THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2
The biggest problem I had with 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man was that director Marc Webb's superhero-origin tale - with its "let's get this tiresome exposition over with" vibe and general lack of personality - felt merely like the setup for more interesting web-slinging adventures to come. The biggest problem I have with Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that it feels almost exactly the same, like a character- and conflict-building preamble that we have to endure to get to the eventual good stuff. Things certainly happen in Webb's latest cinematic comic book, but they appear to happen solely because its surviving characters need to be positioned properly for their roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 3, the inevitable outing in which maybe, finally, the series will start living up to the imposed adjective in its title.
That's a shame, because TAS-M2 is actually teeming with incidental pleasures: the dually marvelous Andrew Garfield's and Emma Stone's playful, legitimately emotional repartee as on-again/off-again lovers Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spidey) and Gwen Stacy; Dane DeHaan's Harry Osborn (a.k.a. Green Goblin) plotting Spider-Man's capture and purring "I need his blood" with insinuating malevolence; the villainous Electro (Jamie Foxx) interrogating an officious jerk, killing him with an electric jolt to the heart, and then acting as a human defibrillator to revive the guy (at which point the interrogation begins anew). Yet these little nuggets of enjoyment tend to stand out because so much of the film's bulk is so underwhelming. For instance, in a scene set in crowded downtown Manhattan, I loved the bit in which the departing Spider-Man caused the pissed-off Gwen to scream "Peter!" and then quickly cover her mouth, realizing she may have accidentally blown his secret identity. But I may not have even remembered that amusing throwaway if I was at all caught up in where Spidey was racing to, or which bad guy was causing a commotion this time around; taken as a stand-alone experience, TAS-M2's incidental pleasures turn out to be its only real pleasures.
I no doubt would've felt differently had the chief cause of this movie's mayhem, Foxx's Electro, not emerged as such a dud. For a follow-up that, as the current rules of comic-book flicks dictate, strives for intense seriousness, Electro was always going to be a troublesome franchise addition: a nerdy, bowtie-wearing obsessive who - after being electrocuted and falling in a tank filled with electric eels - becomes Spider-Man's über-nemesis for no reason beyond generic megalomania. (Near as I could tell, Foxx's glowing baddie decides to dress in spandex and lay waste to New York City merely because the web-slinger usurps Electro's placement on a few Times Square billboards.) Foxx, however, doesn't bring any particular flair, or any true commitment, to the role, and sadly, he's also stuck with the dopiest comic-book-bubble dialogue the film's four screenwriters could inflict upon us. (Spider-Man himself is an incessantly, unfortunately quip-happy babbler in the movie's action scenes, but even his lamest lines don't match Electro's meant-to-be-threatening, "It's my birthday, and now it's time for me to light my candles!!!" Where's Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze - "Let's kick some ice!!!" - when you really need him?)
And while TAS-M2 certainly sets DeHaan's Green Goblin up to be a prominent figure in the next installment, making him responsible for unleashing future villains and (presumably) Spider-Man's future vengefulness, the actor is given too little to chew on here beyond the similar origin-story basics that Garfield was saddled with in TAS-M1. DeHaan is an inspired casting choice, and he elicits a few genuine shudders with the slightly fey, dead-eyed creepiness that he employed wonderfully as Lucien Carr in the recent Kill Your Darlings. But for reasons that seem almost entirely preparatory, DeHann is kept on the sidelines for most of the film, and you find yourself responding more to Harry Osborn's random comedic bits than you do to Green Goblin's maniacal hissing. (Reuniting with his best pal after 10 years apart, Harry gets in a gentle jab at Peter - and at Garfield himself - by telling him, "With your braces off, there's nothing to distract from your unibrow now.")
Generally speaking, you nearly always respond to the film's recognizably human touches with greater fervor than you do its acceptable yet fundamentally empty blockbuster set pieces. Terrific though the effects are - and the scenes of Spidey figuratively stopping time to work out potential rescue scenarios are sensational - there's far more going on in Peter's and Gwen's relationship quandaries, and even Peter's loving discord with Aunt May (a happily tough-minded Sally Field), than there is in this latest city-in-peril narrative. And when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 climaxes with the last-minute appearance of yet another costumed adversary, whose arrival is almost satirically reminiscent of John Ratzenberger's "Behold the Underminer!" entrance in Pixar's The Incredibles, you may find yourself thinking back fondly to the movie's cleverest, most well-sustained piece of action choreography, which took place about 90 minutes prior. The sequence in question finds Gwen trying to evade a bunch of goons in her office building, and Peter, without immediate access to his red-and-blue suit, coming up with a strategy allowing her to escape: a 10-second burst of madly inspired slapstick that involves a borrowed cup of coffee and some hilarious forced contortion, and that, for sheer entertainment value, puts to shame the entirely of the rest of the film's pricey visuals. Though this Spider-Man sequel definitely hints at it, I don't know exactly what's planned for part three, but now that comic-book movies have cornered the market on "dark," I'd argue that "light" would absolutely be the preferable way to go.
AS HIGH AS THE SKY
Winner of an honorable-mention citation for Best Narrative Feature at 2013's Landlocked Film Festival in Iowa City - and the recipient of the Audience Award at last year's Palm Beach International Film Festival - writer/director Nikki Braendlin's As High as the Sky is a micro-budgeted indie that probably cost the equivalent of five seconds worth of visual effects in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I'm pretty sure I know which was money better spent. A warm-hearted, compositionally beautiful dramedy that finds the recently dumped obsessive-compulsive Margaret (Caroline Fogarty) forced to share her home with her older, free-spirited sister Josephine (Bonnie McNeil) and her sibling's emotionally guarded 10-year-old daughter Hannah (Laurel Porter), Braendlin's feature-film debut is an absolute charmer - tender and funny and lightly touching. (The film arrives on DVD on May 6.) If you've seen enough movies, even enough made-for-TV movies, you won't find its storyline terribly surprising; the initially unstated reason for Josephine's unexpected arrival is apparent perhaps earlier than it should be, and from the film's outset, with Margaret seen fastidiously arranging pillows and tending to her rock garden, you're pretty positive that her life of utter control will be in happy disarray by the end credits. (Margaret is like an updated version of Geraldine Page in Interiors, but without the earth-tone mania and grim fate.) Yet with its lovely naturalism, arresting color schemes, and excellent performances by the three leads - with McNeil suggesting the hippie earthiness of the great Catherine Keener - As High as the Sky is a continual, 90-minute delight, and Braendlin directs her cast's scenes of wordless rapport with exceptional subtlety and clarity. Her scenes of word-filled rapport are nothing to sniff at, either. I smiled at the smart, honest dialogue throughout, but when Margaret asked Hannah if she took any health supplements beyond her multivitamin, I laughed out loud when the girl replied, "You mean, other vitamins in addition to the one that already has everything in it?"