Osama Unchained

Django UnchainedDjango Unchained (2012)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Cinematography by: Robert Richardson

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

Rating: A-

It’s often been said that Quentin Tarantino doesn’t make movies, but rather, he remakes them, in his own image, thereby creating a unique, if not a brand new template by which to measure the genre. With Django, he tackles a spaghetti western as only he can, by including a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), a freed slave (Jamie Foxx), a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his loyal house slave (Samuel L. Jackson). Toss in a bucket load (quite literally) of violence and excellent dialogue, and you’ve got a film that isn’t afraid to tread uneasy water with a smile (and blood) on its face. We’ve seen flourishes of the genre’s influence before, be it in Kill Bill Vol. II or Inglorious Basterds, but this is his definitive western, through and through. When I read the script about two years ago, the characters and dialogue, as to be expected, lept off the page, and unlike his previous films, I couldn’t quite figure out how he’d pull it off from page to screen. Rest assured however, that every actor absolutely relishes in his part, and the performances only elevate the film to a level I never expected.

With Waltz, Tarantino has found the perfect vehicle (second only to perhaps Sam Jackson) who can take his words and render them almost poetic in their delivery. While similar Foxx doesn’t have much to say, but through close ups and wide shots, Django’s eyes do much of the talking. DiCaprio deserves the highest honor in my book, for nailing a part that is quite literally batshit crazy at times, and has no template, not to mention it completely goes against type for him. A special shout out of Sam Jackson, who I can’t recall devouring a role like this in some time. Nowhere is the issue of slavery, and racism, so brilliantly conveyed, than in the relationship between DiCaprio and Jackson, and likewise, Jackson’s view on Foxx and Waltz. Poor Kerry Washington, despite being an exceptional actor, has very little to do other than stand around (quite literally) looking pretty as the damsel in distress. Sure, she’s the motivation, but I would’ve liked to see more scenes with her and Foxx at the helm.

This just leaves the often imitated, but never duplicated, Quentin Tarantino. It’s hard to deny that the man has impeccable vision, and does everything in his power to do right by it, from the casting, right down to the musical cues. This isn’t a film that just anyone could’ve made, even with the script in hand. There’s a passion for the material, a real labor of love, that only he can get across, because make no mistake; even given the subject matter, this is an entertaining flick. You’ll find yourself smiling, squirming, and just being in awe at what transpires on screen, because no matter what you think you know, or how you feel, this film will turn that upside down and make you feel and think differently.

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Written by: Mark Boal

Cinematography by: Greig Fraser

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke,
Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini

Rating: A

I remember writing, back when The Hurt Locker came out, that there wasn’t another film that year, that made me sit at the edge of my seat, simply observing such an intimate and intricate situation unfold around a group of people. I didn’t expect any less from the next film from screenwriter/director duo Mark Boal/Kathryn Bigelow (respectively) when I heard it was going to be about the CIA’s decade long battle in trying to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. Rest assured, I was not disappointed. This film is every bit as intricate, intimate, and immensely detailed, if not more so, than Hurt Locker. In fact, I’d say Renner’s character in Locker and Chastain’s character of Maya here have a lot in common, in that that they both couldn’t possibly see themselves doing anything but what they’re doing. This hunt for bin Laden is her entire life, and when it finally comes time to take him out at a compound in Pakistan, as an audience, you’re right there with her. If I had to compare her to another cinematic character, I’d say the film plays very much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, in following a story that spans years, and a character looking to find some solace, some justice, and some justification in what he/she is trying to accomplish, to the point of becoming obsessed.

Jessica Chastain has been impressing me with every film she decides to take on, but this one is hers and hers alone to carry, despite the various, and often times excellent, supporting cast, consisting of Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, among many more. This film lives and breathes the environment it presents at every turn, and I’ll be honest, for those not entirely familiar with the history (myself included), there’s a lot to take in, be it names, information, events, etc. The film doesn’t slow down in that regard, but in doing so, it displays the full scope, the highs, the lows, the mistakes, the missteps, the outright failures, as well as the successes of the work that went into the task at hand. Chastain’s Maya handles it all pitch perfectly, and you’ll forget you’re even watching a film.

Kathryn Bigelow, I’ll admit, was not on my rader pre-Hurt Locker. Yes, I’ve seen Point Break, but as far as I’m concerned, Hurt was a revival of a career perhaps long in the making. She presents material in sometimes the most simplistic way, but as an audience, you still get the complexities behind it. The same can be said of Mark Boal, as this is his third written feature (and second with Bigelow), and yet, he handles the subject matter with such expertise, capturing governemnt bureaucracy at its absolute worst, even when it’s poised to shine with the capture of bin Laden–an event, that as close as it may have brought a grieving nation together a decade later, and it is obviously a huge moment in the film’s final half, was still not a sure fire yes or no, or even fully agreed upon decision for that matter. It’s a film that will stand the test of time, because it dared to step up and just show, and not tell, and allow us to think and feel what we will of it.

History changed. History made. They truly don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Tom Cruise is the Eight Psychopath

Seven PsychopathsSeven Psychopaths (2012)

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

Written by: Martin McDonagh

Cinematography by: Ben Davis

Starring: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell,
Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken

Rating: B+

There’s a moment, about an hour into this flick, where a struggling screenwriter, Marty (Colin Farrell) discusses with Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken), how he sees his latest script (also called Seven Psychopaths) ending: with the main characters, in a secluded desert, doing nothing but talking, and contemplating life–a stark contrast from the violence on display in the first half, and much to Billy’s dismay, without a massive shootout. It’s not the first time in the film that the line between Marty’s script, and the actions/characters unfolding on screen begins to blur, but it’s perhaps the most concrete example of the two mediums finally (and somewhat blatantly) converging. It’s hard to really talk about the film without ruining what makes it such a special experience. It’s unconventional, it’s meta, it’s hilarious (yet poignant when it wants to be), and it’s fun, but most of all, it always knows what it is, even when it seems like it has no clue what it wants, or where it’s supposed to be, or even where it’s headed. The cast is tailor made, with Walken delivering his most nuanced performance in years, and Rockwell proving once again why he’s one of the best character actors working today. Farrell doesn’t have much to do other than play it straight, but he plays the part well, only enhancing the performances around him. A special shout out to Woody Harrelson, who manages to strike an absurd balance between being a mobster and a man-child. After In Bruges (2008), Martin McDonagh’s second feature further shows his strength, not just as a director, but as a writer. His ear for dialogue is right up there with Tarantino, and if In Bruges was more melancholy, Psychopaths enjoys being messy with its humor, language  characters, and violent actions.

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher (2012)

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

Cinematography by: Caleb Deschanel

Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall, Jai Courtney

Rating: B+

I haven’t read any of the books in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, but I don’t think I necessarily needed to in order to appreciate Christopher McQuarrie’s film. It’s a rather old school film, in that it has all the makings of a suspense thriller of the late 1980s, or early 1990s. Clues are given, leads are followed, and one mystery solved almost always leads to two more in need of being solved. The violence holds nothing back, and the writing is just as smart, sharp, and uncompromising. Tom Cruise didn’t strike me as an odd choice for the role. If anything, I was weary that for Cruise, Reacher would just be a grittier, less gadget equipped Ethan Hunt (of the Mission: Impossible series), but Cruise works well in the part. A stand out would have to be director turned actor Werner Herzog, known for Rescue Dawn (2007), Bad Lieutenant (2009), and Into Abyss (2011), who’s presence as a villain, while painfully minimal, is an absolute delight to watch. McQuarrie is perhaps best known for his screenplay for Brian Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), and his directorial debut, The Way of the Gun (2000). Both films seem like excellent gateways into making Jack Reacher. The sense of humor of Suspects serves the character of Jack Reacher well, while the intense violence/action of Way of the Gun is on full display with a striking opening sniper sequence, and a car chase towards the middle of the film that reminded me of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (1968). I’ve kept my praise solely on McQuarrie for the sole fact that he crafts a film that isn’t remarkable because it’s a fresh take, or because’s it’s old wine in a new bottle; it’s precisely because he understands the aesthetics of what made that particular past genre cinema so effective, and he presents that to us, as is.

Two films with exceptional writing, and the violence to match the verbal at every step.

Slipped Between the Cracks

This is 40

This is 40 (2012)

Directed by: Judd Apatow

Written by: Judd Apatow

Cinematography by: Phedon Papamichael

Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, John Lithgow,
Albert Brooks, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow

Rating: C

I really enjoyed Knocked Up (2007). It’s my favorite Apatow flick. I found it to be the perfect balance of the type of comedy and emotional drama that Judd would become known for. Having said that, the last thing I really wanted was a sequel, however loosely tied, to that film, especially one that followed Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie’s (Leslie Mann) family, consisting of their two daughters, Sadie and Charlotte (Maude and Iris Apatow, respectively). Was I pleasantly surprised by the film? Sort of. I mean, it’s funny, and it seems to be a step up in terms of exploration and maturation for Apatow, but I found it lacking the replay value I have with its semi-predecessor, or even Apatow’s previous effort, Funny People (2009), which received mixed reviews, primarily because those expecting the film to live up to its name didn’t anticipate the Great Gatsby-ian turn the film would take. Perhaps I’m not the core demographic for the film, being in my mid 20s, but I was genuinely invested in Ben (Seth Rogen) and Allison’s (Katherine Heigl)’s journey, where as Debbie and Pete in comparison, are just kind of there, and we’re witnessing moments unfolding around them. But maybe that’s precisely the point; that after years of marriage, life is just life, a mere series of moments–the good, the bad, and the absurd–shared with loved ones.

Flight

Flight (2012)

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: John Gatins

Cinematography by: Don Burgess

Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle,
John Goodman, Kelly Reilly, Melissa Leo

Rating: B+

From the director of the Back to the Future trilogy (1985/1989/1990), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Forrest Gump (1994), and Cast Away (2003) comes…a dark character study of a deeply troubled pilot (Denzel Washington) who becomes a hero in the aftermath of a plane crash? Not what you’d probably expect from him, but welcome back Robert Zemeckis. I missed you dearly here in the world of live action filmmaking, and what a return he makes. Hollywood doesn’t seem to make such journey films anymore. This isn’t a film about the plane crash (though that portion is expertly handled and visually thrilling). This isn’t even a film about questioning whether or not the pilot was having issues with drugs and alcohol prior to the crash. This film pulls no punches. Everything is shown to us within the first twenty or so minutes. What matters is all that follows. Denzel is absolutely brilliant in his role. We get to bare witness to a life spent avoiding any sense of responsibility now finding itself in the public spotlight, with every detail being poked, prodded, and pulled apart, only to reveal a man who has quite literally become a toxic hero. It begs the question, that in a world so sorely in need of such heroes, what lengths would we go to, to both ensure and destroy that very concept?

Perks of Being Infinite

Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Directed by: Stephen Chbosky

Written by: Stephen Chbosky

Cinematography by: Andrew Dunn

Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Rudd

Rating: B+

Coming of age films are tough to tackle. For one, they have the difficult task of appealing to both the age group they portray, and the adults that once used to be that age. We all know John Hughes was a master of the genre, with Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), but there’s also Stand By Me (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989), A Bronx Tale (1993), The Sandlot (1993), and City of God (2002), to name a few more that truly created a lasting impact for me.

And now there’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a moving and haunting piece of film, based on the novel by Stephen Chbosky, who also happens to be the writer and director. It follows the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), dreading the arrival of high school, having no friends, and no sense of attachment to much in his life. He’s a troubled teen who keeps to himself, until he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his step-sister Sam (Emma Watson). Charlie, now accepted into a circle of friends, starts to alter his lifestyle with parties, school dances, mixed in with music, drugs/alcohol, and of course, young love. The ups and downs of these new found relationships and experiences provides the crux of the story.

The film flew under my radar, just as the book once did. I was a senior in high school when my English teacher mentioned the book to the class, and only a handful of kids had read it. His interest in it, and his emotionally charged words about it, led me to head down to Borders and pick it up, and I managed to read it in one sitting. The book is written as a series of letters by Charlie to an unnamed Friend. It’s a striking form of storytelling, because it makes the mind race, eager to want to learn more of Charlie’s own perspective in these letters and get an even bigger picture. Going into the film, that was my biggest concern. How would the film seemingly adapt all those little nuances, details, and most of all, that unique method of storytelling in a medium that now adds a visual element far removed from merely reading letters. My concerns however, were completely put to ease with this film. It’s not a groundbreaking story, and honestly, most coming of age films aren’t. It’s all about the characters, and the emotions, that drive why these films work for an audience. This film gets almost everything right. Now I wasn’t the most popular kid in high school, and I was hardly what you’d call a jock. I was probably a nerd with far too much confidence than that stereotype usually allows for. Did I relate with exactly everything Charlie, Patrick, and/or Sam go through? No. But those themes are so universal that I’d be surprised, if all of you, at least at some level, don’t connect with some of their situations, even if they’re not the exact same circumstances.

As mentioned, this film hinges on performances, and the three leads deliver in spades. Logan’s Charlie is a character far removed from the likes of a Percy Jackson, and allows for the actor to shine in a way that will truly open doors for him. He plays Charlie perfectly, almost like a teenage Bruce Banner, struggling with the darkness that surrounds him, while trying to hold onto the only source of light he has. He plays troubled, but in a way that isn’t in your face. It’s quiet, and that’s perhaps what makes it so disturbing–that this sweet kid is experiencing all this seemingly alone, and throughout the course of the film, you’re left thinking what he’s thinking, and wondering what his next move will be. At his lowest, you’re right there with him, and at his highest, you’d do anything to not only stay there with him, but keep him there. The same can be said about Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, who break away seriously from their previous characters of the overachiever Hermoine and the teenage psychopath Kevin, respectively. Watson plays Sam as damaged, but pure at heart; as vulnerable, yet severely powerful; and I dare anyone not to fall for her the way that Sam does. She’s very much the driving force, and the precious constant in Charlie’s life, and that particular relationship’s ups and downs make for the film’s most endearing, heartwarming, and heartbreaking moments. Likewise, Miller takes Patrick and infuses him with an energy that makes it hard not to gravitate towards him. The supporting characters, from Paul Rudd, Mae Whitman, and Melanie Lynskey all do a great job in rounding out this universe and creating a world I never wanted to leave.

It’s a rare treat to see a film adaptation being done so by the author of the novel in question. So when it’s not just the screenplay credited to Chbosky, but the direction itself, it’s doubly exciting, for perhaps no one understands these characters and can direct them better than the man who created them. True to its title, Chbosky takes a wallflower approach towards the film, allowing entire scenes to just play out, sometimes from a distance, with very minimal cuts, save for a close up here and there. Everything remains simplistic, even when the surroundings suggest anything but. There are a few standout scenes that I see myself not only revisiting, but being a complete wreck every time that I do, and that’s a true testament to the young actors and a writer/director, who completely understand the material, both written and performed. This is a film that doesn’t try to be that quintessential coming of age film; it doesn’t try to ape the classics or anything that came before it; it is merely an honest look at one life, and the perks of being around some special people at what seems like a truly bizarre point in time for a lot of us.

Killing U.S. Softly

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Directed by: Andrew Dominik

Written by: Andrew Dominik

Cinematography by: Greig Fraser

Starring: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy

Rating: A

It’s rather telling, if not bold, of a film, to spend its first twenty-five minutes with characters the audience perhaps doesn’t expect to see, and might even be heavily turned off watching. Yet Killing Them Softly, an adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, not only does it, but in doing so, creates what I believe is downright the rawest film I’ve seen all year. It clocks in a little over an hour and a half, and like the book, it moves at a brisk pace for much of its running time.

Set during the 2008 presidential election, we’re introduced to Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), small time crooks, employed by Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) to hold up a local card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta), who has already “robbed” his own game once. Blame falls on him yet again, but Frankie and Russell don’t exactly make a clean escape. Enter the Driver (Richard Jenkins), who brings in Jackie (Brad Pitt) to take care of the mess, who in turn, brings his strung out, drunk, and newly divorced partner, Mickey (James Gandolfini) along for the ride.

A film of this nature is tough to fully get down. It immediately throws you into this world, and doesn’t really wait for you to adjust your eyes to it, or your focus, or your mind, or even your ears. While that may be seen as a tumultuous start for many, I found myself only stumbling through the first few minutes or so, trying to wrap my head around the sound direction (of hearing any combination of Obama, Bush, and/or economic politics), the cinematography (of seeing a ravaged New Orleans harbor), and the thick Boston accents coming from the screen. Once I settled in, I was hooked. I was an observer. I was privy to information that yes, wasn’t always essential in moving the plot forward, but it was essential in getting to know who these characters were.

As mentioned above, the parallels between the mob, the economy, and the politics underlying the two, are absolutely crucial, if not blatant within the film’s narrative. There are moments where the characters are just sitting at a bar watching TV, or in the car listening to the radio, and the scene is driven by the words being echoed by then-presidential candidate Obama, or President Bush. Billboards of “Change,” and John McCain’s face litter the background, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the mob was probably the most well informed constituent in that particular election. It’s not jarring, but sometimes, it’s also not the most subtle reminder of both the times, the motives, or the parallel itself. Then again, it’s probably not supposed to be. All that leaves is the film itself, a gripping crime drama, that’s well aware of its world, and its stakes, and it just doesn’t stop. Even when it takes a break to relatively slow down, it’s nothing short of a fascinating insight into a world inhabited by brilliantly despicable characters.

Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill from GoodFellas (1990) all grown up, and you sympathize–that this a guy who wanted nothing more than to be on his own, and run his own show–but somewhere along the line, he lost both his touch and his control. His downfall creates one of the film’s most showstopping scenes. The two lowlifes, as played by Mendelsohn and McNairy, had the tough job of keeping an audience engaged for the better part of the first half. Mendelsohn is completely wasted in the role, doing his part and nothing more, but it is McNairy that rises to the occasion. He plays his character in two shades, but it is only in the second half of the film, when his path finally crosses with Pitt, that I started to really relate and find his character out. James Gandolfini, Mr. Tony Soprano himself, completely surprised me in the brief time he’s in this flick. You could take his character completely out of the film, and the narrative wouldn’t skip a beat, but why on Earth would you do that? This man nails every scene he’s in, that you want to do nothing more than to let Pitt go on his merry little way and just watch and live in Mickey’s world. The man’s a powerhouse that I was afraid might be overshadowed by playing a character so close to Soprano. But I can safely say, there is a moment in this film, where Gandolfini made me cry with a certain line delivery. These are absolutely despicable people, but I found myself caving to the humanity brought to them.

That just leaves Brad Pitt, who walks into the film under Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” and walks out of the film to President Obama’s victory speech, and in that time, remains the same character throughout. This isn’t a man we love because he grows, or changes in the course of the film. We love him because he’s precisely the same guy all the way through. He knows what he wants, but more importantly, he knows how to get it. It’s a very understated performance; not over the top, and dare I say, very stoic. He’s in constant control, even when things aren’t going his way, and there’s never a moment where we hesitate about his character’s intentions or motives, because he doesn’t. He gets the film’s final lines, and it’s a scene that’s worth the price of admission on its own.

Andrew Dominik has directed three films in his twelve year career. I have not seen Chopper (2000), but I absolutely fell in love with the magnificent slow burn that was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and Killing Them Softly is yet another feather in his cap. He’s a man who seems to genuinely love the cinema he creates, and relishes in the ability to tell a story using everything at his disposal. As a writer, he made the creative decision to move the setting and the time period of the film from the book, and it works on a level I never necessarily would have thought–of comparing mob practices to the economic crisis engulfing a nation. Every scene, shot, and line of dialogue is perfectly crafted, and it’s no doubt a testament to Dominik’s craft. Years from now, I have no doubt that there are scenes from this film that will rank with the very best that such cinema ever had to offer.

Music From My Dream

Cloud Atlas OST

Cloud AtlasOriginal Motion
Picture Soundtrack (2012)

Music Composed by: Tom Tykwer,
Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil

Label: WatchTower Music

Rating: A+

Confession: I still haven’t not seen Cloud Atlas. Then again, judging by its box office, neither have many of you. In order to ease the pain of not having seen it, I purchased both the David Mitchell novel, and the original motion picture soundtrack. Consisting of twenty-three tracks, the album is composed by Tom Tykwer (also a co-director of the film), Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil. While I’m not familiar with any of their other work, be it individually or collaboratively, this score puts them on my radar in a big way. The film’s log line is as follows: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future.” And you know what? That’s exactly how I’d describe the soundtrack. Interconnecting. Intertwining. It’s absolutely masterful how the soundtrack perfectly reflects that precise theme of the film.

At the very outset, we’re introduced to the short and simple Prelude – The Atlas March. Remember it well, because it will return throughout the soundtrack. This soft touch of piano, just a little over a minute, is the thread that holds the entire album together: past, present, and future. There are moments where the piece will creep into another track’s narrative, and you’re reminded of how universal this theme truly is. Cloud Atlas Opening Title is a mysterious track that perhaps better sets the tone for the rest of the album, or at the very least, the tracks to come, by starting out quiet, and having a somewhat reflective quality to it, all the while building towards something much bigger in sound and scope. This trend is kept up with such tracks as Travel to Edinburgh, Sonmi-451 Meets Change, Won’t Let Go, and The Escape. At around the halfway mark, Temple of Sacrifice, no doubt true to its name, switches gears and offers the album a chance to sprint to the finish in a truly epic way. Every track, from here on out, is heart pounding, heart stopping, and heart wrenching, be it the return of the strings in Adieu, or the haunting piano in New Direction.

This brings me to the soundtrack’s finale, the final four tracks, starting with Death Is Only A Door, and including Cloud Atlas Finale, The Cloud Atlas Sextet For Orchestra, and Cloud Atlas End Title, which are honestly worth the price of the entire soundtrack alone. It begins with a serene quality to it, of being in a trance, listening to the different sounds, the combination of strings, begin to merge together. By the time it reaches the Sextext For Orchestra, I could listen to that particular track on repeat for hours. By the time it ends, I found myself in tears and I don’t know why. It’s as if I’ve discovered, or rediscovered a part of my past that is only now bursting out of my heart and mind just as the orchestra consumes the entire room. End Title literally brings the album together, from the Atlas March onwards, and is a tribute to the fine work that came before it.

When I sat down to listen to the soundtrack, I was anxious to see if it would still work, not being able to put a particular piece of music to a scene. After all, film is a visual medium, and the score generally aids in enhancing that experience. The job of a score is to elevate the film and its themes in ways that mere performance alone sometimes cannot. The score is another actor in the ensemble as far as I’m concerned. If a particular role, or scene, or line of dialogue stands out, then so can a singular musical cue, with its ability to transcend the screen and be carried home with us. However, while it should stir similar emotions in us akin to actually watching the film, a good score should also stand apart from the rest of the film. I realize that it’s somewhat difficult to separate the two, but years from now, when the film is no longer playing, or not nearly as fresh in our mind, the score should still live on, as an excellent piece of music.

My first score was James Horner’s Titanic in 1997. I was an eight year old, sprawled out on my carpet, my Walkman to my ear, mesmerized by the fusion of Irish pipes with classical strings and piano. I’m twenty-three now, and every so often, I still put on that score, and it moves me perhaps more than the film itself ever could. Other scores I still bump in my car (do people still say that, “bump?”): Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy and Alexander Desplat’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I hope Cloud Atlas truly lives up to not just the expectations of adapting the novel into a film, but also now, to a soundtrack that on its own, is nothing short of a masterpiece. North American audiences didn’t spend eleven dollars to watch this film, but I would urge them to spend ten dollars on iTunes, or dare I say, go down to your local record store, and pick this up. It won’t leave your mind for days, and if you’re truly lucky, it won’t leave your mind for lifetimes.

Let the Skyfall

Skyfall

Skyfall (2012)

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan

Cinematography by: Roger Deakins

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem,
Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finny

Rating: A-

The Daniel Craig trilogy finally comes to an end, yet somehow manages to set the path for even more exciting things to come. There are those who will argue that the latest entry in the James Bond franchise is very much a stand alone, and that it has no previous connection to Casino Royale (2006) or Quantum of Solace (2008), but for me, Skyfall is every bit as connected, and every bit as necessary, to the development of Craig’s 007.

All cards on the table, I think Craig is the best Bond this franchise has ever seen. I know there are Connery loyalists, Moore apologists, and I myself, grew up on Brosnan, but objectively, given Ian Fleming’s original conception of Bond’s character, Craig literally transcends the pages of Fleming’s original novels and gives us a Bond many haven’t seen, or taken notice of, since George Lazenby (a lot of you just went who?). If Casino Royale was a reboot, and Quantum was every bit a sequel to it, then Skyfall is the final piece of an already well established puzzle. Craig’s Bond has gone from “The bitch is dead” to “This man and I have some unfinished business” / “I never left.” Hell, the last scene of Quantum, of Bond walking away in the snow and the appearance of the classic gunbarrel sequence is, not only worth the price of admission alone, but a clear indication that Bond is slowly becoming the Bond of the past.

With Skyfall, Bond comes full circle. Bond comes home. I realize that doesn’t seem to mean much, as he’s always been a part of MI-6, and he’s always been 007, but in two films, he’s never been at home, or even comfortable in his role. He became a Double-O agent in the first one, and spent much of the second one trying to get revenge, and while both instances have been personal, they’ve remained close matters of the heart. It’s never involved home, be it MI-6, but more importantly, home, as in England. This film changes all that. The villain, Silvia (Javier Bardem), changes all that. He’s an old agent out for his own revenge, from M (Judi Dench) and MI-6.

I could talk about stolen NATO lists, and the fact that Bond returns from the dead (all done in the opening minutes and followed by Adele’s brilliant Bond theme), but those are not the heart of why Skyfall worked for me. Every relationship built, be it between M and Bond, between Bond and Silvia, Bond and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), or even Bond and Q (Ben Whishaw), is a masterful example of why this character has sustained the test of time for 50 years. No, it hasn’t always been flawless, but at the heart and soul of this franchise is a man and his absolute love and loyalty for his job, and if that means he has to lose the love of his life to become completely devoted to that cause, so be it. That’s the kind of man he is. He’s a broken man, who can only be fixed, or even slightly put back together again, by those that put him in the field to be broken in the first place. It’s toxic, but it’s home, and he’d do anything for that organization.

This Bond has always had weight, but this Bond is finally fun, and it’s about time the franchise found that balance again. There had been far too many complaints that Craig’s Bond isn’t a wise cracking, constant one-liner equipped agent, but I never felt that way. The sheer dry wit on display his first two times out the gate was magnificent, and I feel bad for anyone who never understood that the humor came entirely out of the situation, and the film never felt the need to beat your over the head with “insert one liner here.” I could watch Bond’s first meeting with Vesper on infinite loop, it’s that brilliant. With Skyfall, Craig lets Bond loose (translation: Bond smiles more), and he doesn’t lose any of his personal depth in the process, which I find was a sacrifice many of the previous Bond films made. On top of that, he’s now got the gadgets, he’s back at the old M’s office, complete with Moneypenny and Q in tow.

I’ve already raved about Craig, and his ability to bring Bond to the 21st century with grace and style, but also with toughness, yet at the same time, a sense of chipped armor. His supporting players however, are equally as important. Dench proves time and time again that her M is not only a great one/force to be reckoned with, but no one could better pass the torch on than her. Javier Bardem is a treat to watch. The man knows how to embrace a villain like the best of them, but he also brings these nuances that are hard to ignore. His Silvia is by far his most outrageous incarnation yet. There’s just something about him that makes you want to keep your eye on him, even when he’s not entirely in focus/frame. Rounding out the cast, you’ve got Naomie Harris, who rightfully earns her place as the new Moneypenny. We’re so used to her being this prim and proper, behind the desk kind of gal, but she more than proves her worth in the field, and it only strengthens any relationship her and Bond will share down the line. Lastly, there’s young Ben Whishaw, who I think is the only one who can stand up to Bond in a way that no other could. He’s obviously much younger, but he’s smart and arrogant, and when it comes to having fun, he’s perhaps Bond’s only equal.

I’d be a fool not to mention Roger Deakins’ cinematography. This is perhaps the most beautiful film I have seen this year (and I still haven’t seen Cloud Atlas), and it is hands down, the most beautiful Bond film they’ve ever made. Every set piece, every landscape, hell, every bit of the frame, is oozing with the potential to be a work of art in its own right. This brings me to Sam Mendes, the man who put all of this together. I don’t think anyone doubted that the director of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, or Revolutionary Road could make a horrible Bond film, but I don’t think I expected so much sheer love for the material, both old and new. He perfectly captures, and understands Bond’s nature, his very essence, as both a part of MI-6, but with those around him. This world, that 50 years of Bond on film has created, is his world, and we never lose sight of that.
So, 50 years? This is only the beginning.

Seamless Perfection

Argo

Argo (2012)

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Written by: Chris Terrio

Cinematography by: Rodrigo Prieto

Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston,
Alan Arkin, John Goodman

Rating: A

I walked into the theater, opening night, and I was the only 23 year old in the room. Granted, I look about 40, but even if that was the case, I’d still have been half the room’s age. Everyone in there was probably 23 when the events depicted in the film took place.

The film opens with an old school Warner Brothers’ logo from the 70s. Now already I’m transported back to All the President’s Men (1976), The Conversation (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976), to name a few. This film embraces that wholeheartedly, and I’m not just talking about the production value. I’m talking the sheer aesthetics in putting together this picture to reflect upon, while simultaneously reliving the time period it so perfectly captures.

From the creative opening storyboard, to throwing us deep into the heat of the conflict, to watching a table read of the fake film in question, the film never forgets the fine line it’s balancing itself on. Ten minutes into the flick, and I was on the edge of my seat, as confidential documents failed to be shredded/incinerated in time, and armed civilians moved into the embassy. Do I know how this story ends? Sure, but does it still make the hair on my arms stand up at every instance of the six hostages almost being found out? Every damn time.

Six Americans managed to escape the Iran hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in 1979, finding safe haven at the Canadian ambassador’s house. Now it’s up to the CIA, the Canadians, a scruffy looking Ben Affleck, and a hilarious duo of John Goodman and Alan Arkin, to get them out, all by way of a fake science-fiction adventure film. Absurd is an understatement, but this film not only runs with it what is now a declassified true story, it single handily makes you laugh out loud one minute and then puts a gun to your head and watches you sweat the next minute.

There’s a moment when the CIA is planning this rescue operation–when it’s still not obvious that what will soon be known as the “Canadian Caper” is the “best bad idea” they’ve got–in which someone proposes to turn the six Americans into Canadian peacekeepers, sent to Iran to check on crops, and living conditions. He holds up an image, of an impoverished black child with no food, to which someone blurts out, “Those kids are black. Those are African kids.” I died with fits of laughter. Surprisingly, no one laughed until the following lines, of “We can get ethnically appropriate kids.” / “Are there starving kids in Iran?” / “I’m sure we can find skinny kids in Iran.” There are moments like this in the entire film that just had me grinning, and not even because the lines being spoken were particularly funny. It was just amazing to live those lives and those interactions.

The film on all levels, just gets what it is. It’s a political thriller running parallel with a Hollywood satire, and then both genres collide to create a perfect little gem, that is never watered down for an audience, yet keeps its fair share of thrills for them. Politics (and historical inaccuracy) be damned. Personally, I just don’t see how Argo doesn’t make the Academy’s top ten (or random nine). Even if it decides to go back to top five, I firmly believe it’s spot is secured; and not just with Best Picture, but with Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (take your pick with Goodman, Arkin, Cranston, etc.), and even Best Screenplay. Affleck nailed it, in every possible way. This film is seamless perfection, recalling the late, great, Sidney Lumet. Tense, taut, and insanely funny when it wants to be, it harkens back to an era of filmmaking rarely seen or appreciated these days.

P.S. If Argo fuck yourself doesn’t become a national slogan and/or battle cry, then something is seriously wrong with the world.

P.P.S. When, not if, Affleck receives an Oscar (of any sort) for this flick, I want whoever reads his name to just say Affleck, you the bomb in Phantoms, yo! That is all.

Close the Loop

Looper

Looper (2012)

Directed by: Rian Johnson

Written by: Rian Johnson

Cinematography by: Steve Yedlin

Starring: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt,
Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan

Rating: A

I can honestly say, that I haven’t been this giddy for a [sci-fi/time travel] film since Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled back to 1955 in order to retrieve the stolen Grays Sports Almanac from Past Biff after it was stolen from Future Biff in 2015, creating an alternate 1985.

If you didn’t get that reference, we can never be friends. Ever. In any timeline.

Don’t get me wrong. The Hulk was amazing in The Avengers, and I loved (and mimic on an almost daily basis) Bane’s accent from The Dark Knight Rises, but this film genuinely surprised me in ways that absolutely surpass the aforementioned, or even any of the other films I’ve seen this year. As an aside (the first of many), fall is my favorite season for films. The entire season just gets me. It’s where my kinds of films emerge and showcase the reason I got into film in the first place. January to about March is where these types of films usually go to die (my love for 2007’s Zodiac was never reciprocated). Then there’s May to August, the so-called “summer blockbuster” season, which completely overshadows such films. They’re fun, but not always memorable. When I revisit them in the future, it’s usually just to watch select scenes that I remember enjoying, but the film as a whole doesn’t always stay with me. September to December is where I [will] bask in the glory of such films as the one I’m currently reviewing, as well as Argo, Cloud Atlas, Skyfall, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Killing Them Softly, and Django Unchained.

Let me also start off by saying (consider this my second aside), that I’m extremely biased when it comes to films revolving around time-travel. And I mean all of them. I’ve seen The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009). I didn’t mind it (naked man acting like a chomo to a young girl who will later go on to become his wife because he Inception-ed that shit into her mind during a tea party, aside). There’s just something about time travel as a concept that I will forever love and be intrigued by. Looper is no differentIt understands that concept/genre, and takes it in places that are both familiar, and brand new, yet never loses its real importance: the characters and the story. The best moments in time travel films is very rarely the time travel itself. The T-800 emerging naked in an abandoned alleyway isn’t the most appealing part of The Terminator (1984). Neither is climbing into a man-made box in a U-Haul storage facility like in Primer (2004). Though, to be a hypocrite for a second, the DeLorean re-entering the space-time continuum at 88 miles per hour, is the sound by which I receive all my texts, and it is awesome. But I digress.

In the first ten minutes, you’re told absolutely everything you need to know about this film. Time travel’s been invented, but outlawed in the future (2074), utilized solely by the mob to get rid of its enemies, by sending them back and disposing of their bodies in the past (2044). Led by their boss from the future, Abe (Jeff Daniels), the hit men assigned to this job are called Loopers. Every so often however, in an act of “closing the loop,” they must dispose of their Future Selves, assuring a good life for at least the next thirty years. “Letting your loop run” is when a Looper fails to kill his Future Self. So when Past Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) encounters Future Joe (Bruce Willis), he hesitates, allowing for his Future Self to escape. This sets both men up on a path of course correction, while being hunted by Abe and Kid Blue (Noah Segan).

The film at this point can honestly go in a myriad of directions, introducing alternate timelines, and potential paradoxes, all in an attempt to blow your mind with its so-called time travel logistics. Looper doesn’t quite do that. I mean, it does, but it keeps things confined, and dare I say, even simple. Yes, there’s the complex elements we’ve all come to know and love–like the Future Self changing to reflect actions done by/to the Past Self, not to mention the Sarah/John Connor Complex of finding someone and killing them before they are ever born and/or put on a conflicting path with the time traveler–but it is never confusing, and it’s never boring. Despite Future Joe and Past Joe being the “same” person, they are entirely different characters, and thus, are easier to follow. Past Joe is more than content to have his loop closed, while Future Joe is just fighting to keep the timeline (and the woman he loves) clear in his head, and to keep his Past Self on a similar path.

At this point, I realize it’s getting tedious to read/write the words “Past Joe/Self” and “Future Joe/Self” over and over again. So, from this point forward, I’ll just call them JGL and Bruce Willis, respectively.

For Bruce Willis, this is his once chance to eliminate the problem at its source. There’s a man in the future, called the Rainmaker, who is gathering all the past Loopers and sending them back to once and for all not only close this particular loop, but to close the entire Looper game itself. This isn’t as simple as merely avoiding your other self, as to not set forth a chain reaction of events that would forever alter the space-time continuum (because really, haven’t we all been there?). It’s much worse than that. The stakes are incredibly high. Bruce’s biggest enemy is not even the Rainmaker, so much as it is JGL. Killing the Rainmaker only allows for this confrontation with JGL to perhaps never occur. JGL however, won’t have any of this. He despises the mere sight of Bruce. Thirty years in the future be damned, this is his present, and JGL just wants one thing from Bruce: “Why don’t you do what old men do, and die?”

One of the most crucial elements in the film is how memory works/interferes with one’s mind, especially when both sets of people, the past and the future, exist within the same present. There’s a scene in the diner, where the two men sit across from each other and attempt to discuss what will happen next. Bruce isn’t having any of this “time travel shit,” while JGL is being smug, and just wants to know Bruce’s game plan, asking “Do you know what’s going to happen? You done all this before, as me?” As an audience, we’re asking the same thing: how does that work? Where as in most films dealing with time travel, the traveler is confined to whatever memory he or she arrived with, Looper throws at us a very interesting twist. JGL’s memories are fresh, and are made as they happen. But for Bruce, those memories are cloudy at best, but are suddenly getting clearer, as he really has already done all this before. He knows what will happen, because in retrospect, he should’ve already done it. He knows where JGL will be and what he’ll do next. The kicker? Given JGL’s present actions, he might slowly start losing the future memories he holds onto so dearly. When Bruce tells JGL about the woman he loved in the future, JGL displays a menacing sense of disgust at the idea, asking to see her picture so when he eventually saw her, he’d turn and walk the other way, preventing that future from ever happening. It’s heartwrenching stuff. Likewise, there’s a scene where we find Bruce hunched over in an alley, starting at his pocket watch, at her face, and he keeps repeating, “The first time I saw her face” in a desperate attempt to conjure up her face, if not the entire memory. It’s getting harder to hold onto, and it’s heartbreaking to realize that even our memories, the very things we hold dear and think we’ll always have, can slip away without a choice, without so much as a second thought. Instead of her face, he keeps seeing another woman’s face, because unbeknownst to him, the timeline is changing.

Bruce Willis seems to bring his A-game when his more sci-fi orientated flicks are concerned. His Joe isn’t much different from his James in 12 Monkeys (1995). He’s a man burdened by his role in changing the past, and thus, changing his present, what we know as the future. When he arrives, he channels the cool and collected personality that’s come to define him, but he knows as well as we do, that this journey will be anything but. This man is driven by [lost] love, and will do anything to achieve his goal, even if that means getting out there and T-800-ing little kids he thinks will grow up to be the Rainmaker. It’s cold and it’s calculated, but we understand why it needs to be done. I haven’t seen such range in Willis’ performances for a long time. Here’s hoping he maintains it, and doesn’t succumb to more Expendables and pointless Die Hard sequels.

This film is nothing without JGL. Even with the sometimes glaring make-up, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that halfway through the movie, it just starts to work and come together. The make-up is just one part of the performance, and not even a crucial one at that. There’s a certain sense of awe seeing Old/Future Joe sitting across the table from Young/Past Joe. Visually, it’s a remarkable shot, akin to watching Pacino and DeNiro finally interact at a diner in Heat (1995). Yeah, I know they don’t look like exactly alike (sometimes not even remotely like one of them is the other’s thirty year counterpart like say, Jeff Bridges in 2010’s TRON: Legacy), but that’s not jarring to me. To watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt out-Bruce Willis Bruce Willis, in his mannerisms and whispered speech pattern, while still maintaining a sense of character separate from the other, is remarkable. Like Bruce’s transformation/realization at what his task will need, JGL too, goes through an arc. When he finds the real Past Rainmaker, Cid (Pierce Gagnon) on a farm with his mother Sara (Emily Blunt), and attempts to be their Kyle Reese, he is no longer the spiteful version we saw in the diner. He’s still very driven by his goal, but the stakes are a lot higher. It was like watching Warrior (2011) and rooting equally for both men to win.

The film slows down when it gets to the farm, to not only build suspense, but also its new characters and dynamics. Emily Blunt is magnificent here. She manages to convey a range of emotions, from being a protective, badass mother, to being a woman who is terribly vulnerable, and ultimately has no real control over the situation that has presented itself to her. She’s matched, almost step by step, by this little kid, Pierce. He holds his own in every scene he’s in, and sometimes, even overshadows the others. He absolutely nails the part.

The supporting cast is amazing as well. Paul Dano as JGL’s best friend Seth, who is the first to let his Future Self run, sells us on the dreary world and job of the Loopers. In order to obtain his Future Self, they mutilate Seth and watching his Older Self succumb to those injuries thirty years later is the most chilling thing I have ever witnessed on the screen this year. It’s not painful, and it’s certainly not torture, considering these wounds would’ve healed themselves in thirty years. But the anguish in the reveal is sickening. Likewise Jeff Daniels emerges from The Newsroom a better actor finally getting his due. For those who have never seen The Lookout (2007), his dynamic with JGL is brilliant (“I’m from the future. Go to China.”). The other standout is Noah Segan. I don’t know much about him, but every time he was on the screen, I did not know what Kid Blue was capable of. He’s twisted, he’s driven, but ultimately, he just wants approval, and he’ll do whatever he can to get it. It’s an electrifying performance.

This brings me to Rian Johnson. This is only his third film, but it is by far, his most polished, and is just a perfected piece of filmmaking. Brick (2005) proved he understood how to get deep into the mind of a genre and conjure up those nuances wherever he saw fit. Looper isn’t merely a sci-fi film. It’s got elements of a western, film noir, and gangster picture, all wrapped into one, and it never feels silly or out of place. The script is almost air tight, and hilariously clever when it wants to be. It poses questions two steps ahead of us, and drops subtle references and callbacks that will only make repeated viewings of this film all the more enjoyable. Every line means something. The design of the future isn’t in your face. Yeah, we’ve got flying cars and futuristic buildings, but they’re mere afterthoughts in this world. They exist, and do nothing more than enhance an already well established world. This could very well be the future, a shitty dystopia attempting to hide itself from itself under the guise of a few technological advances.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ending. I saved it for last, so anyone reading who has still not seen the film, avoid the next paragraph if you do not wish to be spoiled.

Gripping. You’ve had your quick reveals, your diner shootouts, and have even had time to quiet down on a farm, enjoy the rich Kansas landscape, and possibly catch your breath. That all changes in the last twenty minutes or so in this film. “And the path was a circle, round and round. So I changed it.” JGL’s sacrifice to save Sara from dying and Cid from becoming the Rainmaker worked for me. It made sense. He couldn’t shoot Bruce because we’re told his particular gun is useless outside of a certain range. He had no other option. Could he have shot himself in another location besides the heart? I don’t really know what difference that would’ve made. It would’ve maybe bought him some time, but Bruce would’ve healed from a thirty year old wound, while JGL bled to death. It wouldnt change anything, because Bruce would’ve found a way to kill Sara at least, setting Cid down the dark path where he’d be hell bent on closing loops and taking over the mob anyway. Killing himself, and taking himself out of the equation completely was the only way Sara’s earlier plea with him about Cid “grow[ing] up good” with her will come true. That’s all that matters. Bruce became the JGL he once hated, driven by blind rage and an even blinder love, while JGL became the Bruce he’d eventually have become, saved by a woman, and doing everything he could to protect her.

I’d do anything to protect her, to love her, and still close the loop.

Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark

The Amazing Spider-ManThe Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Directed by: Marc Webb

Written by: James Vanderbilt,
Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves

Cinematography by: John Schwartzman

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Sally Field,
Martin Sheen, Rhys Ifans, Dennis Leary, Irrfan Khan

Rating: C+

I was thirteen in 2002; just thought you all should know that.

The film presents the origin of Peter Parker into Spider-Man, and from the opening scene, it is clear that he will be far from the “friendly, neighborhood” type. After his parents leave him under mysterious circumstances, Peter (Andrew Garfield) is taken in by his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). We get a glimpse of his high school life, meet love interest Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), school bully turned best friend Flash Thompson (oddly, no Harry Osborne to speak of, and only passing references to his father), and Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Before long, the story sets into motion everything most of us already knew was coming: ties to OsCorp, a spider bite, and oh, did I mention a giant, genetically altered, mutant Lizard?

Adequate. I walked out thinking what I had just seen was strictly adequate. That’s not a knock against it by any means; in fact, it’s rather rare that I find a film so middle of the road. For a reimagining of a highly successful Marvel franchise, I found myself caring for all the wrong things and everything else that maybe should have made some lasting impression, I found to be dull, mere afterthoughts in the narrative.

It would seem that every film, at least those caged in the so-called “superhero” genre, takes its inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). The inspiration however, has become a running joke, because other than name dropping that particular title, that rebooted DC’s Caped Crusader for the masses, as a way of lending credibility to a more “dark and realistic tone,” no one ever finds it necessary to follow up on what made Begins good: it’s a true origin story. It’s not just the first half hour of an origin story, but a fully realized origin story, that’s happy to be and do just that: lay out the character’s beginnings, and nothing more. It’s reminiscent of another great origin story: M. Night’s Unbreakable (2000), one of the greatest comic book films (and origin stories) ever made.

By now, anyone reading this knows the tale: “with great power comes great responsibility” (never once uttered in this film), guilt for Uncle Ben’s death, and the complication of being Spider-Man, having enemies, and being in love. The Amazing Spider-Man was being touted as “the untold story,” yet it is precisely that “untold” story that I didn’t care about. Why? Because neither did the film. It didn’t care to tell you anything. It chose instead to remain untold until most likely the sequel in two years. Also, it’s called The Amazing Spider-Man, yet I couldn’t care less that Spider-Man was even in it. So while I didn’t care about how he got bitten, I enjoyed the discovery of powers scene in the subway.

The absolute biggest thing this film has going for it is the chemistry between Garfield and Stone. Gwen Stacy is finally realized from comic to film and its amazing and tragic (for those familiar with her comic arc) to watch. To bring Gwen into the narrative alone was probably all the persuasion one would need to accept this reboot. I found myself more engaged in the Gwen/Peter/Gwen’s father arc, than I was in whatever the Lizard/Connors was doing under the watchful (yet never seen) eye of Norman Osborne. The entire film could have been Spider-Man going vigilante to find Uncle Ben’s killer and crossing paths with Captain Stacy at every turn, sprinkling hints of Connors and Osborne, and the rest. Instead, Peter finds himself riddled with guilt at every turn: his parents left him, he thinks he’s the cause for Uncle Ben’s death, and on top of that, he helps create the Lizard. The only thing going right (and simultaneously wrong) is his relationship between Gwen (and her father), respectively, which to me, was far more engaging. So while each arc is presented to the best of its ability, each arc also suffers because it isn’t presented quite as fully as it should be.

It’s a shame really, because everything about this film, from the direction to the actors is uniformly excellent. Garfield brings a whole new level to Peter Parker that we’ve never seen before. He’s an absolutely natural actor, capable of displaying Peter’s angst, yet never failing to get cocky with his abilities. Stone is perfectly cast as Gwen, a character that hasn’t really been given a fair shake in this particular medium. Rounding out the solid cast is Sheen and Field, who do the best with what they’re given, and even Dennis Leary nails Captain Stacy. Director Marc Webb gets it. He gets a free pass from me, due to (500) Days of Summer (2009) alone, but he understands character dynamics, and the relationships between them. It’s somewhat telling if I’d rather watch Parker and Gwen on screen, or Parker and Captain Stacy, or Parker and Uncle Ben, than Spider-Man swinging around the city, preventing robberies, and fighting the Lizard on a bridge or in a high school.

You’ll notice I didn’t make much mention of the Lizard yet or Dr. Connors, played by Ifans, and that’s precisely because his character was probably the only thing that did nothing for me. He’s the film’s central villain, and I was more fascinated with Captain Stacy’s hunt for Spider-Man, Spider-Man’s hunt for his uncle’s killer, and even a Stan Lee cameo (that is probably worth the price of admission alone), to care. The Lizard isn’t just weak; he’s just, dare I say, unnecessary, because it’s not like we get any glimpse into his relationship with Peter’s father, his work for the OsCorp company in general, and within minutes of the end credits, we’re told that he was absolutely useless because after everything he did, he’s locked up in a cell and someone in the shadows is asking him if he told Peter the secret about his parents. Up until that point, even I had forgotten about the so-called secret of Peter’s parents. So sure, Connors is a flawed human being out to perfect society (and repair his missing arm), but he’s not really all that misunderstood. He becomes the Lizard and goes on a rampage to turn society into genetically altered mutants exactly like him. He’s not a redeeming villain, but then again, nor is he all that vicious. He’s just there, wreaks some havoc, and his story slightly ties in with Spider-Man.

The last scene in the film is probably the most grating to me, because it perfectly sums up what rubbed me the wrong way, about not just this film, but films like it. It’s a shot of Peter’s wall, with pictures of his parents, his uncle, and a police sketch of his uncle’s killer. Loose ends. His parents are never explained, his uncle dies without much fanfare (only a montage of Peter trying to find the killer and then just stopping once the Lizard arrives), and his uncle’s killer, who’s presumably still out there on the loose. Hell, there’s a moment in the film when the Lizard releases a toxin that turns SWAT officers into lizards themselves. But after doing so, we never see them again, until the end, when they’re turning back into humans again. There were a dozen SWAT Lizards running around and the film makes no mention of it. What was the point? Also, what the hell happens to Irrfan Khan’s Ratha? One moment, he’s on the bridge, about to be killed by the Lizard; the next he’s saved by Spider-Man, and then is never seen or heard from again. He was Norman’s right hand man, clearly his stand in during this film, and nothing is ever said. He’s just forgotten…until the sequel perhaps.

Loose ends. We’re a society now that’s absolutely comfortable with what I’ll call “set-up” films. Films used to stand on their own, even when they were part of a (usually unplanned) trilogy or franchise. But now, I have to go into the theater knowing that there will be two more parts following the film I’ve just watched, and that soon enough, all will be revealed. It just might take a decade.

I realize this review makes it sound like I absolutely despised this film, but I really didn’t. It was, as I said, just adequate. It was good enough that it’ll keep me interested in the franchise going forward, as all the actors involved do a phenomenal job at selling the story, but something just felt off. I’ve managed to go the entire review without once mentioning Raimi’s vision for the character, so I’m not about to end the review citing a “been there, done that” attitude, as I’d like to judge the film on its own merits. But that’s the one improvement I would make. I don’t want to compare the two, but look at how well developed Doc Ock was in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004). The Lizard needed more of that. Hell, even Captain Stacy needed more of that. The two characters were vying for the more dominant arc, and both of them were simply adequate, presenting just enough to get by.

For the most part, Webb, Garfield, and Stone delivered, but it’s a film that I probably won’t appreciate until I can watch it in succession with its successors.

Dear Sony, Columbia, and Marvel: Bring back J.K. Simmons. If Judi Dench’s M can cross over in the Bond universe, so can J. Jonah Jameson. Make it happen. That is all.