MOVIE REVIEW: THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN

By Scott Tre

Peter Parker, a promising young student at Midtown Science High School, is about to undergo a drastic life change. A discovery in his Aunt and Uncle’s basement prompts him to seek out one of his father’s old colleagues, Dr. Curt Conners. After infiltrating the OsCorp facility under false pretenses, Peter is bitten by a genetically altered spider. The bite endows him the proportionate powers of the tiny creature.

In light of his newfound abilities, Peter again seeks out Conners. The two form a bond, and Peter aids Conners experiments in limb regeneration. Shortly thereafter, Peter’s uncle is accidentally killed by a petty thief. Peter takes to the streets to find his Uncles killer, eventually becoming a masked vigilante named “Spider-Man.” Spider-Man soon becomes an overnight media sensation. Meanwhile, Conners experiments result in him becoming a giant human/lizard hybrid. When the creature begins rampaging through the streets and sewers of New York City, It ultimately falls to Spider-Man to stop him.

The Amazing Spider-Man is the much anticipated reboot of the Sony Pictures franchise. It boasts a different cast than the previous three films, as well as new director. In certain regards, it’s more faithful the source material. In others, it’s wildly divergent. While it admittedly finds a happy medium between the two, it ultimately fails to embody the true spirit of its title character.
The world of The Amazing Spider-Man feels more superficially realistic than that of the Raimi films. The film’s vision of New York is a neo-noir throwback to 70’s revenge classics such as Death Wish. While this works to modernize the film to an extent, it also renders it generic.

While Spider-Man has never been a dark character per se, there has always been a dark undercurrent running through his mythos. Both he and his rogues gallery are the direct result of science experiments gone awry, often with tragic results. The filmmakers choose to bring such elements to the surface, and wind up pushing a bit too far in that direction. Certain moments evoke David Cronenberg style body horror. It gets to the point where even Spidey himself comes off as somewhat creepy.

The action scenes are bit more grounded in reality this time out, and as such not quite as dependent on CG as previous Spider-Man films. Stunt Coordinator Andy Armstrong incorporates elements of parkour and MMA. The difference is noticeable, as Spider-Man is more fearsome in combat than ever before. Strangely, this doesn’t result in more exciting action scenes. The set pieces, like much of the rest of the film, feel strangely indistinct.

The film’s conception of Spidey also proves to be misguided. It’s a complete 180 from the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire characterization. The fault lies not with Andrew Garfield’s performance, nor with his physical appearance. The problem lies with the film’s overall depiction of Parker, who’s shown to be a social outcast only in the most romantic sense of the phrase. He never seems particularly put upon, nor do his social inadequacies seem like anything that he won’t eventually outgrow. His transformation into Spider-Man never feels like an organic or even a necessary evolution.

As Conners, Rhys Ifans is much too mannered and distant to be a truly sympathetic villain. The Lizard’s creature design, while somewhat true to the original one by Steve Ditko, is too humanoid. The CGI used to bring the creature to life unintentionally evokes the stop motion creations of Ray Harryhausen.

The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t truly a bad film, but a frustratingly adequate one. Director Marc Webb has a vision for the character, but it consists of making him little more than a garden variety brooding loner. Raimi’s films were light as air, and never felt too tethered to modern expectations of what a superhero film should be. In that regard, they were very much like the title character. By contrast, The Amazing Spider-Man feels much too beholden to fan expectations. As a result, it never truly soars.

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THE AVENGERS: OFFICIAL TRAILER #2

By Scott Tre

By now, moviegoers have surely been shown enough of The Avengers via trailers and commercials to have an idea of what the film holds in store. Each successive advertisement has tried to expand the scope of the film a bit. They’ve been successful to an extent, though it still seems like the first episode in an extravagant television series rather than an ambitious big screen epic. That notwithstanding, it must be acknowledged that there appears to be some very good stuff here. The latest trailer, billed as the second official one, plays like a two and half minute highlight reel. It’s a procession of money shots in which each character gets to shine a bit. Some moments are so good that one wishes they would have been saved for the film itself.

Many of the aforementioned cool moments are enhanced by puns and bits of Smart Aleck dialogue. Black Widow meets with Dr. Bruce Banner in a rundown shack at a desolate location to persuade him to participate in The Avengers Initiative. In case negotiations don’t go quite as planned, a battalion of armed troops are shown circled around the shack with their weapons at the ready. As humor goes, It’s obvious as all Hell but it works.

In another scene, Iron Man lands atop the Stark Enterprises building and casually strolls down the rooftop landing strip. As he walks, a series of mechanical devices dismantle the Iron Man armor. He doesn’t have to break his stride or utter a single command. That’s about as James Bond as it gets, and it’s a perfectly fitting moment for old Shell Head.

There are even a few hints at the trouble in paradise when these guys are first introduced. Iron Man and Thor are shown pounding away at each other in the woods. In one scene, Cap joins them during a three way faceoff. Cap himself looks cheesy-cool in full costume. There’s another moment where he free-falls through the sky, doing a “Superman-in-flight” pose with his shield boldly out front.

The scene of Hulk smacking alien spacecraft out of the air is repeated here, as is the scene of Iron Man doing a bit of aerial dogfighting with the Alien baddies. When he gets blasted and begins falling to his doom, the Green Goliath swoops in and scoops him up like a damsel in distress. With Old Shell Head firmly in hand, Hulk then slows their rapid descent by digging a groove into the side of a skyscraper with his free hand and sliding down to the ground. It’s a great show-stopping moment that should not have been spoiled in the trailer.

As the six heroes gather back to back on a war torn street in front of New York City’s Grand Central Station, the camera pans around them, doing a complete 360. The final moment of has Iron Man being chased through the air by what looks like a giant airborne mechanical piranha, or a cybernetic silverfish with wings. Yet another shot that should have been saved for the film itself.

I’m no longer worried about the entertainment value of the film. At this point it’s clear that The Avengers is going to kick wholesale ass if nothing else. I just hope that Joss Whedon and company have not blown their proverbial load with all the trailers released over the past few months. It’d be nice to save some of the tricks for the actual performance, instead of giving it all away for free. If The Avengers is a drawn out snooze in which all the best moments were spoiled in the advertisements, I will personally put out a hit on Joss Whedon.

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THE PUNISHER COMETH: “CIRCLE OF BLOOD” TURNS 25

By Scott Tre

Vigilantes invaded American cinema in a big way during the 1970’s. The world of superhero comics responded in kind. Mere months before Michael Winner crafted arguably the definitive vigilante film of the period with Death Wish, Marvel comics offered up a costumed anti-hero who had an eerily similar modus operandi. He was conceived as an antagonist to none other than Spider-Man. By the mid to late 80’s, American superhero comics were entering the “Grim and Gritty” period, which offered up exceedingly dark takes on classic heroes such as Batman. The tone fit the punisher perfectly. Seeing as how the character had never been the subject of his very own series, writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck felt the time was right to finally unleash the character on an unsuspecting Marvel Universe. They did so in a mini-series fittingly titled “Circle of Blood.”

In the beginning of “Circle of Blood,” The Punisher’s one man war on crime was been brought to an abrupt halt. He has finally been apprehended and is being held in Ryker’s Island, surrounded by any number of inmates who have a vendetta against him. After being double crossed during a failed prison break, the Punisher is offered tempting proposition by the warden. He will be allowed to escape, so long as he agrees to head up a squad of vigilantes funded by a private organization known only as The Trust. Now back on the streets, The Punisher orchestrates a turf war among the New York’s various criminal factions. He hopes this will cause New York’s underworld to cannibalize itself and implode, but it simply results in unnecessary bloodshed. While trying to bring the warring parties to a peaceful resolution, The Punisher realizes that the Trust’s intentions do not line up with his own.

Spurred on by such phenomena as the crack epidemic and the war on drugs, national crime rates skyrocketed throughout the 1980’s. Right wing pundits proposed a “get tough on crime” strategy to galvanize voters. This sentiment was reflected in the popular entertainment of the day. The public was indeed ready for a character like the Punisher to receive his own monthly title. Yet, Marvel was initially skittish about doing so for its lone executioner. “Circle of Blood” was very much in the vein of contemporary action films. The story begins in the bowels of Ryker’s Island and gets more violent as it progresses. Its protagonist did not do battle with flamboyantly costumed villains. He performed hits on Mafia dons and the like. Not to mention that the Punisher himself was a rather sullen and distant character. He had no pretensions toward heroism. Like many of the cinematic anti-hero’s of the period, he was a Vietnam veteran, compelled to rid the city of scum after his own family was slaughtered during a gangland dispute in central Park.

The artwork of Mike Zeck made Frank Castle come alive as never before. He outfitted the character with a bodybuilder’s physique that wouldn’t at all have been functional in the real world, yet that’s exactly what it was on the comic page. The Punishers broad, skull clad frame truly inhabited each panel from a spatial standpoint. Zeck also infused him with mood and presence. His furrowed brow and curled lip channeled Dirty Harry Callahan, Paul Kersey, and John Rambo all at once. Supporting it all was Steven Grant’s writing, which set up The Punisher as the proverbial man of few words.

“Circle of Blood” was published over the course of five issues during the first half of 1986. The character was enthusiastically embraced by readers, leading Marvel to give him his own ongoing monthly title the following year. Throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Punisher’s grim visage would grace no less than three ongoing monthly titles. By 1995, public demand for the character had diminished considerably. He was successfully resurrected five years later by Garth Ennis, who offered perhaps the most satisfying iteration of the character yet. He’s also been the subject of three feature films, none of which managed to capture the basic appeal of the character. “Circle of Blood” is where it all started. It was the perfect comic at the perfect time. Beware the Punisher.

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MOVIE REVIEW: CONAN THE BARBARIAN

By Scott Tre

A ruthless warlord named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) lays waste to entire Cimmerian village, wiping it from existence. He seeks the final missing shard of an ancient mask that will aid him in his quest for immortality. A young boy named Conan (Jason Momoa) emerges from the ruins of the village as its lone survivor. As the years pass, he grows into a battle hardened and powerfully muscled barbarian. Through his travels, he has not forsaken his vendetta against Khalar Zym. When the warlord sets his sights on Tamara (Rachel Nichols), Conan intercepts the young monastery novitiate in hopes of administering final justice for the slaughter of his people and the murder of his father (Ron Perlman).

Conan the Barbarian bares no relation to the two previous Conan films that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a supposedly brand new take on the famous pulp character created by writer Robert E. Howard. Director Marcus Nispel, who helmed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th remakes for Platinum Dunes, applies his dreary aesthetic to the world of sword and sorcery. The results are a decidedly far cry from the vision that John Milius had for the character. They are also infinitely less satisfying.

Conan the Barbarian is easily the most relentlessly ugly film of the summer. Cimmeria is rendered with ashen hues that look all the worse beneath the insufficient lighting. Every shot looks like bland flashback. The hand held shots robs the film of any epic grandeur it might have otherwise had. Even the costume and set design seem to lack imagination. John Milius’s film adopted an ancient world aesthetic that seemed to recall a plethora of mythical realms and histories. Nispel prefers to simply cover everything in sludge and grime, making all of the armor and costumes indistinct.

While the action isn’t completely incompetent, it offers nothing memorable or eye catching. John Milius offered well-choreographed swordplay and wonderfully staged set pieces. Nispel allows geysers of blood to spew forth anytime a character is so much as grazed by a blade. For all the carnage on display, none of it has any real impact save for a couple of mean spirited moments that feel borrowed from a torture porn extravaganza. Instead of quickening the pulse, the violence has a numbing effect not too dissimilar from Nispel’s slasher pictures.

As Conan, Jason Momoa offers ample ferocity and physicality. Unfortunately, he doesn’t saddle these qualities to an actual performance. While Shwarzenegger was hardly a master thespian, he brought a sense of self-deprecating humor to the proceedings that made his rendition of the character appealing. Arnie’s Conan murdered and pillaged with an understated glee. He was like a kid with huge muscles and a zest for life. Momoa has the savagery down, but lacks anything in the way of actual character. There is only an empty bloodlust behind his eyes. He may as well be Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers.

In yet another unfavorable comparison to the Milius iteration of Conan, that version had wonderfully realized villain in the incessantly creepy Thulsa Doom. James Earl Jones totally committed to the role, creating a character that was both charming and loathsome. He was (quite literally) a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Khalar Zym is more in the mold of Mola Ram from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, only much less scary. His daughter Marique (Rose McGowen) is actually more interesting, but is reduced henchmen status.

Conan the Barbarian operates on the same level as an expensive straight to DVD production, and not a particularly good one. It lurches forward from one violent set piece to the next, with no sense of purpose or enthusiasm. It’s only true saving grace is the voice over narration by Morgan Freeman. It’s hard to believe that this film had been in development since 2000, and had passed through such notable hands as the Wachowski Brothers. Since reboots are all the rage in current Hollywood, I hope this version of Conan dies a quick death at the box office. May the franchise be resurrected by someone who has something approaching an actual vision for this character. Crom is surely hanging his head in shame right now.

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