Martin Sheen

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).


Firestarter (1984, Mark L. Lester)

If I tried really hard, would I be able to think of something nice to say about Firestarter? I was going to complement some of Tangerine Dream’s score–not all of it, but some of it–but it turns out it’s not so much a score as a selection of otherwise unreleased Tangerine Dream tracks director Lester picked out. It makes sense a lot of the music doesn’t work knowing that situation, because no way Lester is going to make any significantly good choices for the film.

The film simply has nothing going for it. There are no good performances; watching Firestarter, which is exceptionally boring in addition to being stupid, I wondered more what possessed certain actors to sign on. What the heck is Art Carney doing in this film, much less married to Louise Fletcher? There’s a sixteen year age difference and it looks like about ten more. Carney looks ancient, Fletcher looks great. How did they meet? Why does he complain to strangers she wasn’t able to bear him daughters? Why is so much of Firestarter about old men–Art Carney, George C. Scott, Martin Sheen–fixating on Drew Barrymore? She’s not even energetic enough to be obnoxious. Sure, Lester directs her terribly, but she’s still bored. She can be shooting fireballs out of her face and be bored in Firestarter.

As Barrymore’s father, Brian Keith tries but doesn’t succeed at anything. Stanley Mann’s script is too lousy, the story beats are just terrible, the dialogue’s weak, the characters are weak. But it fits for the film, which doesn’t have anything going for it technically either. Giuseppe Ruzzolini’s cinematography is weak. Lester shoots the film Panavision for eventual pan-and-scan cropping. There’s constant empty space and Ruzzolini’s not lighting anything interesting in it. Firestarter is not creepy, it’s not scary, it’s dumb.

And the real problem is George C. Scott. He’s George C. Scott and he’s humiliating himself. Scott probably gives Firestarter’s worst performance. It’s this weird, terrible macho role and someone should’ve told him no. Or maybe he got himself an awesome swimming pool with the paycheck, but it’s terrible acting. He’s not even hamming it up–Sheen at least bites at some of the scenery–Scott just plays it badly and without enthusiasm.

Firestarter’s dumb and it’s bad. And it’s long. The special effects aren’t even good.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mark L. Lester; screenplay by Stanley Mann, based on the novel by Stephen King; director of photography, Giuseppe Ruzzolini; edited by David Rawlins and Ronald Sanders; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, Giorgio Postiglione; produced by Frank Capra Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring David Keith (Andy), Drew Barrymore (Charlie), George C. Scott (Rainbird), Martin Sheen (Hollister), Moses Gunn (Doctor Pynchot), Art Carney (Irv Manders), Louise Fletcher (Norma Manders) and Freddie Jones (Doctor Wanless).


Walk and Talk the Vote (2012, Michael Mayers)

Walk and Talk the Vote reunites the “West Wing” cast–including Martin Sheen as President Bartlet, which I wasn’t expecting, but a lot of it feels like it could have just been impersonators.

The only time the commercial–for Mary McCormack’s sister, Bridget Mary McCormack–gets any energy is when characters are actually talking to each other and the actors are visibly getting in rhythm with each other. It happens especially with Allison Janney and Bradley Whitford and a little with Sheen and Lily Tomlin. Poor Richard Schiff, who doesn’t talk with anyone so much as at them, looks a little lost.

Also lost are Joshua Malina and Janel Moloney. They literally disappear after their initial appearance.

It’s a neat idea and not a bad commercial to encourage people to vote the non-partisan portion of the ballot, but John Cockrell’s script is really forced.

Whitford and Janney save it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mayers; screenplay by John Cockrell, inspired by a television show created by Aaron Sorkin; director of photography, Mayers; edited by Greg Arata; music by Kyle Newmaster; produced by Mary McCormack and Michael Morris.

Starring Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg), Janel Moloney (Donna Moss), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), Mary McCormack (Kate Harper), Joshua Malina (Will Bailey), Melissa Fitzgerald (Carol Fitzpatrick), Lily Tomlin (Deborah Fiderer) and Martin Sheen as the President.


O (2001, Tim Blake Nelson)

The actor playing Josh Hartnett’s mother (and Martin Sheen’s wife) doesn’t get a credit in O. She doesn’t have any lines, doesn’t really make any noise, just looks down at the dinner table during a scene. But she’s a perfect example of how Nelson paints subtlety and sadness into the film’s canvas. She’s mentioned once more later, in this very deliberate scene showcasing Sheen’s emotional abuse of Hartnett. O has a lot of teenagers–in a boarding school–acting adult, but this scene with Hartnett and Sheen (Sheen barely has a visual presence and Hartnett has only one line), reveals these “grown-up” teenagers as the children.

While second-billed, Hartnett is the film’s protagonist. The point of Othello, as a character, is how uninteresting he is when compared to Iago. That observation should not discount Mekhi Phifer’s performance as the Othello analog, however. Phifer’s transformation into a jealous lover is all played onscreen in O… Hartnett’s just a psychopath who finally gets to express himself. Othello has to be a tragedy; even when Phifer lashes out, he maintains sympathy. Some of it works because Hartnett’s a great villain, but most is because of Nelson’s careful direction.

Julia Stiles, as Desdemona, doesn’t have the range Hartnett and Phifer do, but she’s quite good. Her death scene’s extraordinary.

Also essential, in a small role, is Rain Phoenix.

Nelson, cinematographer Russell Lee Fine and composer Jeff Danna create an amazing film. Nelson puts the responsibility for its success on Hartnett; Hartnett excels.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson; screenplay by Brad Kaaya, based on a play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Russell Lee Fine; edited by Kate Sanford; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Dina Goldman; produced by Daniel Fried, Eric Gitter and Anthony Rhulen; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Hugo Goulding), Mekhi Phifer (Odin James), Julia Stiles (Desi Brable), Andrew Keegan (Michael Cassio), Rain Phoenix (Emily), Elden Henson (Roger Calhoun), Martin Sheen (Coach Duke Goulding) and John Heard (Dean Bob Brable).


Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)

I was in high school the first time I saw Badlands. I’d seen a lot of movies–I think by that time, I’d even made a top one hundred list. I know I’d seen True Romance, so I must have been at least fifteen. There’s nothing else like Badlands in cinema, which is a bit of an easy statement, a bit of a cop-out–it’s an attempt to describe something indescribable. I haven’t seen it in years–the last time would have been April or May of 1999, just after the DVD came out. I don’t think I know enough adjectives to write a more traditional response to the film–a person can only read (or type) stunning, amazing and singular so many times. Didn’t I already write singular once before that sentence?

Badlands is so difficult to describe because of Malick’s approach to the story. There’s no attempt to explain Martin Sheen’s personable, affable mass murderer. Malick never attempts to give him any humanity to make spending ninety minutes with him easier. Instead, Sheen charms the viewer too–he’s a likable guy and understanding why he starts killing people and doesn’t stop isn’t part of the viewer’s purview, or the film’s. Malick’s no more interested in explaining Sheen’s actions than he is explaining why he likes Eddie Fisher. Sheen does a lot of things–goes to see Warren Oates (a significant scene, not just for Sheen’s effort, but for Oates’s inexplicable, slow to anger response), fixes his hair before he gets caught, lets some couples live and others not–and Malick understands explaining them, or even drawing attention to them, would kill the film.

I’d forgotten three things about Badlands. First, its supreme quality. Second, the use of lighting (I won’t forget to discuss that aspect). Third, Malick’s dialogue. Sheen and Sissy Spacek rarely talk about the events in the film, something they both seem to recognize near the end. They have conversations about everything else, detached from their actions. Malick’s dialogue never seems evasive; it’s perfect.

Before the technical aspects–Spacek. Spacek narrates the film. What Badlands does, what very few other films have ever done (I’m at a loss for examples, the famous narrated films do not apply), is present a first person narrative in the finest sense. The details Malick includes aren’t necessarily filmic, they’re the details Spacek’s character would include. The short shot–and corresponding narration–of her putting on make-up while on the run… it’s one of the finest moments in film. There’s no other narration like Badlands. It puts Malick above as a screenwriter.

The lighting is wondrous. The way Malick uses shadows to establish scenes and to portray movement and action, that technique is special, but Badlands doesn’t have a single ordinary shot. The dance scene, the way the light hits the characters’ faces, the open plains. There’s nothing else like it. The shot of the mountains, where Malick pauses to give the viewer a chance to imagine it, then the shot surpasses. There’s nothing like it.

Malick’s montages are also breathtaking. Whether they’re set to Spacek’s narration or the perfect music.

It’s so hard to talk about Badlands, because it just begs to be watched over and over. I’d forgotten the last shot, for instance, where the film becomes something else entirely.

Or maybe it doesn’t become something else. Maybe in an effort to fill in the blanks, my bewilderment forces me to expect a deeper layer of meaning. It’s entirely possible Badlands is just Giotto’s circle.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Terrence Malick; directors of photography, Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn; edited by Robert Estrin; music by George Aliceson Tipton; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff) and John Carter (Rich Man).


Monument Ave. (1998, Ted Demme)

An utterly depressing Mean Streets knock-off–but beautifully directed by Ted Demme, who manages to make it both derivative and affecting–which might not have much potential, but certainly has the cast for it. Even though Denis Leary is over forty as the guy who wants to get out but they keep pulling him back in–and, honesty, if the film had taken Leary’s age into account, it would have been a lot better–he’s real good. It helps Demme shoots it so well, but the movie’s got a great cast.

Besides Leary–and Billy Crudup, fantastic in a small role–there’s, in particular, Ian Hart and Colm Meaney. Hart’s got the sidekick role. He doesn’t do anything to break out of it, but he inhabits it perfectly. Meaney’s the heavy and he’s great at it, looking like he should be having more fun than he is–but he never lets the character go wild like most heavies in the genre do and the result is a much finer performance. Meaney and Leary are both these exhausted men… one of the other nuances ignored.

There are some mediocre performances, of course, given this one’s a neo-indie film from the late 1990s and everyone has to be a name. Famke Janssen, for example, isn’t entirely bad, but she is completely unbelievable as the neighborhood girl who never could get away. Noah Emmerich, however, is just bad. And Martin Sheen turns in one of his least impressive performances ever.

But John Diehl’s great.

Demme also shoots these wonderful drug use scenes–I suppose, given his death by overdose, it would have been better if he’d shot them poorly–and he really makes Monument Ave. work better than the script deserves. Besides some stylistic flourishes on Demme’s part, as well as the good acting, nothing makes the movie stand out. To some degree, those qualities ought to be enough, but Demme was obviously trying for more… but the script just doesn’t have anything more to give.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; written by Mike Armstrong; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by Todd Kasow; production designer, Ruth Ammon; produced by Joel Stillerman, Demme, Jim Serpico, Adam Doench, Nicolas Clermont and Elie Samaha; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Denis Leary (Bobby), Ian Hart (Mouse), John Diehl (Digger), Jason Barry (Seamus), Noah Emmerich (Red), Billy Crudup (Teddy), Greg Dulli (Shang), Famke Janssen (Katy), Colm Meaney (Jackie O’Hara), Martin Sheen (Hanlon) and Jeanne Tripplehorn (Annie).


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