A Mangled Web

Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Some superhero stories can shoulder excess baggage with ease, but by rights a Spider-Man film should drill down to their simplest essences: the transformed human body; the exhilaration of flight; urban strife; youthful revolt; hubris. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" isn't really into simple essences, obliged instead to do that modern thing of providing $200-million-worth of mild legal highs, via scripts in which all relevant bullet points are actioned. The only properly new element is an air of collective panic about Disney, judging by the fractured clip from the next "X-Men" film shoehorned into the end credits of this one to try and bolster a mutual defense. Would-be wild and crazy cinema with all strings attached, "ASM2" is an average superhero film in every way, and so has to shoulder its share of the blame for the fact that the average is now decaying with a pretty rapid half-life.

Continue reading "A Mangled Web" »

Pipe Dreams

Erik Aavatsmark/Vertigo Média

Pioneer (2014)

Norway's natural environment was a big factor in "Insomnia," Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 debut in which Stellan Skarsgård struggles with a murder case and the extended daylight hours, and comes off worst on both counts. It's at the heart of "Pioneer," too — the director's new film set in the early 1980s — right at the moment when exploitation of the North Sea oil lying offshore is about to alter the country from top to bottom. Part paranoid conspiracy thriller and part blue-collar procedural, it maneuvers deep-sea diver Petter (Aksel Hennie) into position as the fly in the ointment for those awaiting Norway's transformation into one of the world's richest countries. They duly set about removing the irritant obstacle; a plot whose fidelity to real events hinted at in the credits is hard to judge, but whose broad authenticity for those caught up in the transformation at the time would seem tough to deny.

Continue reading "Pipe Dreams" »

Halfway Housekeeping

Jamie Kingham

The Motel Life (2013)

This is a movie about people who’ve slipped between the cracks. They have no settled life of any kind — no steady jobs, supportive families or stability. Some of this is their own fault, since they drink too much and make bad decisions. Some of it is pure bad luck. You can’t pick your parents. But what you can do is figure out how you’re going to deal with it, and “The Motel Life” is about three people who cope in different ways.

Continue reading "Halfway Housekeeping" »

All That Heaven Allows

Allen Fraser/TriStar Pictures

Heaven Is for Real (2014)

Based on the Rev. Todd Burpo’s account of son Colton’s near-death experience at age three, “Heaven Is for Real” climbed The New York Times best-seller list in 2010 and has now become a motion-picture event.

Colton (Connor Corum) claims to have left his body, gone to heaven and met rainbow-colored horses, his miscarried sister and even the Lord Jesus himself all while supine on the operating table with a ruptured appendix. The enterprising Pastor Burpo (Greg Kinnear) has of course seized the godsend and turned it not only into sermon anecdotes but also a best seller. But in the telling, he would very much like to convince us that he too was a skeptic and that Colton’s anesthetics-induced delirium actually made him question his own beliefs.

Continue reading "All That Heaven Allows" »

Danish Blue

Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures

Nymphomaniac (2014)

Upholding the tradition by which Lars von Trier spooks the massed ranks of the tabloids with talk of pornography before then unveiling films that prove as arousing as a kick in the knee, the four-hour, two-volume "Nymphomaniac" is merciless and hilarious in close proximity. The story skips between an intellectual investigation of a woman's insatiable libido and a stylized erotic farce, threatening to cast its vote against optimism altogether and decide that no peace between the sexes is possible or perhaps advisable. Along the way, Volume I — with its droll laughs at regular intervals — becomes Volume II, which plunges into darkness headfirst. Large themes are invoked; large genitalia are inspected. Large theories are inevitable.

Continue reading "Danish Blue" »

Destiny at the Gates

Stalingrad (2014)

Columbia Pictures

The use of Imax 3-D is still something of a gimmick to get us into the cinema instead of watching movies on ever smaller personal screens. It is best used to immerse us into the world of the story with sensory overload. A great deal depends on the choice of the world. The one in "Stalingrad" is one of the more unusual ones — at least to non-Russian audiences — in recent memory.

Continue reading "Destiny at the Gates" »

To Protect and Preserve

RoboCop (2014)

Columbia Pictures and MGM Pictures

There are several films wrapped up in "RoboCop," of which the new one starring Joel Kinnaman as the luckless Alex Murphy and Abbie Cornish as his traumatized wife is competent, slick and knows that some topicality will condense automatically in a movie with Samuel L. Jackson as a ranting conservative talk-show host. The immediate problem is the heavy fan-service nods made to another film, Paul Verhoeven's 1987 original, which tend to land with a clang. If the new model is going to invoke its predecessor as knowingly as that, it can't complain if some comparisons are made about the level of ambition. The Reaganite military-industrial complex with its heartless wonks was only one target of the original film, a curate's cornucopia that also scooped up the Vietnam mind-set, blue-collar nobility, the role of women, contempt for intelligence and religious symbolism. José Padilha's version puts all its chips on one number instead, correctly spotting that contracted-out drone warfare is a moral minefield, but down-shifting the end result from gallows pulp to a high-concept sci-fi actioneer about a dead-shot cyborg and the woman who loves him. American Jesus has been swapped out for American Gladiator.

Continue reading "To Protect and Preserve" »

School Daze Down Under

Wake in Fright (1972)

Drafthouse Films

John Grant (Gary Bond) is a teacher working in a small school house in the Australian outback who is unhappy in his job, seeing his teaching contract as a prison sentence. The Christmas holiday offers Grant a brief respite from his job; he plans to leave for a break in Sydney, and is spurred on by visions of a beach and a young woman. On his way to Sydney, Grant stops over in the town of Bundanyabba — nicknamed “the Yabba” by the locals — for the night, which is when his life changes dramatically.

Venturing out to a local bar, Grant meets a friendly policeman (Chips Rafferty) and an eccentric doctor (Donald Pleasence), but he shows obvious discomfort in having to drink and socialize with them when he would much rather be left alone. Grant soon discovers a gambling game in the bar and sees a chance to win enough money so that he can leave his job. Instead, he loses all his money and finds himself trapped in a nightmarish situation with seemingly no way out.

Continue reading "School Daze Down Under" »

Game, Sex, Match

About Last Night (2014)

Matt Kennedy/Screen Gems

“Hot Tub Time Machine” director Steve Pink’s “urban” reinterpretation of “About Last Night” unexpectedly feels as current and vital as can be — no small feat if you take into account the fact that the source material is a 1974 David Mamet play, first brought to the big screen in 1986 by Edward Zwick and starring Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, James Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins. It's all the more noteworthy that the parallel friends-with-benefits relationships Mr. Mamet once christened “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” now raise an eyebrow hardly ever.

Continue reading "Game, Sex, Match" »

A Few Bricks Shy of a Load

The Lego Movie (2014)

Warner Brothers Pictures

Even though Claymation is de rigueur in the realm of stop-motion animation, brickfilms date all the way back to the 1970s. There hasn’t been a prominent example perhaps because the Lego Group unsurprisingly pursued legal action over “The Magic Portal,” a feature-length brickfilm made in the late 1980s. The precedent has been enough to scare off aspiring brickfilm makers since, even though the company seemingly reversed its stance in the early 2000s with the release of Lego Studios kits.

As its title suggests, “The Lego Movie” has the company’s blessing and touts the virtues of the product. The sense of product placement and corporate synergy only deepens with Warner Brothers Animation seizing the opportunity to parade the fleet of the DC Comics characters in its catalog.

Continue reading "A Few Bricks Shy of a Load" »

© 2008-2014 Critic's Notebook and its respective authors. All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use
Subscribe to Critic's Notebook | Follow Us on Twitter | Contact Us | Write for Us | Reprints and Permissions