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Raggedy Adams is an alien dwelling in Birmingham, living vicariously through the flickering of a projector on a white screen. He's drank the Kool-Aid of modern cinema. Will you?

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

12. The Amazing Spider-Man

Days behind review schedule: None, since I actually watched it today.

Alternate Title: “How to Make a Superhero Movie without Really Trying… Or Knowing Anything About What Makes It Good”.

The Gist: Spider-Man gets redesigned by committee.

Currently listening to: “Cannonball” by the Breeders/“Do Ya Thing” by Gorillaz, Andre 3000 and James Murphy.

The Experience: Hey! It’s the summer! That means two things.

1. I've got nothing better to do.
2. There are lots of movies to watch.

So after making myself pretty clear about my feelings on this new entry in the Spider-Man cinematic canon based on the trailer and choice of director, Jojo casually pointed out that she was going to see it regardless, which put me in an awkward position: abstain from watching it and never hear the end of how I had no right to criticise a movie I hadn't watched, or pay to see it and contribute to Sony’s coffers whether I like the film or not.

Okay, there was no way of going in there without some hint of prejudice against this film, but I actually was emboldened to watch it by how split down the middle critics and audiences seem to be on it, and now I've seen it I can at least say whatever I want about it with impunity; so I gave The Amazing Spider-Man its day in court after all.

Now, in the interest of objectivity and not giving in to my own biases, I'm going to keep any comparisons to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies as concise and relevant as possible. I'm also not going to bother summarising the plot too much for reasons that will become obvious: it’s basically the first film with certain bits swapped out in favour of… well, as I say, we’ll get to that. Let me first point out some of the stuff I kinda liked about this film.

First, the casting is good. I can never get sick of watching Andrew Garfield doing what he does, Emma Stone is a strong female lead (no shit, Adam, everyone else seems to have figured that out ages ago), Denis Leary and Martin Sheen are good in their supporting roles (again, old news) and as much as this sounds like a cop-out from coming up with a genuine positive criticism, the film is pretty to look at. The CG web-slinging has indeed improved since last we saw Spidey on screen, but that was 5 years ago and there have been some mind-blowing advances in the field since then, so trumpeting that side of it doesn't make a film better, as many were quick to point out to Peter Jackson when he remade King Kong as a three hour long treatise on bestiality and Stockholm syndrome.

And… that’s pretty much it. Credit where it’s due, but there really was not a lot in this film for me to either marvel at (n.p.i.) or that really jumped out at me.

Now there’s a lot of things I don’t care for in this film, but the majority of them come under a pretty clear meta-heading, so this is the main thing that is wrong with the film from my perspective:-

The Amazing Spider-Man is dumb, it has no heart and it has the miasma of studio middle-management all over it.

Regardless of whether you liked the Raimi movies or not, it was Sony’s insistence on cramming Venom into Spider-Man 3 that screwed up the pace of that film and their refusal to let Sam Raimi make the Spider-Man 4 that he wanted to make was what necessitated the creation of this film in the first place. Let’s break it down.

From a creative point of view, the film is almost completely lacking in terms of a consistent palette, a problem that runs downward from the direction to the script to the production design to the score. There’s a clear attempt been made to turn this into a more gritty and realistic version of the Spider-Man mythos, which is not only sabotaged by its attempts at humour (which range from sophomoric to just moronic) but it's made completely pointless by virtue of the fact that the film focuses on a guy in a red and blue body stocking swinging around on webs and has a giant iguana in a lab coat as the main villain. The score is all over the place too, with no discernible motifs to grip onto and a particular music cue that rates as officially one of the worst in cinema history.

This wouldn't be so bad if the script wasn't patently bullshit. Sub-plots and characters are raised and then dropped on a whim, and the few good performances in this seem to be almost in spite of what their working with! Rhys Ifans does his best in a thankless job, but I never bought him as a villain and his flip-flopping between good and evil reads as clumsy direction and shoddy writing.

In fact, all the supposed “villains” in this film suffer the curse of being woefully under-written or having their character arcs hacked to pieces in the editing suite. Some have suspected this is to save some revelations for the sequel, (of which there is bound to be at least one,) but my little black heart of cynicism (as well as the clear absence of several plot point heavy scenes seen in trailers but not in the finished film) tells me otherwise: this movie reeks of reshoots. Green Lantern had this problem as well, but that was a relatively obscure property with no proven track record; Sony has been making Spider-Man films for ten bloody years!

The presence of Norman Osborn is cock-teased throughout, but even the woefully misjudged mid-credits stinger fails to give us a clear idea of what direction the franchise is meant to be going in. Irffan Khan appears as a shady Oscorp boss… who disappears from the film halfway through and is never seen again. Even the mugger who shoots Uncle Ben is reduced to a generic guy who could be anyone (a plot point that the movie attempts to run with for a bit but is neither resolved nor given a satisfactory justification or context).

And it’s not just the villains who have to deal with sucky writing, although that’s bad enough. Garfield and Stone do indeed have good chemistry, but it’s chemistry without substance, and often feels like their just riffing on each other like another notable couple from a Marvel property *cough* Iron Man *unconvincing cough*. The reason I suspect is because the film-makers either didn't understand what makes Peter Parker/Spider-Man a likeable character or they did and just decided to go completely the other way, because there are some scenes early on (even before his powers manifest) when he behaves in ways that are completely uncharacteristic of the established character. Here, Parker isn't just not likeable; he takes pictures of Gwen Stacy in a way that is about this close to being a stalker, he’s unappreciative of and unpleasant to Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and his decision to trespass into the Oscorp labs is what results in him getting bit in the first place. And whilst he (rightfully) blames himself for Uncle Ben’s death, his decision to go around harassing potential criminals in an attempt to find the person responsible makes his initial foray into crime-fighting sort of ethically questionable.

But even the noble Uncle Ben isn't done justice here. Whilst Martin Sheen tries his best, this version is just too curmudgeonly, and his constant lecturing of Peter means that the “with great power comes great responsibility” lesson gets completely lost in the barrage of James Dean-level stroppy teenage angst and “do as your told” parenting. Even poor Aunt May does nothing but fret and wring her hands. And as for Peter’s missing parents… there’s really nothing to say about them. They’re little more than a plot device, a cheap way to get Peter to Oscorp, where Gwen just happens to work as an intern, where he just happens to get bitten, turn into Spider-Man and give his father’s research he has discovered to Dr Connors (passing it off as his own, by the way), precipitating the creation of the Lizard.

Which is another thing that needs to be brought up: this movie has way, WAY too many coincidental plot points!! And the plot points that aren't coincidental are either unexplained or just plain fucking stupid! Peter being able to break into Oscorp by posing as an intern without having to show any ID - stupid. The swinging on cranes thing being played as some big patriotic sign of New Yorker camaraderie - dumb. The clumsily unresolved plot-line involving his parents – really dumb. The emphasis on Parker needing to have a secret identity, in spite of the fact that he creates his suit using resources that can easily be traced back to him, leaves a camera marked with his name on it at the scene of a confrontation with the Lizard (which in turn leads the Lizard back to Peter’s school for the obligatory second act punch-up), not to mention the fact that he keeps coming in late and looking like he’s been put through a clothes mangle – and yet for the entire running time, unless he actually tells someone specifically, NOBODY ELSE IN THE FILM SUSPECTS THAT HE MIGHT BE SPIDER-MAN – SO, SO, SO VERY STUPID.

Of all the performances in this, the one that actually works on its own merits is Denis Leary as Captain Stacey, and here we actually do get a well rounded character that represents the surrogate father figure Peter never had, who actually teaches him about the meaning of sacrifice and responsibility; he is easily the best part of the film, and that’s not intended to be faint praise. But it’s not enough to save the film, and his role feels like its been transplanted in from a completely different movie, which is sort of why this film just doesn't gel from the concept level up – it’s a Frankenstein movie, chopped up and mashed together from bits of other, better films. To say this movie has feet of clay is to grossly misrepresent the structural reliability of clay; if this movie had feet of clay, it would at least be able to stand up on its own.

This brings me neatly to the elephant in the room, the nit that needs picking, the turd in the punchbowl. Lots of people have been split down the middle over whether this film came too early, whether the film is a significant improvement on the direction of the original films, and whether the movie should have come out at all. The fact is, Sony are going to make another film – why wouldn't they? It’s a license to print money, and heaven forbid that the rights revert back to Marvel Studios and by extension Disney. Same with the X-Men franchise – no-one at Fox wants to be responsible for letting that IP go into the long grass. So what we get is a film that’s been designed by studio executives, directed by a cipher with no established track record or clear visual aesthetic besides a slew of pop videos, and based on a script cobbled together from the work of at least three disparate writers.

Now, people are immediately going to point out that Sam Raimi’s films weren't perfect either, and I've already heard people retroactively sneering at them like they were something to be embarrassed of. Yes, Raimi's films aren't perfect, but that misses the point: regardless of how good or bad the old films were, (and let’s face it, everyone loved watching them when they came out, and if you claim otherwise then I call bullshit on that,) the new one should be able to stand on its own merits, and it definitely shouldn't be worse than the original! Many will say the effects have improved but that’s a function of time; that’s like crowing about how The Lion King is so much more "immersive" now that it’s been retro-fitted in 3D. The set pieces are only as impressive as the story that holds them together, and this lacks any of the genuine humour or heart of the Raimi trilogy. This is a boilerplate film that could have really set itself apart from its baggage but instead chooses to aim squarely at the broadest possible market, taking no risks and pushing no envelopes. A damp squib if ever there was one.

Still, I know you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid anyway, and that just makes me sad. Raggedy Adams out.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Spitting Out the Demons Part IV/Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Part IV – Movies That Frustrate Jojo

Okay, you know the drill. These are the reviews I should have really gotten done ages ago, but the good news is I'm officially done with college for the year, which means I've got plenty of time to sweat out a couple more quickie reviews. The theme this time: movies that I can appreciate on a cinematic level but that have frustrated or are likely to frustrate my fiancée Jojo. Many of them have a significant amount in common, as I’ll get to in a moment, but a blanket consensus would be that she found the ones she has seen to be boring, slow or lacking in their narrative or characters’ believability. On the other hand, she enjoys the Narnia books, so I suppose everything’s relative.

Theorem – One of my few concessions to trying to absorb New Wave cinema, this film combines the direction of the late Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo) with a hypnotic turn from a then-young Terence Stamp as a student who boards with an upper-middle-class Italian family of four and subsequently seduces all of them (including both parents, the son, the daughter and the maid), causing their lives to change in unusual ways. Watch for the striking visuals and haunting musical score, but be prepared to sit through a lot of (subtitled) ramblings about class and identity. Stamp is a sight to see, though.

Hesher – More or less as above, only instead of Terence Stamp, we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular scruffy metal-head who begins crashing in the home of a boy, his near-catatonic widowed father (Rainn Wilson) and his hilarious granny. And rather than seduction, his method of imparting wisdom and change involves smoking weed, physical assault and being an arsehole to everyone. There’s a subplot about the kid trying to buy back the wreck of his late mother’s car, and Natalie Portman pops up as a slightly unnecessary love interest, but any second when Gordon-Levitt is on screen is fried gold.

Lost Highway – Oh, this film has tested me. The story of how I finally got to see it could fill a page on it’s own, which is just as well as I cannot describe the plot in less than 100 words anyway. The story is a cinematic pretzel folding in on itself (though not as far up its own arse as Inland Empire), the performances range from great (Bill Pullman, Robert Loggia, Robert FUCKING Blake) to meh (Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty) and the music is brilliant. Look, it’s a David Lynch film. You either love it or hate it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With MeThis, however, I can say plenty about. After watching the whole series on Netflix (more on that later), I decided to give the film prequel a chance, and whilst it clearly sets the groundwork for future Lynch films, its pre-existing universe grounds it a little more as we get to see the events that lead to the death of troubled schoolgirl Laura Palmer. Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland make the most of their too-short roles, David Bowie materialises out of the "Dancing in the Street" video and Harry Dean Stanton says what we’re all thinking: “Goddamn, these people are confusing”.

Okay, I'm going over my 100 word limit on this, but a couple of things have to be said for and against Fire Walk With Me. One of the strengths of the TV show was that it balanced a murder mystery within the trappings of a soap opera pastiche, with a big cast and several interlinking B-plots to serve the narrative and flesh out the characters and environs of Twin Peaks. Kyle MacLachlan was undoubtedly the lead character, but his material (arguably the best of David Lynch’s writing) never pulled focus more than was necessary, and the presence of other established actors as well as up-and-comers made it a great launchpad for careers whilst still giving us familiar faces. Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti created a soundtrack to the show that was instantly recognisable and resisted becoming boring through repetition, and the cinematography was exceptional for a 90s TV show. And here, at least, these are Fire Walk With Me’s strengths too: the returning cast all fit neatly back into their roles like they've never left. Badalamenti’s key score themes are incorporated into the film but with bigger and bolder arrangements in places, and the film retains the distinctive rosy colour grade of the show.

Of course, the nudity and drug use is much more visible, which was a little jarring considering the slightly forced chastity of the show when it came to that sort of thing, due to FCC regulations of the time, but then this is a David Lynch film so that’s almost par for the course. That being said, whilst seeing Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer stripping off and getting nasty does have a certain bent appeal that never really depreciates, seeing her shovelling coke up her hooter every five minutes does cause it to slowly lose its allure.

However, one of the main principal bugbears I have with the film is that it reins in the expansiveness of the show; despite being set in a few more locations besides the town itself, its failure to show off as much of the town ironically makes it feel more limited (some perhaps would say tighter) in scope, and after getting used to a wide cast and numerous plot strands, focusing almost exclusively on the lead-up to Laura’s death (especially when fans of the show will already know who killed her and revealing it here will spoil it for non-fans) is a little jarring. “Where are Sheriff Truman and his deputies?” I found myself asking. “And Ben and Audrey Horne? They were my favourite support characters and they don’t appear once!” Plus, even for someone watching it without the benefit of knowing the show, once you've seen one pine forest you've pretty much seen them all, no matter how lovingly it’s been photographed.

In fact, whilst a large chunk of the essential cast do reprise their roles, there are still a couple of notable absences that have been handled with questionable recasting. Moira Kelly (Chaplin, The Lion King) replaces Lara Flynn Boyle (Wayne’s World, Men In Black II) as Laura’s friend Donna and part of me really doesn't have a problem with that; Donna spends most of her time on the show crying or sulking over her friend being dead, so it was actually nice to see the more naïve and waifish side of her; plus I suspect Boyle felt she dodged the bullet by not having to go topless.

Even MacLachlan’s role is little more than an extended cameo here, with the first act leaving us mostly in the hands of Chris Isaak for no discernible reason than they couldn't get MacLachlan to film a bigger role. Isaak isn't bad, despite being better known for his singing than acting, and he does have genuine chemistry with Kiefer Sutherland (playing against his more recent Jack Bauer type as a speccy FBI nerd with Dennis the Menace hair); he just doesn't get the chance to be particularly good either. As for David Bowie… let’s just say that whatever you think about him as an actor, (and I happen to like him,) his performance, whilst deliberately jarring and weird, isn't even close to being the weirdest thing in this film. The trademark dream sequences are back, but so too are the increasingly strange jaunts in which supposedly unreal characters start popping up in the town itself for all to see and hear; aren't these people supposed to be supernatural beings who remain incognito? Part of me feels it is Lynch waving his Jacobs at us. There’s also a slightly gruesome scene involving a drug bust that goes wrong that I can’t remember ever being followed up in the show (my Wikipedia research claims it was mentioned in the pilot, but that's it), and it certainly doesn't seem to have any further relevance to the film’s characters or narrative once its done with.

All this would probably not rankle so much if it weren't for the fact that, whilst keeping faithful to the show’s aesthetic, the cinematography for a lot of the scenes is almost too televisual and not as cinematic as I've come to expect from Lynch. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the show being so of its time, and the show's format and artistry - despite very clearly being an affectation - were a blueprint for other long-form television shows to come, but what this film seemed to lack was the expansiveness of the show or the cinematic qualities of a film in its own right, and while the characters are fleshed out well and the film is still pretty to look at, it still feels like Lynch was hedging his bets a little on this one and hoping for a revival of the series that sadly would never come.

A lot of these technical criticisms, I suppose, seem moot. “Well, of course it’s flawed,” you say. “It’s a film spin-off from a cancelled TV show; of course it’s going to look crappy on a big screen, or not make sense within the narrative of the show. Right?”

Well, no, not really.

For the sake of comparison, take a show like Neon Genesis Evangelion and its first two movie spin-offs, Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion. And before you say anything, yes, I know I go on about Evangelion constantly, yes, I'm aware it’s a Japanese animated show, and yes, I will be reviewing the next two films when they come out; but that’s not what I'm talking about now and it’s the closest thing to a good example I can come up with so just deal with it.

The two shows, Twin Peaks and Evangelion, share a lot of interesting similarities:-
They both ran for at least 26 episodes (Peaks actually ran for 30 episodes, but let's not nitpick), and had a slight dip in quality in the middle from which they never quite fully recovered.
In both cases this was largely due to network interference, though Evangelion’s initial demise was also due to its risqué content, forcing Sega to pull their sponsorship and leading to corners being cut in the animation department.
They both had film spin-offs that act as both a prequel and sequel to some extent; Fire Walk With Me being very much a prequel with some sequel elements hinted at through the dream sequences, whilst Death and Rebirth functions as a non-linear clip-show/rehash of the show’s plot (reusing a lot of its material from the show itself with new sequences added) with End of Eva being a rewritten and more action packed version of the show’s finale.
Both shows, and their spin-offs, conclude with more questions raised than they answered.

The difference, (and this is probably a matter of the medium allowing for it more,) is that whilst Evangelion’s scope only suffered when the animation was under-funded and under-used, End of Eva picked it back up again in spades, even in quiet or introspective scenes. Seriously, just watch the first half of it and see how easy it is to create scope with a little consideration for what is cinematic.

Okay, I’m going to wrap this up. For those considering watching the film, I’d have to say you’re probably only really going to get the most out of it if you’re a fan of the show and of Lynch’s 90s output particularly. On the other hand, it is the only David Lynch film I haven’t fallen asleep in with the exception of Dune, and that’s not damning with faint praise; I simply have a bad habit of watching his films when I really should be in bed.

The Atrocity Exhibition – This independent film, based on J.G. Ballard’s book, was an unmitigated slog compared with Mr Lynch’s oeuvre: easier to stay awake through (though only slightly), but significantly less satisfying at the end. The plot is a series of vignettes (one shares its roots with David Cronenburg’s Crash), and a framing narrative describes the film as chronicling a scientist’s mental breakdown, but otherwise the film offers little. The actors are blank and speak in awkward sentences describing absurd scenarios, and the visuals are a mixture of stock footage and student film-level cinematography. Clearly a labour of love, but scarcely worth it.

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Okay, home stretch. Tilda Swinton plays a mother dealing with her increasingly sociopathic titular son (played by a terrifying Ezra Miller), all while her husband (John C Reilly) is blithely ignorant of… You know what? Just watch it for yourself. You’ll see what I mean.

Seriously, watch any or all of these films, they are all interesting or different in one way or another. Even Atrocity Exhibition if you can find it. If you actively never watch films that are going to challenge you or that give you something to think about at the end without their being explosions or car chases or tits to hold your attention, then I don’t know why you bother. There’s clearly no pleasing you.

I'm Raggedy Adams. Let's rock.