Emma Stone

Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola), the unrated version

Superbad is exceptionally funny. In terms of how often you lose your breath from laughing, it’s hard to think of a better movie than Superbad. Watching Superbad probably burns between 118 and 315 calories. This unrated version anyway. The rated version would burn about four minutes less. Next time I watch it I’ll have to try to measure it on my Apple Watch. It’s one of the funnier films ever made. A smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. It’s a peerless success in terms of those laughs, a combination of script, actors, and material. Utterly obscene teen male virgin comedies—the kind screenwriters Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg apparently grew up watching—needed the Internet and culture to hit 2007 to fully realize the genre’s potentials.

But it’s just a smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. The script’s got an amazing first act, plotting-wise; the rest of the movie doesn’t. Director Mottola takes a hands-off approach, not really showing much personality until the last shot when you get the feeling he wishes he were making a different, less utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy, but maybe even smarter. Lead Jonah Hill (playing “Seth”) loses his first act protagonist role once the second act hits. By the third act he’s even more reduced. Instead, it’s more about Hill’s best friend, Michael Cera (playing “Evan”), and their awkward third wheel, the hilarious Christopher Mintz-Plasse. They’re all high school seniors. It’s the last two weeks of school. They’re going to a party.

Mintz-Plasse’s side plot is all about his fake ID, liquor, and two party animal cops (Bill Hader and Rogen—who are playing older analogues to the teen boys, but not generally, it’s not one-to-one). It’s the even funnier stuff in the extremely funny movie. Because even though Hill and Cera have a lot of humor in their own liquor hunt (Hill promised dream girl Emma Stone he’d bring all the booze for her party, Cera promised dream girl Martha MacIsaac he’d bring her a special bottle of vodka), they’ve also got their “best friends since the fourth grade who go to different colleges and can’t be joined at the hip anymore” arc. For all their excellent insights into the male psyche, Rogen and Goldberg can’t crack that arc. Meanwhile Mottola is focused on the “boys finally learn girls are people they want to spend time with” arc, which is really awkward because Hill, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse are way too old for that arc.

Their being too old for it does provide a decent backdrop for some of the jokes, but the only time it gets directly referenced is with dream girl Stone. She’s too wise for Hill; he’s been intentionally confusing maturity and vulgarity his whole life and it won’t work with Stone. Meanwhile Cera gets this strangely paternalist arc with MacIsaac, which—given how shallow Cera’s performance schtick gets as the film goes along—is really bad for her. MacIsaac gets a little more screen time than Stone (it feels like a lot more; Stone’s forgettable) and somehow even less character. They’re both dream girl caricatures (albeit 2007 ones). The film never even hints at them being anything more. MacIsaac’s got friends, Stone’s got parents out of town. Done.

Other big problems include the progressive gay jokes. It’s lazy writing more than anything else. Superbad’s got a really big anti-toxic masculinity statement it hints around making without ever having the balls to make it. Also interesting is the lack of teen male virgin shaming, which sort of breaks the genre.

I also don’t understand how the Richard Pryor shirt Hill wears through the first act didn’t become the Garfield-in-the-car-window of the late aughts. Pryor’s expression gets laughs of its own, like he’s offering commentary on the surrounding events. It’s awesome.

Lots of Superbad is awesome. It’s peerlessly funny. It’s also astoundingly not ambitious.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; director of photography, Russ Alsobrook; edited by William Kerr; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jonah Hill (Seth), Michael Cera (Evan), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fogell), Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels), Bill Hader (Officer Slater), Kevin Corrigan (Mark), Martha MacIsaac (Becca), Emma Stone (Jules) and Joe Lo Truglio (Francis the Driver).


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014, Marc Webb)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is bereft of good ideas. It’s also bereft of good music–Hans Zimmmer’s bland “superhero” score rattles the brain, bowdlerizing what might be better scenes and effect sequences. It’s impossible to know, because there’s never a single moment of music without ludicrous bombast. Who knows how it’d have played if the superhero action attempted emotional impact.

The film opens in flashback. Campbell Scott, playing Spider-Man’s dad, has an action sequence. It sets up lead Andrew Garfield’s arc for the movie. It’s about him trying to find out what happened to his parents. Except when it’s not. Second-billed Emma Stone has this arc about being broken up with Garfield. But, while it does make Garfield a little mopier than usual, it doesn’t really play into any of his arc.

Only it turns out there is no arc for Garfield because nothing interesting happened to his parents. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner–wow, it took three writers to produce such an awful turd of a script–anyway, they build up a big reveal and it’s nothing. They write this exaggerated scene between Garfield and aunt Sally Field where she’s hiding the truth from him and it’s going to devastate him and then it’s nothing. The screenwriters have no idea how to do narrative distance.

Neither does director Webb. Worse, Webb treats Stone like an annoyance. She already doesn’t have a part except to make out with Garfield, smile, and meet supporting cast members for a moment. And when she does have a scene, Webb ignores her performance. You spend the movie trying to remember if or why you like the character and why Garfield likes her and get nothing from the film itself. Who cares if they’re broken up? Not even the characters care.

I suppose Stone’s not bad. She just has a crap part. Garfield’s not bad either. He’s just got a crap part. But Dale DeHaan and Jamie Foxx both have crap parts and manage to be bad. With Foxx, it’s not his fault. They had no idea what to do with him, practically muting him by the end. And they’d already given him the inglorious origin of being bitten by mutant electric eels. He becomes an electric eel man. Just one who can’t be electric underwater, even though the eels got him underwater.

DeHaan’s terrible. Webb’s direction of him is terrible. The writing is terrible. For a while it seems like they’re actually going to generate rapport between Garfield and DeHaan as childhood friends reunited but no. The movie’s too busy jumping between terrible subplots. DeHaan and Foxx are tied together because of evil biomedical capitalist Colm Feore. It’s stupid how much time Feore gets. Even stupider is how much time his sidekick Louis Cancelmi gets. Anything to keep Spider-Man away from Stone.

Because nothing in Garfield’s family plot has to do with Stone. They’re completely separate. He compartmentalizes, even though he apparently follows her once a day as Spider-Man, combination protection and adoration.

Once the movie gets around to the idea of teaming up Stone and Garfield to solve problems, which seems like a good idea, it’s time for the movie to end and for everyone to fall into their parts. Except then the ending takes forever. It’s exhausting. And the music is terrible. And nothing good ever happens. Not in the story, but in the narrative decisions. Amazing Spider-Man 2 is amazing because its best is unfulfilled mediocre. Nothing’s going right with this movie.

And the composite effects–Spider-Man swinging around New York City–usually look awful, like the CG lighting on the Spider-Man model is wrong. The Spider-Man scenes, when he’s not in a weak fight scene, are grating. Bad music, bad CG composite, charmless direction. Webb manages one actual great shot in the movie and cuts away too soon. Pietro Scalia and Webb like to cut a lot. Enough there are times when it’s clear Webb didn’t have coverage.

That one good shot is of Stone, naturally. It’s this brief moment where Amazing Spider-Man 2 connects the emotion of the story with the emotion of the filmmaking. Webb, Scalia, and cinematographer Dan Mindel manage this one sincere thing. I don’t even think Zimmer’s music screws it up.

Then it’s over. And Stone gets nothing, Garfield gets busy to get nothing, DeHaan gets green, and Foxx gets blue. Oh, and Sally Field gets an arc about having to go back to work to pay for Garfield’s college, even though Garfield is apparently not going to college during the movie.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 is bad. Kurtzman, Orci, and Pinker’s script is the worst thing about it. Shame Webb didn’t do anything to alleviate its defects. The returning principals–Garfield, Stone, and Field–deserved better.

Oh, and Chris Cooper is awful in his uncredited cameo. Just dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Marc Webb; screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner, based on a story by Kurtzman, Orci, Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Michael Einziger, and Junkie XL; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man / Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Jamie Foxx (Electro / Max Dillon), Dane DeHaan (Green Goblin / Harry Osborn), Colm Feore (Donald Menken), Felicity Jones (Felicia), Paul Giamatti (Aleksei Sytsevich), Sally Field (Aunt May), and Campbell Scott (Richard Parker).


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Marc Webb)

The Amazing Spider-Man is melodramatic trifle, but not in any sort of bad way. I mean, it doesn’t succeed but it does try a lot. Director Webb really goes for a high school romance, with such saccharine effectiveness it probably ought to be an ominous foreshadowing for leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s burgeoning romance. Except, although Webb’s going for the melodrama and there’s a sappy, though heroic, and familiar in many parts James Horner score, John Schwartzman’s photography is super flat. It’s unclear if Webb’s messing it up or Schwartzman or some combination; I lean more towards Webb, if only because Schwartzman knows how to light J. Michael Riva’s early seventies style sets and Webb doesn’t know how to shoot them.

If The Amazing Spider-Man were a period piece set in the late sixties, with a lot more for Denis Leary to do in the first half of the film, it could’ve been something. Instead, it’s this weird mushing together of various ideas, from Spider-Man comics, from popular movies, from unpopular movies, probably something from a TV show. Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves throw just about everything in. The heart shows. The film’s enthusiastically sappy.

And it usually works, because the good performances weather occasional weak scenes and subplots and manage to sell the sap. Martin Sheen can sell the sap, so can Denis Leary. It’d help if Rhys Ifans’s could sell it too, but he’s pretty terrible as the de facto villain. The writing on the villain stuff is terrible throughout, but Ifans still isn’t any good in the part. Sheen, Leary, and Ifans make up Garfield’s surrogate father trinity in the film, which should be important but isn’t.

Instead of continuing anything the first act threatens with daddy issues, as soon as the delayed second act is underway, the film quickly veers into mostly unrelated territory. The familiar Spider-Man origin has frequent, small tweaks. Usually so director Webb can avoid the action, but not the Spider-Man in New York stuff. Webb likes that stuff.

But the fighting? Webb’s fumbles it. Even when the special effects are good–which is never with Ifans’s CGI alter ego–Webb doesn’t know what he’s doing. Someone–either Webb, the screenwriters, or just the plain old studio–sets up action scenes ripe for video game realization. The action in the third act is almost like the target demographic is Spider-Man gamers. With the gaudy Horner music and Schwartzman’s flat, “realistic” phtoography, the sequences even amuse. The Amazing Spider-Man goes all out when it’s got an idea, good or bad.

It goes for it for over two hours. It goes for it to the point the narrative has two or three major shifts where previous subplots just get dropped. At some point, the film decides it just wants to set up Garfield as a pretty cool Spider-Man. And then everything builds towards it, sometimes with stupid stuff like C. Thomas Howell inexplicably having an extended cameo, like Tobey Maguire or Nicholas Hammond wouldn’t have been far better.

Great Stan Lee cameo though, during the one time the effects all come together and Webb goes along with it and it all works out. It’s a big high school fight sequence between Garfield’s CGI stand-in and Ifans’s CGI stand-in. It’s just fun, but with some danger. Amazing Spider-Man’s balance of danger to fun is one of its strengths.

The greatest strength, however, is Garfield. He’s socially obtuse and pensive, sympathetic without being lovable, occasionally justified in his insensitivity. And instead of losing his place once he and Stone get involved, Garfield just gets better. The fun flirting just informs later serious concern and chastely suggestive sequences. Especially one where Stone and Leary have this awkward family moment and it’s almost good enough, but Webb fumbles it. Stone and Leary try hard enough they get it to pass… but it should be better.

Like Stone. Stone’s underutilized. More Stone would make it better. But the script’s too busy. There are too many characters crowding Garfield. Stone’s just another one of them; after setting her up for her own character development time and again, the film just keeps cutting her off. It’s got no idea what weight to give to what character. Garfield’s just haphazardly visiting people who should have good subplots, but then they never do.

Despite it having nothing to do with anything, it’s got a pretty good ending. As far as melodramatic trifle goes. With the exception of Ifans and a little Leary, Webb’s good with actors. He relies on Garfield and Stone heavily throughout the film and the epilogue’s got some acknowledgement (even if not enough for Stone.

The Amazing Spider-Man has some heart to it, which helps it immeasurably.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marc Webb; screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, based on a story by Vanderbilt and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Alan Edward Bell, Michael McCusker, and Pietro Scalia; music by James Horner; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, and Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Sally Field (Aunt May), Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curt Connors), Denis Leary (Captain Stacy), Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben), Irrfan Khan (Rajit Ratha), Chris Zylka (Flash Thompson), and C. Thomas Howell (Jack’s Father).


Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

The funniest thing in Birdman is, surprisingly, not when Michael Keaton and Edward Norton get into fisticuffs and Norton’s in nothing but speedos. The funniest thing in Birdman, which is about former superhero movie megastar Keaton staging a pseudo-intellectual comeback stage production of a Raymond Carver adaptation, is–after Norton makes fun of Keaton’s character’s overly wordy adaptation (Carver wasn’t a wordy writer, as published)–how pointlessly wordiness of director Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo’s script.

There’s also a huge gaffe when Emma Stone talks about Carver’s story being sixty years old (unless Birdman takes place in 2041 and, given the constant references to social media networks, it isn’t).

Birdman is a pretentious, Hollywood “indie” melodrama. Iñárritu’s fake single shot style, expertly manipulated by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, brings nothing to the film except a distance from the audience. Iñárritu uses the style–and Antonio Sanchez’s drum score–to keep up the film’s energy, because otherwise, there’s nothing but Batman references, superhero movie jabs, New York condescension of Hollywood, trite father-daughter problems and expository dialogue.

Oh, and Keaton being haunted by Birdman, the superhero his character played to great financial success.

There’s nothing in the script for Keaton to do. He does it all pretty well, but his part’s exceptionally shallow. The “deep” scenes with ex-wife Amy Ryan suggest Keaton and Ryan could make a good film. Not this one.

Norton’s great, Stone’s awful. Nice supporting work from Naomi Watts.

Birdman’s gallingly light stuff.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu; written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione; music by Antonio Sanchez; production designer, Kevin Thompson; produced by Arnon Milchan, John Lesher, James W. Skotchdopole and Iñárritu; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Michael Keaton (Riggan), Edward Norton (Mike), Emma Stone (Sam), Naomi Watts (Lesley), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Andrea Riseborough (Laura), Amy Ryan (Sylvia), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha), Jeremy Shamos (Ralph) and Merritt Wever (Annie).


Zombieland (2009, Ruben Fleischer)

I can’t believe Zombieland got made. I mean, I understand it’s a reasonable financial success and all, but who greenlighted this film? It’s from a couple no name writers and a no name director and the best known cast member is Woody Harrelson.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Woody Harrelson and have been an avid supporter for many a year, but really… it’s way too… smart to be a studio picture. Even when it does silly, obvious things, it’s leagues better than what I was expecting.

For instance, the Bill Murray cameo–it does work; it’s funny but it’d be funnier if it were someone who hadn’t been through a nasty public divorce and needed to do image clean-up. Plus, there’s a comment about Murray’s dramatic turns, but nothing about him running out of the Oscars in a huff when he doesn’t win.

I think Mel Gibson would have been a much better choice, especially since he isn’t a comic actor in the same way. But then, Mel Gibson isn’t a Sony slash Columbia slash Tri-Star actor and Zombieland is one of the biggest studio pictures I can think of–it’s the Gremlins 2 of the zombie genre.

Acting wise, it’s all solid, but unspectacular. Jesse Eisenberg is really good, but he’s playing the same character he played in Adventureland. Harrelson’s funny and good but it’s no surprise he’s either.

Fleisher’s direction is comic-oriented, so it’s hard to tell about him.

But it’s really good stuff.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ruben Fleischer; written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; director of photography, Michael Bonvillain; edited by Alan Baumgarten; music by David Sardy; production designer, Maher Ahmad; produced by Gavin Polone; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee), Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus), Emma Stone (Wichita), Abigail Breslin (Little Rock), Amber Heard (406), Bill Murray (Bill Murray) and Derek Graf (Clown Zombie).


Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola)

Superbad opens with the 1970s Columbia Pictures logo, features a 1970s soundtrack and, for much of the film, features its main character, played by Jonah Hill, wearing something seventies-esque. Those elements go far in creating a flavor for Superbad, as does the Southern California landscape. I’m not sure how important the flavor is to Superbad‘s success, since it’s still a funny movie. The script’s lulls rarely go on for a full minute, a good example being when Hill interrupts a soccer game to tell Michael Cera their plans for the evening (and setting the present action limits for the film) and Hill calls a bothersome soccer player (Cera’s in the middle of a game) a bed-wetter, recalling a bladder incident from eight years earlier. Then they don’t let the joke go. The player responds, Hill responds. Rogen and Goldberg’s script is the perfect comedy on the scene level. They know how to make it work and they know how to get the most from every scene. There’s not a single scene with an incomplete feeling to it (not a comedic scene, anyway).

The film’s getting a lot of online attention because of Michael Cera, who rabid fanboys seem to like almost as much as they like that sixteen year-old girl in the Harry Potter movies. Cera’s excellent in the film, except it’s not really an acting job. He’s playing his existing persona in a sex comedy for the first time. His performance is perfect; it doesn’t appear to have been much work. I wouldn’t even be commenting on it (Cera’s scenes are hilarious, especially the one where he has to sing for a bunch of violent adults at a party), if it weren’t for Hill’s performance. Hill gives a singular performance in this film–most of the raunchy lines are his, but he still manages to be the deepest character in the film. Cera’s depth possibilities get hurt by the handling of his big scene, when it’s more about the audience getting it than Cera getting it. But Hill… every scene with the guy, he’s amazing. And he’s amazing in ways suggesting his next performance will be as good (hopefully it won’t be in a Roland Emmerich movie as the comic relief).

Greg Mottola’s direction is as anti-hip as Hill and Cera’s clothing. He shot Superbad with the new Panavision Genesis digital camera and it’s hard to believe. Mottola’s job is pretty simple, to record the funny action going on, and he does it well. But there are a few times I remember really appreciating him.

Now for the problem. It’s really sentimental and really simple. While Cera and Hill have their adventures, another kid has adventures with a couple cops who act like Hill and Cera will if they never grow up. It’s a boy-to-man transition movie and it gets hammered in with a jackhammer. Instead of being content with its position as the funniest movie I can remember seeing, Superbad has to go and turn in a loony coda, taking all kinds of shortcuts with character development, just so it can have its sentimental, significant ending. Like most one night present action films, Superbad sets itself up for needing some real resolution and–since it’s already running 110–it hurries it through in three minutes, sucking a lot of the interesting possibilities from what it previously established. It’s a cheap ending masquerading as a good ending.

But even if the last four minutes of screen action are, basically, laugh-free, the preceding 114 are full of them. It’s a mixed bag and should not have been one.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; director of photography, Russ Alsobrook; edited by William Kerr; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jonah Hill (Seth), Michael Cera (Evan), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fogell), Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels), Bill Hader (Officer Slater), Kevin Corrigan (Mark), Martha MacIsaac (Becca), Emma Stone (Jules) and Joe Lo Truglio (Francis the Driver).


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