the second phase of Marvel films has moved into more distinctive genres. The first installments created the universe and introduced us to familiar super heroes like Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. This world-building was important to the success of The Avengers because we knew the main characters. For Phase 2, the heroes could live more in their natural environments. Thor: The Dark World ventured into fantasy territory with dark elves, stone aliens, and more otherworldly beings. Iron Man 3 focused on Tony Stark and seemed bored with the typical robot fights. The game changer for Marvel this summer was Guardians of the Galaxy, which proved that you didn’t need household names to draw huge crowds. Tucked in the middle was a conspiracy thriller that cranked up the paranoia and packed a serious punch. Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrived in April and delivered an engaging mix of suspense and charm that far exceeded the genre.

What’s surprising is how engaging Chris Evans is as Captain America. He brought heart to the role in The First Avenger, but I didn’t expect him to work this well. Evans’ career includes an early performance as the Human Torch in the unfortunate Fantastic Four films and as a man with special abilities in Push. He’s comfortable within a big action film and makes the stunts believable. He’s also grown into the kind of guy who can sell the smaller moments, particularly with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. They spend the second act on the run in a story that wouldn’t feel that out of place in a Hitchcock film. Thankfully, there’s no romance to sidetrack the plot. Evans makes it easy to root for the hero, who recognizes shady justifications from his own government. The bureaucrats have drawn the wrong conclusions from recent crises, and evil schemes lurk behind the scenes.

An obvious connection to ‘70s films like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men is Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. He brings immediate weight as a government official who doesn’t share the love for Captain America. It’s clear that he’s hiding something, and Redford’s scraggly face presents a guy who’s won his share of battles. Samuel Jackson also gets a larger role as Nick Fury, and he thrives in it. Despite the lack of alien invaders or giant monsters in this film, you get the sense that the stakes are even higher. The menace comes from within our own systems, and fighting it may be impossible. I’ve yet to mention the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), an assassin who ensures the enemy’s success. He’s a flipside of the coin from Captain America and has become a deadly weapon through genetic enhancements. Their hand-to-hand fights are more down-to-earth and have added relevance because they were best friends during World War II.

This film also helped to dramatically improve Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That show was floundering creatively, and its connection with The Winter Soldier led to a stunning turnaround. Instead of just making a few minor references, the series occurred simultaneously with the movie’s timeline, and the results were a big surprise. I saw the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes before this film, and it spoiled plot points yet failed to diminish my enjoyment. It’s been interesting to watch the show act as a sequel and continue the Hydra story line into its second season. Captain America may stop the villains in the movie, but the struggle is far from over. I love the idea of an ongoing story that drifts from movies to television and remains interesting. If there’s any way to get Chris Evans to drop onto the small screen, it would be worth the effort to maintain the momentum.

The Winter Soldier was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who’d made their name on shows like Community after directing Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree. They craft a world that has giant airships yet relies more on practical effects. A standout moment takes Captain America and Black Widow into an old S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker in New Jersey to face off with an evil computer. The set design of that location recalls an analog era of giant computers hidden away in underground sites. It’s a clever moment that springs from an old spy serial with the consciousness of a villainous German doctor (Toby Jones) predicting their doom. The stakes are high, but there’s a sense of fun about this adventure. We aren’t living in Man of Steel or AS2 territory in this thriller. Our heroes are constantly on the run from all types of bad guys, and discovering whom to trust is a consistent challenge.

One friend is Sam Wilson, who’s revealed as the Falcon thanks to some high-tech military weapons. Anthony Mackie seems more comfortable than Don Cheadle playing a sidekick in the comic book world. The entire cast looks energized by getting more material than staring at a green screen. It plays to the strengths of guys like Redford and Jackson to get long monologues as all is revealed. Marvel’s had a remarkable year, especially because many looked past The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy to The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It will take a quite a lot to surpass these films, which rank among the most entertaining releases of 2014. They’re different yet recall the best aspects of the summer movie season. Despite its April release, this film deserves that label and is one of the better recent blockbusters. I’m intrigued to see where Captain America will go in a third film.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s remarkable to note how expected Marvel’s success has become during the past five years. They bring out several new films a year, and the bar just keeps getting higher in terms of crowds. Thor: The Dark World is considered one of the weaker films creatively, yet it’s still earned more than $600 million worldwide. Can anything stop the Marvel juggernaut? One major hurdle arrived in August with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy. Although well known to comic book fans, its characters were not household names like Captain America and Iron Man. Gigantic hits rarely arrive this late in the summer; audiences are typically worn out after three months of explosions. Few were expecting Guardians to become the year's number one movie, but the hints were there if you dig a little deeper.

We’re living in a dreary world for blockbusters. Our super heroes do more brooding than cracking jokes, and decimating major cities is par for the course. The visual effects may be spectacular, but it’s hard to get too excited about this serious material. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Christopher Nolan found a way to keep his Batman films away from becoming too portentous. It takes quite a lot of skill to pull off that trick, however. What this summer needed was a space adventure! In retrospect, a romp across the galaxy with a ragtag group of misfits was a surefire fit. The Marvel cache brought people in the theaters, but it was the word of mouth that took this film to the stratosphere. The raves came from both audiences and critics, who recognized the skill behind the goofy antics.

I hate to diminish the skill that’s needed to pull off this type of adventure movie. There’s a fine line between delivering a fun, offbeat experience and a tonal misfire. The past few decades are filled with films that strove mightily to deliver this type of hybrid. The infamous Howard the Duck had clever gags but couldn’t sell the oddball narrative. I mention that film for several reasons, including a surprise appearance in a post-credits scene. Beyond that connection, it also couldn’t make us take Howard seriously. Director James Gunn has possible obstacles to bypass with Guardians, particularly the standout Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a big tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). What’s refreshing is how easy it is to accept both in this universe. One reason may be the remarkable makeup effects work from David White, but good writing doesn’t hurt either.

Chris Pratt as Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy

Another challenge is star Chris Pratt not being a household name, but it just takes a few moments to sell him as the lead. He has such a relaxed presence on screen as Peter Quill (aka Star Lord) that we’ll follow him anywhere. He’s a bit of a mess as a Ravager yet finds a way to skirt out of dire situations. Abducted from Earth as a child, he’s tied to our planet through a cassette of old-school pop songs that plays constantly on his ship and Walkman. The choice to use tunes like Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Feel in Love” is pivotal to setting the right mood. There’s a sense that anything can happen and we aren’t playing by the normal rules. When Quill uses “O-o-h Child” by Five Stairsteps and tries a dance contest to distract the stern villain Ronan (Lee Pace), we’re far from Man of Steel territory. That scene is hardly a throwaway and comes during the final fight to save the planet Xander, and it feels right despite the high stakes.

There are plenty of precursors to Guardians, with the most obvious one being the original Star Wars. The idea of outsiders coming together for a common goal springs from a much earlier time than that 1977 film, however. It’s a common theme of adventure stories yet feels fresh in the right hands. A more recent ally is Serenity, which has a similar mix of high stakes with one-liners and space action. That movie is more grounded and focused on humans, yet it shares the fun that’s often missing from big-budget material. It’s certainly no coincidence that Joss Whedon is so involved in the Marvel universe; The Avengers also shares this airy feeling to the action set pieces. Guardians takes that approach to a different level yet doesn’t fall into self-parody for the most part. The final act risks becoming too big to keep us engaged, but the characters still run the show. They’re involved in a classic heist with a ticking clock, and the fate of millions hangs in the balance.

Karen Gillan as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Another key factor in the success is the look, which is filled with bright colors, giant ships, and inventive aliens. This is not the muted world of blues and greys from The Amazing Spider-man 2. There’s plenty of green screen work, yet it meshes well with the digital effects to deliver colorful and unique worlds. The costumes from Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth, The Avengers) set up the good and evil characters just right. Lee Pace wears a massive black outfit that makes Ronan appear so imposing that he nearly dwarfs everyone beneath him. A nearly unrecognizable Karen Gillan (Amy Pond from Doctor Who) is all metal and darkness as the evil Nebula. Chris Pratt wears a bright maroon jacket as Quill that brings to mind the cool of Mal Reynolds and Han Solo. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora has a similar dark outfit to Nebula, yet her green skin and red hair differ so much from the grim look of the villains.

Gunn co-wrote Guardians with Nicole Perlman, though he’s going out of his way to dismiss her involvement. It’s impossible to know how much of her original script in on the screen, but it’s distressing to note how strongly Gunn’s making his case. Perlman’s the first female writer that’s been credited on a Marvel film, and the issues seem to be coming more from him than the studio. Would it really be that bad to just accept that both contributed to its success? Regardless of this murky situation, Gunn’s comic sense plays a key role in why the movie works. It’s filled with jokes, yet there’s a linear plot that connects together. We’re flying along for the ride with this mismatched group through a high-tech prison, a dangerous alien marketplace, and other locations before we reach the final battle.

Michael Rooker in Guardians of the Galaxy

It’s easy to imagine a studio chief wanting little to do with a film starring a raccoon, a tree, and other aliens. Bradley Cooper’s unrecognizable voice does wonders for Rocket Raccoon, but the real star is Groot. He’s a tree of few words, yet Vin Diesel finds ways to make each “I am Groot” delivery feel different. When you add in memorable parts for the massive Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly, and Benicio Del Toro, it’s more than a star vehicle. There’s even a random appearance from Glenn Close as a government official. Unlike some other superhero franchises (i.e., Batman v. Superman), I’m excited to see a sequel with these characters. That’s a rare feat and shows just how much fun is present within this film. It sidesteps the Marvel formula and creates something that feels unique and truly alive.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #30

I’ve been shifting the attention of this blog during its fourth year. The marathon structure makes it easy to look back at classics, but I’ve been spending more time with recent films. I’m still a few months behind the conversation in most cases, yet it’s enjoyable to at least have a better gauge on the latest releases. There are still huge blind spots to check off the list, and I won’t be disregarding those landmarks from the masters. Even so, staying afloat with the wave of new films has been rewarding. Video on demand has made it easier to keep up, and I’m going to continue using it to keep on track. There’s no way to catch everything, but the gap isn’t as large as previous years. We’ll see if that trend continues as the big-time fall movies keep dropping as we head towards the end of the year.

Here are some interesting blogs and podcasts that are worth your time:

It seems like much of the goodwill that Lost generated during its six seasons died after the finale. The conversation focuses so much on how the show ended that it forgets the successes. That situation makes it even more refreshing to read Andy Greenwald’s excellent post for Grantland. His piece is more than just a look back at the successes of the groundbreaking series. Instead, he focuses on the lessons that broadcast networks should learn from the creative and commercial success of such a great show.

I’ve been a long-time Denzel Washington fan, but watching him spend time in clunkers like Safe House is frustrating. He’s getting more commercial success, yet the characters feel beneath his talent. In “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Denzel?” for Slate, Aisha Harris documents his progression towards more action vehicles that don’t make the best use of his talents. I agree that he’s still giving solid performances for the most part, but there’s a limit to how much you can do in The Equalizer. Harris offers some good ideas that might help Denzel to dig into more challenging roles in the near future.

The right use of pop music can elevate a good scene towards cinematic greatness. What’s surprising is how even a mediocre song can work so well in the right situation. The Dissolve has dug through many of the best examples for their list of the 50 greatest pop music moments in movies. It’s hard for me to put anything above “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, but I can’t argue with their top pick. There’s a nice mix of the expected choices along with some that I don’t know or wouldn’t have predicted. You can waste a lot of time digging through all these classic moments.

I’ve been a fan of film critic Karina Longworth since her time on the SpoutBlog, a site that’s long gone. She recently appeared on The Cinephiliacs to discuss a wide range of topics, including her recent books on Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. She’s also started the podcast You Must Remember This, and it’s been receiving rave reviews. I still need to check out that show, but I doubt you can go wrong if you’re interested in the Hollywood history.

Linda Holmes made waves last year when she called out the sexism on Survivor in her great piece “The Tribe Is Broken: How Sexism is Silently Killing Survivor.” The KQED Pop blog has added to this conversation with a new post titled “Survivor: 14 Years of Problematic Depictions of Women”. It shows the different categories that women are placed into on the show in most seasons. There are exceptions to these rules, but it’s hard to argue that the show gives women a fair shake on the whole.

Emma Watson is becoming a strong voice for feminism.

Emma Watson has sidestepped any type casting and continues to tackle interesting roles. She’s also outspoken away from the screen and recently gave a fascinating speech about feminism. Unfortunately, those comments have made her a target from online trolls. Her recent speech at HeForShe 2014 is a fascinating statement that proclaims why feminism is good and important. She also describes how men are damaged by the lack of equality for women in our society. I’ve been a Watson fan because of her acting for a long time, but this brave speech makes her even more important beyond her characters.

Here’s an excerpt from her statements:

I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less “macho”—in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either. 

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

What makes a film worthy to win Best Picture? It’s a silly question and essentially meaningless given the politics, but it comes to mind when thinking about Brokeback Mountain. The 2006 awards season pointed to an Oscar win for the Ang Lee film, and it was stunning to watch Crash bring home the prize. Given all the votes involved in choosing the winner, it’s problematic to read too much into the Academy’s choice. Regardless, their pick has not aged well and frequently appears on lists of the worst Best Picture winners. That may not be fair to Paul Haggis’ film, but it’s no stretch to say that nominees like Good Night, and Good Luck and Brokeback Mountain have had longer staying power. The fact that the latter was chosen for my Blind Spots series gives a clear indication of where it stands.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as cowboys that meet in 1963 and strike up a romance. Ennis and Jack are the stoic men of a different era and wouldn’t seem out of place in the Old West. They’re living in a modern culture that forces them to scrounge for odd jobs to make ends meet, however. Mainstream society isn’t ready to accept them as a couple. It’s a culture of fear where discovery can lead to more than ridicule. Being different can lead to a brutal death, and there’s little these guys can do. Ennis recognizes the situation and pulls so far within himself that he barely exists. His words come out as quiet grumbles, and there’s little joy to experience. Jack is more up front and willing to take chances, but that creates its own set of problems. Across the decades, they get married and have families. Daily life is misery, and only the short “fishing trips” give them the respite to keep living.

Michelle Williams as Alma in Brokeback Mountain

Lee’s film focuses on the absence of happiness and how it damages these men. They try to live a normal life by society’s standards, but memories of the brief meetings aren’t enough. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and has two beautiful daughters, but the joys are few and far between. Instead of providing comfort, the kids are screaming obstacles. We don’t see the happy moments for the girls, and things only get worse once Alma discovers his secret. It’s frustrating to watch them try to confine to social norms because it just creates stress and anger. Ennis drinks too much and walks meekly through his home, and his demeanor only changes when Jack arrives. It’s a rough experience for him but just as bad for Alma, who quietly endures his lack of interest. Williams does a brilliant job showing the sadness that keeps growing until their inevitable divorce.

There’s less time spent with Jack and his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), but there are subtle hints of their downward spiral. Lureen is a force of nature in her first appearance as a rodeo rider and has one of those giant personalities that can’t be contained. There’s less excitement from her after they marry, and she’s reduced to sitting behind an adding machine and watching their money dwindle. It’s a sour life that isn’t in the same condition as Ennis’ marriage but is hardly thrilling. Adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, the screenplay from Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana shows the negative impact on more than Jack and Ennis. They’re forced to try and adapt, and it just leads to pain for everyone.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee

Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Alberta, and the incredible scenery creates a classic feel. Ennis and Jack can be themselves in these isolated spots, though staying there forever is a fading dream. These shots contrast sharply with the constrictive moments at home. We feel trapped inside the houses right along with the characters. The camera moves closer and gives the impression that the walls are closing in around them. The final scene at Ennis’ trailer makes it feel like he’s living inside a small box. The wide-open spaces of nature may be right outside, but he remains within the cramped home. The Oscar-winning score from Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel) plays in the background as Ennis recalls happier times. The promise of freedom is still there, but it’s been lost along with his friend.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: "Water" and "Earth"

Stargate Universe's season one episode "Water"

One deep breath and you’re dead.” - Young

Although it uses a serialized format, SGU separates its early episodes with a new problem to solve each time. There’s a different challenge in “Water”, but it feels like a direct sequel to “Air, Part 3”. The obvious reason is the return of the dust bugs, but there’s also a structure that appears a bit too similar to the earlier episode. Destiny is losing water at an alarming rate, which forces Young and Scott to make a daring mission onto a dangerous planet for more. Time is running out for the duo, and unexpected challenges put Scott’s life in jeopardy. Despite a familiar pattern, there’s still forward movement for the characters and interesting moments to consider. They’re figuring out how to work together and stumbling along the way, yet there’s a growing confidence from the mismatched group.

This week’s planet is “the Hoth System” (as Eli cleverly paints it), and it’s the first use of the ancient space suits. Young and Scott are clad in the heavy dark suits, and they’re hardly designed for easy movement. Unlike most worlds in SG-1, these planets aren’t the best for human survival. It’s another way that SGU moves closer to reality yet still presents an outer-space environment. There are difficulties at every turn in the quest for ice, and Scott’s dire situation feels inevitable. This planet offers valuable resources but isn’t the type of place you can stomp around without some obstacles. The down-to-earth problem of getting water in a poisonous world fits with the show’s less flashy approach. It’s a challenge to keep this style from becoming too dry for even the most engaged viewers, however.

Alaina Huffman as TJ in Stargate Universe's "Water"

The most interesting aspect is the leadership role for T.J., who showed those skills versus Telford immediately after they arrived. She’s willing to make the tough choices to battle the dust bugs, even when the search kills one of their own. Gorman’s death is startling given the lack of violence thus far. We’ve seen little blood despite the dangers facing them, and watching him get engulfed by aliens that were initially considered harmless is quite a shock. T.J. connects with Greer and has enough military knowledge to earn his respect. She’s down to earth and tells him the truth, and that’s all it takes with a guy with little patience for chicanery. Instead of sitting around hoping that Scott and Young make it back, T.J. and Greer take charge and solve the situation on the Destiny before time expires.

Unlike its predecessor, “Earth” takes a different approach and focuses on the situation at home. Eli, Chloe, and Young meet up with family and friends out of their past life. It shows how much they’ve changed since they left, especially with Chloe. Her shallow friends come off as ridiculous, uncaring idiots more concerned with status than people. Telford and his young scientists are trying a daring move to get everyone home from the Destiny, but that’s secondary to the story on Earth. The script from Martin Gero relies on the fact that we’re interested enough in the characters to stick with them away from the ship. Gero is an SGA veteran who penned many of its trademark episodes, but his writing fits just fine in this universe. He injects light moments that focus less on the big issues.

Richard Dean Anderson as Jack O'Neill in SGU's "Earth"

Richard Dean Anderson returns again as Jack O’Neill, and his conversation with Young puts an interesting take on the heroic moves in SG-1. A guy who once disregarded orders to do the right thing can do little but watch Telford jeopardize them all with a foolish plan. There’s much left unsaid by O’Neill that reminds us of the guy we once knew. He might seem out of place in this complex world, but it’s possible the character has adjusted because of the official position. O’Neill struggled with staying at home in SG-1’s eighth season, and it doesn’t get any easier the further way he gets from the action. Young’s admiration for O’Neill and move to stand by his people is no surprise and shows his disregard for career advancement. This connects to Young’s reconciliation with his wife during this trip. Despite being in Telford’s body, he showed enough honesty and remorse to win her back. Of course, their reunion is fleeting because of the obvious fact that he’s millions of light years away.

The communications stones offer an opportunity but also create new challenges for several reasons. First of all, there’s no guarantee the person won’t do something indiscreet while inhabiting that body. Young has sex with his wife but is using Telford’s body, and some glitches put Telford back inside his body at a highly inopportune time. It’s the type of scene that could bring laughs, but the final shot of Telford visiting Young’s wife shows that it isn’t a joke for him. Chloe and Eli go to a Janelle Monae concert on Earth, and she gets very drunk and kisses him in the other body. It doesn’t go anywhere and reinforces their status as just friends, but it’s interesting how the different bodies affect them. Eli dances with an attractive girl and loves it, though it happens because of his handsome exterior.

David Blue and Elyse Levesque watch Janelle Monae in SGU's "Earth"

The other barrier with the stones is the opportunity they give people like Telford to reach the Destiny and  gain control. He doesn’t understand the situation and believes the mess is caused by poor management. Young has faced dire situations and just recorded a video for a dead crew member, and it’s a miracle they’ve survived. “Earth” gives the clear sense that the officials at home don’t believe the Destiny is a great discovery. Instead, they treat it like a nuisance that must go away to avoid bad PR. The worst is the IOC representative Carl Strom (Carlo Rota), who only cares for the political opportunities. He uses Wray to make their plans happen, but it’s a hollow offer to gain control. Despite the chance to visit family, this episode makes a strong case that the stones cause more problems than they solve.

The first batch of SGU episodes focuses on just trying to fulfill basic needs aboard the Destiny. Titles like “Air” and “Water” are clear indicators of the situation. The next phase begins with “Earth”, which digs further into the characters and sets up the ship as their long-term home. Rush creates a show to stop an awful plan, but it does more than save their lives. It also separates them further from Earth and eliminates the idea that rescue is imminent. The next step is finding a way to live together and overcome their differences, and that won’t be easy. Spencer, Franklin, and others are ready to revolt, and even Rush isn’t entirely trustworthy. Young’s choice to have Eli look into Rush’s findings (and spy on others) says plenty about their current environment. They’ve overcome huge obstacles and have plenty more ahead, but the greatest danger remains within their ranks.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: The Amazing Spider-man 2 (2014)

Spider-man floats towards New York in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

The first weekend in May has become the signal to audiences that the summer movie season has truly begun. We’re seeing recent changes that push this timing even earlier, but prominent releases still arrive in early May. It’s been the spot where all three Iron Man films earned huge box office returns and Sam Raimi’s Spider-man 3 blew away the competition in 2007. Sony introduced plenty of head-scratching when they decided to reboot the Spider-man franchise only five years later in 2012. They dropped the new version in early July, and it drew solid reviews and crowds. This set the stage for a much larger push for a sequel with a lot more at stake. The marketing push for The Amazing Spider-man 2 started rolling last summer and continued ferociously throughout the winter. It was easy to lose interest in the sequel months before its release because of the vigilant campaign. Following the gargantuan success of The Avengers, the stakes had reached a new high for every superhero franchise.

Did Sony over reach with its marketing? The constant news and small reveals wore down my interest and made skipping it an easy choice. It promised a lot more than it could possibly deliver in terms of villains and story. They kept the title on everyone’s minds throughout the spring, but that isn’t always a good thing. There’s a fine line between making people aware of a release and overwhelming them. An image that hints at Dr. Octopus or The Vulture is a nice touch in the movie, but selling us on greater involvement is misleading. These moves shouldn’t impact our assessment of a film, yet it does play a role. If you’re entering a movie with skepticism before the first image appears, it takes a lot to change those perceptions. Even those viewers that try avoid trailers and news could not escape this push.

There’s a danger when a film has goals beyond delivering an effective and entertaining story. Before The Amazing Spider-man 2 was even released, Sony made it clear this was a first step in a series of spin-offs. It’s clear throughout this film that those considerations muted a possibly interesting look at the challenges of being a superhero. The chemistry between real-life couple Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield was a key reason the 2012 film worked. They’re pushed too far to the background this time behind multiple villains and Peter’s search for information about his father. I’m a fan of complicated mythologies in certain cases, but it’s hard to care when the emotional connection is lost. The third-act surprise lacks the same impact because of the messiness in front of it. What should be a tragic moment feels cheap because it’s lost within a flimsy structure. The scene is done well but can only do so much by that point.

Jamie Foxx as Electro in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

Streamlining the villains in super hero films is a wise choice but rarely followed. Jamie Foxx’s Electro generates impressive effects but doesn’t work because there’s little sympathy for Max. That understanding is what made Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus such an interesting bad guy in Raimi’s Spider-man 2. There are remarkable shots of Electro leaping from spot to spot while Spider-man avoids his attacks. They’re beautiful and probably looked even more amazing in 3D. This film is CGI-heavy yet rarely dull with so much happening with the visuals. The problem is giving us nothing with the enemies. Electro disappears for a long time in the second act, and we barely miss him. There’s an interesting story about him buried somewhere, but it’s lost behind an even less thrilling villain.

Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) is a familiar name from both the comics and the movies. He’s a close friend of Peter and eventually becomes a rival. If you didn’t know that history, the portrayal in this film would be very confusing. Harry is all over the map and shifts between kindness and insanity without warning. It’s hard to know the reasons for this inconsistent guy, but my theory is that much was left on the cutting room floor. Where’s the time for character development when you’re trying to create a franchise? Despite his importance to the climax, Harry seems like a throwaway role that was dropped into the plot to build the other projects. DeHaan is a talented actor who’s delivered strong performances in films like Chronicle and The Place Beyond the Pines. Few could do much with this character, however.

Andrew Garfield stars as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

It’s easy to spend many paragraphs digging into the strange choices by Director Marc Webb and the multiple writers that penned the script. There’s a point where that becomes tiresome, however. I’m interested in how much the final product succeeded in meeting their goals. Andrew Garfield recently blamed the studio for forcing cuts that ruined the film. His passion is endearing and comes from a place of loving the character. It does feel like there was an interesting film that could have been salvaged. It’s too easy for me to say that cutting 20 minutes would change the result. A running time of 142 minutes feels too long for this material, but that’s more because the story isn’t that engaging. Even a shorter version of this material could deliver a similar result because the tone doesn’t connect like it should.

If there’s a precursor to this film from the Marvel releases, it’s Iron Man 2. We’d seen a few brief appearances from S.H.I.E.L.D. in previous films, but they’d fit smoothly within the story or appeared at the end. This movie introduced multiple villains (including one that disappeared for a while) and crammed in so much plot that didn’t enhance the narrative. The S.H.I.E.L.D. side trip in the third act felt out of place and killed the momentum. It’s a rare example where Marvel picked shootouts over character. Looking at the franchise on the whole, it did help set the stage for The Avengers. This example shows the challenges of trying to construct a massive franchise on par with Marvel. The rewards are huge, but it’s easy to lose sight of the primary goal of delivering a successful movie.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 is bookended by fights between our hero and Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti), who becomes the Rhino for the second battle. Having a star of Giamatti’s stature in the opening scene leads us to believe he’ll return for a later moment. Instead, he’s only present to act as a bridge to the Sinister Six. Giamatti uses a ridiculous European accent that’s purposely designed to be outlandish and induce laughs. The problem is that most of the others don’t share the joke. Peter Parker is tormented by his inability to protect everyone, including Gwen Stacy’s father (Denis Leary). As Spider-man, he uses the corny humor that’s common for that character. What’s strange is how awkward it feels when you consider this version of Peter Parker.

The Amazing Spider-man 2, directed by Marc Webb

There’s a striking look to both Spider-man movies from Marc Webb that makes this film work at times. Director of Photography Dan Mindel (Star Trek) creates a world of vivid blues and blacks with a cool smoothness. The dark blue from the Spider-man costume leaps off the screen, and the lighter shades from Electro’s weapons give an interesting palette. These shots are gorgeous when taken out of context, but they’re part of loud action scenes that are often hard to follow. New York City looks striking during the big fights, including the first showdown in Times Square. It’s a movie designed to play on the largest IMAX screens around, and it surely pleased some audiences. Watched at home on a smaller scale, there isn’t enough beyond the chaos to deliver an engaging movie. It’s the worst example of world building at the expense of character, and the future looks murky for the franchise.