Honest truth as of this evening: Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Monsters University “the Best Film of the Year”! So far. Yes, the year is young. Proclamation subject to change without notice, possibly during Oscar preseason.
Seriously, though: looking back at my last several summer action blockbuster spectacular experiences, this Disney/Pixar reboot of Revenge of the Nerds requires less forgiveness of plot holes; boasts characterization truer to the original cast; doesn’t overwrite wide-scale urban destruction with perfunctory offscreen-slapdash-reconstruction happy ending; refuses to play bait-and-switch with its antagonists; and, like Toy Story 3, is a surprisingly top-notch sequel with its own topic to explore rather than acting as a hollow, superfluous extension of the original.
As much as I contemplated bowing out in a previous entry, I just couldn’t quit John McClane. Besides, I had a relative desperate to get away from home for a while, which is one of the commonest rationalizations for doing something you know won’t end well.
Fortunately for impatient viewers, the “plot” portion of A Good Day to Die Hard occupies only the first ten minutes. Legendary neo-cowboy John McClane travels to Russia, where his son, a mere toddler without lines in the original Die Hard, stands trial for murder alongside another political prisoner named Komarov (Sebastian Koch, whom I last saw as the playwright under surveillance in the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others). Little does Dad know that Jack (Jai Courtney, suppressing his Australian accent just fine) is a CIA agent with a plan. Little does Jack know that he’s not the only one gunning for Komarov and the MacGuffin he holds. Little do Komarov’s pursuers know that he’s not as helpless as they think. And everyone but everyone knows sooner or later there’ll be explosions, bullets, and death-defying feats that would kill the average super-hero.
I hadn’t originally planned to see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Unlike many of my longtime Internet peers, his films aren’t an automatic draw for me. Though Reservoir Dogs has been a qualified favorite of mine since college, the rest have been a mixed bag. His previous work, Inglorious Badwerds, was a mature, complex, riveting film about WWII and about the role of film in WWII, but was hampered by Brad Pitt’s Kentucky-fried B-movie brigade who snuck in from the direct-to-video good-ol’-boys revenge flick next door. From the trailers, Django looked to me like a 2-cool-4-school blaxploitation Western. Call it Shaft in Texas or Black Grit. Despite the talented cast involved and the joyous responses from the critical majority, it didn’t really sound like my kind of movie.
Then it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. As explained in a previous entry, I’ve watched every Best Picture nominee since 1997, whether I was enthusiastic about them or not. On this technicality alone, I checked Django out.
Important things first: Wreck-It Ralph is the best non-Pixar Disney film in years, proof positive that both divisions are up to the task of delivering solid results when the right talents are lined up and the marketing department is kept in check. The end credits confirm Ralph was wrangled by four different writers, two of which are omitted by IMDB — Jim Reardon and director Rich Moore, both veterans of the glory days of The Simpsons. (Of the other two, one, Phil Johnston, was responsible for last year’s indie Midwest comedy Cedar Rapids.) From where I sat, I couldn’t see the seams.
Academy Award nominee John C. Reilly is an unloved palooka who chafes in his day job as the villain of Fix-It Felix, Jr., one of several old-school cabinet games at Litwak’s Family Fun Center (elderly owner voiced by Ed O’Neill). Ralph’s major beef isn’t necessarily that he hates his job, but that he hates how shabbily he’s treated because he does it so convincingly. Even when Litwak’s is closed and all gaming characters are allowed to go home for the night, Ralph’s coworkers — the titular hero Felix (30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer) and the townspeople he saves every day — relax and party in their high-rise apartment building while poor Ralph is forced to live and sleep outside on a mound of loose bricks. Perversely, in their neighborhood Ralph is the 1% and the well-to-do are the 99%. The manufacturer clearly didn’t program these civilians to recognize the sight of homelessness.
The Dark Knight Rises was a flawed but perfectly apt capper on Christopher Nolan’s Batman miniseries, a true trilogy in the sense that it’s an integral continuation of developments and themes from the first two films and wraps up loose ends we didn’t even realize were unraveled. Its marathon length was no deterrent to me, but some of its minutes could have been used to better effect.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 remains one of my favorite super-hero films, but Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man approaches the same old origin from such a unique perspective of its own, I’ve decided I don’t mind their mutual existence. If I can handle the separate-but-equal Marvel-616 Spidey and Ultimate Spidey holding their own concurrent series, I suppose it’s not too far a leap to afford the movies similar tolerance, regardless of the debates about “How soon is too soon?”
Honestly, after the corporate-mandated mishmash that was Spider-Man 3, I’m relieved that Sony had the gall to buck popular opinion and return to square one. If the downward spiral had been allowed to continue, Spider-Man 4 would have been the franchise’s answer to Batman and Robin (some would argue SM3 was just that — witness Peter crossing over to the Dark Side, where there’s soulless dancing and self-inflicted haircuts), and Spider-Man 5 would have been a two-hour QVC Spidey Merchandise Marathon with no actual story, just five villains as hosts and a 1-800 number flashing onscreen all through the movie, with the house lights still turned on so viewers could use their cell phones to order while they watch. In much the same way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins eliminated the stigma from the Dark Knight Detective’s own series, Amazing Spidey restores honor to his own series by returning to the classic super-hero movie formula, by which I mean it only has one villain and fewer opportunities to push new action figures on us.
The web-swinging technology has improved to the point where I can no longer tell which Spideys were live stuntmen versus which were pure CG renderings (as opposed to the first film, which often switched to an animated Spidey only slightly more convincing than Kirk Alyn’s Superman cartoon-takeoffs). The speed-ramping effects to achieve super-cool slo-mo poster shots was annoying at first, until I realized that, for once, Spidey actually did look cool in action. Admittedly, some cityscape sequences felt more like cut-scenes from the Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions PS3 game, but that may simply be because video game art has been catching up to movie effects in recent years. I opted for the 2-D version, but even without a set of Upcharge-o-Vision glasses, the visuals were dynamic and occasionally wondrous without being a complete blur.
As our new Peter Parker, Andrew Garfield brings a winsome vulnerability and a more impish demeanor to the role, while at the same time seeming fiercer when pushed to his limits during the mandatory scenes where he’s unmasked for the sake of Acting. While Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris nailed the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko versions of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, I found the younger versions reinterpreted by Martin Sheen and Sally Field to be a worthy, loving old couple whom you could believe spent thirty-seven years together as a finely tuned family unit. As for Emma Stone’s version of Gwen Stacy — who’s far from helpless, yet just sensible enough to know when she needs to vacate the premises instead of playing victim-to-be — I’d be very content if this series allowed Gwen never to be murdered or usurped by Mary Jane as the original comic-book Gwen was.
I wasn’t exactly giddy at the choice of the Lizard as a villain, but his presence works in the context of the rewritten origin, which takes a cue from the Ultimate Spider-Man comics and gives Peter’s deceased parents a scientific backstory set at the blatantly nefarious OsCorp. Whereas the comics used this setup as an excuse to reinvent Venom, the movie offers a logical series of mad-science events that result in sufficient excuse for two animal-based characters to be spawned at once. Rhys Ifans does what he can with his few all-human scenes, but I wish that Dr. Curt Connors had been allowed to retain his wife and son from the comics. Poor li’l Billy Connors’ shocked reactions to the dad he loved unconditionally used to deepen the tragedy of Connors’ circumstances even more. Even so, at least the Lizard’s makeup and visual effects are well above Black Lagoon quality, though his stiff plastic-surgery grins reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s unsightly Joker makeup. Despite that, as the Lizard tore through the streets of Manhattan (and sometimes through its citizens), I couldn’t help wondering how much better the TV series V would’ve been if the Visitors had been this formidable.
I liked the modernized look chosen for this film, rather than Sam Raimi’s timeless, occasionally old-fashioned design, which was a great recapture of Lee and Ditko’s world, but not necessarily one that needs to be enforced in perpetuity. I’m glad J. Jonah Jameson was nowhere in sight, because replacing J. K. Simmons would be a fool’s game. Filling the gadfly role with Denis Leary as Gwen’s dad (constantly irritated, but a hard-working hero when needed) was a smart move to sidestep that issue. Flash Thompson was what he needed to be, albeit capped with a final scene that was a great nod to the comics, though I have to wonder how in the world an aggro basketball jock could gain admission to the renamed “Midtown Science High School” that Peter and Gwen attend in this version for some reason. Would a typical New York high school have been an inadequate setting here? Or was this a subtle plug for magnet schools?
In one or two places, I was irked. In some places, I was blown away. In general, I was content. Whether it counts as a reboot, remake, relaunch, reimagining, recycling, or whatever, I’m not much concerned at this point. After Spider-Man 3 I’m just happy to be able to call Amazing Spider-Man a comeback.
(For those who are wondering: there’s a bonus scene not too far into the end credits, none at the end of the credits. It’s the exact same kind of end-scene we had in the Avengers series — ominous foreshadowing of evil scheming by a shadowy man. His identity is ridiculously easy to guess unless this movie is your very first experience with a Spider-Man product. If you paid attention to the trailers or even read this entry closely enough, you can guess who he is without even seeing the movie.)