Archive for June, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man *1/2

There was a spate in the late 1970s, that carried right through the 1980s, when cheesy – and sometimes not even cheesy – action and thriller movies allowed the convention that New York City was full of alleyways with dumpsters, and in these alleyways lurked mischievous villains, who were clean-shaven, wore clean, expensive-looking leather jackets and travelled in packs. They were always in the middle of a hold-up when our hero appeared, whether he was a murderous Charles Bronson in Death Wish or simply an ass-kicking superhero such as Michael Keaton’s Batman. These thugs always shifted their attention to our hero, who would make a couple of brave quips before dispensing with – either by killing, hurting, scaring or somehow incarcerating – the most photogenic of the thugs, while the rest ran away down the alleyway, almost inevitably crying out “Let’s get outta here!” Thankfully, this convention was eventually realised to be stale, outdated, corny, redundant, stupid, boring and ludicrously cheesy. No scriptwriter worth his salt would write it, no director worth his salt would shoot it. And no costume designer worth any salt would clothe the “Muggers” in clean, expensive-looking black leather jackets.

Welcome to The Amazing Spider-Man, a movie that can proudly lay claim to being stale, outdated, corny, redundant, stupid, boring and ludicrously cheesy, all at the same time. “Redundant” probably being, in this case, the worst offending attribute. Yes, your memory is not playing tricks with you: we have just had a spate of Spider Man movies, the first one, Sam Raimi’s version with Tobey Maguire, only dating back to 2002, and the last in the series only having been released in 2007. Like jokes in the aftermath of September 11th, we have a right to cry “Too soon!” Especially when this latest version, daringly titled The “Amazing” Spider-Man (italics mine, as ham-fisted as much of this movie) is such a carbon copy of Raimi’s original.

Don’t believe the marketing: this is the same old boring origin story all over again. Watch Peter Parker get bitten! Watch him discover his spider-powers! Watch him use them on the “school bully” before taking them to the street to fight crime (see above, “thugs in leather jackets”)! And, finally, how about he has a showdown with a super-villain while cops and assorted New Yorkers look on?

What’s really, frankly, annoying about this new film is that it not only slavishly copies the 2002 film, it does everything worse. Much, much worse. Remember the upside-down kiss? Here it’s on a domestic balcony. Remember Peter Parker beating up the bully? Here he dunks a basketball. Take that, Bully! (By the way, the Bully is revealed to actually be a Really Nice Guy, in keeping with this movie’s desperate attempts to not offend anyone, even School Bullies).

Any movie that wastes Emma Stone is guilty of flagrant idiocy, and the charge is here laid with assurance. Ms. Stone – a brilliant actress, has to flap about as a high-school senior (!) whose boyfriend dons spandex at night to fight leather-clad street punks (or “rough trade”).  It’s an embarrassing role and I’m afraid she knows it. At least her co-star, Andrew Garfield (who was excellent in The Social Network) is close to her age. The problem is that neither one of them is remotely believable as high-school seniors. They look absolutely ridiculous walking the school corridors, backpacks slung ludicrously over their adult shoulders – but then, the school itself looks completely ridiculous: although the film is set in New York, the high school attended by these twenty-somethings looks straight out of Stone’s much, much better film Easy A – in other words, a sun-drenched, spacious, campus-style suburban Californian High School. If this school existed in New York it would cost $120,000 a year and your classmates would be Kennedys, Rockerfellers and Raimis.

Garfield is lumbered with having to act like not only a teenager but a really angsty teenager, and it results in a performance that is very difficult to watch. Stumbling and (practically) stuttering, umm-ing and err-ing to the point that you want to grab him and yell “Just spit the words out, damn it!”, he’s going for something here, and it’s not a wise choice. My colleague who I saw it with said that that was true to the Peter Parker character, and while that may be true, it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. Spider-Man may be a reluctant superhero, but Garfield here looks like a reluctant Spider-Man – which is odd, as he’s famously a true believer, a Spider-Man fan from way back. Perhaps he finally realised how banal the script was, with fifty days of shooting still to go.

This movie is bland. It’s so gutless that it doesn’t even have a villain. It has an antagonist, sure (Rhys Ifans, looking surprised to be here) but he’s not menacing, violent or criminally insane – he’s just very nice. Everyone’s very nice (Parker’s Uncle Ben is played by Martin Sheen, in extremely nice mode, and his Aunt Mae is played by Sally Field, for Goodness’ sake!) Dennis Leary, once the very definition of an edgy performer, is here saddled with (how much did they pay him?) the role of Emma Stone’s Nice Dad. The only character in the movie who is obviously nefarious is also the only non-white main character – a strange and telling example of exactly how far off the mark this movie is.

Treating its audience with complete disdain, the movie doesn’t even attempt any sort of interior logic. High school students not only get to intern at the very highest levels of the very greatest scientific corporations, they also seem to get twenty-four hour access to those corporations’ highest-level labs. Worse, the interns at said corporation are idiots who know nothing of what the corporation does – how did they get what must be the most sought-after internships in the world? Worst of all Peter Parker’s use of the internet. The instigating incident of the whole story comes when he googles his missing parents for the first time – when he’s seventeen, even though they’ve been missing since he was about ten. This, despite the fact that he can write algorithms that surprise and confound one of the brightest scientists, supposedly, on the planet.


Parker can’t use the internet until the scriptwriters decide he can, but he sure loves his mobile phone. He loves to text, and he also – spoiler alert! (not really) – thinks nothing of making a call to his girlfriend, through his mask, during a huge action set-piece. I’m sorry, but this is beyond bland, it’s banal, mundane. A super-hero calling his girlfriend during the Big Fight to check on her? There’s nothing super about that.

Enlightenment Now!

Posted: June 25, 2012 in movie reviews

A Royal Affair **** (out of five)

This gorgeously mounted, exquisitely acted slice of Danish history is, in this age of political polarisation, strangely and depressingly topical. The forces of progressive change, including modern social reform for the underprivileged, come into direct opposition with the ruling classes, who, in collusion with their friend The Church, do everything in their power – including seriously underhanded and illegal tactics – to maintain the status quo and crush the forces of change. Sound familiar?

The action actually takes place, mainly in Copenhagen, in the late eighteenth century. The forces of change are embodied in Johann Struensee (the great Mads Mikkelsen, who better play Christopher Walken’s long-lost Danish cousin in some crazy movie sometime soon), a surgeon in a Danish colony within Germany who, through circumstances not at all of his own making, is rather suddenly offered the opportunity to become King Christian of Denmark’s personal physician, as those close to the King fear that he is losing his mind as he tours Europe for a year. By the time Christian arrives back in the Royal seat of Copenhagen, Johann has become his buddy, right-hand man and confidante. When Johann discovers that Christian’s English wife, Queen Caroline, is a free-thinker like himself, a mutual attraction develops, as well as their combined realisation that, given Christian’s faith in Johann, he can be convinced to rise to his Kingly status and bring Denmark into line with the Enlightenment.

I was certainly enlightened by the history on show here, which encompasses a Royal Tale of intrigue, passion, lust, madness and treachery to rival anything out of Shakespeare (indeed, it’s a lovely touch, whether true or not, that Christian has a passion for Hamlet, being a Danish King and all). Denmark is obviously a socially progressive modern country, and it is fascinating to see the roots of that embodied in one man – who essentially gained monumental national influence by a total twist of fate, even an act of pure chance. Johann didn’t start out as a Martin Luther nor a Martin Luther King, obsessed with his own personal mission and destiny; before meeting the King, he wrote pamphlets, but he didn’t sign his name to them: he wasn’t a revolutionary. His opportunity was practically offered to him, and only then did he realise he could change his little corner of the world.

This is historical drama at its finest; the opulent production design is first-rate, the cinematography exquisite, and the casting perfect. Director Nikolaj Arcel acknowledges the flaws within all of his characters and his actors do too; we definitely know who the good guys are, but the good guys make some pretty heavy mistakes out of their own desires.

Danish cinema is currently enjoying a serious winning streak (and so is its television); long may it reign!

(Incidentally, Australian audiences will find particular resonance in the character of Queen Caroline, the beautiful foreigner who becomes Queen of Denmark, for obvious reasons).

These Dwarves are Awesome

Posted: June 23, 2012 in movie reviews

Snow White and the Huntsman ***1/2

Make no mistake: Snow White and the Huntsman is terrific filmmaking. It is visually stunning, with many sequences of staggering beauty. It has a satisfying, classically three-act structure; surprisingly interesting characters, excellent music and extremely effective special effects. But most of all, it is perfectly cast.

We’ll get to the leads a little later, who are all excellent, but the coup de theatre of the film, its absolutely  brilliant conceit, is the casting of, essentially, all the great British Criminal Actors as the dwarves. You could literally cast Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming AND The Caretaker with these eight men and run them side by side on the West End to packed houses for years. (Yes, there are eight dwarves, probably because the first seven old geezers cast suggested to the studio that they wanted the eighth as drinking buddy). Check out this cast-list of dwarves and tell me why you wouldn’t see a movie with them in it together: Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone (Ray Winstone!), Eddie Marsden, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Johnny Harris and Brian Gleeson. As the dwarves, this den of thieves of actors are noble and solemn, dignified and caring, occasionally funny but more often touching. Sporting crazy hair (just wait till you see Ray Winstone!) and equally batty beards and mustaches, the years of interaction between these titans of British screen and stage is not just palpable, it is the heart and soul of the film, and indicative of the care that has been taken in bringing this we-all-thought-we-knew-it fairy tale to the screen.

This is not to detract from the leads. As Snow White, Kristen Stewart is terrific. I have not seen any of theTwilight films, but on the basis of Panic Room, Runaways, and now this, I have to say she’s among my very favourite younger actors (something I can’t say for her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, who ruined Bel Ami recently). Stewart has the least interesting role in the film – imprisoned Princess escapes, realizes her destiny, fights to get her kingdom back – but she makes you care, which can be hard in this type of blockbuster (did you care about Will Smith in Men In Black 3?) Stewart has a fragility to her, a vulnerability, that is very winning when combined with her character arc, from pitiable, mistreated orphan to heroic avenger.

Fragility and vulnerability are not words that come to mind when talking about Charlize Theron. Five foot ten, with a ballerina’s posture and the most most beautiful face on the planet, Theron, who is one of my favourite “mid-career” actors, is absolutely, resolutely, impeccably perfect casting as the Evil Queen. This is, obviously, the best role in the film, and Theron commits one hundred percent, where a lesser star might have hammed it up, or, worse, phoned it in. The Evil Queen’s dilemma (in this interpretation at least) is that aging, along with lessening her beauty, decreases her magical powers, so she is constantly seeking youth – achieved here by orally sucking in the breath of young women, which ages them as it creates youth in her (think The Picture of Dorian Grey). This vampiric character trait makes for one of the film’s most disturbing images; although this is the fairy tale, it is the fairy tale retold for adults (well, teens as well I suppose, if they’re at all interested in seeing the East End Gangsters All Stars as Dwarves). Theron makes the Queen’s fears palpable, while never seeking our sympathy (make no mistake, she’s a Royal Bitch). It’s an excellent performance, totally sticking within genre and yet, in a way, elevating it, in the way that Ian McKellan elevated Gandalf.

“The Huntsman”, sent by the Evil Queen to capture Snow White but quickly becoming Snow White’s hero, bodyguard and spiritual advisor, is played by Chris Hemsworth, and with this movie you watch him become a Major Movie Star. As Thor, Hemsworth was lumbered with ill-conceived faux-Shakesperean dialogue, and he made the choice of intoning it sonorously, which made him look ridiculous in The Avengers when he had to maintain that style opposite Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., who spoke like human beings. Here, Hemsworth has to play an old-fashioned hero, a widower with incredible muscles, drinking and brawling his way into depression, who will find redemption through the platonic love of a Princess, and he does it with élan. It’s the kind of role Tyrone Power and Robert Mitchum used to play; it’s Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. You aren’t rooting for this guy to make it with the Princess: you’re rooting for him to protect the Princess, because that’s his job, that’s what he’s there for, and she’s a Princess.

It’s almost inconceivable to me that this is the first feature film from director Rupert Sanders; it’s equally almost inconceivable that the studio entrusted a first-timer with such a huge and important project (in case you didn’t know, Kristen Stewart is the Biggest Female Movie Star On The Planet). But he delivers the goods. The only question is: do you want this movie? Not matter how well made, it’s far less immersive than Game of Thrones, which it strongly resembles in castles, horses and facial hair, and, obviously, it doesn’t have the depth of fictional mythology of the Lord of the Rings films. But, frankly, I enjoyed this more than any of the Lord of the Rings movies (not more than Game of Thrones, which is in a league of its own). It’s satisfyingly self-contained, beautiful, other-worldly and surprisingly sophisticated. It also contains lines such as (intoned by dwarf Bob Hoskins) “You have eyes, Huntsman, but you cannot see.” If you can handle that sort of dialogue, this is an excellent film for you. If not, you are, simply, not the audience. It’s a childhood fairy tale re-interpreted for an adult fantasy audience. If that’s you, you might love it. I did.

This Rock Takes Ages

Posted: June 18, 2012 in movie reviews

Rock of Ages **1/2

Rock of Ages, the latest Broadway musical transferred to big-budget, Hollywood Studio celluloid, is two films in one: there’s the good film, which is composed of every extremely proficient, highly energetic, really quite exciting production number (of which, thankfully, there are many), and the painfully clichéd, and surprisingly non-energetic other film, which is composed of all the bits between the production numbers. You know: the talky bits.

Tom Cruise, as Rock God Stacee Jaxx, is definitely the worst offender in the talky bits: he slows things down. He’s made the very indulgent choice of talking incredibly slowly and quietly, as though, perhaps, on mogadon, valium or even LSD or heroin, and no amount of editing around him can help his “dramatic” (rather than singing) scenes: they’re mind-numbingly boring.

The action – a very old-school plot – concerns a pretty girl who comes to Hollywood to pursue her dreams of being a singer. It’s the 80s, and rock – “hard” rock – still rules. Moreover, rock music itself annoys the venal wife of the Los Angeles mayor (played with glee by Catharine Zeta-Jones) to the point that it’s become her obsession to drive the (fictional) Sunset Strip club The Bourbon out of business.

 

The Bourbon is run by a couple of rock obsessives played by Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand, and they’re the only two who get away with anything approaching enjoyment in the dialogue scenes; Brand is particularly funny. The lead girl and her love interest are played by Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta – neither of whom I’ve encountered before – and they’re lumbered with the least interesting storyline, the worst dialogue and (quite obviously) the least screen experience. Malin Akerman, a gifted comedic actress for whom this could have been a big break, has to spend all her scenes with Cruise, as does Paul Giamatti, playing Jaxx’s manager, and whom, I bet, would never have taken this role had he known how Cruise was going to play his scenes: with almost complete disregard for his fellow actors.

Ironically, when Cruise sings and struts in his production numbers, he is completely believable – and exciting – as a heavy metal superstar. If only he’d spoken in something more animated that an excruciatingly drawn-out mumble, he might have allowed this overlong (123 minute) film to have the snappy, breezy, energised feel of the music scene it so wants to celebrate.

The Cabin in the Woods ** (out of five)

I went to see The Cabin in the Woods, in Los Angeles, on its opening day in the United States, because I was extremely excited for it, and extremely nervous, in a film geek’s way, that the huge “twist” of the film was going to be revealed to me before I saw the movie. Thus, off to one of the very first sessions I went, dragging my great mate Ian along with me. “Trust me,” I told him, “this film is going to be amazing. I’ve heard it’s got Sixth Sense-level twists, Inception-level mind-benders. I’ve heard that it’s just revolutionary, just a whole new leap forward in crazy, intricate, clever wow stuff.” And I had heard all that stuff. I’d heard it from various sources, including one of my favourite podcasters, who’d seen it at South By Southwest (a huge Festival) and was raving about it. Raving.

Of course, very few films can live up to that sort of hype, but, unfortunately, The Cabin in the Woods fell, on that Los Angeles afternoon, so far below my expectations, so far below what I had been led to believe (and what I led my poor mate Ian to believe) that it kind of bummed us out for the rest of the night.

The film was marketed – very aggressively, in the United States, but barely at all in Australia – essentially thus: “You think you know the story. You don’t.” Essentially, we were led to believe, we were going to be served a generic cabin in the woods horror film (some of the highlights of the genre being Evil Dead and Cabin Fever) that had, as mentioned above, mind-altering twists, tricks, revelations, etc. I thought about what the “big twist” might be, and came up with one solution. I was dead-on, and I suspect, if you think about it for more than a second, you’ll be able to second (pre-?) guess it too.

Not that the film cares if you do, as it “reveals” the “big twist” in the very first moment. There are more reveals to come, but they are far too banal to justify the hype this film generated – as some sort of horror movie second coming. The film spends way too long in the “cabin in the woods” generic mode, wasting our time with the conventions it argues to be reacting against. It feels like a cheat.

There is a set-piece towards the end that may be absolute heaven to some viewers, and there will definitely be some viewers who love the whole movie. If you’re a serious horror-film geek it might be your Citizen Kane, or at least your Pulp Fiction. But the thing is, I’m a serious horror-film geek, and I was alternately bored, exasperated, annoyed and ultimately extremely underwhelmed.

And I owe my mate Ian a couple of hours of his life back. I may have been extremely underwhelmed, but he hated it. 

Prometheus ***1/2

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is not only a direct prequel to his classic Alien but also shares many similarities with that film, tonally, structurally and thematically. It’s a science fiction film with many horror elements; it’s got a crew of divergent personalities – and an extremely humanoid robot – on a distant planet exploring a potentially unknown life-form; it essentially begins with that crew waking up from extended sleep and eating breakfast; there are aliens, and there are deaths. It’s not as tightly wound, as elementally perfect as Alien was – it’s a weirder, slightly more unwieldy beast, but never less than entertaining.

This time around there are seventeen crew members, although we only focus on about eight of them, so there are vague “others” around who sort of muddy the margins. One of the genius strokes of Alien was its containment – that crew was all we had, and every time one was lost, we knew exactly how many remained. Here, that’s more ambiguous. We have our movie stars, and then there are, essentially, extras to do the more mundane tasks; they’re listed in the credits as “Mechanic 4”, “Archaeological Assistant”, “Mercenary 2”, and the like. Alien, then, was Ten Little Indians, where Prometheus is not.

One thing it is, is astonishingly beautiful. Prometheus is the name of the huge spacecraft taking our crew on its mission (it was Nostromo in Alien) and is a design of wonder. Likewise, the site of the crew’s expedition is beautifully realised. H.R. Giger, who famously created the alien design for Alien, did not work directly on this film, but his inspiration in every area of the film’s design is plainly obvious. This film is very much of the Alien world.

Like the original film, it remains – to its benefit – deliberately bound in time and space. The action, for the most part, takes place over a couple of days, and within Prometheus, the expedition site, and the land between the two. Star Wars or Star Trek, with their wide-ranging explorations of multiple galaxies, this is not. Scott gets us to where he wants us and lets it all happen then and there.

All the cast are good, but Michael Fassbender, as the robot David (not a spoiler – this time you know he’s a robot from the very first minutes) is fantastic and kind of steals the film. It’s the best role in the film, and Fassbender makes a meal of it, imbuing David with multiple layers and shades while also remaining, essentially, “robotic”. It’s a master turn that could even lead to some awards talk. Charlize Theron, as the strait-laced Commander of Prometheus, has a much less interesting role, but she commits to it well (and looks incredible in her space-suit). Noomi Rapace has the lead role of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and she’s very solid; the same can’t be said for her colleague and lover Charlie, played by Logan Marshall-Green, an actor I’ve never encountered before but who, to my mind, looks much more like Network Television than a Ridley Scott Film.

Prometheus comes with hype. It’s not Alien, but very, very few films are. It’s exciting, extremely well made and mysterious. It’s also, at times, very confusing, difficult to follow, and, bizarrely for a Scott film, has a couple of seriously clunky moments. It’s also not particularly scary. But boy, it’s a visual (and aural) feast, and it’s got some Big Ideas, which it goes after with aplomb. Good fun. And – I hate to say this but it’s true – I think I wished I’d chosen to see the 3D version, as I could tell from the 2D version I saw that Ridley was having fun with the added dimension. Maybe I’ll see it again, that way. I won’t be bored.


Mad Mex

Posted: June 4, 2012 in movie reviews

Get The Gringo ***1/2 (out of five)

Mel Gibson has been making independent movies for awhile now, through his own very independent production and distribution company Icon Films, bankrolled to a great degree through the astonishing success of The Passion of the Christ, which Gibson funded exclusively for thirty million dollars and which made well over fifteen times that. Like George Lucas with Star Wars, the incredible success of Gibson’s Christ has granted him an autonomy outside the Studio system, and Get the Gringo, his new, completely independent feature, co-produced by him through Icon, bears all the hallmarks of this freedom, without being anything like Christ or its follow up Apocalypto.

Written by Gibson with Adrian Grunberg and Stacy Perskie and directed by Grunberg, Get the Gringo is very much in line with many of the ‘80s Gibson films we loved (particularly the Lethal Weapon films) in that it freely mixes humour with intense, unforgiving violence and just a smidge of sentimentality. Here, it’s a winning mix, and a strong reminder of what a true movie star Gibson has always been.

Gibson plays an unnamed career criminal who gets arrested trying to flee Mexico with a couple of million dollars in his possession. This scene, with Gibson and his partner-in-crime in clown makeup, sets the tone for the rest of the film: we’re gonna get action and violence but it’s all going to revolve around a man who’s as much a clown as a tough guy. It’s an excellent opening (and includes a fun cameo for Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris playing – guess what? A border cop!)

Gibson’s character ends up in El Pueblito, an astounding prison that is essentially a town unto itself, with bars and restaurants, tattoo parlours, families, drug runners, and, of course, a complicated criminal hierarchy. It’s an absolutely fascinating and original setting for a movie, and its realisation is sensational: not only does the extraordinary production design make you feel, essentially, that they shot in a real, insane prison, but so does every single extra, whether they’re shooting smack, cooking pollo or simply hanging around. Everyone’s caked with sweat and dirt, their hair is matted, they have bruises, scars and wounds; Gibson, too, is given no star treatment, looking for most of the film every bit as dirty, haggard and unglamorous. Given the total control that Gibson and Icon have had making this film, it’s been freed from the Studio tyranny of “last checks” (the process by which make-up artists rush in to “touch up” the actors seconds before any given take); the filmmakers have obviously decided, and striven, to let everything be as grimy – and realistic – as possible. It’s a strange, scary, powerful world, and I bought it completely.

The first half of the film takes its time, allowing you to take in this world as Gibson’s character does, learning its unique ways, rhythms and characters; this section is accompanied by a fair amount of hard-boiled, Elmore Leonard-style voiceover by Gibson, which could be distracting but isn’t. Gradually, the story world grows, with more and more characters entering the fray (much like an Elmore Leonard novel, actually) until, of course, the bullets start to fly.

There are at least three terrific set pieces here and at least half a dozen excellent scenes; more importantly, despite its mix of wisecracks and seriously all-encompassing violence (women and children aren’t safe in this movie) the whole thing holds together: while there are obviously hugely improbable elements to the plot, there aren’t any actual holes – which is very rare for an actioner such as this.

Gibson has aged (obviously) and his once sparkly eyes have a watery quality to them now, as though a bit burnished by the booze and difficulties the actor has both propagated and suffered. But he is still an amazingly charismatic screen presence, and he carries the movie heroically, like movie stars of old (well, the ‘80s). Gibson, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis could always crack a joke before shooting some bad guys stone cold dead; Gibson still can, and his physical comedy remains as astute as ever.

The film was almost entirely shot in Mexico (indeed, its almost entirely set in the prison); its supporting cast of Mexican actors are all excellent, and the whole thing has a gritty authenticity that just shouts proudly that it was made outside the Hollywood Studio system. Towards the beginning, Gibson’s character gives a ten year old kid (who becomes a major character, without ever becoming a brat) a cigarette, and the kid lights it up and smokes it. Try getting MGM, Universal, Paramount or Disney to release that.