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Rating History

The Amazing Spider-Man
10 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It's no secret that I have had major issues with the very idea of quickly rebooting the Spider-Man franchise. If the film was a smash, I have argued, then studios would basically spend the next few decades merely rebooting the same dozen franchises over and over again. Well, the Marc Webb-helmed reboot is here, and it fails in fundamental ways despite not being an outright terrible film. It fails by both not being different enough from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and not being better than Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. While it is preferred to view (and review) films in a vacuum, the circumstances in this case not only prevent that but discourage it. At its core, it is an unofficial loose remake of a prior film being sold as an 'untold story' while the studio attempts to sell used goods as a new product. It is astonishingly cynical gambit and the idea behind its construction turn what is by-itself a moderately entertaining superhero origin story into something downright insidious.

The plot? Well, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is more of a brooding loner than a bubbly nerd this time around, while his token love interest (Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey, not Mary Jane) is not the girl next door but a classmate who interns at Dr. Conners's (Rhys Ifans) laboratory. It's clever that Gwen Stacey is now a science nerd with ties to Conners, unless you watched the obscenely underrated Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon that aired a few years back that had the same premise. Other than that, it's the same ballgame for much of the running time, until a third act that feels stolen not from Spider-Man but from Spider-Man 2 and/or Batman Begins. The irony is that the film is actually best when it's playing in the origin story sandbox. The dramatic beats between Parker and his adaptive parents, and Parker's first encounters with Dr. Conners, are unquestionably solid. But once Parker dons the costume it turns into the most generic superhero film possible and loses much of its character foundation amid arbitrarily CGI-infused action that neither intrigues nor delights.

I don't want to go into 'spoilers' (spoiler warning - don't watch Spider-Man), but you will be shocked at how many action set-pieces, major character arcs, narrative beats, and even climactic pay-offs are copied wholesale from the ten-year old Sam Raimi franchise-starter. Separate from the prior film, there are things of value to be found. Andrew Garfield makes a fine Peter Parker/Spider-Man, with the best change being that he's actually shown 'doing science' this time around. The early sections intriguingly emphasize the negative effects of having 'spider-powers' more so than the positive ones. He's a moody and angry kid, and his first-act interactions with Martin Sheen's Ben Parker are arguably the highlight of the film. While Emma Stone is far more of the 'token love interest' than Kirsten Dunst was, the role allows Emma Stone to be her charming and amusing self (Dunst basically played Mary Jane like Daisy from The Great Gatsby). Despite the emphasis on romance in the marketing materials, the romantic subplot is just that - a side plot that occurs on the edges of the frame while Spidey learns his powers and eventually deals with a super-powered threat. Dennis Leary, as Captain George Stacey, comes off better in the film than he did in the marketing, but you wish he was given more to do than scowl and complaining about that webbed-menace.

The best thing about the movie, and the only portion that qualifies as 'new' for this genre, is the idea of telling a requited love affair that develops in the middle of a comic book action story. With all the talk about how this movie was going to be drawing from Brian Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man comic book, this is the one component that the movie successfully adapts (the issue where Peter Parker tells Mary Jane that he's Spider-Man is one of the best comic book issues over the last fifteen years). The new film is actually less of a romance that the prior trilogy, but the idea of the superhero 'getting the girl' well before the credits roll is a nice change in an otherwise paint-by-numbers movie. The action sequences have a nice mix of CGI and practical web-slinging (like the first film, natch), and the 3D is rock-solid throughout. But the web-slinging action lacks the comic book pop of Spider-Man and the sheer jaw-dropping grandeur of Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3. Again, major action sequences feel lifted from Spider-Man, as does the character arc of the main villain. Rhys Ifans plays Dr. Conners but for all intents and purposes plays Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn from the first film. See if this sounds familiar: A conflicted scientist, who has become something of a role model/father-figure to Peter Parker, is pressured into experimenting on himself and turns into a periodically insane mutated super villain who takes revenge on his corporate enemies. The Lizard is not visually appealing nor is Dr. Conners particularly interesting once his transformation takes hold (Rhys Ifans is no Willem Dafoe), and this lack of a worthwhile antagonist is fatal to the film's action-filled second half.

Where the film most deviates from the prior trilogy is in the 'franchise-building' involving the mystery of Peter Parker's parents. As we see in the opening scenes, Parker's parents are scientists who abandoned him as a child, for reasons that are clouded in mystery yet somehow tied into Dr. Conners and his wealthy benefactor. But this subplot is completely dropped after the first act, and the threads are left open for no reason other than to have something to reveal in the inevitable sequel two years from now. There are any number of loose ends and dropped tangents and vanishing characters, and the film feels heavily tinkered-with during post-production. A stunning number of scenes from the marketing are not in the finished product while major events occur without any reaction or consequence. Moreover, the insertion and early emphasis on this 'lost parents' subplot turns the Spider-Man universe into a very closed world and negates the whole random every-man nature of the character. Peter Parker is no longer a normal science nerd who happened to be bitten by a radioactive spider, but rather quite possibly a proverbial 'chosen one' who was destined for great things.

Had this been the first Spider-Man film, it would have had that 'Wow, we're finally seeing a Spider-Man film!' kick that meant so much back in May 2002 (I still remember the thrill of the opening credits set to Danny Elfman's last great theme). You can't replicate the thrill of the first time, which is arguably something that this new film cannot be expected to match up to (the James Horner score here is solid, if not quite as iconic). Yet discounting its status as a reboot/remake, the picture suffers from an insertion of certain unnecessary tangents, mechanically-impressive but empty action sequences, some emotional beats that play less potent than they should, and countless plot holes/dropped subplots. Aside from some solid first act dramatics, there is little good that Spider-Man didn't do first and there is much that Spider-Man did better. This is not Batman Begins, which emphasized real-world plausibility while telling a wholly different story from Tim Burton's Batman (once the mask comes on, the film is only slightly less campy than the Raimi films) This is not even The Incredible Hulk, which had the good sense to dispatch with the origin in the opening credits and get on with a whole new story. This is closer to a Broadway revival, telling the same story as before and changing just enough to theoretically justify the new product.

Like the 2010 A Nightmare On Elm Street remake, it ultimately fails both as a film and as a fleshed-out re-imagining of a known property, rendering it irrelevant in the cinematic pantheon. By hewing too closely to what came before while mostly failing to be superior and/or notably different, it renders itself needless. In a future time, when I chose to watch a Spider-Man film, I can't imagine ever choosing this one, which is the greatest tragedy for a number of talented people who have crafted something of no real long-term artistic value. As much as I would prefer to judge the film in a vacuum, I just can't. The Amazing Spider-Man's greatest crime is not that its a corporate-mandated reboot, a relatively mediocre one no-less, of a still-vital ongoing franchise. It's greatest crime is that it is an unofficial remake of a ten year old blockbuster masquerading as a wholly new motion picture while attempting to take credit for what the prior filmmakers got right the first time. Spider-Man hasn't aged a day in ten years. The Amazing Spider-Man already feels like second-hand damaged goods.

Brave (2012)
10 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Beset by production troubles and changing schedules, Brave enters theaters as a fable without an author. I don't know what happened behind-the-scenes with original director Brenda Chapman nor do I know what replacement director Mark Andrews added to and removed from the final product. But Brave is an almost irrelevant entry in the Pixar cannon. While it is visually scrumptious (in 2D, natch) and boasts a terrific lead vocal performance by Kelly MacDonald, the overall story is both painfully slight and lacking any deeper meaning beyond surface-level morals. While it is technically a superior film to Cars 2, that film was arguably a 'one for me' project with Pixar founder John Lasseter indulging his love of the Cars universe and his love of old-school spy pictures. Brave is an artistically superior picture that is still pales in comparison to both the better efforts from both Pixar itself and the various animation rivals (Blue Sky, Dreamworks, Illumination, etc.) nipping at its heels.

The best thing I can say about the film is that it doesn't give two figs about the fact that it concerns Pixar's first female lead (nor should it, as Mulan is a superior feminist fable anyway). Yes the film very briefly hints at the idea that girls have different behavioral expectations than boys and yes the core relationship is one of a mother and her daughter, but the film at no point pats itself on the back for presenting a (pardon the cliches) strong, self-reliant and independent female lead. Nor does the film play the 'girls can do anything boys can do' card. And while it's admirable that young Merida's triumph doesn't come due to her ability to engage in battle, but rather her ability to make peace, Merida is presented as such a dynamic warrior figure in the opening reel that it's genuinely disappointing how un-adventurous her journey turns out to be. On a personal level, and this really isn't a criticism of the film itself, I wanted to see Merida kick a little ass. Without going into details that the marketing hasn't revealed, the first third of the film sets the stage for a mythical adventure while delivering only a half-hearted bit of momentary peril and soul-searching.

The film's first third is both funny and bittersweet, although it and the entire film becomes a master class where the two main characters say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. That may be realistic, as any parent can attest, but it makes for frustrating storytelling over 90 minutes especially when a major character inexplicably knows exactly what to say at a crucial juncture purely because the movie is almost over. Speaking of which, in a manner similar to The Lion King, Brave basically spends the first half building towards an inciting incident which leaves only a few brief moments to reflect upon said incident before having to hurry off to the third act resolution. This pacing is one of the reasons that the film's second half feels so thematically empty. The set-up isn't nearly as classically compelling as the earlier film's 'father is murdered by an evil uncle and hero is set into guilt-ridden exile' plot thread and the third act isn't anywhere near powerful enough to make up for the blink-and-you miss it second act.

The primary peril in the first act is the idea of a forced marriage for the sake of the joined kingdoms, and Brave doesn't even try to sell that idea as anything other than an inconvenience. I know that arranged marriages exist in any number of foreign territories that this film hopes to make money in (to be fair, some arranged marriages are more rooted in mutual consent than others), but it's almost disturbing how the film utterly ignores the darker implications of such a concept. This isn't even a conventional arranged marriage, but rather a scenario where a young girl is basically sold off into marriage (and, um... sex), by her mother no less, to the winner of a token athletic competition. It's "Gee, poor Merida may have to marry a loser who might not let her race around on her horse and shoot arrows at trees" not "Gee, poor Merida has to get married to someone who has no interest in and will be expected to consummate said marriage". Merida is treated by her mother like chattel and the film treats it like the grouchy princess is merely fighting for her right to party. Even Aladdin took this plot thread more seriously than Brave does.

This allows the film to present Merida as somewhat selfish and spiteful for not wanting to follow in her mother's footsteps and 'do what's best for the kingdom' and the film's finale doesn't entirely resolve the issue. While it could be read as encouraging that the picture doesn't come out completely on the side of the 'I gotta be me!' rebellious teen while her parents (both alive and well thank you much) learn a lesson in letting go, the picture sets up a situation where said rebellious teen has a pretty solid argument, thus the humbling feels unpleasant. The film arguably wants to be a fable about a mother and daughter coming to a mutual understanding about tradition versus freedom, but Drew Barrymore's Whip It is a far superior variation on this morality play because there is a personal price to be paid on both sides and because neither daughter Ellen Page nor mother Marcia Gay Harden come off as unreasonable.

Moreover the inciting incident at the halfway mark truly has no bearing on the outcome of the story and has no connective tissue to the thematic tale being told. Pardon my vagueness, but 'what happens' is a so disconnected to the rest of the story that you could remove it from the narrative and not effect the emotional finale one bit while only slightly changing the actual climax. Again, I don't know what went awry during production, but I have my theories. I can only wonder if Brave started as a personal story from Brenda Chapman and that her eventual replacement (Mark Andrews) didn't have the intimate connection to whatever Chapman had in mind. Too much time and money already spent plus the fear of bad publicity that would come from both sacking their first female director *and* cancelling Pixar's first female-centric animated film, and so they soldiered on trying to just finish the darn thing in an efficient manner as possible. This is all speculation and arguably wishful thinking, as it offers an alibi for the mediocrity of the final product.

Gorgeous animation and a few sparkling first-act moments cannot compensate for the insignificant and inconsequential second and third acts. Lacking memorial moments, interesting characters save for its lead, and burdened by an unfocused and small-scale narrative that can't commit to a distinct moral viewpoint even while giving one character the clear moral right. That it deviates from Pixar's standard 'existing in safety versus living in danger' motif is less of a problem than the fact that it has no overarching thesis at is core. It is rarely boring but rarely engrossing, a trifling piffle that fails as art and very-nearly fails at entertainment as well. Brave may not supplement Cars 2 as the worst film Pixar has yet made, but it clearly qualifies as the most disappointing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
10 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Beasts of the Southern Wild is among the most transporting films you're likely to see. Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, using Lucy Alibar's play Juicy and Delicious, crafts a fully enveloping world that is both pinpoint specific and all-encompassing enough to be a timeless fable. On the surface, it is a character study of one six-year old girl as she comes to terms with the possibility of becoming an orphan as a natural disaster devastates her dirt-poor backwoods community. Yes, it's about people surviving Hurricane Katrina and yes it contains certain social/political commentary, but it is a universal saga of grief and survival. The film's greatest narrative strength is that it refuses to be a representative saga of the impoverished victims of that 2005 storm. It is merely a heart-wrenching would-be myth told from the point of view of a single child.

Doing even a brief plot synopsis would do the film a disservice, so I'll merely state that the film involves the relationship between young Hushpuppy (an Oscar-worthy Quvenzhan√ (C) Wallis) and her tough-love father Wink (Dwight Henry). Theirs is a world of seemingly unimaginable poverty, the kind that certain political factions like to pretend doesn't exist in America. But the picture neither editorializes their circumstances nor does it try to ennoble their seemingly cut-off community. Some viewers may be put off by the squalor on display while others may merely find themselves grateful for their own financial/social situation and/or self-congratulating in their acknowledgment of these sorts of living conditions. But the film merely presents the world of this backwoods Louisiana nicknamed 'the Bathtub' at face value with little commentary. This is not a documentary, but rather a film that tells a surreal fairy tale in a seemingly foreign world that is in-fact right within our own borders.

There are moments of devastating emotional power and the picture is built on a foundation of the anticipation of unimaginable grief. Hushpuppy knows that her father is not long for this world, and while she occasionally talks about finding her (dead) mother, it's clear that she knows that she will soon be a parent-less child. The storm that basically destroys their home is merely another obstacle for a father and a daughter to overcome in a journey to stay together for as long as they can. Wink has the domineering behavior of a seemingly harsh and judgmental patriarch, but he knows his own mortality and is desperate to teach Hushpuppy how to survive when he is no longer around. Hushpuppy's sole solace is in the community around her, a tight-knit group of equally poverty-stricken people who stick together because they have no chance whatsoever alone. All these elements come together to form an uncommonly intimate and thoroughly authentic portrait of a community struggling to survive in a country that has basically cut them off from 'society'.

The Beasts of the Southern Wild is easily one of the best films of 2012. Even though it concerns Hurricane Katrina, it is not intended to be 'the Katrina film'. It's not When the Levees Broke nor is it Treme, but rather a singular child's-eye view saga of uncommon power. It is visually unlike any film you're likely to see in the near-future, melding periodic fantasy elements with devastating tragedy and authentic humanity. It is the kind of intimate experience that ennobles independent film-making and it is a genuine piece of must-see cinema.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
10 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Madagascar 3 is so substance-free that one almost feels the need to apologize for enjoying. It tells a story that is almost thinner than the first film and certainly less introspective than the second film's family drama. And it rivals Back to the Future II for an almost complete lack of overt 'drama'. But it *is* completely enjoyable and again proves that the technical side of Dreamworks Animation doesn't do anything half-assed. It is a visually splendid adventure that continues the franchise's refreshingly small-scale storytelling. Come what may, the Madagascar series exists as a definitive 'western' animated series with a specifically Jewish sensibility. Once again the primary conflict is 'untamed wilderness versus civilization' while the primary character arcs involve our heroes dealing with their own neuroses. Yes there is an outside threat, but the primary battle once again lies within.

In short, this third adventure finds our animal pals trying one last shot at getting back to their zoo habitat in New York City. On the run from obsessed animal hunter Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand), they all find themselves seeking sanctuary on a circus train. As luck would have it, said circus is on the verge of auditioning for a promoter who may bring their act through America. Can Alex and his pals get this downtrodden circus act in ship-shape in time for the big show? This is all pretty simple stuff, even as the subtext about living one's life in the present remains under the surface. What makes the picture pop are the visuals, as the film is once again a feast for the eyes. The film has an nonabrasive sense of humor and the film slows down quite a bit after the manic (but frankly terrific) first act. The addition of the villainous DuBois represents a trade-off of sorts. The film does indeed have a genuine antagonist this time around, but she is such a compelling and entertaining character that it's worth it. With a hall of mounted heads that suggests she hunts primarily in zoos and toy stores, and a penchant for singing lengthy french operas, DuBois is arguably more fun than the heroes she is intent on killing. And her primary appearance involves a blow-out chase through Monte Carlo that is one of the best action scenes you'll see all year (it brings to mind the Terminator franchise without being explicit about it).

The other new characters are basically the circus performers. Vitally the Tiger (Bryan Cranston) is the once star performer who had a crisis in faith following an on-stage accident, while Stefano the Sea Lion (Martin Short) just wants to try the human cannonball trick. Jessica Chastain voices Gia, a female jaguar who alas primarily serves as a love interest for Ben Stiller's Alex. The already formed union between Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) is not forgotten as they get a surprisingly sweet moment or two on a literal tight-rope. The penguins have more screen-time in this film that ever before, but they are integrated into the story in a fashion that feels natural (they have alas completely lost their proverbial edge and are surprisingly selfless). I wish the monkeys had more to do this time around, but that's my problem. The circus setting provides ample opportunities for high-flying set-pieces and the film does not disappoint. Even in perfectly-satisfactory 2D the film provides a number of fantastic beats where Alex, Marty, and company zoom in all conceivable directions. Like the third Ice Age, this picture sometimes resembles an amusement park ride more than a feature film, but it succeeds on both terms.

Dreamworks may not have the artistic reputation of Pixar, but they do these kind of high-quality cotton candy animated films better than any other studio. When Pixar tries to go light we get Cars 2, but Dreamworks has slowly mastered the art of high quality mainstream cartoons that don't need high drama to be high impact. I can only hope that abominations like A Shark Tale are a thing of the past. Even when they are churning out what could theoretically be a cheap cash-in, they do their damnedest to make sure the thing looks and sounds gorgeous (judging by the 2D images, I imagine that the 3D is spectacular). It's not high art, but I don't expect every Dreamworks film to be as good as Kung Fu Panda 2 or How to Train Your Dragon anymore than I expect every Pixar film to be as good as Up. It's a visual feast and pretty funny when it counts, with a still-refreshing emphasis on small-scale personal issues versus savior fantasies or overt good vs. evil melodramas. If Kung Fu Panda 2 is a Ruth Chris steak, Puss In Boots is a Black Angus filet, and Monsters Vs. Aliens is a Sizzlers flat-iron, then Madagascar 3 is an Applebees sirloin - you know it's not a good cut of meat but it's well-cooked and flavorful as all heck so you only feel a little guilty afterward.

Prometheus (2012)
10 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Come what may, Prometheus is a mid-level version of what it is. By that, I mean it is, in the end, a somewhat generic Alien/The Thing-type horror film. It is mostly science-fiction only in that it takes place in the future and involves inter-stellar travel. Its 'big ideas' can be summed up in two sentences, and they are not only not-revolutionary but recognizable to probably 90% of the viewing audience. It has some truly wonderful visuals and it's arguably worth seeing once purely for some of the images it creates. But as a full-blown movie it doesn't quite work. Like Super 8, it gets tied up with horror elements in its last half that its filmmakers don't truly care about and feel like a commercial concession. Like last summer's botched 80s-Spielberg homage, Prometheus takes advantage of a genre audience so worn down by threatened reboots and remakes that it seems almost groundbreaking that this film is merely a glorified rip-off of earlier genre entries of this nature. While advertised as an original science-fiction epic with tangential ties to the existing Alien franchise, it really is a bigger budgeted and better cast variation of that specific template. Despite must-see production values and some genuinely compelling imagery, it's somewhat closer in quality to The Thing 2011 than The Thing 1982.

Since the marketing campaign has pretended to be cryptic while in fact being quite spoiler-filled, I will try to reveal less than the marketing chose to. After a discovery that drops a big clue about the origins of mankind, a team of 17 hop aboard a spaceship to travel to a distant world that may hold answers to the various 'big questions' of human existence. Of course the scientists immediately find what they are looking for, they record and log the scientific proof of their groundbreaking discoveries, and everyone goes home safely with fortune and glory awaiting them. I jest, but what they find or how explicitly things turn south I won't reveal here. I will say not to expect too many mind-blowing plot twists as there aren't any. What's left unspoiled is merely the existence of storytelling past the second act. It seems that in this day-and-age, the very fact that a film actually has its story unfold over all three acts qualifies any third-act narrative beats as 'shocking plot twists!' (essay).

Other than a few lead characters (personified by Nooni Rapace, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba), the vast majority of the humans are blank slates and even the film doesn't bother to care when a number of them start dying. This is clearly a film more concerned with visuals and its alleged big ideas than with any kind of viewer investment in the people partaking in the journey. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a film that put emphasis on special effects and set design over character was a prototypical bad film, but I guess times have changed. It's fitting that the most engaging and interesting character is not a human but rather a robot, played with duplicitous charm by Michael Fassbender. His interactions with the lead characters make up the bulk of the engaging dialogue scenes in a screenplay otherwise lacking in thoughtful dialogue. It's one thing when you don't care about characters in a genre film, but it's quite another when the filmmakers clearly don't care about them.

As for its alleged profundities, its centered around an age-old theory that most of us first heard about in grade school (highlight to reveal: Chariots of the Gods), yet Ridley Scott and company seem to treat it as never-before explored scientific territory. Most frustratingly, the film teases at some indeed interesting questions brought about by third-act revelations, but it refuses to answer them instead using said concepts as cliffhanger material for a theoretical sequel. There are moments of good storytelling peppered here and there, especially in the first act (the prologue is flat-out spectacular). But the second act gets caught up in halfhearted horror elements (really halfhearted, as in the film loses track of its own body count), first aping the likes of Alien, then moving on to a mostly forgotten 2000 science-fiction drama (hint - *not* Red Planet) before somewhat riffing during the third act on another more recent science-fiction film that ironically shares at least one cast member. There are moments of visual wonder and at least one outstanding scene of squirm-inducing horror (which is the prime reason for the film's R-rating, natch), but overall it fails to compensate for the lack of interesting characters or a narrative that goes beyond the template for the genre.

Prometheus is grandly ambitious in scale and visual scope, using its $130 million budget quite well, as every penny is clearly onscreen. The 3D may be useless to the film, but it looks fine and shooting in the format has forced Ridley Scott, like Michael Bay last year, to tone down the 80-cuts a minute editing style personified by Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. If you choose to see it and can handle 3D, do seek out an IMAX screen for this one. This film is shot and edited in a classical style, with big sweeping shots plus long and fluid takes. The picture looks spectacular, and there are indeed moments of must-see visual splendor. But the size of the film masks what it basically a mega-budget revamp of, if not quite Alien per-se, an Alien-type film. There is no harm with Prometheus merely being a B-level science-fiction horror film dressed up in A-level production values. But the film fails to engage beyond its visuals, with lackluster characters, too few moments of genuine terror or even compelling violence, plus allegedly big ideas that are rehashed from other sources without any unique spin to justify the recycling.

Those expecting a game-changing science-fiction masterwork will be painfully disappointed. Those expecting merely a top-notch variation on the sci-fi "And Then There Were None" template will be only slightly disappointed. Only those who came purely for the eye candy will feel they got their money's worth. Despite all the pomp and circumstance, Prometheus ends up being another scenario on that dry-erase board from Cabin in the Woods.