The Amazing Spider-Man by Carmen Yeung
In a summer dominated by superhero adaptations with high budgets and even higher expectations, few had more hype than “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Though the previous cast’s “Spider-Man 3” was revealed only five years earlier, this reboot had high expectations. And this blockbuster falls slightly short.
The web-spinning hero’s tale is well known, but this movie created a stronger backstory for Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) superpowers; instead of a random lab accident, the fated spider-bite was a direct by-product of his father’s work with eventual villain Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ilfans).
However, like many other superhero flicks, a better-than-adequate plot will only go so far. Rather, the success of “The Amazing Spider-Man” can only be attributed to its cast. Garfield’s portrayal of a sarcastic, awkward teenager seems genuine, not forced, and his chemistry with Emma Stone, aided by their off-screen relationship, adds to the blush of their young love.
The inevitable comparisons to Sam Raimi’s 2002 “Spider-Man” come up lacking, even with the remake’s much-improved cinematography and special effects. In Raimi’s, Tobey Maguire’s Peter was lovable, lighthearted, and cheeky, while Garfield’s Peter is re-imagined as a darker, snarkier, edgier hero. Though Garfield is arguably more true to the Marvel comics, Maguire came across as more heartfelt and had more depth. It was harder to connect with Garfield’s character, not because of his acting, but because of the script. Raimi’s “Spider-Man” was better written, with a more solid, well-rounded protagonist.
That’s not to say “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a bland film; its acting gives enough emotional heft to a classic save-the-world-and-get-the-girl tale. But this is an example of actors outshining their characters. Though its 136 minutes are entertaining enough, “The Amazing Spider-Man” won’t last in your mind for much longer.
Kumaré by Teddy Becker-Jacob
Over the past decade, exploiting Midwesterners onscreen has become a profitable trade. At first, the Midwesterners share some ignorant, offensive views. The audience shares a hearty laugh at their views and exploits. And then Act II arrives, in which the Midwesterners are revealed to have depth of character, to cope with real-life problems, and to deserve the audience’s unexpected-yet-wholehearted sentimentality.
Director Vikram Gandhi’s documentary “Kumaré” is a particularly smart follower in this trend. In the tradition of mockumentary pioneer Sacha Baron Cohen, Gandhi addresses the American fascination with meditation and “eastern” spiritual leaders with a Love Guru-esque costume and persona. As his eponymous alter ego, Gandhi travels to Arizona to meet various mediation enthusiasts and participate in their outlandish ceremonies. This first section happily revels in its jest, sharing with viewers its mirth at the “spiritual culture” of Tuscon and Phoenix.
However, there’s more to these yogis than meets the eye. Kumaré’s (completely fake) system of meditation and counseling proves entirely effective for the 15 or so troubled souls that become his disciples; this is largely a result of Kumaré’s emphasis of the power of self-help, which Gandhi claims to be the message of both his experiment and film. However, it remains questionable whether these individuals truly gained the tools necessary to improve their situations, or if Kumaré simply gave them a doctrine to follow. Though the film is formulaic, and the subject matter well-trodden, it is nonetheless entertaining and thought provoking—and its open-endedness highlights Gandhi’s skill as a documentarian.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Nicole Sanchez
Look out, undead, because Hollywood’s got something to tell you—America’s Honest Abe was secretly an axe-wielding, blood-sucking hunter. This “true” story of our enigmatic leader is recorded in a secret journal-turned-novel by Seth Grahame-Smith. It follows Lincoln’s rise from a mere farm boy to president; the account also delves into the growth of the slave trade—vampires and their human allies in the South bred them as food—and the rationale behind the Civil War—a plan to crush vampirism and slavery with one blow.
Its historical details—vampires aside, of course—are mostly accurate, showing everything from Lincoln’s speeches to his family life. But the plotline itself, a medley of whimsical premise and serious approach, kills some of the spark. Saying the Civil War was fought largely due to a personal vendetta against the undead is dismissive, even offensive, of the high-held ideals of freedom and nationalism. But if taken lightly—as a film about a vampire-killing president is likely to be taken—this shouldn’t be a problem.
Grahame-Smith, who also wrote Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” took his chances when he adapted this tale for the big screen. But “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” passes the test as an action flick, packed with hatred, angst, betrayal, vengefulness, and just enough blood spatter. The visuals are intense, with the occasional slow-mo of deftly wielded weapons and hand-to-hand combat; the gore, however, isn’t particularly impressive. That being said, the film is certainly weird enough to land a niche audience (among historians who happen to like vampires). The gory take on history gives it flash, but the thematic dissonance might be a killer.
Brave by Anjelika Amog
“If you would just listen!” Merida exclaims, exasperated, as her trusty steed Angus neighs in response. Little does she know that her mother, Queen Elinor, shares her sentiment. “Brave” focuses on the often-fraught mother-daughter relationship, applying the usual Pixar formula of detailed animation, emotional depth, and just a dash of magic to its rebellious princess tale. When Elinor tries to force Merida into a political marriage, Merida reaches the end of her rope; she wishes to change her mother’s view, but ends up turning her into a bear and is given a countdown until the change is permanent.
The relationship between mother and daughter is developed in near-painful detail. One sequence cuts between Elinor and Merida, stringing individual lines into one coherent conversation, a nice, if gimmicky, demonstration of the rift between them and their underlying bond. As Merida struggles to lift the curse, both her and her mother’s characters are further developed, as Merida grows more self-aware and less stubborn and Elinor grows more compassionate and respectful of her daughter’s independence.
Recognition must be given to Pixar for its skillful animation, especially in detailing facial expressions so brilliantly. Elinor, as a bear, is also rendered with such personality that her character still comes across, as she wipes her mouth with her fore-paw and walks on two legs, rolling her hips as she moves. By contrasting her soft lines and sloping features with the harsh angles of the demon bear Mor’du, the latter is made even more frightening.
“Brave” fits smoothly into the Pixar family, upholding the tradition of taking far-fetched concepts and crafting characters and relationships with rich complexity. Pixar has made yet another kids’ movie with soul.
The Dark Knight Rises by Thomas Duda
Batman’s fist is stopped. In mid-air, approaching Bane’s face, Batman’s fist has been stopped. No matter how hard he struggles, Batman cannot seem to overcome this obstacle. Such is the theme of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the dark and gritty end to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Set eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” the film opens with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) holed up in his mansion, having abandoned his cape after taking the blame for the deaths of Harvey Dent, a much adored public-figure-turned-psychotic villain, and several collateral police officers. However, he is soon forced out of hiding by the terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy). His life in shambles, Bruce/Batman realizes that Bane has but one goal: to break the Batman, leaving Gotham City in ruins.
Nolan’s swan song to his franchise is a great movie and a grand end to a beloved trilogy. The plot, though somewhat predictable, remains intricate and well-told throughout, a near-perfect fusion of high-octane action and heavy emotion.
Each moment is beautifully executed by the star-studded cast. From trilogy newcomer Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the industrious policeman John Blake, to the great Michael Caine, returning as Bruce’s steadfast butler Alfred, each character is nuanced and developed. Nolan grounds his work with characters and situations that almost seem authentic with the use of subtle special effects and well-choreographed fight scenes. If a negative point exists, it would be the film’s reliance on its predecessors; newcomers to the series are apt to be confused more than once. Luckily, this is no problem for true fans.
In the end, “The Dark Knight Rises” does rise to expectations. Dark and brutal, majestic and complex, it stands out as one of the strongest films of the summer.
Ruby Sparks by Nina Wade
Men have often wished to have the “girl of their dreams.” But what if that wish came true? Such is the premise of “Ruby Sparks,” in which writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), after penning a manuscript about a girl named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), finds his words brought to life as his girlfriend. What looks primed for a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin for “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” instead reveals itself as a critique of the archetype.
Though Calvin initially wants to give Ruby free will, resisting the temptation to tamper with her is harder than he thinks. Calvin believes he understands her (as he says, “I wrote her”), but when she begins to pull away, dissatisfied, he adds detail after detail to her story in a fit of last-ditch efforts. The film initially plays this for laughs: when she wants independence, he makes her pine for him, which backfires with her clinging to his side, crying if he so much as uses the bathroom. However, the film becomes increasingly dark, and Calvin is forced to question the morality of keeping Ruby in his life when she is, ultimately, little more than his flesh-and-blood puppet.
“Ruby Sparks” has all the trappings of a hipster rom-com—quirky girls, nerd-chic boys, “unconventional” love—save one: a romance selling an unrealistic ideal. While other films in this genre embrace the previously described Manic Pixie image, “Ruby Sparks” attacks it, fleshing out the problems of the ideal muse. Kazan and Dano make this film, showing unexpected sides to Ruby and Calvin; Kazan gives her melancholic despair and a personality, while Dano plays “insecure” and “ethical crisis” with a desperation that makes him equally creepy and sympathetic. By subverting expectations in a well-executed manner, “Ruby Sparks” takes a simple-enough idea and makes it memorable.
Beasts of the Southern Wild by Jane Argodale
From the start, director Benh Zeitlin’s fantasy drama “Beasts of the Southern Wild” brings us into a world that refuses to be tamed. We are introduced to small homes cramped with pots and pans, wrinkled clothing, and old tins of cat food, with a couple of pigs and chickens outside. The town looks like backwoods on its ruddy surface, in which there are no holidays because every day is a holiday and crying isn’t allowed at funerals because even death can be cause for a celebration of life. Welcome to the Bathtub.
The Bathtub is a Mississippi Delta community at the literal and figurative fringes of America, where six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father. It’s never dismissed as undesirable, but its cluttered, cobbled-together appearance and shaky, unpolished camerawork make clear the gritty lives of the community’s residents. Disaster breaks out in the Bathtub when Hushpuppy’s fathers fall ill and the ice caps of the Antarctic begin to melt, releasing ancient carnivores called Aurochs. Consequently Hushpuppy heads out in search of her long-lost mother.
The film may focus on a child, but it is never cutesy or twee. Keen observations written into Hushpuppy’s narration about the interconnectedness of her world don’t feel at all clichéd. For Hushpuppy, a child with little control over her circumstances, it is necessary to see how closely her destiny is connected to external factors, from the need for a healthy parent in her life to the need for survival in a world increasingly prone to large-scale natural disasters.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” brims with life and honesty in every scene. A million little pieces of the natural world support human survival, and a million little connections between friends, family, and neighbors support the human heart.
Moonrise Kingdom by Claire Burghard
During the precarious stage between childhood and adulthood, the seriousness of growing up can be overwhelming, and 12-year-olds, Sam and Suzy, in director Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” don’t want to handle it on their own.
In 1965, on a small island off the coast of New England, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) find comfort in their equally dysfunctional lives and fall in love. The two are passionate and enchanting despite their youth, in stark contrast to the adults, such as Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who are naïve and sad. After a yearlong eclectic, epistolary courtship—shown through an effervescently darling montage—the two use Sam’s Boy-Scout skills to run away to the wilderness and claim their territory, a small beach they dub Moonrise Kingdom. Though their escape proves unsuccessful, Sam and Suzy refuse to conform to the staid adults’ even more staid wishes.
Like other Anderson films, “Moonrise Kingdom” is atmospheric, precious, and hyper-stylized, capturing the moments of young love in washed-out color and precocious dialogue: Suzy and Sam’s love-at-first-sight meeting backstage at a church play; their reunion at a halfway point, a grassy field, after the year spent apart; their desperate attempts to escape the world in which they live, a world where Suzy is called “troubled” and Sam is unwanted by everyone, even his foster parents. But possibly the film’s best quality is its exhilarating camerawork, particularly the room-by-room tour of Suzy’s house during the opening credits, with Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” playing charmingly in the background. “Moonrise Kingdom” is delightful and just might encourage some pipe-smoking, eyeliner-wearing, sci-fi-reading, 12-year-old misfits to run away themselves.