Category Archives: 2010s

Harpoon (2019)

*. I love the way things kick off here. It’s a shot looking down on a yacht that’s placidly sitting in pristine blue waters, but as we slowly descend we make out the SOS duct-taped onto the deck. There’s always trouble in paradise.
*. The waters are the Caribbean somewhere off of Belize. I mean that was the filming location. I’m not sure where the yacht actually was supposed to be. Maybe they said something about that and I missed it, but in any event it doesn’t matter. The interiors were actually shot in Calgary. In January. That’s a whole lot colder than Belize.
*. The reason I even mention that this is a Canadian production has to do with a minor point about English vs. American pronunciation. As a Canadian watching a Canadian movie I’m used to being in a kind of no-man’s land here, but I did have a couple of triggering moments.
*. First of all: buoy. I pronounce this “boy,” with maybe a hint of “bwoy.” Some Americans pronounce it “booey” (for what are obscure reasons). It is pronounced “booey” here. This despite the fact that the name of the yacht is Naughty Buoy. How does that joke make sense as Naughty Booey?
*. Second: route. I pronounce this “root.” Some Americans, however, pronounce it “rowt” (or “rout,” as in the rout of an army). This is one I don’t care about too much, but I do find “en rowt” to be disagreeable. But once again the American pronunciation is presented here. So, to tidy things up, the point is that we’re not in Calgary.

*. Leaving these minor points aside, I thought Harpoon a pretty good movie. A trio of buddies head out to sea on the Naughty Buoy: rich dick Richard (Christopher Gray), Richard’s girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra), and third wheel Jonah (Munro Chambers). Yeah, that’s pretty much a recipe for disaster right there. The disaster erupts and before you know it the three chums are dead in the water, with escalating revelations pushing them all to the edge.

*. Things start off with a bang, which is usually a great idea but does lead to the pacing difficulty all fast starts have, which is dealing with the inevitable lull. Luckily it’s a short movie (84 minutes) so there just isn’t time for things to slow down too much. And the script — by director Rob Grant — while not all that original, does enough to hold interest during the talkier parts. At times it’s even quite clever, especially with a voiceover that takes us outside the movie but not in any kind of annoying way.
*. The voiceover sets a tone as well, which is that of the now ubiquitous “dark comedy.” But more than just horror and humour, the voiceover also indicates that none of this is quite real, which is a tricky note to hit right. That also helps with something I would have found fault with, which is the fact that none of the three amigos look like they’re dying of hunger or thirst. The performances are fine, but I thought they could have used some more make-up. Some parched lips? I mean, I was already suspending disbelief in thinking that they could go for a week without water. But would such a nod to verisimilitude have had any place in a movie like this? There’s that underlying sense throughout that none of this is to be taken seriously.
*. All-in-all a pretty successful little movie that I was glad I took a chance on. Being Canadian gave it a better chance of getting on my playlist and I wasn’t disappointed.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

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*. The setting for Shakespeare’s play is a playground of the idle rich. Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film captured this perfectly, with its rustic Tuscan villa (standing in for Messina) populated by courtiers who don’t have much to do but lie around, drink, throw parties, write poetry, and play games. They have to make much ado about nothing because there’s nothing else to make ado about.
*. Now if you were going to update this play to the twenty-first century where would you set it? Hm. How about the luxurious home of a successful Hollywood director, filled with his visiting movie star friends?
*. I’m not being facetious. The updated setting is an obvious choice and I think it works. It’s a home movie (shot in Joss Whedon’s house), with a “casual flavour” that feels appropriate. Branagh’s film was all fanfare. Whedon’s is lounge music, hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. Welcome to a laid-back, Cali-Arden. Laid way back.

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*. But it takes a lot of money to be this comfortable. That view out the back looks expensive. The men’s haircuts look expensive. The catering bill for such a party, complete with Cirque du Soleil trapeze dancers . . . one can only imagine. And this helps too with the somewhat mercenary attitudes of Benedict and Claudio. It matters that Hero is Leonato’s only heir. I mean . . . that house!
*. I don’t like the opening scene in the bedroom, with Benedict leaving Beatrice after what seems to have been a bout of intimacy. There is some support for this in the play (we even get some flashbacks underlining the connection as Beatrice talks about Benedict having leant her his heart a while), but I think it should have been left out. Because if Beatrice and Benedict have been in a relationship already, what is there to look forward to? There’s a difference between getting together and getting back together (even if this time it’s with feeling).
*. I do like the black-and-white photography. Along with the camerawork it gives the film a European/Italian art house feel, like we’re watching someone “doing” Fellini or Antonioni. This was something Whedon had in mind. On the commentary track he also mentions film noir as an influence but I don’t see that at all.

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*. Another highlight is Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), Verges, and the rest of the night-watch. Fillion is one of my favourite Dogberries, and it’s because of that same laid-back way he’s played. Too often the character is drawn as slapstick, with the emphasis placed on his mangling of the language and bombastic self-importance. My own sense is that Dogberry is more of an idler or slacker. Placed in his historical-cultural context, I think he’d be a pure dogfucker: just too damn lazy to be dangerous. His advice to the constables is to not do anything on their watch. They take his cue and decide they’ll get a good night’s sleep. I like what they did here, and think they could have gone even further in this direction and it might have worked.
*. This is an odd production of the play because while it does a lot of difficult stuff well and makes some great creative decisions (emphasizing and distinguishing the roles of Conrade and Borachio, for example), it muffs the easy stuff.
*. I think for as long as it’s been staged the high point of the play has been the twin gulling scenes. These are a lot of fun and great theatre. Here, however, they’re overplayed, which isn’t bad in itself but is out of keeping with the rest of the film’s casual-contemporary tone.

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*. Whedon says that he thought Shakespeare meant these scenes to be played over-the-top but I’m not sure such broad body humour is what he meant. The hammy overreaching doesn’t work here, seeming out of place with the rest of play.
*. I thought Branagh was wise to leave out most of the cuckolding stuff from his adaptation. Whedon unwisely puts it back in. Do modern audiences even understand what a “cuckold” even is? Where the word comes from? What the sign of horns means? I don’t think there are many people, even among those who have studied Shakespeare, who could translate a line like Benedict’s “But that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me.” Without looking at your footnotes: What is a recheat? Why would it be winded in his forehead, and what does that mean? What is a baldrick and why should it be invisible? This is a fine Shakespearean line with multiple meanings, but to a modern audience it must be totally baffling.
*. Whedon apparently went directly from The Avengers to this. In fact I think he was still working on The Avengers in post-production while he was making this film. I guess a break is as good as a rest.
*. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Whedon’s. Frankly, this is the only thing of his I’ve seen that I like. But I like it a lot and admire him for making it the way he did. It’s a personal, stylish film that perfectly captures the play’s en plein air atmosphere of wealth and comfort, as well as the long-established rules of the game. One feels like a fly on the wall, or reality-TV camera, witnessing the birth of pastoral.

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Passengers (2016)

*. I didn’t see Passengers when it came out, but I remember it being a lightning rod for criticism because of its plot. In short, a spaceship full of settlers who are in a sort of cryosleep runs into a meteor shower and one of the pods opens early. Out pops Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and he’s all alone. In despair, after a full year of moping around the giant ship, getting drunk and growing a beard, he decides to wake up Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) because he’s fallen in love. She’s none too happy about this when she finds out, but they later kiss and make up and apparently live happily ever after.
*. Critics couldn’t wait to pile on to the inappropriateness of Jim’s actions. He was described, over and over, as a sinister/creepy stalker who perpetrates a terrible act of violence or even rape (abduction), while Aurora isn’t seduced by his charm so much as she falls victim to a kind of deep-space Stockholm syndrome.
*. I think these criticisms are fair, but they are also clearly presented by the script as being in play. Indeed, they’re what the movie is all about. And I think they’re addressed most cogently by Laurence Fishburne, who also wakes up accidentally (and has to spend some time in a very unflattering flightsuit). “The drowning man will always try and drag someone down with him. It ain’t right, but the man’s drowning.” Of course it ain’t right. Everyone is on the same page there.
*. It seems to me that there are other, better reasons for not liking Passengers. The plot doesn’t actually make any sense. How is such a massive ship being run by an AI that stupid? How, when Fishburne’s character gets sick, does the AI know that there are no treatments that will “meaningfully extend the patient’s life”? I’d like to know what algorithm it’s using to quantify the meaning of life there. Why is Michael Sheen playing Lloyd the bartender from the Overlook? And perhaps most pressing question of all: can Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence act, or do they just look pretty?

*. But despite all these questions, I have to admit I enjoyed Passengers and found it a guilty pleasure. Pratt and Lawrence don’t have to be anything other than cute. Since they’re the two prettiest passengers on the ship it was destiny that they pair off. This leads to the ultimate romantic-getaway fantasy in space: a life spent in luxury, six-star accommodations, wearing designer outfits whenever you feel like it, with machines doing all the laundry and generally keeping the place glitteringly spic and span. Tell me that isn’t nicer than roughing it in the bush on Homestead II.
*. It does leave one with a question though. Wouldn’t Jim and Aurora have had kids? I can only think that would have been seen as too corny or sentimental an ending (and the ending is corny enough as it is), but given how we leave the happy couple isn’t their having kids, and grandkids, inevitable? Though the inbreeding might be a problem for the next generation.
*. I wonder if they gave a thought to a gender reversal. The scruffy handyman guy and the upper-class girl felt awfully tired. Why not have a female engineer waking up a hunky poet? Well, it wouldn’t have sold as many tickets for one thing.
*. It’s a stupid movie. There’s a generic crisis thrown at us at the end that has Jim and Aurora saving the ship from blowing up. This action sequence incudes the sudden loss of air pressure scene. And a walk-outside-the-ship scene. And a countdown scene. And then a resuscitation scene. That part is pure formula. But the thing is, I still thought the basic premise was something new and enjoyable. Mainly for the darkness in it that so many people objected to.
*. Every now and then you have to take your lumps as a reviewer and admit you liked a lightweight bit of trash like this. Sure it could have been a more interesting movie if they’d played down all the special effects and glamorous set designs. Why would a human cattle-car be so well appointed anyway? Another question without an answer. But the look is the draw. As I say, it’s a romantic fantasy. Critics hated it. Audiences gave it a thumbs-up. Tell your inner critic to take the night off and enjoy it.

The Moving Forest (2015)

*. Shakespeare adapts well to the boardroom. It’s often been said that the twenty-first century is a neo-feudalist civilization, so the translation from kings and queens to CEOs and business rivals usually works pretty well, all things considered. I’ve seen Macbeth played before in modern dress as a tale of corporate climbing and thought it worked, with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth easily recognizable as upwardly mobile yuppies.
*. That’s the way they’re played here, with Elias (Macbeth) and his wife Clara teaming up to take over the presidency of a Brazilian bank. They already have it all — “money, a beautiful house, and three cars in the garage” — but Clara wants something more. She wants power.
*. As with any updating of Shakespeare a lot of the interest comes from wondering how they’re going to translate key actions and speeches into a modern setting and vernacular. And for the most part the process is well handled here. I particularly liked Elias’s dismissive reading of the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” line at the very end. Life is meaningless, no matter how many cars you have in the garage.
*. Alas, one change for the worse is that for all their boastfulness about being alpha-male masters of the universe, bankers are wimps compared to medieval Scottish warlords. Elias isn’t a very scary guy
*. Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth came out the same year and went for a more traditional approach, down to the Scottish accents. Nevertheless there are similarities in sensibility. Both movies have an emphasis on the scenic, for example, though Vinicius Coimbra is more interested in architectural elements along modernist lines.
*. Also similar is Lady M’s use of sex as leverage. In Kurzel’s film she screws her man’s spirit to the sticking point by screwing him. In this film Clara is even more in charge by climbing on Elias’s face during the same scene. I guess they didn’t do that as much in the eleventh century.

*. Given that they had Heitor (the bank president, or Duncan figure) over for dinner, drinking wine, etc., couldn’t they have just poisoned him? It seems like stabbing him to death was just making a lot of extra work for themselves, not to mention the way it ruined a perfectly good chair and rug.
*. I like how the damned spot is treated as something more than a moral stain. It’s a blemish on the décor and (at least in dreams) the blood destroys a set of what must be impossibly high thread-count sheets. You see Clara washing her hands and all you can look at is that wonderful sink.
*. Instead of Heitor’s son (a pathetic aging boho here) or a Macduff figure pursuing Elias, we have the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system in the form of a dogged police investigator. There’s no point even telling Macduff to lay on, as you know Elias is screwed as soon as the forensics team shows up.
*. The dynastic angle is dropped completely. It’s clear that Heitor’s son isn’t taking over the bank presidency, and Banquo (Cesar) has no son. Elias and Clara, meanwhile, are DINKs (though mention is made of their having had a child who died as an infant). I guess this says something about us too. The children of the ruling class will be provided for by way of trusts. Their parents don’t even want them to go into the family business.
*. I thought Kurzel’s film had an interesting take on Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. I hadn’t seen this movie yet, where it’s treated in a way that is magically surreal.
*. I wanted to like this movie more than I did, but after a promising set-up it really settles down in the second half to a pedestrian episode of CSI: Brazil. It’s definitely interesting, if just to see how all the familiar parts will be handled, but seems bled of passion. I can feel Elias’s greed, but not his ambition; his fear of being discovered but not his drive to be “safely thus.”
*. But then this may be as authentic as Macbeth gets in the twenty-first century. Global capitalism has made our world smaller. Take a look at any list of the richest people in the world. Who among them could rise to the level of tragedy?

Macbeth (2015)

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*. Battle scenes were a bit of a joke on the Elizabethan stage. At the beginning of Henry V the Chorus talks about how “this cockpit” (the theatre) can’t hold “the vasty fields of France,” and so imagination will have to fill in all the details. In a later speech he even admits how ridiculous the little bit of swordplay you’ll actually see is going to seem. Traditionally you only had a handful of players run on to the stage from different directions talking about what is going on, or engaging in single combat on a plane that seems eerily removed from the rest of the battlefield.
*. On film you could help the audience’s imaginary forces and do a really epic battle scene but it cost a lot of money, unless you had the entire Soviet army on call to play extras for a reconstruction of Borodino for War and Peace. But then came CGI and suddenly we were looking at armies with tens of thousands of orcs filling our screens, or the allies swarming onto the beach on D-Day, with limbs flying off in all different directions from swords or high explosives. Stunning stuff, but was it more “realistic”?
*. And so Macbeth kicks off here with the Battle of Ellon (what? where? when?), with our hardy Scots all made up like the boyos from Braveheart and clashing in a slow-motion melee. This isn’t your grandfather’s Shakespeare. Or even Kenneth Branagh’s (though they do seem to have trucked some mud in from his Agincourt).
*. I really didn’t like this movie, so I’ll try and be quick about the reasons why.

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*. In the first place there’s the language. None of the actors seem to have any feel for it, and they rush through their lines without any concern for meter or rhythm. Without subtitles you’re going to be in trouble because Scottish accents are employed and most of the dialogue is delivered in hushed whispers or mumbles. I think the point might have been to make the language seem more “realistic” (again) but this pretty much defeats the whole purpose of doing Shakespeare in the first place. They might as well have just kept the plot and had someone re-write the dialogue. Shakespeare’s language isn’t realistic.
*. Not that director Justin Kurzel seems particularly interested in what the characters are saying. He’s more interested in matters of art direction. The actors are hamstrung through editing. There’s a tradition in filming Shakespeare to let the actors have their big moments in long takes unless there’s some necessity in mixing things up. Kurzel seems to think that no one has the attention span to listen to a speech of more than a couple of lines at a time without editing. To take just one example among many, Macbeth’s “What hands are here?” speech takes five lines of monologue and mangles them with a dozen cuts.
*. It’s hard to judge the actors given what’s done to them. Michael Fassbender was apparently told to play Macbeth as though he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is yet another way of making Shakespeare more contemporary and realistic but is a lot less interesting than the character we have in the play. Marion Cotillard certainly looks the part, more like a Weird Sister than the witches we get here, but she’s undone in the same way. Though at least she does get the movie’s one long take.

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*. Then there are the visual and dramatic clichés. Interiors are all candlelight. Exteriors are postcards. There’s more to cinematography than such prettiness or finding the most beautiful locations to use as backdrops. Especially when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In ye olde dayes they didn’t use candles that much. They were expensive and a terrible fire hazard in wooden buildings.
*. Other clichés abound. Horses rear in a thunderstorm as Duncan is killed. For no reason at all there’s a shot of Macbeth rising from a mountain stream like an underwear model. When Lady Macbeth wants her husband to screw his spirit to the sticking point she of course mounts him and they have intercourse. Get it?
*. Most of all, however, I hated how dull this movie was. How did this happen? Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest, liveliest plays, but the pacing here is dreadful. The ending drags on forever. In most productions you can at least count on the witches to provide a spark, but here even they seem bored (not to mention pedestrian).
*. How many children had Lady Macbeth? At least one here (the child being torched in the opening scene), but I also had the impression that the boy killed in the battle was supposed to be Macbeth’s son.
*. This struck me as a fair interpretation, and it’s not the only one. This may be the worst production of Macbeth I’ve seen — and I’ve seen more than a few on stage and screen — but it’s not without some interesting ideas. I was particularly taken by the smoke from the burning forest being the way Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. It means gutting the text, but I thought it worked.
*. The use of Bamburgh Castle, which stood in for Dunsinane in Polanski’s Macbeth as well, only served to remind me of how far from adequate this version is. There’s just none of the fundamental sense of someone having gotten in over his head and his weariness with the game at the end. We have hints of Fassbender’s Macbeth turning full heel, but he never seems to get there. Meanwhile, aside from Lady Macbeth the other characters are scarcely differentiated. Banquo, Macduff, and Malcolm are scarcely more than cameos. But instead of that placing more focus on the two leads the feeling I had was that Kurzel was more interested in the landscape.
*. I guess I should say something about how well received this movie was. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at Cannes and won a bunch of awards. The critical consensus was very high. All of this for a movie so bad that I found it nearly unwatchable or else just unintentionally hilarious after about ten minutes. I realize there’s no accounting for taste, but this has to rank as one of the worst derelictions of critical duty I’ve seen in recent years. This Macbeth should have been met with an at best tepid response. What kind of a world are we living in where it could be taken seriously? It’s a film of no depth. We can only say it looks pretty. For many critics this was enough. Or is that all they’ve come to expect?

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Macbeth (2010)

*. Two things struck me as significant, or at least out of the ordinary, before I even started watching this production of Macbeth.
*. In the first place, it’s a full three hours. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and even a full-text version (which I think this is quite close to, though some parts are rearranged) plays pretty fast. I have no objection to the pacing here, but it is a movie that doesn’t feel in a rush. That’s something that I usually enjoy when it comes to Shakespeare.
*. The second surprising thing is that we have an older Macbeth. In fact I believe Patrick Stewart was 70 years old. Of course he looks quite a bit younger, indeed he’s remarkably buff in a tank top at the end, but he’s still not a young man. I think it’s more usual to cast Macbeth as being younger. This is something Roman Polanski deliberately went for in his Macbeth, casting Jon Finch in the title role (Finch was 29). This was apparently because Polanski thought younger leads would appeal to a youth audience in the 1960s, but I think it also fits with the idea of Macbeth as being an ambitious man on the rise.
*. Here though I thought an older Macbeth also worked very well. The idea was to make Scotland over into a Cold War Soviet-style state, with a Macbeth modeled after Romania’s Ceaușescu, and Stewart has the look of an old-school apparatchik who has put his time in and now wants the limos and the dacha.
*. The setting — the film was shot at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire but it looks like it takes place in a fallout bunker — also underlines the joyless elite squalor of the Soviet. One feels anew the play’s theme of the pointlessness of political ambition. Macbeth has to wade into a sea of blood to achieve . . . what? He’s not even going to get a corner office with a view.
*. I like this slant, and think the movie looks good. It’s a bit like Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995) and Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus (2011) in its evocation of a militaristic/fascistic dystopia. But as always when updating Shakespeare, contemporary relevance and impact has to be measured against elements that no longer make a lot of sense. I was wondering how Birnam Wood was going to come to Dunsinane here and was surprised at how well the soldiers in forest camo (“leafy screens”) worked. On the other hand, the supernatural stuff, like the witches and Banquo’s ghost, were a let-down.

*. The witches struck me as particularly off. They’re certainly striking, mainly appearing as masked nurse/nun figures, and their chanting is presented like it’s the music video of a girl goth band rapping. But they’re so modish they don’t register as being threatening. Given the décor of the bunker I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would have been to have cast Tobin Bell and Robert Englund in the parts. Jigsaw and Freddy look like they belong in this setting. Throw in some reject from a Rob Zombie movie and you’d have a good trio.
*. Stewart is solid, as you’d expect, though a bit loud and hoarse. Kate Fleetwood seems to be channeling Siân Phillips’s Livia from I, Claudius, and doing a pretty good job of it. She actually looks witchier than the witches in the first few acts. Director Rupert Goold (whose stage adaptation this originally was) sticks pretty close to his theatrical roots. The various rooms all have a stage-like quality to them.
*. I thought I was going to dislike this one after the opening scene. The wounded soldier is a bloody mess, which is fine, but he takes to an extreme the sort of naturalistic delivery that will be used throughout, which I’m really not a fan of. Growling, snarling, or sobbing the lines trashes any sense of rhythm they might have. There is no music to this play at all. As noted, even the witches sound like people spitting into an open mic on poetry night.
*. Once you get used to it though this turns out to be a fair production. I actually liked the setting, though the film as a whole had a bit too much of a stagey feel to it. Goold loves a direct camera placement with actors facing us square on, with the Porter breaking the fourth wall being particularly disconcerting. That’s not the way you play a scene like that in a movie. There were times I really wanted Goold to get the camera moving through some of these dingy, flickering hallways, especially as the action picked up. What we have instead is a movie that feels static, though not without impact.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

*. The main story here has to do with the state of the franchise. Sony had the rights to the character of Spider-Man and were determined to follow up Sam Raimi’s trilogy with not just another trilogy but a whole spin-off universe to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. That’s why this movie is effectively just a placeholder, introducing a bunch of new characters willy-nilly and ending on a “to be continued” note. But box office, though strong, was still disappointing (there was a drop off from the previous film) and Marvel struck a deal with Sony in 2015 so that the franchise got cancelled, or perhaps more properly absorbed into the MCU. Leaving these two movies as orphans, and I don’t think particularly much loved orphans at that. Though on balance I don’t think they’re much better or worse than Marvel’s output.
*. I won’t go into any more of this because most people know more (and care more) about these matters than I do. It is a necessary part of the background though. This movie really is a mess if you want to see it as a stand-alone effort. The “you-have-to-be-joking” appearance of the laughable mechanized Rhino at the end says it all.
*. I’ll admit that when I heard Jamie Foxx was going to be appearing as the villain Electro I really got my hopes up. That could have been great. Alas, Foxx is hidden behind a wall of CGI and make-up, to the point where they might as well have made him a totally animated character and not bothered hiring an actor, or at least one as good as Foxx, for the part.
*. Instead of Foxx stealing the show the preternaturally creepy Dane DeHaan upstages him playing Harry Osborn. Though it’s a testament to how cluttered an effort this is that even at 142 minutes Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin is just sprung on us at the end of the movie where it plays out at as an anti-climactic hook into the (never-to-be-made) next film. At least Foxx’s Electro would be back (he’s signed to appear in Spider-Man: No Way Home), but for DeHaan’s Goblin it was the end of the line. I guess he’s still locked up in the local Arkham bughouse.

*. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone back as Peter and Gwen. Apparently they were dating at the time but there’s little chemistry showing up on screen. I can’t help thinking that neither of them really wanted to be here. And Garfield looks even goofier than he did in the first movie, which is kind of bothering. I mean Tobey Maguire looked goofy too, but not this weird. Then there’s Sally Field back as worried Aunt Mae and Dennis Leary as an unwelcome ghostly presence. What’s the point of having Dennis Leary around if he doesn’t even get to speak? That makes about as much sense as what they did to Jamie Foxx.
*. It’s all weak. The original Electro had been a hydro engineer who was struck by lightning (or something like that) while repairing a line. Since then he’s been rebooted several times. Here he’s a nebbish guy who falls into a tank of mutant electric eels. Yes, really. (Oscorp, in this universe, is the great spawning ground for superheroes and villains.) Anyway, as origin stories go this struck me as pretty darn silly.
*. There’s nothing special about the action stuff. The fight scenes are very big but weightless. Spider-Man literally gets bounced around like a human pinball in his fight with Electro but he just shakes it off. Gwen dies and I couldn’t care less. Or, to be honest, I felt a bit of relief. I didn’t like their romance anyway. But try explaining how you messed that one up to the ghost of Dennis Leary, Pete!
*. A big cheeseburger of a superhero movie that throws way too much at us, wallows in clichés, and isn’t much fun at all. Even die-hard Spidey fans didn’t seem to want any more of this crap. So it was time to hit the reboot button once again. As Smilin’ Stan used to say; Excelsior!

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

*. Spider-Man has always been one of the most popular of the Marvel comics superheroes, and perhaps their most iconic. No surprise then that as the Marvel franchise saturated the movie market in the early twenty-first century Spidey would become a franchise in himself, swinging his way through more movies in these years than I can count.
*. Director Marc Webb: “it was a pretty quick reboot, I’ll admit that.” Meaning the turnaround from Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, which wound up in 2007, to the reboot only five years later with this launch of a new (projected) trilogy starring Andrew Garfield. You wouldn’t think a franchise needed a reboot every five years, but for a property like this why sit back and count your money when you can be out making more?
*. Because it’s a reboot this is yet another origin story, which is unfortunate given that origin stories are the least interesting part of any superhero franchise. Compounding things here, Webb thought of this film as not so much the origin of Spider-Man as the origin of Peter Parker, introducing the idea that the movie will be all about him finding out who he is. This is pretty ho-hum stuff, and luckily I didn’t see a lot of it going on in the movie. Maybe they were going to do more with his parents later in the trilogy, but seeing as they stalled out after two movies we may never know.
*. The villain of the piece is Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans). He’s missing an arm and so wants to gene splice himself with a lizard to grow a new one. Which turns him into the Lizard. It’s all pretty dumb stuff, and even though I know it’s a comic-book movie I was frustrated that I didn’t understand what he was trying to achieve in turning everyone in New York into giant lizard people. Because this is the next step of evolution? Because it will correct for any imperfections in our species? Somehow a city of lizard people doesn’t seem worth it.

*. Garfield is fine as Peter Parker, sporting some truly crazy hair, but he doesn’t seem quite the thing. Sort of like George Lazenby playing Bond. He’s no Tobey Maguire anyway. But I guess Maguire couldn’t stay young forever. Or could he? He’s there with Elijah Wood and Daniel Radcliffe as one of those perpetual young people.
*. Emma Stone is girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and of course she’s brainy and helpful too because this was 2012 and they had to give her something to do. Denis Leary seemed miscast to me as her father, the chief of police. Sally Field and Martin Sheen are America’s Mom and Dad. They’re good for producing the sort of canned moral precepts that these movies seem to feel are obligatory. Don’t tell lies, do the right thing, be true to yourself. That sort of stuff.
*. After his first fight with the Lizard, Spider-Man goes to Gwen’s place (he’d revealed his identity to her right away) so he can recover. She frets about her poor wounded boyfriend and he remarks “You should see the other guy.” Which is the cool thing to say to your girlfriend, but it made me laugh. You mean the other guy who just kicked your ass and that you barely escaped from? I’d say he’s feeling pretty good right now. This is the one scene in the movie that I honestly enjoyed.
*. Otherwise: standard comic-book stuff. Lots of CGI, most of it pretty good. The usual plot, complete with a bomb about to go off and a countdown and a climax at the top of a tower. Instantly forgettable, but it made a lot of money so they were able to roll out a sequel that didn’t do as well. After which the trilogy died and things had to get rebooted yet again.

Free Solo (2018)

*. There is a pleasure in watching any great exercise of skill. This is most obvious in sporting events, but can also be experienced watching a chess grandmaster playing, or a virtuoso musician soloing, or indeed in any number of daily occurrences. I’m particularly impressed by people whose job it is to operate heavy machinery with a light touch. If you’ve worked in a plant where the machines aren’t all robots, or just watched a garbage truck collect bins along a crowded curbside, you know what I mean. This is the sort of thing that operators get so good at, because they do it every day, that it’s a kind of magic seeing it at work.
*. Alex Honnold’s whole life was rock climbing. It seems to have been pretty much all he did. Add some freakish physical attributes (huge hands and a giant wingspan) and you’ve got someone whose accomplishments on a cliff-face seem supernatural. Then throw in the fact that he’s climbing an impossibly sheer cliff (Yosemite Park’s El Capitan) without a rope and you’ve got a spellbinding movie.
*. At least the climbing part, anyway. Honnold himself presents a bit of a stony façade. But I don’t think that’s the result of any mental abnormality, though that is duly suggested here, as this was a time when being good at anything required being placed somewhere “on the spectrum.” It’s the trope of autism as a super power. Personally, an amygdala which makes it hard for someone to get excited about anything seems to me to put one at a definite evolutionary disadvantage.
*. In any event, Honnold just comes across as a low-key sort of guy. Unfortunately, the filmmakers try to compensate  and add human interest by showing him interacting with his girlfriend. She is highly irritating, as though auditioning for the part of “annoying girlfriend,” but as they did later get married I guess things worked out.
*. Even knowing in advance that Honnold made it to the top on his own doesn’t diminish the anxiety one feels, especially with the vertigo-inducing shots the film team managed to capture of the feat. One of the few really introspective moments in the movie comes when one of Honnold’s friends, watching the climb from the base, keeps turning away from the cliff, looking into the camera at one point and asking how we (by extension, us, the audience) can watch this. Well, “we” watched Grizzly Man too, and that didn’t have a happy ending. I’m sure if Honnold had fallen to his death they would have destroyed the footage and there wouldn’t have been a movie.
*. In fact, I think the most intensely felt part of the movie is co-director Jimmy Chin’s anxiety over being possibly complicit in a tragedy. But I guess for obvious reasons they didn’t want to foreground that, choosing to go with the girlfriend.
*. Combined with the natural beauty of the setting this is a great film to look at. To the question of “Why?” the answer seems to be only for the rush and a way for Honnold to test himself. It’s certainly a spectacular hobby to take up, and the movie lets you enjoy lots of vicarious thrills. And yet, at the end I was left with a feeling less of triumph than of emptiness. I hope it inspires others to get outdoors for some exercise (though they should always climb with a rope), but is the movie an antidote to excessive screen time and video-game playing or does it just translate the demanding physical experience it documents into those same terms?

Lady Macbeth (2016)

*. The story is an old one, originating in an 1865 novella by Nikola Leskov but with tentacles reaching even deeper. Katherine is less Lady Macbeth, climbing the social ladder only to be overtaken by conscience and events, than Medea, with a bit of Lady Chatterley and Madame Bovary thrown in. She is destructive female passion, overthrowing the traditional — yes, we can even use the word patriarchal here — order.
*. This time out (Leskov’s novella has been filmed several times, and made into an opera) we’re moving in a different direction. I mentioned in my notes on the 1962 film directed by Andrzej Wajda that Katrerina is larger than her fate. Which is to say there is something of the tragic hero to her. Not so this Katherine, played by Florence Pugh.
*. For one thing, as the message is made more determinedly feminist, she’s not a victim. For another, we’re no longer in the boonies of old Mother Russia but in an altogether more barbaric and backward place: the north of England. In Wajda’s movie the barren Katerina seeks fertility by chanting to a mare and rubbing its belly. In Wiliam Oldroyd’s telling she can’t get pregnant because her husband only masturbates as she stands in the corner. Get it? Her stepfather is also a much nastier piece of work, running the household a bit like a domestic Guantanamo and, thanks to the casting of black actors as the hired help, he’s not just a misogynist but a racist to boot.
*. Some of these changes seem intended to make the story more contemporary. Others only make a mess of things. Instead of a nephew showing up on their doorstep looking for his share of a business his family had invested in, Katherine and Sebastian (he’s the hired help, or stud) have to deal with an illegitimate child who apparently has some kind of claim to be adopted. I was really fuzzy on that part though and thought it didn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t think an arrangement like that would fly in Victorian Britain.

*. In some ways it’s a film that’s a lot more obvious in its messaging. When the maid meets the stud in the forest he remarks of his dog that “the bitch gets restless if she’s tied up too long.” In case you missed the point, the maid responds “She was.” Ah-ha!
*. Luckily the rest of the film doesn’t content itself with pushing such a simplistic message. We suspect something is a little off when Katherine is basically raped by Sebastian . . . and she likes it! That doesn’t seem very progressive (or does it?). But the big change comes at the end, where Katherine reveals herself to be a boss bitch in the extreme, inverting the fates of the characters in the original story.
*. The point being? Better bad than dead. Much better, in fact. Morality and politics seem to have become separated in our time. Which is too bad for morality.
*. Well, at least there’s an honesty to such an approach. The problem here is not with the message but with the rather leaden presentation, which really blunts the impact of what should be the highlights. But then this Katherine is, finally, not a creature of passion like Medea but a calculating survivor. Pugh’s face is a composed mask, which makes it even more threatening. Many of her most dramatic actions are inaction, like not opening a door. She’s a negative force, mostly by being inert. She doesn’t even have to defend herself from the charge of murder. Instead she just denies it and the system takes care of the rest.
*. The way the film is shot reinforces this static quality. Pugh is often presented as something unmoveable, like a corseted statue, or flattened in a strong horizontal. The interiors have the appearance of Vermeers in their quality of moments that have been frozen in time. It’s a world that isn’t going to change, so one had best adapt to it.