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I have really stupid ideas sometimes.

Mostly, the part of my brain that values sense and being respected by my peers crushes those ideas dead before they escape and wreak havoc on the world at large. Today, we’ll be witnessing what happens when those defense mechanisms fail and that stupidity ends up on paper, slips through the underworked proofreading part of my brain, and gets thrown haphazardly into the permanence of the Internet.

And so, here is my stupid and overthought theory on why the much-maligned Star Wars prequels are secretly about class warfare and corporate power. It is the dumbest thing on which I have ever expended actual time and effort.

Frankly, if you’re still reading at this point, you deserve it.

Oh, and I’m going to preface this whole thing by saying that it is entirely possible and perhaps likely that George Lucas had no idea whatsoever that he was inserting these themes into the film.

The sad tale of this stupid idea corrupting my overbearing self-importance and pseudointellectualism begins with me watching Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace not too long ago, which is a thing I do sometimes and you can thank you very kindly shut up.

About the most frequent criticism leveled at the prequels — well, after the crappy dialogue and wooden acting and CGI abuse and Jar-Jar Binks and midichlorians and you know what, let’s just call it the seventeenth most frequent criticism — is that it concocts a necessarily complex and far-reaching villainous plot that ultimately makes no sense because nothing is explained. Palpatine uses the events of the prequels to rise to power and become The Emperor. Ultimately, it’s never explained what his plan is — only that everything happened according to it. But it frequently looks more like Lucas coming up with plot material and then arbitrarily making it all a part of that evil scheme somehow without explaining why.

My impossible task today is to make the whole thing approximate a very scary amount of sense.

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Except this. This is still inexplicable.

I’ll begin by taking you back to all of your most favorite repressed memories — Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace.

One issue a lot of people seem to have with this one is the smallness of its scale relative to the other films. It tries to seem huge, but when you push the epic John Williams score from your mind, it’s hard not to find the politics- and business-infused opening crawl a little bit silly. In one sentence, you’re mentioning a trade dispute; in the next, you’re saying that superpowered warriors with glowing energy swords have been sent to resolve it.

The centerpiece of the plot is the villainous Trade Federation, which has blockaded the innocent planet of Naboo because of a trade dispute. The evil Sith are secretly pulling the strings. This is literally all we are told of this situation.

And while the exact details are never explained, a more concrete universe emerges in the subtext. And it is this:

At the time of Star Wars — Episode One, the Galactic Republic is a total economic anarchy.

There are a number of senses in which this appears to be true. Mainly, throughout the Star Wars prequels — particularly the second installment — and also throughout the EU, including Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which I understand is considered to be as canon as the films, we see that the Galactic Republic, despite apparently being considered a beacon of civilization, has itself a pretty severe poverty problem. Like, Third World severe.

We see that Coruscant has an underworld where people live in abject poverty — crime and drug abuse abound, violence is everywhere, murders are generally not investigated or prosecuted unless there’s a high-profile victim, and there’s next to no way out short of incredible luck for those born into it.

See also Naboo, where many of the planet’s citizens are pushed to the brink of starvation after what could not be more than a few weeks of Trade Federation occupation. Recall that the Federation is blockading its ability to trade with other worlds. The implication is that Naboo itself, an entire planet, has a civilian populace that is utterly unable to sustain itself — this despite the fact that it also appears to have a highly privileged upper class. That upper class, by the way, has, over the years, disenfranchised an entire race, the Gungans, who live simple lives out in the wilderness and loathe their human counterparts for the way they’ve treated them.

The main evidence of this, however, is the Trade Federation itself. Let’s start with the fact that it is a private corporation…and it has a standing army. That army is fully capable of occupying an entire planet that is also a represented member of the galaxy’s most powerful governing body. Yeah.

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Pictured: Capability, apparently.

But wait! Let’s talk about that governing body. In the scene when Queen Amidala of Naboo beseeches the Republic for its help in overthrowing the occupation, viewers get a thousand clues about the economically anarchic state this universe inhabits. The one the film makes most important is actually the least of these revelations: that the Republic is controlled by bureaucrats, who effectively stop it from taking any action on important issues (though that’s another piece that fits perfectly into the overall puzzle I’m putting together here).

No. We learn at least two far more significant things. Firstly, what the Trade Federation is doing — occupying an entire planet and imprisoning its citizenry in protest against economic changes (and remember that this is the reason for their protest, as it will become significant later on) — can, under some circumstances, actually be legal in this universe. A committee needs to be sent there to ensure that it is progressing legally.

Oh, and the really important thing. The reason we know any of this is because the Trade Federation, a private corporation and business, has representation in the Galactic Republic. I’m not saying it has lobbyists who own the senators with campaign financing; no, it has actual representatives. The Trade Federation isn’t the only one either — in the second film, we meet former Galactic Republic members representing groups such as the Banking Clan and the Techno Union. Those sure don’t sound like planets to me. (Oh, and the second one of those also has a standing army.)

Now, just to recap, let’s add this all together: in the universe of the Star Wars prequels, corporations have standing armies and direct representation in government, and it is also perfectly legal for them to protest economic decisions they don’t like by blockading planets and stopping trade.

Let’s hone in on that last one there. Why is it that the Trade Federation chooses to blockade Naboo anyway? We’re told that it’s a trade dispute, but we’re not told what it is. So, what happened?

I submit to you the following: Palpatine happened.

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Like a boss.

Now, I’ll confess that I have even less direct evidence of this one. We see nothing in the film to suggest it. But when you consider what must have transpired between the events that we do see, and when we consider what actions would make sense given the motivations of certain characters, this fits too perfectly.

Firstly, what is the trade dispute? I don’t know. But I can guess the nature of it. Beyond the fact that the members of the Trade Federation are clear villains in the most traditional sense — that of the old-timey serials on which this franchise is ostensibly founded — anyone willing to blockade a planet and starve its civilian population to death probably isn’t a champion of the people overly concerned with their welfare. So, it seems pretty natural to assume that whatever got the Trade Federation all hot and bothered probably involved some kind of hit to their bottom line — workers’ rights, safety conditions, increased taxes, whatever. I’m not sure what else it might be.

And who do I think got those trade laws, whatever they are, passed? Palpatine. And while this is never directly shown or suggested in the films, it makes perfect sense.

Firstly, there’s the Trade Federation end of things. One of the first things we learn in the film is that the organization didn’t act entirely of its own accord. There’s someone else pulling the strings. It’s likely the Trade Federation isn’t his servant. I suspect what actually happened was that the figure behind the scenes approached the viceroy and his cohorts, who were angry and at a loss as to what to do over the Republic’s new trade laws, and promised them a well-laid plan to undo it, so long as they did everything he said.

Who is that figure behind the scenes? Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord. Gee, I wonder who he is?

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Subtlety 101: The Sith Lord University equivalent of Bowling for Fitness.

And now, the Republic’s end of things. I’m not sure who would control the trade laws between Republic member worlds other than, you know, the Republic, which is why I’m assuming it’s the source of whatever situation is causing the trade dispute that starts this whole thing. Given that it’s a governing body, the natural assumption drawn from that is that the Republic passed reform.

So, why do I figure Palpatine passed that reform? Well, firstly, it puts him in an excellent position. He hopes to become the ruler of the galaxy. He wants to do that by forcing the current chancellor out and — democratically — taking his place. He then needs the people to support him enough to leave him in the position later to grant himself emergency powers and overstay his terms. The people need to love him. And what better way than to be their champion? We already know he’s a passionate opponent of the Trade Federation, openly leading the fight against it during debates.

And secondly, well…who else could have passed that reform? We know two things about the Republic: Bureaucrats stop it from getting anything done, and corporations are voting members. We can surmise based on this and what we see elsewhere that it is not directly answerable to the people, either. They elect their own rulers, sure, but Star Wars — Episode Two: Attack of the Clones establishes in a throwaway line of dialogue that those rulers are the ones who select the representatives. And of course, we have no way of knowing if those are rules that apply to all members, or if it’s simply the way Naboo does things.

So, how does anybody ever pass reform in an environment where bureaucrats halt legislation, corporations have financial and voting powers, and representatives hold on to their jobs simply by keeping in good standing with their planetary leaders?

Well, I don’t know. You’d pretty much need superpowers or something.

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These are not the tapes you’re looking for.

So, let us not forget that Palpatine is a Sith Lord and one of the most powerful Force users in the galaxy. Not to mention he’s an absolute master of deception — he spends roughly 20 years worth of movies, and probably much longer than that given the point in his career at which the prequels begin, staring mind-reading Jedi Knights directly in the face on a daily basis and never once having any of them figure out that he’s not only the greatest evil in the galaxy but the one that’s directly inhibiting their Force use. This guy is good. Um, at being evil, I mean.

So, another recap: the trade dispute almost certainly stems from legislation passed by the Republic because of the fact that it was the only entity that could reasonably have done so. That legislation is probably mild reform in favor of the common man, because the Trade Federation is almost openly uncaring where the little people are concerned. Palpatine almost certainly passed that legislation because, firstly, it directly benefits him and serves as a great launching pad for his future endeavors, and secondly, he was pretty much the only person even capable of doing so. And the Trade Federation blockades Naboo — how better to punish the government for taking a swipe at your bottom line than targeting the home planet of the guy who got it to do that?

Of course, we all know how that ends. The Jedi Knights — and Anakin Skywalker specifically — save the day. The Trade Federation control ship is destroyed. Its leaders are shipped off to face trial. Naboo is free. And Palpatine becomes Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic.

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Sweeping the coveted E.T. and Obese Muppet Dinosaur demographics.

Fast-forward ten years.

Now, we’re in Star Wars — Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The situation here is that a significant portion of the Republic has separated from it, and there now exists a threat of war between the two parties.

Palpatine has one primary goal here, and oddly, it’s not the war. A major theme of the prequels is the way that he uses large events to achieve — and potentially disguise — seemingly small ends that, in turn, lead to other large events. The war, here, is a tool for him to obtain two things — emergency powers, so he can stay in control indefinitely, and a skilled but programmable army that he can use to enforce that control later — oh, and also to kill the Jedi, the principal threat to that control, without even questioning the order.

So, he needs a war. How does he get it?

Another major criticism of the prequels emerges here — there is absolutely no context provided for this war. After all, while the Star Wars films have never been deep or overly complex about these things, the original trilogy at least gave us the Death Star blowing up Alderaaan as good, strong evidence of why there’s an active rebellion against this government.

Here? All they tell us is that some people separated from the Republic for some reason, and now, they’re on the verge of making war against it for some reason. What lazy writing, right? (I mean, it probably is, but still. I am reading far too deeply into all of this, I know.)

Well, dear reader, I suggest that the reason for the war is readily apparent given one observation: the membership of the Confederacy of Independent Systems.

So, we’ve got…let’s see here…the Trade Federation, the Banking Clan, the Techno Union, and assorted planets. But nearly all of the main figures we see represent corporations. And those who represent planets still seem to have pertinent corporate interests — for example, Geonosis, which we see is running a fairly significant operation manufacturing weapons.

That the Trade Federation is here is especially significant, in that we already, based on this logic, have an excellent idea of what it is they want for the galaxy — less, read: no, corporate restrictions, a free market bordering on complete anarchy. Okay, they also want revenge on the former Queen Amidala, but there’s no way they’re motivating their stockholders with that.

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Not true! We have significant investment in Iron Maidens!

That half of their cohorts are also planet-sized corporations lends additional credence to this theory. They are not the exception in the CIS; they are the rule.

One Jedi calls Count Dooku, the former Jedi and secret Sith Lord manipulating the CIS, “a political idealist.” I wonder what his politics are?

At this point, I don’t consider it a stretch to say he’s probably whatever the Star Wars universe’s equivalent of an objectivist is.

So, we have Count Dooku, probably some objectivist equivalent, leading a group that has likely separated from the Republic due to the desire for a freer market.

But they wouldn’t just leave, of course. Things would have to have gotten more dramatic in order to prompt so potent a response as secession and war. How did they get more dramatic?

Palpatine came to power.

Remember my suspicion that he obtained his position by being a champion of the people, standing up for their wants and needs. Maybe he argued for workers’ rights, benefits, better pay, etc. We don’t know. But it would make sense for him to do so. It fits well into his overall goal for the war he’s stoking. And it’s also about the only way to explain how he got the transparently greedy Trade Federation so riled up.

The event that instigated the blockade of The Phantom Menace was likely a small one. Here, the time frame — ten years — is significant. It’s time enough for Palpatine to come to power and change things substantially.

And it fits. The politicians get a much better portrayal this time around, with future adoptive father of Princess Leia, Bail Organa, getting some prominent screen-time. There’s much less evidence of corruption and far more evidence of efficiency — sometimes to a fault, given how quickly Jar-Jar’s emergency powers proposition gets rushed through. We also see the Republic and the Jedi Order working together far more often and apparently to some significant effect. The fact that the Jedi Order is even open to the idea of going to war on the Republic’s behalf is proof enough of that.

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You will know his name is the Lord.

Granted, there’s still poverty. We see some evidence of it in the aftermath of the speeder chase, as well as throughout the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV show. But it takes time to eradicate.

My thinking is that, in those ten years, Palpatine took the Republic from a borderline economic anarchy into a society that’s still very laissez faire economically but represents far more upward mobility for the lower classes than there was before.

This makes some sense. He wouldn’t want the government to be too much of the people; after all, he’s planning to turn it into an iron-fisted dictatorship as soon as he gets the opportunity. You don’t want to give the people too strong a taste of that sweet freedom; otherwise, they’re more likely to resist when you take it away. But he still needs to look like he’s standing up for the people. This represents a convenient middle ground — being public in his efforts to reform things, but letting the system grind them to a halt here and there, or at least delay or compromise them.

Either way, it’s clear that Palpatine has changed the galaxy substantially over those ten years — enough that he chased off the major corporations and got them ready to make war. And once he gets that war, it’s basically all over.

The best part of this whole thing is that it actually causes Palpatine’s plan to make…a lot of sense, to be honest.

Endgame: Take over the galaxy. In his first step, he becomes a senator on a Galactic Republic member world. It probably didn’t even matter which one; any would do, with the proper planning. That makes the first step comparatively easy, particularly for a Sith Lord and master deceiver.

Step Two: Become chancellor. He starts by playing this game very long-term. He sticks up for the people, supports agendas that favor them, and becomes very popular and well liked as a result. Now, it’s time to start playing the sides against each other. He brings forth legislation that will help the people, at the expense of the corporations. Those corporations are corrupt and have standing armies and representation; he can use that. Because he is, again, a Sith Lord and master deceiver, he’s able to get that legislation past the bureaucrats and lobbyists when pretty much no one else could have. The corporations are all up in arms about it — literally. As Darth Sidious, he approaches a particularly corrupt one, the Trade Federation, with a plan — a plan that involves having them blockade his own planet, the world he represents. Now, he can truly play both sides. The Trade Federation doesn’t know it, but every step of the way, he’s guiding them toward defeat. But he gives them victories — he needs to drive the queen to desperation. He ensures she gets to Coruscant, where she sees the mess that the Republic is. She’s a determined and morally courageous sort, so he knows she’ll take his advice when he suggests she call for a vote of no confidence in the current chancellor. He knows that just as much as he knows that he’s popular, and emerging as a public hero in the Trade Federation situation. His popularity will secure him a nomination as chancellor. Permanently resolving the Naboo situation will guarantee his election. So, he does just that. He guides the Trade Federation to defeat. However, he knows he’ll need the Trade Federation and its army later, so he secretly ensures that its leaders don’t face any real consequences as a result of their trial — as we’re told they didn’t in the second movie.

Step Three: Start a war. He’s already been laying the groundwork. We don’t know when he got his claws into Count Dooku, but given the relationship he later forms with Anakin, we can suspect it began long before Dooku turned Sith. Through Dooku, he gets access to the Jedi archives, orders and army, and erases all the evidence. Palpatine is also working out the details of the war’s outcome at this point. He knows he can’t let the CIS go on the offensive. If they beat the Republic, that will ruin his moves toward galactic domination. He could still do so through the CIS as Darth Sidious, but it would be more difficult. Such a transition of power would take a long time to negotiate, and he wouldn’t be able to simply emerge as the new leader without scaring everyone away. Likely, he would have to climb the ladder again. So, he knows he has to have an army at around the same time he’s fully angered the CIS.

To facilitate this end, he orders the army straight away, has it developed in secret, and begins the process of democratic reform. Corporations and planets with deeply rooted corporate interests begin to push back. Things get worse; they finally get motivated to leave. He uses Count Dooku to fan those flames — after all, secession and war are probably not good for corporations with interests across an entire galaxy, so they wouldn’t merely be content to separate and do their own thing. They would need the war to protect their own interests. Dooku begins to lead them — but passively, keeping the Republic from leaping but enticing them with the threat. Once the army shows up, it will be hard for the Republic to say no — the money’s been spent, and it’s arrived in the wake of a great threat. Palpatine knows this. He uses it.

After ten years, the pieces are in place. He’s changed the galaxy. The corporations are angry, and they’re fighting him on it. Dooku encourages them to go to war. Palpatine/Sidious works behind the scenes. He gets his army. He incorporates it into the Jedi Order. It’s perfectly positioned when the time comes to rid himself of that threat to his power.

All made possible, according to my insane theory, because of economic conflict.

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Sweet, sweet economic conflict.

I really wish I could explore this theory further, but it basically disappears after the second movie. Revenge of the Sith is essentially a Part 2 on Attack of the Clones; the latter creates the situation, and the former follows through on what it does to the characters. And the original trilogy keeps it simple and straightforward, mainly staying away from these gestures at complexity. Funny how such a simple movie can feel so much deeper and more lived-in than these sometimes overcomplicated prequels.

In any case, this has been another episode of Matt Reading Too Deeply Into Things. Tune in next week when I review literally anything, seriously.

…Oh my gosh, I actually just wrote seven Word pages hyperanalyzing the freaking Star Wars prequels what is my life.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Starring- Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz

Director- James Bobin

PG- some mild action

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQiGyBiNjLI

With Muppet movies, it’s never a question of how good the story is or how much thematic consistency it has. It’s only ever: “Are the songs good, and is it funny?”

In the case of Muppets Most Wanted, the answer to both questions is: “Mostly.” For me, that’s all that matters. This is probably the most “meta” franchise ever, so it’s not important to me that the plot is generally an afterthought.

This time, the songs-and-comedy excuse involves the Muppets, fresh off getting back together in the last movie (making this, to my memory, the first Muppet movie to exist in the same continuity as another Muppet movie), deciding to embark on a world tour on the advice of their new manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). What they don’t know is that Badguy (pronounced BAD-jee; it’s French) is in cahoots with the world’s most-wanted criminal — Constantine, who happens to bear a striking resemblance to the Muppets’ own Kermit the Frog. The two of them are planning to steal the crown jewels (aren’t they always?) and frame the Muppets for the crime.

So, Constantine swaps places with Kermit and joins the Muppet gang. Meanwhile, Kermit, mistaken for Constantine, winds up in a Russian gulag.

Both the best and worst thing about Muppets Most Wanted is that it’s a Muppet movie, through and through. If you’ve seen those and liked them, you’ll like it, too. If they’ve never been your cup of tea, this movie is unlikely to change that.

I love it because I’m starting to find the concept of the “modern update” a bit tiresome. I don’t think it’s the wrong thing to do, necessarily; on the contrary, intelligent modern updates of old properties have proven, in many instances, to be quite interesting. But it’s also the sort of thing we’re starting to do arbitrarily. In the current climate, a modern-day Muppet movie could easily have been mania and fart jokes. Instead, the filmmakers, who clearly enjoy the characters and the movies in which they’ve appeared, are proving the timelessness of Jim Henson’s creations. The characters all act the way they’re supposed to. The humor is a mixture of broad but relatively gentle slapstick and silliness for the kids and the occasional clever (but never crude) joke for the adults. The story is rarely taken all that seriously, and the film constantly makes jokes at its own expense. The fourth wall gets leaned on. The songs run the gamut from the goofy to the fun and catchy to the heartfelt. There’s an endless parade of celebrity cameos on display. It’s everything you’d want it to be.

It’s also everything you expect it to be — which is fine. It’s just that it isn’t a lot more than that. That’s been true of these movies for a while now. They all have different stories and try the characters out in different types of roles, but historically, there hasn’t been a lot of deviation in the tone or style (even, to some extent, during the phase where they started putting the Muppets in literary adaptations). There’s a part of me that says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That part of me isn’t entirely wrong. At the same time, there’s something to be said for being surprised. Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t offer a lot of surprises. And it becomes a bit frustrating to watch these movies have the same flaws over and over again.

The main one is that even though these movies have never taken their bare-bones stories all that seriously, they still try to milk some pathos out of them, with mixed success. With all the absurdity, fourth-wall humor, and the repeated implication (and sometimes more than that) that these are movies the Muppets are making rather than experiences they’re actually having, part of me would rather these movies didn’t focus on story at all. Figure out your setup, and move forward with your songs and spectacles and comedy. Work on finding a consistent energy. Just do whatever.

To date, my favorite in the series is still the oldest — The Muppet Movie. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the movie that understood this concept the best. It started with the simple premise of Kermit going to Hollywood to become a star. Along the way, he met the other Muppets, who joined up with him. They sang songs, visited different locations, and told jokes. There was a villain pursuing them to make sure the whole thing was connected somehow, but mostly, it didn’t have a story. I think the Muppets work best in that zone.

The other thing it understood — seemingly better than a lot of subsequent films, including the 2011 reboot to which Muppets Most Wanted is a sequel — is that this is a Muppet movie. We’re here to see Muppets. There can be people in them, but we mostly want them to be the funny, self-deprecating cameos and maybe a small supporting role or two. Muppets Most Wanted just plain has too many human characters shoehorned into the chaos — maybe not as many as its predecessor, but still more than I’d advise. Those human characters also occupy more of the musical numbers than you’d expect, and almost universally, those are the most awkward and out-of-place songs in the movie.

I’m not here to tear Muppets Most Wanted down a peg, though. If it’s not going to blaze new trails, at least it’s sticking to the warmly familiar one worn down by its predecessors. It’s charming, innocent, and totally unashamed of being a movie for children. If anything, it takes pride in the fact, and I applaud it for that. There’s real magic in the way a movie like this can take root in childhood and grow into something that’s truly important to a new generation. I don’t know why every storyteller wouldn’t aspire to that at least once. And Muppets Most Wanted isn’t the sort of kids’ movie that’s dumb or pandering. It goes to them with the promise of imagination, creativity, music, and fun — again, very much like its predecessors.

I’m also slowly coming to appreciate director James Bobin’s contribution to the new Muppet movies. His approach isn’t perfect — the movie is particularly awkward and jumpy when it comes time to establish a location — but he’s found a lot of creative ways to shoot this like a, quote unquote, “real movie” rather than a TV show. There’s a lot more freedom in the way the camera moves and the shots he uses than what you see in past Muppet movies. He also does a lot to really bring out the colors in the characters, the textures in the sets, and the overall atmosphere of the film. Both of these rank among the better-looking Muppet movies.

It’s quality family entertainment, and for all its flaws, I can’t really complain about that. When all is said and done, it’s a lot of fun.

-Matt T.

ANNOUNCEMENT: For those of you who want to follow my filmgoing in even more detail, I am now on Letterboxd. Feel free to follow me if you have a profile, and I may follow you as well. I still don’t really know how to use the site to its fullest potential yet, but I’m hoping to incorporate a few new things into it. Hope to see you there!

Night Moves (2014)

Starring- Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller, Kai Lennox, Katherine Waterston

Director- Kelly Reichardt

R- some language and nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7-VqKLYZks

Night Moves doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but as politically charged, slow-burn indie thrillers go, it isn’t half bad.

It focuses on two radical environmentalists — Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a resident of a farming commune, and Dena (Dakota Fanning), a jaded rich kid — who decide to make the ultimate statement by hiring ex-Marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to blow up a hydroelectric dam that’s killed off the local salmon population. The first half shows them laying their plans. The second half details the consequences of what they’ve done.

Night Moves strikes me as minor Jeff Nichols. I don’t like it nearly as much as anything he’s done, but the approach is similar, and once things start to fall in place, it proves effective. It moves slowly and derives the majority of its thrust stems from its rich and heavy atmosphere. From the beginning, it’s a cold and gray film, one that specializes in an ever-increasing sense of impending and inescapable doom. It’s one that happens around the characters rather than to them, an ominous figure that looms in the distance, invisible to them but plain to the audience. The tone of the film is a visual and auditory manifestation of the voice inside the viewer’s mind, screaming for the characters not to go through with what they’ve planned.

The first half of the film is something like a dark, weighty heist movie, one that patiently watches the characters as they prepare for the event. It draws some tension from the threat that they might be caught but far more from the probability that they will succeed — too little stands in the way, and no one is in the position to see it coming. You fear their success not because you dislike them but because you understand them — you know they don’t really mean any harm but that they can’t possibly accomplish this as smoothly as they believe they will. They will accomplish it, almost undoubtedly. But they haven’t thought nearly long enough about the possibility of collateral damage.

Like a lot of movies made in this style, it drops you right in the middle of things rather than establishing a complete situation. You meet the characters fully formed, and you don’t get to know an awful lot about them — namely, why it is that they feel so strongly about this issue. But gradually, the film develops their psychologies, partly through the writing but mainly through closely managed performances — the ones that require even a mere sideways glance to be ripe with meaning. Though the film asks all of them to underplay things a little — perhaps too much — the cast is mostly up to the task.

The second half of the film ratchets up the sense of disaster and introduces, for the first time (in concrete terms, anyway), the possibility that the protagonists are not as smart as they think they are and truly haven’t considered everything that might happen. It seems, lately, that our storytellers are fascinated with the consequences of immoral actions — even those that are very well intended — and that’s the direction Night Moves goes as well. The characters slowly realize the breadth of what they’ve done and, subsequently, the very real risk that they’ve exposed themselves and the people they love to danger. It’s easier to do it than it is to get away with it, ultimately. They soon find that things are far out of control and that there’s no easy fix — no easy fix that doesn’t require them to face the music, anyway. The group fractures, and the conflicts that were teased early on take center stage.

I think the film’s wisest move is in choosing not to be heavy-handed or judgmental about anything. It takes its characters and their motivations seriously. Even serious looks at environmentalism, such as The East, have a tendency to lapse into stereotypes and unintentional mockery — the stupid hippies who smoke pot and live in some strange cult-like environment complete with absurd rituals. The protagonists of Night Moves are fairly ordinary people, and they’re concerned about very real problems. The film is quite clear on the fact that they do have a point — their problem is how they’ve reacted to it. They’re shown to have an affinity with nature, but it’s not an excessive thing — they don’t seem to be all that opposed to killing animals, so long as you’re not driving them to extinction, and their concerns, first and foremost, seem to be what environmental damage will eventually do to the human race. They’re not crazy. They’re angry kids who haven’t though about this hard enough and are reacting on instinct, emotion, and even the youthful need to make a mark. The movie doesn’t mock them or lock them in any sort of box. It allows them to be half-right and to make their plans, if not appealing, then at least understandable.

I think the film would be considerably more interesting if that’s where it directed the majority of its focus — that conflict of worldviews, how to affect extraordinary change that truly can’t wait much longer to happen in a society that has its head buried in the sand. I think that would be better than another consequences-of-actions movie.

It’s good at being what it is, but we don’t have any particular shortage of that these days. I would’ve liked to see Night Moves blaze its own trails and strike at something more relevant — or at least, more un-trod territory. But taken on its own, it’s hypnotic, stirring, and largely worthwhile.

-Matt T.

Need for Speed (2014)

Starring- Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson, Dakota Johnson, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Michael Keaton

Director- Scott Waugh

PG-13- sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e73J71RZRn8

Okay, Hollywood. It’s clear you need my help on this one, so I’ve invested hours in creating a detailed plan for crafting a good video game adaptation. Get your note-taking pencils ready:

Step 1: Find a video game that would actually make a good movie.

Step 2: Write a good script.

Step 3: Hire a good director.

Step 4: Profit.

Seriously, I live in 2014. We’ve made good movies out of comic books about talking raccoons, forgotten 80s TV shows about undercover cops in high school, and plastic brick people that children play with. How is it at all possible that we have not had one single, solitary video game movie that was any good? I’m not much of a gamer, but I’m familiar with plenty of them by reputation: Mass Effect. Shadow of the Colossus. Halo. Games with an actual premise and even actual characters, inhabiting a universe you could actually tell stories about.

But instead, we’ve got a feature-length adaptation of a plotless and character-free game where you race cars. Sigh.

So, here’s Need for Speed. It didn’t really need to be based on anything, because it’s not like there’s a copyright on street racing. It’s about Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), a prodigious racer who now makes a living fixing cars — and street racing by night. When an old rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), offers him half a million dollars to fix up a rare classic for sale, Tobey reluctantly accepts. That decision soon leads to tragedy, however, and Tobey finds himself framed for manslaughter that Dino committed. When Tobey gets out of prison, he joins a cross-country race in the hopes of getting on the track with Dino — and taking his revenge.

So, the filmmakers did most of this for real. That’s about the only thing I appreciate about Need for Speed, so I might as well start there. There’s nary an ounce of CGI in this movie, and given how incredibly ridiculous it gets sometimes, that’s an impressive feat. They took actual cars onto actual roads and found ways to actually make them crash horribly and flip end over end off of each other and into cliffs and hills and such. It goes a long way that you believe absolutely everything you see while you’re watching.

But one good idea does not a worthwhile film make, and mostly, Need for Speed is just boring. I’ve only ever seen bits and pieces of the Fast & Furious films (that’s why I haven’t been reviewing those, by the way — there’s a lot of movies to catch up on, and regardless of how interconnected they may or may not be, I don’t like to review something if it has predecessors I haven’t seen), and it’s clear why those are suddenly catching on — they’re big and goofy and joyful and totally unironic about all of this.

Need for Speed isn’t quite as self-serious as its inexplicably arty trailers, but it’s still a pretty grim and emotionally self-important piece of work. Just when I thought we were getting over our recent resurgence of generically brooding 90s-style antiheroes, we get Tobey Marshall — a guy whose personality mainly consists of being quiet and angry all the time. He’s not even angry in a grounded, character sense, where at least it affects other aspects of his life and has real consequences in his attitudes and actions. It just allows him to be intense, bro.

The film is weirdly earnest about its desire to take Tobey through an actual character arc, and to be fair to it, the basic structure is there, somewhere, but it’s all payoff and no setup. I know where he ends up, but I can only conjure up small, undefined explanations for how he got there.

Not that it really matters, anyway; Need for Speed exists so far outside of any type of reasonable morality that it’s impossible to take any philosophical elements it applies to the plot with any degree of seriousness. If I were asked to write this, I would probably have given it the subtitle Reckless Endangerment (which is why I was not asked to write this — outside of having no screenwriting credentials, I mean). The heroes and villains are separated somewhat arbitrarily. We dislike Dino because he intentionally endangers people, wrecks their cars, and doesn’t go back to help them. We like Tobey because he accidentally does those things. I learned two things from this movie: It is impossible to die in a car accident if fire is not involved, so you don’t need to concern yourself with those people; and it is only important to go back for wrecked drivers when they are people you know (nevertheless, if other people who don’t really know them fail to go back, this constitutes justifiable grounds for an extensive revenge quest). When Tobey went to jail in the beginning, I’m pretty sure I was supposed to think, “Aw, poor Tobey went to jail.” My only reaction was: “Aw, Dino should’ve gone to jail, too.” Seriously, Tobey Marshall is an actual threat to society, and he needs to be behind bars. Whatever morality the film tries to apply to the situation, Tobey is still a guy who repeatedly almost kills other people for money and cheap thrills. That Dino is the only one who actually does rack up a body count does not an evil counterpart make. (Dino being kind of a jerk doesn’t count either, because Tobey is standoffish with everyone except his friends and is captain of the childish He-Man Woman-Haters Club they all seem to belong to.)

Basically, you’ve got some good-looking (but not always well directed) vehicle wrecks and the occasional moment that’s enjoyably absurd. (It doesn’t belong in a movie this serious, but the scene with the bounty hunters that abruptly turns the whole thing into a Mad Max movie is a riot.) That’s going to be enough for some people. Everyone else ought to find something better to do with those two hours.

-Matt T.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Starring- Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright, Silmane Dazi

Director- Jim Jarmusch

R- language and brief nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycOKvWrwYFo

I wonder if it ever starts to look like a lack of self-confidence that I always say that I just didn’t get it when it comes to widely-acclaimed films that do absolutely nothing whatsoever for me. Is it bias even to say that? I mean, I’m implying that it’s a good movie I just wasn’t into solely because other people, most of them smart, liked it a lot. This right here is why I have so much respect for the importance of the individual lens in interpreting art.

So, yeah, whether it’s a bad movie or I just didn’t get it, Only Lovers Left Alive didn’t do a thing for me.

It follows married couple Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), a pair of centuries-old vampires making their way through the modern world.

For two hours, they do things.

I don’t want to sound flippant, but it’s impossible to summarize the plot of this movie any other way, because, frankly, there really isn’t one. And that’s not an accident, so by my own philosophy — never criticize something for what it is but for how it is that — I can’t call that an inherently bad thing. I can’t beat it up for having no particular storyline — and I’ve seen films like that before, so it’s not like there isn’t a right way to do it — so, instead, I have to ask what it wants to be. And I have no real answer to that question.

It’s not a character study. It’s not supposed to be tense or exciting. It’s loaded with atmosphere, but I don’t think it’s the right kind. It’s almost a comedy, kind of, in a sense that’s so imperceptible it has almost no effect on anything. It’s almost a musical showcase, in that there’s lots of music, but most of it’s in the background, and frankly, it’s not very good anyway.

To be fair, I think there’s a part of me that at least suspected that this wasn’t going to be my thing, given that I have only a limited affinity for vampires, hangout movies, or prolonged reference-fests. Simultaneously, the setup seemed weird enough that I thought it might play well for me in an unexpected way — after all, in theory, excessively violent crime films with a darkly comic tone aren’t really my thing either, and yet Fargo is one of my favorite movies of all time. But Only Lovers Left Alive just came across cold.

I don’t personally think it works, but that’s only because the pieces don’t get connected. There’s enough here that borders on greatness that I spent maybe the first hour of this movie waiting for it to take off. Mainly, that’s the characters and performances; Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are both absolutely perfect. Neither is playing radically against type, but these characters are still fresh enough to test them.

Adam is a pretentious, depressed loner. He’s a musician and multi-instrumentalist (the kind one only becomes through being centuries old) and spends all of his days writing songs that consist mainly of ethereal droning. (For all that the movie makes of Adam’s talent and artistic superiority to the culture at large, I don’t think he’s actually that good; his sound is different and interesting for a couple of tracks, but every last one of his songs is almost exactly the same, and it’s hard not to be sick of it by the end.) He’s a recluse, holed up partly because he’s a vampire but mainly because he has a deep-seated allergy to the idea of fame. He looks upon the world with disdain — he refers to humans as “zombies,” and his disgust for what they’ve done to the world and particularly the arts may or may not have rendered him suicidal. It’s hard to tell what is and is not an act with him.

Eve, on the other hand, has a more optimistic view of the present and the future and is constantly seeking out new experiences. It’s measured enough — she seems to generally agree with Adam’s view of the world, if not his reaction to it — but she finds a way to pass through the muck.

But Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t really even present itself as a conflict between their worldviews. As such, it becomes two hours of listening to pretentious people complaining about how inferior everyone else is, and it’s really hard to tell how much you’re supposed to agree with them. I’ll be the first to concede that the world has problems, culturally and otherwise, but good criticism always comes from a place of honesty, humility, and an ability to look at oneself critically. You’re a part of this world, so you’re a part of its climate, however small a part that may be. In what sense are you part of the problem? In what sense are you part of the solution? Hint: Being a part of the problem, for most people, requires nothing more than not being a part of the solution. That’s what Adam and, honestly, to a lesser extent, Eve don’t get. They just meander through life and whine about everything. In the meantime, they’re not doing anything to fix it, and they also feel as though they are totally beyond reproach on all of these questions. Eve’s worldview is the most positive, but even it doesn’t amount to much of anything beyond being totally blasé about all the insanity and simply searching for the things that fall through the cracks.

None of that is anything I’m pulling from the text of the film. Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t seem to engage with any of that. It doesn’t seem to engage with much of anything. The characters go places and do things, and as far as I can tell, nobody learns or grows in any meaningful sense. If the movie’s point is that the everyday problems of vampires would probably be as boring as the everyday problems of humans, I suppose it’s a resounding success.

Clearly, other people are seeing something that I’m not. For my part, Only Lovers Left Alive felt like a really long movie, going nowhere and doing nothing. If you like hanging out with self-important teenagers, you’ll probably love it, though.

-Matt T.

Locke (2014)

Starring- Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner
Director- Steven Knight
R- language throughout
I feel like lightning only strikes so many times, so given that 2013 was a noticeably better-than-average year for movies, I keep waiting for the productions of 2014 to start letting me down hard. But right now, 2014 is on track to blow the previous year out of the water.And it continues with Locke.

It was fortuitous that I was able to see this film so shortly after my viewing of Boyhood; they’re both highly experimental, pushing against the boundaries of how we make movies, but their challenges take them in completely the opposite direction. With Boyhood, Richard Linklater embarked on an enormous, 12-year production process and came out of it with a three-hour epic about modern adolescence that’s almost global in its scope. With Locke, on the other hand, we have an ordinary production, a short film, and only minimal resources from a storytelling perspective.

It follows Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), who has just made an important decision about his life going forward. He gets in his car and starts driving, following up on that choice. Meanwhile, he deals with the consequences of what he’s done.

To have been a fly on the wall when this movie was pitched. At some point, someone must have said, “Well, it’s a movie where Tom Hardy drives a car and talks on a cell phone. And that’s it.” And someone actually greenlit that proposal.

Whatever the process, I’m glad it happened the way it did, because Locke is a fascinating exercise in cinematic minimalism. I’m really not exaggerating a word of what I just told you — Locke is a movie where Tom Hardy drives a car and talks on a cell phone. That’s it. Absolutely nothing else occurs in this film. No other characters appear; we only hear their voices on the other end. The camera does not leave the car. The story plays out almost in real time — it’s a brisk 90 minutes, and Ivan Locke’s journey takes about that long.

What the film manages to do with those elements is absolutely mind-boggling. Locke reminds me of Gravity in that it’s restricted to just this space and only has this character, and the voices of four or five others, to convey everything it needs to in order to invest you in the story it’s telling. That’s the kind of task that terrifies a writer (I know it terrifies me), but Locke somehow makes the most of all of that. Ivan Locke’s decision impacts both his family and career, and although we never get to see him at work and never get to see him at home with his wife and teenage sons, the movie manages to make clear what both mean to him not just in a broad sense but specifically, in a manner that’s both distinct and detailed. The weight of what he’s choosing to do and the upending effect it will have on Locke’s life is evident throughout, as the pieces begin to fall into place. You know exactly the hole losing those things will leave in Locke’s life — even as you understand why he’s choosing to put them up on the chopping block in the first place.

The decision he’s made — necessitated by a mistake in his recent past — is one I won’t spoil for you, though it becomes clear somewhat early on. Really, you should go into Locke as blind as possible. I will say, however, that contrary to what you might think based on the trailers, Locke doesn’t take the easy way out. Keeping the film restricted to the car would be a novel and challenging decision under any circumstance, but it would be easier dramatically to make the stakes as high as possible: Ivan Locke is a secret agent! Ivan Locke killed someone! Ivan Locke unraveled a government conspiracy, and now, everyone’s after him!

Locke is constantly challenging itself. Instead of going this route, it ensures that all of the problems that its protagonist faces are relatively ordinary — from his job circumstances to his family relationship to the mistake he made in the past to the decision he’s making as the film opens. He’s a construction manager, and let me tell you — you will care about the minutia of concrete pours by the time this movie is over. That’s the power of ensuring that you define a character’s relationship with something — regardless of how much it matters to you or whether you even know anything about it, you will respond when it’s made real and pertinent.

It feels like the third act of a movie we haven’t seen — though Locke very quickly makes it feel as though you have. All of the important decisions have already been made. Locke focuses on the fallout. In 90 minutes, Ivan Locke’s misdeeds unravel his life in real time, right before your eyes. The film lives in the consequences he thinks he’s too rational to face. He thinks there’s an easy and logical version of this story where he issues the appropriate apologies, finds forgiveness, and moves on one way or another. He isn’t blind enough to think that there won’t be problems, some of them long-term, but he believes there’s a happy ending that there simply can’t be.

To some extent, the movie is also focused on how to handle ourselves when we have made mistakes. You have to allow everyone else’s response to be human. You can’t hold them to a higher standard than you hold yourself. You have to give them time to think. You have to give them room to grieve. You have to allow them to hurt. You have to understand that it will be charity on their part if they forgive you and especially if they let you return to your former status. You have to know that you are not owed a reasonable, measured, and ultimately forgiving response. Ivan Locke doesn’t know this. So, as he drives into the night, he makes all of the wrong choices. And thus does the web further entangle.

But he’s not despicable. The film asks you to empathize with him and allows you to understand the way his mind works and why he’s so unshakably convinced that what he’s doing is the right thing. You could even argue that it is the right thing, at least partially — it’s his stubbornness and the way he handles all of the surrounding problems that leave him at fault. There’s something recognizable and, thus, instructive in his behavior.

Of course, none of this would work without our man in the lead role, Tom Hardy, who is without error in his efforts to create this character largely through mannerism and expression. He only gets so much to work with, so the fact that Locke ends up being a full and complete character has to be considered at least half his doing. Hardy takes Locke through an incredibly visible emotional arc during each of his many conversations, but he’s never showboating. He makes Locke someone you recognize as a real person, someone whose actions make a certain amount of sense within the confines of the world we live in. I really don’t know how Hardy hasn’t found his way into particularly widespread acclaim outside of more deeply involved circles, but I certainly hope that time is coming soon.

There are parts of me that recoil from Locke a bit, thinking that elements of it test the realm of plausibility, especially since the whole thing hinges on a fairly significant coincidence. There are also times when the movie’s efforts at remaining cinematic (in a visual sense of the word) showed signs of strain for me.

But outside of that, Locke is a remarkably gripping film about things one doesn’t ordinarily think of as gripping. It sucks you in and holds you at attention, not with intrigue, conspiracy, and impending doom but with construction planning and family matters. It’s all about the character at its center, and he — and the actor playing him — are both top-notch. Locke does incredible things that aren’t quickly reminiscent of any acclaimed film before it and carves out quite the unique niche for itself. We’ll see more films like this, I hope — ones that test what’s possible. In the meantime, I’m grateful for Locke.

 

   -Matt T.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Starring- Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, Embeth Davidtz, Campbell Scott, Marton Csokas

Director- Marc Webb

PG-13- sequences of sci-fi action/violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbp3Ra3Yp74

I didn’t really expect that a middling Spider-Man reboot sequel would leave me as confounded as this, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a confounding movie.

I’ll start with what I know: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 definitely isn’t a good movie. I don’t think it’s the same thing to be enjoyable and to be good, not that they’re mutually exclusive concepts. For me to say that a movie is good, it has to be planned and executed in such a way that I can see the careful hands of the filmmakers at work, structuring everything into a cohesive whole. That doesn’t mean there aren’t flaws; there invariably are. But the skill of those involved is totally undeniable. I’m also not the type of person who reserves “goodness” solely for art movies and considers blockbusters merely dumbly enjoyable. For example, I’ll happily defend Guardians of the Galaxy as a good movie. It’s very, very goofy, but it knows what it wants to deliver and is careful and precise in the way that it carries out that goal.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is bad. It’s such a huge mess on nearly every level — especially its script, which is one of the worst I’ve seen this year — that I simply cannot award it a passing grade.

But is it enjoyable? Well, um…maybe? Kind of? A little? It’s not one of those movies that’s enjoyable because it’s bad. It’s more that it’s enjoyable despite being bad. I don’t even know that I want to give it that much, though. To be fair, there are some things The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does really well, and it’s pretty efficient at faking it when it comes to the stuff it doesn’t. At the same time, for a lot of reasons, I don’t really trust my immediate reaction to it. This is the sort of movie that wasn’t a painful first watch but that seems like it would be really tedious on a second viewing. So, I have to account for the mild amounts of fun I had here and there on the first viewing while attempting to forward-project my feelings onto hypothetical future viewings (that I am unlikely to ever undergo) in order to arrive at some sort of personal consensus about the film itself.

You can see why this is a touch confounding.

This time around, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is still enjoying the heck out of being Spider-Man — and life in general, really. He’s graduating from high school, he’s got a good relationship with his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and he’s restarting an old friendship with Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), the son of OSCORP’s CEO.

Then, a lab accident gone (seriously, ridiculously, unbelievably, almost comically wrong) grants superpowers to Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a lonely, unnoticed, slightly unhinged OSCORP tech guy. He becomes Electro and sets out to take vengeance on the people who scorned him.

And Harry discovers he’s dying of a genetic disease, for which the only cure is Spider-Man’s blood.

And Harry’s corporate partners turn on him after he inherits his father’s position and launch a scheme against him, tracking his movements and trying to frame him for their own unrelated misdeeds.

And Peter decides to return to trying to figure out what happened to his parents and starts to unravel a far-reaching international conspiracy.

And Aunt May (Sally Field) is having issues keeping the family financially stable without Uncle Ben around, and she’s also dealing with the specific nature of her relationship to Peter.

And there’s a Russian gangster who calls himself the Rhino (Paul Giamatti) and shows up to fight Spider-Man sometimes.

And Gwen is getting tired of Peter trying to control her life because of the promise he made to her late father to keep her away from the dangers inherent in his superheroics. She’s also up for a scholarship to attend Oxford, which is a separate source of friction in the relationship.

And stuff and people and things and…just everything, really. Everything happens in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and none of it means a thing. This is some of the worst structural writing I’ve seen this side of a Transformers movie. Good storytelling is a sequence of cause and effect: “This happened, therefore this happened, and because this happened, now that is happening.” This movie is just a kid going, “And then and then and then and then and then…”

Very little in this movie has anything to do with anything else in this movie. Point to any character other than Peter, Gwen and maybe Harry, and you’ve got a character who could be deleted from the film entirely. Only a lame and somewhat obligatory team-up plot attaches the multitude of villains, and even that comes late in the game.

The same goes for the subplots, each of which has its own tone and style. Peter and Gwen are living in some small, stripped-down, and largely realistic relationship film, while the villains are all living in a cartoon of some degree or another. There isn’t any thematic tissue tying any of these together: There’s no similarity whatsoever between what Max wants and what Peter wants and what Gwen wants and what Harry wants. There’s no reflectivity between the characters, no poetic echoes, nothing resonant.

Even by themselves, none of the subplots amounts to something complete or coherent. Peter has now successfully made it through two movies without learning a single thing whatsoever. It doesn’t seem as though it’s supposed to be that way, because all of the moping and significant life events he goes through aren’t there arbitrarily. But if we’re looking at the literal events that take place and their actual defined effect on Peter, there’s no discernible character development. Again — the film fakes it very well. It’s so good at all the moping and navel-gazing that it all starts to seem like change. But the character who comes out of it is always fundamentally the same guy.

And then, after walking Peter through what is, at least, an attempt at a full arc — one that terminates in such a way that, again, he either learns nothing or learns the wrong lesson entirely — the film abruptly changes gears, establishes an entirely new character arc in the last ten minutes, blazes through it almost montage-style, and then concludes on that note, for some reason. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie that somehow acts as its own sequel and a trailer for the sequel to that sequel.

With so much going on, everyone else’s character arcs get constricted into their smallest possible versions. On the villain end, that means that, once again (seriously, Spider-Man movies, you’re working on one heck of a drinking game here), instead of gradually walking the characters from ordinary to evil, the film just invokes science-induced insanity. True, the villains’ descent into evil does build on established negative characteristics that they have, so it’s not like it comes out of nowhere. But because the movie has to bring seven thousand subplots to fruition, it doesn’t have time to slowly develop the villains as people, so it just introduces their negative characteristics and then has science speed them up. And all of them are far less interesting once they’re full-on bad guys. At least two of them are established with some positive characteristics as well — Max/Electro starts out only wanting people to notice him and doesn’t plan to hurt anyone, and Harry would probably be an all-around decent guy in general if he wasn’t desperate because of his impending mortality. But the film doesn’t allow either character to wrestle with these. Electro turns to broad vengeful stoicism after only a couple scenes, and Harry becomes a Bond villain pretty much immediately.

If I was teaching a screenwriting class (which would be a bad idea all around), I honestly might make The Amazing Spider-Man 2 required viewing to show the students how not to do it. It is a convoluted, overcomplicated, confusing mess. It’s not necessarily confusing in the literal details, i.e. I always understood the basics of what was going on. But character and motivation were completely lost on me; by the end, I couldn’t apply a coherent thesis to basically anything. That’s not to say it’s impossible; at least one critic with a better memory and attention to detail than me managed to do so — and that thesis was “Spider-Man is awesome and can’t do anything wrong and it’s everyone else’s fault, really.” I can neither confirm nor deny that, because I’ve totally forgotten the specifics of the dramatic scenes that were sandwiched into this thing.

Really, the saddest thing about this script is that there are seven or eight different movies in here that could easily be really good. There’s enough character and definition in each of the subplots that if the film would just pick one and focus on it, it could’ve been one of the better Spider-Man movies. Like I keep saying, the movie is really good at faking it. Every scene in it has the potential to work within a more defined context, if only the film had a why behind the stuff it chooses to show us. It could’ve been a good relationship movie about Peter and Gwen; it could’ve been a good mystery about Peter trying to figure out what happened to his parents; it could’ve been a good action movie about basically any of the villains, take your pick. But because it tries to be all of those and then some, none of it manages to go anywhere.

I mean, the ingredients are certainly there. It’s amazing that neither of these movies has been particularly good, given that they have one of the most winsome casts in the world of comic book adaptations. Andrew Garfield is still pretty much the perfect Spider-Man, even though the script doesn’t quite understand why, and he and Emma Stone actually have a palpable chemistry that could easily be built into a story that does something interesting with them. Sally Field, of course, has never been bad in anything. And there’s a lot of debate about the villains, but honestly, as close to Joel Schumaker territory as they get, if they’re not going to be interesting characters, they might as well be goofy and fun. Jamie Foxx plays the pathetic creepiness of his character really broadly; he approaches “nerd in a high school movie from the 1990s” territory. He’s sniveling, weird, socially awkward to the nth degree, and Foxx’s performance gets close to parody without crossing the line. As for the Rhino, there’s something fun about watching Paul Giamatti, arguably one of our best actors, turn the volume up to “obliterate” and basically have a loud mental breakdown on screen. The Rhino always looks like his head is going to explode, and if he has an inside voice, he’s incapable of using it. There’s also an evil scientist who’s basically Dr. Strangelove, except in a more serious movie. The only real weak link for me is Dane DeHaan — a shame, because I’ve really enjoyed some of what he’s done so far, and I’d love to see him make it big. DeHaan is from a generation of actors that’s been trained more toward naturalism, and over-the-top campiness is clearly something he’s only just now discovering. There’s too much second-guessing in his performance here; he pushes it right to the edge and then retreats noticeably.

The main thing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has going for it is the action, which is…actually kind of awesome. The first movie was released in what was very much still a post-Dark Knight world and was aspiring to something more serious. It was dark, visually and otherwise, and it was only willing to go so far with the action. This movie was released in a post-Captain America and Thor world and is considerably less antsy about its own silliness, so this time around, the action sequences are big, colorful, stylish, creative, over-the-top, and tons of fun all around. The movie looks great, and it doesn’t hurt that the action, for once, is shot, edited, and staged fairly well.

So, there’s a part of me that found The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to be a tiny bit enjoyable, in its own way. Great cast, a couple of hammy performances for the all-time list, spectacular action sequences, all that stuff. There’s also a part of me that’s aware those are superficial pleasures that might cover up this terrible, terrible piece of writing on a single viewing but will probably leave it totally exposed the second time around.

Do with that what you will.

-Matt T.