Kal's Movie Blog
The Amazing Spider-Man 2

It’s one thing for a movie franchise to lose steam a few films in and hit creative stagnation. But there’s a sense of re-hash and a lack of inspiration that reaches super-human levels in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and that, in turn, makes one wonder about the wisdom of having re-booted the Spider-Man films instead of simply re-casting the role, finding another director, and moving on once Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire had had their fun and departed the web-slinger’s turf.

British actor Andrew Garfield brings enough charm and inventiveness to the role of Peter Parker that he makes his interpretation distinct from Maguire’s, but his sympathetic persona can’t be spread thin enough to bind the whole film together, much less keep it on track. Moreover, there are so many clichés and such a reliance on formula that you could be excused for mistaking director Marc Webb’s work for something out of, say, the Joel Schumacher era of the “Batman” films. The movie’s most clearly “straight out of the box” elements include Peter’s troubled romance with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and the movie’s insistence on pitting not one, but multiple super-baddies against a single hero — a convention that dates back at least to the early 1990s and doesn’t work better with repeated use. (Not to spoil anything, but two of the villains enter the move so late, and stay for such a brief time, that their appearances feel like nothing more than teasers for the inevitable third installment.) 

There’s a tendency at work here to borrow from sci-fi blockbusters like the “Star Wars” films; we find out, for instance, that there is a direct correlation between Peter’s long-missing father (Scott Campbell) and Peter’s own unlikely acquisition of spider-powers.  The sense of repetition puts the brakes on the film’s momentum and squashes enthusiasm, which, given the leaden pacing and scattershot plotting, never gets too amped up anyway. There’s another problem, too: When a single corporation —— the Osborn Corporation, now owned by Peter’s buddy Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) —— turns out to be the source for a number of super-human characters, it’s narratively streamlining but also dramatically tedious.

Spider-Man may be capable of spinning any number of plates (those spider-reflexes are good for that sort of thing), but the stable of writers behind the screenplay ——nine in all, including Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci —— aren’t capable of the same sort of nimble flexibility. (Scripts authored by committee seldom are.) Thus, the movie veers from Peter’s relationship dramas, to his family turmoil, to his showdowns with Electro (Jamie Foxx), a guy with really cool powers but the sort of deficient, cardboard cut-out psychological profile that could have been trimmed from the back of a cereal box by following the dotted line.  (At least half those dots —— the more interesting ones, at that —— were inked by Schumacher and comedian Jim Carrey way back in the ‘90s, in “Batman Forever,” but funnyman Foxx isn’t given much of a chance to bring any creative brio to his role; this Electro may crackle and pop, but he’s conspicuously lacking snap.)

Most fatally, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” suffers from the same ailment as most films of its genre made over the past two decades: It’s bloated and boring. Where the film does work is in its montages, as when we see Peter in a series of quick clips from his nightly wall-crawling adventures; for a moment, there’s a kind of quotidian but meaningful realism present, something to match the attempted naturalism of the dialogue and performances in the film’s quieter “relationship” scenes, and a link between Spider-Man’s soaring costumed acrobatics (complete with laudably frolicsome touches) and Peter Parker’s earthbound anxieties. But such passages are brief and the film, as a whole, feels disparate and disjointed, the white space between the panels glaring more brightly than the not-vibrant-enough four-color illustrations.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was first published in 1939. Its staying power is linked to its immediate success, in that Thurber adroitly, and with admirable alacrity, takes a dip into the mind of a man who isn’t necessarily a dreamer or a fabulist, but an ordinary guy who, like most people, feels that he falls short in innumerable ways and closes the gap as best he can: In his fantasy life.

 

The story was first adapted for the screen in 1947, with Danny Kaye in the title role; the resulting film is considered less than a masterpiece. Ben Stiller’s bite at Mitty’s fantastical apple will likely garner a similar reception.

 

Stiller both directs and plays the title part. In his film, written by “Happyness” scribe Steve Conrad, Mitty is a “negative acquisitions manager” for Life Magazine. This sounds like some sort of sinister financial services occupation, but it involves something far more innocuous: The receipt, care, and archiving of the magazine’s vast photographic stores. Just as the magazine is transitioning from print to online —— and kicking many of its workers out of their positions —— Mitty receives a roll of film from a famed photographer named Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). O’Connell and Mitty have grown close over the years, with Mitty being a rare trusted ally in the publishing world; together with the negative roll, an appreciative O’Connell encloses a personal gift, and a note thanking Mitty and asking that the best shot of the lot, exposure #25, be given consideration for the magazine’s cover. The timing being what it is, and O’Connell being a renowned photographer, the image is destined to make history as the cover photo for Life’s final physical edition. The only problem is that exposure #25 is nowhere to be found.

 

 

This turn of events opens up unlimited possibilities, both for what the missing photo might look like and where it might have gotten to. The film investigates the latter while only mildly teasing us with the former; in the process, it turns Mitty out of his musings and throws him into the world at large, hot on the trail of the itinerant photographer, where he is compelled to live out a series of adventures that are just as outrageous as any of the movie-inspired scenarios that constantly run through his head.

 

It’s a remarkable development, and not altogether appropriate. As a character, Mitty starts off pretty much what he should be: A nebbish whose habit of zoning out makes him the target of mocking, bearded alpha males. He’s the shy kid who never grew up, still being bullied by the thugs of the world. As such, Mitty is painfully unsure of himself, except in the niche of his highly specialized work, and —— naturally —— he’s romantically frustrated; he can’t even get eHarmony to work right for him, and this sparks a running gag as Mitty and an eHarmony support worker named Todd (Patton Oswalt) engage in a series of phone exchanges that take place at improbable moments and, one fears, are sure to run up Mitty’s phone bill, as he chats with his new friend from all sorts of far-flung, international destinations. (Then again, perhaps roaming charges are not such a cruel reality in the fantasy world of this film, where the nebbish and the pretty girl actually have a chance of connecting and all the slight, wimpy dude needs to take on some manly swagger is to scrap with sharks and venture where even Himalayan sherpas fear to tread.) But it’s precisely in this conceit that the film fails, soon coming to feel like an adaptation of a sheaf of travel brochures instead of a film based on Thurber’s short story.

 

In other words, the movie departs from the notion behind the classic source material the moment it stops being about heroic fantasies and becomes a road trip involving Herculean feats of courage and endurance. From time to time, as Mitty leaps into (and out of) helicopters piloted by drunks, faces down exploding volcanoes and Afghani warlords, and skateboards his way across scenic Icelandic terrain, one might wonder whether what we’re being shown isn’t, in fact, some sort of extended fantasy sequence. But, no: When Mitty’s dream life intrudes on his waking hours, as it does less and less often, it’s to present him with even more surreal images: Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the lovely co-worker on whim he has a crush serenading him with a rendition of David Bowie’s “Major Tom” is one such occasion. (Cheryl insists that the song is an ode to courage; and here I thought it was about a drug addict.) Eventually, the film tips its hand to show us what it really is underneath its Mitty carapace: A simple wish fulfillment, rather than an epic daydream. Mitty finally gets what he really wants when he’s given a token of appreciation and acknowledgement for all his years of meticulous work.

 

The surprises the “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” offers up have little to do with the plot (the fellow next to me kept predicting, in a mutter, what was going to happen and, one by one, his prognostications came true) and more with the casting. Oswalt’s sudden physical appearance jolts the screen with a shot of bracing energy; Shirley MacLaine shows up as his mother; Adam Scott plays the corporate bully-in-chief with mean-spirited gusto. Otherwise, this is a tepid adaptation that waters down and takes too many liberties with the short story that inspired it. After all, one supposes that if “Walter Mitty” had been meant (or were suitable for) long-form narrative, Thurber would have written it as a novel. Like Brad Pitt’s 2008 fantasia “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” before it —— also based on a short story, in “Button’s” case authored by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922 —— “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” feels like a sprawling, stylistically uneven mansion constructed around a small, tidy house. (In what seems a self-mocking moment, Stiller’s Mitty indulges, at one point, in a “Benjamin Button” inspired daydream.) But all that extra room doesn’t necessarily translate into space for the imagination to take flight. Instead, this movie trudges along —— amiable, lovingly photographed by Stuart Dryburgh, and utterly forgettable.

Band of Brothers: “Lone Survivor”

Band of Brothers: “Lone Survivor”

Lone Survivor

When a group of Navy SEALS set out in 2005 to track down and kill a Taliban leader named Ahmad Shahd, their mission went badly awry. It’s no spoiler to note, as does the title, that only of the soldiers made it back. But what happened, and why, makes for a viscerally, and visually, gripping movie that salutes the members of our armed forces.

 

Director Peter Berg adapts Marcus Luttrell’s first-person account of the mission in a way that fetishizes military men and glamorizes the physical extremes of their work. The film begins with footage of grueling SEAL training, a hellacious wringer from which participants drop out like flies. (N the words of one drill sergeant, they “choose to fail.” Those who make it through are, presumably, the toughest, fiercest, and most determined.

 

Among those who got through the training was Luttrell, played here by Mark Wahlberg. Deployed to Afghanistan, Luttrell and his fellow SEALs seem like the ultimate in American fighting prowess, but they also possess hearts and souls; in deftly managed introductory scenes, Luttrell and his buddies (played by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) tend to long-distance relationships and future plans for families, tease one another about their love lives and domestic affairs, haze a young newcomer, and contemplate their latest assignment —— the killing of Shahd —— with steely, efficient calculation as their commanding officer (played by Eric Bana) takes them through the mission plan.

 

That excruciating training comes in handy when the their four-man team, alone in the Afghanistan countryside and faced with a compromised mission, has to fight what seems like a horde of Taliban fighters while seeking open ground where their comm equipment will function properly and allow them to call in air support. As one bad-luck twist follows the next, the men become more and more physically battered; they take down dozens of pursuing Taliban, but the steady rain of bullets and RPGs take their toll. Finally —— in a turn of events that almost seems tailored for Hollywood —— “good” Afghanis appear to offer assistance. That’s when the bad guys show just how single-mindedly evil and wantonly destructive they really are, launching an all-out assault against their own more kindly brothers.

 

And brotherhood is the very crux of this movie. Repeatedly, the American soldiers demonstrate deep bonds of loyalty, disagreeing on tactics but remaining unified in action to the point of making ultimate sacrifices for one another. (The Taliban baddies, by contrast, are depicted as little more than homicidal maniacs who wear — and this is a 1960s touch of silver screen evil —— eyeliner.)

 

 

Whether this film will take spark and enter the canon of great war films remains to be seen. When faced with an impossible ethical dilemma, the soldiers depicted here stick to the high road, knowing it’s going to cost them; this film celebrates their courage and professionalism. In some ways, however, the film is propagandistic and fawning; moreover, does the cinematic documentation of modern warfare really need to include clips from home movies (weddings, soldiers frolicking with dogs)? We know these are good ol’ boys, but isn’t the point of the war movie to show us tough-as-nails fighting men? On this latter score, “Lone Survivor” racks up plenty of points along with its body count; these SEALS are the sorts of guys who can hits to limbs and even improbable head-shots and still remain focused on the task at hand in the nose and confusion of a heated firefight. This is one of the most relentlessly bloody films (outside of the horror genre) in recent memory, and it only becomes more fraught and intense when the strain starts to show psychologically —— as a wild-eyed Wahlberg, surrounded by villagers who might or might not be allies, waves a hand grenade; or, later, overcome with relief and gratitude, tells his new-found friends goodbye.

 

The villagers who stepped up to help out despite the risk of bringing down the sociopathic wrath of the Taliban were, end-credits text informs the viewer, following an ancient code of honor. In doing so they, too, show a side of profound brotherhood, one the movie is wise to acknowledge: The brotherhood of humanity, binding beyond arms, munitions, rage, or even culture and language.  It’s what allows the spirit of hope to endure even when assailed by dark forces of tyranny and bloodlust.

UnHung Hero

Patrick Moote is a comedian, which probably explains why, when his then-girlfriend said no to his marriage proposal at a sporting event (and on a Jumbotron, for all to see), he was able to tackle two very different tasks at the same time: Wallow in his hurt and misery (comedy is borne of tragedy, after all, or so they say) and make a documentary… sorry, a “cockumentary”… about the aftermath. Yes, a “cockumentary.” You see, the ex declined to marry him, in part, because he was inadequately hung for her liking.

Rattled and insecure, Moote did what anyone of his generation would do: Got all confessional, and did so with a video camera trained on him. (Brian Spitz, the auteur behind “Bang Blow & Stroke” and “Tales from the Crapper,” took on directorial duties.) In the course of the resulting film, “UnHung Hero,” out now on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures, Moote travels to several countries and chats with an array of specialists and quacks; he also talks about the very public rejection (which blew up on YouTube and made headlines around the world) and his feelings of inadequacy with his brother, his parents, his old friends, and… mistake!… a number of former girlfriends. Some exes give him the skinny on his member with blunt honesty (one woman ranks him a 3 out of 10; “Come on!” Moote protests), and some are just baffled at being asked to asses Moote’s manhood.

Who can blame them? It’s got to be a hard task to explain that you want to make a film about your emotional emasculation that also addresses the physiological, evolutionary, and cultural tropes that feed into the notion that masculinity and virility somehow have a direct link to penis size. Moote gets chased out of a sex shop and a Korean bath house for daring to intrude on their sacred precincts with a camera. No one wants to listen to his attempts at explanation.

But our man persists, and explores not only the roots of his anxieties but also the medical question of whether there’s anything to be done about his hungnacity, be the remedy surgical, herbal, pharmaceutical, or whatever. (He even tries lifting weights with his genitals at one point.)

The movie was a favorite at film fests, and you can see why; if there’s any male universal, it’s a fascination with, and an abiding love for, our junk. But the film also feels contrived in various ways. That pretty blonde he met at the sex shop? It gives the film a nice symmetry and the promise of a happy ending (if you’ll pardon the pun) for a girl he meets on the road to sexual enlightenment to be suitable dating material. And the way Moote veers from destination to destination and loops back again, first hopefully buying into and then rejecting a series of procedures that promise to add inches to his… er… stature, and then rejecting those remedies, feels put on. (Only when faced with a long needle full of some sinister concoction does he quail at the jab-to-the-johnson approach for penile enlargement? Really? Only when he sits in on a plastic surgery the promises to add girth to his gear, and ends up rushing out of the room to vomit, does he decide scalpels and scobs don’t mix? Are you kidding? We get that he’s piqued, but is he that desperate? Indeed, has this whole thing made him nuts?)

Even though this material feels a little inauthentic, it’s often funny. The moment when his mother insists to a dejected Moote that he not abandon the documentary because it’s triggered personal development is priceless: “Keep growing,” she counsels, and even Moote’s glum mug seems to veil a laddish smile. Moreover, the film is downright educational, and as a compendium of the various snake-oil cures for guys who agonize over their endowment, it’s like a catalogue of con-artistry. “UnHung Hero” has a familiar destination (its moral: Love and be loved for who you are, not what you have —— even in the Joe Boxer department), but the journey, though it veers into the absurd at times, is worth taking.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are back with their signature bleak humor, the world’s odd angles and infelicities once more aligning to take the starch out of some poor schlub.

This time, rather than a Los Angeles slacker or a hapless professor of mathematics, the Coens set their sights on a singer. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, looking suitably moth-eaten and hang-dog) is the surviving half of a musical duo that had a glimmer of success with their one album. Now, in the wake of his partner’s suicide —— abandoned, rudderless, with few prospects —— Davis drifts around New York City, sleeping on couches and picking up session work. The time is the early-1960s; America is transitioning into some new mental and social place, but Davis, befuddled creature that he is, has little idea of where or how he should fit into an emerging new culture. He disdains folk music, but finds that he has to play it to get by; he insults his friends and gets pummeled in back alleys by enemies he didn’t know he had; he inadvertently becomes the caretaker for one cat or another, but even in this humble endeavor he fails (or, in one instance, simply gives up).

As is de rigeur for the Coen oeuvre, commonplace episodes are taken over and transformed by strange details, as though people and objects belonging to distorted parallel universes had teleported over here by accident. Carey Mulligan, who makes an appearance as the sharp, angry girlfriend of a buddy (Justin Timberlake), complicates Davis’ couch surfing. A chance encounter with another session musician played by “Girls” co-star Adam Driver leads to a road trip to Chicago in the company of a gnomic, pathetic, and slightly menacing fellow named Roland Turner (John Goodman); it’s with giddy Beats-bashing that the Coens put Garrett Hedlund, as a young tough reminiscent of Dean Moriarty (or James Dean), behind the car’s steering wheel. (Just think of all those recent movies that have tried to capture the essence of Kerouac and his crew; the Coens, perhaps more wisely, succeed brilliantly in parodying the whole Beat mythos.)

In “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” the Coens famously shone a light on a species of American mountain / bluegrass / folk music; here, they celebrate folk music once more by way of the blues, with Davis performing a rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The Coens, ever mischievous, balance this out with a novelty song about space travel that riffs on Larry Verne’s angsty / comic “Mr. Custer.” This oddball jam provides a little more for Timberlake to do, and also reminds us of the era in which we find ourselves here: The space race is beginning, and major social upheaval is already underway.

But the psychedelic love fest is going on somewhere else; we see little in the way of the era’s tropes, because the focus is Davis’ own upheaval: The stardom he covets, with only a vague idea of why, is as distant and unreachable as the stars themselves. This is a semi-serious man who will never learn to laugh, nor think deeply; as a club owner (F. Murray Abraham) who hears him sing puts it, “I don’t see the money,” which is another way of declaring Davis to be shy of talent. The best Davis can do, like so many of the rest of us, is pick himself up after his latest failure, dust himself off as best he can, and trudge onward. (Or sail; when his guitar doesn’t provide a living for him, Davis periodically retreats to the merchant marine.) Others may sing about life as a series of stillborn dreams and roadblocked strivings; Davis, however, is doomed to live it.