Thursday, December 18, 2014

"The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies" Review

To call The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies the best of Peter Jackson's second Middle Earth trilogy would be to pick the least of three evils. I enjoyed some of the fleshed-out characterizations. For example, Thorin's transformation from honorable dwarf leader to foolhardy King is interesting, but the rest of the film feels both gratuitous and lazy. 

First of all, there's no reason why the opening scene should not have been part of last year's The Desolation of Smaug. The fight with the dragon at Lake-town feels like an emotional climax to the second film's mini-narrative. It would've worked better as a cliffhanger for the events that immediately follow in Armies. Otherwise, battle scenes are more exhausting than ever before since we have nothing else important happening outside the fighting. Suddenly, I miss having Sam & Frodo climbing Mount Doom to distract me yet keep me on the edge of my seat.

Other important Hobbit character arcs, like those of Bard (Luke Evans) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), never reach satisfying conclusions. It's as if Jackson lost them in the frenetic clusterf**k of a battle and just forgot about them entirely.

The stage feels shoddily set for The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien fans, see at risk of disappointment.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Thoughts on "The Theory of Everything"

The Theory of Everything is a marvelously well-acted love story exploring Stephen Hawking's relationship with his wife. I like how it didn't simply wallow in saccharine, Nicholas Sparks-type romance clichés. It focuses more on the genesis of Hawking's neurodegenerative disease & how that influenced the life that Jane and Stephen had together. 

This is quite unlike any onscreen romantic drama I've seen because it also succeeds as a fascinating biopic of Hawking himself; it's interesting to see his work at Cambridge leading to a mini-climax with him passing his doctoral thesis in physics, and it ends essentially with Hawking as we see him today, giving a lecture soon after being fitted with his assistive wheelchair and speaking device.

I can't quite recommend the film enough, and it's a good one to take your date to.

Eddie Redmayne & Felicity Jones both deserve Oscar nominations.


Friday, November 14, 2014

"Dumb and Dumber To" Review


Dumb And Dumber To offers intermittent laughs that only hit if you're familiar with its far superior & far funnier 1994 predecessor. Nostalgia is ok for a fan like me, but disappointingly, this sequel rarely charts its own comic territory. To be fair, any sequel to Dumb and Dumber has high expectations to meet, at least in my book. Twenty years later, the final product is a major letdown considering the still-capable talents of its two stars, who now find themselves en route to El Paso, Texas. Their mission is to find Harry's estranged daughter so that she can give her dad the kidney he needs for a transplant. Misadventures ensue.

There are still plenty of poop and dick jokes to go around, but they aren't as funny as the previous film. I'm not sure what happened, considering these are essentially the same gags. Perhaps the Farrelly formula is growing stale, since the brothers haven't put out anything great since There's Something About Mary. Or it could be that Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are getting a bit old to be chasing 22 year olds or otherwise sticking their hands in their buttcracks and using the skunky smell to get fresh, free beer. It just doesn't fly anymore. 

Performances are as good as they need to be, except poor Rachel Melvin who comes in as Penny, the daughter. This girl couldn't act her way out of a paper bag. She lays on the ditzy so thick that it's painful to watch at times.

Dumb and Dumber To is a sequel that probably didn't need to be made, except lots of fans expressed a desire for Carrey and Daniels to take up the mantle again to make up for the massive dud that was the 2003 prequel Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. Most audiences should find a few laughs, but if it's nostalgia you want, just watch the first Dumb and Dumber on Netflix.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Fury" Review

Though it lacks in genuine human emotion, Fury is as harrowing and well-acted as the very best war films ever made.

It also offers a refreshing look at World War II that isn't often seen in movies like this; Fury dares us to question American heroism. It left me with the feeling that war and violence conjure the worst of man's behaviors regardless of which side one fights for. At the end of the day, you're heralded as a "hero," but when you're placed in unfamiliar circumstances and forced to act in deplorable ways, how "heroic" are you really?

We follow a rag-tag platoon of five American soldiers operating inside an M4 Sherman tank during the Allies' final push into Nazi Germany. They're your classic "cross-section of humanity" bunch that typically populates these kinds of movies: Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt), the platoon's fearless leader who's never run away from a fight; gunner Boyd "Bible" Swan (a gripping turn by Shia LaBeouf), the born-again type who frequently leads the group in prayer; loader Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal), the hot-head of the group; driver Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña), representing America's diversity; and assistant driver Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a timid newbie suddenly thrust onto the front lines despite being trained as nothing more than a clerk typist.

The crew operates like a dysfunctional family. They're all committed to one another, but they pick on each other like little kids - perhaps as a way of coping with the Hell they've been through.

Of course Pitt's character, in particular, will draw lots of comparisons to Lt. Aldo Raine, the down-home military man he played in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. To be fair, Fury is an entirely different kind of film than Basterds, despite the propensity both characters have for "killin' Nazis." In Fury, Pitt acts effectively with a kind of grizzled charisma befitting of classic, cinematic war heroes - recall Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan or John Wayne in The Longest Day. As such, the audience is hard-wired to root for "Wardaddy" every step of the way, no matter what lengths he goes to in order to get the job done, but it isn't the acting alone that makes Fury so good.

The action is tightly directed by David Ayer, who has experience with stories about men under fire (see Training Day, End of Watch). Combine Ayer's efforts with Dody Dorn's Oscar-worthy film editing, and you've got a master-class in staging and execution of set-piece action. Shots linger just long enough for maximum visceral impact. Despite an abundance of graphic, frenetic violence, I never felt overwhelmed by the movement. The viewer is constantly wary of what's going on. No shaky-cam or quick-cut editing here.

The action sequences truly are grit-your-teeth, edge-of-your-seat intense. I left the theater physically shaken by Fury's last 30 minutes, and I considered that a good thing. I felt like an adrenaline junkie eager for another fix, and as fun as that seemed, I now see my flaw. By making the violence so cinematically harrowing, Ayer indicts the audience in a similar way that his story indicts the mindlessly violent actions of the main characters. Despite Norman's scruples at the start, he seems to begin relishing in the fight as things progress. "Best job I ever had," he chimes in with his battle-hardened chorus. As an audience member, I could hear others in the theater wincing at some of Fury's grislier moments early on, but I can't imagine anyone leaving that theater unshaken or unmoved by the violent spectacle of the film's final act.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Annabelle" Review


Annabelle is a spin-off of last year's horror hit The Conjuring, but that's not to say the film is strictly for the series faithful. Although imperfect as a horror movie and certainly not on the narrative or technical levels of its immediate predecessor, there's enough here to let Annabelle stand proudly on its own merits with its freak-flag high.

The film picks up sometime before the events of The Conjuring with a young Catholic family listening to a Sunday sermon about what sacrifice means in the eyes of God - that it pleases Him and moves His hand to act in positive ways. The crux of the story, however, is the inverse of that; sacrifice to Satan conjures unspeakable evil. Our family, Mia (appropriately, Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton), are about to welcome a new baby into their lives. One night, Mia and John's next-door neighbors are brutally slain by their estranged daughter, Annabelle, and her boyfriend, who are members of a satanic cult. When John intervenes next door, he inadvertently sics the satanic sickos on himself, his wife and their unborn child. The police arrive just in time to quell the situation, and detectives later insist that this was a heinous act of violence for violence's sake. "Crazy people do crazy things," says Detective Clarkin (Eric Ladin). But Mia starts to experience strange happenings around the home, all seeming to originate from a rare doll in the baby's room that Annabelle took a liking to moments before she was killed.

It seems Annabelle sacrificed her parents in homage to the devil, thus conjuring a demon from Hell. (The other title makes sense now, doesn't it??) Upon her death, the demon uses the doll as a conduit, like a doorway into the sentient world. It preys on Mia and her family in search of another sacrifice - a soul that it can take back to Hell.

Myriad jump scares and Rosemary's Baby allusions ensue.

The acting isn't great especially from Horton as John, the young family patriarch. His character is never around when the bad stuff happens to his wife, so he consistently abandons his post as a med student in-training to come running to his wife's rescue. This is a narrative pattern which quickly grows annoying. There are times when you think John has real Guy Woodhouse potential but instead remains disappointingly one-note.

Some of the scares work and some don't, despite a consistent sense of dread throughout. I always felt like something bad could happen at any time, even during the day. There are plenty of cheap jumps like most horror movies, but there are also plenty of really freakin' scary ones too, in particular those involving the demon in the film's latter half. Genre fans will have to experience this one for themselves and decide if Annabelle is worthy or not, but my extremely low expectations were definitely surpassed.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Gone Girl" Review

I'll attempt to make this as spoiler-free a summary as possible. Just know that if you haven't yet read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl novel, then you should stop reading this review right now, reconsider your life choices and then go buy/borrow a copy.

Seriously, it's a great book that's translated into an equally brilliant film.

Anyone nervous about an adaptation of Gone Girl needs only to heed this advice: trust in Flynn. The author has practically adapted the screenplay for this neo-noir movie verbatim from the pages of her own source text, but that's not what makes this new version great.

Performances are spot on, and the pacing makes the film feel an hour shorter than its listed 2 hour-29 minute running time. Coincidentally, Gone Girl also happens to be perfect material for director David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network).

To get a sense of what the audience is in for, the tone is set with some creepy opening lines from Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck). Something to the effect of "when I think of my wife, I always think of her head. I picture cracking it open, unspooling her brains just to answer the question: 'what do you think about?'"

From there, we get a bleak tale about a perfect marriage gone so sour that accusations of abuse, neglect, rape and possibly murder run rampant throughout national media. With the police and the general public against him, the typically callow Nick is forced to change his nonchalant tune after the disappearance of his beautiful wife Amy (Rosamund Pike).

The disappearance/kidnapping angle has been done a thousand times in movies and on television. Prisoners is a recent example of just how intense and terrifying this concept can be when executed properly. Gone Girl takes a bit of a different angle, which is what makes the story so great.

As Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty put it, "the movie asks: How much did Nick know about his wife? But what it's really asking the audience is: How much do any of us know about our partners?" Tasty food for thought and discussion once the mystery unfolds before us.

Affleck is a guy that people love to hate, but his turn as Nick may be the most nuanced performance of his career. If trusted to other hands, this character might've come off too smarmy, but Affleck plays it with a cool, collected, everyman charm that makes his Nick believable.

Concerns have been raised in the past about the relatively untested Pike, but her turn as Amy catapults her straight into both the A-list and early Oscar discussions. Much of the tension comes from these two leads teetering on the brink of insanity, like two volcanoes about to erupt on each other, and Pike and Affleck play it so perfectly, so restrained, that it's difficult to picture anyone else succeeding so wonderfully in these parts.

Fincher orchestrates the action beautifully. This is the guy who made a movie about Facebook feel more gripping than a dozen summer superhero blockbusters. He adds to his ever-growing list of masterpieces by bringing to life a labyrinthine noir that Hitchcock would've been proud of.

Though the ending may not sit well with everyone (it was my only major gripe about the book), fans of Flynn's novel should be thoroughly pleased. More casual moviegoers will enjoy a dark, heady mystery with terrific performances and deft direction. Likely the most well-rounded, well-crafted studio thriller of the year.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

"This Is Where I Leave You" Review

This Is Where I Leave You is a serviceable R-rated comedy about a dysfunctional Jewish family sitting Shiva after the death of their patriarch. For one week, four grown siblings are forced to live at home with their loudmouth mother, where each of them grapples with their broken relationships between each other, their respective spouses, exes, and "Great White Buffaloes."

It boasts an all-star cast, among them Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda. As director Shawn Levy's first R-rated flick, there's plenty to enjoy, but in the end you might be pining to leave the theater for your Netflix queue, where you can catch up on Bateman's funnier and admittedly edgier comedy series Arrested Development, also about a dysfunctional family. Go figure.

Aside from the cast of A-list players (Bateman, Fey, Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Kathryn Hahn, Dax Shepard, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton, and House of Cards' Corey Stoll), what I admire most about the film is how writer Jonathan Tropper (adapting his own best-selling book) lends each character his or her own problems and allows ample room for each of them to flesh these issues out without the film feeling unfocused. It's nice that everyone gets a little time to shine.

The cast has a natural chemistry that makes their circumstances believable. Don't be surprised if you find yourself researching afterwards to see if Bateman and Fey aren't actually brother and sister; or at least distantly related in some way.

Aside from an uncomfortable scene involving Hahn, Bateman, and the possibility of infidelity for the sake of conception, I felt at times like this could've been my own family.

Some viewers might feel that TIWILY comes off as a simple-minded "white people problems" movie, or that as a whole, the film isn't as funny as it should've been with a cast like this. Both estimations wouldn't be entirely false. There's a late family revelation that fans of the book may be anticipating, but the film makes it feel like a slapdash twist - one last-ditch effort to hammer home the idea that this contrived family comedy is relevant to today's media landscape. I didn't appreciate it.

The cast alone is worth the price of admission, and there's enough to enjoy in this story to make it a solid date-night choice. That is if staying in, cuddling, and watching Arrested Development on Netflix aren't options.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" Review

After nine years, something has been lost in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's follow-up to the original Sin City film from 2005. The visual aesthetic is still striking, and the performances are all perfectly zany. But the chapters in this new story don't gel quite as nicely as before. In turn, this Dame packs less punch that it leads on.

We pick up a few years after the end of the first Sin City. Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe) appears to have a larger role than before, with a tighter grip on the city now that Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is gone. Nancy (Jessica Alba) is struggling to find meaning in her life without Hartigan's guidance. She starts to find it with help from Marv (Mickey Rourke). 

At some point, the narrative is presented in a slightly disjointed fashion, seeming to try and service as both a sequel and prequel at the same time. I say "prequel" because we have Josh Brolin taking over the role of Dwight from Clive Owen. It works to some extent. The visuals are always eye-popping, and the acting performances are appropriately zany. But Brolin's segment often feels padded with unnecessary exposition, seemingly for the sole purpose of tying in more characters, like Chris Meloni & Jeremy Piven as a pair of foolhardy detectives. 

Brolin plays Dwight "pre-facial reconstruction surgury"; this surgery is what would lead him to look like Owen in the first film. We also get to see how Manute (Dennis Haysbert) got that funky gold eye...

I enjoyed the addition of Eva Green as the titular "dame" Ava, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, the bastard son of Senator Roark (Boothe), but I prefer Owen's rendition of Dwight to Brolin's. Rourke's Marv is arguably the most fun character to watch across both films.

Fans of the last movie or of Miller's original graphic novels are the only clientele that need apply. All others will be better off saving their money.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

"The Giver" Review

Phillip Noyce directs The Giver, based on the Newberry Medal-winning book by Lois Lowry, with style and grace. The film possesses the appropriate visual flair, but save for a handful of acting performances, the rest of the production falls flat. In 2014, the story just doesn't translate well from page to screen. If this had come out 15 or 20 years ago, The Giver may be considered a landmark in young adult / science fiction storytelling much like its original source material was.

Everyone who read the book in 8th grade might remember a handful of things about The Giver. It follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a boy who lives in a utopian society devoid of color or emotion. There are no feelings of jealousy or hatred; no war, crime, poverty, love, or joy.

Now here's where the creative liberties really set in. In the film, Jonas is about 18 years old instead of 12. At that age, kids are selected for their careers within society. Jonas is chosen to inherit the position of "receiver of memory." Every day, he trains with a mysterious community elder called "the giver" (Jeff Bridges) who lives in a strange dwelling on the edge of the city. Through his training, Jonas learns what life was like before "sameness." Perhaps the story's greatest strength is how he grapples with the weight of these emotions and memories.

What kinda sucks about the movie is that they give Jonas a 17-year-old Mila Kunis lookalike (Odeya Rush) to serve as the object of his affections, once he finally learns what those feelings mean. He implores this girl, Fiona, to come with him and the baby Gabriel as they attempt to escape to the "boundary of memory." The screenwriters essentially turn the third act into a rousing, mildly violent, prison escape piece which definitely isn't what the book is about. I guess they had to do something to make the latter part of the story cinematically engaging.

Meryl Streep stars as the Chief Elder; an actress who can typically set her films apart from the competition singlehandedly. Even with the equally incomparable Bridges at her side, Streep's performance isn't quite enough to distinguish The Giver from the Hunger Games and Divergent movies of today. However she proves to be a rather menacing blockbuster villain.

On the whole, the movie's liberties are inconsolable despite strong performances and satisfying visuals. Count me out if they decide to make Gathering Blue.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Let's Be Cops" Review

It's far from a masterpiece, but Let's Be Cops proves to be a satisfyingly hilarious buddy-cop adventure from Luke Greenfield, a director with a pretty weak back catalog including flops such as The Animal and Something Borrowed.

Heck, it earns points for at least being an original concept with a unique spin on its subgenre. 

The film re-teams lead actors Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr., perhaps best known for their respective roles as Nick and Coach on FOX's New Girl. The two bring their familiar chemistry to the table once again, which proves to be the movie's greatest strength despite a couple nagging character flaws.

Ryan O'Malley (Johnson) is a deadbeat who spends his time re-living the glory days of his college football career by playing pick-up games with the neighborhood kids. Justin Miller (Wayans) is Ryan's roommate and has been struggling to find acceptance in his career as a video game designer. Both of these guys are enormous tools; Ryan always take things too far, and Justin tends to run away when the going gets tough.

One night the pair decide to attend a costume party dressed as police officers. During their night out girls on the street start looking at them lustfully, and guys come up to give high-fives. With their tarnished egos adequately inflated, Ryan and Justin proceed to take on the responsibilities of real policemen. These newly-minted "cops" are forced to walk a fine line between coming clean and acting for the greater good when they find themselves caught up in an organized crime ring. In the process, the guys come to find their self-worth, and their major flaws are remedied.

The leads are bolstered by a strong supporting cast, including Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries), James D'Arcy (Cloud Atlas), Rob Riggle (21 Jump Street), and Andy Garcia (The Untouchables). Dobrev and Riggle prove the most endearing to watch, while D'Arcy's and Garcia's roles are fairly one-note for such talented players.

It more than serves its purpose as a mindless late-summer comedy, but Let's Be Cops comes out a decided second to this summer's other buddy feature 22 Jump Street.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" Review

Not good by any stretch of the imagination, though not nearly the disaster I had anticipated, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merely squeaks by as mindless summer entertainment. It's nothing more than "froth," if you will, as Will Arnett's character puts it. Sometimes that's all you need, but this adaptation isn't quite brainy enough to earn my hearty recommendation.

No offense, Donatello.

Fans of the Turtles franchise have probably seen this plot carried out before: during a freak laboratory accident, a young April O'Neil saves four baby turtles and a rat by dropping them in a sewer. Years later, April (Megan Fox) is now a news reporter hot on the tail of a conspiracy to take over New York City. As she investigates, April crosses paths with her grown-up pets who now act as vigilantes fighting against the evil of Shredder and his private army known as the Foot Clan.

It's pretty standard good-versus-evil stuff, although a handful of action sequences prove to be rather diverting. Late in the film, there's a downhill chase on a snow-covered mountain that shows just how clever and fun these turtles can be outside their usual cityscape.

I've heard lots of complaints about the way the turtles themselves are portrayed this time around. Actually, the filmmakers get the banter between the characters just right. You get a strong sense of brotherhood among these guys, and it's easy to tell they're teenagers with one or two cringe-worthy fart / boner jokes just in case anyone forgot.

The biggest issue is the fact that these "teenage mutant turtles" are about the furthest thing from "ninjas" you could imagine. Mikey, Donnie, Leo and Raph are all enormous brutes who look like they could go toe-to-toe with the Incredible Hulk much less round up puny Foot soldiers in the dead of night. These turtles frequently rely on brute strength to take care of things, hurling trucks at bad guys or punching them across whole rooms. These ain't the TMNT I know from my childhood.

Aside from the decent motion capture and voice work from Johnny Knoxville, Tony Shaloub, Jimmy Howard, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek and Alan Ritchson, the human performances are pretty dull. Fox is always nice to look at, but her display of emotion is about as engaging and wooden as a 2x4. Arnett isn't funny as Vern Fenwick, April's cameraman. It's annoying that he just tries to get in her pants the entire time. William Fichtner also stars as the shady businessman Eric Sacks, a role that the actor could play in his sleep.

This Michael Bay production is better than Transformers: Age of Extinction, but there have been so many better blockbusters this summer that this iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is largely worth skipping.


"Boyhood" Pocket Review

If the film BOYHOOD is playing in your area, I urge you to check it out. It's a coming-of-age story that doesn't follow a typical narrative formula as much as it simply captures the essence of growing up. It's filled with hilarious moments made even funnier when you realize you've gone through the same experiences that Mason has. Terrific performances all around. Standouts include Ellar Coltrane as our boy, Mason, and Ethan Hawke as his estranged father. Director Richard Linklater filmed a little bit every year for 12 years with the same core cast! This is the year's best movie so far. 


Friday, August 1, 2014

"Guardians of the Galaxy" Review

It may not quite be the summer "savior" many had hoped, but Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy proves a raucously refreshing breath of clean air for the superhero genre. It may also be the funniest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Peter Quill a.k.a. "Star-Lord" (Chris Pratt) becomes the object of a galaxy-traversing manhunt when he steals a mysterious orb from a distant planet. Hot on his tail is Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), your traditional MCU villain, hellbent on usurping the mighty Thanos (a surprising turn by Josh Brolin) as ruler of the universe. In order to stop Ronan, Quill relies on a handful of misfits for help. Among them are an assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a muscle-bound psychopath named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, on hiatus from WWE), and a pair of anthropomorphic show-stealers. There's a walking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and a talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper).

Cooper's voice is practically unrecognizable as he attempts some goofy New York accent to bring Rocket to life. He and Groot handle most of the film's funniest moments. There's plenty of self-deprecating humor to go around, as the group are frequently referred to as "a-holes" and "a bunch of jackasses."  I think I actually laughed harder during Guardians than I did during 22 Jump Street. 

And I'd be remiss not to mention the stellar soundtrack. Music plays a big part in Quill's life, and it has an infectious effect on not only his compatriots but the audience as well. The playlist consists of several of the biggest hits from the 70s, including "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5, "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum, and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye.

On the flip side, I thought Ronan did nothing to separate himself from the Lokis and the Malekiths of previous MCU films. I wished for him to move out of the way so Thanos could finally take center stage. Sadly we haven't quite gotten there yet. Additionally, I felt the plot suffered due to a lack of backstory for most of the characters. Following our "guardians" on their quest feels jarring at times because we're suddenly thrown into action with a bunch of freaks we know nothing about.

I think the main reason why we're expected to "just go with it" is that the Guardians have a dysfunctional family dynamic that's not unlike the Avengers. They come together to fight a common enemy, but they have a hard time playing nice with one another. If nothing else, I'm happy this character dynamic somehow works because I'll never be able to take a talking tree seriously.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Planes: Fire & Rescue" Review

As a film dedicated to firefighters and first responders, Disney's latest animated adventure has good intentions. Its heart is in the right place, but as a family feature Planes: Fire & Rescue lacks the imagination of recent efforts like The Lego Movie and How to Train Your Dragon 2.

If you saw last summer's Planes (a spin-off from Disney/Pixar's Cars) this new chapter picks up with many of your favorite characters returning. Of course Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) is the star of the show.

We find Dusty pushing himself to the brink of disaster in the middle of a race. While he assumes he's done well, he doesn't realize the strain he's putting on his gearbox. If that piece of machinery was to fail in another race, Dusty could meet an untimely demise. As a result, he decides to leave his racing days behind him and become a firefighter. Dusty joins forces with Blade Ranger (Ed Harris) and his team of first responders, a.k.a. The Smokejumpers, to combat wildfires near Piston Peak.

Kids will love the goofy characters and the action-packed set pieces. There's even a handful of tongue-in-cheek jokes to keep the parents engaged for a little while, but that isn't enough to escape the generic plot design.

With the plethora of other, better, kid-friendly options out there, we probably didn't need a so-so sequel to a so-so spin-off to the least of the Pixar franchises.

Besides, when Dane Cook is your lead voice actor (let alone your lead actor in anything), you ought to know something is suspect.

If you want to take your kids out to a fun movie, make it How to Train Your Dragon 2. If you'd rather save a few bucks, rent/buy The Lego Movie or, heck, Frozen instead.


Monday, July 14, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Review


Dawn is as good an action sequel as you're likely to see in this day and age. It joins the ranks of The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back as blockbuster part-twos that surpass their predecessors in almost every way.

It picks up nearly 10 years after the events of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Mankind has been crippled by the Simian flu. Cities have been reduced to rubble and reclaimed by the flora & fauna. The few humans lucky enough to be genetically immune to the disease exist in small colonies around the globe. Our focus remains on what's left in San Francisco - ground zero for the flu outbreak. The last of the city's scientists, engineers, and doctors attempt to establish communication with the outside world as their power supply dwindles. A small contingency of San Francisco survivors (led by Jason Clarke & Keri Russell) makes contact with a group of apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) while looking for a dam that could re-juice the city's power.

Most of the apes have been conditioned to fear man after the events of Rise. But things take an interesting turn when the primates get ahold of a human weapons cache, and a power struggle ensues in the simian ranks. 

They quickly become some of the NRA's hairiest members.

The visual effects work from Weta Digital is astounding, as both the environments and the apes that inhabit them appear gloriously lifelike.  I'd swear Maurice was an actual trained orangutan. 

You can witness all the scars and emotions of these animals in graphic detail. The motion capture artists, led by the incomparable Serkis, do well to get the audience invested in their primate characters by showcasing very human emotions as we are placed alongside them in their desolate world. 

The human characters aren't quite as interesting. Performances from Clarke and Russell feel mostly hollow. Not even Gary Oldman can muster enough audience empathy to make us care about Dreyfus, the head of the San Francisco colony. 

With the seeds of war between the humans and apes planted, you can bet we're in for one helluva part three. 


Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Tammy" Review


In Tammy Melissa McCarthy is as silly as ever and proves that she can indeed carry a full-length picture. However this vanity project from her and co-star/co-writer/director & real-life husband Ben Falcone offers little more than a handful of laughs.

Tammy features a supporting cast of some of the best comic actors in the business, but none of them are given enough to work with. Susan Sarandon stars as Tammy's grandmother, the Louise to her Thelma. Allison Janney & Dan Akroyd play Tammy's parents. Nat Faxon plays Tammy's husband, and Toni Collette gets in a line or two as the homewrecker from down the street. Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Gary Cole, and Mark Duplass round out the supporting cast.
There are countless other road-trip comedies that offer better characters and more gut-busting hilarity. If you're a fan of McCarthy's shtick, you'll find enough to enjoy here, but all others need not apply. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Deliver Us From Evil" Review

The good outweighs both the bad and the ugly in Deliver Us From Evil, the new supernatural crime thriller from director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean).

After investigating a series of bizarre crimes, NYPD sergeant Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) discovers a greater game afoot involving soldiers from the Iraq War, a painting company, and some creepy Latin symbology, the origin of which remains largely unexplained.

What sets this apart from most exorcism movies is the addition of the buddy-cop dynamic. Sarchie's partner on the force, Butler (Joel McHale), gets in a few decent one-liners which, as another reviewer put it, "feel as though they could've been ripped straight from a Community spoof of cop movies."

Whether that's good or bad depends on how you like your police dramas. For me McHale's part is a little too corny, but it does inject a little lightheartedness to the otherwise dour proceedings.

When Butler's not around, Sarchie pairs up with Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), a Jesuit priest who specializes in the study of demonology. Together, they piece together the supernatural puzzle laid out before them.

It would be a well-written story if Derrickson and scribing partner Paul Harris Boardman had exorcised a few genre clichés along the way. I remain a Derrickson fan for his assured grasp on spooky atmospherics, but he doesn't approach the horror here with the same slow-burn suspense that made Sinister such a guilty pleasure. Deliver Us From Evil is good for maybe one or two jump scares. Otherwise, it just kinda feels like a poor man's version of David Fincher's Se7en.

On the whole the actors all provide serviceable performances, and the film itself is never actually boring despite a slew of clichés that ruin most of the scares. If you're in the mood for something dark and intense, you could do far worse than Deliver Us From Evil, but you could do much better too.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Transformers: Age of Extinction" Review

Michael Bay, the filmmaker everyone loves to hate, returns for fourth helpings of the Transformers franchise with a film that probably should've been subtitled "Age of ExSTINKtion". The small, fleeting moments of classic summer fun are drowned out by brain-rattling explosions and sounds of crunching metal.

The story - if you can really call it that - picks up when Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a down-on-his-luck inventor, makes a discovery that brings the remaining Transformers - and a team of government bad-guys - down on himself and his loved ones (Nicola Peltz, TJ Miller, Jack Raynor).

The bureaucratic baddies and their corporate conspirators (led by Kelsey Grammar and Stanley Tucci, respectively) have figured out the most diabolical, green-friendly best practices ever by harvesting alien scraps from the Battle of Chicago (see Transformers: Dark of the Moon) to literally build and customize their own Transformers.

There's a toy tie-in there somewhere...

On several occasions, the Autobots are told that the humans don't need their "kind" anymore; that "the age of the Transformers is over". There are a few problems with this:

1.) Sadly, their age is not over. Transformers 5 has been green-lit. Meanwhile, Dramamine sales skyrocket...
2.) Racist, much?
3.) The human villains would be nothing without Decepticon back-up, so clearly some Transformers are still needed.

I blame series scribe Ehren Kruger for the plot holes, caricaturist characters, and 6th-grade-level dialogue. For example:

Cade, to Savoy (a Black Ops military official): 

"You can't search there. You need a warrant!"


"My FACE is the warrant!"

But does anyone really watch a Transformers movie for a master class in screenwriting or storytelling? No. You go for the spectacle. You go to have your senses assaulted in an IMAX theater. At nearly three hours in length, Age of Extinction has a bit too much of that. After a certain point, the combat wears you out. Everything after that is like a hammer to the skull.

Many audiences had hoped Bay would either leave this clunker of a franchise to more capable hands or learn the error of his ways and correct things for future installments. Save for Tucci, who continues to elevate whatever material he's given, the humans in these films have been rather square. I, for one, would like to see a Transformers movie without people in it, since they've always been superfluous anyway. Age of Extinction has the best sequel setup of the series, and if they stick to it properly, Bay and company might avoid yet another suck-fest.

My only fear is that Paramount Pictures may be the ones unwilling to change their tune after netting $300 million at the worldwide box office this opening weekend.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"How to Train Your Dragon 2" Review


How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the kind of sequel we just don't get very often. It's bold, funny, thrilling, gorgeously animated, and is just more of a blast than the first.

The film picks up a few years after the events of the first How to Train Your Dragon. The people of Berk have assimilated to living life alongside the dragons instead of fighting them. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless discover a cave that's home to hundreds of dragons, as well as the mysterious Dragon Rider (Cate Blanchett). 

Together, and eventually along with Burk's finest dragon riders (all your favorite characters from the first movie), they must face Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a villain hell-bent on building a dragon army to rule the world. 

Though he adds a welcome bit of darkness and maturity to the franchise, Drago seems pretty cliche as the villain. The creative team at DreamWorks literally made him so dark and nasty that the audience has no choice but to hate him. His motives are obscure, and he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Drago is the most static character in a movie of otherwise interesting, endearing personalities.

If you enjoyed the first movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2 will knock your socks off. It isn't quite as fresh or inventive as The Lego Movie, but it's a strong dose of summer fun nonetheless. 


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Chef" Review

Coming off of three massive studio blockbusters (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens), writer/director Jon Favreau has returned to his indie roots with Chef, a charming tale about the benefits of "starting from scratch" when life beats you down.

The film is very funny and features some of the finest food porn ever committed to celluloid. Some of the images and dialogue are so vivid that you can almost smell the barbecued pork wafting through the theater. Plan your day's meals accordingly.

Favreau brings an all-star cast out to play here, and with such a list of names one might think somebody isn't getting enough screen time. That really isn't the case. Think of Chef as a big pot of stew that gets its "zing" from the right balance of flavors that this cast brings to the material. Not a single character overstays their welcome.

Favreau stars as Chef Carl Casper with Sofia Vergara as his ex-wife (who the hell divorces that woman??), Dustin Hoffman as the overbearing restaurant owner, Scarlett Johansson as the restaurant hostess and Casper's occasional hook-up, John Leguizamo as Casper's close friend Martin, Bobby Cannavale as the restaurant's sous chef, Oliver Platt as the acclaimed food critic who sends Casper's career into a tailspin, and Robert Downey Jr. as the man who single-handedly snaps our hero out of it.

It's on the rare occasion that disbelief must be suspended in order to completely enjoy what's on our visual plate here. Vergara plays it way too safe as Casper's ex-wife Inez. They're supposed to be divorced, but the reasons behind their separation are rather ambiguous. Favreau and Vergara play so nicely together one would think their characters were married the whole time.

Also, no self-respecting, recently-promoted sous chef would ever leave a secure job to help start a food truck. Leguizamo does that here in a span of what appears to be minutes.

In the end Chef turns out to be the first, great, feel-good movie of 2014. It has the humor, the grub, the story, and the endearing characters to rival other great "foodie" comedies, like Big Night.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Think Like a Man Too" Review

This summer's follow-up to 2012's Think Like a Man is a PG-13 version of The Hangover with couples. If Sony was willing to shoot for an R-rating, it's quite possible they might've had a comedy to rival both The Hangover and Bridesmaids. 

Out of the two TLAM films, I enjoy each for the small handful of laugh-out-loud moments as well as the breezy chemistry between the entire cast. Kevin Hart stands out as the most hilarious of the bunch. Make no mistake, that man is at the top of his game.

The problem here is that we don't need another Hangover, let alone a watered-down version. The original Think Like a Man is based on Steve Harvey's self-help book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, and it shows us how the couples all come together by following the book's advice in different ways. Parts of it are very clever and very funny. Think Like a Man Too bears almost no loyalty to its source material, isn't quite as funny, and thus is less engaging than the original overall.

It's really nothing more than a mindless summer comedy. Sometimes that's all you need, but I like my laughs a bit edgier. Everyone involved is more talented than this.

The ensemble includes Hart, Michael Ealy, Taraji P. Henson, Regina Hall, Terrence J, Romany Malco, Meagan Good, Jerry Ferrara, Gabrielle Union, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Gary Owen.

Tim Story directs.


"Jersey Boys" Review

Who knew Clint Eastwood's take on a Broadway musical would turn out to be one of 2014's best films? 

Jersey Boys feels a lot like a Goodfellas musical. The story chronicles the life and music of Frankie Valli and his music group The Four Seasons. Valli (John Lloyd Young), Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) each narrate a different stage in the band's career together - from their come-up in a rough New Jersey neighborhood to their ties with the mafia to their eventual fall from grace - in a fourth-wall shattering style that audiences should recognize from House of Cards.

To drill down the feeling of authenticity, Eastwood elected to use mostly stage actors who were already familiar with their roles. Fans of Boardwalk Empire might recognize Piazza but otherwise, Christopher Walken is the only familiar screen actor in the whole production.

The music is fun, the production design is solid and the story is engaging throughout. Don't miss out on the summer's best film so far.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

"22 Jump Street" Review

22 Jump Street is more of the same, and it knows it. This is a sequel packed with hilariously self-referential jokes, as well as some occasional meta-humor that seemed to go over the head of almost everyone in the theater other than myself. Good thing I don't get embarrassed about laughing alone.

More of the same might be a bad thing for some, but make no mistake that 22 Jump Street is one of the funniest comedy sequels ever made. It matches its predecessor in practically every way and occasionally trumps it with riotous sequences involving Jenko's (Channing Tatum) revelation about Captain Dickson's (Ice Cube) daughter and the entire first half of the closing credits.

Tatum and Jonah Hill are a mismatch made in comedy heaven. The perfect "bromantic" duo should each have what the other one lacks; thus completing each other when they come together. Tatum has physical prowess that makes Hill even funnier when he can't climb up a truck or leap from balcony to balcony. "I can't move like Spider-Man!" as Hill exclaims in one scene.

That works both ways. Hill brings a pseudo-improvisational intelligence to his role as Schmidt that makes the character appear quick-witted while Tatum's Jenko plays hilariously awkward catch-up. I recall a scene with the boys undercover investigating the "Mexican Wolverine" which some might remember from the trailers.

If I had one inhibition about 22 Jump Street, it's that over half of the film's run time is one long gay joke that runs out of steam quickly. While assuming his new identity as a college freshman, Jenko starts finding himself in a little too deep when he joins the university football squad and a fraternity with his teammates. There's a dynamic between Jenko and one or two of the guys there that's funny only for about five minutes. For a film franchise with such a colorful variety of jokes, it's disappointing to see the creative minds (screenwriters Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman) stop just a tad short of inspired comedy genius.

The majority of the film is pure gold though, and I left with a headache from laughing so hard. If you enjoyed the 21 Jump Street reboot a few years ago, you'll love this sequel.


Monday, June 9, 2014

"The Fault in Our Stars" Review

If you're a fan of the young adult-romance novel by John Green, see this movie. If you're like me and haven't yet read the book, Fox 2000's film adaptation is a high point in the recent rom-com landscape.

What I appreciate most about Fault is the fact that the star-crossed, cancer-stricken lovers, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), never beg the audience's sympathy. Hazel, especially, tells her story how it is, and nothing ever comes off feeling sugar-coated. That level of authenticity with her character is what makes Hazel easy to sympathize with, not her terminal condition.

Fox couldn't have picked two stronger screenwriters to bring this particular story to the big screen. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have had a very successful track record with the teen-centric, romantic-"dramedy" films (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. My only major complaint about the movie is that the parents are sketched rather thinly. While the story has always focused on the relationship between Hazel and Gus, their parents serve as larger supporting players in the book. At least that's what my 16-year-old sister tells me.

Laura Dern and Sam Trammell play Hazel's mom and dad, while David Whalen and Milica Govich are featured as Gus's parents. Whalen and Govich are barely accessory to the story while Dern and Trammell handle the most duty as the "voices of reason." Trammell fares decently as a father trying to cope with his daughter's disease while allowing her to live the life that she wants for herself. In hindsight, Dern just reminds me of Amy Poehler as Regina George's "cool mom" in Mean Girls in the sense that she always seems to let Hazel do her own thing with little to no concern. C'mon, really? Your daughter is freaking dying of cancer!

And call me heartless, but the climax of the story is a fairly predictable, albeit emotional, one. As such, I managed to escape the theater with my tissue box untouched.

Fault is an otherwise strong young-adult adaptation that raises the bar for romantic comedy and drama films in 2014.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Edge of Tomorrow" Review

It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to see that the slew of blockbusters we've seen the last few summers haven't been very good. After a while, it's all started to look the same. It's sad that it's now considered rare for studios to take a chance on a big film that's actually original. I don't necessarily mean original "in concept"; only for the simple fact that it isn't a reboot or a franchise sequel.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Edge of Tomorrow is that rare season original that stands out from the rest of the pack. What at first looked to me like an insipid video game rip-off with Tom Cruise turned out to be a clever, zippy, intense, and unexpectedly hilarious summer sci-fi outing.

Cruise stars as William Cage, a major in the United States Army who has so far avoided the front lines of an alien war by serving as a liaison to the world press. When new orders come in, Cage is shipped to the battlefront in Europe to meet the enemy head on. With no combat experience, he finds himself trapped in a time loop, living and dying in the same failed military attack again and again. Unsurprisingly, Cage eventually comes to hone his skills with the help of a Special Forces warrior named Rita Vritaski (Emily Blunt). Each cycle brings them closer to defeating the supposedly unbeatable enemy.

Such a high concept avoids coming off heavy-handed in the deft hands of director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity). He has a keen eye for executing big set pieces while keeping the more intimate scenes just as engaging. The fact that the special effects are terrific, and the 3D transfer is one of the coolest I've ever seen cement the film's status as a standout blockbuster event rather than deride it.

Cruise and Blunt share decent chemistry that could used just a little improvement. But the pair bring so much energy to their roles that they're still fun to watch for two hours anyway.

Some might find the "Groundhog Day" concept of repeating events to get a bit tedious. That's understandable, but I found enough variance in each cycle to keep the entire production fresh. Every event serves to move the plot forward or to deepen our understanding of the characters. Writers Chris McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, The Usual Suspects), Jez Butterworth (The Last Legion) and John-Henry Butterworth (Get On Up) smartly approach the loop with the same sense of humor which characterized Groundhog Day and the intensity of Saving Private Ryan. You can't ask much more from a summer movie.

Don't be surprised if you find yourself slightly confounded by the ending. It helps if you have a friend to discuss with afterwards. That's what worked for me, and together we hashed it out in about 10 seconds.

Because it isn't part of a franchise, Warner Brothers is projecting Edge of Tomorrow to flop at the box office. MAKE SURE THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN! This will likely shape up to be the summer's most satisfying movie, so do not miss it, and be sure to see it in 3D.


Friday, May 23, 2014

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" Review

DOFP may very well be the finest "X-Men" film ever.

I was concerned after the first couple trailers that the movie might seem a bit overcrowded by combining the timelines of both First Class and the original X-Men trilogy. I'm glad to say that DOFP never suffers this flaw, as it primarily focuses on only a handful of X-Men. 

Fans looking for more action from, say, Colossus, Warpath, or Bishop may not be totally satisfied.

But what's great about the X-Men in general is that they have always been a dysfunctional family of unique individuals, and that dynamic is supremely relatable. Director Bryan Singer and company do a great job at capturing this once again, despite the main focus being on only a relatively small contingency of main characters. 

Most of the cast have been portraying these characters for nearly 15 years. This means that they've been able to fine-tune their performances in ways that make the emotional depth of their characters more convincing now.

In DOFP, the film kicks off with the X-Men and Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants joining forces to battle a common enemy - the Sentinels, the spawn of a program orchestrated in the early 70s by Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). The program kicks into high gear after his death. In order to prevent the Sentinels from ever being created, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and Magneto (Ian McKellan) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to alter the course of history and save mutantkind.

To do so, he must enlist the younger versions of Charles and Erik (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender respectively), as well as a handful of other friends (Hank McCoy a.k.a "Beast" [Nicholas Hoult] and a scene-stealing Quicksilver [Evan Peters]). 

The action scenes are spectacular, and the visuals quite stunning. A sequence with Fassbender lifting RFK Stadium and moving it over Washington, D.C. like a flying saucer stands out.

Though the X-Men films have always been able to make audiences think, that doesn't mean they're totally perfect, and DOFP is no exception. Like I don't think Kitty has the ability to send people through time in the comics. Some action junkies might also find the film a bit too wordy for their tastes. DOFP also lacks the game-changing force of Marvel cinematic cousin Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though it essentially undoes the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. Most fans probably won't find fault with that though. 

The story of DOFP ties together nicely in the end before a post-credits teaser which sets up 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Godzilla" Review

Oddly enough, Godzilla director Gareth Edwards' previous movie was an indie sci-fi flick called Monsters. As his first major studio production, Edwards brings a dark visual style which empasizes the tease. Lighting and shadows are the director's best friend in Godzilla. Edwards loves faking us out and showing us bits and pieces of his massive beast(s) before the big reveal.

This only serves to make that first deafening roar when the "King of the Monsters" finally stomps into frame all the more epic. An action sequence at Honolulu International Airport justifies my willingness to shell out for an IMAX ticket. 

The visual effects are spectacular. Entire cities turn to rubble as Godzilla hunts down the M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) to keep them from spawning and wiping out the entire planet. 

Yes, Godzilla is essentially, and quite literally, the world's largest cock-blocker.

The monster scenes are a treat, and it never bothered me that Godzilla doesn't actually appear consistently on-screen until the last 30 to 45 minutes. Not much screen time for a movie bearing his name. 

I found myself only marginally less intrigued by the human story. We live in an age where it seems natural disasters and other catastrophes occur almost daily. Taking this angle gives the film a bit of a contemporary feel for our post-Katrina landscape. 

However, the Eco-friendly message is way more subtle than the anti-war/anti-nuclear one in the original Gojira. In that sense, the 2014 update has a bit of its edge dulled.

The acting performances here are okay, but they end up feeling superfluous by the time the real showdown begins. Bryan Cranston is in this movie for about 15 minutes - some of the better human moments of the film.

Cranston's character returns home after 15 years following a nuclear disaster at his workplace. He goes to retrieve his floppy disks that look as if someone just picked them up at the store 5 minutes ago. The house also features the strongest paper "Happy Birthday" banner I've ever seen. Still hanging after 15 years and a nuclear explosion. 

I can't really stand Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I can't take Kick-Ass seriously as a grown-up U.S. Navy lieutenant. 

Still, anything is better than Matthew Broderick and half the cast of The Simpsons in Roland Emmerich's 1998 version which truly puts the "disaster" in "disaster movie".

Overall, I expect this new Godzilla will be one of the better action adventures of the summer. 

Edwards will be a director to watch in the future as he evokes some of the best elements of Nolan, Abrams, and Spielberg. 


Saturday, May 3, 2014

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" Review

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has several individual pieces that work well on their own but never congeal into anything special.

It’s no Spider-Man 3, but “amazing” this ain’t. There's just too much going on for the film to find its focus.

Things pick up right where The Amazing Spider-Man left off.

As he balances his duties as Spider-Man with his commitments to girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has established himself as New York City’s greatest defender.

Yet the attention of the public, the love of his girl and the satisfaction of cleaning up the streets isn’t enough for Peter. He’s still grappling with the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, with which he makes a couple of exciting breakthroughs.

Meanwhile, other demons start creeping up in Peter’s life, such as the return of Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) and the memory of Captain Stacy (Denis Leary); the latter of which puts tension on Peter’s relationship with Gwen.

The one-on-one moments between Peter and Gwen provide ample time for the lead actors to showcase their stellar chemistry. With director Marc Webb’s keen eye for romantic comedy (he also directed 500 Days of Summer) these scenes make for some of the film’s most engaging moments.

I’d take Garfield and Stone over Tobey Maguire and Kristen Dunst any day.

If there weren't enough plotlines to follow at this point, three supervillains enter the fold. Two of them have their origins explored while one sets up the next sequel.

The shy scientist Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) specializes in electrical engineering for Oscorp and suffers a near-fatal work injury which turns him into the villain Electro.

I had heard beforehand that Electro’s vendetta against Spider-Man was half-assed, as if he simply woke up one day and decided to squash the spider. I’m glad to say that isn't the case. His reasons for pursuing Spidey make sense.

I just wish the musical score from Hans Zimmer and his “Magnificent Six” (among them Pharrell Williams) didn’t feature vocals that awkwardly mimic the dialogue between the two on their first encounter in Times Square (“He lied to me”/”That Spider-Man”/”He is my enemy!”).

No kidding, Sherlock.

For me, this detracted from the visceral impact of the big Times Square-off, despite the scene looking dazzling in terms of visual effects.

As for Harry Osborn, his psychosis is much more fleshed out here than it was in Sam Raimi’s original trilogy. We understand exactly what Harry’s emotional state is, why he feels that way, and why he too harbors a grudge against Spider-Man. As he showed in “Chronicle,” DeHaan is an actor who’s capable of making that “young villain from a dark place” thing convincing.

The look of his Green Goblin is also way more terrifying than Willem Dafoe’s Power Ranger suit in the original “Spider-Man.”

Aleksei Sytsevich a.k.a. “Rhino” (Paul Giamatti) has about two minutes of total screen time as a bookending villain. His only real service to the narrative is to set up “The Amazing Spider-Man 3.”

It isn't exactly villain overload that kills “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” nor is it the film’s exceedingly campy nature. It’s a comic book movie, for heaven’s sake.

There are lots of moving pieces that are outstanding by themselves. Action scenes are well-staged. The chemistry between the cast is infectious.

The narrative is just one of the most unfocused in Spidey’s cinematic history. As such, it makes the entire production difficult to digest.