‘Spider-Man 3’ is a Major Disappointment

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After the brilliance of “Spider-Man 2” one of the best comic book movies ever made, “Spider-Man 3” proves to be an astonishing disappointment. Even though this sequel has the same actors and directors as its predecessors, they are faced with a screenplay with too many characters, too many subplots which don’t reach a satisfying conclusion, villains who are not very satisfying, and some character choices which feel out of place in a movie like this.

I already had a problem with “Spider-Man 3” before I went in as there were too many villains for one motion picture. It would have been better for it to have just one villain for Spider-Man to face because it allows the filmmakers to give more attention to the characters to where they can become unforgettable. You can get away with two villains sometimes, but you are better off with one as this movie shows.

This ended up being the last “Spider-Man” movie Sam Raimi directed, and my original thought was he knew this would be the case, so he ended up putting in everything but the kitchen sink. In retrospect, I think the studio forced him to add characters who were big comic book fan favorites, and Raimi obliged even though there was little chance of those characters getting enough screen time. In the process of pleasing the fans, “Spider-Man 3” succeeded in alienating them by throwing things at us the filmmakers assumed we would like.

Spider-Man’s first nemesis is the New Goblin, same as the Old Goblin. We all know the New Goblin is actually Harry Osborn, played once again by James Franco, and he ends up giving his best performance in all of the “Spider-Man” movies here. Franco revels in going all over the place as he seethes at Peter Parker whom he is still convinced killed his father. In the process of trying to kill Peter, Harry gets amnesia and forgets about what Peter supposedly did. But this doesn’t keep Harry from messing with Peter’s life or stealing away those closest to him.

Then comes Spidey’s next darn nemesis, Sandman/Flint Marko played by Thomas Haden Church who was on a roll after his Oscar nominated performance in “Sideways.” This is an interesting villain as you can clearly see what drives him: his love for his sick little girl. While Church does what he can with an underwritten part which has him disappearing from the screen for far too long, he is nowhere as compelling as Alfred Molina was as Doc Ock was in “Spider-Man 2.” Flint never gets the chance to revel in his new-found powers, and he doesn’t feel as threatening as a result.

After that, we get yet another antagonist in the form of Eddie Brock who later turns into one of the most famous comic book villains ever, Venom. Now while I can see how Venom is such an immensely popular character in the “Spider-Man” universe, his appearance in “Spider-Man 3” feels like an afterthought. Furthermore, he is portrayed by Topher Grace who, while having given terrific performances in movies like “Traffic,” is completely miscast. Eddie Brock/Venom feels too broad as he is portrayed here, and we don’t get to invest emotionally in this character as much as we would like to.

Tobey Maguire has long since proven to be one of the best Spider-Man’s we have ever seen on the big screen, and the best acting he does here is with his eyes and face. He can get you right in the heart with just one look, and he never gives you a false emotion in any scene. This is especially the case in a pivotal moment between him and Mary Jane Watson which is truly heartbreaking to watch.

“Spider-Man 3” also sees the famous web-slinger exploring his dark side when an alien symbiote lands down on earth in his vicinity and infects him and changes his behavior. But things soon degenerate as Maguire is forced to play Peter as if he is some sort of emo dude to where he is suddenly struck with the urge to dance in public for no particularly special reason. Some of these scenes are amusing to watch, but they belong in a different film.

It also sucks to see the female characters underused here. Kirsten Dunst is back as Mary Jane Watson, and it’s great to see her again as she has been fantastic in this series. But in “Spider-Man 3” she doesn’t have much to do here other than end up in a perilous state and hanging on for dear life. You’d think at this point Mary Jane would realize she’s better off without Peter as her life remains in constant danger while they are together. How many times do you think you could take fighting for your life when your boyfriend is Spider-Man? Well, if you’re Jack Bauer, I guess you could do it quite a bit. This is regardless of the fact Mary Jane Watson is not Jack Bauer’s girlfriend, but anyway…

Bryce Dallas Howard co-stars as Gwen Stacy, a huge fan favorite of the Spider-Man series, but she gets even less to do than Dunst. I think Gwen ended up here because Marvel and Columbia Pictures insisted on her inclusion as they figured the fans were ever so eager to see this character in any “Spider-Man” movie at that point. Howard is a fantastic actress and makes for a very good Gwen Stacy, but this character has little purpose for being in “Spider-Man 3” other than to please the most die-hard fans.

There are other welcome returns in “Spider-Man 3” like Rosemary Harris who plays Aunt May, the Yoda of Peter Parker’s life who gives him the wisdom he needs to hear. J.K. Simmons remains the consummate scene stealer as J. Jonah Jameson, and he had me in hysterics from his first scene where his secretary reminds him to watch out for his high blood pressure. And yes, Bruce Campbell does his usual “Spider-Man” cameo, this time as a waiter desperate to help Peter and Mary Jane have the most wonderful of times at a restaurant. It’s always good to see Campbell in a movie no matter what kind of role he plays.

The climax has the Sandman teaming up with Venom to take down Spider-Man, and while it is an emotionally charged climax, we still come out of this movie very disappointed as it feels like there are so many missed opportunities. Once again, each of these villains are very underdeveloped to where the stakes don’t feel high, and everything ends up feeling far less exciting. Plus, we have seen Mary Jane in danger far too many times to where everything going on begins to feel boring and redundant. I ended up going on a bathroom break during the movie, something I usually never do, but I’m positive I didn’t miss much.

For what it’s worth, I liked how Raimi deals with the futility of revenge and how it destroys the soul, and he also shows how it is better to forgive. This is something I need to remind myself of more often. It makes for a strong moment between Peter and the Sandman as well as with Harry. It’s these moments where you feel the strength and pain of the characters ever so purely, and this movie could have used many more moments like these.

I couldn’t help but come out of “Spider-Man 3” feeling completely let down. “Spider-Man 2” was so good to where I couldn’t help but come into this one with high expectations. The fact everyone involved screwed this motion picture up feels utterly baffling considering what came before, and the disappointment this sequel generates really stings. I’d like to think that “Spider-Man 3” stands as an example of how not to make a comic book movie, but after watching “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” it is still a lesson everyone needs to learn.

* * out of * * * *

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The Meddler

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When reading the plot synopsis of “The Meddler,” I walked into it expecting a formulaic comedy dealing in stereotypes like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did. Not that working with stereotypes is always a bad thing, but it can get old very quickly and leave audiences with not much that is worth remembering when they leave the theater. Plus, the movie’s story deals with a parent interfering in the life of their offspring at the most inconvenient time in their life, and how many times have we seen that before? We all know it will build up to that moment where the offspring will say, “Mom, I love you but will you PLEASE GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIFE??!!” But despite this inescapable confrontation, we know everything will work out in the end.

Well, “The Meddler” turned out to be a pleasant surprise as it is a movie made from the heart more than anything else. A lot of it has to do with the fact writer and director Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) based the story on her own mother and the relationship she had with her. But while this might sound like a buddy comedy, it’s really more about the mother and it gives Susan Sarandon one of the best roles she has had in recent years.

Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini who, as “The Meddler” begins, is staring listlessly at the ceiling fan in her bedroom. We learn Marnie was recently widowed and has since moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). As the title suggests, she endlessly interferes in Lori’s life and then goes on to help others whom she feels need her assistance. But deep down she is still struggling with the loss of her husband, someone she was with for decades and who has now vanished from her life. While she looks very pleasant on the outside, Marnie is still struggling to come to terms with her husband’s death and is trying to find new meaning in her life.

What I loved about Sarandon’s performance is how she avoids the easy trap of turning Minnie into a simple caricature and instead turns this character into this wonderful human who is infinitely generous to a fault. Even as Minnie gets a little too involved in her daughter’s life, Sarandon never makes her seem the slightest bit aggravating. It’s also great fun to see her roam around The Grove as if it were Disneyland because it shows just how new to Los Angeles Minnie really is.

Sarandon also has a great foil to work with in Rose Byrne who plays Minnie’s daughter Lori. Byrne also could have made Lori, a writer for television, into a caricature, but she makes her into someone with work problems we can all relate to regardless of whatever industry we work in. Lori is enduring a lot of problems in her life other than her mother such as being dumped by her celebrity boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter) which still weighs heavily on her, and she is not sure how she can move on past her heartbreak. Ever since the scene in “Neighbors” where she succeeded in getting two college students to seduce one another, she has remained a terrific actress and one with very sharp comedic skills.

During “The Meddler,” Minnie is met by a couple of men who are eager to get to know her better. One is Michael McKean’s overly earnest Mark whose idea of a date is to take Minnie to the Holocaust Museum, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting romantic over there. McKean is always fun to watch no matter what movie he’s in, and he makes the most of his limited screen time as a guy who can’t quite take a hint.

The other suitor is a retired cop turned movie set security guard who goes by the name of Zipper, and he is played in a scene-stealing performance by J.K. Simmons. While being upstaged somewhat by an awesome looking mustache, Simmons makes Zipper into a uniquely lovable guy, and he is wonderful to watch as he introduces Sarandon to his nest of chickens. We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor go from playing a warm-hearted father in “Juno” to an insanely brutal music instructor in “Whiplash,” and this is not to mention his terrific work in the first three “Spider-Man.” But in “The Meddler” Simmons gets to play a role many of us haven’t seen him play before, a romantic leading man, and he pulls it off beautifully.

What makes “The Meddler” an especially strong movie is how genuine it is in its emotions. Not once did its story feel the least bit manipulative, and its portrait of people trying to move past the loss of a loved one feels authentic in its portrayal. Nothing ever feels cloying or artificial, and it also helps that Sarandon, Byrne, and Simmons are surrounded by a wonderful cast which includes “SNL’s” Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch (the moment where she tosses a baby shower gift aside is priceless), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson and Jerrod Carmichael. Each actor succeeds in creating unique characters who are fun to hang out with, and watching them is a reminder of how there is never a role too small for an actor to play.

Although it deals with the heavy subjects of grief, heartbreak and losing a loved one, “The Meddler” proves to be a very positive movie which is optimistic in its view of life. In a time where many movies feature infinitely cynical characters, here’s one with a woman of a certain age (and lord knows there’s not enough of those) who is very giving and generous. Even when she appears to be more generous than anyone should be, we keep watching the movie with the hope her spirit will stay strong during even the toughest of times.

“The Meddler” was made on a low budget and on a very shooting schedule, and everyone involved succeeded in giving us something much better than we could have expected. Please don’t let the fact it is not a superhero movie keep you from checking it out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Whiplash

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Yes, I have had teachers in the past who succeeded in shattering my ego to where it took me an incredibly long time to build my confidence back up to where it once was. I think it’s safe to say we all have had at least one vindictive instructor at one time or another who made our lives a living hell and robbed us of our morale to where the emotional scars we received never fully vanished. But the experience does leave us with an important question; did we improve as students under that teacher’s tutelage, or were they just determined to make us feel infinitely miserable to satisfy their own ego? I’d like to think I got something from the most brutally honest teachers I have studied with because it will, at the very least, keep me from spitting in their faces with a bitter vengeance.

I think it’s likely you will be reminded of those teachers when you watch “Whiplash,” a perfectly titled movie which features the anti-Glenn Holland of music instructors, Terrence Fletcher. Played by J.K. Simmons in an utterly brilliant performance, Terrence is as talented a teacher as he is a terrifying one, and hopefully you have never had to deal with someone like him. But if you have, you have my deepest sympathies and I hope you have found a way to move past such a traumatizing experience.

Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer who is more than intent on becoming one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. Andrew studies at an elite music conservatory in New York and is working his way up through the ranks when Terrence comes upon him playing one day. Terrence says very little to Andrew and seems eager to see what the young man has to offer. But soon after, Terrence invites him to join his class which has the top jazz ensemble in the conservatory, and this gives Andrew’s ego a major boost to where he finds the courage to ask out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the girl who works at the concession stand at his favorite movie theater.

Before the start of class, Terrence encourages Andrew to enjoy the process of playing and not to worry too much. But after class begins, Terrence quickly turns into a nasty SOB as he hurls insults as well as furniture at his students if they’re even the slightest bit out of tune. It takes almost no time for Andrew to incur his wrath, and Terrence shows no limit as to how far he will go in verbally abusing a student. He is determined to push Andrew beyond his limits and then some, and this leads to nights when the aspiring drummer becomes a water fountain of sweat and leaves with some nasty cuts on his hands to where band aids cannot stop the bleeding.

The effect Terrence has on Andrew is incredibly profound on him not just as a musician, but as a person as well. While he may be improving as a drummer, Andrew becomes an increasingly difficult person to get along with. At family gatherings, he comes to insult others who look down on his drumming aspirations, and he coldly dumps Nicole when he feels their relationship will get in the way of his mission to become the greatest drummer who ever lived. By the time “Whiplash” reaches its thunderous climax, you’ll be wondering who the victor of this tumultuous teacher/student relationship truly is. When you look at it closely, it could be either of them.

It doesn’t take much to see that “Whiplash” is a very personal story for Chazelle as he himself was a drummer in a high school music conservatory who lived in fear of his teacher and of screwing up a single note. Right from the start, he does an excellent job of setting up just how feared Terrence Fletcher is long before we see him viciously berating his students as if they have no reason to exist. Students stand rigidly at attention whenever he enters the room, fellow teachers don’t even hesitate to step out of his way when he bursts into their classrooms to find new musicians, and heaven forbid if you misplace your music or your drum sticks as you will suffer the man’s wrath in a way which makes you feel like you had it coming.

Now any actor can play a screaming jerk, but it takes a great one to make a jerk of a character into a fascinating and complex human being. This is what makes Simmons’ performance as Terrence Fletcher so damn good; he lets you know what he’s thinking without having to spell it out for the audience. Despite his brutally draconian ways, you can see he is searching for someone truly great and will do anything to get it. Seriously, he will do anything.

This all leads to the “good job” story Terrence tells Andrew, and I’m still thinking about what Terrence said long after the movie ended. On one hand, we cannot condone the way Terrence treats his students, but “Whiplash” has you wondering if being too nice to an aspiring student does them more harm than good. Sometimes brutal honesty is called for to get someone to learn, especially one who is determined to be the best at what they do. Still, there’s got to be a limit to how harshly you can treat a student before they suffer a horrific nervous breakdown.

Miles Teller’s star has been on the rise for a while now, and he’s turned in fantastic performances in the “Footloose” remake and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller was also in “21 & Over,” but the less said about that one the better. As Andrew Neiman, he gives one of the most exhausting performances any actor could have given in 2014, and there is absolutely no doubt he put his entire heart and soul into this character. Teller keeps pounding at those drums as if his life depended on it, and that really is his blood spattered all over the drum set (imagine how much money the studio saved on makeup and special effects). Teller shows a true fearlessness as he takes Andrew from being an easy-going guy to one who reaches his breaking point and then goes beyond it to where Terrence’s intimidating ways will not hold him at bay.

Writer/director Chazelle takes us on a journey which is as cathartic for him as it is for the rest of us, and “Whiplash” stirred up emotions in me I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s an amazing achievement especially when you take into account he had only 19 days to shoot this movie in. Few movies these days take you on such an emotionally pulverizing ride, and this is one of them.

* * * * out of * * * *

Please feel free to check out the interviews I did with Simmons, Teller and Chazelle on “Whiplash” on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

Exclusive Video Interview with J.K. Simmons on ‘Break Point’

It’s been a very busy time for J.K. Simmons ever since he won an Oscar for his truly frightening performance in “Whiplash” as he has not been lacking for work in the slightest. We watched him steal scenes from Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator Genisys,” and now he steals the show yet again in the sports comedy “Break Point.” In it he plays Jack Price, a veterinarian, widow and father of two boys who were once a great tennis team but have long since become estranged from one another. When the boys decide to re-team to take one last shot at winning the grand slam tournament, Jack is pleased to see his sons playing together again. But will Jack be able to keep the peace when his sons inevitably clash over who’s the better player?

Now whereas many actors would take the father role and either overplay it or underplay it, Simmons finds a middle ground to where he makes Jack a believably down to earth guy who is relatable and someone you would really like to hang out with. He is such a wonderful presence in “Break Point” to where you want his onscreen sons to thank the lord they have such a wonderful father in their lives. The actor also brings his trademark deadpan humor to the role which is always a welcome addition.

Simmons sat down with me for an interview at the “Break Point” press day held in Los Angeles, California. He talked about his approach to playing Jack Price and how making the movie helped change his view on the game of tennis. He also talked about his experience making “Terminator Genisys” which allowed him to play the kind of character he usually doesn’t get cast as: a good guy.

Check out the interview above. “Break Point” is now available to watch on various formats. To find out how you can watch it, be sure to visit the movie’s website at www.thebreakpointfilm.com.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2015.

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