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The Amazing Spider-Man

Rebooting a superhero series means once again going through an origin story. It’s the inevitable nature of the beast. But despite their narrative necessity, origin stories are generally frowned upon; audiences always seem to want to get to the action. I, however, like origin stories because they give our hero something to fight for. They put reasoning behind their actions other than the simple fact that evil is present. Usually they suffer through a life changing tragedy that gives them the will and motivation to fight. Origin stories set up the character for all that is come, making them the most interesting to watch, but The Amazing Spider-Man, coming so close to the end of Sam Raimi’s popular trilogy (only five years after the final installment), feels redundant. If there was ever a movie that had a been-there-done-that feel to it, it’s this one. In a time when most Marvel movies are setting new standards for what superhero movies can and should be, The Amazing Spider-Man falls far short.

Taking over the reins from Tobey Maguire is Andrew Garfield as the titular hero. Peter is still the nerdy kid we know him as and he’s still living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). He has a little crush on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a character different than Mary Jane in name only, who eventually reciprocates his feelings. One day after being bitten by an experimental spider, he is given amazing powers, including superhuman strength and the ability to climb up buildings using his fingertips and toes. In one of the only major narrative departures from the Raimi trilogy, he develops a durable web-like substance that he shoots out of a device attached to his wrist, thus rounding out his spider abilities and giving him a means to move about the city. His fun is short lived, however, when Uncle Ben is shot and killed by a fleeing robber, partially due to Peter’s unwillingness to do the right thing and stop him. Vowing revenge, he dons a suit and sets out to make him pay. His attention is soon diverted when a giant lizard begins running amok throughout the city. This lizard is the by-product of experiments with cross species genetics by scientist and former partner of Peter’s father, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), and he’s out to get rid of Spider-Man and infest the city with a deadly toxin that will turn them into hideous creatures.

And if you’re wondering, yes, Uncle Ben does give the “with great power comes great responsibility” speech, or at least a variation of it. Although restrained somewhat by the source material, The Amazing Spider-Man fails to find a voice of its own, from its redundant opening all the way to its clichéd “ticking clock” ending (where Spider-Man may or may not save the day at the very last second). It’s all so familiar, so conventional of your typical comic book movie that it’s hard to muster up the strength to care, partially because the script seems to forget why Peter’s fighting in the first place. By the end, Uncle Ben seems like an afterthought and his prophetic words forgotten. Yet it’s that tragedy that makes Spider-Man such a compelling character, so by throwing that to the wayside, you lose much of the film’s (and character’s) appeal.

Take the abandoned motivation out of the equation, however, and you have a movie that does at least one thing correctly: it builds its characters. In particular, Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy build a believable relationship (surely due to an off-screen budding romance between their real life counterparts) while the descent into madness by Dr. Connors isn’t rushed through, but rather approached with a deliberate pace. It nails everything that The Avengers did so poorly except the most important thing: the aforementioned lack of motivation. But where The Avengers suffered in character evolution and creating a team dynamic, it more than made up for with some incredible action (even if the team was separated too much of the time). The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t come remotely close to matching the awe inspired by that film, or many other recent comic book adaptations. The action is perfunctory in every sense of the word, both unenthusiastic and routine, seemingly there because it feels like it needs to be (aside from the climax, most of it is unnecessary, including a short lived scene where the Lizard bursts through a toilet in Peter’s school and starts attacking him).

Although character growth is more important than flashy action (and always will be), The Amazing Spider-Man is too immature to be recommendable, both in its technique—director Marc Webb, the man responsible for the wonderful, but wildly different, 500 Days of Summer, doesn’t quite have the experience necessary to tackle such a huge endeavor—and in its annoying, cocky approach to its lead. There’s a really embarrassing scene early on, just after Peter gains his powers, where he shows up the school jock on the basketball court, culminating in a painful-to-watch slam dunk that breaks the backboard. This is immediately followed by Peter shredding on his skateboard. This is a Spider-Man for the tween generation, not the mature movie going audience that wants, and expects, more. It may make attempts at being dark, but it’s a faux darkness, similar to something like Twilight: moody, but insubstantial. It may not be one of the worst movies of the year, but The Amazing Spider-Man is certainly one of the most disappointing.

The Amazing Spider-Man receives 2/5


The Help

Most stories aren’t original. While the locations, era and characters may be different, the core of most stories never evolve beyond what has already been told. In many cases, it’s a detriment to the film because we, the movie going public, want more. But sometimes, a story is so important, so significant, so thoughtful that we don’t mind seeing and hearing it again. This week’s touching film, The Help, explores racism and hatred towards African Americans in the 60’s south and though its message is no different than many that have come before, it remains a good one and works as a reminder that we should love and respect everybody regardless of their differences.

The film takes place in Mississippi where friends Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) work for a couple of white families as their housemaids. They are bossed around and treated like lesser beings simply because of their skin color, despite the love and care they put into raising those neglectful families’ kids. In their neighborhood, whites and blacks are expected not to mix. Public places are segregated and a bill is about to pass that will require all homes to have a “colored” bathroom just for the help. It’s an unhappy place for Aibileen and Minny, until they meet Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who recognizes what they go through. She has just graduated from college and aspires to be a journalist, so she offers to write a story from the perspective of the help. It’s a dangerous venture for the housemaids, but they’ve put up with abuse all their lives and decide they aren’t going to stand for it anymore.

The Help, as familiar as it can be at times, is an important film to watch. It’s not always pleasant and is certain to bring tears to many who view it, but we need to keep these past events close in our thoughts. As philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” A more truthful sentiment has never been uttered, especially given the state of dogmatism we face even today. While certainly not to the same extent, the condemnation of groups in the past parallels certain cases today, especially with the rampant intolerance for homosexuals (a parallel The Help seems to recognize, taking the time to quickly mock those who ignorantly think there’s a cure for homosexuality). Though set in the 60’s, it’s relevant to our times and works as a duality: as a reminder and as a cry for change.

Still, I’d be lying if I said The Help was anything more than a piece of fluff. It’s a crowd pleaser, unconcerned with crafting a tight, smooth flowing story or any critical backlash. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t make for the most structured movie. It’s a long film, well over two hours, but real drama doesn’t begin to build until its back half. It attempts to mash it all together at one time, which isn’t an effective substitute for a thoughtful, slow build throughout. The parts that do work, however, are weakened by unnecessary (and sometimes sickening) scenes, like when one of the maids bakes her feces into a pie and watches her old boss eat it. If in a gross-out comedy, this moment would be lambasted by critics everywhere (as it should be); it’s only fair for it to happen here too. But at least in those movies, it’s a one-time affair. In The Help, numerous plot turns actually stem from the poo pie scene. While watching, you can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t come up with something less childish to keep their story moving.

That thought comes to mind because the movie is anchored by an impressive cast; such a scene seems desperate. They do what they can, though, and what they can do is deliver performances that rank among the best of the year. While Octavia Spencer is delightful and Emma Stone skillfully breaks away from her comedic typecasting while retaining her charm and innocence, it’s Viola Davis who impresses the most. Even with a dramatically uneven screenplay, she manages to bring forth feeling with ease. Every quiver of the lip and tear that rolls down her cheek hits hard; it might make you forget how inconsequential her sadness sometimes is to the story. The movie she’s in might not be great, but she is and deserves an Oscar nomination come awards season.

The biggest problem with The Help is that its subject matter is so heavy, but its handling is a little too light. It’s peppered with humor throughout, some of which admittedly works, but it rarely feels imperative, hitting a strange middle ground opposite the drama without ever hitting a good balance. The underdeveloped romance for Stone only makes matters worse; you’ll forget she’s even in a relationship before it comes to an end.

The Help suffers from all these things and more, including what I like to call “Lord of the Rings syndrome,” coming to a seeming conclusion multiple times before moving ahead another 20 minutes. It may be an ordinary movie, but it nevertheless tells an extraordinary story. That’s why, in spite of its faults, it’s still well worth checking out.

The Help receives 3.5/5


Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love is neither crazy, stupid, nor particularly romantic. It’s a movie that bungles many things, but nails many others. Its quality fluctuates from slightly below average to slightly above. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s a decidedly middle-of-the-road picture, one I’m not upset I saw, but one I’ll surely forget about before the year is out. It’s likable enough, but whether it’s worth seeing is hardly worth arguing. If it interests you, see it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

If you do, this is what you’ll get: a movie about love that doesn’t spend adequate time building emotion. And that’s precisely why it’s stuck in mediocrity; because love is emotion. If you don’t feel it, it’s hard to care. However, it must not be a minute or two into the film before Cal (Steve Carell) is hearing from his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), that she wants a divorce. It doesn’t establish their relationship prior to this, yet we are asked to sympathize. In a way, we do (mainly due to Carell, who shows the anguish most people must go through when they find out the love of their life wants to leave them), but the structure of the screenplay limits it. One can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers chose not to open their film more emotionally aggressive and allow us to see the love the two had before splitting them up.

Distraught by what his wife has told him, Cal immediately moves out and starts drowning his sorrow in alcohol at a local bar. While there, ladies man Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who seems to take a girl home with him each and every night, strikes up a discussion with him. He tells him he is embarrassing himself with his self loathing and agrees to make him over, promising his wife will “rue the day” she decided to give up on him.

But of course, in a movie about love, even a ladies man like Jacob is going to find someone to care about. She comes in the form of Hannah (Emma Stone), a “game changer” (with a strange attraction to Conan O’Brien) with whom he begins to fall in love. Though wildly uneven as a whole, Crazy, Stupid, Love succeeds on little moments and the romance between Jacob and Hannah is the best example of that. Their relationship is built on virtually one scene, but it takes its time, allows for character growth and it forces viewers to reevaluate their perception of Jacob. Such a character curveball can only be done with a capable actor and Gosling is more than up to the task, emitting charm and likability at every turn, despite some shades of what seem like mild misogynism. Because of him and the always effervescent Stone, the scene comes off as strikingly authentic and deeply moving.

The problem is that it’s followed by an ending where coincidences are stacked on top of contrivances, resulting in a ridiculous string of events that takes a level, if underwhelming, movie and tips it too far to one side. By the time the credits roll, the movie has tackled issues of guilt, forgiveness, family, infidelity and depression, though “tackled” isn’t really the right word. It’s more like what would happen if a football player ran at a brick wall. He would hit it, but he’s not making an imprint.

Crazy, Stupid, Love should be something more than it is, especially given the wonderful trailers, which, sadly, do a better job of bringing forth the desired emotion. What it amounts to instead is nothing more than a barely passable movie that does something wrong for every something right.

Crazy, Stupid, Love receives 2.5/5


Easy A

I can see the headlines now. “Easy A is an easy A!” It’s such an obvious sentiment that even the dumbest of critics will latch onto it. Frankly, it’s a bad line and it’s untrue. Easy A is a B, B+ at best. It certainly won’t redefine the way we watch teen comedies, but it’s moderately clever and funny and the exceptional cast does more than enough to make it rise above its own inadequacies.

The film begins with high school student Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) speaking directly to the audience via webcam: “The rumors of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated.” She goes on to say that there are two sides to every story and she’s about to tell us her side, the right one. It all begins when her best friend at school, Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) invites her over for dinner. Already having endured an evening with Rhiannon’s eccentric parents, she decides to make up a lie to avoid another one, claiming to be going out with a guy all weekend. The fib allows her to avoid another awkward rendezvous, but back at school the following Monday, Rhiannon pegs her for information about the made up guy. Olive doesn't know what to say, so she tells her that she lost her virginity. Unfortunately, Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the school Jesus freak, overhears and spreads the word, marking her as a vixen, reviled by the girls and sought after by the boys. However, Olive quickly learns that there are lots of guys that are willing to pay her for fake sex to increase their popularity and soon she finds herself overwhelmed and shunned by her peers.

I love movies that remind me of high school, those that can capture the pathos of that time where even the smallest things were monumental in the minds of those living through it. As an adult, I now look back on my time in high school and chuckle, well aware that every emotional, overanalyzed obstacle I thought I’d never overcome was as meaningless as the time period itself. But nevertheless, I remember the feeling and Easy A captures it well. The majority of the characters feel real and, better yet, the workings of the school are authentic. Word got around quick when I was a teenager. If I opened my mouth about anything, I could be assured that it would somehow reach the other side of the school before class even ended. That’s what happens here, setting up the entire story. This school felt like it rested in my hometown and the characters in it were my neighbors.

At least until the back portion of the film where the plot goes off the rails with a spurious teacher/student relationship that sets up far too many scene contrivances. I suddenly felt distanced from the characters because they, along with the up-to-that-point accurate depiction of high school, became more like cartoons. The film became an over-the-top farce, losing much of its charm in the process.

Everything up to that turning point was wonderful, with the exception of one nagging problem: the villain, Bible thumping Christian, Marianne, who is portrayed, along with her spiritual friends, in the meanest manner possible. They spew self righteous vitriol and their holier-than-thou attitude and behavior, which includes a showmanship like picketing, comes off as abrasive and bigoted. Although there are so called “Christians” like Marianne in this world, there are also down-to-Earth, kind, loving ones, but you wouldn’t know it from Easy A, which treats all Christians like stereotypes.

It’s disheartening to see this type of contempt for religious people in what is otherwise a light, warm, entertaining movie, but it’s still one of the funnier films of the year and it’s definitely worth checking out.

Easy A receives 3.5/5



Live action talking animal movies are the lowest form of cinema. Watching one is like taking a really sharp, rusty needle and twisting it in your eye until it pops. They kill brain cells, dilute imaginations and corrupt our youth with their infantile humor, yet they're pumped out constantly. Compared to garbage like G-Force or the more recent Furry Vengeance, I suppose Marmaduke is okay, but that’s like saying breaking a finger is better than breaking a hand. It's painful either way.

Based on the long running, unfunny comic strip, the films follows Marmaduke (voiced by Owen Wilson) as he and his family move from Kansas to California. His owner Phil (Lee Pace) has landed a great job, which forces his family to move, much to their chagrin. While at a doggy park one day, Marmaduke learns what it will take to survive on the west coast thanks to a trio of dogs named Mazie (voiced by Emma Stone), Raisin (voiced by Steve Coogan) and Giuseppe (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who take him in as one of their own. He is told to stay away from Bosco (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland), the alpha dog of the park, but he has an eye for his girlfriend Jezebel (voiced by Fergie) and sets out to prove himself as a leader.

There’s a scene in this movie, one of the earliest in fact, where Marmaduke is in bed with Phil and his wife. He is giving her the good news about his job and they start to romantically kiss. Marmaduke then passes gas, looks directly at the camera and says, “I know it’s juvenile, but it’s all I’ve got.” Never before has a movie so accurately described itself. It has nothing of note but a relentless barrage of jokes that only a child of single digit age could laugh at.

Those jokes not disgusting are simply eye rollers with visual gags that are about as funny as a dog on a surfboard. Oh wait, that’s actually in this movie and the result is as idiotic as you’d imagine. Phil’s new job tasks him with putting doggy product on retail shelves and his plan to promote it is to have a dog surf-off, pitting Marmaduke against Bosco in head to head wave shredding. The CGI that follows takes big old Duke and tosses him into the barrel of the wave where he overcomes his fear, busts through and flies sky high winning him first prize and putting Bosco in his place.

It’s hard to top something as idiotic as that, but this film’s idiocy knows no bounds. Once all the dogs stood up on their hind legs and started dancing on a pseudo Dance Dance Revolution arcade game, I was ready to dance my way out the door. Then when you tack on ridiculous canine phrases like "a new leash on life" and plays on words like "bone-illionaire," it becomes clear the filmmakers have zero ambition for their project.

The very few laughs this picture provides rest solely on Christopher Mintz-Plasse who actually sounds enthusiastic about being in such a lowbrow movie and at least fakes like he cares. He comes across well and, although his voice is easily recognizable, he saved the picture from being terrible.

Of course, being only relatively terrible is hardly a ringing endorsement. I suppose Marmaduke is harmless. It’s brainless and appeals to the lowest common denominator, but there’s nothing truly objectionable here and there will be those who like it. For them, I am happy. As for my experience with it, I was not.

Marmaduke receives 1.5/5