Friday, 6 December 2013

Trailer Talk: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"


Rejoice true believers. As you all pretty much know, the first official trailer for Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 dropped yesterday. I had, a little shamefully, already watched the leaked Comic Con trailer from this past summer, so I was unsure if I wanted to watch anymore footage, especially since the CC trailer had already shown quite a bit of footage. Still, I was curious to watch the official trailer since it'd be better quality- and when it comes to something like Spider-Man, I just couldn't resist.

The official trailer is actually strikingly different than the CC one. The biggest difference for me is the focus on Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), childhood friend of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), than Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx). While Electro is said to be the main antagonist of the film, this trailer gives me the sense Electro may only be a pawn in a larger plan, a plan that'll lead to the Sinister Six in either the third or fourth film in this franchise. Before the trailer debuted, we pretty much got confirmation that Harry would be the Green Goblin before his father Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper), who we learned in the previous film, and see in this film, is dying. This confirmation came in the form of the close-up of the new poster for the film:

And the trailer also confirms Harry will be our first Green Goblin. DeHaan looks very good in the role, conveying a slightly sinister vibe- though I wonder if it was a little too soon in the series for Harry to go down the bad guy route, particularly when he already had a Harry as GG two movies ago. I know Harry eventually becoming GG is part of the Spider-Man mythology but he wasn't the bad guy right off the bat. Then again, maybe Harry won't be that evil but another pawn of his father Norman and the "evil empire" (as Webb calls it) known as Oscorp.

Cooper has confirmed that this is an introduction to Norman, and I'm starting to get the feeling that Cooper will only have a brief part. The only footage we've seen so far is him in the hospital bed, talking to Harry and telling him, when asked about Peter, "Not everyone has a happy ending." Will this be his only scene?

I'm also getting the feeling the film will go down a route vaguely similar to that of The Dark Knight. Remember in that film the Joker was the main antagonist but once he was out of the picture the film concluded with the confrontation between Batman and Harvey Dent/Two-Face, who was manipulated by the Joker. I think that while Electro may be the central villain, once Spider-Man defeats him, the film will conclude with the confrontation between Spider-Man and Harry/GG. However, it'll be the reverse of The Dark Knight since, as I mentioned, earlier, Electro will the pawn.

I do wish we got more of Electro's back story in the trailer since if you're not aware of the backstory we've been told by Foxx, we don't get much context for Electro's speech near the end of the trailer about a world without Spider-Man.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 trailer screencap


I'm still wondering how much of a threat Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino (Paul Giamatti) will present in the film. I previously assumed he was only there at the beginning of the film but I think that after Spider-Man defeats him the first time he may come back with his mechanical Rhino suit, which will tie in to Oscorp.

In regards to Oscorp, I think the biggest take away from the trailer was this image of who I presume is the shadowy figure from The Amazing Spider-Man's mid-credits teaser walking past some familiar items:

Those do appear to be Vulture's wings and Doctor Octopus' arms, which is pretty awesome. Colm Feore was rumoured to be playing Adrian Toomes some time ago. It was never confirmed but I think it's a possibility. I don't know how I feel about all these villain being connected to Oscorp however. I understand they're trying to create an interconnected and expansive universe but somehow, and this has mentioned by others, having everything connected to Oscorp makes this world feel smaller rather than larger. It also somewhat betrays the fun and randomness of those early Spider-Man comics, when the creators would just make up random and bizarre characters without much connection to each other. Also, I hope this series isn't just about eventually making a Sinister Six film. While the concept of the Sinister Six have been around since the early Spider-Man comics, this isn't like The Avengers where they're a central part of the Marvel Universe. Spider-Man stories should never put Spider-Man in the background.

The trailer also brings back Peter's father, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott). My biggest criticism of the previous film was how the film didn't do enough with the story of Peter's parents disappearance, but rather shamefully made it a mystery to be played over the course of the series. Ideally I would hope the mystery gets closure in this film.

I wrote an article a while ago concerning why it'd be wise to keep Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) alive throughout The Amazing Spider-Man 2:, though I assumed that without Norman as GG she'd probably live until the third film. While I still stand by my points, I have a feeling Gwen may meet her iconic fate in this film since we are getting an actual GG. There's a shot in the trailer, which I assume is from the fight between Spider-Man and GG at a clock tower, where Spider-Man shoots his webbing downwards, as if to catch something, or someone:

Could he be trying to save Gwen? I think so. While I think Norman's presence in this series may be weakened
if he's not the one to actually knock her off a great height, I could see Gwen's death actually working in this film.

We also get our first, brief, look at Felicity Jones' role unnamed role, said to be someone with a romantic relationship with Harry. I feel Jones's role will be small. Unfortunate since Jones is a splendid actress. I hope I'm wrong and she gets some significant screen time.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 trailer screencap
So, the trailer definitely has me intrigued, and that final sequence between Electro and Spider-Man does look cool. Though I wonder if the movie will just be "cool" or if it'll be something that'll be a genre classic. I sometimes wonder if the great irony of the superhero movie boom will be that not many of them live on in 50 years. Anyway, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens on May 2nd, 2014. See you there.


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights: Adapatation, Interpretation and Modernization


After watching Andrea Arnold’s magnificent Wuthering Heights I began to think about the difference between adaptation and interpretation. What is the difference? For me, adaptation means a filmmaker or artist is adapting a work to another medium, like film or television, but interpretation is when the filmmaker takes the source material and approaches from a different angle, changing something within the source material to fit their vision. This is common in superhero films where there is much leeway in adapting certain characters to the screen. Of course, this can be very controversial when source material is altered but it can lead to interesting results. A film, or what have you, can be both an adaptation and an interpretation at the same time, with some leaning more towards a literal “book on film” approach.
Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is more of an interpretation than merely an adaptation. Moreover, one has to put aside any expectations he or she may have about literary adaptations, particularly adaptations of Emily Bronte’s immortal classic. Her film is the exact opposite of the stereotypes we associate with period pieces- stodginess, awards bait, dry- this is a raw, naturalistic yet lyrical and sometimes unsettling work. It trims down, like other adaptations of Wuthering Heights, the plot, but instead of feeling abridged for truncated, the piece feels like a whole- it feels like an actual film, richly cinematic, almost a silent film (the dialogue is very sparse)- almost Malickian in its appreciation and focus on nature.
 From my memory of Bronte’s novel, not much of the plot is changed, but we never feel the film is just the book on screen. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not heavy with dialogue, and I don’t believe much of the dialogue is actually from the novel. Coming back to the theme of what makes this more of an interpretation rather a strict adaptation, Arnold approaches the novel from a strictly cinematic perspective. It communicates its emotions through visuals and mood. It’s a film we really need to pay attention to- to watch and soak in. I wish I had been able to witness this film on a large theatre screen. The images are so beautiful and textured that I want to get lost in them. I feel the cinema screen is always the best way to experience film, particularly a film like this.
One of the most significant interpretative elements in this film is Arnold’s casting of black actors in the role of Heathcliff (Solomon Glave as young Heathcliff and James Howson as the older Heathcliff). At first glance, this seems like a major change-and it is- but at the same time, making Heathcliff black while keeping the other major characters Caucasian feels truer to the spirit of Bronte’s novel. While Heathcliff wasn’t black in the novel, he was intended to be of an unspecified ethic origin (a gypsy I believe) which is why he was an outsider in this world. I don’t believe Heathcliff was supposed to be the image of a matinee idol like Laurence Olivier. With the casting a black actors, Arnold gets to the heart of Bronte’s fascination and empathy with the idea of the outsider. Critic David Fear, in his video essay on the DVD, parallels Heathcliff with Bronte, highlighting the fact that Bronte herself was an outsider in her time. Despite being a male character, Heathcliff was a very personal character for Bronte.
By making Heathcliff black, Arnold not only gets (arguably) closer to Bronte’s conception of Heathcliff, she re-contextualizes Heathcliff’s sufferings as the sufferings of people of African descent- despite the film not taking place in the United States. I think Heathcliff being black allows for a more relatable and contemporary entry point for audiences.  And the film, despite taking place in the same era as the novel. It can be difficult making a period piece feel modern- the easy way out would be to set it in modern day- which was Arnold’s original intent.  But Arnold finds the balance between setting the film in the past as well as making it feel contemporary. I think she manages this by using a hand held camera work, putting the audience right in the middle of events, making us feel like we’ve been transported in the past. Arnold’s work with cinematographer Robbie Ryan makes the moors of Wuthering Heights feel real to us, allowing us to view this world as a realistic place that existed for people- that was modern and common. I think that’s the key to Arnold’s mastery of modernizing the past.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Uanswered Questions and The Problem of Serialized Storytelling in Film

Just this week, Alex Kurtzman, co-writer, along with frequent collaborator Bob Orci, of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, went on record that the film will address the questions left unresolved by last year's controversial reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man:

“It’s interesting because the first movie asks all these questions and what I loved about it in so many ways is that it didn’t answer them. Part of what we were drawn to and intrigued by was wanting to know the answers to a lot of those questions.

“The villains emerge from a lot of unanswered questions at the end of that movie and none of them are random at all, they are all tied together by a theme, an idea, and I think they come from our curiosity about what was going on in the life of Peter Parker and his parents.”

My chief criticism of The Amazing Spider-Man was it seemed about concerned with setting up plotlines for future films rather than just being a standalone, so I can't say I share the same enthusiasm for what it was doing. The film's marketing, and the film's first act, suggested the main drive of the film was to be Peter Parker's (Andrew Garfield) investigation in to why his parents disappeared when he was a child, how Peter's father was connected to Peter's eventual gaining of spider-like powers, as well as how Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans) relationship to Peter's parents. But the film pretty much drops these plot threads halfway through the way, only to remind us, in a mid credits stinger involving Connors and a mysterious man played by Michael Masse, that "Hey, come back for the sequel if you want to get any answers."

I understand what the filmmakers, most notably director of Amazing 1 & 2, and most likely 3, Marc Webb- they want to achieve what Marvel Studios has done and continues to do among its franchises, which is bringing expansive, comic book style continuity to the big screen- expect in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise, the want to create an expansive universe in a singular franchise. It's an ambitious and admittedly exciting idea. There's 50 years of Spider-Man continuity to draw from, with almost limitless possibilities, and it appears this franchise is leading up to Sinister Six film, a reverse-Avengers, if you will.

But this brings up the difficulties of telling a serialized narrative in film. When you sit down to watch a film, even a film like The Amazing Spider-Man, where you know it's going to be the first film in a franchise (the second film was announced well before the first film hit theatres), as well as mostly a retelling of the Spider-Man origin story, you still expect a mostly standalone film. But I don't think The Amazing Spider-Man was designed to be a standalone film. In many ways, it mostly serves as a 2 hour pilot. This is not a pejorative swipe at TV mind you, I'm just highlighting how I think this film doesn't work as a film. I don't feel Peter has a character arc or that the film has a firm dramatic arc regarding its stories. This would work if the film was a pilot for a TV series, or the first few issues of a new Spider-Man comic. But it's neither of those things. It's a film, but it's not thematically well rounded or satisfying on its own terms the way a film, particularly an origin story, which in most superhero's case, especially Spider-Man's, are usually dramatically very pure and straightforward.

Compare The Amazing Spider-Man to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which, as the title suggests, is about Batman becoming Batman. It's focused almost entirely on Bruce Wayne's childhood, the death of his parents, his training and establishment as a vigilante in Gotham City, fighting corruption and forming a relationship with Jim Gordon, one of the few good cops in the city. But while a film like this could feel like just a set-up, which in some ways it is, Batman Begins still works very well as a standalone film about how someone goes from a child crouching over the bodies of his dead parents, to a figure of hope and fear. When that Joker card is revealed, it works as both an organic lead in to the next film as well as a great moment by itself, even if we didn't get a sequel. And the film genuinely feels mythic, despite Nolan' goal to set the film in a more stylistically and visually realistic universe than the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series. I feel The Amazing Spider-Man lacks that kind of mythic nature, and while I think the film wants to be the Batman Begins of the Spider-Man, and while I think in some respects it is successful in that respect, I don't feel it works as a standalone film the way Batman Begins does. And going back to Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film in 2002, even that film, while leaving room open for a sequel, ends on a strong not that concludes Peter's (Tobey Maguire) character arc.

Now, I'm not saying serialized storytelling can't work in film. The Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars made it work, and serialized storytelling, in whatever medium, can be rewarding. But I feel The Amazing Spider-Man wasn't as interesting a film as it could've been. The film had such rich thematic potential in regards to the mystery surrounding Peter's parents, how his father potentially gave birth to Spider-Man, and Peter's relationship to a man (Connors) who knew his parents and may have taken part in their murders (?) But the film doesn't truly explore this material, I think. To be fair, this film did suffer from post-production tinkering by Webb and/or the studio, which resulted in several scenes being cut out, one in which makes clear the fate of Dr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan).

I'm glad Kurtzman  says the villains will be tied to the themes and questions of the first film. One of the things I really liked about Nolan's Batman Trilogy was how the villains were representations of the each film's themes. Of course, we know Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper) has a connection to Peter's parents, though I assume he won't become the Green Goblin until the very end of this film. I wonder how Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) will be connected to Peter, since he seems more thematically and emotionally connected to Spider-Man than Peter. I'm interested to see how the film juggles its multiple plot threads and relationships, including the continuing relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the reappearance of Peter's childhood friend Harry Osborn, (Dan DeHaan), Norman's son, as well Felicity Jones' still mysterious role as the "Goblin's girlfriend."- Harry or Norman? I'm still a little disappointed that Shailene Woodley's minor role as Mary Jane Watson has been cut and I hope she comes back for the third film.

While it's nice that Kurtzman has implied questions will be answered, I think the film should be more than just answering questions, just as how the first film was as its best when it wasn't just asking questions. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needs to explore what these questions mean for Peter and the other characters, as well what consequences the answers will have. It needs to blow us away emotionally, visually and thematically. I hope it does. The superhero genre and this franchise has a lot of potential, and it'd be great if this film fulfilled that potential

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Essential Films: "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me

I don’t think a film like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would be possible in today’s Hollywood. Or, a better way to put it, I don’t think it would have the same effect. Here is a film that stars two Hollywood titans who’s off screen relationship so affects our reaction to onscreen events that it’s hard to think of two actresses who could pack so much personal subtext in to their performances and our reading of the film. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford really did hate each other in real and no doubt it must have been a joy for Davis to psychologically and physically torture her. And there is a certain twisted pleasure the audience gets from this.

The film begins in 1917 where Baby Jane Hudson is a famous child star on the Vaudeville stage. As she gets older, she begins to appear in films but in an ironic twist of fate, it is her sister Blanche Hudson, who had been in her sister’s shadow when they were children, becomes the more popular and beloved star. One night Jane drives her car in to Blanche, crippling her. The rest of the film takes place in 1962- Blanche now spends her life in a wheelchair in a house being taken care of by her sister.  

I feel that how you approach a film is important to judging it fairly. If one goes in to this film expecting something that wants to be taken completely seriously, then one may start criticizing this film as too silly or “hammy” to be taken seriously. But I think the key to enjoying the film is to understand that the film is largely a black comedy, as well as a psychological thriller. The film, I believe, wants you to laugh at the relationship between the Hudson sisters. What’s miraculous about the film is how it both has this darkly humorous edge while still working as a compelling, tragic and empathetic psychological thriller. Outside of Alfred Hitchcock, I don’t think there are many directors who can pull off this feat- but director Robert Aldrich, director of the great film noir, Kiss Me Deadly,  is able to both play much of the film for sinister laughs, while still creating a genuine sense of fear and suspense that gets us invested in the story. He also finds the tragedy in this story. Both Jane and Blanche used to have it all, now Blanche is crippled and Jane is mentally sick, still in many ways a little girl who likes to torment her sister and who still clings on to her former fame as a child star.

I think Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would make a great double bill with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, made 12 years earlier. Both films deal with former actresses, Norma Desmond and Jane Hudson who become disillusioned and bitter when they’re no longer famous. Sunset Boulevard is more of a satire but both films show a dark and twisted side of show business, where people who never knew anything but fame shrink in to insecurity. When Jane goes to put out an advertisement for a piano player to help her revive her act she mentions that she’s Baby Jane Hudson, but the younger men at the office don’ t have the slightest idea who she is, though she doesn’t catch on to this fact. Norma and Jane both live in almost gothic mansions, shut away from society. Norma’s only companion is her former husband and director, now servant, Max Von Mayerling. Jane only really has Blanche, who despite being treated poorly, does care about Jane’s health. Both Norma and Jane also try to revive their careers through the help of a younger man- William Holden’s screenwriter Joe Gillis who happens upon Norma’s mansion- and Victor Buono’s piano player Edwinn Flagg. Both films eventually end with Norma and Jane completely detached from reality, convinced they still have an audience.

Blanche has a firmer grasp on reality. I think this has to do with the fact Blanche became famous later in her life than Jane, who was shoved in to the spotlight when she was only a child. Blanche had enough distance from the craziness of Jane’s life that she was able to understand the pressure of being famous even before she became a star. The fact that Blanche became a bigger star than Jane is a big reason for Jane’s bitterness and hatred towards Blanche. That and the fact she has to carry around the guilt of crippling her sister. At the end of the film we learn that it was Blanche who crippled herself when she tried to run over a very drunk Jane. “You mean all this time, we could’ve been friends?” Jane asks. Like a lot of the film, it’s both funny and tragic. These two sisters, due to their upbringing and careers never really had the chance to have a normal, healthy relationship.

Aldrich’s restrained visual style contrasts well with the more macabre elements of the story. If his visual style was too assertive, we’d probably feel smothered by the camp horror.  Like Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich finds a tone that is both cold but still absorbing. I love a lot of his camera angles and way he shoots Davis and Crawford. Just through their close-ups. Davis is grotesque, covered up in make-up that makes her look like a living doll- creating a link between Jane and the Baby Jane dolls from her time as a child star, one which she still keeps. Crawford is haggard, but we can still see the beauty that made Blanche, as well as Crawford, a star. This film uses footage from Davis and Crawford’s actual films, so it’s very impactful seeing the younger Davis and Crawford in this film and having the contrast between their younger and older selves. When we first see the older Blanche, she’s watching one of her older movies. There’s an added poignancy to the scene since Crawford is literally watching her younger self.

The title of the film asks where Baby Jane went. And the answer may be that nothing ever happened to her, she never grew up, never moved on or went away. Jane is still that little girl, stuck in a twisted kind of arrested development.   Her dancing on the beach at the end suggests that even if Jane had moved in to adulthood, has no regressed back in to the child Baby Jane. It’d be simplistic to say this is a just a cynical film about show business/Hollywood, but I do feel the film is a tragedy about that world. As in Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich puts us in a reality that is a nightmare version of our own, but finds thematic and, in the case of this film, emotional truths that allow us to connect with the stories. Jane and Blanche represent the broken lives of two women who, in a better world, could’ve been best friends.    

Sunday, 12 May 2013

I Write On Water What I Dare Not Say: Some Thoughts on Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder"

As I was watching Terrence Malick's latest film To The Wonder the other night, it occurred to me that, love him or hate, Malick is among the handful of directors, past and present, that has completely infused himself in to every fibre of his films. It's not just that he has a particular style, but that's there not a single moment in this film, or his previous few films, that he's not present. He's there in every image, camera movement, line of dialogue and even performance. Wes Anderson is similar in that regard, and maybe even Stanley Kubrick but I can't think of many directors that have become so much part of their films. I think it's hard to review a Malick film, particularly now, since  his films exist outside any typical narrative structure- so this will be more of a "thoughts on" piece rather than a "good or bad" summary. Overall, I liked the film and maybe even loved it. While it's not as monumental a work as his previous film, The Tree of Life, it's a lovely and often beautiful film, telling a simple but universal film about finding and losing love.

The film tells the story of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) who meet in France and move to Oklahoma to start their life together. Complications in their relationship leads to Neil and reconnecting with his childhood sweetheart Jane (Rachel McAdams). A parallel storyline focuses on Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest struggling with his faith.

Malick tells these stories, as to be expected, through impressionistic imagery and hushed voiceovers. But in this film I found that Malick was moving even further away from dialogue, crafting something focused very much on the physicality and movements of the actors- particularly with Kurylenko and McAdams. I don't think either of these women have ever looked more gorgeous. By just looking at them, watching them move, their beauty really shines through in a pure way.

Journalist and filmmaker Bilge Ebiri wrote a piece interpreting the film as a dance, a ballet. All one has to do is look at Kurylenko and her movements in the film and it becomes clear what Ebiri is talking about and what Malick is trying to achieve. Moreover,  I feel that Malick isn't just trying to create a ballet but he's fascinated in taking actors we recognize and using them in a fashion where their usual stature as an actor is stripped down to something quite simple. Think of Sean Penn in The Tree of Life. In this film, Affleck is just a normal man, not the hero of Argo or complicate bank robber of The Town.

This is the shortest gap between movies for Malick, who's taken up to 20 years between films. While it's exciting to get a new Malick film so soon after The Tree of Life, that film was such a bold and visionary piece of work, a film which could possibly be deemed a landmark film, that To The Wonder seems somewhat anti-climatic in comparison. Even if there was a bigger gap between the films, I didn't sense the level of ambition in this film that was present in The Tree of Life. But one has to take the film as what it is. To The Wonder is not as towering an achievement as some of Malick's other films but it's still a film in which we find Malick striving for pure visual poetry, which I think he achieves.

 Malick has always had a fascination with exploring America's past- the late 1950s that gave birth to one of America's first serial killers, Charles Starkweather, in Badlands, the turn-of-the-century labor in Days of Heaven, the physical an existential conflict soldiers face during WWII in The Thin Red Line, and the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement in 1607 in The New World. He returned to the 1950s in The Tree of Life- an course in that film Malick went beyond just exploring America's past- he literally dramatized the creation of the universe itself. To The Wonder is Malick's first film set entirely in the present day. I may have to see the film again but I didn't feel Malick was too preoccupied with modern day America- the story could've taken place in nearly any time. But then again, Malick's eye always seems to exist outside of time, showing us not the way things actually were in a given time period- but how they exist in the memory or dreams.

I'm still not sure how the Quintana storyline relates to the love triangle. His struggle with his faith reminds us of The Tree of Life, and also Ingmar Bergman, but it didn't feel directly tied to what has happening between Neil, Marina an Jane. 34444444444I've heard that Quintana's story is also a love story- one between him an God. I assume the relationship between Quintana an God is a spiritual relationship that's falling apart much like the physical relationships between Neil and the two women.  I'll have to keep this in mind the next time I see the film.

The way Malick moved the camera in certain scenes reminded me of The Tree of Life- as well as the houses, which brought to mind the O'Brien home. Also, every thing seems bigger through Malick's camera- faces, places, it's a recognizable world but one that seems larger than life.

Those are my initial thoughts on the film. I wasn't as overwhelmed as I was the first time I saw The Tree of Life, but the film, like all of Malick's works, it'll require at least another viewing to completely take every thing in. It'll be interesting to see what To The Wonder's critical standing will be as time goes on, particularly in relation to how it's ranked amongst Malick's other films. The initial reviews have been mixed and maybe the reaction towards the film will always be divided. But for Malick enthusiasts, it's worth seeing and becoming part of Malick's singular world.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

"Evil Dead" Review

I've been a little behind lately in regards to writing here, so I'm going to try to get back on track. I'm going to make my return on writing out my thoughts on the new The Evil Dead remake, which I saw on opening day. Evil Dead does what a good remake should do, which is take the basic components of the original- in this case a an abandoned cabin, five college students and a book that unleashes demons which possess those around them- and finds a new angle from which to approach it. The original The Evil Dead launched the career of director Sam Raimi, who would go on to direct of the biggest Super hero films of the the last decade with the Spider-Man Trilogy, and part of The Evil Dead's success was the personality that Raimi injected in to the film. While I'm not ready to call this new film's director, Fede Alvarez, the next Sam Raimi, he brings his own sense of style and tone to this film, never falling in to the trap of trying too hard to be Raimi. The new film is raw and brutal- don't go in expecting the slapstick humour of The Evil Dead's two sequels, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. It's more in line with the straightforward, go for the throat approach of the original. But even saying that undersells the gruesomeness and near humourlessness of this new film, which makes the gore of the original film seem tame by comparison. This film is definitely not for the faint of heart, but it gets the job done and I think it offers Evil Dead fans what they want in an update of the classic original.

The film focuses on the character of Mia (Jane Levy), whose four friends, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and Mia's brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) take Mia to an abandoned cabin in the woods in order to put her through drug detox. And of course, Eric finds and reads from the a book in the basement, unleashing human possessing demons, one which attaches itself to Mia. All that fun stuff. I liked the drug detox take on the cabin in the woods setup since in other cabin movies, including the original film, the reason the main characters come to the cabin is to have a party. Here, the film establishes a dark reality that's present even before the really horrific stuff begins to happen. Combining the supernatural horror with the real life horror of a drug addict going cold turkey, while it can be argued makes the film one note, for me, raised the tension quite a bit.

I also think it makes Mia's possession a metaphorical representation of her drug withdrawal. This is emphasized verbally when at first the others think Mia is going through a panic attack. She burns herself in the shower (the demons get off on inflicting pain on themseves in this version) and they think it's her way of getting them to take her away from the cabin. Like The Exorcist this is a film where people try to rationalize the horrific things happening, even though the situation reaches a point where no rational explanation can suffice.  

Levy gives a real star making performace in this film. Levy, most known for her work on the sitcom Suburgatory, gives a much darker performance here, convincingly playing a young woman who has reached the point where she can't survive without drugs, an unadulterated evil demon, and finally a woman who becomes a real badass in the face of evil. I was surprised that the film did strive for dramatic weight regarding Mia's situation and her relationship with David.  That's why I wish there was little more development for the characters- the film seems to be leaning towards fleshing these people out but doesn't go all the way. In regards to the other females, Olivia and Natalie, they seem underwritten. I liked Eric but he also felt he needed a little more focus. Mia and David definitely feel like they're the heart of the film. I also admit that despite wanting a little more development for the other characters, I did feel for them during some crucial moments.

I like the look of the cabin in this film. It's not inviting at all, which is apporpriate for the tone the filmmakers are going for. I feel in other cabin based horror films, the cabin isn't dingy enough. Here you really feel the creakiness, dampness and death within the cabin d I also admire Alvarez's staging of the set pieces. He's not afraid to dwell on the grisly details. Some may say Alvarez is overcompensating by making the film so gory but I think that when updating a film like The Evil Dead, you have to go big or go home. I also feel that the extreme use of gore makes the situation all the more nightmarish, as well as making you sympathethic to what these people are going through,

The film ends with an obligatory hint that things aren't over yet. This is to be expected in a film like this but I actually am looking forward to seeing where this new line of films is going, as well as if it's secretly part of the original Evil Dead universe. There's been talk of Raimi and Evil Dead Trilogy star Bruce Campbell doing another Evil Dead film, with Cmpbell's character of Ash makng his way in to the new series of films. I don't know if the Ash persona can fit with the new tone of this series- but hey, if they could find some way of reintroducing Ash, it'd be pretty groovy.  

PS: Here's a link to my audio review of the film: and a retrospective I did on the original trilogy for Scene Creek:

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 4: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

When Live Free or Die Hard was about to come out, it was a pretty big deal for me. I had seen the three previous Die Hards numerous times and loved them - and this would be the first Die Hard  I was old enough to see in theatres. Admittedly, for me, Live Free or Die Hard couldn't quite live up to the original trilogy, largely because a Die Hard film made in 2007 is a completely different animal than a Die Hard film made in the late 80s or early to mid- 90s, when the first three films where made. Of the Die Hard sequels I've seen (haven't seen A Good Day to Die Hard), it's my least favourite, though I feel number 5 will take that spot soon enough. The film suffers from a villain that's interesting in concept but not executed as effectively as he could've been, especially with a solid actor in the role. It's reconciliation story between father and daughter needed more development as well- since it comes across as more a plot device. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this film. It's actually a pretty good action film. Director Len Wiseman stages some memorable action sequences. The film also has some nice emotional beats and an intriguing plot.

The film begins with John McClane (Bruce Willis) being sent to pick up a computer hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) and bring him to DC. A computer outage at the FBI has led the FBI to seek out known computer hackers, finding them dead. Farrell is being taken in to protective custody. McClane finds out Matt was a pawn in a scheme by a man named Thomas Gabriel (tImothy Olyphant) to start what is known as a "fire sale," in which America's computer controls are hacked, meaning "every thing must go." Gabriel is a former expert for the US Defense Department. After 9/11 he tried to convince the higher ups that America was vulnerable. When he used his laptop to hack in to the the defense system, he was fired. The fire sale is Gabriel's way of proving he was right, as well a way to steal a lot of money.

I like the concept of Gabriel. He basically threatens the security of the United States in order to prove how vulnerable it really is.  I wished they had devloped Gabriel's character a little more and expanded upon the theme of terrorism in a post 9/11 age and what that means for a series like Die Hard and the character of John McClane. Gabriel calls out McClane for being out of date- which is an interesting idea for the Die Hard series to confront- what happens when McClane gets older and his past glories are behind him. Unfortunately, the series doesn't seem to ever want to become a melancholy, introspective look at the decline of the 80s action hero, an ironic concept in regards to John McClane, who was the antithesis to that kind of hero- but he more or less became part of that group of guys as he slowly, or maybe not so slowly, evolved in to one of those iconic bad asses. The franchise just seems content to blow stuff up real good, as Roger Ebert would say. And on that level, it works pretty well. At this point in the franchise, they're not aiming for much semblance to the real world- so you basically have McClane drive a car in to a helicoptor only about half an hour in. You just killed a helicoptor with a car" Matt says. "I was out of bullets'' McClane replies. It's a nice punchline to the scene, letting us know the filmmakers, and McClane, know how ridiculous this stuff is.

A big criticism of this film revolves how McClane seems more like a super hero than the regular cop he was in the first film. And that's true. But there is one scene in this film that I think really nails McClane. It's when Matt tells him McClane that's he's not like McClane, not the hero type. McClane then tells Matt that while he doesn't want to be a hero, some one has to do the right thing. If someone else could, he'd let them. This scene really encompasses what John McClane is all about- the reluctant hero who rather not have go through these crazy adventures but has to because, ultimately, he's a good guy, and no one else will. "That's what makes you that guy," Matt says- John's speech has proved Matt's point.

Back to the action! The fight between McClane and Gabriel's lover/henchwoman Mai (Maggie Q) in an SUV hanging in an elevator shaft is really well executed, and the climax involving McClane in a truck facing down a fighter jet, while ridiculous, is spectacular. The henchman Emerson, who's jumping around like Spider-Man, still feels out of place for me in a Die Hard film, but the stunt choreography in his scenes is pretty great.

The subplot involving McClane's attempt at reconciling with his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), felt like it needed to be a bigger part of the film. At the heart of the first film was McClane trying to save his marriage- it was the metaphor of the first film. In this film, when Lucy is kidnapped, it feels more like a plot device then something that becomes an organic part of the film. I like Winstead and am glad they gave Lucy an assertiveness that becomes an amusing running gag in the third act- like father like daughter.

Overall, I don't have too much more to say about Live Free or Die Hard. I enjoy it, but I wish it felt a little more like the previous films. It still has the relentless pacing, the face-offs over the phone between McClane and the villain, but it feels a little too detached from the universe of the first three films. Still, I like Willis in this film, and his chemistry with Long. Olyphant is pretty solid and director Wiseman stages the action pretty coherently and with aplomb. I enjoy the film, but I think it'll always be somewhat of an outlier for me.

So, the retrospective is done. My ranking goes like this: Die Hard, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Die Hard 2, Live Free or Die Hard. Even without seeing A Good Day to Die Hard, I feel it'll probably come in dead last, due to what I've heard. It's been fun looking back at this franchise. I love it, and hope that when there's a sixth film, it's the last and takes the franchise out with a bang.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 3: "Die Hard With a Vengeance" (1995)

While rewatching Die Hard 2 I found myself liking the film more than I had before. Still, Die Hard With a Vengeance has a special place in my heart as my favourite of the Die Hard sequels- mostly because it gives itself more breathing room than Die Hard 2 did to be its own film. While Die Hard 2 is its own film, sometimes it does feel a little too sel-conscious of the original film, especially with its meta references to the "same shit happening to the same guy twice." Die Hard With A Vengeance definitely feels like the first Die Hard sequel that could've gotten by as another Bruce Willis action film (It was based off an original script that almost became Lethal Weapon 3) but this is what actually makes the film feel a lot fresher and inventive than most third installments. I think it's the funniest of the Die Hard films and also an interesting experiment in playing with audiences' franchise expectations.

The film begins with The Lovin' Spoonfuls' "Summer in the City" playing over images of a New York City day. This intro automatically sets the first apart from the Christmas settings of the first two films and also establishes that we're finally going to see John McClane (Bruce Willis) in his usual stomping grounds, whereas he was a fish out of water in the previou films. I love when the song is cut off by a store exploding- setting up the relentless pacing of this film. A man calling himself Simon (Jeremy Irons) calls Inspector Walter Cobb and tells him that he'll strike again unless the suspended McClane stands in the streets of Harlem with a sandwich board that says "I hate N-----s." McClane is spotted by a shop owner named Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), who saves him from a gang. Simon then makes Zeus part of his game as he makes him and McClane solve riddles in order to stop more bombings.

The beginning of this film plays mostly like a psychological thriller and the film itself is psychologically playing with the audience's expectations of what a Die Hard film is like. We know ths franchise is a lot more than John McClane solving riddles- so we wonder what Simon and the film's endgame is, as well as how the scope scale of this film will expand. Of course, before long, McClane is jumping on the top of subway train that has a bomb in it. It's eventually revealed that Simon is Hans Gruber's (Alan Rickman) brother, which in itself is also a red herring. We begin to think that Simon wants revenge against McClane but a big joke near the end is that Simon didn't really like his brother. Of course, as Simon says, "There's a difference between not liking your brother and not caring when some Irish flatfoot throws him off a building." The whole riddle nonsense, the supposed bomb at an elementary school, the idea that Simon wants revenge on McClane- it's all a cover for Simon to steal gold from the New York federal reserve.  While a big criticism of this film could be that it has too much bait-and-switch going on, I think it's this quality that makes it such a fascinating action film- as well as sequel. For the first time, it really feels like the villain gets the better of John McClane. In the first two films, McClane took th bad guys by surprise- this time the tables are turned.

While much of the film is a ruse, what I think will keep me coming back to the film is the throughline of McClane and Zeus' relationship. Zeus is somewhat of a racist- something that's both played for laughs but it also disquieting in its own way. Zeus' arc through the film involves get past his prejudices and learn to work with McClane. He's a fascinating character and I think this stands as one of Jackson's most vivid performances. The chemistry between him and Willis is sharp and funny- I love when McClane calls him "Jesus" because he thinks that what the gang was calling him. "They weren't saying 'Jesus,' they were saying "Hey, Zeus," Zeus tells him. "Father of Apollo. Don't fuck with me or I'll shove a lightning bolt up your ass." It's one of thos great details that's always brought this franchise to life. While a lot of people seem to hate the water jug riddle scene, I like how it brings to head the tensions between McClane and Zeus, with McClane finally calling him out as a rascist.

Who's awesome enough to play Alan Rickman's brother? Jeremy Irons of course. Just hearing his voice over the phone in the first act of this film gives me pleasure. It's fascinating how our impression of Simon changes over the course of the film- from a smart but random psychopath to a vengeful brother- to something else entirely. Like his brother Hans and Colonel Stuart from Die Hard 2, he's an extremely smart villain- one who we know is a formidable foe for McClane.

Admittedly, I don't like the action in this film as much as I do the the second film, but having John McTiernan, who directed the first film, back behind the camera is great. He brings a ruthless intensity to the staging of the action. I love the elevator fight between McClane and Simon's men who are pretending to be police officers- especially that final shot, the close-up of McClane as he fires his gun and blood sprays all over his face. The race to get to the subway- with McClane and Zeus driving a cab through Central Park is also pretty fun. The ending of the film does feel a little abrupt and not quite as memorable as the first two- the alternate ending is more interesting- but tonally I remember it not fitting with the rest of the film.

 Die Hard With a Vengeance stands for me as one of the better third installments in cinema. While it's not as lean as its prequels, it's a consistently entertaining, very funny and structurally interesting take on the Die Hard franchise. And as an end to the original "trilogy," it's a good capper. Of course, while it would take 12 years, this wouldn't be the end of the Die Hard franchise, not by a long shot. Next up: Live Free or Die Hard.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 2: "Die Hard 2" (1990)

For better or worse, of all the Die Hard sequels, Die Hard 2 feels the most like a sequel to the original film, in terms of its tone, atmosphere, and returning characters. With this sequel we begin to see the problem, further highlighted by the next two installments, of making a sequel to Die Hard. Make a film too close to the formula of the original film, like Die Hard 2, and it makes the audience conscious of watching a sequel that's similar but not as great as the original. Make a sequel that's tonally and structurally different from the original, with Die Hard With a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard, and it feels like the series is departing too far from the original premise. All that being said, Die Hard 2, while sometimes feeling too conscious of being a sequel, and repeating several of the elements from the first film, manages to balance those formula elements while still feeling like its own film. It's as rock solid as a sequel can get and is one of the most entertaining action films of the 1990s.

The plot of the film revolves around General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), drug lord and dictator, who is being extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking charges. Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), of the US Army Special Forces, and his men take over Washington's airport systems from a church and demand that Esperanza's plane not be met by anyone and also demand a plane so they can all escape to another country. Of course, guess who's also at the airport. That's right- John McClane (Bruce Willis). It's Christmas Eve again and his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is on one of the planes that can't land wiithout landing lights and is running low on fuel. Once again McClane is "up to his ass in terrorists" and has to use his wits, and his gun, to save his wife and the other people up in the air as well.

This is where one of the problems of Die Hard 2 comes in. As I said earliier, the film is very conscious of being a sequel, particularly in McClane's reaction to the situtation. It's not a completely bad thing. We hear, in the confrontation between McClane and Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), captain of airport police, that McClane became famous for a while after the situation at Nakatomi. And Colonel Stuart tells McClane he thought he was out of his element while being interviewed on Nightline. These references give some nice texture to the Die Hard universe and grounds the film in reality- of course people would know who McClane was, even if they didn't respect him. On the other hand, when McClane says the line  Oh man, I can't fucking believe this. Another basement, another elevator. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" It feels like the screenplay is laying it on a little too thick, and being a little too meta. While the line suits the everyman quality McClane posseses, it lends itself too much to parody and plays up the absurdity of the situation that would best be left unsaid.

I think Die Hard 2 is the most unnerving and terrifying of the Die Hard films, which is largely due to the scene is which Stuart, in response to McClane interfering, makes a plane crash by talking to its pilots. It's a harrowing and devastating scene, particularly in how McClane tries to make it pull up but fails. It's actually surprising that this scene made it in to the film- and in our post 9/11 age, it's even more unsettling. It's also in this scene where we see how ruthless Stuart can be. Sadler is utterly convincing as the calculated Stuart. He makes you really hate him, and as an aspiring actor myself, I admire him not being afraid to play such an unlikable character. He also has one of the most memorable introductions I've ever seen for a villain (nakes ti-chi!). He's not as great a villain as Alan Rickman's Hans but he's very memorable.

This film has some pretty strong action scenes, such as the catwalk ambush and the snowmobile chase. I love the scene where McClane has to eject himself from a plane cockpit to escape the villains' grenades. It provides the most memorable shots from the film. Renny Harlin, the finnish director who almost directed Alien 3 and would go on to direct the Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger, handles the action pretty well for his first big budget action film.

An essential component of the first Die Hard was the claustrophic surrounding that also allowed enough movement to create thrilling action. I like how this feel generates claustrophobia for McClane by having his wife stuck in the air- an interesting twist on the situation from the first film. McClane can leave the airport but he still needs to see this adventure through to the end. He also has to clash with Lorenzo, who wants nothing more than to kick McClane out of his airport. Franz is perfect as the arrogant blowhard Lorenzo but the character is pretty monotonous. I do like that when McClane finally makes Lorenzo take him seriously- via the blanks the supposedly "good guys" led by Major Grant (John Amos) were using against Stuart (Grant and his men are in cahoots with Stuart)- Lorenzo simply says "It's time to kick ass." It's a nice and simple way to show Lorenzo finally trusting McClane as well as ready to show he's not just a bureuacrat.

The film isn't quite as soulful as the first film, which at its heart was about a guy trying to fix his marriage. That was the metpahor for the entire film. In this film, Holly and McClane's marriage is doing well so having Holly being on board one of the planes is more of a plot device-albeit a relatable and emotional one for McClane. The movie isn't entirely soulless- McClane not being able to save the plane shows how McClane isn't the perfect action hero who can save everyone- and the reunion between Holly and McClane is touching. I do wish Richard "Dick" Thornburg (William Atherton) went through an arch of redemption rather than just be the same slimy reporter he was in the first film but I'm glad Holly is portrayed as an assertive woman rather than a damsel in distress.

Die Hard 2 is a very entertaining and well paced action film that's very lean and brutal- as well as unpretentious about what it wants to be. It's also arguably the only Die Hard sequel that feels like a sequel to Die Hard. It doesn't match the greatness of the first film but it's still a damn good film. Next up, probably my favourite of the Die Hard sequels: Die Hard With a Vengeance.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 1: "Die Hard " (1988)

As a franchise goes along, it's sometimes hard to look at the first film in a series without thinking about the franchise's legacy and its evolution. Die Hard is one of those franchises that has gone so far past its initial premise and tone that one really has to put the first film in its proper context to fully appreciate what it was doing in regards to its central character, New York city detective John McClane, and the casting of Bruce Willis in the part. When Willis was first cast in the role, he was not the iconic action star we see him as now. He wasn't an action star at all back then- he was mostly known for his work on the TV show Moonlighting. Willis wasn't made in the Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone  mold, both who defined the macho, unstoppable action hero of the 1980s. He was just a regular joe who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is what the original Die Hard was all about, a regular guy who has to step up and be a hero. And, after rewatching it, it's a great antithesis to the over the top action movies of the 80s as well as the James Bond films which had made Ian Fleming's creation more superhero than spy. Though, to be fair, by time Die Hard came out, Timothy Dalton was bringing Bond back down to Earth with his underrated portrayal of the character. But I digress. Die Hard is arguably the definitve action movie of the 80s, in that, as I said before, it subverted audience expectations of what an action movie could be .

The plot is simple. John McClane is a New York City detective who is visting L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who works at Nakatomi Plazza under her maiden name, Gennarro-due to it being a Japanese company for which she works. After they get in a fight over her using her maiden name and leaving New York with their two children, a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) takes over the building to break in to its vault.  McClane hides while hostages are being rounded up and precedes to start a one man war against the terrorists.

The Nakatomi building is a great one-location setting for the film, in that it allows for a claustophobic, grounded environment to stage the action, but is also big enough for the action to build as the LAPD and the FBI arrive and try to solve the situation. Over the past several films there's been a lot of talk about the realism injected in to the Batman and James Bond franchises, as well as the new Spider-Man film. And while it's true that Nolan's Batman trilogy and the Daniel Craig Bond film feel more grounded in reality than many of their predeceding films, I think Die Hard pre-dates those films in terms of creating an action film and hero that feels grounded in reality. I'm not saying everything in the film is completely realistic- McClane jumps from the rooftop just as it's rigged to explode with a fire hose wrapped around his waist- then it supports him even as the rooftop is on fire. But the thing is, it feels grounded in reality- which I think is largely due to Willis' performance- the way he says "God please don't let me die" before he makes the jump. It's an incredibly human moment and makes the jump/explosion all the more spectacular. This is a real guy escaping death by the skin of his teeth- and Willis sells that. Willis balances the wisecracks and one liners, his confidence in facing Hans, as well McClane's vulnerbility, his unsurety that he will survive this ordeal. It's a performance that I would argue was worthy of an Oscar nomination.

And speaking of Oscar snubs, where was the nomination for Alan Rickman's performance as Hans? Part of why Die Hard will always be the best of the Die Hard films is that Hans is still the best villain of the series. Rickman makes Hans surprisingly likable, despite being very ruthless. Much of this is due to his dry sense of humour. I think my favourite scene with Rickman is when one of the hostages, Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) tries to negotiate with Hans by telling him he can get him McClane. In this scene, while Ellis is putting on a show for Hans, Rickman has a "Is this guy for real?" look on his face which is priceless. What I also like about Hans is he's pretty smart- he doesn't really do anything in the film that stupid, which makes him a formidable foe for McClane. And just how McClane isn't a superhero, Hans isn't a super villain like some of the James Bond villains, he feels grounded in reality.

I also think Die Hard is actually one of the great unsung buddy cop films. Throughout most of the film, McClane communicates via cb radio with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the only one outside the building who supports McClane and knows he's trying to help.While they don't meet face to face until the end, they form a connection and we learn about Powell's tragic past- he shot and killed a kid at night whose toy gun looked real. After that, he tells, John, he could bring himself to pull his gun on anyone. At the end of the film, when the last remaining terrorist Karl (Alexander Godunov), who we believed was killed by McClane, reappears, Al is finally able to fire his gun again. It's a great character payoff and is enough to give you goosebumps.

While Die Hard is a pure action movie, it's also a lot about the build up to the action, and suspense is expertly handled by director John McTiernan. The concept of "chaos cinema," meaning action films that have incoherent action, is one that's prevalent in our discussion of modern action films. With Die Hard, the action is coherent and classically staged. There's a great overhead shot early on while McClane is shooting at terrorists on the roof. We see where everyone is and the shot is  fascinatlingly detached, particulalry in this era of action film where the acton is so hetic and has no breathing room.

Die Hard is pretty much a perfect action film- and just film in general- It blends intense action with genunine poignancy- McClane and Al's face to face meeting is beautiful, as well as McClane telling Al to tell Holly he's sorry- and is intelligently staged in terms of its action. While I enjoy the sequels, none has been able to completely recapture the original's magic. Those are my thoughts for part 1. Next time: Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Monday, 4 February 2013

Some Thoughts on Paul Giamatti and Felicity Jones' Casting in "The Amazing Spider-Man" Sequel


Last week, some big casting news was announced regarding the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man. Paul Giamatti is in talks to play one of Spider-Man's villains, the Rhino. For those who don't know the Rhino, here's a brief summary via The Hollywood Reporter:

"The Rhino first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #41 in 1966 as a thug from a Soviet Block country who wore a superhuman suit that made him invulnerable while giving him super-strength and super-speed. It also had a deadly horn
on top. In more recent comics, he became a sympathetic figure who found himself allying with Spider-Man."

What's fascinating about the inclusion of the Rhino in the film is certainly the casting of Giamatti, not a psychically intimidating actor. With Giamatti in the role, the film will probably emphasize the suit's ability to give him super strength, providing a contrast between the ordinary man Giamatti starts out as and the unstoppable force he becomes.

Giamatti will be joining Jamie Foxx as Electro, another of Spider-Man's rogues gallery. With two villains, along with the inclusion of Dan DeHaan as Harry Osborn and Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson, as well as Felicity Jones in talks for an undisclosed role, it's starting to feel that the film may be juggling too many balls. And the idea of a Spider-Man film cramming in too many characters and subplots brings to mind Spider-Man 3, which suffered from not being able to weave its multiple plotlines together coherently. Now, I'm not trying to be an alarmist- it's just that I felt The Amazing Spider-Man script didn't quite flow narratively or click together thematically as well as it should have. I hope the script for the next film is tighter and works really well as a stand alone film.

For one thing, it's important to know how to use your villains. One needs to be the central villain, which I presume will be Electro. It's apparent that Harry's father, Norman Osborn, is the one pulling the strings in this new franchise, so it's important to keep that villain structure in mind while still having Electro be a fully developed character rather than just a henchman. Foxx has talked about Electro's origins, saying at the beginning of the film that Max Dillon, Electro's real name, will be a Spider-Man fan:

"You'll see that in his whole life, no one is talking to him. People have stolen his ideas at the big company. He's a nobody. At a certain point, Spider-Man bumps into him and says, 'You're my guy. You're my eyes and ears on the street.' And he says his name - no one has ever said [Max] Dillon's name. He goes, 'Wow' and, when Spider-Man leaves, he sort of thinks that, 'I am Spider-Man's partner!' He's cutting out Spider-Man's face and pasting it on all his boards..."

Could Rhino be an established villain at the beginning of the film, with Electro getting the main villain origin? Possibly, especially since, judging from Foxx's comments, Max will have an emotional connection to Spider-Man that will put his orgin front and centre. Then again, if Rhino has any connection to Oscorp and Curt Connor's cross species genetics work, we could definitely be seeing an origin on screen for him as well. Will there be a team up between Electro and Rhino?- if director Marc Webb is leading up his version of the Sinister Six, then a relationship between Electro and Rhino could be planting the seeds for a future installment also featuring the return of Curt Connors/the Lizard. Critic Sean O'Connell recently wrote an article about the possible universe Marc Webb is mapping out:  While I have disagreed with O'Connell regarding certain aspects of The Amazing Spider-Man, his article is definitely worth checking out.

So, who will Felicity Jones play? People are throwing around two big names-Felicia Hardy, aka the Black Cat, the Marvel Universe's version of Catwoman and Betty Brant, who in the comics works at the Daily Bugle. While I kind of love the idea of Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man interacting with Black Cat, I wonder if Black Cat fits in with what this franchise is doing right now. It may also be a little too soon after The Dark Knight Rises and Anne Hathaway's performace as Catwoman to bring in another cat burglar character. And finally, the romantic dynamic of this new film already seems to be set up as a love triangle involving Peter Parker, Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy and Shailene Woodley's Mary Jane. Felicia/Black Cat was one of Peter' romantic interests in the comics, so the filmmakers may want to avoid putting in another possible love interest. This isn't to say that Felicia is only defined by a romantic relationship with a man.

I'm leaning a little towards Betty Brant. The Daily Bugle will probably feature in some compacity in the next film, which would lead to Betty having a role. Elizabeth Banks played Betty in Sam Raimi's trilogy and the character may have a larger role in this film. In the comics, Betty was actually Peter's first love, even before Gwen. It wasn't essential to Raimi's trilogy and it may not be of importance in this trilogy, since as I mentioned earlier, the romantic triangle centres around Peter, Gwen, and Mary Jane. And like Felicia, Betty doesn't need to be defined by a romantic relationship with Peter.

So, those are pretty much my thoughts as of now. Despite my issues with the first film, I'm very intrigued by what direction this sequel, and franchise, is going.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Some (Very) Brief Thoughts on J.J. Abrams Directing The Next Star Wars Film

So, it's been pretty much confirmed that J.J. Abrams will be directing the next Star Wars film, tentatively just known as Star Wars: Episode VII. As to be expected, when this news was announced, the internet exploded with lens flare jokes and strong opinions about the decision.  Now that the dust has slightly settled (Though I'm preparing for two years worth of MovieBob bitching and moaning, ala The Amazing Spider-Man), I'm going to weigh in with my thoughts. As always with this type of news, I'm decidely mixed. I've pretty much liked all of Abrams's films, especially his reboot of Star Trek, of which I loved the look and feel. Mission: Impossible 3 is the leanest of the Mission Impossible films and while I didn't feel Super 8 lived up to the quality of the early Spielberg films it was homaging, it showed that Abrams could go really low key if he wanted, and the stuff with the kids making the film was wonderful. Abrams strikes me as one of the smarter blockbuster directors working today. Even his visually hetic Star Trek was suprisingly character and plot driven. He wants to create blockbusters with some kind of soul, even if he's still perfecting his craft.

I think one problem with Abrams directing the next Star Wars film is simply that it feels redundant. It's the equivalent of if, after The Dark Knight, or after The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan went on to direct a Superman film (which is not too far off since he's a producer on Zack Snyder's Man of Steel). I've already seen Nolan's superhero saga, I don't need another one, even if Batman and Superman are very different characters. With Abrams, I've already seen his space adventure- and while Star Trek and Star Wars are very different franchises, the way Abrams directed Star Trek, it already felt it owed at least something to Star Wars.

I also feel that being a director of another large franchise, even if it's only for one film, squanders Abrams' potential to grow as a director and create really personal work. Super 8 showed that Abrams can do smaller, less visually busy work, and I'd like to see better versions of that film. Abrams' film career so far has seen him attached to pre-existing material that's made it hard for Abrams to form his own identity as a filmmaker. Even in Super 8, which he wrote, Abrams tried a little too hard to be Steven Spielberg. I want him to finally become an auteur, though I don't know if Abrams has that in mind.

Still, I wish Abrams and crew good luck on this project, which, c'mon, it's Star Wars, I'm definitely anticipating it. It's no doubt extremely exciting for Abrams to take the reigns of a saga that inspired so many people of his generation. It's also a great deal of pressure, and I hope he can work through that pressure and create a really great Star Wars film. Just cool it on the lens flares, okay?

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

My Favourite Films of the Year

Trying to do a top film list at the end of the year is always a difficult task. So many films seen, so many unseen. How do you rank works of art, anyway? For my year end list, I've decided to label it top favourites rather than top ten best-since I'm more comfortable saying these are my favourites rather than these are the best. Also, I still haven't seen several 2012 releases. When compling this list in my head, I found that several of the listed films were ones that improved for me on second viewings. If anything, this was the year that second viewings saved a few films for me. Anyway, here on my (roughly) top 11 favourite films of 2012, starting with number one and then preceding alphabetically.

1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)- Through catching up with some of his work over the past year (I saw The Royal Tenenbaums ten years ago and really need to revisit it), Wes Anderson is slowly but surely becoming one of my favourite directors, particularly with 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox and now his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom. It's hard to put in to words why this film is so enchanting. I guess it comes down to the fact that the world Anderson creates, another branch of his signature universe seen throughout all his films, is one I want to live in. It's so delicately crafted- Anderson has been described as a minaturist, and the opening scene makes us feel we're in a dollhouse- yet at the same time it feels completely organic, free from any creator.  Despite all the huge blockbusters, Oscar contenders and prestige pictures that came out this year, this tale of young love between two 12 year old childrens is the one that I may have loved the most. What may be most impressive about it is how Anderson embraces the pure, uncomplicated romance between Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), while subtly acknowledging how in over their heads they are as they run away from their respective homes- for Sam, it's the boy scout camp under the leadership of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton)- Sam is an orphan- and for Suzy her home is with her parents, Laura and Walt, (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray). Ultimately, running away isn't just about love for Suzy and Sam- it's a way of escape from their trapped in existence. Anderson also shows us how complicated relationships become when you're an adult- Laura is having an affair with police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). As an ode to young love as well as a mature examination of the difficulties of maintaining a relationship, Moonrise Kingdom, despite being quite stylized, is a really humane and beautiful film.

The Rest, Alphabetically.

The Avengers (Joss Whedon)- Out of the three big superhero films released this year, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises being the other two, The Avengers was the one the most completely embraced its comic book origins, making it refreshingly free from any attempts at grittiness or realism. It was also the most purely fun blockbuster released this year-being absolutely what anyone could want in a large scale entertainment- it has great action but never becoming stupid- director Joss Whedon infused a lot of wit and humanity in to the interactions between the offbeat superhero family. Whedon understood that the appeal of seeing all these superheroes (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, etc.) onscreen together wasn't just about them fighting each other or the bad guys-it was about seeing what happens when you get drastically different personalities on the scale of a super soldier, a demi-god, and a billionaire philanphropist together in one room together. Seeing them work through their differences and finally come together is quite meaningful, especially since ten years ago all these characters would have been isolated in their own respective film continuities. With The Avengers being a smashing success, it's opened the doors to many exciting possibilities for the superhero genre, including a possible film about that other superhero team.

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)- A smart and brutal deconstruction of the horror genre- as well as love letter to said genre- director Drew Goddard's debut feature, which he co-wrote with Joss Whedon, gives us a straightforward horror movie plot- five friends go for a weekend to a, wait for it, cabin in the woods, where evil stuff begins to happen- while simultaneously, pulling the curtain back and showing us the way the events of all our favourite horror films could actually be engineered. the film questions the reasons why we watch horror films- creating a critique that never feels hypocritical. The film also manages, especially when it gets to its final act, to work as a gory horror film- it's also funny as hell.

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)- While there were many criticisms directed at this film, including its plot holes and its treatment of its main antagonist, after three viewings of Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman epic, I've come to feel that in some ways The Dark Knight Rises is arguably the best of the trilogy. Why there are elements of the film that disappoint me, including not enough reaction to the revelation of Harvey Dent's crimes, as well a villain reveal that shouldn't come about half an hour earlier, Nolan's direction grabs me and sweeps me up in a way most other superhero films, even The Avengers, don't. From the opening sequence involving Bane (Tom Hardy) and a mid air hijacking, to the lead up to Gotham's football stadium being blown up, scored to a child's rendition of the star spangled banner, as well as the first confrontation between Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Bane- a raw and manner of fact beat down that's free of the more fantastical elements found in other cinematic superhero fight scenes- The Dark Knight Rises is arguably the best and most vividly directed of the three films. It also feels like Nolan has pretty much reached the place he wanted to go seven years ago when the first film of the trilogy, Batman Begins, was released. And Like The Avengers it'll be very exciting to see how Nolan's Batman trilogy affects the genre in years to come.

End of Watch (David Ayer)- Who would've thought that one of the best and most affecting buddy cop movies would come from this quasi found footage crime thriller? End of Watch takes the buddy cop genre and grounds it in the every day life of LAPD police officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), partners and friends, as they patrol the streets of LA. Brian is part of a film class so he records he and Mike's conversations and life on the job- which is where the found footage aspect comes in. While the film is episodic in structure, as things progress we see Brian and Mike confront their morality and the possibility of leaving their wives behind if they die on the job. Gyllenhaal and Pena give richly authentic performances that help us buy in their friendship and believe them as LAPD officers. The film is raw, funny and by the end, devastating.

Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)- As I said in my review of the film, despite being messily directed, as well as revealing flaws in the stage play, the film really worked for me- due to the conviction of its performances, including Anne Hathaway's devastating rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" and Samantha Barks as Eponine. There are so many moments of subliminity that they outweigh the flaws in its direction.

Looper (Rian Johnson)- When I first saw Rian Johnson's Looper, I walked out a little disappointed- liking the first half- the set up- more then the second half- the payoff. But after hearing more people talk about it- and revisiting it recently, I admire how Johnson takes what seems like too different films and makes them fit together structurally and thematically. Johnson's script is actually quite tight and, while you can probably pick it apart in terms of logic-like all other time travel films- emotionally and thematically, it's all very well thought through. The film, for all its sci fi noir trappings, ultimately comes down to the sincere and simple ideal of motherly love, and the idea of being raised right can set you on the right path. It's an idea that some may scoff at but I respect Johnson for creating a intricate time travel tale based around such a humane idea.

Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)- What I love most about this film is the way it's able to be meta without being soulless and detached. It makes you care about its characters, particularly Christopher Walken's Hans, a dog thief who works with Billy (Sam Rockwell), the friend of struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell). When Hans and Billy steal the dog of Woody Harrelson's mobster Charlie, it brings all three together and puts them through an emotional journey that changes all of them. Along the way the film pokes fun at the conventions of the action genre, most notably in Billy's hilarious monologue in the desert. By the end of the film, Walken's Hans gives Marty an idea that helps his screenplay transcend the conventions he was afraid of falling in to. This film is one of the most funnest times I had in a theatre in 2012, with great performances and sharply written scenes.

Skyfall (Sam Mendes)- While I wouldn't call this the best James Bond film, or even the best Daniel Craig Bond film (I would argue for Casino Royale on both counts), there are so many things I love about this film that it earns a place on my list. From Adele's gorgous theme song, invoking the classic Bond tunes of Shirley Bassey, to Javier Bardem's villain Silva and Ben Whishaw's Q, as well as Roger Deakins' stunning cinematography and Sam Mendes' direction, which makes this one of the handful of contemporary action films that actually has breathing room, rather than just being a frenzy of incoherent action, Skyfall has some of my favourite elements in the entire 50 year history of the Bond franchise. This is also the most self conscious Bond film since 1995's GoldenEye, questioning Bond's relevance and usefullness in a era almost thirty years detached from that of the Cold War- one where our enemies do not come from one singular nation but strike from within the shadows. And for a series that has almost always been high tech, stylish, and exotic, climaxing the film at Bond's childhood home in Scotland was a pretty risky move- but one that makes sense. Since Silva is a computer hacker, what better place to face him than somewhere where he cannot use technology. It also fits in to the goal of these Craig Bond films thus far, to take the fully formed character we met in 1962's Dr. No and deconstruct him- and ending at Bond's childhood home, a place that has always haunted him, concludes what can be seen a trilogy of films showing us the true man behind the number.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)- While Silver Linings Playbook is in many ways a conventional romantic comedy, it reminds us that what matters in this type of film isn't the framework of the plot but the details and chemistry between its lead. Bradley Cooper's Pat and Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany, like in romantic comedies,  don't get together at first, in this film, it's not just because the script calls for them to hate each other- it's because they're both emotionally damaged- Pat suffers from bipolar disorder and is obessesed with winning his wife back- and Tiffany's husband is dead. As they grow closer together, they're able to help each other make progress in their lives. Lawrence is stunning in her performance as Tiffany, taking what could be the typical "manic pixie dream girl" archetype and giving her a darker and unpredictable edge. Cooper shows what a capable dramatic actor he can be, being both funny and sad in his portrayal of bipolar disorder. While I feel the ending of the film is a little too pat, I cared about these characters so much that I was just happy for them.

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)- Along with End of Watch, 21 Jump Street is one of the best buddy cop films to come along in some time. What makes this film work is how it goes against your expectations of what a 21 Jump Street film would be- instead of just being a retread of its 1980s counterpart, it becomes an honest examination of how, whether you were uncool or even popular in High School, and no matter how much time as elapsed, given the chance, you'd do it all over again- which is what happens when Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) go undercover in a high school. Schmidt gets to hang with the cool kids and Jenko finally gets to feel smart as he becomes friends with the science crowd. Ultimately, Jenko, who was popular in High School, is the one who betters himself while Schmidt gets in to deep. This movie has a lot of heart and really makes you care about the characters at its centre. It works as a buddy cop movie, a romantic comedy, a high school comedy, a spoof of the action genre, and is a pretty good character study as well.

Other films I liked: The Amazing Spider-Man, Brave, Cloud Atlas, Django Unchained, Dredd, The Five Year Engagement, The Hobbit, LincolnPrometheus, The Raid, Sinister, TedWreck-it-Ralph, Zero Dark Thirty

Some Other Favourites (AKA the Davies Awards)

Favourite Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Favourite Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Favourite Supporting Actors
Javier Bardem- Skyfall
Leonardo DiCaprio- Django Unchained
Michael Fassbender- Prometheus
Tom Hardy- The Dark Knight Rises and Lawless
Samuel L. Jackson- Django Unchained
Seth MacFarlane- Ted
Sam Rockwell- Seven Psychopaths
Mark Ruffalo- The Avengers
Christopher Walken- Seven Psychopaths
Ben Whishaw- Skyfall

Favourite Supporting Actresses
Samantha Barks- Les Miserables
Emily Blunt- Looper
Judi Dench- Skyfall
Anne Hathaway- The Dark Knight Rises and Les Miserables
Brie Larson- 21 Jump Street
Jane Lynch- Wreck-it-Ralph
Sarah Silverman- Wreck-it-Ralph
Emma Stone- The Amazing Spider-Man

Favourite Directors
Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
Drew Goddard- The Cabin in the Woods
Sam Mendes- Skyfall
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises
Joss Whedon, The Avengers

Favourite Screenplays
The Avengers- Joss Whedon
The Cabin in the Woods- Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Django Unchained- Quentin Tarantino
Looper- Rian Johnson
Seven Psychopaths- Martin McDonagh
Silver Linings Playbook- David O. Russell, adapted from Matthew Quick's novel
21 Jump Street- Michael Bacall

Favourite Cinematography- Roger Deakins, Skyfall

Favourite Original Song- "Skyfall"- Skyfall

Best James Bond Opening Sequence Not in a James Bond Film- The mid air hijacking- The Dark Knight Rises

Best James Opening Sequence In a James Bond Film- The pre-credit sequence in Skyfall

Favourite Action Sequences
The mid air hijacking- The Dark Knight Rises
The school fight- The Amazing Spider-Man
New York climax- The Avengers
Shootout at Candieland- Django Unchained
Freeway chase- 21 Jump Street
First fight between Bane and Batman- The Dark Knight Rises
Shanghai fight- Skyfall
Pre-credits sequence- Skyfall
Ted and John hotel fight- Ted
Billy's monologue- Seven Psychopaths
Nearly every scene- The Raid

Favourite Onscreen Chemistry
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence- Silver Linings Playbook
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone- The Amazing Spider-Man
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum- 21 Jump Street
Jonah Hill and Brie Larson- 21 Jump Street
Mark Wahlberg and Seth MacFarlane- Ted
Jason Segal and Emily Blunt- The Five Year Engagement
Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo- The Avengers

Favourite Action Film- The Raid

Favourite Comedy- 21 Jump Street

The Happy Anniversary Award: Skyfall and The Amazing Spider-Man- both hitting theatres on the 50th anniversary of Spider-Man and the James Bond franchise.

Stuff I'm Looking Forward to in 2013: Before Midnight, Warm Bodies, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Stoker, Seth MacFarlane hosting the Oscars, Skyfall on Blu-ray, The Importance of Being Earnest at Neptune Theatre, Iron Man 3, Evil Dead, Community Season Four,  To the Wonder, The Great Gatsby, A Good Day To Die Hard, Arrested Development, The Wolverine.