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Out in Theaters: ‘MORGAN’

When you assemble the likes of Kate Mara (House of Cards), Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones),  Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) and Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) you’d expect all the girl power onboard to make for some exceptionally high voltage x-chromosome electricity. I mean we’re talking Ygritte, Sue Storm, Thomasin, Daisy Domergue and Wai Lin all huddled under one hot tin roof, sermonizing, philosophizing and fisticuffing under the purview of a Ridley Scott protege. But all the estrogen in the world can’t overpower Morgan’s tepid and over-familiar “lab monster” plot nor fuel its running-on-fumes third act.
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Out in Theaters: THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2

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Even with a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 7.2 on IMDB, and a 66 on Metacritic, it’s almost universally agreed that The Amazing Spider-Man was mostly garbage. Despite electric chemistry between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, the story bowed to the whim of the bizarre and childish, painting a doltish picture that recycled much of Sam Raimi‘s 2002 original. That is when it wasn’t involved with a villain’s pea-brained attempts to turn the residents of NYC into lizards. It was so inexplicably dumb that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds Harry Osborn – as a penitent mouthpiece for director Marc Webb – pointing out the absurdity of the reboot’s web-footed plotting. Thankfully this latest iteration will leave children and adults stupefied for a (mostly) different reason.

Since the events of the first film, Spider-Man has become a symbol of hope, a harbinger of otherwise overlooked justice, a vestige of good. Hell there’s even a scene where he interrupts a gang of bullies picking on a schoolyard nerd. Topical with potential real world impact? Double check.

As the weight of his promise to “keep Gwen out of it” weighs heavily upon him, his most meaningful relationship is in a constant state of “Whosawhatsis?” Even in the midst of his own high school graduation, he blows off Gwen and his awaiting diploma to put down Aleksei Sytsevich – Paul Giamatti sporting a deliciously xenophobic Russian accent. It’s clear that Spider-Man is his priority numero uno.

During that riotous downtown spectacle, Spidey saves Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who goes on to court an unhealthy obsession with Spider-Man that eventually evolves into electric-charged malice. More on this later. Between reacquainting with old pal Harry (Dane DeHaan), piecing together the clues of his parent’s mysterious past, getting it on with Gwen, beating down Electro, making skrilla with freelance photography, keeping hordes of bullies at bay, and you know, just being f*cking Spider-Man, there’s a spider lot on his spider plate. Little does he spider know that his little spider world is about to get totally spider rocked. End plot summary. 

Webb and his team of vix effects gurus have upped the ante by a significant margin, making Spider-Man’s in-air acrobatics simply stunning when not entirely nerdtastically jaw-dropping. Webb manages to offer a taste of variety in Spidey’s web slinging action, slowing things Synder-style or occasionally stopping time (it’s the web time to The Matrix‘s bullet time) and zipping around what blocking this way comes to fulfill a sense of Parker’s preternatural senses.

In doing so, his peppy camerawork mostly draws dumbstruck excitement but even manages to milk some dramatic gravitas, that is until Spidey’s web shooters go dry – or short-circuit. Webb’s direction sings when he stops the clock but its his knack for staging the big set pieces with rich, tactile aplomb that make him so perfectly suited for the job. Though Spider-Man will likely never be the best of the supers, what Webb is doing with his actions scenes (which are surprisingly sparse throughout the film) is certainly next level.

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But like Webb’s direction, Garfield and his cast of cohorts have also matured a bit, to the many thanks of this audience member. Without a noxious Denis Leary (though he does appear in ghost form) and a wasted Rhys Ifans cluttering up the stage, this installment makes way for a crew of all around better characters and welcomes the continued adoration of those cheering for the Gwen Stacy/Peter Parker (is that abbreviated to Pewen or Gweener?) romance. It results in a Spider-Man movie that’s notably darker, more confident and markedly better than its predecessor. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its faults.

Thanks to Sony’s heinous marketing blitz that knew no bounds, I fully expected to be guffawing at Jamie Foxx’s transbluescent Electro and thoroughly put off by yet another iteration of The Green Goblin (the third in 12 years) but they were unexpected easy highlights of the film. What I did not expect was to be face-palming over the repetitive nature of Gweener’s intimate scenes. Their on-again-off-again love fumble harkens to Raimi’s annoying Mary Jane/Peter Parker ‘will they or won’t they’ saga but I guess I should just expect Parker to be as inconsistent about his girlfriends as he is about his attitude. Seriously, this guy is pretty much full-blown bipolar.

Oscillating between nice guy with face-breaking grin to prissy grumbler flinging things across the room like he’s Honey Boo-Boo three slices of Dark Forest cake deep, Peter Parker would benefit greatly from a chill pill. Since much of the film is dedicated to his wavering attachment to Gwen, Peter’s pretty much stuck on “mope” setting. Yet as Spiderman, he’s got more whip to his wisecracks than Mr. Epps in a cotton field. We see the seams between Webb’s (500) Days of Summer ways colliding with the action figure slinging studio heads.

Everything is cherries and cream inside that spandex onesie and yet whenever he peeks his head out of his costume, his real world problems weigh him down tremendously. Threading together Spider-Man’s iconic quip-heavy persona with a decidedly angsty Peter creates some tonal inconstancy that the film never manages to resolve.

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A similar complaint can be directed at the villain department. With two full villain arcs to charge through, neither Max Dillon/Electro or Harry Osburn/The Green Goblin are given ample time to settle before they’re shaken up and thrown ravenous at NYC.

For a man whose powers come from bathing in a pack of radioactive electric eels, Dillon/Electro’s initial hesitation about his role was actually surprisingly potent. Rather than immediately turn to evil (here’s looking at you Mr. Osburn) he’s like a man transported into the body of a bear, unaware of his true potential and yet armed to defend himself against hostile enemies. His puppy dog introduction wins over our sympathy even if his whole “destroy everything” mantra that later comes into play seems inorganic and cheap. As Dillon/Electro, Foxx embraces the ridiculous elements of a big blue dude made of electricity but never embarrasses his Academy Award trophy in the process.

And though Harry Osborn’s transition would have been much better and carried more gravity had he been introduced earlier in this iteration of Spider-Man, Dane DeHaan does magnificent work in his glider-bound shoes. Seriously, this guy is a revelation, smugly arriving on the scene to show up the smattering of veteran talent surrounding him. I’ve always loved DeHaan’s dramatic work but really appreciate something so campy and unhinged from him. He’s soulful but deeply maniacal, a Joker-lite. Is it too early to call him a menacing, young version of Leo? Time will tell.

Even set to the background noise of Webb and Garfield pondering leaving the series sooner rather than later, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does move the puck forward a significant amount, setting up future installments that look to deviate further and further from Raimi’s beloved trilogy (ok first two are beloved, third is deservedly reviled.) With certain characters still in play and others notably missing from the picture, I have to admit that I’m actually looking forward to what’s next (especially the unorthodox sounding Sinister Six movie) rather than simply awaiting another mandatory installment…or four.  

C+

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Out in Theaters: SAVING MR. BANKS

“Saving Mr. Banks”
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths
Biography, Comedy, Drama
125 Mins
PG-13
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Saving Mr. Banks may as well have been called How Walt Disney Saved The Day From The Curmudgeonly P.L Travers. It’s as whitewashed a narrative as can be, oozing Disney hallmarks to reinvent the notorious asshat that is Walt Disney into a salt of the earth type inspirationally adept at picking himself up by his bootstraps. He’s the American Dream personified and he circles Emma Thompson‘s P.L. “put the milk in the tea first” Travers with the predatory knack of a hawk.

 

Travers, whose opaque Britishness sticks out like Andre the Giant’s thumb if it’d been slammed in a car door, is a woman desperately struggling to maintain artistic control of a character she’s poured her very heart and soul into: Mary Poppins. Having either run dry in the ideas department or simply too stubborn to pen another Poppins adventure, Travers straddles the line of bankruptcy. Her only option lays in Walt Disney, who’s been hounding after the Poppins property for the past ten years.

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While Travers flies over to LA to be courted by Mr. Disney himself, the earnest, creative folks at Disney are pouring themselves into turning Poppins into a product, equipped with sing-a-long numbers and dancing animated penguins. It’s a far cry from her original vision, and she battles tooth and nail to preserve the soul of these stories that mean so much to her but in the process only comes across as a mean old kook. I mean, this is the 60s, women have no place asserting themselves, amiright?

As audience members, we’re expected to cheer for this moustachioed monopoly man trying to ink out another deal with his enterprising smile. And after Saving Mr. Banks dresses Disney’s acquisition of Mary Poppins up as a promise to his children to one day turn their favorite storybook into a delightful family video, how can you not want him to succeed? Think of the children!

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I don’t think I have to tell you whether or not Disney got his grubby hands on the rights to Poppins. So with that, the moral of this Disney story reads something like: big business always triumphs over the solitary artist. How sweet.

For all the tomfoolery that tries to pass as morals here, Thompson is undeniably powerhousing it as Travers. She’s confounding, frustrating, pitiable, and, for a majority of her screen time, detestable. Her 50 shades of gray comes in two flavors: frowny and disappointment. With a no-nonsense attitude so caustic she makes Professor McGonagall look like a bonafide class clown, Travers is the stuff of fairytale stepmothers – strict, rude, and utterly indifferent. But Thompson plays her with understanding, lacking an ounce of judgement. This year’s Best Actress talks have been all about Cate Blanchett but, with a performance of this caliber, Thompson might just have what it takes to knock her off her horse. There is one big thing standing in the way of that though: Travers is entirely unlikeable.

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Typically, it requires a bit of mental gymnastics on behalf of the audience to acclimate to a character who is so legitimately awful and yet director John Lee Hancock makes no attempt to skirt around the dozen or so sticks up her butt. In fact, that seems the primary function of the first act – to reveal just how uptight Ms. Travers is. For most of the movie, she might as well be a plum. Says Hancock’s film, she’s a dried up old cooze more pleased by naysaying than any of this smiling nonsense. She wants for nothing save a paycheck so she may return to her flat in London and live out the rest of her days on trumpets, tea, and sighing. As she closes in on signing over that character which has come to define her and her career, she’s hardly a popular figure on the Disney campus. Making friends along the way is about as high a priority as stepping in a pile of dog shit. To her, they may as well be one in the same. With all her humbuging, she’s the Ms. Scrooge of the 2013 Christmas season.

But there’s no illusion that this pinecone of a woman won’t shed her crusty shell and reveal the little sweet girl inside, that flax-haired Aussie who we become well acquainted to through an unexpectedly prominent series of flashbacks. In his milking of the emotional teat, Hancock knows that you’ve got to show just how sour someone is to make their inescapable third act transformation all the more power. Most will likely fall victim to his ringing of the waterworks bell, but they’ll probably also be smart enough to see through the highly visibly emotional manipulation at work. So though you may cry, you’ll likely feel a sucker for it.

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On the sidelines, the film is stuffed full of cheery secondary characters who either have helped raise Travers into the woman she is or those unlucky dogs who have to deal with her now that she’s grown into a froofy-haired, red lipstick-wearing bulldog. B.J. NovakJason Schwartzman, and Bradley Whitford are a fine trio of slick-job comic relief and their many colored reactions to Travers’ totalitarian workmanship are amongst the best moments of the film.

In stark contrast, Paul Giamatti‘s thick take on a white version of Driving Mrs. Daisy‘s Hoke Colburn is a prime example of Saving Mr. Banks as a hokey tearjerker while Colin Farrell‘s bubbling but bumbling alcoholic father is shaded with true characterization. He’s far richer in depth than many of these hackneyed stereotypes but belongs in a whole other movie; one far darker and sadder. Then again, the wealth the flashback scenes do seem like another movie entirely. It’s not until the end that it all finally comes together and we see the pieces for a whole. Nonetheless, Hancock never really justifies the amount of division the film must carry and the emotionally stirring conclusion still isn’t enough to make up for the sluggingness that clouds the first hour.

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Saving Mr. Banks
is yet another Disney export of saccharine in the highest degree, an uplifting tale that also serves to reinforce the likeability of a dynasty that has swept up Pixar, Marvel, Stars Wars, and just recently Indiana Jones. But for those of us who’ve heard stories of Disney as a man who aligned himself with anti-Semitic organizations and would work his employees to the bone, attempts to make him seem like Saint Walt come across as disingenuous at best and full-blown falsification at worst. But it’s hard to look down your nose when Tom Hanks is playing the role with all his usual charm and gumption. Well played Disney, well played.

C+

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AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 Trailer Features 3 Villians Because That Worked So Well Before

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In a move of unprecedented studio genius, The Amazing Spiderman 2 has decided to go big or go home, introducing a stable of villains for this second installment of a franchise that people could not be more excited about. While the film originally seemed like it would just be a Spidey vs. Electro showdown, the villians have been adding up piece-by-piece to make up the much-loved triple villain assault. As you’ll probably remember, fans and critics alike swooned over Spiderman 3, easily the favorite of Sam Raimi‘s trilogy, with many pointing to the inclusion of three separate villians, each with their own origin storyline, as the highlight of the film. Celebrated critic Roger Ebert said, “Spiderman 3 soars but I couldn’t help but wish that there were 4 villians.”

Joined by Rhino – Paul Giamatti in a big Rhino-shaped robot suit – and Green Goblin – Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) encouraged to be a dick to ol’ friend Peter Park by a bed-ridden Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper) – Electro aims to wipe out Spiderman because he’s a man dressed like a spider and that kind of nonsense just won’t fly. Because, honestly, what’s worse in life than a wackjob in a costume going around stopping petty crime? That’s right – nothing.

Even more exciting is the fact that you can clearly see hints for EVEN MORE VILLAINS TO COME in this trailer. The most obvious of which is Doc Octopus’s evil eight-armed-suit that is chilling in a tank. It likes like even though dear Robert won’t have lived to see the day when his dream came true, the rest of us living will finally be granted our ultimate wish of seeing four (no five, oh god let it be six) supervillains in one Spiderman movie.

Take a look at this trailer which looks nothing like a video game and makes complete sense. 

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Spiderman Dons a Fighterfighter Helmet and Hose in…Wait What?

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Ok, where to begin on this one? Deep breath. So it appears that spidey sense, web-shooters, and wall climbing abilities just aren’t cutting it these days as Spidey has taken up a new mantle as an amateur firefighter… helmet and all. It’s not really clear where this will fit into the events of the next film or if it’s maybe just a joke intended to stir the internet into a WTF frenzy but the high quality of the photo and the apparent effects erupting all around Mr. Fireman seem to indicate that this is actually an event that takes place within the film. Because there’s nothing that Spiderman can’t and won’t do. Just you wait until stripper firefighter Spiderman. I don’t know about you but I can’t help but laugh at this photo while simultaneously dreading how terrible the film will likely be. I humbly apologize though because you’re now undoubtedly dumber for having seen this photo.

While the first film in this controversially rebooted franchise saw the events of Sam Raimi‘s Spiderman and his origins mimicked to the nth degree and a very poorly realize baddie in Doctor Connors – a man/lizard intent on turning the rest of Manhattan into man/lizards – this followup will feature Jaime Foxx as a very, very blue Electro. Because why would you cast a black man and leave him with black skin? Also, Paul Giamatti will step in as a small role as the Rhino with speculation pointing towards an eventual gang of super villains in the form of the canon classics, The Sinister Six. Finally Spiderman 3 and it’s three villains will seem like a respite once these six start rolling along.

In a typical move of putting the cart before the horse, it seems that Fox cares more about the future of the franchise than the present, dumping villain names as if they’re movie gold. I, for one, am very over this property and am already waiting for it to default back over to Marvel. Go ahead and look at these photos of Electro, Peter, and Gwen with the knowledge that you’ll probably just end up complaining about this flick after it comes out anyways.

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Jaime Foxx as Electro

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Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker

The Amazing Spiderman 2 will see the return of director Marc Webb and stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone but also features a whole cast of new actors including Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Paul GiamattiFelicity Jones, Chris Cooper, and Sally Field. The Amazing Spiderman 2 opens May 2, 2014.