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The Amazing Spider-Man – The reboot is on the other foot

Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker-Man

The world has become a cynical place. Here we have a massive franchise reboot of a box office certainty only 10 years after the original, and five years after the last entry in that run. Desperate to hold onto the rights to the Spider-Man name and make more money (and, more importantly, deny money to Disney/Marvel), Sony have pumped out this curious superhero origin tale, The Amazing Spider-Man (was he not amazing back in ’02?), which is at times all too familiar and at others unsettlingly new. Even Marvel had the cop-on to pick up The Incredible Hulk more or less where Hulk had left off five years previous. Did Sony really need to put us through all this again?

But audiences are as guilty of this cynicism, many assuming the worst before release and, overwhelmed by the success of The Avengers, bitter that Sony’s declaration to use the Spider-Man brand will deny us a Spidey-Iron Man crossover anytime soon. You think this is bad, wait ‘til you see what Fox do with the Fantastic Four to hang onto those rights! The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a pretty decent entry in the comic book movie canon.

The problem is that now the previous films seem like a waste of our time. All of a sudden, everything we’ve been through with Peter Parker is undone. Tobey Maguire is off with Gatsby, Sam Raimi is off in Oz and Kirsten Dunst is basking in the glow of Melancholia. So we’ll start over. I guess.

Peter Parker is a young scientifically minded but socially awkward teenager who… no. No I’m not doing this again. You know it. You’ve seen the trailer. Spider bite, magic powers, gets the girl. So what’s different?

The film opens with young Peter Parker being left with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (his traditional surrogates) by his mysterious parents, who flee for clandestine, sciencey reasons. Peter is left with abandonment issues and an identity crisis. In high-school, now played by Andrew Garfield, he begins the search for information about who his parents were, leading him to sky-scrapping science-hub OsCorp and his father’s former lab partner Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). This is where the infamous spider bite happens, although the underlining issue here is that the spiders were a project Peter’s father had been working on. Comparisons to the movie Hulk come to mind. Curiouser and curiouser and possibly disastrouser.

Now super strong and flexible Peter becomes king of the schoolyard by showing off his tricks on the basketball court (in a scene worryingly similar to one from the cinematic travesty Catwoman). He begins to woo the girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a blonde, sassy science-type herself, and Peter’s original love interest in the comics way back in the 1960s. Because these details matter. Of course all this success and cool skateboarding comes with a sacrifice, and his relationship with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) becomes strained. Soon Ben is gunned down by an assailant who Peter selfishly chose not to stop during an earlier robbery. Racked with guilt, Peter decides to become a hero.

Peter Parkour

Well actually no, he doesn’t. He decides to go on a massive vigilante hunt tracking down goons who resemble his uncle’s killer. While doing the police a minor service, his actions are more than a little shameful and all too Batman. Thankfully a supervillain is on the way.

Dr Connors, with Peter’s help, develops a cross-species chemical thingy that might allow him to regrow his missing arm (we never find out where it went) by injecting himself with lizard DNA, but sure enough within minutes he’s a giant lizardman wreaking havoc on NYC. Determined to save the city and the man who can tell him about his parents (probably, Peter never mentions it again), Spider-Man must battle the Lizard and… well, it’s all the same from here on in.

This can only end badly

The Amazing Spider-Man has a lot going for it. Adeptly directed by Marc Webb (who made the appealing but bafflingly overrated (500) Days of Summer), it balances strong scenes of teenage anxiety with a surprisingly believable romance and some dizzying, well-choreographed and rather amazing action sequences. James Horner’s score is suitably epic throughout.

Andrew Garfield, who has frustratingly played the tear-stained, put-upon barely-adult all-too-many times before, finally gets his day in the sun as a character who avenges all his previous geek roles by leaping into affirmative action. And he really gets into the role, convincingly balancing moments of gentle tragedy with witty retorts during his wall-crawling escapades. Emma Stone similarly gets a strong role to sink her teeth into, a character who has all the pluck the Mary Jane role lacked in the original Spider-Man trilogy. Stone and Garfield, an item since filming this movie, have a suitably awkward but intense onscreen chemistry, and with Webb’s background in romantic comedy, it is this chemistry rather than the 3D action (or the silly “the lizard knows my daddy” sub[?]plot) that carries the film. Sheen and Field are similarly fine in their supporting roles.

Honestly I’d be jealous if they weren’t so damned adorable together

But as I’ve noted already, all this charming romance and quippery is buried in a bog-standard villain-of-the-week plot. Rhys Ifans, coasting carelessly, plays a role that has barely been sketched. Connors is not jealous of Parker (Sr or Jr), he’s not overly ambitious, and while he wants his arm back he doesn’t seem utterly traumatised by not having it. After his injection, he succumbs to a bad case of what the villains in the first two Spider-Man films fells prey to – superpower-induced megalomania. (Say what you will against Spider-Man 3 (please do, it’s wretched), but at least its villains had reasons to be bad). Once Connors becomes the Lizard, a weird CGI creature that more closely resembles Spider-Man villain the Scorpion than the traditional Lizard, he does nothing but rampage, attack children and try to poison New York.

The various other plot threads of the film are abandoned like somany threads of webbing across the skyline of Manhattan. The mystery of Parker’s parents is not left unexplained, but rather sidelined by the reptile hunt. Similarly Ben’s killer remains at large, possibly set to become the Sandman in a likely sequel (dear lord no). References to Connors’s experiments being the only thing that can “save” Norman Osborn (owner of OsCorp, villain of the first Spider-Man and traditionally the web-slinger’s arch-nemesis) are similarly discarded, with only hints that he may be connected to the Parkers’ vanishing.

Ben and May: The only parents a good Spider-Man will ever need

And this Osborn stuff is at the root of The Amazing Spider-Man’s problems. While almost justifying itself as a reboot, it fails to do what is required of major comic book movies now: world-building. While the Avengers movies all hinted at their shared universe, even before them Batman Begins hinted at the rise of the Joker in its final reel. While Osborn is clearly part of the Amazing world, the only real hint at things to come is a mid-credits sequence about Peter’s parents. But at this stage who cares? What The Amazing Spider-Man needed more than anything was a last-minute stunt casting, having a major actor play Osborn or some other Spider-Man nemesis (or ally) to make us believe in this world. Because believing in this world requires us to believe it is better than the Raimi Spider-verse. And while Spider-Man 3 tainted that world to no end, it was still a place that we cinemagoers spent many years of our lives. So if we’re going somewhere new, you need to sell it better, and build it bigger, than this.

There is plenty of general clumsiness on display – a deus ex machina referred to early on as “gathering dust for 15 years”, but which is clearly plugged in, stands out – but we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from our blockbusters. A forced reference to Spider-Man’s traditional origin in the wrestling ring goes down like a lead balloon, while a skateboarding montage seems as desperate to be cool as the ‘Stayin’ Alive’ strut from Spider-Man 3 was desperate to be embarrassing. A scene where Parker tries to make money off photographing his alter-ego in action reaps no reward, denying a link to his traditional profession and also failing to explain how he pays for his nightly pursuits. At least the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo (he created most of Marvel’s biggest heroes, in case you’ve missed him before) is amongst the cleverest yet.

The action scenes are slick and witty, although one sequence oddly falls back on the jingoism that those in the original Spider-Man films demanded in reaction to 9/11 – now in 2012 it feels very out of place. Determined to scupper the fun, the 3D effects on display are amongst the most jarring seen since Clash of the Titans, with horrendously blurred backgrounds and double imaging rife.

Needlessly overlong (it is but a few minutes shorter than Spider-Man 3!), The Amazing Spider-Man is still arguably the best Spider-Man movie yet. Its decision to set the story entirely during Peter’s high school days is a wise one, which adds to the character’s confusions and uncertainties. The love story is more believable, and Garfield’s Parker is more likeable than Maguire’s. Ironically it is in the major shifts from the original, particularly the empty mysterious parents story, that The Amazing Spider-Man falls down. Because of this, all the best bits in the film feel like retreads, even if for the most part they are pulled off with far more success than Raimi ever managed.

Quiet, no one likes you!

If 2002’s Spider-Man didn’t exists, The Amazing Spider-Man could have been one of the superhero movie genre’s greats. A truly amazing Spider-Man movie still alludes Hollywood, and probably will until Marvel get their hands on the rights.

3/5

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2008 in Review – The Year the Audience Sat Still

Best of 2008

There seems to be plenty of division over whether 2008 was a successful year at the cinema. Certainly, as the world collapsed around us in all other respects (or so it seemed), the movie world kept up a steady output and, at least in Hollywood terms, continued to turn a profit.

There were enough films to both keep minds racing and allow them to shut down, and films from either side of this divide fared as well as one another.

There was plenty more comic book nonsense in cinemas, but also some of the best films of that newfangled sub-genre thus far came out in 2008.

At the Oscars and the various other award shows, there were few surprises, but also few cries of films being undeserving of their awards as in other recent years.

Even here in Ireland the Irish film industry reacted to one musical award success by producing some of the best Irish films in over a decade, slowly beginning the long crawl out of the gutter of inadequacy.

There were losses of course; Heath Ledger died early in the year and left expectant fans gobsmacked, while Paul Newman and Sydney Pollack – to name but two – passed after tremendous careers in cinema.

There were films I was sorry to miss; I was too cowardly to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days alone, and couldn’t find anyone who dared accompany me. Waltz with Bashir came out when there was simply no time available to see it. Man on Wire also passed me by. These and many more will be caught up with in the coming months.

There were disappointments as well, mostly in films by reliable filmmakers, and indeed in reliable franchises. Hellboy 2 smacked of fanboyism instead of relishing in the same beautiful darkness of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Indiana Jones returned; needlessly. And James Bond’s 22nd outing was so sloppy it sadly undid much of the greatness of Casino Royale.

As for me, I personally had a great year, cinematically speaking. The highlights are numerous; watching Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm as the centenary of David Lean’s life passed by (I also saw Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter for the first time over the year); stumbling upon Wings of Desire, Amores Perros, The Leopard and many others for the first time; watching Crank with a selection of my closest, and most sugared-up, friends at an absurd hour of the night. Laughing til I could no longer breathe at Robo Vampire. These are the sort of films you never forget not just because of how great (or terrible) they are but because of where and how and who you were at the time you saw them.

Similarly there were other special, more personal moments. I had the privilege of interviewing both Will Ferrell and Michael Palin in the space of just a few months. At the Irish premier of There Will Be Blood I had a remarkable – if utterly terrifying – encounter with Daniel Day-Lewis. Jeremy Irons invited me to dinner, though never followed through.

As well as all that, this blog was begun.

Thus far in 2009 the crop of films looks tantalising, and one can easily look forward to Milk or Revolutionary Road as much as one can to Watchmen or even the sequel to Transformers. Here’s hoping for as memorable a 2009.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for, here’s my personal selection of the best films I saw in 2008.

(Note: this list is made up entirely of new films released in Ireland in 2008, that I saw. Thus, certain films released internationally in 2007, such as Juno, are present here. In turn, late 2008 international releases, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will not appear until next year.)

20. Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain was somewhat of a letdown, and was undoubtedly overlong, but the photography, taking in countless greys and greens, was beautiful, and the central performance by Tang Wei was superb. A shot late in the film, of a diamond-laden ring representing betrayal finding its equilibrium on a hard wooden table, was one of the year’s most impressing images.

19. Things We Lost in the Fire

The American debut of Susanne Bier was disappointing for reasons somewhat out of her control. The script’s abandoning of its fractured storyline after the first act was unsettling, and the casting of Benicio del Toro in a film so similar in feel to 21 Grams was a mistake. But it was shot in a very personal style that felt distinctly un-American, and for which it went largely unrecognised by critics and cinemagoers. The performance by Micah Berry (no relation to Halle) as the young son was notable, while David Duchovny gave what may stand to be the performance of his career.

18. Kung Fu Panda
Dreamworks may not have broken the mould with this latest animal caper, but it certainly moved into a more mature, less spoofing area of family comedy with some clever gags and superbly arranged action. Sweet in nature and low on character development, it took delight in its own silliness and provided some splendid animation, particularly in its opening sequence.

17. Lars and the Real Girl
Sweet may not be the word, in fact, Lars and the Real Girl was at times undeniably creepy, but it had buckets of wit to support itself on. The story of a man so awkward and retreated that he can only express himself through the love he shares (romantically, only) for a life-size sex doll is so inventive that it could hardly be anything less than charming.

16. Juno

Perhaps lacking the ambition of Thank You For Smoking, Juno certainly had heart, a solid script by Diablo Cody and an adorable cast. Ellen Page got the majority of the credit, but really it was Michael Cera as the stupefyingly realistic teen dad-to-be and JK Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s reluctantly supportive parents who deserve the most credit. The quirky soundtrack and dialogue added to the fun of the proceedings and let the film skirt around its unwillingness to genuinely tackle the issue of teen pregnancy.

15. Iron Man

Comic book mayhem got a whole bag of cool dropped on it this year. Robert Downey Jr played Tony Stark/Iron Man like a father hastily unwrapping his son’s new train set on Christmas morning. Gwyneth Paltrow emerged from who-knows-where to play his long-suffering and ignored love interest with more class than the film deserved. Yes, it was all a little rushed, the villain was terrible and the final action sequence was a mess, but – hey look! Another explosion! Fun!

14. Cloverfield
Seriously, who needs well-developed characters when you have nauseating camerawork and a giant alien crab-lizard tearing up Manhattan?! The night vision subway sequence was superbly built-up and executed, while the whole film gave off a 9/11 but with popcorn feel.

13. Caramel

As sweet as its delicious title, this Lebanese delight from all-round talent Nadine Labaki was the film most deserving of out-the-door queues of chick flick-eager women. Beautifully acted and shot, Labaki chose to ignore the politics and strife of her country and focus on the simple pleasures and sadness of everyday life.

12. Mamma Mia!

Not what one would consider a true piece of art, Mamma Mia! burst at the sides with so much energy and fun that even the dire karaoke singing of most of its leads couldn’t hold it down. Much prettier to look at than it ever needed to be, few were able to resist its cheeky charm.

11. Wanted

For years we’ve waited for a film in which two bullets, shot by two characters at one another, would collide in slow motion and fall to the ground. But who knew we were waiting for a keyboard, shattered across a man’s face, to spell out “Fuck you”? It turns out we were! Hectic, noisy and decidedly over-the-top, Wanted showed enough ‘mad as hell’ attitude to make it more memorable than your average blockbusting tripe. A cautiously curious squeak from a doomed rodent may have been the year’s funniest sound.

10. In Bruges

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s feature-length debut was as dark as dark can be. Obvious targets for humour, such as overweight American tourists, were made funnier by Colin Farrell’s violently disrespectful delivery of lines we’ve all thought and bottled up inside. Brendan Gleeson also brought a feckload of fun to the proceedings as a simple hitman with a fondness for historical architecture. The duo were unfortunately outgunned and outclassed by the scenery-devouring Ralph Fiennes. The profanity was wonderful, though the ending attempted a philosophical sentiment that the film couldn’t really support.

9. Gomorrah

Violent and gritty, the underbelly of the criminal world has never been portrayed quite like this. There were times when it felt like the cameras were intruding on real events where it was dangerous to be filming. Amazingly, if simply, realised.

8. Persepolis

From Marjane Satrapi’s bittersweet graphic novel came a film that dared to change little from its source material. The growth of little Marji’s confidence in the film’s first act was reflected by her subsequent disillusionment with life in Iran and the world as a whole. Iraqi gasmasks became alien faces and burka-clad fundamentalists became snake-like nightmares through the simple but mesmerising animation. Honest and full of wit.

7. The Orphanage

At the same time clichéd and yet utterly original, The Orphanage was that rare joy – a horror film where nothing really happens. Using the simplest tricks of the trade – a motionless child, creaking floorboards, never-resting cameras – Juan Antonio Bayona created a house of largely unseen horrors, where everything you feared was only what you assumed you should fear. Likely to become a classic of the genre.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A late release in Ireland allowed this gem to make the cut for 2008. Harrowing and beautiful, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s stroke-imprisoned body allowed for a rich story of hope and sentimentalism while allowing director Julian Schnabel to experiment with camera trickery, light and inventive editing. Mathieu Amalric gave one of the year’s best performances as Bauby, so full of life at one moment, the next, frozen.

5. The Dark Knight

Building on the back of Batman Begins, already a pinnacle of comic book movies, Christopher Nolan drew back on Bale’s Batman and allowed other characters to move to the fore, particularly Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent. Though hindered by a necrophiliac curiosity, Heath Ledger’s Joker was certainly one of the most impressive performances of the year. Broken up by clumsy plot holes and an at times overly complex narrative, The Dark Knight thrilled and impressed on several levels, and deserves much of the acclaim it has received.

4. There Will Be Blood

As grandiose in its scale as is the figure at its centre, this beast of a film could not be ignored in 2008. Violent in tone, like many of the best films this year it sought to look at what makes a man, and what a man can be at his worst. Succeeding through Daniel Day-Lewis’s authoritative and terrifying performance (one should not overlook the quality of the writing however), the finale answered that question of what happens when an unstoppable force hits a formerly immovable object. Paul Dano can easily be overlooked due to the towering Day-Lewis, but gave a truly impressive performance as Eli Sunday, a young man twelve fathoms out of his league. The music kept the viewer on edge, while the shocking photography echoed the greatest films of American cinema, from Greed to Gone with the Wind.

3. Hunger

More of an experiment with the possibilities of the camera than a political eulogy, Steve McQueen’s biopic-of-sorts of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands is slow, contemplative and utterly intense. From the beautiful yet ghastly art of a faeces-smeared prison wall and the wasting away of Sands’s body (Michael Fassbender is a revelation in the lead role), to the lighting of a cigarette by bloodied hands and the slow and haunting washing a prison floor, Hunger is nothing less than a work of art. It may become more famous for its exhausting single take sequence in which Sands debates his fate with Liam Cunningham’s priest, but the shot that sticks with you is a blinding beam of sunlight blasting through a bus window.

2. No Country For Old Men
The Coen brothers’ returned to their best this year, again taking a dark and twisted look at humanity, but this time with less wit, and a greater awareness of the potential of the story they were telling. Using Texas in 1980 as a wilderness representative of man’s emptiness, the story injected a pulse-pounding thriller into this void that never stopped pumping til the last minute. Eschewing a musical soundtrack in favour of fear-drenching silence, No Country took several thrilling set-pieces – a river escape from a vicious dog, a darkened stand-off at a hotel door – and divided them with moments of simple reflection that asked no deep questions but invited you to contemplate the answers. The decision to remove some of the most important sequences from the film adds to its sense of chaos and disorder. The stellar cast acted it with such honesty you might believe they were in fear of the script itself.

1. Wall·E

Arguably Pixar’s greatest achievement to date, Wall·E demands to be taken seriously. Almost utterly-dialogue free for the duration of its first act, the film builds a romance between two robots in a future where mankind has lost all sense of humanity. Building on the great debates of science fiction; what does it mean to be human?; what are the effects of our unending obsession with commercialism?; how will our relationship with nature affect the future?; Wall·E repackages them in a new form that is a glory to behold. Spellbindingly beautiful and sickeningly sweet, this animated marvel can appeal to anyone of any age, and will forever have something to say to those who watch it. That there is even a supply of heart-warming gags to boot only seals this as one of the most wonderful products of American cinema in a generation.

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And now, as an extra treat, here are the five worst films of 2008, in my embittered opinion.

5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Great talent wasted on a cacophony of wretched melodies, the clever production design couldn’t hide the hideous CGI nor excuse such a great collection of actors (Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter) reduced to their very worst. The one amusing joke – an unexpected light-hearted slicing of the throat – is a gag, if you’ll forgive the pun, that gets utterly done to death.

4. Be Kind Rewind

An unpleasant and confused little oddity that sees two capable actors (Jack Black and Mos Def) compete for the title of most irritating. It not only never quite gets its tone right, it also came out about 10 years too late to be of any real relevance. The adoration it attempts to show for the cinema really comes off as a pornographic irreverence.

3. Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem

Two once-dominant franchises reduced to teen horror nonsense. One earnestly suspects that no-one involved knows what the word ‘requiem’ means.

2. The Other Boleyn Girl

As ugly as it is dull, this film forced two hours of the most horrid characters upon its unsuspecting victims. Eric Bana appears utterly bemused by where he is and what he is supposed to be doing, while Johansson and Portman repeatedly do their bests to out-bitch one another. The ending hilariously draws you away from the story to focus on the future Queen Elizabeth, as if to try and make you leave the cinema thinking fondly of a far superior film.

1. Ghost Town

A wretchedly nasty little film, an attempt at a comedic The Sixth Sense, sees the talents of Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni squandered in what just might be the most blatant victim of the writers’ strike. One moment of genuine sweetness is so heavy in saccharine after an hour of hell that it feels violating and manipulative. The open-ended finale may have seemed original and smart, but makes it feel as if those involved had no real idea of where they wanted this aimless mess to go.

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Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Review

In 2004 Hellboy made a ripple on the ever-growing superhero movie scene that was swallowed up in the wave of larger fare such as Spiderman 2. It was somewhat of a shame, as Hellboy featured one of the comic world’s more interesting and most entertaining of protagonists; one third repentant demon, one third Dirty Harry, one third moany teenager.

What Guillermo del Toro did with Hellboy should be admired, particularly in light of the fact that the film is essentially a big amusing failure. Part of the agreement in casting the ideal Ron Perlman in the lead role was that the budget ended up slashed. As a result, demon-hunter Hellboy ends up fighting the same monster over and over and over. And over. It wasn’t even that interesting a monster (on a barely related note, Sammael in fact looked far more like the hybrid of a Predator and a xenomorph than that monstrosity that turned up in AVP2 did). Also, the introduction of the character of John Myers, who was meant to be the awestruck human who eased us into this not particularly alien world of demons and whatnots, managed to weigh the film down more than any number of budget constraints could.

But due to an abundance of style and wit the film was crowd-pleasing enough to take a decent handful of cash and run for the hills. Combining that with the numerous Oscar wins and noms for del Toro’s stunning Pan’s Labyrinth, and a sequel to Hellboy was almost guaranteed.

So comes Hellboy II: The Golden Army, an embarrassingly colour-by-numbers sequel. Oh sure, they’re pretty spectacular colours (gone is the obnoxious dark blue tone of Hellboy that made the film too dark at times to even see – yes, it was nearly as obnoxious as that nauseating green hue from the Matrix sequels). But as I will continuously point out here again and again, production values cannot excuse a bad film’s badness.

Hellboy II has much of what you could ask from a sequel (and what many sequels nowadays fail to cash in on): the best of the cast return, the worst character has been written out and the action and spectacle have ante-upped considerably. Ron Perlman is so perfectly comfortable as Hellboy we could imagine he never took the make-up off in the last four years. Selma Blair sexes up her goth image from the first film to a far more pleasing degree. And while Doug Jones’s Abe Sapien still fails to crossover from comedic support to central character, his own voice is actually far more suited to the character than David Hyde Pierce’s over-stuffy re-dubbing for the first film. Best of all, Agent Myers is gone, although the fact that the film should even take a second to explain where he has gone (Antarctica) shows a level of compassion for the terrible character that he does not even deserve – no doubt audiences would have been happier to be left imagining all the terrible things that might have happened to him since the last film and be done with it.

What’s missing is the sense of doom from the first film. Here an embittered elf is determined to reap his revenge on mankind. Hellboy has to stop him. But the first film (and the comics as well, I understand) spent so much time highlighting how Hellboy himself was the doom of the world, that this plot seems bizarrely secondary, like an episode of a Hellboy TV show, or one of the admirable but similarly ignorable animated Hellboy movies, Sword of Storms and Blood and Iron. There are a few references to Hellboy’s greater (evil) purpose, but by in large the plot of this film seems to wish to overshadow it, which it simply cannot.

So yes, there’s evil elf (Luke Goss), and he has a trollish henchman, and they try to control a giant mechanical army. And Hellboy tries to stop him, by going largely against the book, and against his new father figure, ghost-in-a-suit Johann Krauss (whose very existence raises far too many questions). And all the way along it’s very very pretty. And Abe falls in love with evil elf’s twin sister. And it’s utterly unbelievable.

The fairest way to continue this review is to completely tear the film apart and then talk for a time about how pretty it is. Cause then we’ll all feel much better.

Hellboy was a funny film. There was wit, and an underlying sense of fun and joy in the subject, but that is largely gone here. Hellboy’s quips have become so stock that the film asks us to laugh purely based on the delivery. “And stay down” shouts Hellboy as he slams his bulky opponent to the floor. Ok, why not? Maybe there is no more suitable line available, but I’m certain anything would have been funnier. Even the cleverest line of the film, delivered by a disturbing infant growing out of some monster, is delivered with clumsy gurgling. It’s quite a shame really.

There are numerous other things to nitpick at, such as the sequence battling the tooth fairies in which the “red shirt” agents are boringly picked off one by one, or the Men in Black-stolen scene at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense where Jeffrey Tambor’s FBI chief stumbles through his lines so awkwardly it seems he never saw the script (oh yes, it’s clearly meant to look like he’s flustered, but it makes for terrible cinema).

But Hellboy II’s biggest failing is it is patronising – oh so patronising. Perhaps more so than recent Spiderman or Superman films. And it’s a tragedy coming from the same filmmaker who broke so many rules with Pan’s Labyrinth. Even Agent Myers looks like a helpful narrative construct compared to some of the scenes in this film. For example, the emphasis on the connection between the two elf twins could not be any more heavy-handed. By the time we reach the film’s climax only two people in the audience don’t know what’s going to happen to the villain and neither of them are expected for another five or six months. Speaking of babies, the baby plot adds almost nothing to the film bar a bone of contention between Hellboy and Liz. So Hellboy has to grow up now; well he always did – that was the point of the first film, why does he need a baby (babies) to change that?

Countless parodies have been done in the last few years of how to make a sequel to a superhero film, and disturbingly it is Hellboy II, a film that could have been groundbreakingly (or at least tremoringly) different, that hits almost every single clichéd note. The superhero is unveiled to the public (in a slow-motion musical explosion sequence that is simply terribly executed), the villain implies that the hero is more like the villain than those he protects (queue Willem Dafoe-style cackling), the people he protects turn against him, he is left mortally wounded but saved by love, etc. It’s so by-the-books it could bring you to tears. It even concludes with Hellboy triumphantly “quitting the force”, only to leave himself and his team stranded in Northern Ireland (they strut triumphantly in the opposite direction of their plane). There are no excuses, not from a director who has become such an icon filming a source material that has been considered so out of the ordinary. He co-wrote the script with Mike Mignola himself!

All that considered, it is very pretty, and in the end this was always going to be a test run for del Toro’s shot at The Hobbit. And the clockwork-fetishist has undoubtedly impressed, with his team creating some remarkable visualisations. The Troll Market, although perhaps not as grand in scale as it might have been, is so brilliantly laid out, and populated by such bizarre and interesting beasties that one doesn’t know what to admire most. Make-up, puppetry and animatronics create creatures that are as much Uruk-hai as they are Skeksis, a wonderful combination of available technologies – further hinting at what joys The Hobbit might bring.

Most enjoyable of all is the film’s opening, in which the story’s prologue is narrated in a marionette-style fashion that recalls Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s 2004 film Strings. Charming, if far too early a peak for the film.

The sequence in which the elemental god covers the city in glowing grass could not have been done better without flying Miyazaki in to show them how it should be done. Character designs, such as the legless goblin (with a surprisingly authentic Northern Irish accent), the elf king and Death (truly noteworthy) are all the signs of a master filmmaker, who is simply slumming it with an incomplete script. The final battle against the clockwork army in the clockwork palace atop a clockwork floor is notable not just for the impressive choreography but also for being a CG action sequence which never really feels confusing. It’s a sign of just how far the technology has come and the good it can do in the right hands.

Alas these were the right hands at the wrong time. A beautiful experience does not a good film make. While del Toro is clearly still learning – he has admittedly created here a villain who is not just evil for the sake of it as in his previous films – we certainly should have expected more from this, and it goes to show that in terms of storytelling he is still far behind his compatriots Cuarón and Iñárritu. It had been such a strong summer in terms of blockbusters, it’s somewhat of a tragedy that a director so reliable should let himself down so greatly.

2/5

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The Dark Knight – Review

“Do you know what I am?” asks the Joker in a pink dress. “I’m like a dog chasing cars; I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.” The demented nature of Heath Ledger’s Joker, violently obsessive in his nihilism, is the greatest indicator of how The Dark Knight is not traditional comic book fare.

Even 2005’s Batman Begins, also directed by Christopher Nolan, seems very by-the-books when compared to this dark character drama in a comic book setting. While Begins should be and has been lauded for its style and character development, it still obeys all the comic book movie rules. Just like this summer’s Iron Man, the lead hero has an enlightening experience in the Far East, realises he can do more with his life and starts to save the day before correcting an evil that he is partially responsible for.

The Dark Knight shares very little in common with similar comic book sequels. In fact, characters and actors aside, it feels like an entirely different film to Begins; a development, an improvement. The huge hype that precedes the film (attributable to its admirable predecessor and the passing of Heath Ledger, who it should be remembered was being much talked about for his performance even before his unexpected death) will not have escaped many, and given the sheer intensity of the storyline and the film’s surprising length (2 and a half hours), the film may alienate the fun-seeking public in what has been quite a crowd-pleasing summer so far.

But it is because of this maturity and ambition that it will be the most memorable film of summer 2008, and its potential failure to find a sustained audience (it will no doubt burst the banks on its opening) would suggest only that audiences are so used to being spoon-fed their entertainment that they can no longer accept anything with sophistication and class. But its success is almost assured – this is superb filmmaking.

The film begins a short time after Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale once more) is still balancing businessman, playboy and midnight avenger roles, focusing largely on the latter as he cleans up the various factions of the Gotham City mob. “Batman has no limits” he insists, but as he learned Batman’s power for good in the first film, here the limitations of his secret identity are laid out for him all too clearly.

The Joker is the one who teaches him this lesson. No longer the giggling crook of previous incarnations, Ledger’s Joker is as insane as he is genius. Like a young Hannibal Lecter with Asperger’s he robs and kills not for profit or power, nor really for fun, but because there is sport in it; because someone else must lose for him to succeed, and even if he fails he might just bring the opponent down with him. Although as cold, calculating and unpredictable as Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (not the last reference I will be making to that film in this review), it is not that which makes him terrifying, but rather the realisation that because Batman cannot kill him he simply cannot be stopped from killing.

Stepping back from the camp and outlandish interpretations of the Joker in the past, Ledger spends the first half of the film relaxing us into the role, making us comfortable with how incredibly unsettled he makes us. As his schemes become wilder so does his performance, he begins to laugh his horrible laugh more. Jack Nicholson’s Joker created panic through poisoning the masses. Ledger’s Joker creates panic by declaring that a single innocent civilian must be killed to save hundreds, making everyone a violent vigilante. His sadism is almost cartoonish in its villainy, if it weren’t so utterly gruesome in its body count.

Between Batman and the Joker is Harvey Dent (the regularly excellent Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney and boyfriend to Wayne’s ex, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal acceptably replaces Katie Holmes’s acceptable performance in Begins). Dent is idealistic like Wayne, but works within the system. His rise, rise and crashing fall is actually the main focus of the film, as by trying to be more of a hero like Batman he ultimately becomes a monster like the Joker, highlighting the difference between the two “freaks” in his huge character arc.

While Ledger’s name has been repeatedly (and prematurely) touted for Oscar glory, and he is admittedly excellent, Eckhart really is the soul of this film, though understandably not the main attraction. His performance is simply excellent, and often difficult to watch knowing where it will lead to. For the second time this year a man has decided life or death with the flip of a coin (Chigurh in No Country being the first, of course) and the tension it creates is not traditional summer blockbuster stuff. As opposed to the raving lunatic Tommy Lee Jones portrayed in Batman Forever (1995), where he appeared to be channelling Cesar Romero as the Joker, this Two-Face is a ghastly spectre of vengeance and chaos – the effects used to create his scarring are indescribably unpleasant, though brilliant.

Of the returning cast members all are notable improvements on already great performances, though much of this has to do with the tightness of the script. Gary Oldman is far more comfortable in the Jim Gordon role, while Michael Caine continues to excel in a role that sometimes feels as if it might have been created for him. Morgan Freeman, little more than a likeable black Q in Begins, here has enough screen time to develop the limited character of Lucius Fox into something much more than a few one-liners.

So unlike such comic tripe such as last month’s The Incredible Hulk, story and character are the main foci here. But what about the explosions and punches that many come to see this sort of film (or rather the sort of film that this is being advertised as) for? There are some superb set pieces; a scene-setting bank heist, a Mission Impossible-style infiltration, an explosive road battle and a climactic sonar-vision brawl (you think I made that up, but I didn’t). Batman equips a new suit that unfortunately appears indistinguishable from the previous one (err, it’s also black), but his new gadget of choice is the fantastic Batpod (the lovechild of a ménage à trois between a tank, a motorcycle and a massage table), which makes a jaw-droppingly awesome first appearance.

The film has decidedly less humour in it than the first film, not including the not-sure-if-you-should-be-laughing-or-squirming contributions of the Joker. The romantic subplot is inoffensive. What this film really has going for it is just how smartly it has been developed. The Nolan brothers’ script is loaded with Memento-ish detail. What would be a minor subplot in other superhero movies – a Wayne employee stumbles upon his dual life – becomes, like a beer mat in a dead man’s jacket, a pivotal cog in the story’s development. Every iota of information is relevant and connected. There is no apologising here for the story originating in an “inferior medium” – this is complex, intelligent and stylish storytelling, as mature and dark as its title implies.

Certainly it does run a touch long (the major action sequence seen in trailers ends with an hour to spare), though one would be hard pressed to find what to cut without raising the Spiderman 3 “who needs another villain” argument. The score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is still lacking as it was in the first one, always building to a crescendo it never quite reaches. Bale’s Batman voice does become grating, and Cillian Murphy’s appearance as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow is pointlessly brief. But beyond those there can be few complaints that aren’t simply a matter of taste, bar perhaps the potential for young viewers to be upset or disturbed by what is really quite heavy entertainment.

The hugely affecting ending will no doubt have audiences and studio execs begging for a second sequel, making ever-more tragic the loss of Ledger, but we should hope that they are not disappointed. The Dark Knight (alternative title: No Country for Bat Men ?) is the best and most memorable film to be released this summer thus far. Do not miss it.

5/5

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The Incredible Hulk – Review

While this review is a little behind on the rest, and has no hope of having the impact of this gem from The Guardian which has been seen by practically everyone at this stage, I haven’t had this much to piss and moan about a film in a long time, so I must write.

What is wrong with The Incredible Hulk? Well, a lot of things. The best way to demonstrate this is to compare it to the critically puzzling and audience-alienating Hulk of 2003, directed by Ang Lee. I for one am a defender of that film, not in that I think it is particularly good, but in that it is probably the best comic book movie of the past ten years, barring Batman Begins. That of course says very little

But there was undoubtedly a lot to be corrected in a new Hulk film. The comic book editing style of Hulk, that most people choose to ignore but was truly inspired, was visually too much for audiences to bear. So it goes in the bin. The cinematography was too dark, so they partially corrected that (though not entirely). The love story wasn’t romantic enough, so let’s make them hug in the rain – check. The villain wasn’t villainous enough (admittedly Nick Nolte and the character he played were 95% of what was wrong with Hulk), so let’s replace him with an Englishman!

Another major criticism of Hulk was that there was too much drama and character development (good god, not character development, in a work of fictional entertainment!), and too little “Hulk Smash”, and to be honest, there’s relatively little of either here. The Incredible Hulk has Ed Norton suppressing his inner rage for much of the film only to unleash it in three bursts (one utterly obscured by, yes, you’ve got it, under-lit cinematography) of rampaging computer graphics.

So let’s start with Norton. Admittedly, as much as he normally deserves a smack in the mouth, he’s perfectly fine here. He doesn’t quite do the rage stare as well as Eric Bana did, but he can do angry all the same. Alas, what neither actor can do is funny, which is a shame because this film tries several times to pull off humour (another shame, but we’ll get back to that).

Norton is an acceptable actor awash in a sea of dire performing. Liv Tyler simply needs to be put down. She speaks so softly and slowly that you’d swear she was in love with a man who was slowly dying of cancer and not liable to rip her oddly-shaped head from her shoulders at any minute. Playing Betty Ross, supposedly a PhD in molecular biology, she repeatedly asks simple questions about the subject that she is supposed to a world-class expert in. She sounds less like a doctor and more like the receptionist at a health spa. To compare her beauty and self-confidence with that of Jennifer Connelly is like comparing a curled up hedgehog with a roaring tiger.

On the other side of miscasting, William Hurt plays General Ross, who the filmmakers spend half of the film trying to make it seem as though he is not her father so there can be a “twist” in the middle of the film. FAIL. Poor William Hurt though. One of the best actors of the 1980s (see The Big Chill, Broadcast News), who vanished in the 90s (well, there was Lost in Space), he has repeatedly popped-up in almost big roles in several films since 2000, including The Village, Into the Wild and A History of Violence, for which he received an Oscar nod. Here he replaces the lovable Sam Elliott in a role that was the original Hulk’s greatest highlight. But it’s not so much Hurt’s fault, what the writers have done is destroy his character. Hulk’s “Thuderbolt” was a man torn between protecting his country from a menace that could perhaps be harnessed for good, and saving the man his daughter loves. In The Incredible Hulk, Ross was the man behind the experiment that made Bruce Banner the Hulk, and is now a two-dimensional character only interested in dissecting the Hulk and stealing his secrets. A man once torn between his country and his daughter is now torn between being a villain and being slightly less of a villain. The Hulk franchised has stepped down a very silly pit.

Meanwhile, just for added villainosity, Englishman Tim Roth, the uninspired man’s Gary Oldman, plays a Royal Marine with a Russian name who wears American military regalia. Was anyone awake on this film? Yes, he is having a good time being a sadistic atomic steroid junkie, but the more inhuman his character becomes the less interesting he is. By the time he becomes the Abomination, a questionably designed monstrosity, the fun is all gone – the two hulks can pound away at each other, but do we really care? Worst of all is the decision to make the Abomination speak with a series of hackneyed roars of “Is that the best you can do?” and other goading villainous tough-guy remarks. It’s well known that American audiences can’t bear more than a minute without some superfluous dialogue, but one still feels Abomination would have been better off snarling like a beast than impersonating John McClane.

So since this film is more or less just an action film (I accept that there is an alleged serious cut out there but there’s no evidence of readily available improvements missing here), how good is that action? Well the Hulk stuff isn’t really that great. An improvement on Hulk, but not much. Tanks and cars gets thrown and tossed, and the Abomination gets his face punched in, but really there could be more. Worst of all, one can’t fight the nasty little feeling that every time the Hulk picks up a new object to use as a weapon we are being sold a toy. Hulk; with metal door shield action! Hulk; with half car fist action! Hulk; with stranglehold chain action! Hulk; with laughing at you while you spend all your money on a toy with no purchasable nemesis action!

Ironically, the one excellent action sequence, and the film’s sole highlight, is an early chase scene through a Brazilian slum, which really gets the adrenaline pumping. Absent for much of the sequence is the Hulk, suggesting that director Louis Leterrier should stick to strictly human-based action films. In one of the film’s sloppiest moments, the action sequence ends up in a factory where all the machinery gets turned on, but unlike The Terminator nothing comes of this, it just adds a little bit of extra flashing lights and noise, a summation for all this film is if ever there was one.

The humour largely falls flat; with jokes about stretchy purple pants seemingly apologetic that this film has come from embarrassing and lesser material. The effects are fine but they are simply overused, and while they have managed to make the Hulk look less cartoonish, they have also made him look more hideous and unappealing. If the proposed Avengers film (here hinted at before the credits as everyone missed the scene after Iron Man) ever happens, they would want to come up with something a little more interesting for the Hulk to do than take deep breaths until they want him to smash stuff up.

Number of days since I’ve seen a crappy movie: 2

1/5

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