The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Opens Fri., May 2 at Ark Lodge, Majestic Bay, Sundance, and other Theaters. Rated PG-13. 140 minutes.
Every few years in China, a huge new wave of young filmgoers discovers American pop culture for the first time. They send us iPhones, steel, and washing machines; we send them disposable superheroes in return. Tobey Maguire’s Spidey is long forgotten, just as are the Batman actors before Christian Bale. The Hollywood product cycle grows ever shorter, and we’re already two-thirds of the way through the Andrew Garfield era. Will anyone miss him when he’s gone?
The furrowed brow and sulking, not so much. If Maguire was all open-faced wonder about his accidental arachnid skill set, Garfield’s more of a brooder—Peter Parker hiding in his room despite the entreaties of Aunt May (Sally Field). He’s given a welcome few goofy grace notes with girlfriend Gwen (Emma Stone), but most of the time we’re watching his masked CG avatar swing seamlessly through Manhattan canyons, not the actual thespian. The dazzling computer effects have advanced so far from the Sam Raimi/Maguire pictures that most viewers won’t even notice the absence. Everything slowly builds after a zingy first hour to a two-part finale that’s more coded than directed. Where are the actors? No one cares.
Neither do Garfield, Stone, their castmates, or director Marc Webb. Returning from Part I, his reputation based on the gossamer rom-com (500) Days of Summer, Webb keeps the tone light, caps the sulking, and limits the inside jokes. The plot and dialogue are elementary—subtitles not required anywhere on the planet. There’s no sex and hardly any blood to Gwen and Peter’s adventures; these two collegians have a wholesome, early-’60s optimism that matches the Marvel origins of this teenage superhero. Both love science with an earnest, Space Age fervor. When Gwen speaks of a prospective Oxford scholarship, she’s more excited than a girl showing off her new nail polish.
Amid this big satisfying bucket of popcorn, one appreciates the burnt kernels and flowerings of various careers. Unquestionably on their way up are Stone and Dane DeHaan (as Peter’s pal/nemesis). On his way down is Jamie Foxx, barely recognizable as a blue-glowing electrical supervillain. Providing hidden value in small roles are Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz (as Peter’s parents in an extended action prologue), Chris Cooper (spot the cameo . . . ), Colm Feore (oily corporate Iago), Denis Leary (ghost) and Paul Giamatti (sure, what the hell, I’ll shave my head to play a Russian goon). Garfield’s stock is more of a hold than a buy; after 2016’s series-ender, he’ll have to tack hard in a non-Spandex direction. Given the money invested in Spidey’s aerial ballets with the camera (totally untethered, as in Gravity), it’s nice to see the budget padded with so many pros.
And a final word about value: While this enjoyable sequel is no Gravity, it’s worth the 3-D IMAX ticket price. The movie was designed for such scale, for maximum spectacle, for export. Peter jokes with Gwen about following her to London, but why stop there? Kill the nagging Aunt May already and give that parochial kid a passport. The Eiffel Tower, pyramids, and Great Wall await. Brian Miller
Decoding Annie Parker
Opens Fri., May 2 at Sundance. Rated R. 100 minutes.
From what I know of cancer treatment, observed within my own family, doctors give their patients horrible chemicals with the best intentions. They mean well, but the side effects are awful—vomiting, hair loss, chemo brain, exhaustion, wasting, the metallic ache within one’s veins. But you know that, because we’ve all had direct or indirect experience with cancer, the subject of this well-intentioned but plodding melodrama.
Yes it is inspired by actual events and two real people, one an American scientist, the other a Canadian woman with a mutation causing breast cancer throughout her family. And there is every reason to applaud the motives of director Steven Bernstein, Helen Hunt (as Berkeley’s Dr. Mary-Claire King, now at the UW), and Samantha Morton (as Annie). They want to honor the 15-year quest to isolate the BRCA-1 gene, and cancer survivors in general. So do you, so do I, but that does not a good movie make.
Dr. King and Annie meet only once, in a scene divided by, well, the rest of the film. This results in one of those unfortunate parallel editing schemes where we’re supposed to feel two stories are linked—but, sorry, these two heroines have nothing in common. Hunt’s tight-lipped, no-nonsense scientist has zero color (unlike Dr. House and his fellow lab-coated TV geniuses). Morton fares even worse as Annie, who narrates her story from ’60s childhood to the ’90s. The clunky script forces strident jollity and ’70s fashions upon her—presumably to offset the whole miserable cancer ordeal (plus three other deaths in her family). But Bernstein, a veteran cinematographer directing his first feature, has absolutely no feel for comedy; Morton has never done comedy (Hunt’s a different story, but cast in the wrong role); and the comic relief bits are just awful. Are we supposed to pity cancer-stricken Annie more because she’s so perky and vivacious?
The genetic science is duly laid out with analogies (playing cards, road signs, etc.), at a level most high-school students could follow—or, I suspect, already know. Annie is an extreme cancer outlier, a loser in the DNA lottery, yet her cutesy-pathetic depiction doesn’t mesh with the data- and science-driven quest of the astringent Dr. King. (Here’s a movie where I’d actually prefer more lab work and computer punch cards.) Breaking Bad and the recent HBO series The Big C both began with cancer as an impetus, but they never succumbed to such sap. Character came first. Decoding Annie Parker tries to combine its two strands with sticky sentimentality, but the bond doesn’t hold. Brian Miller
Opens Fri., May 2 at SIFF Film Center. Rated R. 104 minutes.
A drab soul named Johanna Parry has just become convinced that, at long last, someone in the world loves her. The someone lives elsewhere, so physical affection will have to wait, but Johanna has been waiting too long already. So she stares at the bathroom mirror and then forcefully tries out some kissing on her own reflection. With tongue. This action would be normal for a 14-year-old, but for a grown woman it takes on different shades of sad, funny, and mortifying.
The moment might defeat an ordinary actress, but Kristen Wiig is not ordinary. And she really goes for it. Her performance in Hateship Loveship doesn’t aim for comedy in the manner of Bridesmaids or her SNL sketches, but it is similarly uncompromising. The film, adapted from an Alice Munro short story, requires a delicate balance between a certain kind of realism and stylization. Wiig seems to understand this, but director Liza Johnson misses the fable-like qualities of the situation and opts for a naturalistic style, which means the characters come off as less than credible. As in a fable, the story depends on a fateful exchange of letters and a misunderstanding. Johanna is the housekeeper for a man (Nick Nolte) who has recently gotten custody of his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld, from True Grit). He can’t stand his son-in-law Ken (Guy Pearce, in his grunge mode), whose drunk driving caused the death of Sabitha’s mother. Happily, Ken lives in Chicago, a safe distance away.
We need not narrate more of the plot, except to say it’s a story about people believing what they want to believe—which could describe so many stories. If the film is a mixed bag, it’s an interesting choice for Wiig, who goes the minimalist route and creates some genuinely insightful moments amid the generally overstated character studies on display. This is no small achievement, given that Johanna tends to slide toward the edges of the frame, as though doing a disappearing act on herself. The movie’s also an interesting choice for Seattle-bred producer Michael Benaroya, whose still-fledgling career has already notched some unusually literate indie properties, including Margin Call, Kill Your Darlings, and upcoming pictures from Werner Herzog and William Shakespeare. If Hateship Loveship comes up short, it’s still a worthy attempt to peer into the American margins. Robert Horton
POnly Lovers Left Alive
Opens Fri., May 2 at Guild 45th, Pacific Place, and Meridian. Rated R. 123 minutes.
Given the subject matter—centuries-old vampires, decaying places, boredom with immortality—Only Lovers Left Alive might easily be a dreary slog through genre territory. Instead, Jim Jarmusch’s new film is full-bodied and sneaky-funny, a catalog of his trademark interests yet a totally fresh experience. It’s his best since Dead Man (1995), stirring evidence that the longtime indie darling is back as an expressive force.
Our two principal vampires begin the movie in different parts of the world. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a denizen of Tangier, where she slouches around the atmospheric streets at night. Here Jarmusch creates an entire imagined city from a few well-chosen shots of plaza, wall, and a cafe called the Thousand and One Nights. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives in Detroit, where he creates arty rock music and collects guitars. Adam needs Eve, so she joins him for sessions of nocturnal prowling (daylight must be avoided, so she sticks to red-eye flights). Swinton and Hiddleston tease out just the right amount of humor from their roles, and John Hurt is briefly glorious as a certain writer whose best work happened 400 years ago. One does not expect much in the way of plot; and when Eve’s reckless sister (Mia Wasikowska) comes to town, it almost seems like an intrusion. The pace has been so languid and luxurious until then, you might actually resent this suggestion that a story is threatening to break out. Why would vampires need a storyline? They live on without much change or growth, and can’t even look forward to an ending. So Jarmusch’s dilatory style actually suits their world nicely.
The film’s gorgeous design contrasts the desolation of Detroit’s empty streets with bohemian interiors. (Adam’s pad, with its papered-over windows and cool bric-a-brac, looks inspired by Mick Jagger’s house of magic in Performance.) The timeless vampires seem depressed about what has happened to the world; humans—Adam and Eve use the generic term “zombies” to describe the rest of us—have made a terrible botch out of such promise. All one can do is cling to culture and wait out the decline, holding tight to the books and vintage LPs and centuries-old apparel that serve as markers of a better time. Only Lovers offers a handy metaphor for addiction, and perhaps Jarmusch was reaching for that—the protagonists live at the mercy of their suppliers, and they get really sick when blood is scarce. But that would limit the proceedings to a single meaning. This film’s decadence is much more fun than that. Robert Horton
Opens Fri., May 2 at Varsity. Rated PG. 91 minutes.
Few of us here in the damp Pacific Northwest have cause to worry about water. Acclaimed Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, again collaborating with filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (as in 2007’s Manufactured Landscapes), wants you to feel differently about that fluid. Burtynsky specializes in oversized panoramas of environmental blight. There is both horror and beauty to his images of planetary damage, plenty of which is on view here. A Bangladeshi tannery pumps toxic red sludge into the drinking water. Chinese dams disgorge brown undulating torrents of sediment. Indian step wells run dry, leaving a yawning M.C. Escher void. The once-verdant circles of Texas pivot-irrigation farms revert to desert as the groundwater subsides. Would we expect anything less, anything merely pretty or encouraging?
Like the photographs of crumbling Detroit, there’s a disaster-porn aesthetic here, which I wouldn’t mind if it were presented straight. The scientists drilling ice cores in Greenland I can take. “We are responsible,” says one researcher of global warming, and that’s hard to argue. But to this Watermark must add New Age flourishes. In glaciated British Columbia, a Native American solemnly pronounces, “We’re all water.” At the Kumbh Mela festival on the Ganges, some 30 million pilgrims convene to be cleansed in the shit- and corpse-contaminated river. This is confusing: Is water sacred or a cosmic toilet-flush?
Burtynsky adores yet gently deplores the perverse, unnatural patterns of agriculture and industry laid upon the Earth. These manmade impositions—including a floating Chinese colony of abalone farmers, arranged in grids like city blocks—are often photographed on high, from God’s-eye cameras controlled by drones. And if mankind’s ravaging of nature isn’t obvious enough, Baichwal underlines it twice. Yet nowhere in Watermark do you feel lectured; it’s more chiding than hectoring, a polite Canadian paraphrase of An Inconvenient Truth. Brian Miller