Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Lasting Legacy of Mr. James Bond

*I wrote this as a piece of "Bond coverage" for my school newspaper leading up to the release of Skyfall. The second part is here and the review of Skyfall is here.

Before I loved music, long before I could adequately formulate thoughts in writing and prior to building an appreciation of film on any significant level, I was still a fan of James Bond. That fandom, for myself and for many other members of my generation, undoubtedly began with the Goldeneye 007 videogame on the Nintendo 64, a pop-cultural stepping stone that consumed many hours of many lives, whether we were blasting our way through the single player campaign (again and again) or staying up until three in the morning with friends, eating junk-food and yelling at each other over intense multiplayer shootouts.

I have long since outgrown videogames, but James Bond has stayed with me. I began delving into the films during my childhood (despite possibly inappropriate connotations), taping the movies off television airings during the big “Bond week” marathons, renting VHS copies of the Connery classics with my brother and even buying a “Bond encyclopedia” of sorts following the release of 1999’s The World is Not Enough. Revisiting the films now, I realize just how much about them I missed, how silly the plots, as a general rule, often become, how comical the villains sometimes are and just how many women Mr. Bond…ummm…“seduces.” But I also am amazed at just how well some of the older entries in the series hold up. Make no mistake, there is no “perfect” James Bond film (though two or three certainly came close to mastering the formula), but almost every entry in the series has its redeeming qualities, be they memorable villains, unforgettable one-liners or pieces of double entendre or, especially, still-stellar action sequences.

The James Bond film franchise reached a major milestone last month, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, which introduced Sean Connery as the first man to play Ian Fleming’s iconic literary spy on the big screen. 23 films (24 if we count the unofficial Connery-starring “Never Say Never Again”), six actors and a plethora of destroyed cars and gadgets later, the franchise lives on, and this Friday, film no. 23, mysteriously entitled Skyfall, will finally see its United States release date.

For awhile there, it seemed like Bond wasn’t going to get the chance to continue, at least not with actor Daniel Craig in the lead role. A late-decade writer’s strike hindered the production of 2008’s Quantum of Solace, an underwhelming (but still solid) stall-out for a series that had so promisingly rebooted itself only two years previous with Casino Royale. And then, to make matters worse, MGM went bankrupt, a disaster that came at the worst possible time and kept James Bond out of the theaters for four years. Questions arose whether or not Craig would reprise the role, whether Bond 23 would ever happen and, if it did, whether we would have to wait a very long time for it to come to fruition. Suddenly, 2006’s promising restart seemed like it was going to get swept away by the tide.

But it would take nothing short of Armageddon to stop the James Bond machine, which, over the past 50 years, has become the most successful film franchise of all time out of sheer force of longevity. Sure, the Harry Potter films made more in ticket sales, but figure in inflation and there’s simply no question of who wins the dogfight.

Other heroes have come and gone. The Indiana Joneses, the Jason Bournes, the Captain Jack Sparrows: they all made big entrances, achieved iconic status and then proved that they could hardly thrive beyond the confines of their original trilogies. And that’s not to say that they have been forgotten, or that the ill-advised fourth installments of their franchises didn’t do well. Indiana Jones is a hero we still raise our children on; the mechanics of the Bourne films changed the way directors shot action movies (Bond’s Quantum of Solace among them); and Captain Jack is the most iconic movie character of the last ten years.

But none of them are Bond.

None of them would work if they re-cast their star; none have the ability to adapt so firmly to the changing times and trends as 007; and none of them have retained (or will retain) such a stranglehold on the pop cultural mindset as Bond…James Bond. From vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) to Q-branch gadgets to Aston Martin automobiles to Armani Tuxedos, James Bond remains the action hero that men, to this day, like to fancy themselves as most. He’s a slick, charismatic badass, a remarkably smooth womanizer; he’s a man who has been to every exotic locale in the book, whose actions and efforts exist outside the law and extend past the reach of any authority. To put it briefly, he is the epitome of “cool,” and the fact that he has been able to remain that way for 50 years is, arguably, the single most impressive feat in the history of cinematic storytelling or marketing.

But Bond didn’t get where he is today simply by being a concept that appealed to a lot of people. No, along the way, there have been some truly excellent cinematic moments as well. For every stumble the series has had (and there have been a few, Roger Moore’s space-traveling farce, Moonraker, and Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day chief among them), there have been two enjoyable action movies and one genuinely great adventure to compensate.

So what films are the best? Which classics should you dig up in anticipation of Skyfall? Check back tomorrow as the Western Herald counts down the best of the best, the films that fit into the aforementioned “genuinely great” category and that, justifiably, have risen to the top of the James Bond canon for enthusiasts and casual fans alike.


Warner Bros. Pictures, GK Studios, 2012
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston

The first 15 minutes of, Argo, Ben Affleck’s latest film, depict a militant mob of Iranian extremists storming the gates of the United States embassy in Tehran. The scenes build with explosive intensity: embassy workers burning and shredding sensitive documents in a furious race against time, windows shattering and doors breaking down as the mob closes in, response crews shooting smoke grenades into the unruly masses in an attempt to neutralize the situation. Affleck stages the set-piece with the same breathless pace and meticulous attention to detail that marked the opening heist in his 2010 thriller The Town, effortlessly providing a hook for a historical film that never once crosses into textbook-reciting territory. That the scenes manage to build such riveting action is rendered even more impressive by the fact that the film’s star and major supporting players don’t even enter the picture until later. This introduction is all about the set-up: about the rising tension in Iran, about the hostage situation within the embassy and, most notably, about the six hostages that sneak out a back exit and disappear.

When it reaches the CIA that the six escapees are hiding out with a friendly Canadian ambassador (a reliably solid Victor Garber), extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) hatch a rescue mission revolving around a fake science fiction film. With the help of a CIA-connected make-up artist (John Goodman) and a charismatic Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin), Mendez builds an elaborate cover scheme around a bogus science fiction epic (the titular Argo) and an even-more bogus “location scouting trip.” The idea is that the six in-limbo ambassadors will pose as Mendez’s (Canadian) film crew as he scouts Iranian locales for possible film settings. After they have all played the charade for a few days, they will get on an airplane, fly back to the United States and be home free: needless to say, things don’t play out quite so simply.

Affleck, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Good Will Hunting has been on somewhat of a role lately, kicking off his directorial career with a pair of Boston-centered crime dramas (Gone Baby Gone and the aforementioned The Town) that gained both critical acclaim and audience approval. But Argo branches away from Affleck’s “Southie” stomping grounds, following its globe-trotting narrative and vast ensemble cast with the sweep of classic thrillers. Affleck drives the production with a craftsman’s eye for detail, adopting authentic costumes and a grainy, 70s-esque cinematography technique that recalls the work of all-time-great directors like Frances Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski and Sydney Pollack. He also takes the lead role, bringing the same kind of internalized conflict, drive and intensity that marked his leading turn in The Town. It’s not a showy performance, but it is a subtle and nuanced one, a showcase of an actor/director who, even when he casts himself as the hero, is still willing to let his supporting cast steal the show. It was that directorial mentality that helped net Jeremy Renner a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2010 (also for The Town) and part of the reason that Argo is receiving such widespread critical acclaim.

Affleck’s trend of drawing terrific performances from his actors continues here, with a slate of known and unknown commodities coalescing to form the year’s strongest ensemble. The noisiest and showiest role goes to Oscar winner Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), who embodies loud-mouthed, profane and hilarious Hollywood producer Lester Siegel with aplomb (“If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!” he exclaims early on), but equally fun is John Goodman, channeling his career-best work from the cult classic The Big Lebowski into the role of celebrated make-up artist John Chambers. The two get to spend most of their screen-time playing off one another and their onscreen relationship is one of the film’s greatest strengths, a gleeful, endlessly rewarding storyline that serves as a perfect foil to the tense central plot.

But while Arkin is getting the majority of the Oscar buzz, the best-in-show here is Bryan Cranston, whose commanding passion and emotional energy anchor the film’s third act. Those who have seen Cranston light up the small screen in AMC’s Breaking Bad (a show for which he won three consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards) know that he is one of the best actors working today and will doubtlessly enjoy watching him play a role more in the “good guy” corner here. And while Arkin and Goodman get the lion’s share of the film’s one-liners, Cranston gets arguably the definitive one (“This is the best bad idea we’ve got,” he dryly remarks to a superior in the State Department). The rest of the cast is filled out by lesser-known talents, actors and actresses who step into the roles of the ambassadors and bring appropriate gravity, fear and restlessness to their situation…all as the walls begin to close in. Each scene the six of them share with Affleck feels entirely organic.

As far as Oscar talk is concerned, with a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a tremendously consistent box office performance, Argo is currently the Best Picture frontrunner, and it’s not at all hard to figure out why. Not only is the film strong across all filmmaking benchmarks (from acting, to directing, to craft categories like Cinematography and Costume Design), it also offers the same kind of tribute to Hollywood that made The Artist such an unstoppable force last year. The way the film lovingly (and often, hilariously) portrays the moviemaking process is nothing short of infectious, injecting the film’s serious subject matter with a lighthearted tilt, and making it difficult to envision anything resonating more consistently with Academy audiences this year. Will Argo win Best Picture? And will the guy who starred in such critical and commercial disasters as Gigli and Surviving Christmas walk away from the 85th annual Academy Awards with a Best Director Oscar in hand? Only time will tell, and a lot of things could certainly change between now and the Feb. 25 ceremony, but as of right now, both of those things seem exceedingly likely. I, for one, could hardly be more pleased.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises
Legendary Pictures/Syncopy/Warner Brothers, 2012
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Four stars

How do you reconcile impossible expectations with reality? How do you close out a franchise that has, over the past seven years, become one of the most beloved and acclaimed of our time? How do you give a definitive conclusion to the story of a character who has been seen in many different forms, in many different times, a character that will doubtlessly be re-imagined by another in time? How do you give fans the big payoff they deserve without falling into the traps that so many promising trilogies have stumbled into with their third film? The truth is, I wouldn't have the first idea of how to answer those questions.

Thankfully for us though, Christopher Nolan did.

The Dark Knight Rises, all hype aside, all of the polarizing reviews and all of the fans who will doubtlessly cry out that it doesn't live up to its predecessor (untrue, but we'll get to that in good time), manages all of the above and more. This movie is massive, boasting an epic, almost three-hour runtime, and bringing the series to a resounding full-circle conclusion. It's also a definitive ensemble piece, allowing every character we've come to care about throughout the series (and numerous new additions, all of them positive) their moment to shine, bringing all of their stories to a satisfying and deserved finale. Even Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, a pair of characters whose presence (and ultimate demise) was of pivotal importance to the last installment, linger in the hearts and minds of the people of Gotham City. Only Ledger's Joker is left unmentioned, a loose end that Nolan had never intended to leave, though, after seeing what he orchestrated here, I can't help but wonder how the character could have fit into the story anyway.

But Nolan does more than just hit all of the requisite checkpoints here: with an ambitious script and a structure only befitting an epic and unforgettable conclusion, he sets out to make his masterpiece. Since he started his journey with Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, Nolan has become a world-class auteur, breaking up his Batman flicks with a pair of innovative and dense pieces of sci-fi cinema (The Prestige in 2006 and Inception in 2010). But while those movies felt like separate entities upon their release, like a director flexing his creative muscle before returning to the more limited boundaries of a comic book adaptation, they seem to fit into something greater and wider-ranging now. Nolan incorporates more than just cast members from those films here, using the tools and techniques he learned from them (along with a few thematic nods) to construct a film that stands as the pinnacle of his directorial endeavors. It's a film that not only fits into a series and an overall story arc, but also into the interconnected body of work of its director, and when viewed in that context, the enormity of it all is baffling. In recent years, many fanboys have proclaimed Christopher Nolan as the greatest director of his time, and with this film and the completion of what appears to be a meticulously planned cinematic progression, he makes a startlingly strong case for just that.

Of course, it would be all for naught if the storylines didn't come together, but they do, and in ways that I would never have imagined. The film picks up eight years after The Dark Knight ended, with Batman a mere memory from the night that he took the blame for Dent's murder and disappeared. The mob, always a secondary villain in the first two films, has been vanquished, and Bruce Wayne has retreated into the life of a recluse. But Selina Kyle, a slippery cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, brilliant), shakes Bruce out of his reverie. "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," she says in a scene early on, and when the storm hits, it's something to behold. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy, horrifying and unrecognizable from his work in Inception and Warrior), a tank of a man with a face mask, a voice that sounds like it belongs to the devil himself, and a tie to Bruce's past. And while Ledger's Joker will likely remain the series' "definitive" villain, Hardy's Bane is at least as disturbing. In past film incarnations (Batman & Robin being the one most moviegoers will likely recall), the character has been portrayed as a stupid, stumbling thug. That's not how it was in the comics though (specifically in the Knightfall storyline that the film borrows from), and Nolan is committed to making Bane the fearsome figure he should be. Where the Joker specialized mostly in mind games, Bane is Wayne's physical match, and their battles are everything that the final confrontation between the Batman and the Joker could never be. One riveting fight scene halfway through the film will take your breath away. There's no music, no stylish camera shaking or editing, just the sickening reality of our hero fighting for his life. It's a splendidly well choreographed scene, miles away from the hard-to-follow action sequences in Begins, or the blink-and-you'll-miss-them ones in Dark Knight. Nolan wants you to pay attention, he wants you to see this, and it's equal parts devastating and stunning; the stakes have been raised.

But for most of the film's first half, Nolan takes his time, shedding the frantic pace and wild tension from his previous installment in favor of the calculated escalation that made Begins such a winner. Some critics have called it "slow," but I would argue that they're missing the point: Nolan lays all the groundwork in these scenes, establishing Bane, Catwoman, and the other two new faces (Inception vets Joseph Gordon Levitt and Marion Cotillard, as John Blake and Miranda Tate, respectively), and carefully writing in some seemingly disposable lines and hints that will be of pivotal importance to the plot down the line. We also re-establish the relationships between Bruce, Alfred (Michael Caine knocks it out of the park here, in a beautifully conflicted and poignant, fatherly performance), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman just gets better and better), and Lucius Fox (Freeman feels underused again, but it's a small gripe), all of which play important roles in the development of the story. And it's a joy to see such strong female characters this time around. One of my main problems with this series so far has been the dearth of relevant women throughout the proceedings. It certainly didn't help that Rachel Dawes, the only female role of any size, was traded from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal between film one and two, a jarring shift that hardly felt like the same character. But Hathaway and Cotillard, two of today's finest actresses, provide strong presences for their characters...both of whom are more than meets the eye.

Once the film really takes off, there's no looking back. Nolan aims for the fans here, throwing out a slew of clever references to the comic, making more than a few callbacks to the first two films, (especially Begins), and playing true to the characters, themes, and ideas that he established for himself back in '05. He also builds the story up on many levels, a la Inception, directing the project like a complex game of chess before bringing all the pieces together for the flawless third act. The last hour or so puts other comic book movies to shame, bringing everything that has been building for three films crashing down in a masterfully choreographed fireworks show. If you think you have a handle on what this movie is, think again: it morphs into something else entirely as it races toward its climax, hitting fans with a big twist and a tremendously satisfying reveal, and then dropping them back into the fray. In Batman Begins, Liam Neeson's Henri Ducard told Bruce Wayne that "theatricality and deception are powerful agents," and Nolan epitomizes that here. Everything about this film, from the promotional campaign to the ever-important groundwork Nolan lays early on, is a house of mirrors, and it's all set to shatter around this single twist: be sure to make it to the theater before someone spoils it for you.

That twist sends us hurtling toward a shattering climax, and suffice to say that the film's final minutes exceeded every one of my lofty expectations. There are crowd pleasing tie-ups, Inception-esque cliffhangers, "a ha!" moments galore, last-minute twists, and then, to top it all off, the traditional swell of Hans Zimmer's theme music, right before the film cuts to black. It's an emotionally weighty and viscerally satisfying conclusion, one that leaves questions to be debated, references to puzzle over, and plenty to re-examine on repeat viewings. And repeat viewings will come, that's for sure, but the film does on its first glance what it's supposed to: it takes a great trilogy out on its highest note. As soon as the credits rolled, I clapped, I cheered, and I wanted to see it again right away. And as I drove home, pondering everything that had just played out on the screen in front of me, I was ready to call it a masterpiece. I could hardly recall a better moviegoing experience. I had my reservations about The Dark Knight, about the claims that it merited Oscar attention, and about the "classic" status it was almost instantly annointed with, but this time around, I'm thoroughly on board. This film, in scope, in ensemble performance, in overall depth, is the best picture of the year so far. It's a beautifully executed summer blockbuster, loaded with stunning camerawork and special effects, but it's also more than that. It's the conclusion of one of the most riveting stories any filmmaker has told in my generation. It completely transcends its genre, making other comic book films look almost silly in comparison. And as a trilogy, it stands among the greats, with The Lord of the Rings and Toy Story from the last decade, or alongside Star Wars and The Godfather from the catalog of classics. At it's heart, Nolan's Batman is about a man who struggles with his anger, his past, and his own shortcomings to become more than a man. To become a legend. But with all the talent on display here, with all the characters and storylines and complexities that Nolan outfits this final film with, it becomes something even deeper, something more profound. Something that needs to be seen to be understood. Something that audiences will be watching and discussing for decades to come. It would be shameful for the Academy to ignore that.

As the sun sets on Nolan's Batman series, as the credits on The Dark Knight Rises begin to role for everyone around the world this weekend, I can't help but think of the trilogy in the words that Michael Caine used to lay out the rules for a great magic trick in The Prestige. And somehow, knowing Nolan and how he used pieces of each of his films here, I think that might be more than coincidence...

"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called 'The Pledge.' The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called 'The Turn.' The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call 'The Prestige.'"

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Christopher Nolan and his Batman Trilogy

Will The Dark Knight Rises live up to the impossible amount of hype surrounding it? And how does the rest of the series hold up?

Well here we are: seven years down the line from the first film, and four since the sequel that lit the world on fire, down to a mere 25 and a half hours to the conclusion. I've got my tickets all set for tomorrow night and for the big midnight blowout of Christopher Nolan's highly anticipated Batman finale, called The Dark Knight Rises, and I've spent a few nights this week re-acquainting myself with the rest of the series. Needless to say, I can hardly even describe how psyched I am for this movie.

I'll admit that there have been a few times over the past few years where the ridiculously hyperbolic praise for Nolan, and especially for The Dark Knight, has really started to irritate me. And I'm a big fan of his: I think The Prestige and Inception are science fiction masterpieces, and I think he certainly stepped things up for comic book movies with Batman Begins. When that movie unraveled in the summer of 2005, Nolan was picking up the pieces of a franchise that had been, essentially, left for dead eight years earlier. Joel Schumacher's disastrous Batman & Robin is the kind of deal-killer that  every major studio has spent the past 15 years trying to avoid. It took a bankable property and proceeded to do almost everything wrong with it, from having George Clooney play himself in a Batman suit, to Arnold Schwarzenegger's plethora of cringe-worthy lines, to bat nipples. Schumacher's obsession with cheesy camp (and the resulting lack of dark, realistic textures or storylines) and a barrage of horrific reviews (the film scores a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 28 on Metacritic) led to a disappointing box office gross. Or perhaps the studio realized that the script was, in fact, the worst ever written. In any case, the movie was acknowledged as the piece of crap it is by everyone. from studio heads to Schumacher himself, and the planned follow up, supposedly called Batman Triumphant, was canned. Years later, Clooney would hit the nail on head by saying "I think we might have killed the franchise."

Luckily, Christopher Nolan was there to pick up the pieces and build them back up into something that was not only worthwhile, but transcendent as far as comic book movies go. After watching both films back to back, I actually think that Batman Begins is the superior work. Nolan chooses to construct the film completely around Bale's Bruce Wayne, and the result is in turns haunting, hilarious, and viscerally thrilling. Somebody once told me that Batman Begins is a movie about Bruce Wayne, whereas The Dark Knight is a movie about Batman, and that's true. It's a blurry line, no doubt, but one that I think marks a valid difference. Wayne often gets lost in the shuffle during the feverish action and constant tension of the sequel, and we occasionally lose him entirely in the sea of other characters. Nolan tries to juggle Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox, Michael Caine's Alfred, the mob, a slew of corrupt cops, and a relationship between Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) that never quite works despite its paramount importance to the plot. His worst offense, however, is the amount of time he spends with the citizens of Gotham, which would be fine if he spent it in interesting fashion, but he doesn't. The extended "boat sequence" almost derails the entire film, focusing too much on characters we don't care about, and doing so with awful dialogue and a predictable arc. And then there's the Joker himself. No one can deny the sheer level of brilliance that Heath Ledger channels into his performance here, nor that he was deserving of the Supporting Actor Oscar in 2008 (though I personally thank that Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz both won for greater, more nuanced villain work in the surrounding years). But Ledger's presence is so gargantuan that Bale's is greatly diminished, and while the film certainly comes together in time for its conclusion (a spine-tingling cutoff, especially now that the sequel is mere hours away), re-watching it in quick succession with the first film left me sure of one thing: I don't want another Dark Knight.

And it seems likely that I will get my wish. While I've sworn off reading any full reviews and kept myself deliberately in the dark concerning specific plot points and characters (just like last time around), the RT blurbs seem to agree on one thing: that The Dark Knight Rises, as great as it is, "doesn't quite live up to its predecessor." It's a weird qualifier to get excited about, but that's just what's happening for me, because the buzz says that we get back to Wayne and we see him come full circle from where he was in the first film: we get back to the heart of the matter. I trust Nolan to do that, because, for all of the fanboy hype and exaggerated claims, he has never made two movies that are even similar, let alone the same. The ballet-like story choreography of Inception is worlds away from the innovative filmmaking structure utilized on Memento, which bears no resemblance to the unraveling mystery of The Prestige. And his Batman films, while both members of the same trilogy, could hardly be further apart: one is a clear portrait of Wayne's psyche as he becomes more than a man, the next a cloudy glimpse of it, fraught with horrific threats, death, pain, and conflict; one is sheltered in the safety of Wayne Manor, the next consistantly shrouded in the shadows of a broken city; one is a man who loses his parents and vows to never let his loved ones be harmed again, while the next is the shattering realization that his transformation has only brought them closer to danger and doom. And the third film...well, I'm not sure what that will be yet. That's the point, right? But I'm hopeful that, by the time I walk out of the movie theater, sometime after 3 a.m. on Friday morning, I will have just experienced something visceral.

Something important.

Something completely satisfying in every way.

So bring on that midnight showing: it's time to see how this thing ends.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man
Columbia Pictures, 2012
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans
Three stars

Not quite "untold," but entertaining nonetheless.
Ten years ago, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man launched the comic book genre into the very upper echelon of Hollywood box office bets. Bryan Singer had revived the genre only two years before, assembling a killer cast for a surprisingly weighty live-action version of X-Men, and in the years that followed, we'd see adaptations of everything from Daredevil to Fantastic Four, but Spider-Man was the first to smash box office records. Needless to say, what was established by Raimi and Singer's films (each the first in respective trilogies which bottomed out on their third installment) has grown into a film genre of its own, one that has largely defined the last decade in cinema. Other directors would come along and take the form to higher levels (Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau are the most obvious figures), but as far as doing the original legwork, a lot of credit must be given to Singer and Raimi. I can still remember seeing the first Spider-Man film on opening day, and I must confess that, back then, I loved it. Repeat viewings would reveal what I now find to be shoddy storytelling, awful acting (though it's not really the fault of the stars - the film was horribly miscast), and weak CGI, not to mention the single worst theme song of all time, and the rest of the series didn't do a whole lot to transcend those problems. Spider-Man 3, even five years after its release, is still a laughingstock, and while not quite the low water mark for comic book films (nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever be worse than Batman & Robin), it's still one of the most disastrous and unintentionally hilarious movies I have ever seen(or perhaps it was intentional, given Raimi's roots in campy horror films).

Enter the reboot, which comes in to sweep up the pieces of the franchise almost exactly ten years after Raimi's original. It's a similar arc to that of X-Men, which also saw a reboot with last year's X-Men: First Class, and much like that film, The Amazing Spider-Man's finest scenes are those that focus on its pair of young and extremely talented leads. But First Class aimed to play like a prequel, with numerous references to the original (including one brilliant cameo), and a completely separate story with only a few overlapping characters. Right out of the gate, The Amazing Spider-Man makes the mistake of choosing to retread the origin story that was already aptly covered in the first film, and indeed, some portions of the two movies are almost identical as a result (the biggest offender being the storyline that surrounds Martin Sheen's Uncle Ben character). For that reason, The Amazing Spider-Man has earned one of the worst critical tags a movie can gather: unnecessary. The writers who have called it that are certainly not far off, as at its worst, The Amazing Spider-Man is essentially an improved version of Raimi's original, but I believe there's more to this film than that: director Marc Webb (who helmed one of the best romance films of the last decade with 500 Days of Summer) wisely chooses to focus on the love story this time around, and the romance between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) soars at heights that the Peter/Mary Jane storylines never reached for a single frame during the first trilogy. That's because Garfield, a should-have-been Oscar-nominee for The Social Network, and Stone, who delivered the break-out performance of the decade (so far) in Easy A, are significantly more talented than their predecessors. The two share an electric chemistry that leaps off the screen, and both bring more nuance and humor to their characters than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were ever able to find in theirs. In short, the screenplay, which is solid but unoriginal, manages to thrive thanks to the life these two stars inject into it: things wouldn't work out so well in lesser hands.

It also doesn't hurt that the screenplay (written by Steve Ditko, James Vanderbilt, and Marvel's own Stan Lee, who gets his most splendid cameo to date here) adheres to and honors the Spider-Man source material better than the first film did. Where Raimi's film cherry-picked some of the most memorable moments of the comic book, with little regard to continuity, the screenwriters this time around seem more focused on paying tribute to the source and building a set-up for a more compelling series arc (a la Nolan's Batman trilogy). It's also that quality of the film that forms the most convincing argument for retelling the origin story: it feels like we could, conceivably, get a much stronger and more fully-formed trilogy this time around, in which case skipping the genesis segment would result in things feeling incomplete down the road. And the first third of the movie is actually quite well executed, with Martin Sheen doing some brilliant work in his brief appearance, Garfield having a ton of fun with the "discovering the powers" bits, and Stone and Garfield sharing some deliciously awkward onscreen encounters. Indeed, the "origin story" parts of the film are so entertaining and so well done that it's hard to imagine the film without them. Undoubtedly, the film retreads things we've seen before, but it's a testament to the talents of director Marc Webb (do we think they chose him for his last name?) that, really, retreading familiar ground has rarely been this fun. Contrasting July's other superhero opus (the sure-to-be-bleak The Dark Knight Rises), Webb injects The Amazing Spider-Man with a romantic frivolity and comedic edge so irresistible that, damn the action scenes, I wanted more of it. Luckily, Webb acquits himself quite well as an action director also (thankfully avoiding the "shaky cam" method that many inexperienced directors employ), and he ultimately orchestrates the project in a much less heavy-handed manner than Raimi did (minus one forgivably cheesy indulgence near the film's climax).

All told, The Amazing Spider Man is a top-tier summer blockbuster and is just a notch below the best superhero films. The cast is the film's biggest advantage, surrounding the fantastic young stars with a list of some of Hollywood's most seasoned veterans, from Sheen to Sally Field to Denis Leary, all the way to Rhys Ifans' Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-eqsue villain. Garfield is the ideal Spider-Man, trading Tobey Maguire's consistently anguished facial expressions for a guy that accidentally becomes a hero and spends a good deal of the film's runtime cracking jokes. The action set-pieces are exciting but not exceptional, and Ifans' villain (the Lizard) is far more compelling in human form, but those things don't seem to matter much here. The heart of the film is in the human aspect, just like it was with Nolan's first Batman film and just like it was with the original Iron Man. The Avengers will likely remain this summer's top form of escapist fun, and the Batman finale will almost certainly take the lion's share of acclaim, but Webb has found in Garfield and Stone the perfect characters to build a franchise on, and he's accomplished something that only the best comic book movies have done: he makes it less about the mask and more about the man behind it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Disney/Pixar Animation Studios, 2012
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Starring: Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly (Voices)
Three and a half stars 

It's no secret that Pixar is the most consistently solid studio in Hollywood: ever since they burst onto the scene with 1995's Toy Story, the storytellers and animators at Pixar Animation Studios have challenged the boundaries of animation, served as a constant pillar for heartfelt and innovative storytelling, and created some of the most beloved films and franchises of our time. At their best, almost no one can touch them: the Toy Story trilogy is the most critically acclaimed film franchise of all time; Finding Nemo redefined what voice acting could be for an animated movie (thanks largely to Ellen DeGeneres who, despite Academy rules, should have won an Oscar for her work there); Monster's Inc. set a benchmark for boundless imagination that has rarely been duplicated; and Up and Wall-E, though I find both less consistently wonderful than the aforementioned titles, each began by flirting with silent film elements and delivered sizable emotional punches in the process. Hell, even when Pixar has fallen short of their customary originality and transcendentalism, the results (namely the Cars films and A Bug's Life) have stood up to (and often surpassed) the ones that Dreamworks or Disney (on their own) were making at the same time.

 It's also no secret that Pixar is a well-oiled machine, delivering one full-length feature every summer, no more, no less. When that one film captures the minds of audiences and critics alike, the result has often been the most well-reviewed film of the year, and recently, has even netted the studio a pair of Best Picture nominations. But when the result is a disappointment, like with last year's misguided Cars sequel, the wait between projects seems to stretch on for much longer than usual. Last summer, when Cars 2 became the first Pixar feature to earn a "rotten" rating from review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes (and the first to receive zero Oscar nominations), moviegoers and critics everywhere began speculating about what that first crack in the facade meant for the world's most consistent studio. Was the Pixar golden age at an end? Certainly no streak can last forever, but the moment Pixar's fell, the sense that they were untouchable, like they could do no wrong, was shattered, and critics began to realize that kicking them around was actually a viable option. This brings me, at last, to Brave, Pixar's latest full-length feature, the first to feature a heroine in the lead role, and unlucky number 13 in their oeuvre.

When the reviews for Brave started rolling in, even I was ready to speculate that Pixar was on the downswing. That's not because Brave has received the level of mixed to poor reviews that Cars 2 did, but because I have, over the course of my life, become so accustomed to seeing everything the studio touches turn to solid gold that seeing their projects get anything less than unanimously perfect reviews is still a bit of a shock. I took those reviews and I bought into the negative hype. But they say that the best way to enter a movie is with lowered expectations, and so I found myself as I sat down in the theater Sunday afternoon for my first viewing of Brave. Too often, by the time the credits roll on the year's most critically acclaimed films, I find myself wondering what I missed, where the great film I read about was, and why all the flaws that I noticed had been looked over; too often, my enjoyment of a film is sabotaged by the hype and by my own expectations. But after experiencing just over an hour and a half of what is, rather doubtlessly, the most gorgeous animated film ever put to celluloid, I had the opposite reaction: there hasn't been enough hype for Brave.

Perhaps it's because Brave doesn't quite reach the level of originality that has been pivotal to Pixar's past work, the level of how-the-hell-did-they-think-of-that brilliance that runs back and forth through films like Monsters or Toy Story. And indeed, while Brave does carry a ton of Pixar's trademark comedy and heart, its ideas are a bit more straightforward than those that have served as backbone for the studio's true masterworks. Perhaps the "good-but-not-great" critical response to Brave has been a result of people who just can't wrap their heads around the fact that, yes, we have kinda sorta seen this story play out before. But then again, each Pixar movie has, at its barest essentials, covered universal themes, and that's no different here. Just like Toy Story, this is a film about growing up, about the things we love that we take for granted right up until the moment that we almost lose them; like Nemo, it depicts a relationship between a parent and a child that is tested and reborn through struggle and adventure; and just like Toy Story 3 and Up and Wall-E and every other movie this studio has made, it has a handful of moments that hit tremendously hard.

On the whole, Brave is more of a throwback to classic Disney Princess movies than it is to the rest of Pixar's innovative track record, but that's not a bad thing. The movies it collects inspiration from, ranging from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty to Mulan, are all terrific, classics even, and Brave stands among them easily. Blending its baffling animation with a gorgeous score of Gaelic music and a terrific cast of characters (including a notably strong heroine in Merida, since its about time Pixar had a female lead), I can't recall enjoying many Pixar films more than Brave on first viewing (the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo excepted), nor have I been so thoroughly pleased, moved, or enraptured by any film I've seen so far this year. To me, it feels like a collision of the timelessness of the hand-drawn Disney classics and the fierce creativity and heart that has defined all of Pixar's films, movies that have carried me along from childhood, into adolescence, and finally onto adulthood: movies that are near and dear to my heart. Needless to say, that it fits among that legacy at all is praise enough for Brave; that it surpasses some of it is one of the highest commendations that can be given in modern film.

There has always been this sort of unspoken belief in the film industry that animated movies can't be "serious art," that these films are made for kids and they can't possibly measure up to the works that are showered with big awards recognition at the end of each year. But that's not true, and right from the beginning, Pixar Animation Studios have spent every one of their films proving that. Sure, these movies can be enjoyed by kids: the audience I saw this movie with was at least 60% children, and they all loved it. But I've always felt that Pixar is not aiming at the kids: they're aiming for the parents, they're aiming for the film buffs, and they're aiming for my generation, the generation that fell in love with the first Toy Story in the first days of its original release, the generation that has been there with them every step of the way, growing up alongside Pixar, their films, and their characters, and finding new pieces of wisdom every time we sit down to watch a new feature or revisit an old one. Because in every Pixar movie, there are themes or moments that can only be fully appreciated with age, with time, and with experience. It's a gift that we have an animation studio so thoroughly committed to making great films that are resonant across all age groups, and it's a testament to their high level of work that I have never seen two people rank their output in the same order. Some may say that the Cars 2 debacle and the less-than-perfect reviews for Brave are a sign that the studio is weakening, but on the contrary, I'd rank Brave as one of their most enjoyable films to date...if not one of their best, and that deserves celebrating.

*Note: As is customary with Pixar features, a short film plays before Brave. The wide-eyed wonder of this year's version, a beautifully rendered short called La Luna, is not to be missed, so make sure you show up in time to catch it - even if you have to sit through a bevy of terrible previews first.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hide Away

Joules Films, 2012
Directed by Chris Eyre
Starring: Josh Lucas, James Cromwell, Ayelet Zurer
One and a half stars (out of four) 

I really wanted to love Hide Away, and that's not just because it was filmed in my hometown and is graced, on so many frames, by the gorgeous expanses of Grand Traverse Bay. No, I wanted to love Hide Away because I loved the concept and because Josh Lucas is one of the most likable and underrated actors working today. At very least, Lucas's talent isn't in doubt, as he does a terrible amount of heavy lifting in a film that, ultimately, renders his efforts as both a thankless task and a moot point. When we land on the shores of the Grand Traverse Peninsula at the outset of the film, we are introduced to Lucas (as a character who is never explicitly given a name). He's come to the docks to buy a boat, and, rather inexplicably, he's wearing a suit. We don't need the screenplay to tell us that he's running away from something, but it throws us a few bones anyway. "Are you divorced?" asks the guy who sells him a frighteningly decrepit sailboat. "No, I'm not," Lucas replies. Apparently these docks are a haven for divorced men, running away from their pasts and trying to regain some vestige of youth and happiness. Neither of those options seem very likely for Lucas's character, who seems thoroughly grounded in his own personal darkness from the first frame to the last, but he's still here for the same reason: to disappear.

As the film progresses, the "Young Mariner" (so Lucas is named in the credits, if you get that far) sets about repairing the boat, often to comically disastrous results. He is observed by a pair of other damaged souls (a solid James Cromwell and an ambiguously accented Ayelet Zurer) who will offer him personal and technical assistance over the course of the story, and he even gets a few interested glances from the cute girl who works at the local grocery store (maybe they should have just made a movie of Springsteen's "Queen of the Supermarket" instead...) Amidst all of this, Lucas sinks into mourning and succumbs to an alcohol-fueled depression, rebuilding the broken-down boat as he tries to rebuild his own heart, soul, and life. It's a nice idea, as crushing loss has led to many great works of art in the past. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will relate to our young mariner: when we lose the things that are most important to us, it feels impossibly wrong to move on without them, and Lucas plays that kind of unendurable pain very well. But the screenplay betrays his efforts, and clunky editing only makes matters worse. A long, drawn out montage during the film's mid-section shows Lucas's descent into alcoholism, but it feels more like an anti-drinking commercial than it does a movie. Even the nice moments in there, like one where he reads out loud to imaginary children, or where he loses his temper with another phantom in his head, have their emotional force truncated by tonally awkward fade-to-black cuts. The segment ends up feeling both painful and eternal, and the only solace comes from the fact that the film improves somewhat after it's over.

There isn't a whole lot of dialogue in Hide Away, and Lucas gets to spend a good deal of the (mercifully brief) runtime onscreen by himself. But even with so many intimate moments, we don't really get a deep sense of who he is. The same holds true for the supporting characters, who each have a few shining moments, but seem thrown in to fulfill decidedly more calculated plot points. Listed as the "Ancient Mariner" in the credits, we're (probably) meant to believe that Cromwell and Lucas are essentially the same person, with the latter being on a 20-year delay, but that slice of symbolism only gets a few moments of clarity. Zurer's character ("Waitress," how exciting) is even more of a caricature, with the film's most cringe-worthy moment coming when she solicits a sexual encounter with Lucas's character late in the film, eliciting a brief flashback that shows us just what happened to his family (and a too-subtle hint as to why he feels guilty enough to run away from it).

To Lucas's credit, he pulls this all off very well, giving us a handful of emotionally resonant moments in a film that otherwise never feels the slightest bit organic. The "plot twist" with his family doesn't work though, and it mutes the impact of his struggle with himself. The screenplay oscillates randomly between not giving it's audience enough credit and expecting them to make huge leaps in logic without the slightest bit of exposition or clarification, and the result is a frustrating, muddled mess of a movie that never finds its feet and has no damn clue what it wants to be. It would have been better to leave Lucas as an enigmatic figure, suffering from a nameless pain, to leave the funeral suit he arrives in at the film's outset as the only physical link to his mourning and his past life; it would have been better to build on the strong onscreen relationship he shares with Cromwell in their few scenes together and to pretty much eliminate Zurer from the film altogether; it would have been better if this film had a discernible story arc. Sadly, the film and it's director Chris Eyre (with whom I am entirely unfamiliar) don't take the ideal or sensible paths here, opting instead for something more minimalistic and abstract. But you can't have meaningful minimalism without a fully formed idea to build it on, and despite some nice flashes of concept, the framework here is distinctly half-baked.

Hide Away sounds good on paper: man loses family, runs away and starts re-building a boat in a symbolic nod to his own disrepair, helping a number of other people find their way in the meantime, and thus finding the redemption he came here looking for. Sadly, Eyre's film is able to find the emotional nuance in very little of that. More dialogue, more characterization, less heavy-handed editing, and more time would have helped the material breathe a little (though I can't say I wanted another 20 or 30 minutes when the credits finally rolled), but as is, Hide Away is a sloppy pile of ideas that never coalesce into anything more powerful than the sum of their parts (and actually distinctly less). Minor characters (and alcoholism) disappear without a trace, relationships spring up from nowhere, without any vestige of believability, and then the film just ends. There's no climactic moment, no real resolution, and certainly no memorable message to take away when the credits roll. Instead, it feels like Eyre just got tired of making this movie, and while I can hardly blame him, he does a major disservice to his characters (and to Josh Lucas, in general) by never giving them the time to grow. Worse, he does a poor, shallow job of depicting a theme and struggle that should have been intrinsically devastating and viscerally moving; I just wish someone had told him.