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Column Fri Jul 06 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man, Savages, Katie Perry: Part of Me, Beasts of the Southern Wild & The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

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The Amazing Spider-Man

Because it's being released in such close proximity to The Avengers, the temptation I'm sure many critics and civilians will face is comparing that film with director Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man. And what I'm hoping you all do is be sophisticated enough to realize that both are very strong movies for almost entirely different reasons. Of course, the other temptation will be to compare Webb's relationship-heavy take on the life of young Peter Parker with Sam Raimi's trilogy. This is unavoidable but would still be doing the new film a great disservice.

The Amazing Spider-Man does something almost unheard of in the superhero arena: it treats its relationships with reverence. And in that sense, this film is like no other superhero movie I've ever seen. These characters care about each other, and as a result, we care about them. I always got the sense the Mary Jane Watson loved Peter Parker but was turned on by the suit; but in Webb's version of things, Gwen Stacy (beautifully played as the most mature, emotionally stable character in the film by Emma Stone) is madly in love with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, who captures the shy, awkward, intelligent jokester so much more convincingly than Tobey Maguire ever did, and I say that having always been a fan of Maguire's work).

Chemistry is a tough thing to define or explain, but you know it when you see it, and from the first moment they converse, we see a connection between Peter and Gwen that is lifted straight from the original comic books. Hell, I don't think a man alive could resist Gwen as played by Stone, complete with the go-go boots, miniskirts and assortment of headbands framing her blonde bangs. But her appeal goes light years beyond her looks. She's caring and protective of her man, but she could also give his intellect a run for its money. She's Parker's complete package, and these two must be together.

But The Amazing Spider-Man's accomplishments don't end with the love story, which was a natural fit for Webb, director of the wonderful (500) Days of Summer. This film is actually three movies: a love story; a family drama involving Peter's sense of parental abandonment; and an examination of the mentor/adversary relationship between Peter and Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who has been written as both an employee of OsCorp (run by the unseen Norman Osborn) and a former colleague of Peter's father, Richard (seen in flashbacks and played by Campbell Scott). And all three storylines are fascinating for their own reasons.

The way Raimi treated the relationship between Peter and his Aunt May and Uncle Ben always seemed like a pesky afterthought, something he needed to plod through to get to the action set pieces. But Webb embraces the elder Parkers, as played by Sally Field and Martin Sheen. This place where they live with their nephew is a warm, loving home where Peter must work through everything from being the victim of bullying on a semi-regular basis at school, to first love, to having the crap kicked out of him by various villains.

In the comics, Peter's conversion into Spider-Man was always a metaphor for the angst teens about entering adulthood, both physically and mentally, but never have I seen such a clear representation of that than The Amazing Spider-Man, and that's due in large part to Garfield's wonderful acting. Peter is a bundle of jittery nerves, but he's also a skillful skateboarder (even before his spider bite). There's a timid side to him that is balanced by an underlying knowledge that he lives in a time when nerds are inheriting the earth and becoming billionaires. It's so much fun watching him trial-and error design his webshooters or the excitement he feels as he presents Connors with the missing formula for cross-species regeneration. And when he becomes Spider-Man, as much as he should probably keep that a secret, as an excitable teenager, he can't help but tell Gwen because he loves her. Thoughts of the danger that knowledge puts her in haven't entered his immature mind just yet, but they will.

I realize I'm making The Amazing Spider-Man sound like strictly a character study, but make no mistake, the action sequences are fan-fucking-tastic. There's a playful sloppiness to some of the early scenes where Peter is still figuring out his powers. Sometimes his webs don't land where he wants them because he hasn't figured out how to aim them just yet. Another sequence has Spider-Man swinging too low over a New York City street, and as a result, he bounces off buses, cars and buildings. He still has to learn a little more about physics as it applies to him swinging on a web. And of course, this all makes sense. How would he know how to do work with these newfound skills without practice?

Webb features a couple of exquisite POV shots of Spider-Man floating through the city, and it's in sequences like that where the 3-D truly comes to life. There is much of this film that does not benefit from 3-D in the slightest, but the aerial shots are perfection, as are the fight scenes with The Lizard, the monster Connors becomes when he decides to make himself the lab rat for his own limb-regeneration experiments. Like many Spider-Man "villains," Connors has some firmly established psychological issues before science turns him into a monster. His ideas about weakness and strength in people are a bit twisted, and Ifans does a convincing job of wanting to help Peter finish the work his father started and encouraging the young man in his chosen field of science. Connors is the secondary father figure as well as being a career counselor.

So what about The Lizard, never one of my favorite foes in the comic books? What I do like about the battles between Spider-Man and The Lizard in this movie is how Spider-Man is forced to hold back and not hurt his friend under the scaly skin, which is not to say their scraps aren't brutal. The way The Lizard moves with such speed and fluidity, incorporating his tail, hell bent on full-on destruction, and it's a blast to watch. I was especially impressed with the slow transformation Connors makes into this creature; it's not an immediate change, and as a result we see Ifans in half-lizard makeup that is almost more monstrous than the final version.

I'll admit, once I realized that The Amazing Spider-Man would feature another version of the Spider-Man origin story, it took the wind out of my sails a bit. But there are small, important changes in both the radioactive spider bite scenario and the death of Uncle Ben that make Webb's telling important because those moments fall more in line with the greater story of Peter Parker's life. They don't just happen randomly; they happen because Peter's recklessness and immaturity lead to them. And yes, I know the death of Uncle Ben has always been partly Peter's fault, but the version of that pivotal moment here is so much more tragic.

I really hope Webb finishes out his vision of Spider-Man in sequels. I'd hate to see anyone else continue the Gwen Stacy saga, especially if it plays out as it does in the comic books. He has such a sure and steady hand when it comes to human drama that it would be a shame to let anyone else touch this world that he has meticulously built. The Amazing Spider-Man isn't paced, written or executed like any superhero film that came before it, but in terms of building out these richly realized characters and relationships, I can't think of another director who has handled that aspect better. The action is great too, but we all know what great action and effects look like in these types of films. This movie is an entirely different, more involving experience that I fell in love with.

To read my exclusive interviews with The Amazing Spider-Man stars Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans, as well as producers Avi Ared and Matt Tolmach, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Savages

In many ways the new Oliver Stone-directed Savages is a throwback, both into Stone's past and to a type of film that at once glorifies and horrifies the drug-dealer lifestyle. Your must remember that Stone not only directed such works as Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, but he also wrote Scarface and followed that us with directing turns on Natural Born Killers and U-Turn. It's all coming back to you now, isn't it? With a screenplay credited to Stone, Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (based on his novel), Savages at its worst is aping those latter Stone works, but at its best it offers a twisting and turning, depraved and dirty experience that is not often predictable and very often a whole lot of fucked-up fun.

At the heart of the film are three people, all in love with each other. Our narrator is "O" (Blake Lively), a pretty woman with a free-love spirit but a taste for expensive things. She's living with two drug-dealing partners, Ben (Kick-Ass' Aaron Johnson), who came up with the strain of marijuana they sell but also uses a portion of their earnings for charitable purposes; he's a lover not a fighter. Then there's Chon (Taylor Kitsch of John Carter and Battleship fame), a former Afghanistan vet, who still has a paranoid mind and a violent temper. He's in charge of security, and he's an aggressive lover compared to Ben. Yes, O is sleeping with both of them (sometimes at once), and everybody's cool like that.

I'll admit, in the beginning of this film, I was quickly losing interest because I don't tolerate hippie behavior for more than 30 seconds. But then come the Mexicans (under the command of Elena, played with quiet ferocity by Salma Hayek) and their hyper-violent cartels. Benicio Del Toro is in rare form as the so-despicable-you-love-him enforcer Lado. His methods are unspeakable, and he excels at cruelty. But it's Alex (last year's Oscar nominee Demián Bichir) who Elena calls on to negotiate with Ben and Chon about taking over their business and expanding their market. Ben and Chon want to get out of the business, take the money, and retire in style. But the cartel wants them to stay on for three years to train its employees in the ways of growing premium shit. Also drifting in and out of the crevices and playing every side of the game is DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta, who screams a lot). And keep an eye out for Emile Hirsch as Ben and Chon's combination accountant and resident hacker.

When the boys balk at the first offer from Alex, Elena does not take kindly to people turning down reasonable offers, so she has Lado kidnap O and sets up a type of pay/release plan. Since O is the one thing these two knuckleheads love, they devise a plan to get her back while knocking the cartel down a peg or two. Savages succeeds in giving out bloody battles, deviant behavior, double crosses and sometimes surreal visuals that remind me of the loopy use of different film stock that used to be Stone's trademark (like it or not). Here, it tends to work, and above all other things, I think Stone is having some amount of fun making this movie, and I certainly had fun watching where he took it.

Not everything works. Lively's constant narration is a bit irritating, and her acting isn't much better, although I think it was more the character than her performance that grated my nerves. Johnson does a great job as the more passive partner in the business whose violent side is drawn out and used to great effect as the film goes on. Kitsch may have finally found his strong suit as the tightly wound Chon, who just happens to have a small army for former military buddies at his disposal for some of the pair's most elaborate missions against he cartel.

By the end of the film, it becomes more and more difficult to figure out who's lying to whom, who wants to kill what, and what day of the week it is. But most of the details are insignificant as Stone turns up the weird factor by floating Mexican Day of the Dead images before our eyes and floods trippy music into our ears. I'm not saying he abandons the plot entirely (he doesn't), but there are times when stylistic flare seems to be battling for our attention. But that's no unusual in film by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker I happen to adore, even when he's failing or flailing. With Savages, it's nice to see a master back at work and tapping into a lunatic energy that he used to employ far more often, and as a result, he took more chances. This film feels like something of a risk, and more often than not, it pays off richly.

Katy Perry: Part of Me

I've actually heard a critic say after a screening of the Katy Perry documentary/concert film Part of Me, "Did you get all of the cotton candy out of your hair?" I'm guessing he thought up that brilliant bit of comedy before he stepped foot into the screening; referring to Perry's look or stage show as eye candy is a little obvious, wouldn't you say? Besides, being eye candy isn't necessarily a bad thing from where I'm sitting. And of all the complaints I might lodge against Part of Me, the fact that it's occasionally visually colorful and dazzling would not be one of them.

The problem with the film instead lies with what it emphasizes and what is discussed but not shown. The first thing that I must say directly to the filmmakers of Part of Me (Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, whose credentials seem to range from executive producing "Project Runway" to producing the slightly better Justin Bieber doc Never Say Never) is that I don't give a shit about Katy Perry's fans, so every time you focus on them and get testimonial after impassioned testimonial about how Perry impacted their lonely lives, you are taking away the most interesting parts of your narrative — namely your subject, who has had a curious life both before and after fame strolled in.

Her Christian upbringing and singing career as a teen is fascinating, as is the fact that when she first heard Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" album, it changed her life and the focus of her songwriting. That's good stuff, especially when we get a taste of her parents' reaction to her first single, "I Kissed a Girl." In the film's defense, perhaps the most interesting portions of her recent life are on full display in Part of Me. I'm referring to her marriage to and breakup with comic actor Russell Brand, who is scattered liberally throughout the film in full lovey-dovey mode. The film's most dramatic moments come as Perry is experiencing the collapse of her relationship in the middle of her massive tour. I don't really care if it's voyeuristic or not; it's compelling, heart-ripping material.

But those humanizing moments are few and far between, and what we get far more of is the aforementioned fan adoration. I know why the filmmakers put that drivel in, but it bogs down the film to such an extent that it made me angry. The far worse crime is the way the film treats Perry's music. I don't care how much you like or dislike her songs, they are among the catchiest in recent memories. Hell, I heard her new single "Wide Awake" two days ago, and I can't get the damn thing out of my head.

But Part of Me commits the cardinal sin of concert films, which is not letting these wildly infectious songs play all the way though without interruption. Seriously? This woman set a record for having five number one songs from the same album, and you won't let any of them play front to back? Not to mention that the production design for her stage show looks like Candyland on crystal meth. So give us a chance to look at this thing for more than few seconds at a time. I'd be willing to sacrifice the precious time you want me to spend listening to Perry's hair & makeup people, her stylist, her dancers, her sister, her manager, her best friends, whoever, to actually hear a few of these massive hits in their entirety.

I'd say that Part of Me strives to be something akin to Madonna's Truth or Dare documentary, a film that at least had the common sense to let us hear the music. In that film, we got a taste for how difficult it was for the subject to maintain a relationship with a famous person while on the road. And as much as Madonna is the ultimate attention whore (not that Perry doesn't crave the cameras on her all the time as well), there are moments of real honesty in that film which balance the music and dancing perfectly. Part of Me has the elements of a seriously strong artist chronicle, but the pieces feel like they're in the wrong order, or maybe they're overlapping where they shouldn't be. Despite some emotional honesty scattered throughout, the film just doesn't fall together in a way that would be of interest to anyone but Perry's most committed fans, of which there are many. And for a film that touts the value of creativity and free thinking, we don't get many examples of how Perry creates the kind of music or stage show that is supposedly an expression of the "real" her. That's a shame, because I bet that would be a great film.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Between the almost universally positive reviews that sprung forth from its Sundance and Cannes appearances earlier this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild is easily on track to be not only the best-reviewed movie of 2012, but also certainly one that will land on many a critic's Best of the Year lists. I'm guessing I'll certainly be among those to place it among the finest works of 2012, and the only trouble with that is that Beasts is a tough work to explain and praise with mere words — they simply don't seem elegant enough vessels to get the job done. But here we go anyway...

You know almost immediately that Beasts is something special when you meet its young heroine, 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who has grown up isolated in a part of the Louisiana bayou known as the Bathtub (because the area is on the wrong side of a levy, so it floods whenever it rains; in a couple of years, the land won't even exist). Although her father Wink (Dwight Henry) is always nearby (they live in adjacent, but separate, trailers), Hushpuppy pretty much lives on her own, free to visit others in the area and think very big thoughts that we are fortunate enough to hear in her sparse narration, which reveals her skewed world view. She's aware she's a small piece in a big universe, but her universe doesn't extend much beyond the Bathtub. And when a massive storm completely uproots her community, her belief that the world is a place where things are in balance is destroyed.

She also believes that there are prehistoric creatures called aurochs (kind of oversized wart hogs with more hair) that have been freed from the polar ice caps because of global warming and are roaming the earth looking for her. That's fairly advanced thinking for a young person, but Wallis' performance left no room for doubt that she was capable of it. She's a ferocious force in this movie, part vulnerable-part warrior princess-part wild child. I don't think I'll ever forget what she achieves in this movie.

First-time director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin has given us a glimpse into a way of living that I've never seen represented on screen before. I suppose the residents of the Bathtub (a fictional place, by the way) are the Delta's equivalent to Appalachian hill people. And while they seem like the friendliest folks, they also appear far more cut off. What we are witnessing in Beasts is the death of a culture. The flood waters from the gulf are killing the plant life and wildlife in the area, giving these people nothing and nowhere to live. And we see all of this through the filter of a little girl, with a passionate father whose only means of educating her is by screaming at her so loud, she absorbs his life lessons. It may take some sensitive parents a while to realize just how much Wink loves his daughter.

In many ways, Beasts is Hushpuppy's odyssey, especially at times when her clearly ailing father disappears for stretches. Her journey to find him and their adventures together bring them into contact with adults and children alike who live as they do, and it sometimes feels like we might as well be watching life on Mount Olympus or Atlantis for the all the familiarity their way of living feels to us as outsiders. I adored the other-worldly quality this film provides us, and it may actually take a couple of viewings for one to really appreciate the levels on which the movie is working. A visit to a group of displaced children (including Hushpuppy) make to a floating bayou brothel is portrayed like a trip to the Taj Mahal, and you soon realize these kids have never seen this much electricity on display nor so many painted ladies dancing to music; the sequence is pure magic.

Beasts of the Southern Wild spins around your brain, challenging you and your beliefs of what living truly is; that may be too much for some, but it's a feeling that should be embrace on a regular basis. When the outside world descends on the Bathtub, the place loses some of its magic, but that's the point. The movie is covertly political, while maintaining its sense of magic and wonder. I think I could watch it a dozen more times, and see it as something different each time. For the record, that happens so rarely that I can't tell you the last time I felt that way about a movie. See this film for the sake and enrichment of your soul. Beasts of the Southern Wild opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with Beasts of the Southern Wild stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, and writer-director Benh Zeitlin.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

Although a bit lighter in content then many other films from brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home), their latest release The Do-Deca-Pentathlon still has some humorous and poignant things to say about sibling rivalry, focusing on the strained relationship between brothers Jeremy, a professional poker player (Mark Kelly), and Mark, a husband and father (Steve Zissis) who holds down a steady job.

The film begins with plans being made for Mark's birthday, during which he and his family, wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur) and an ungrateful son (who annoyed me so much I won't even look up the young actor's name who played him), plan a trip to Mark's mother's (Julie Vorus) place. Finding out about the impending celebrations, Jeremy decides to show up uninvited and immediately stirs shit up with Mark about a 25-event sporting event they created as kids to determine who was the "better brother." Since there was some dispute about who won the first event, Jeremy taunts Mark at their mother's to go for Round 2, and while Mark's wife strongly objects because of his minor health concerns, he becomes obsessed with the idea of finally beating his brother at this competition.

Because it's a Duplass Brothers film, both the comedy and more serious moments are largely improvised. There's no getting around the fact that the movie is very funny, but sometimes the more serious material about Mark and his son being at odds, or the tension between Mark and his wife, seems a little less dramatic than the more sophisticated and believable human drama of Jeff, Who Lives At Home (in which Zissis has a role). That may have something to do with the fact that Do-Deca was shot several years ago (before Cyrus) but put on the shelf while the Duplass Brothers were actually given a chance to make money working with more bankable actors on films like Cyrus and Jeff. It was only recently they had time to return to this film, which in some way completes the trilogy of no-budget, indie works that includes The Puffy Chair and Baghead.

Even lesser work like Do-Deca is loaded with enough charm and laughs and relatable conflict to make its 75-minute running time seem to fly by in an instant. I'm still delighted with the way the camera circles each scene before zeroing in on the most interesting action or statement. The Duplasses have a way of letting a scene go just a bit too long, only to find the finest zinger of the scene in that extra beat. In a way, I cherish the free and easy way they work, because what results isn't rambling actors in search of meaning. Everyone of their films is tightly edited and contains more folksy soul than just about anyone else working at this scale or larger.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. On Saturday, July 7, filmmaker Jay Duplass will host a 9:30pm screening of the Coen Brother's classic Raising Arizona for the fourth installment of "The Film That Changed My Life" series, based on Robert K. Elder's book of the same name. Duplass will appear live to have a post-film discussion with Elder. Duplass and Elder will sign copies of The Film That Changed My Life following the screening and Q&A. The evening also features a 7pm screening of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, with a Jay Duplass Q&A as well.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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