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Callum Petch’s Bottom 10 of 2014: #10 – #6

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Happy New Year, everybody!  Over the last two days, I have shared with you the 10 films that stuck with me the most throughout 2014 for the right reasons.  Plaudits were thrown about, praises were slathered, and good times were had.  If you missed those articles, you can find them located here and here.  Today and tomorrow, though, I share with you the 10 films that stuck with me the most throughout 2014 for the wrong reasons.

I have never actually done a Bottom 10 list before.  As mentioned in the first of my Top 10 pieces, prior to this year I had to carefully select what films I went to see, but this year I could toss quality control out of the window and see everything.  Therefore, in the name of film criticism, I have seen a lot of total sh*t this past year.  However, this is not a list of the absolute worst made films of 2014.  Some of them are on here, but that is not what the list is about.  It’s too easy and not particularly interesting, especially since many of them are akin to shooting fish in a barrel with a blunderbuss machine gun.  I mean, are any of you at all surprised that Pudsey The Dog: The Movie turned out to be horrendous?

No, this list is a Bottom 10 and encompasses the films from 2014 that made me angry.  To get on this list, a film had to have left me with a strong negative reaction that did not go away after a short while.  These are the films that drew my anger, swallowed me in disappointment, offended my being in some way shape or form, or also represent everything that is wrong with filmmaking and the film industry today.  How much do these films deserve to be on this list?  Transcendence, Annie, Blended, and 300: Rise Of An Empire missed out on placements.

So, same rules apply here as they did for the Top 10, and same presentation style applies too – today, we count down #10 to #6.  If we’re all set, don your bile protection gear, don’t look directly into the films that are listed here, and ONWARDS, AOSHIMA!

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.


boyhood10] Boyhood

Dir: Richard Linklater

Star: Ellar Coltraine, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Again, this is not a list of the worst films of 2014.  I can name you at least 20 or so films that I saw that are worse than Boyhood.  No, Boyhood is on this list because, more so than any other film released in 2014, it annoyed me.  It confounded me, it irritated me, it baffled me, it enraged me, it majorly disappointed me, and these feelings have remained with me ever since I saw the film because people won’t shut the hell up about the goddamn thing and because we might as well FedEx all awards ever to its undeserving doorstep now to save time and money on postage.

Look, my seething distaste for Boyhood is very much equal parts it not being a very good film, and my own personal feelings and baggage.  Boyhood purports to be a look at the coming-of-age of a white, suburban, straight, middle-class male throughout the 2000s but does so in a way and tone that feels like it’s putting down the final word on the matter.  That this is how it was for everybody, that it’s making some giant statement about it all, especially since the film keeps throwing out philosophical sound bites and barely tolerable bullsh*t about how “the moment seizes you” and stuff.  It looks down from upon high and decrees “THIS IS WHAT BOYHOOD WAS LIKE IN THE 2000s” with absolutely no self-awareness or analysis of what it actually means to be that kind of privileged white, straight, middle-class male, which makes its declarative nature all the more insufferable.

“Oh, but Boyhood is a character piece!” I imagine many are trying to counter with right about now.  Problem with that argument is that the film fails at that, too.  Mason, Jr. is a non-entity.  I spent two hours and forty minutes in his company – watched him go through 12 years of life – and the most I learnt about him is that he possibly has a interest in photography, and that his actor grew up to resemble Ethan Hawke so much that I’m honestly not 100% certain that he’s not just a clone of Ethan Hawke.  I don’t know what makes him tick, I don’t know what his aspirations are, I don’t know how he progressed from his six year-old self to his eighteen year-old self.  He feels less like a character and more like a blank slate that either you’re supposed to project your own self onto or who is supposed to stand in for every white privileged guy ever.

“But the whole point of the movie is that your adolescence cannot be boiled down to big standout moments!  That’s why it skips Mason, Jr.’s first kiss, first job, rambunctious teenager phase, etc.!”  OK, so why does the entire first half of the film concern itself with the theme of being too young to truly understand how the world works?  Much of the film’s first half dedicates itself to the lives of Mason and Olivia, Mason, Jr. and Samantha’s parents, and the complicated nature of their various relationships, living arrangements and procession of step-parents as viewed through the eyes of children who will never truly understand why these things are happening.  That’s why there is this ridiculously cartoonishly delivered sequence where Olivia bolts with the kids away from her alcoholic and abusive new husband.  That is a major standout moment of somebody’s life, and its grand theatricality – not helped by Marco Perella swinging for the fences with his playing of that scene – goes against the low-key nature of the rest of the film.

Yet the film drops that theme at about the halfway mark and just ambles about aimlessly for its remaining runtime.  It’s maddening to see a film wilfully waste its potential and possible avenues of storytelling and thematic resonance at damn near every opportunity.  Patricia Arquette has been getting major praise for her role as Olivia and understandably so, she does great work, which makes it all the more infuriating that, despite being Mason, Jr.’s primary parent and guardian, the film repeatedly side-lines her in favour of even more screen time with Mason, Sr. in a bunch of scenes that eventually reduce themselves to just hitting the same beats over and over again.  Olivia gets an outstanding scene near the end where she breaks down as an uncaring Mason, Jr. gets the last of his stuff from her house about the passage of time, and of heavily implied regret for giving her life to him instead of living it for herself.  That scene is outstanding, which only makes it all the more infuriating that the film isn’t about her – the one character in the film with an arc, thematic resonance or f*cking something going on.

That’s ultimately what annoys me most about Boyhood, is the fact that it has nothing going on besides its “shot over 12 years” gimmick.  It is a film with no central character, no consistent thematic arc, and nothing interesting to say because it actively steers itself away from having anything interesting to say.  I get the feeling that Linklater started this project with a real passion and desire, only for that to fade away from him as the years progressed, eventually becoming more of an obligation than anything he was seriously interested in working on – the film gets lazier and lazier, just drifting through its last forty minutes with no drive except for some half-assed pseudo-philosophical rambling (very much like a teenager).  Linklater is better than this, he has consistently proven over the last 12 years that he is a better filmmaker than this, and that’s why Boyhood disappoints me so.  It’s a pointless, muddled, dreary slog of a film that also touches on something real and honest infrequently enough to make its bungling of everything even more irritating.

Also, its last scene is one of the worst and most aggravating that I have seen all year, and the film managed to make me hate Arcade Fire for a good two hours after I left the cinema.


09] Let’s Be Copslet's be cops

Dir: Luke Greenfield

Star: Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans, Jr.

Let’s Be Cops is not the worst comedy of 2014 – that honour goes to Sex Tape, since that barely qualifies as a film, let alone a comedy.  It is not the most offensive comedy of 2014 – that honour goes to Blended.  It is also not the most disappointing comedy of 2014 – A Million Ways To Die In The West – or the most pointless – Horrible Bosses 2 – or the biggest pile of evidence that we should stop allowing British people to make comedies – Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie.  What Let’s Be Cops is, and why it is on this list instead of the far more deserving Sex Tape, is the most perfect encapsulation of everything that is currently wrong with the American feature-length comedy movie.

2014 has been a pretty miserable year for out-and-out comedies.  Of the many, many, many comedies released these past 12 months, only two were actually any good – Bad Neighbours (which came this close to cracking my Top 20) and 22 Jump Street (which had a very good chance of actually cracking the Top 10 if I had managed to watch it again before list-making time) – the rest were either diverting but pointless, or just plain torture to sit through.  I realise that every year has maybe two great straight comedies – a number that’s bumped up to four if you include comedy-dramas or black comedies – and a whole load of tripe surrounding them, but you’ll have to forgive me for being disappointed that an increased number of releases this year led to the same number of hits compared to misses.

The American comedy is currently stale, and Let’s Be Cops is such a grab-bag text of all of its worst impulses that I’m honestly still not sure that it wasn’t intentional – a desire to make a comedy I can point to for all aspiring comedy filmmakers and go “You see that?  Don’t do that.”  A loose rambling structure that sacrifices these things we call “set-ups” and “punchlines” in favour of dropping talented comedians with decent chemistry into scenarios and praying that they can improv up enough gold to fill out the runtime, direction and scene set-ups that are dull and interchangeable, editing that doesn’t know when to stop a scene, a needlessly stretched out runtime that gets way too close to two hours, genuinely funny material being beaten into the ground or stretched so thin that the entire enterprise feels endless, a casually tossed off sexist attitude towards women, a final third where the jokes are dropped completely because apparently only Phil Lord & Chris Miller know how to make plot funny anymore…

Let’s Be Cops also has the extra dead albatross of being released in the immediate aftermath of the tragic events that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri which have sparked off an additional nationwide conversation about police brutality, racism and militarisation of the police force, adding an extra layer of awkward tastelessness to jokes like our two leads playfully brandishing their loaded guns at each other in a public restaurant.  But, honestly, that’s the least of its problems.  Let’s Be Cops could have used its premise to explore and ask tough questions about the current state of the police force in 21st century America, but it didn’t have to and it’s not automatically lesser for not doing so – there’s nothing wrong with a silly comedy and at no point did either of the Jump Street movies use their cop-comedy premises for social satire.  What is inexcusable, though, is the sheer laziness and half-assery of the film’s entire construction.  This is soulless, paint-by-numbers filmmaking where the only people trying are its two stars, which only serves to make them look desperate.

Again, Let’s Be Cops is not the worst comedy of the year – holy hell, is Sex Tape ever an appalling train wreck – but it is a perfect distillation of everything that is currently wrong with the comedy genre.  This trend of foisting near-laugh-free scripts on talented actors with lightning chemistry and expecting them to do all the heavy lifting with endless improv needs to stop.  I don’t care that the majority of today’s movie star comedians and comediennes come with an improv background; there is a never a better substitute for tight editing and a raucous script stuffed to the brim with proper jokes from start to finish.  Bad Neighbours got that, 22 Jump Street got that, why can’t anything else get that?


new york winters tale08] A New York Winter’s Tale

Dir: Akiva Goldsman

Star: Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown-Findlay

That’s right, folks.  A film that I declared back in February to have been “one of the worst films that I have ever seen” is only #8 on my Bottom 10 of 2014.  And, honestly, it’s really only here out of some sort of obligation.  Oh, sure, A New York Winter’s Tale is pure garbage of the highest order, but it’s a film that I have warmed to since then, probably because it, unlike a lot of the tripe populating this list, at least is completely sincere in its attempts to be good.  Therefore, although I hated it at the time, I don’t hate it with the same ferocity that I once did.  Not anymore, I feel like I have moved on from it.

Again, though, that doesn’t stop A New York Winter’s Tale from being a complete and total failure on every single conceivable level of filmmaking.  The dialogue is atrocious, the plot is nonsense, it looks dreadful in both the practical sense – of set design, shot composition, costumes, hairpieces and such – and the computer-generated sense, it boasts atrocious performances from everybody involved, it is paced like a marathon populated by narcoleptics, its attempts at thematic resonance and foreshadowing are quite literally laughable…  I’m honestly not sure what’s more inadvertently hilarious, the movie or the fact that a former Oscar winner convinced Village Roadshow Pictures to give him $60 million and several talented high profile actors to give several weeks of their lives to filming this piece of guff.

The plot powering this guff – based on a novel I haven’t read but is apparently, by all accounts, nowhere near as rubbish as this – centres around Colin Farrell as a potential miracle maker who was raised and then hunted by a demon, played by Russell Crowe, legitimately named Pearly Soames (real name, not the gender-flipped version of Pearl from Spongebob Squarepants), who works for Lucifer, played by Will Smith (an incredibly sleepy and checked out Will Smith, before you get excited and, yes, it is problematic that the one major black guy in the film is playing Satan).  It turns out that Colin Farrell’s miracle is to apparently cure a young woman’s terminal tuberculosis through the power of love, whilst Pearly (real name) hunts the pair down with murderous intentions cos Lucifer don’t like any sunshine or kittens getting out into the world, thank you kindly.

See, this all sounds like the most enjoyable nonsense, a “So Bad, It’s Good” of epic proportions.  Yet, whilst I was watching the thing, I didn’t find it funny because it is so po-facedly earnestly serious about its stupid endeavour that any fun to be had at its ridiculous awfulness was lost.  This was a film with a Pegasus, a ridiculous pace-killing near-century time-skip, and a sequence in which somebody is quite literally f*cked to death, and all I could do was check my watch, yawn and question whether walking out would be preferable to continuing to submit myself to the thing – although I did laugh at the reveal of the Pegasus, mostly because it looks like what you’d get if you asked a 5 year-old to recreate the Tri-Star logo in MS Paint in the next 30 minutes.

But I no longer hate A New York Winter’s Tale.  I did, once upon a time, enough to write a long-winded and pretty funny review (if you’ll allow me one of my five annual tootings of my own horn) tearing the thing to shreds, but no more.  I have made my peace with this film’s existence.  If I were to ever see it again – preferably in the company of friends, drunk on soda of various kinds, during a Bad Movie Night – I’d probably be able to crack wise at the thing effortlessly and have myself a gay old time.  It is still one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my 20 years of existence, but as previously mentioned this is not a Worst Movies of 2014 list.  Therefore, A New York Winter’s Tale stalls out at #8.  The bile saved from this can instead be deployed on other, more deserving films, such as…


07] Transformers: Age Of Extinctiontransformers 4

Dir: Michael Bay

Star: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci

This one is just as much my own goddamn stupid fault as it is the film in question.  I stupidly – and it is stupidly, there is no other word or reasoning to make this alright – let a part of me become somewhat hopeful that this time things would be different.  The Transformers series, under the creative direction and influence of these people, gave me absolutely no reason to believe that it could produce anything great or even worth my time.  Yet, a part of me was allowed to be quietly optimistic.  After bottoming out with Revenge Of The Fallen, Dark Of The Moon took the series’ first tentative steps towards being a good movie – it wasn’t one, but it was on the path to at least being entertaining – and 2013’s underrated Pain & Gain proved to me that Michael Bay hadn’t forgotten how to make movies.  So a part of me got a little hopeful; this time, things were going to be different.

They weren’t.  They weren’t at all.  Age Of Extinction is a regression back to all of the same toxic sh*t that Transformers, Revenge Of The Fallen and to a lesser extent Dark Of The Moon had peddled beforehand, only now even more bloated and expanded and epic-ised (which isn’t even a real word but was likely a direction used for scene prep at some point during this thing’s production) to levels that make the resulting product an endurance test instead of anything that anybody could find entertaining.  Casual racism, creepy paedophilic undertones, an actively hateful bordering on misogynist view of women, product placement – including product placement for The People’s Republic of China despite current world events making that one of the most tone-deaf things one could do – abysmally directed and incomprehensible action, active wasting of interesting themes, and an utterly awful Imagine Dragons song – which is a step down from Linkin Park.

And in other news, the sun rose today, the sky is blue, and George Clooney is an incredibly sexy man.  Look, I get that we have all collectively realised that the Transformers movies are abhorrent pieces of trash and that their continued financial success will be one of life’s big mysteries.  Age Of Extinction’s appearance on this list is that barrel full of fish that I mentioned earlier, but sometimes really obvious fish need shooting for a reason and this metaphor has broken down.  Point is, Age Of Extinction is a reminder that there are people out there who have nothing but contempt for the movie going audience.  Who believe that they can push out thoughtless, stupid, toxic crap and that people will show up to buy it because the explosions are big and shiny and purdy.  There is always room for big dumb action films – the Fast & Furious franchise is beloved for a reason, after all – but those are films that do so with glee, joy and smartness, as crafting a good big dumb action film takes actual effort.

Age Of Extinction is not that film.  It is a cynical, joyless, mindless exercise whose sole reason for its existence is to line Paramount Pictures executives’ pockets with more money.  And I went into it stupidly thinking that it wouldn’t be.  People went to see this and not Edge Of Tomorrow, and, thanks specifically to China, we will be suffering through two more of these sh*tfests.  Well done, everyone.  Sterling job.


906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 206] The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Dir: Marc Webb

Star: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx

We are in the middle of a full-on comic book boom at the cinema.  Now, admittedly, we’ve been in one since the early 2000s when Spider-Man, X-Men and Blade were ruling the box office, but we’re really in the midst of one.  Every studio has, or is attempting to cultivate, their own comic book empire out of the materials that Marvel Studios hasn’t already swallowed up, everybody is trying to serialise everything, and Marvel this year dictated the exact days in which I need to sit my ass down in a cinema for the next five years.  This boom will bust out eventually, but things are looking good for now.

They won’t look so good for very long, however, if studios keep pumping out films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  This one was a time-bomb, folks.  As you may have gathered from my original review, I strongly disliked the film but I didn’t hate it at the time – I thought I’d found a couple of redeeming factors and let the potential of the series dilute some of my venom for it.  But then it sat in head.  And sat.  And sat.  And, for at least three months afterwards, it wouldn’t leave because myself and my friends kept finding more and more wrong with it the more we let it settle.  We found new problems – like the incredibly poor pacing and structural mess that robs anything of any resonance – whilst old problems – the incredibly creepy and borderline sexist crap with Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey, Peter’s problem of him being a giant dick – were found to be even more systemic and problematic.

In the end, though, it all comes back to this simple fact: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not a film.  It is a commercial for the next film, and also a Sinister Six film that literally nobody was ever asking for.  This is not a film that was made by a cast and crew with a vision, a story to tell, and the drive and passion to pull it off.  This was a film ham-fistedly dictated by a studio for the sole purpose of forcing a franchise and making a lot of money because, “Yo!  Those kids loves them some Spider-Man!  I spies dollar signs, boys!”  There is no narrative reason for this film to exist, there is no thematic reason for this film to exist; this is a film that exists because Sony saw that Marvel Studios have made Scrooge McDuck-money with their franchises and shared universe continuity and wanted that green without actually having to do the work necessary to earn it.

Do you know why Marvel can unveil concrete dates for a five-year plan of films and the only negative thing it does to us is make us contemplate our own fragile mortality?  It’s because they, first and foremost, tell stories.  Each film so far, despite this shared-universe thing and their franchising and sequelising and such, works as a film on its own.  They tell complete stories, have effort and craft put into them, and each of them exist because, or give a good enough illusion, somebody wanted to tell a story, first and foremost.  Are they often still safe, less groundbreaking and risky than they appear, and mandated by the producers at the studio?  Well, yes, undoubtedly, but the films are great and satisfying and fun and have real effort put in that I really don’t care.

Marvel Studios, essentially, have earned my trust, and near everyone else’s trust, in this grand experiment because they have proven first and foremost that their movies are worth the commercial avenues that they will be taken down.  Sony don’t want to wait for that trust and have forced the Spider-Man license through the most cynical, money-driven, bereft-of-ideas ringer they could get their hands on, and practically every problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can be traced back to a studio wanting their money now and not thinking through, or putting any effort whatsoever into, a single one of the film’s creative decisions.  When people disparage comic book movies and serialisation of movies, this is what they are referring to and I shiver at the possibility that I will be seeing more Amazing Spider-Man 2s in the coming future.

Sony, just torch the franchise and negotiate with Marvel.  Please?  It’s clearly been more trouble for you than it’s worth.  Just wash your hands of this game and move on.  For all of us.


Well, we’ve made it halfway through the list.  Agree?  Disagree?  Think I was being too harsh/not harsh enough on some of these?  Let me know in the comments below!  Tomorrow, we wrap up this week with the absolute bottom of the barrel.  Brace yourselves…

Callum Petch only dreams in black and white.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Maleficent

Maleficent is both far better than it sounds and nowhere near as good as it promises to be.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

maleficent‘“The movie is gorgeous to look at, and the last 75 minutes are really entertaining,” [producer Joe Roth] says.  The issue is the opening, which is being reshot over eight days.’

That was from an article posted on The Hollywood Reporter back in October concerning reshoots for Maleficent.  I’m really rather hoping that Disney didn’t pay too much for those reshoots because the first 30 minutes of Maleficent are really not good.  When your film begins by featuring a child actress who is straining so very, very hard to act with every fibre of her being, whilst her character is being sickeningly nice and sweet as that “acting” is going on, first impressions are not going to be very favourable.  Fortunately for all involved, Maleficent does get better.  In fact, you can pretty much pinpoint the exact minute the film starts getting good, when it settles into its groove and starts doing the stuff it clearly wanted to do from the beginning.

Unfortunately, though, Maleficent has been cut down to within an inch of its life.  Running at a svelte 96 minutes with credits, and with a really poor opening 30, this is a film that breathlessly sprints through everything it has to offer at 300MPH and only laying the barest groundwork necessary for its big emotional arc and switcheroo finale to work; instead relying on Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning to carry them through.  It almost works.  When the film settles into its groove, it’s a very good re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty and its emotional beats do land.  Unfortunately, that groundwork is full of bags of potential that never get realised because of the poor opening and the extreme shortness of its runtime.

That opening, for those that are interested, concerns a child Maleficent who lives in the forest kingdom and is the kindest and nicest fairy who ever lived a life of being kind and nice.  One day, she encounters a human child, Stefan, who snuck into the forest kingdom and the two become friends, apparently, and later lovers, apparently.  The years go by, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) grow older and further apart, with Maleficent leading the defence force of the forest kingdom from a human army who wish to wipe them out because… humans are dicks?  Anyways, the king, on his deathbed after a battle with Maleficent, puts out a hit on her and the opportunistic Stefan uses his old friendship with her as a way in.  Unable to pull the trigger and straight kill her, Stefan instead steals her wings, takes the throne based on a lie and leaves Maleficent a woman scorned and determined for revenge.

Yes, that does sound like the film bending over backwards and then some in an attempt to make Maleficent a sympathetic protagonist.  Stay with me, we’re almost at the part where it starts getting good.  King Stefan and his wife eventually give birth to Aurora (who eventually grows up to be Elle Fanning) and Maleficent shows up and curses the child to fall into a deep sleep if she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel any time before the day after her sixteenth birthday, from which only a true love’s kiss can rouse her.  Stefan panics, because both he and Maleficent don’t believe in such a thing and sends the girl away to a remote cottage near the forest kingdom to be raised by three fairies.  Maleficent, however, follows, discovers where the baby is being kept and becomes sort of a far-distance trickster godmother to Aurora until, one day, their mutual curiosity leads to a face-to-face meeting and you can probably guess the rest.

Here’s the thing, that part of the film is great!  I mean, I’m a sucker for this kind of plotline anyway (ones that focus on mother-daughter relationships just kind of get to me), but Maleficent still pulls it off with aplomb thanks mainly to Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning.  Jolie looks like she’s been building to this role for her entire life and she mostly nails it.  Not only does she look the part (seriously, the work made to get her to look like the title character is superb), she’s also mostly fantastic.  She’s weakest in the beginning (what a surprise), but as soon as she appears at Aurora’s christening she is off to the races.  When she needs to be the loud hammy villain, Jolie hits those notes excellently, equal parts dead straight and having the time of her life.  When she needs to sell the growing affection she has for Aurora, she sells it totally, as note-perfect deadpan gives way to genuine warmth.  The film puts the attempted curse revoking far too early in the narrative’s chronology for it to register as genuine, but Jolie still gives it her all, regardless.  She’s a commanding screen presence, equally convincing when making humans tremble in fear as when she’s shrinking back into herself when surrounded by lethal iron.  It’s that instance of dream casting where the performance ends up exactly as great as it sounded on paper; I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part in live-action now.

Jolie will get a lot of much deserved plaudits and praise thrown her way, but hopefully that won’t mean that Elle Fanning is left out in the cold, either.  I mean, after all, it takes two to sell a maternal relationship and Fanning is more subdued than her co-star but no less great.  See, Fanning has to be happy and cheerful practically all of the time, a saint in all but name, and that can often lead into precociously annoying (after all, it happened with child Maleficent at the beginning of the film).  Fanning, however, finds that sweet-spot where she’s both believably nice and cheery and friendly, and not punch-ably-annoying.  She’s endearing so, even though the film short-changes the whole relationship (we will get back to that, hang in there), it’s still easily understandable how Maleficent would start defrosting due to spending time with her.  I really do wish that the film spent more time on this part, but Jolie and Fanning still force a section that would otherwise operate at half-strength (at best) come close to the level of most films that spend way longer on such character relationships.

Similarly recovering from a poor start is the character of King Stefan who spends the movie succumbing to his paranoia regarding Maleficent’s curse.  We don’t check in with him too much, but we do so enough to both nail down both the tragic aspect of his villainy and how his paranoid delusions turn him into a horrible, selfish and often vile human being.  He doesn’t just turn evil so that we can have our final setpiece, his slide into what he becomes remains rooted in character work set up beforehand which keeps it from feeling jarring (unlike certain other blockbusters that I don’t much care to mention).  A nod of approval should also be thrown Sharlto Copley’s way, too.  Unlike his villain turn in last year’s Elysium, he resists the urge to go full-ham and instead pitches his performance as more of a pathetic and weasely character who only got into his position through greed and whose paranoia seems to be just as much, if not more so, rooted in his own wellbeing than that of his daughter.  At first I was disappointed (I actually really like Copley’s hammier turns), but the more I reflect the more I grow to like it.  It’s understated, and I can dig that.

Oh, it would also be remiss of me to not mention the fairies that look after Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville).  Well, I say “look after”.  In Maleficent, they’re very self-absorbed and care more about the fact that they’re, direct quote, “wasting the best years of our lives” on their charge.  They’re also sometimes comic relief, although that mainly comes from Maleficent messing with them than jokes about their negligence in raising Aurora (that, surprisingly, is a well they only go to once and it’s required to set up the beginning of her and Maleficent’s relationship).  It’s a rather fun deconstruction, in all honesty, and it fits well with the mildly deconstructive nature of the rest of the film, too.  Ditto the stuff with Prince Phillip which is short, and cribs from Frozen, but is still very much appreciated.

See, all of this stuff is good.  Great, even!  However, it’s also cut to within an inch of its life.  There is the bare minimum of content to each of these themes and plots and scenarios which works fine for King Stefan (it checks in precisely enough times to get the message across), the fairies and Prince Phillip (whose ideas and themes benefit from the reduced screen-time as it keeps them from being beaten over the audience’s head), but is almost killer for Maleficent and Aurora.  Again, it hits the bare minimum of points and scenes in order to make the emotional beats connect at least partially, and even then it’s mainly down to Jolie and Fanning to do most of that heavy lifting, but that’s it.  It goes no further.  For an example, it takes pretty much one scene after the two meet for Maleficent to defrost to Aurora when she’s brought to the forest kingdom.  It’s that kind of speedy manoeuvring of plot pieces that makes what should be a huge, giant heartwarming ending, the kind that leaves a glow of pure joy emanating from my heart for hours on end, instead a mildly uplifting one.  The power isn’t there because the time hasn’t been put in.

Instead, we spend the opening 30 minutes very, very, very awkwardly setting up Maleficent’s back-story.  It’s got everything!  Dreadful child actors, poor attempts at Lord Of The Rings-style fantasy battlefield action so that there’s something in the advertisements to hook the boys in with, montage after montage after montage, clunky foreshadowing, “a woman scorned” as the primary motive for the lead’s descent into darkness (although the film quickly distances itself from this after the 30 minute mark, so I’m not as bothered as I could have been), extremely clunky explanations of how [x iconic character] got [y iconic accessory] (Diaval was saved from hunters by Maleficent and is now her humble servant, if you were just dying to know)…  They’re all present and they’re all correct and, dear Maker, they are so badly done and so at odds with the rest of the film.  These go more for fantasy epic than the smaller scale relationship-focussed story the film pivots on after the first half-hour, and the switch between the two is equivalent to a really bad truck driver awkwardly attempting to shift gears.  They’re that at odds with each other and in terms of both tone and quality.

And it sucks up so much precious time!  Look, Maleficent never drags, that’s the beauty of its 96 minute length, but the film did not need to waste half-a-gorram-hour very awkwardly and painfully setting up Maleficent’s back-story, because it takes away from the central relationship that drives it!  If Disney and the filmmakers wanted the film to be 96 minutes, they should have started the story at the point in which Maleficent crashes the coronation and left her back-story to be a mid-film reveal, summed up in a five minute montage.  It would get the point across, we’d lose nothing because the film is that bad at the entire section as it is, and it would have left more room for development of the Maleficent/Aurora relationship.  You could even catch viewers off-guard by slowly subverting the typical Maleficent and Stefan images before hitting the audience with the back-story to make the tragedy of it all sting that much more.  But, no, instead it takes about 30 minutes for the film to get out of its rut and get to the bloody point, which is a third of the film wasted!

Look, Maleficent is a mess.  I will not dispute that.  The overly-streamlined runtime coupled with the drastically different opening third creates a film that seems to be either the product of a whole bunch of people trying to make separate films and only successfully getting on each other’s page for its final third (where it applies the Sleeping Beauty story to the universe we’ve spent the last hour in, and which is way better than that sounds), or the product of filmmakers who got bored a third of the way into their uninspired Lord of the Rings cribbing and, realising that you can’t just throw that kind of money away, decided to staple it onto the first third of a much better film, instead.  You can practically see the seams at the exact minute that the film comes alive.

But when the film comes alive, it displays so much potential that it realises just enough of to be a satisfying film, but not enough to keep me from being disappointed.  This should have been an excellent film; Maleficent is a whole bunch of scenes that are likely currently residing on the cutting room floor and a good editor who knows what to keep, what to toss and what to re-attach away from being a damn great film.  The blueprint is there, the framework is there, say the word and it will go straight for the emotional jugular!  But those opening 30 minutes are bad and they’ve stolen away the 30 minutes required to make Maleficent a great film instead of a maddeningly good one.  Jolie is excellent, Fanning is nearly on that level, Copley is superb, the story and script are clearly wanting to go great places, but the sum is not greater than or equal to those parts, I’m afraid.

So, so maddeningly close.

Callum Petch walked with you once upon a dream.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Amazing Transcendence, The Amazing Love Punch

THE-AMAZING-SPIDER-MAN-2Welcome to this week’s podcast; the first one since James took temporary leave (of his senses in trusting the pod to this lot).

Callum Petch makes his return to the pod, and along with Steve and Owen reviews the latest blockbuster effort featuring the masked web-slinger, as well as Johnny Depp sans Tim Burton and white-face make-up in Wally Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence.

Join us next week as we drag a stranger off the street to keep Owen and Steve company whole they try and find a new release to review that isn’t The Other Woman.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Amazing-Spider-Man-2-Peter-Parker-Harry-OsbornSecond verse same as the first, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes all of the exact same mistakes the original did, burying the nugget of a great film deeper and deeper the longer it goes on for.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Did you see The Amazing Spider-Man from 2012?  Congratulations, you don’t need to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2!  You know, the lazier of us film critics like to snarkily dismiss sequels with the phrase “more of the same” as if that is inherently a bad thing.  Sometimes it’s very much a good thing, something that works happily repeating its formula in a “if it ain’t broke” manner.  Sometimes, though, it is a bad thing, the observation that the sequel hasn’t learnt from the previous film’s failings and the growing loss of patience on the reviewer’s behalf.  This film is one of that kind.  The second one.  I am not kidding, this film makes the exact same mistakes as the first one did with the exact same potential of a great movie permanently bubbling underneath the near-endless mess of bad ideas or poor executions or bad ideas with poor executions.

Ladies, gentlemen and others, this was maddening to sit through.  In fact, in lieu of a traditional review, I am going to dedicate my time and your time to a couple of case study examples as to how this film fails, in order to fully impress upon you, the reader, the way in which The Amazing Spider-Man 2 spends upwards of two hours taking a giant extended piss on its potential.  No, there will be no spoilers, nothing more than the trailers have shown off, but I feel that this is a far more productive usage of our time.  This film and its predecessor will be used by future, more intelligent generations who are less distracted by flashy and actually rather OK, all things considered, filmmaking as the basis of an entire class in film school on what not to do.  I’m just getting in on the ground floor.

First, let’s talk about the Tragic Villain plotline.  This is something that both this film and the original use as the basis for their villains, in an attempt to give them depth and something to do besides instructing the audience to comically boo their every appearance like we’re at a panto.  I am all for this, it adds a nice measure of moral ambiguity to proceedings and a level of depth and maturity to the superhero medium in general; not every villain is evil for the sake of being evil, after all.  The problem is not the fact that the franchise has used this idea for every single one of its villains so far and, in ASM2’s case, twice in one movie with Max Dillon a.k.a. Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan).  You can find enough spins on that formula.  The problem is that the films never ever follow through with it.

The reason why The Dark Knight gets this right whilst The Amazing Spider-Man series doesn’t boils down simply to the fact that the former commits to the tragedy inherent to the plotline.  In fact, sod it, this paragraph is going to spoil The Dark Knight.  So, if you haven’t seen it and still want to, just jump on down to the next paragraph, you shouldn’t be missing too much if you do so (and if I’m doing my job right).  See, Harvey Dent’s slide into the man known as Two-Face works because his motives remain understandable and relatable.  He still has the same goal, to clean up the streets of Gotham and wipe out corruption in the GCPD, but his methods are now harsher.  The point is that he has snapped mentally and now no longer cares about working within the law to get his goals.  He’s not evil for the sake of evil, he’s just had his hope crushed and now he’s willing to do anything to reach his otherwise noble end goals and it’s the way the film commits to that falling that the plotline works.

Contrast this with Max Dillon.  When he starts the film, he is a weak loner.  He has an important job at Oscorp but he is constantly pushed around and harassed and put-upon by the world because he basically lets it.  He has no backbone, no social skills and no life outside of his work and this makes him miserable, even emotionally disturbed.  He just wants someone to notice him.  Then, out of the blue, Spider-Man saves him from an oncoming truck and gives him the usual Spider-Man speech of “you are a somebody because you’re somebody to me”.  This gives Max a reason to live and a reason for us to care about him, even if he becomes hopelessly obsessed with the man.  It’s what’s supposed to make his fall into the electro-chamber sad and painful because it’s the world’s fault, not his.  It’s why the public triggering of his powers is supposed to carry real emotional resonance as he finally gets the attention he craves from the public at large and his obsession, Spider-Man.

Pity the film is only an hour in by this point.  So, because the film is only an hour in, the emotional arc of Max is very quickly wrapped up and the tragic side of his schtick is almost immediately dropped in favour of “I will do evil things because I am evil”.  This would have been majorly disappointing… had the film actually handled any of this well to begin with, because they play pre-accident Max for laughs.  Jamie Foxx pitches his pre-accident performance to absurd wet-doormat extremes and his every scene is backed by bouncy silly music so you know that you’re supposed to find events on screen funny instead of saddening.  It undercuts the emotional groundwork and comes off as mean-spirited, overall.

In fact, before I move on, I want the name of whoever decided on the music that should back Electro’s action sequences and I want to make sure they never work in this field again.  Why?  Because his theme is dubstep.  Nearly every shot of electricity is accompanied by dubstep wubs that are severely out of place with the rest of the film’s score.  But that’s not why I am calling attention to this.  No, there’s also the fact that his music contains whispers buried in the background.  Whispers that go something like “Hate… destruction… kill… I hate him…. I hate him…”  This kind of crap might have been cool to a teenager in 2001, but to me in 2014 it’s the equivalent of backing his action scenes with “Batman’s Untitled Self Portrait” from The Lego Movie.  It’s embarrassing is what it is.

Harry Osborn gets a better treatment on the whole Tragic Villain angle but the film falls down by again just not committing to keeping his goals sympathetic and relatable to the end.  Him and Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, still deserving of so much better) used to be childhood friends (because everybody is connected to everyone for cheap and easy drama in amateurishly written scripts).  He’s dying of the same disease that’s killing his father and, therefore, desperate for a cure.  His cure may involve Spider-Man and, when things don’t go his way, he goes a bit off the deep end.  That last part would be fine… except that it involves him turning straight crazy evil so that we can have a two-part action finale.

The failure of the Tragic Villain plotlines, the same reason it failed in the first film with Curt Connors and his sudden obsession with creating an army of lizard men, is twofold.  The first is the lack of faith from the screenplay that the audience will be completely behind and invested in the proceedings if they don’t know who to cheer and root for.  And since Peter is still kind of a huge boring dick in this one (more on that in a bit), the film cops out on its moral ambiguity and emotionally heavy stakes by reverting to “these bad guys are evil because they’re eeevilll!!” which squanders the depth previously built up and the groundwork laid beforehand.  The second is the fact that this is just a bad screenplay, in general, with both villains’ switches to straight-up evil-doing boiling down to the switch on the back of a Krusty doll.  I guess you could salvage such a behavioural switch but it requires far better writing and handling than what’s on display here.  It’s amateur work.

Now let’s move onto the issue of serialisation.  Do you want to know why the Marvel Cinematic Universe get away with doing things the way they do?  It’s because when their films end, they feel like they’ve ended.  They’ve told a complete story, all of the plot threads are wrapped up and the character arcs are completed.  They may leave an uncertain future or a sequel tease but they can do that because it doesn’t feel like story is being held back for future instalments.  I could hop off after pretty much any of MCU entries with the sense of completion.  That is why Iron Man is allowed to end the way it did, that is why The Avengers was allowed to end the way it did, that is why Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are allowed to end the way they do.  Some had some plot threads hanging, others blatant sequel teases but all felt complete because everything important is wrapped up and all character arcs have concluded.

Much like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does not do that.  In fact, despite running over two hours and even having a clear stopping point ten minutes before the end (even if, yes, it still would have failed to wrap up several big plot threads and character arcs so I would still be having this rant anyway), it actually has the gall to not have an ending.  The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stops.  It just stops.  At roughly two hours and nine minutes it goes “OK, that’s all the time we have!  Come on back in two years and we’ll pick this up again!”  So, no, the conspiracy stuff with Peter’s dad Richard Parker (Campbell Scott who plays the role like a gruff William Shatner and is awful here) again does not get a payoff, Peter still doesn’t seem to learn anything from the events of the film (and the incredibly rushed final five minutes do not serve to fix this problem) and Harry Osborn remains a threat who even starts up his latest scheme as the film wraps up (and, no, not in the sense of “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!”).

There’s no resolution here.  I don’t feel like I’ve been told a full story.  I feel like I’ve been told half of a story, at best.  There’s no payoff.  Just a whole bunch of clumsily handled foreshadowing and set-up work for the endless sequel parade to possibly payoff down the line in the future maybe who knows?  The Man In The Shadows from the mid-credits stinger of the first film makes a reappearance at the end because reasons, Harry’s assistant is called Felicia (as in Felicia Hardy because that’s just how subtle this film is in regards to going “THIS CHARACTER WILL DO SOMETHING IN A FUTURE INSTALMENT”) but she doesn’t do anything and, surprise sur-f*cking-prise, there’s a conspiracy at Oscorp that is left totally unresolved at the end because of-f*cking-course it is.  The point of a film ending is that it is supposed to have told all of the story it needed and wanted to tell but such a thing is clearly not the case for ASM2.

Speaking of, Peter Parker is a boring dick.  Andrew Garfield is trying so very, very hard to make this character work (he has a lot of natural, easy-going charisma and he is great at the better parts of Spidey’s mid-combat snark) but his character spends most of the film in the background and, when he does actually get to wrestle control of his own film back to him, he’s actively dislikeable.  He’s a dick to everybody almost all the time, primarily because his character arc is almost permanently stuck on the cusp of the transitional period from “dickwad hero” to “noble figure for hope and justice” and he doesn’t actually start that transitional phase and learning lessons until ten minutes before the end of the GODS.  DAMN.  MOVIE.

And the stuff with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone, deserves better).  Oh, Maker, how I hate all of the material with him and Gwen Stacey.  It’s predicated around the fact that Peter loves Gwen but the promise he made to her dying father to stay away from her is causing him to feel guilty about that love.  Good, fine, you can do stuff with this.  You can do good, non-crappy stuff with this.  Except this manifests as Peter being a dick to her at all times but his love for her leads to him stalking her (again), putting her in danger (again) and begging her to give up her own wants so that they can be together happily (again).  Hell, a better movie would make parallels between his obsession with Gwen and Electro’s with Spider-Man, but that movie wouldn’t allow a big loud action sequence with a hint of tragedy, apparently, so it’s nowhere to be found and their romance is played as true love that’s futile to deny.  Credit to Stone and Garfield, they have excellent chemistry, but the material is awful.

Those are just a few of the major problems with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were also present in the original (well, admittedly, the original at least had the decency to attempt to come up with an ending).  I’d go on for more, but I’m running out of time here and I need to wrap up.  This a bad film.  It is a bad, bad film.  But it is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars and we are going to be up to our eyeballs in sequels for however long the shared-universe superhero bubble manages to avoid bursting.  And it will do so because it is not a badly made film.  The surface level sheen is great.  The performances are mostly great (Dane DeHaan still makes time to put in excellent work even as he seems to be voluntarily flushing his career down the toilet between this and Metallica: Through The Never), the film is nice and pacey which at least didn’t make me feel like I had been dragged through a sloggy bog watching the damn thing (*coughcoughDivergentcough*), the effects are great and the fluidity of them fits the hyper-reality of the film’s universe, and action scenes are shot like every action scene in every Western action movie ever (shakily, busily, nearly incoherently at points) but may at least seem exciting to less jaded viewers.

More importantly, there is still the spark of a great movie and a great franchise in here.  No matter how badly the series so far has tried to snuff them out, there are still nuggets of potential littering The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  This could be a fantastic superhero movie in a fantastic superhero franchise but it, like its predecessor, keeps making all the wrong moves at the worst times and in the crappiest possible manner whilst, all the while, never openly sucking.  This is not an outwardly and plainly bad movie; its badness simmers underneath beneath a protective sheen of great performances and well-made filmmaking, but still ruining everything.  It’s why I cannot tear this film to shreds.  I should do, it is terrible, but that potential is still there and I am adamant that if people who actually knew what they were doing were given creative control, this series would learn from its mistakes and subsequently realise that potential.

Consider this a staying of execution, then.  I am prepared to give The Amazing Spider-Man franchise one more chance to realise that potential and learn from its mistakes.  If I come back here in two years’ time to find a sequel that again wastes that potential and makes the same mistakes, I will consider this series officially devoid of all hope and the resulting review will be merciless.  In the meantime and nevertheless, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a bad film.  You should not go and see it.

Callum Petch run on the track like Jesse Owens, broke the record flowing without any knowing.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!