Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An Amazing Re-Boot

SONY Pictures swings a pretty decent franchise reset with The Amazing Spider-Man

ARTH VADER (AV): If anyone had any misgivings about the Spider-Man franchise,  you can breathe a sigh of relief. Especially if this summer's The Amazing Spider-Man is any indication of things to come. Fans and story purists will not be thinking happy thoughts as this movie attempts to spin a wider arc of the life of Peter Parker that includes the mysterious disappearance of his parents. And while The Lizard is a long-time spidey adversary, actually appearing in Spider-Man #6 way back in 1963, he is hardly well known. However, with so many reboots to the Marvel universe in recent years, its no wonder that SONY (note Marvel Studios) runs willy-nilly with the story line. That said, the motivations of Dr. Curt Connors (played by Ryas Ifans) to harness reptilian DNA to re-grow his lost arm is very much in line with the original Lizard's motivations.

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Continuity...? What’s that...? That’s what I envision the writers of this film thought as they wrote this film. It doesn’t directly correspond to any iteration from the comics, nor does it continue from the previous silver screen showings. The genetically altered spider is straight from the Ultimate Spider-Man origin (along with the mystery of Peter’s parents), but similarities end there. It looks like The Amazing Spider-Man is starting it’s own continuity, and we’ll be comparing the second film to this one for consistency. 

AV: I am NOT going to be well-liked on my views for this movie's casting, Pontificator. Andrew Garfield is a talented, witty and extremely charismatic guy–and he is definitely NOT Peter Parker. Parker is supposed to a be small, frail, nerdy introvert with a big brain and even bigger insecurities. He is not supposed to be a six-foot cool hipster skater-punk, with awesome hair, a leather jacket and a skateboard, who clearly already has the eye of the hot girl. And while I am waxing opinionated here–Sally Field as Aunt May? Really? Sure Sally is well into her 60's but, still a bit too hot (yes I said it) and worldly to play Peter's frail, white-haired aunt. The rest of the cast more less worked but these two–just not right. But hey, what do I know, I'm just a fan writing a movie review blog. 

TP: I thought the casting was good Vader. I had some reservations with Andrew Garfield, but they were quickly dispelled with his Peter Parker as he brought his own flavor to the role. I was surprised and pleased at the depth he brought to the character. Emma Stone played a good Gwen Stacy, although there wasn’t much range in the script for her character or for Rhys Ifans role as The Lizard, but this isn’t a “Grammy” type of movie. I enjoyed Denis Leary as Captain George Stacy even though Denis Leary is...well...Denis Leary no matter what role he plays. The film kept a great pace as it alternated between heavy bouts of action and drama.

AV: I will say this movie delivers in this category. I had heard that the majority of Spider-Man shots in the film were effects shots to ensure fluid, seamless consistency  especially during the fight sequences with the Lizard. I am delighted that the technology these days is so sophisticated that our eyes no longer know the difference between live action and CGI shots. As it should be. The sewer battle(s) between Spidey and The Lizard was some of the best I have seen. Also, as an additional bonus this movie did introduce a new shot/camera technique that showed Spidey's web-slinging from his point-of-view. Especially effective in 3D, the web-swinging sequences were breathtaking. 
TP: Simply fantastic. It’s tough to do something new in films and doing old effects in a better way has become the norm...and this film certainly capitalized here. The CGI was done very well with particular kudos to the flawless action sequences. I was especially pleased with the new take on “perspective filming” as I felt what it might be like traveling the city as Spider-Man. This was just another example of how far the technology has come from the very first film. Makes me excited to see what will be showing ten years from now. 


AV: So I have already beat this film up on its re-imagined portrayal of Petey Parker and the proposed miscasting of Aunt May, but the movie has many hits and misses. For starters, I personally didn't need to see Uncle Ben's death (again). The spider-bite scene in the lab seemed hurried and unimportant and the notion that 17 year-old (?) Peter Parker was able to solve–or offer-a formulaic equation Dr. Connors spent more than 10 years on was ridiculous to me. The movie never established Peter Parker as a smart science geek. It assumes we know that from previous stories but that was a mistake to me. Still, the film showed a lot of good story pacing, the action scenes were some of the best Spider-Man action scenes ever and world of Spider-Man is now open with a dashing–if not misrepresented–new young, actor. And with a laugh-out-loud appearance by Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, I for one, am hopeful!

TP: I was very critical while watching this film, looking for where I might be let down...and not finding much in the way of subtractions, although I do agree with you Vader about the spider-bite scene. Without question the performance of Garfield carried the film and the action and special effects filled in the rest...which brings me to what was missing. The first Spider-Man was a well rounded film having something for everyone...comedy, drama and action. This film was not. It had ample action and was very top heavy with drama, but I noticed I hardly ever laughed. The comic relief sequences provided by J.Jonah Jameson in the first film was missing... and Garfield’s serious performance didn’t fill this void. Not a very bad thing, it’s just the best films have a complete package in my opinion. Apart from that, I was irritated watching the rescue on the bridge scene because the physics of fire and heat were completely ignored.


AV: SONY (Pictures) has already revealed that this film is the first in a new Spider-Man trilogy. So sequels, baring any world wars, planet-killing meteors or Zombie apocalypses aside, we should expect future Spider-Man films of this calibre. While not on par with Marvel Studio's quality, this movie is a far sight better than the disastrous Spider-Man 3. The film implied that the serum was meant for an ailing Norman Osborn and the mysterious man in Dr. Connors cell during the teaser at mid-credits is unknown to me. I guessed Mysterio or the Illusive Man but hopefully my partner-in-penmanship will be able to shed some light on this matter. Pontificator? 
TP: Vader, I have no idea who that was. I was even speculating that Connor’s is having a Gaius Baltar moment, talking to his hallucinations. As for a sequel, of course there will be a sequel since the mystery of Peter’s parents needs to be revealed...and Spider-Man will never be just a one picture type of endeavor. I can only hope they continue to explore other rogues in his gallery...but with Oscorp looming in the background, something tells me a reinvented Green Goblin isn’t far behind. 


ARTH VADER rates The Amazing Spider-Man: While there are a handful of unanswered questions and a host of small, but significant concerns, overall this is a really good movie, folks. Lots of fun, with definite chemistry between Garfield and real-life smooch partner Emma Stone, a host of great effects and obvious set-ups for future installments helps shed some redeeming light on what was an otherwise faltering franchise. Fun, fast-paced and a genuine good time, The Amazing Spider-Man swings into this summer's movie line-up with a solid eight (8) busted blocks. Ponty? 

THE PONTIFICATOR rates The Amazing Spider-Man: A great film, although I’m not sold on it being better overall than the very first...the action was stellar and the characterization of Peter Parker was taken to a new level, swinging in and webbing up eight (8) busted blocks.

The Amazing Spider-Man: 8/10 Busted Blocks

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Snow White Gets Muddy

As a gritty re-imagining of a classic children's story, Snow White & The Huntsman puts the fair in fairy tale. 

Arth Vader (AV): I must say this movie was a strange one for me, Pontificator. Re-imagining the Snow White fairy tale is a major undertaking and I must say, while the story varies significantly from the Disney-esque idyllic children's story, the movie was dark, gritty and complex. The characters had little dimensionality and very little detail was shared with the viewer regarding where, when, why or how. But if you can suspend your disbelief, it's not altogether bad. I almost wished for more of a fairy-tale vibe to the story but certainly not a bad effort overall.
THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Snow White is best known to me from the Disney film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Imagine my surprise to learn it was originally a German fairytale written in 1857. Since this is the first telling of the story, continuity comparison must come from here... and the current movie diverges greatly with the details after the Queen becomes jealous of Snow White. There have been many renditions of the story since the original telling, and this film is just another one instead of the original story being brought to the silver screen. Core elements of the Queen, Huntsman, seven dwarves, magic mirror, Prince and poison apple remain... but the similarities end there.
AV: I've got a furrowed brow on this one, Ponty. I know the casting of Twilight mega star, Kristen Stewart will bring fantasy fans–especially female ones–to the cinema. But the girl just wasn't right for this role. Snow White is supposed to be an earthy, captivating beauty, which Stewart is not (sorry Kristen). As for Thor-turned-drunken-dissident, Chris Helsworth's Huntsman character was well-realized but a bit dis-enfranchised from the heart of the story. Lastly, though a bit off-putting, the evil queen played by the stunning Charlize Theron was hauntingly on-key for her role.  
The cinematography was beautiful, though I found the film's lighting odd. The dark (light) wasn't as dark as it could have been and the bright light (namely the forrest scenes) felt heavy-handed. Almost as though the movie tried too hard to make the lighting an experience vs. being a part of the film.

TP: I’m a bit more forgiving here Vader. Casting for this film couldn’t have been a terribly hard task given the nature of the material. Kristen Stewart didn’t seem out of place in the role of Snow White. Chris Hemsworth was a superb Huntsman, but this is a given after his superb performance as “Thor.” He is obviously a natural for these types of roles. I’m not a huge Charlize Theron fan, but she certainly delivered a fantastic performance as the Quenn, Ravenna. After this role and her performance in “Prometheus,” I’m beginning to think she has a calling for playing evil characters.
AV: Overall this film got high marks for its look, cinematography and effects shots. Ponty, I thought the 'Mirror-mirror on the wall' bit and the army of black magic minions were well done. Wasn't a big fan of the fairy sequence but the Troll and the final battle scenes were all masterfully handled. Many of the effects shots were understated and that was to the credit of the SFX imagineers. And while all these were great effects shots, by far the dwarves were the effects highlight of the film. Re-proportioning the likenesses of full-grown actors into the miniaturized forms were spectacular–even worthy of some of WETA's effects shots in Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings Trilogy. Oh, and yet another noteworthy effect shot was the back-and-forth aging of the Theron's Evil Queen. Brilliant. 
TP: I must diverge again Vader. The special effects were unremarkable as far as modern movies go. There was nothing ground breaking, new.... or even noteworthy in the film to write about in this section of our review... that, as you pointed out, we haven’t already seen before. Not only have we seen it before, but done better the first time we saw it.
AV: The movie and it's overall look was impressive but there is always a yin to the yang. This movie falters in several key areas which stops it from approaching greatness. The story pacing was a mess. The dialogue was murky and often poorly delivered. The characterizations were odd and at times almost uncomfortable to watch. This may be due to the actors not connecting with the their onscreen personas but the movie's acting was just flat for me. Pontificator, I had a hard time with the movie's presentation of relatable characters and scenarios. All of the above was handled rather poorly as far as I am concerned. 
TP: Despite some of the good acting (some more yin and yang Vader), this film never got off the ground for me and failed to really capture my interest... even with the easily recognizable material. There seemed to be something missing. Perhaps it was the lack of any epic action sequences... or the lack of dazzling special effects? Perhaps it was the direction of the film as it seemed to slow to a crawl midway through? I certainly was unhappy with the ending as the obvious loose end of the relationship between the Huntsman and Snow White wasn’t resolved. With the possibility of exploring a love triangle by adding the Prince in the mix, there was room to at least satiate the romantic in me. With nothing to laugh at, the drama far from serious... and the mundane action, this film had tons of room to go deeper and be something memorable.
AV:  Pontificator, I feel this is only the beginning. Not of the Snow White story but of a whole series of movies that re-imagine Grimm and Mother Goose fairy tales. Capturing the family movie market has always been a lucrative venture for Hollywood and these movies have all the earmarks of family-scale blockbusters. Movies like Mirror Mirror and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland have capitalized on the darker perspective but I suspect more are on the way. History will prove whether or not this is a good track to take but this, by no means, will be the last. 
TP: Oh... I so hope you’re wrong Vader. I suppose the loose end of the romantic triangle could be an angle to explore... but a Snow White part two based on just this would be worse than the original. The fairytale ends when the Queen is killed... so it’s best to let this one end as well since any chance to salvage this film has also been killed.
Arth Vader Rates Snow White and the Huntsman: A swing and a miss. With deceptively beautiful trailers (a poisoned apple to the audiences if you will), this movie looks good but with little real substance, an odd viewing experience and a dejected A-list cast of actors, this movie did not have a happily ever after for me. If you want a good rental-to-be, this movie is it. Unfortunately, other summer blockbusters will dwarf (sorry) this movie. As I bite into the bitter apple that is Snow White and The Huntsman, I am remiss to cough up only five busted blocks.  
THE PONTIFICATOR Rates Snow White and the Huntsman: With all the potential to be something spectacular wasted, I longed for the Disney cartoon version the whole time as I painfully watched this film barely bust five blocks.

Snow White and The Huntsman: 5/10 Busted Blocks

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Bounty Hunter Is A Bloody Mess

America's 16th President Battles Slavery, Dissension, Vampires and Mediocrity in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

ARTH VADER (AV): If we are discussing the vapid hysterical, uh I mean–historical revisionist tale of Abe Lincoln written by Seth Grahame-Smith, then this book follows the tale to a tee. If we mean the historical events and personage of the US Presidency during the war between the states and the years leading up to them… eh, not so much. A story like this is a real quandary for me, Ponitficator because I pride myself as an armchair historian (yes, I even subscribe to Armchair General magazine!), but this story, supposedly pulled from "secret diaries", recants a tale of honest camaraderie and struggle in the face of overwhelming adversity. I will dismiss now ANY notion of historical alignment and we will simply review the movie and it's popular cinema relevance. That said, the movie does the story justice. 
THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): I haven't read the book Vader, so for me there is only one frame of reference. So... does this movie stay true to the original historical material? Well, Abraham Lincoln lived, he was President, he had a spouse named Nancy and a son named Willie, but for a few other details... the film diverges from reality and leaves out much accuracy. With so much known about Abe, it only seems logical to streamline the facts... or bog the movie down with details that won’t make you jump out of your seat. Oh... and I’m pretty sure he didn’t hunt Vampires... although I can’t commit to this position with 100% conviction. 

AV: The casting was solid, particularly lead man Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln. Tall, commanding, steadfast and portraying tempered resolve, he worked well in the role. Dominic Cooper plays writer and convert Vampire, Henry Sturgis and does so particularly well. Fittingly, the Vampires are portrayed as vile, ungodly and despicable monsters that must be vanquished. The movie's direction is solid with a classic array of slow-motion battle scenes, spliced with wide-angle battle-field shots and gore sequences of bloodletting as Honest Abe cleaves his way through the seemingly endless onslaught of undead bloodsuckers. I have to call out one shot in particular that felt so out of place that, though it was small felt odd and kind of off-set the entire film's pacing to me after it. There is a scene roughly a third of the way through the movie that does a fast close-up of a building in rural Illinois that feels so out of pace with the scenes that came before  and after that it just sort of left with a big WTF hovering over my head for the rest of the film. 
TP: Not going the big name actor route actually worked for this film. Benjamin Walker bares a resemblance to actor great Liam Neeson in this film and simply captures attention off this alone (lucky him). He is a great actor and was fun to watch as he brought Abe to life...while, uh... taking life from the... undead? It’s my biased opinion, but I also enjoyed Rufus Sewell as the Vampire head baddie, Adam. I loved his role in “A Knights Tale” and think him to be perfectly suited for the role of villain...in any film. The casting, therefor, was done well and the directing kept the film at a fast pace with plenty of surprises.
AV: The effects people really had fun with this movie, P-Man. There are some great panoramic battlefield scenes that are quite impressive. And  while I thoroughly enjoyed how this movie looked, I must say the burning train bridge/final vampire fight was just too over the top for my liking. While I would never want to deny any movie of it's potential, the SFX here are just overdone. The final fight with vampires atop an old-time locomotive was probably cooler in the storyboarding than it was in execution. It's hard for me to wrap my head around such sequences (not unlike those of the Sherlock Holmes ilk) where under-trained 'regular guys' can stand back-to-back on train moving 70 miles an hour and take down a horde of vampires in the dark. Sorry, as a life-long sci-fi and action movies lover–I ain't buying it. 
TP: I concur Vader. I struggle to see the relevance of 3D in most films, and this film really wasn’t any different except that the 3D wasn’t used to bring the action in your face as much as simply closer to you. Like every 3D film, there were scenes that leaped out... but I’m still waiting for this to happen consistently throughout the film. Everything seen here has been seen before. The slow motion action and freeze frame sequences made famous by “The Matrix” still look nice here... although some sequences had me wondering were my glass of wine was as I watched the cheese. In the sequence you mention Vader... I was looking for the whole bottle!
AV: Let me take a moment here and inform our readers that I am absolutely enthralled with all things vampire. Underworld, Interview with a Vampire (book & film), Bram Stroker's Dracula, True Blood, Priest, 30 Days of Night, From Dusk 'til Dawn–yes, even (gulp!) the Twilight saga (the books at least have considerable merit)–the list is endless. So I have been known to give a pass to vamp flicks–and so it goes here as well. I actually had a fun time with this movie and saw it with my 14-year old son and his 12-year-old twin brothers. We all had fun and the though I did have to explain the historical inconsistencies–"no son, not all confederates were vampires"–, the value of this film lies purely in its ability to entertain. Not excessively gory, ridiculous if not fun and a great laugh-out-loud ending, this movie threatens to put a smile on your face and a few "what if" thoughts in your head. Some would say that makes the film a success. Thoughts, Pontificator? 
TP: I think much of the problem for this film was simply getting past the title, Vader. I’m guilty, like so many, of being put off by the idea of Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires. Once the movie started though and took a serious approach to the character and period, I was immediately put back on again and shook my head at what a mistake the title was. I also noticed that I wasn’t laughing... at all, during the movie. There was nothing funny as it took itself too seriously while bombarding me with over-the-top bloody action sequences. The general idea of the film though was very interesting... and prompted me to even research to see if silver was indeed used as ammunition at Gettysburg. There were some parts of it that physics says couldn’t be done by mere mortals... and I took those sequences a reminder that although the film took itself seriously, I really shouldn't.
AV: Not seeing much value in pursuing future installments of this story, Ponty. This movie was fun, freaky fantasy but the value of this film stops there. Some vampire coolness to be sure but since NOTHNG was explained properly–like why was the confederacy in league with the vampires? What was in it for them? Why were vampires able to walk around in the sunlight but still be susceptible to silver? If the answer is 'go read the book' then I rest my case. This will be fine as a one-shot effort.
TP: Although the door was left open to continue in modern times with the whole vampire hunting gig... it’s best to let this movie stand alone and find more life in the rental audience than make, yet, another vampire film in a market that has been inundated with them. Vampires are cool again, but the constant milking of this cow will simply make them annoying... to everyone except those enthralled like you Vader.
ARTH VADER rates Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: I cannot tell a lie–to this movie's credit, it is fun and doesn't require a whole lot of brain cells to enjoy. However, it's also the film's shortcoming. Choppy story-editing, fairly ridiculous dialogue and hyper-unrealistic, overly fantastic scenarios stop this movie from approaching even campy greatness. Still worth a viewing, but–honestly–(ahem) you could wait for the DVD or Pay-per-view rental on this one. With that, I won't drop the ax here because to be fair this flick doesn't–uh–suck, but at six busted blocks, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter does unfortunately bite off more than it can chew. 
THE PONTIFICATOR rates Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: It’s a shame many were put off by the title and never gave this movie a chance. It turned out to be much fun and was more entertaining that I expected it to be. Box office revenue put a stake through the heart of this film, yet it was very entertaining and still managed to bite and suck the blood out of seven punctured blocks.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: 6.5/10 Busted Blocks

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