Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Let's just get the red-and-black elephant in the room out so we can dismiss it. Why another Spider-Man, with a different actor and director? Wasn't Tobey McGuire perfect as Peter Parker? Because there were parts of the story that weren't told. Because each version tells its own version of the canon story.
It's pretty much the same story, but with enough detailed differences to get you to pay attention. This story concentrates on the death of Peter's parents, the death of his uncle, and how that changes him. It also strikes up a romance right away with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who was Peter's first girlfriend in the sixties' comic books. And, yes, she was the daughter of the police chief (Denis Leary).
Details I really enjoyed include the fact that Peter has to be smart enough to invent the web-throwing mechanism. In the first version, the ability miraculously appeared, which, to us canon-lovers, was just ridiculous.
Life isn't easy for Spidey, but you probably already knew that. Andrew Garfield's deft interpretation, though, allows us to like this Peter Parker, appreciate his pain and his glee, and ride along with great interest and joy when he slings those webs around New York City.
The Lizard, as I recall, was the very first villain Spider-Man ever faced, and so it seemed appropriate that we get to see 'ol Lizard here. He's woven very nicely into the story, and a connection is made with Peter, who helps him with the regeneration serum. Rhys Ifans nicely plays this misfit, a misfit from both human and reptile standards.
The effects are just tremendous. But at the heart of The Amazing Spider-Man is a (still) good story and very good if not great screenwriting. The writing finds the movie's emotional center as you appreciate Peter's predicament and feel for him along the way. And they hired excellent actors to bring this one forth. Thumb's up.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Magic Mike

I believe Magic Mike may be one of the best movies of the year.
We first meet Mike at not one, but several of his part-time jobs, trying to make it professionally. But the thirties-ish guy wants to actually do specialty furniture -- you know, table tops held up by missiles. While we're not sure there's a market for that kind of thing, there sure is a market for his night gig: stripping.
They used to call this by another term, like "male dancers," or fill-in-the-blank "revue." It's really male stripping, let's not kid ourselves. In the better shows, there is dancing, but it's not why the women come to watch. They come to watch the men strip to display muscle-bound, shaven bodies.
I went to a Chippendale's revue once when it was hugely popular, in the mid-'80's, and it was obvious to me that the ones to watch were the women. I went with a group of women from work, and I found out that I didn't know any of them. While they didn't exactly turn into frothing animals, the distinction would be minor. They were changed, they let go, on this one night. It's a fascinating thing to watch, men and women, doing a public, almost-naked dance together.
Plus, isn't this part of the American dream? Work really hard and get a lot of money, fame (in certain circles), and all the sex you want? For certain men, it is, but for Mike, it's not the kind of success he really seems to crave. A scene where he puts on a suit and glasses, and approaches a loan officer really shows us where his heart is. However, he's been working for cash under the table at all jobs for so long that he has no credit history, so he's not worth taking a chance on. We know differently, however. We somehow know that Mike is special, that he works hard at whatever he does, and that he's a born businessman.
This could be the sleaziest thing you've ever seen, male-exploitation to the sky, but director Steven Soderbergh knows that his story lies in between sleaze and real life, and the maturation of "Magic" Mike. The screenplay, written by star Channing Tatum's business partner, Reid Carolin, is smart and sexy, and is loosely based on Tatum's life as a stripper in Florida when he was a teenager. The script shows us a 19-year-old mess of a young man, Adam, who is introduced to this world and takes to it very quickly. The difference between the immature, grab-all-you-can Adam and Mike really sets the tale up, and allows Mike to see his future.
The dancing scenes are quite good, especially when Mike gets out there, but not quite professional, which is the way it should be for something rehearsed two or three times, at most. And most times, the dancing denigrates into pseudo-sex, bumping and grinding. P
Perhaps the piece-de-resistance, or the saddest thing you've ever seen, is over-the-hill strip-club owner Dallas (a remarkable Matthew McConaughey) vamping it up one last time.
This is a star-producing movie for Channing Tatum. But a great film to be watched by all of us who can prove we're over 18.
Thumb's up.

To Rome with Love

This latest from Woody Allen isn't bad Woody Allen, but it's not perfect and magical Woody Allen either. But it's pretty darn good.
To Rome with Love introduces us to some visitors and residents of Rome, and how romances and misadventures develop out of this. You might get bored with what's going on in the romance department -- I didn't, but it's certainly possible -- but you could never get bored with the scenes in Rome, bathed in sunlight, in the background.
There are several separate vignettes where the protagonists never meet; the only thing they have in common is Rome. It's interesting to see Robert Benigni again as a common man who is thrown suddenly into the status of being famous. While this was the same story, over and over, with nothing really added each time, Benigni's rubber face keeps it alive for us.
I was particularly intrigued by the story involving Alec Baldwin as an older advisor to Jesse Eisenberg's relationship with his girlfriend. Baldwin adds a slippery force to this story, and while it may be difficult to figure out exactly who he is and what he is adding, the viewer will have to admit that he's a force to be reckoned with.
There's also a very cute story about a simple Italian mortician who has a marvelous voice, but can only sing in the shower. We actually get to see Woody himself in a part written, of course, just for him. It's wonderful to see the great Judy Davis hitting all the right strides as Woody's character's wife. Because who else could put up with the intellectual neurotic?
Well, they're all intellectual neurotics -- maybe not all, but many of the figures we see in each vignette. It's certainly territory Allen knows well.
All of these stories are quite humorous, sometimes even laugh-out-loud quality. It's a good film even though it doesn't carry the magic of his last, Midnight in Paris.
Thumb's up.

Friday, July 06, 2012

War Horse

Dear Tara:
I'm writing you this letter because I just saw War Horse, the Steven Spielberg-directed movie. The source is a well-known book and a play, which, I understand, is staged in a phenomenal way. You, as a horse-woman and horse-lover, might've seen this movie already.
I absolutely loved it. What I really loved about it, well, it's several-fold. It all takes place in World War I, a war I have never heard much about. So the movie sheds some light on how that war was fought -- differently from any other war in history, with new-fangled weapons like automatic guns meeting old-fashioned ones like bayonets, and trench warfare with the possibility of being gassed, a most horrible way to die or even live after the fact.
And Spielberg's movie doesn't paint this war as the one your mother loved: it's a nasty, child-killing, hope-destroying, senseless sort of activity. The perfect war movie.
The horse sees many different owners, as it's sold to a British cavalry officer as the war is just beginning. On and on we watch the person who picks up on the horse. Except for the beginning story of Alby (short for Albert), the young man who is too young for war at the time the story begins, who falls in love with this horse, just as we do, because of his spirit and unwillingness to be dominated.
But the beauty of these stories is that they're not very long. They're actually very short stories, cradled by Alby's yearning to be reunited with his Joey.
And the enemy -- the krauts, the jerries, the Fritzes: the Germans -- are not portrayed badly. In most cases, they're shown as victims of the war, just as the Brits are. And in many of these instances, they're kids as well. Your heart goes out to all the victims of this seemingly senseless war.
So, Tara, I highly recommend this movie. However, I must warn you: it's rough on the horse. In fact, I don't know how Spielberg worked out some of those stunts with Joey. I'm thinking it's CGI, because no one would hurt that horse deliberately, even to film a beautiful movie such as this. But that's hard to watch. It's hard to watch this magnificent creature go through such physical and emotional hardships.
Several friends have refused to watch it -- Ruth, Elly, Dawn -- because they can't watch a horse mistreated. Ruth even told me that her first pre-teen trainer was a WWI cavalry man, and that he said unspeakable things happen to horses in the cavalry. That memory stopped her from seeing War Horse right there. So I'm wondering if you can stomach it, have the heart for it, or can stand to have your heart dimmed just a bit as you watch it. If you can, it's quite a story.
Thumb's up.