Aisle of the Damned: Episode XXIII- It’s your kids, Professor X! Something’s gotta be done about your kids!

Time for a new episode, humans and mutants! YES. ALREADY. This time, Kent talks about Godzilla, Bryan waxes X-Men: Days of Future Past and we both like Neighbors. Then we wonder bewilderingly about Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man and David Goyer being a total dick. Join up, will not you?

Music:
The Aquabats– Stuck in a Movie
Huey Lewis and the News– The Power of Love

Go-Kart Godzilla! Woo-ooo-oooo-ooo!

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men 5

We’re two for three in superhero movies so far this summer. Bryan Singer’s welcome return to the X-Men franchise is incredibly successful with Days of Future Past. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed it more than First Class, which I enjoyed initially and have liked even more with subsequent viewings, but between the two of them, the franchise has officially been rescued from the God-awful Last Stand and only slightly better Origins: Wolverine that were nearly the one-two punch that killed this cash cow. (Maybe I should have hoped for that so the characters could return to the Marvel fold, but we’ll let it go.)

Loosely adapted from one of the most popular stories that the characters have ever been involved in, it begins in an undisclosed future where mutants and many humans have been hunted down by the robotic Sentinels from the comic books. We get to see a few of the X-characters in this future that I honestly never believed would appear unless it was the kind of crap cameo that Brett Ratner relegated Psyclocke to. We get Blink, man. I am honestly flabbergasted about that one. And she is done well. (For those that don’t know, Blink is a popular mutant that creates portals. She seems depowered and decidedly non-lilac in this instance, but still.) It feels much less like the mutants of the film are getting short shrift here just to pack in as many as possible the way some of the lesser movies have done. In a departure from comic lore, Wolverine is sent back in time to stop the Sentinel program from ever being started. (In the comics, it was Kitty Pryde that did the honors, which I would have welcomed instead of getting yet another Wolverine-centric movie, but the bean counters at Fox apparently think only his bub-ness sells tickets, First Class to the contrary.)

It is a little surprising to me that Singer seems more at ease with the cast of First Class over the runtime than those of the original film since Matthew Vaughn was at the helm for that one. I guess maybe he was hands-on as a producer? In any case, aside from some clunky exposition that even Patrick Stewart can’t keep from sounding overdone (and he has a lot of experience with exposition from Star Trek) the movie gets going quickly and doesn’t stop often. It all comes out a bit Terminator-ish, but then Marvel beat Cameron to the punch by a couple of years so all’s fair.

The time-travel reset button is a brilliant thing to do on multiple fronts. Number one, it gives the people currently making the films a chance to eliminate all the horrible decisions made when Fox was in the mentality that the X-Men films a) needed to be forced into a trilogy, because that’s just how it’s done and b) needed to be crapped out as soon as possible in order to punish Bryan Singer for taking a job directing Superman Returns. I think making that movie was punishment enough. Number two, it allows the use of both the original characters and the new cast that earned the right to continue the series. Number three, it creates the possibility of doing two equally deserving continuities, one in the past and one in the present going forward. If this is Fox trying to play catch up with Marvel Studios, all I can say is bravo for doing it in an incredibly inventive and dramatically fulfilling way compared to Sony and their botched Spider-Man experiment.

Even though it is yet another movie with Wolverine front and center, we get to spend a lot of time with Charles (Professor X) and Erik (Magneto) in both timelines, and the film is all the better because of it. Their relationship is by far the most interesting part of this series and First Class made that painfully obvious. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be fantastic in their roles. At this point they own them just as much as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Combine that with pretty meaty parts for Mystique and Beast and you have a much more rounded ensemble film than it could have been. They lucked out when they cast Jennifer Lawrence and they seem to know it, making her an integral part of the story. As per the aforementioned Blink and Kitty (Ellen Page, returning as one of the two good things from X3 worth saving), as well as other mutants like Iceman, Bishop and Storm, they aren’t really given much to do for an arc, but they’re well used enough in action sequences that they don’t feel like they’re given short shrift. Many others have glorified cameos, but nothing feels particularly forced.

The only other new characters to truly be of note are pretty much Evan Peters as Qucksilver and Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask. Both are excellent. For all the hubbub about Quicksilver appearing in both this film and the second Avengers film, I doubt there will be much similarity in the portrayals. In Future Past, Qucksilver, really only brought in for the purpose of one action scene, is less the abrasive speedster from the comics and is instead an carbon copy of DC Comics’ Impulse with a worse costume. An ADHD-riddled kid with bad hair and a penchant for being charmingly annoying. The action scene in question is possibly the most fun scene in the entire film, so it’s understandable that Singer was so hyped to use him.

Trask does horrible things in his quest to realize his dream of the Sentinels. He cautions that mutants will replace humans, citing Neanderthal man’s disappearance as a warning. (Of course he wouldn’t be privy to the current theory that Neanderthals actually interbred with cro-magnon.) We’re given glimpses of his life that indicate he’s a genius and he talks about doing a lot of good things for humanity. But it’s obvious he doesn’t see mutants as humanity, only as a means to an end. They don’t exactly subtle-up the Nazi metaphors. And just to make one statement about who would normally be one of the villains of the film, it was nice to see Richard Nixon portrayed as an actual human being and not a complete cartoon bad-guy for once. The government and the military aren’t shown to be evil or even necessarily in favor of wiping out mutants. They simply get used by Trask as more means to his end.

The movie is paced elegantly with never a dull moment, but also never being overwhelming. It feels like all of Singer’s superhero movie experience has been leading to this moment where he finally feels comfortable with all the things he was holding back on in the second film. (Having the brass at Fox on his side instead of demanding Jon Peters-esque changes on a whim it probably helps.) The action sequences feel fresh, despite several of them having a lot in common with previous installments which is a testament to their presentation and the quality of the effects. There is no question in my mind why this movie cost so much and it honestly seems worth every penny. It is polished and even the questionable CGI just makes it seem that much more comic book-y.

After seeing the teaser at the end which brought many a “What the hell?” from the crowd in our theater, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Singer, Vaughn and their cohorts bring to us next.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: A Million Ways to Die in the West

MW2DITWSeth McFarlane wants to make Blazing Saddles so badly, you can pretty much picture him dry humping an old VHS copy through most of watching A Million Ways to Die in the West. While that’s certainly a grand and understandable aspiration (making a movie like Saddles, not the humping), Blazing Saddles was the type of lightning in a bottle genius that even Mel Brooks only really managed to capture once. Young Frankenstein, though equally brilliant, feels like a completely different type of film to me and not just because it’s parodying a different genre. None of Brooks’ other films had that kind of balls to the wall anarchy that worked as the world’s most topical and adult Looney Tune, combining genuinely affectionate parody, anachronism and surrealism in a way that almost never occurs in live action filmmaking.

McFarlane does not achieve the same heights as Brooks. He doesn’t even really reach the same levels as he did previously in Ted. It’s a mix of issues with the script, the tone and McFarlane’s performance as a leading man. Despite these issues it still manages to be funny. I am McFarlane neutral, having enjoyed a lot of the original run of Family Guy before it faced its first cancelation. Since then I’ve been less a fan of his television work, but I found Ted to be quite funny. Those who hate McFarlane will not be swayed by this movie. There will be plenty of his fans for whom he is the white Tyler Perry that will declare the film brilliant. So for those of us that remain in the middle, here’s some dissection.

Let’s start with the writing, which plays in a lot of ways like Shakiest Gun in the West but with a central relationship that plays beat for beat like a teen comedy romance. In so many ways, the movie feels like it was written by a teenager who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. That’s really only half an insult because teenagers can at times be really damn funny and they’re often willing to do things that older folks know better than to do. The problem is that in many cases they also think they’re the first ones to do it.  McFarlane writes his character as the male Mary Sue that populates the autobiographical writings of every outsider teen boy that has ever felt put-upon. Including myself when I was in high school. He knows better than everyone else and he hates everything about his life. While this leads to a few very funny sequences involving his righteous indignation spilling out in torrents, eventually his limited charisma is not able to make up for the character having some basic issues with likability. Even this would be forgivable if his timing were better, but there are instances when it feels like his punchlines just lay there.

McFarlane’s character, a sheep farmer, is dumped by his girlfriend at the beginning of the film because he’s a “nice guy” and she immediately jumps into a relationship with Neil Patrick Harris, who is the consummate movie douchebag. Enter Charlize Theron, unknowingly the wife of the most notorious gunfighter in the west (Liam Neeson). She decides to help McFarlane try to get his girlfriend back and they fall in love. Now he has to learn confidence and face down the bullies. I’d worry about spoiling the plot if the whole thing wasn’t so paint by numbers that you can predict every single story moment that occurs from the first ten minutes. Like a lot of comedies, it’s not so much that the story is important for its plot, but for being a framework for the gags.

The tonality of Million Ways creates some issues in that it feels like many of the characters act like they’re in different films. Charlize Theron and McFarlane actually have a very easy chemistry and it’s through their relationship that we like him. Her lackadaisical acting style does surprisingly well. The character is the only one that really has much of an arc, even if its one we have seen a thousand times. Amanda Seyfried, by comparison, has nothing to do except be an object of desire and to allow Neil Patrick Harris something to play on. Even Sarah Silverman in a supporting role as a a hooker has more depth. Now Harris… wow. I think he may be phoning his performance in from another planet. His mustache-obsessed store owner feels much more stylized and cartoony than most of the loose performances of the cast.  When he hits, he managed to pull some of my biggest laughs from the film, but he is also so weird that sometimes it’s almost more uncomfortable than humorous. Then you have Liam Neeson, who gives a fantastic performance full of true menace. Which in this case is like dropping Hannibal Lector into The Office. Neeson can be funny, but here he is completely out of place because he’s simply too good at his role. Giovani Ribisi is in the film because McFarlane wants to make sure his family has food.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I laughed a pretty decent amount during the movie because while uneven it has moments where it is very, very funny. (Unfortunately, two of these moments are Family Guy-style pop culture reference cameos, one of which was ruined in the trailer, but I refuse to also do so for anyone that hasn’t seen it.) Like Ted, there are moments when a sweetness manages to break through the rampant gross-out gags involving sheep sex organs. His animation experience also helps some of the physical moments, especially when we see some of the title’s Million Ways that people can perish in the Arizona 1882 setting.

It simply seems to be one of those cases where the problems stand out more than the positives upon reflection, even though I overall liked the film and would recommend it to his fans and those that really enjoy R-rated comedy. It pulls no punches and, like Neighbors, goes right after that particular niche, though I think it won’t have as wide an appeal as that one. Sometimes mixed reviews are the hardest to write. I think this is one of those times. I recommend it, but tentatively.

(Three damns given out of five)

Better Living Through Filmography Episode 1.2: Double Indemnity

DoubleIndemnityBLTF In Better Living Through Filmography, co-host Kent views classic films for the first time and discusses them through a lens of movies, pop culture and life. Episodes of the first season post every other Wednesday.

In episode two, he watches Billy Wilder’s film noir Double Indemnity and takes a look at its place within the style’s pantheon and what makes it great.

Music:
Laurie Johnson– Happy-Go-Lively
Woolf Phillips and his Orchestra– Cocktails in Bermuda

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Godzilla

Godzilla

“Oh, no! There goes Tokyo! Go go Godzilla!”

I am a fan of the big-G, and I’m not speaking in a Judeo-Christian sense in this instance. Godzilla (or “Gojira” if you insist on being a pretentious douche) is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, metaphorically if not literally. Starting with the breakthrough hit in 1954 and it’s subsequent Raymond Burr-ized edit becoming a sensation in America a couple of years later, he has stomped his way into our hearts. He has been a monster, a nuclear metaphor, a savior, a Japanese symbol, a googly-eyed muppet and finally, a monster again. This marks the fourth time that the Godzilla films have been jump started, though the two in Japan both began their continuity anew as direct sequels of the first and best film, proving that no matter how goofy America has gotten with sequels, reboots or any other entertainment buzzword being thrown around lately, we still lag behind the land of the rising sun.

With the exception of the 1998 American crapfest which was so bad that it has been rumored to cause syphilis from casual contact, he’s up to now been portrayed by a man in a suit which, let’s be honest, is as it should be. The excellent trilogy of Gamera films which saw release in the 90s proved that if a suit is well made and used in conjunction with modern effects technology, it is just as effective as CGI ejaculated on the screen by a bunch of Hollywood technowizards. Unfortunately, the new Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards (who until recently I was confusing with Gareth Evans of The Raid fame) by fiat became a computer generated extravaganza. We’ll try to forgive this indiscretion, however. After all, Revolutionary and Warner Bros., the studios behind the film, are the same folks that put out Pacific Rim, a similarly themed giant monster slugfest which ended up being one of my favorite films of last year.

So here’s the real rub that most fans will acknowledge; of all the Godzilla movies, only the first one is really more than just a fun flick where you sit through the human stuff to get to the sweet monster fights. The original is a true horror film. It was one of the first to do the anti-nuke song and dance, but it hit on a deeper metaphorical level due specifically to what the Japanese had experienced in the second World War. Otherwise it would be just another of the anti-science “sci-fi” flicks that have told us how everything from atomic research to cloning to robots are going to kill us and we should seek entropy as a species lest we destroy ourselves by playing God. These films are often fun, but also pretty stupid. With the trailers, it seemed the current Godzilla was trying very hard to evoke the same kind of response as the original by being “about something.” But does it say anything new? Is there anything besides the sound of credit cards swiping at the box office and the excuse of having new technology at our disposal to warrant yet another American-centric remake of one of the best-regarded horror films of all time?

The answer to these questions are “not really.” Is that a death knell to it? No. It still has it’s moments that should satisfy a lot of fans. It’s far from a bad film. What the dirty little secret is, which we didn’t get a hint of until the last trailer, is that this film has much, much more in common with the Godzilla sequels (and even the cartoon) than the ’54 original. Heck, it actually feels a lot more like the aforementioned Gamera trilogy than the original Godzilla. It also feels ready made to spawn a dozen more films as a franchise, though it is not nearly as obnoxious about this as The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I don’t blame the filmmaker for the misdirection in the advertisements. I put that squarely on the marketing arm which often acts under its own discretion. And the only reason I really am disappointed in the blatant set-up is that I am suffering from mythmaker fatigue. I know there have already been 30 Godzilla movies. What’s a few more?

I’ve watched a lot of Godzilla movies, so I can recognize that this one fits the pattern of at least a dozen of them. We are given glimpses of monsters while following some boring humans around, wondering when we’ll get the good stuff. In this case, the boring human is Aaron Johnson’s Lt. Ford Brody, a soldier living in San Francisco who is trained in bomb deactivation and whose family was destroyed by a nuclear incident fifteen years before in Japan. Johnson has proven he can be an interesting actor (even if he was upstaged by Hitgirl in the KickAss movies) but in this case he actually makes a bombtech feel dull somehow. For one thing, the movie is played mostly as seriously as possible. There are some funny in-jokes that will bring about a titter in fans who are paying attention, but most of the characters are played so straight that they don’t even have personality and there isn’t enough tension to offset the problem. The two exceptions to this are Bryan Cranston as Ford’s father and the great Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa (which you may remember is the name of the character that destroyed Godzilla in the original film.)

Cranston, despite being the lynchpin of the ad campaign, is only featured in a small portion of the running time and that is a terrible shame. His character is the most engaging of everyone in the movie and if he’d been the focus, perhaps this thing could have gone from “pretty good” to “great.” He has a real arc, a real drive and motivation and he is able to flesh things out and make his character three dimensional. He is a shell of a man and there is a great scene in which we see an outward representation of how his life has rotted away since the fateful day he lost so much of what meant something to him. Watanabe, meanwhile, starts the film looking harried and lost. He’s been at the front lines, researching these types of creatures for a very long time and he seems to be genuinely shaken and without hope over what’s going on. As the story progresses, we see him slowly develop a new tone, built on what he seems to think is a new understanding of the world.

The “money shots” of the film are surprisingly few. There are many instances when we think we’re about to see something great only to have it pulled away like a cookie being taken from a kid who has been caught trying to raid the jar. Though I’ll admit that the destruction of the world’s most hippie-fueled anti-atomic city due to nuclear-driven monsters is deliciously satisfying. The thing is, we’ve seen so much of this sort of thing in the last couple of years that it is a bit numbing, no matter how much one may enjoy it. There’s nothing particularly new in Godzilla and it doesn’t make up for that in volume. I’d go so far as to say that Pacific Rim and Man of Steel both did wide-spread destruction better and gave you more of it. As for Godzilla himself, he works. They got the scale down, at least. I honestly wasn’t overly impressed by the effect though. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is that seemed off to me aside from his movements striking me as more cartoony than suit-zilla does, which ironically feels more at odds with the seriousness of the film.

All in all, I’m sure this sounds like I am complaining. And I suppose I am. I just found the film somewhat underwhelming. But the thing is, it still has the same charm that the old films had going for them, despite what seems like a sense of self-importance missing from the monster smackdowns that used to pop up on a regular basis from Toho. If nothing else, it is miles ahead of the previous American version. And we do finally get a knock-down drag out between the big lizard and something that looks like the Cloverfield monster (reasserting his dominance, I guess.) There are a couple of moments that did make my eyes bulge a bit in how awesome they were. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for. Is this a great film? I say no. But it is a competent film that delivers the goods. And I do plan on seeing it again, this time in a better theater with the sound cranked to infinity so see if I don’t end up more pleased with it now that I know what to expect.

(Three and a half damns given out of five)

*author’s note: The film was viewed in its 2-D format.

Kent’s Damed Movie Reviews: Neighbors

OK, I usually use quad posters anyway for these, but how could I not use the British version? They spell it with a U!

OK, I usually use quad posters anyway for these, but how could I not use the British version? They spell it with a U!

Over the last several years, it seems like every summer there is one break-out R-rated comedy. The Hangover, Bridesmaids, 40-Year-Old Virgin, American Pie, Ted… it may come early or it may come late, but there is almost always one. I would not be surprised if this year that hit was Neighbors.

This is not to say that Neighbors is as good as all of those aforementioned movies or even that it is as good as last year’s This is the End which involved some of the same people. However where that film required a lot of audience participation to get the most out of it, Neighbors should appeal to a very wide audience as it has an uncanny knack of reaching out to several types of people and it should largely please them all. It manages to be the kind of college frat comedy which has been cranked out since Animal House while also pulling in the audience which Judd Apatow found and exploited so well. Many post-college adults from their mid-20s to late-30s will identify with the new family headed by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, who are coming to grips with the fact that they simply aren’t cool anymore (if they ever were in the first place.)

I had someone express doubts to me about seeing the film, thinking it was somehow a family movie. Rest assured, it is filthy. Zac Efron was already trying to distance himself from his Disney roots, though many of those efforts seemed from the outside to largely keep his persona intact and looked like a very slow, measured campaign. This will napalm that bridge. The fact that Orgazmo received an NC-17 rating and this movie didn’t is one more argument in my never-ending diatribe about the worthlessness of the MPAA’s ratings system.

The plot is actually decently structured and involves a couple newly adjusting to parenthood after putting all their money into a house. They obviously miss their old lives full of partying with their friends when they were perpetually exhausted for different reasons. Still, they seem mostly happy and are putting stock in the classic American dream, as it were. House, car, one-income household, kid…

Then the house next door is taken over by the kind of hard-partying, scheming, cliche frat that seems to exist only in movies, Suddenly their world is, to quote sitcom pitches that were old when Shakespeare was in diapers, turned upside down. While initial steps are taken to preserve the peace, eventually things erupt into all-out war between the parents and the frat, driven by its single-minded president played by Effron.

Nobody at all seeing this movie will think Rogen is breaking new ground. It feels like an extension of his character from Knocked-Up and, frankly, is that such a bad thing? He’s like that ratty hoodie that you don’t throw out because you know exactly what to expect from it. Byrne may surprise people a little bit with how much she throws herself into her role given there are some big ‘gross-out’ gags in the film and she’s involved with many of them. But after Bridesmaids it doesn’t seem like that big of a leap. Still, she really puts herself into the thick of it and keeps up with Rogen 100%. The big surprise is Efron. Is he funny? Not so much. But, and this is a big but, he shows an ability to let the other performers bounce off of him while not seeming completely like a straight man. The real head-turner is how dark he gets at times, dropping his bro mask and showing a person who has a simmering anger underneath.

It’s the dynamic between he and Rogen that really hits home as they are both in different stages of arrested development. Rogen has a desire to still be what he was when he was Efron’s age. He doesn’t want to be the guy that narcs, despite his responsibilities. While the movie takes pains to offer a decently balanced portrait, never showing either side to clearly be the ‘heroes’ of the piece, we’re obviously meant to side with the parents. The script cleverly uses an incident involving the baby to move things over to their side for good, despite the fact that they end up going too far themselves. War is hell, after all. Efron, meanwhile, is trying to make his mark and be enshrined forever in the trophy case of the fraternity. This is his attempt at immortality, knowing that there simply isn’t anything waiting for him once he finishes school and he becomes increasingly desperate and malicious with anything that stands in the way of him becoming a legend to be passed down in the annals of his brotherhood.

Another good aspect about Efron’s performance is that despite being provided a solid psychological motivation to make him more sympathetic, he never plays it up too much. He allows other members like Dave Franco and Christopher Mintz-Plasse to take some of that weight. Emphasis on ‘member.’ Franco seems to be channeling his brother at times with how weird his character can get, but I may just feel that way because I associate Franco the Elder with male genitalia so much at this point and there there is more of that in Neighbors than most comedies, even R-rated ones. Many of those jokes involve Mintz-Plasse who has very little to actually do and might have just shown up because he likes working with these guys.

The film provides several laugh-out loud moments and the fleeting bits of physical comedy serve as highlights. For some reason I think the editing feels off to me though. Quick pacing is demanded of most comedies, but sometimes things feel too breakneck for this kind of film with scenes jumping from one to the other fast enough to cause whiplash. In something like Naked Gun this is not a problem, but when a film is trying to establish an emotional connection like this one is, there may need to be a little more room to breath? I’m not an expert and maybe it will play better at home, but it was an initial impression. It could boil down to having a hard time establishing the passage of time. I am assuming it takes place over several months, but it feels like the whole thing may have happened in a week.

I would have a hard time saying Neighbors is a must-see comedy, but it is satisfying, funny and seriously messed up in spots. I think it will have a lot of rewatchability to it and you may as well see it before you hear about all the jokes from the people at work.

(Three and a half damns given out of five)

Aisle of the Damned: Episode XXII- Gary Shandling is Evil

Aisle of the Damned: Episode 22- Gary Shandling is Evil!

Greetings, movie fiends! In our first new episode of the year (the first of many, we promise), Bryan and Kent take a look at a Marvel 2-fer: The Amazing Spider Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Let us take you by the hand, dear listener, as we discuss the finer points of Cap vs. Man of Steel, the future of Chris Evans in the Marvel U., childrens’ movie adaptations in book form and the worst scenes in Spider-Man movie history. Not necessarily in that order.

SoGood

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music:

The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie

DVDA- America, F*** Yeah!

Better Living Through Filmography Episode 1.1: Robocop

Robocop

A new feature for Aisle of the Damned! In Better Living Through Filmography, co-host Kent takes a look at classic films he is watching for the first time and looks at them through a lens of movies, pop culture and life.

In the first episode he views the 1987 movie RoboCop and discusses how his upbringing lead directly to him having not seen it before now in the essay, “RoboCopping a Feel.” (Sorry the audio quality is not the best. I’m new at this. It will get better.)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

ASM2

I’m sure this will be a common refrain in the reviews of Amazing Spider-Man 2, but this is a film with a severe bought of multiple personality disorder. The parts that are good are absolutely splendid. It reaches higher highs than the previous film. But it also has lower lows and where they go wrong, they go full-steam ahead into the muck. Like the previous installment, it is a film that echoes the worst parts of Marvel’s franchise-building in Iron Man 2 and magnifies them. What makes this so frustrating, so absolutely maddening, is that the makings of a good Spider-Man movie are here and they are so close that you can touch them.

I really want to like this movie and there are parts of it that I adore, but it is so schizophrenic that it feels like three different movies at once. Seeing it in a double feature with Captain America: The Winter Soldier playing second only magnified the issues with the film, showing how these types of films can be done right (while understanding that Spidey and Cap are two completely different characters.) The point is that In its fervor to create a “Spider-Man Universe” that it can milk year after year (they’ve announced a plan to toss out a movie annually featuring characters like the Sinister Six and Venom), Sony has tried to shortcut the Marvel plan that slowly, over many years, brought them to being the biggest movie franchise in history. It’s easy to see why other companies want to emulate them. But Sony and DC seem to have missed the point of how well planned and executed those films are and how long it took to do it right.

So let’s get down to what the best parts of the film are. The things that director Marc Webb does right deserve a high level of praise and I want to give him his due for what works. I don’t intend to simply drop a deuce on his front door and leave. There’s too much to like here for that.

First off, Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield feel as if they were made for their parts and dropped into Webb’s lap from on high with a choir of angels singing “Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got radioactive blood.” Their chemistry is off the charts and it leads to a welcome expansion of the seeds that made the first film work on the level it did. (I’ve softened on the first film in subsequent viewings, but I would not say my rating has changed.) Stone especially is such a welcome presence that I would say she seems wasted here if they weren’t relying so heavily on her. Her Gwen Stacy is, overall for the complete arc of the film, the best written and best performed character in this franchise. She was already in an ascendency in Hollywood, mostly from her comedy work, and it’s easy to see why. She has an easy charm, a disarming intelligence and she looks fantastic. Hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things for her.

Andrew Garfield does a great job portraying the wise-cracking side of Spider-Man and displays his everyman qualities very well considering he’s a muscled teen heartthrob. He had a few of those moments in the original movie and this is yet another example of the film improving on what came before by giving him more to do as Spider-Man. Taking advantage of not being hampered by an origin story, Garfield seems to be more free to be playful when he’s out doing the hero-thing. I’m not sure how much is him and how much is a stuntman/CGI at any given time (though it does look like there is a LOT of computerized Spidey in the action sequences) but he simply looks like he’s having fun for a lot of the run time. And when things get really serious he makes a subtle but appropriate mood shift. Man do I wish I could plug these actors into the Raimi series. I may not dislike Tobey Maguire, but his Parker feels all wrong compared to Garfield’s.

To go along with that playful attitude, we are given action sequences that simply feel a lot more… well, Spider-Man-like. His opening gambit chasing a hijacked semi-truck is so much fun that one wishes it could stretch across the entire film. The way he involves every day New Yorkers and his environment into his battles feels much more organic than in the first film where things like the construction crane sequence made me groan audibly and with force. The film looks much more confident to be itself with Peter’s brighter template and not confine itself as being so dour, emulating Nolan to a degree. And not only are the action sequences filmed better, but they are written better. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh out loud several times over Peter’s quippy banter that feels lifted directly from one of the better comics. Not every joke lands and sometimes it feels like they’re trying too hard, but then so does Spidey in general sometimes, so it makes complete sense.

Now on to what unfortunately doesn’t work. I’ve got two words for you: Jamie Foxx. I’ve praised Foxx in the past after his work in Django Unchained. Of course I have seen him around since his In Living Color days. But his version of Electro is just completely off in it’s own little suborbital space station. His origin and character arc (or lack thereof) feel like they’re lifted whole cloth from one of the Batman films. Everything about the character reeks of 90s camp. From the bizarre combover to the obvious mental illness played for comedic effect to the sudden and inexplicable character changes that don’t constitute an arc so much as a schism. (As part of his plot, there’s also a male version of a female character from the comics named Dr. Kafka who is played as such a broad German mad doctor caricature that he reminded me of Mel Brooks in The Muppet Movie.)  It is all straight out of Batman Forever. The real problem with that is simply the fact that this movie isn’t Batman Forever and it doesn’t fit at all. I am not sure who’s fault it is that he was portrayed this way. Foxx has a tendency to be big and brash so it’s certainly conceivable that he could have insisted on hamming things up, but in the end Webb is responsible for getting him to have a tone that matches the rest of the film.

In the meantime, you have Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn. His performance is adequate but all over the place, starting out strong but degrading into hysterics. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that he ends up as Green Goblin. The advertising materials have made that quite clear. He is the most troublesome part of the film, not so much because they skip over Norman Osbourne’s tenure as the Goblin or how he turns himself into him (though those are part of a larger problem I’ll address in a second), but because the transformation feels so shoehorned into the film. It feels like Sony’s forced use of Venom all over again. You can practically hear the gears smoking in the writers’ heads trying to force certain elements into the story with a mallet simply to meet an expected plot-point and set up Sony’s required spin-offs. Like they’d done an Electro story and then were told they had to find a way to include Gobby. The reasons for Harry’s motivation are so undercooked that if you stuck a toothpick in there, there would be more batter than cake. It feels so much like Venom in Spider-Man 3 that you can practically hear Topher Grace.

(I’ll give it points for how it handles Rhino but it is difficult to explain that without going into spoiler territory.)

It’s good that Electro was used, even if I feel he was wasted. The use of The Lizard in the first film, for all I disliked about the story surrounding him, was one of the highlights. I’m glad they’re not trying to tell the exact same story the exact same way it was done in the Raimi films. But it feels like in their drive to distance themselves from that series (which, keep in mind, includes an installment which many people feel to be the best superhero film ever made) they are changing things for no other reason BUT to distance themselves and aren’t thinking things through long term. What is the big hurry when they’ve already committed themselves to being in the Spider-Man business for the foreseeable future? It’s not the change itself that’s the problem. At issue is the fact that these changes don’t make any logical sense and actually are imposing unnecessary restrictions on the films that they may not recover from and/or are wasting opportunities. Why in God’s name is this series so obsessed with tying every single thing that happens to Oscorp? I mean, we get it. Evil corporations are evil, blah blah blah. But the backstory involving Peter’s parents, which eats up a good portion of the film, has the same effect on Spider-Man as Burton’s grafting of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey had on Alice in Wonderland. It misses the point entirely. Spider-Man is just some random guy that was in the wrong place at the right time. Building a complicated mythology in which everything from Peter’s powers to his family history to every villain he fights being involved in some huge conspiracy with Oscorp is extraordinarily limiting. Its effect on these films isn’t just stretching credibility (even for comic book logic) but making things repetitious for a character renowned for having a bench of well-defined and diverse bad guys that lags behind only Batman and maybe The Flash.

The way this film is put together makes me feel like it is far more concerned with seeding future entries than what’s going on right now. It’s the same issues that people had with Iron Man 2 and the way so much of it was given over to SHIELD, except that movie was simply better made. (Rourke and Rockwell are better actors and Favreau knew when to pull them back, for one thing.)

I don’t like saying these things. I want a good Spider-Man movie. There’s still a chance of getting a good one out of this crew. But something has to change, be it the writers or the brass at Sony because right now they’re too focused on churning out mediocre films with moments of brilliance. Amazing Spider-Man 2’s best moments are head and shoulders above the first film, but it’s problems are greater and make it a step-down overall. I still highly recommend it to people that enjoyed the first film because you’re going to get something out of it, but it’s far from what it could be.

(Two and a half damns given out of five)