Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Dark Knight revisited

By the time you read this, you will probably have seen The Dark Knight Rises - and by the time I post this, I will definitely have seen it. I'd meant to finish this post before it was released, and when I first started writing it, I was feeling pretty pumped for the movie. The Dark Knight is my choice for greatest comicbook superhero movie of all time, and I'll say it upfront: it's a 5-starrer for me. So hell to the yeah, its sequel and conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is a film I am hugely anticipating, in a year that has already seen a pretty great The Avengers, a disappointing Prometheus, and will bring The Hobbit and the new James Bond movie Skyfall in coming months. So here's my Retro Review of the first two in the trilogy - but I'll say it upfront, I could not possibly do a better job than ComicsAlliance's excellent and exhaustively in-depth commentary on both of them. Seriously, those are required reading for any Bat-fan, and I shall have to strive mightily to say anything about these movies that Chris Sims, David Uzumeri and Andy Khouri did not cover already.

Batman Begins (2005)
My rating:

I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by this movie when I first saw it - probably because I saw it on an IMAX dome screen. Which, I believe, is a particular kind of IMAX screen that I can attest is far from the best way to watch a movie, particularly action movies. (Yes, I know Christopher Nolan is a pioneer in shooting his movies in the IMAX format. That only started from The Dark Knight onwards, and again, not for dome screens.) Despite that, I knew I was watching something good. Batman Begins made its initial impression by being a complete tonal 180 from Joel Schumacher's, and even Tim Burton's, treatments of the classic DC superhero - a film that takes the Batman mythology entirely seriously, and creates a world in which a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime on the streets is entirely believable, and a story of such can take itself entirely seriously. This film is Exhibit A in my theory that the most important thing for a comicbook superhero film to get right is tone.

It is also first and foremost an origin story - which, incidentally, the 1989 Batman was not. Burton's first movie started with Bruce Wayne having already become Batman, and the formative murder of his parents childhood told through flashbacks. Batman Begins also employs a flashback-heavy, non-linear structure (at least in its first half) - but the present-day sequences starts with Bruce in a Chinese prison, slumming it in a rather vague and aimless attempt to "understand the criminal underworld." That is until he is introduced to Ducard, Ra's Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, their philosophy, not to mention their kickass ninja training - which is only one of many things that set him on his destiny. Where the film succeeds more than anything else is as an exploration of Bruce Wayne's psychology, and how his motivations and inspirations for becoming Batman are far more complex than merely a childhood tragedy. And Nolan's and David S. Goyer's screenplay is just as satisfyingly intelligent, emotionally and thematically.

It is certainly more successful as a character study than as an action movie. Oh don't get me wrong, there are plenty of action scenes. It's a full hour in before Batman makes his fully-costumed entrance, but before then the pace is propelled by some deliberately terse editing (the thing that noticed most on this rewatch). The new Batmobile, a.k.a. the Tumbler, is way cool; hang the naysayers, I can no longer imagine Batman operating any vehicle that has fins or wings or is anything other than ruthlessly utilitarian. But Nolan has always been criticised for being terrible at filming fight scenes, and this one has a lot more hand-to-hand fights than The Dark Knight - and yes, they're all messy and dull. Also, there's something about Jim Gordon driving the Tumbler that doesn't sit right with me; I think it undercuts Batman's mystique. And finally, the big evil villainous plan that Batman must foil at the end strains the credibility - and credulity - that Nolan had been so carefully building up throughout the film.

But although it's a movie that didn't grab me the first time, it is one which greatly rewards rewatching. It treats a comicbook superhero with more respect, intelligence and depth than ever before, not to mention the finest cast ever in a comicbook superhero movie. Christian Bale and Michael Caine get all the credit, but the other thing I just noticed most is Cillian Murphy's deliciously creepy, just-ever-so-slightly-unhinged Dr. Jonathan Crane a.k.a. the Scarecrow. Yes, the sole exception to the otherwise fantastic acting is Katie Holmes, although more because she was out of her depth than actively bad; she does get one great scene when she learns Bruce intended to murder Joe Chill. And the A-list cast is just part of the overall top-notch filmmaking on display here. (Wally Pfister's cinematography, man.) I still wish it was a more viscerally exciting film - and I would've probably liked it more if it weren't for that damn IMAX dome screen - but as a reboot of the cinematic Batman, this is probably as good as anyone could expect.

The Dark Knight (2008)
My rating:

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that when I first watched the 1989 Batman, I found it genuinely scary. Slightly ashamed because, as time and Nolan has proven, that movie was actually quite campy and not at all a "dark and serious" portrayal of Batman that people thought it was. I chalk it up to it being my first introduction to Burton's macabre style; also, 13-year-old TMBF was probably just a wimpy little kid. I was reminded of that experience watching The Dark Knight as a grown man and functioning adult. This movie was practically as terrifying as a horror movie. I left the cinema shaken and disturbed, knowing that I had watched a great film but not at all keen on watching it again anytime soon. I did rewatch it for this Retro Review of course, and of course on rewatch it could no longer deliver that same sheer gut-wrenching terror. But as an amazingly, nail-bitingly tense and powerful film, it can still bring to mind how harrowing that first time was.

And a great deal of it was due to the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. For all the praise that it's gotten, there isn't a thing overrated about it; everything from his hideously slipshod makeup, to his vocal delivery of his lines, to his habit of licking his lips, to even the way he walks, goes a long way toward creating an absolutely terrifying villain that very nearly turns a comicbook action movie into a horror film. But it was the screenplay, written by Nolan along with his brother Jonathan this time (Goyer gets a story credit), that started the journey. The brilliantly twisty opening bank heist scene - and later on, the pencil trick, oh God the pencil trick - establish what an implacable force of nihilistic chaos he is. Always several steps ahead of Gordon and even Batman, who are near-helpless most of the time to counter him; even when he's been captured, beating and torturing him does no good, and killing him would only mean he wins. He's damn near undefeatable.

Of course, the Nolans find a way to defeat him in the end, and let me go on record saying that the finale with the two ferries was brilliant. The entire film was brilliant, both as a relentless action thriller (making up for the pacing problems with Batman Begins, and how) and a dense, weighty, tightly-written story that juggles multiple themes and character arcs and even flirting with timely social and political issues. I won't delve into them here; there are other places on the net you can go for that. (Again, I recommend ComicsAlliance's excellent five-part review.) But to make a poignant character study and an incisive political satire within the bounds of a comicbook superhero movie is ballsy beyond belief - and that its political themes mesh so well with Batman is ingenious beyond belief. The fact that both sides of the U.S.'s left-wing/right-wing divide went on to claim the film as a champion for their particular viewpoints only goes to show how well it works as a mirror to the fears of post-911 American (and world) society.

But above all, it is an amazingly effective film that had me riveted from practically the first minute. The Tumbler/Batpod chase, a new contender for best car chase scene of all time. The shocking and, to me, completely unexpected death of Rachel Dawes. The bravura performance of Aaron Eckhart, unfairly overlooked in the wake of the (rightful) acclaim given to Ledger. Its depiction of an entire city gripped in terror by the machinations of a single madman. I can still vividly recall how I felt watching it, and in particular how I felt after watching it - shaken, disturbed, emotionally and physically exhausted ('cos of how tensed-up my body had been for 2-½ hours), and speechlessly awed. It is an improvement in almost every way over Batman Begins (Maggie Gyllenhaal should've played Rachel from the beginning), which was already a fresh and fascinating new take on Batman. This one takes it to a level never before seen in a comicbook superhero movie, and may never be seen again.


Yes, I know it's taken me ages to write this, just as it's taken me almost as long to write my The Dark Knight Rises review; it's hard for me to wrap this up without including my thoughts on the trilogy's concluding chapter in here. But what's clear is that with two movies alone, Nolan has elevated the genre to the level of not just great Batman movies, but great movies period that are also Batman movies. The label of "great movies that happen to have Batman in them" are also bandied about, but it implies that Batman is a secondary element - or that Nolan is not a true Batman fan and merely used the character as an excuse vehicle to make his own crime thriller films. I'll have no truck with that kind of fanboy carping. What Nolan has done is not just to adapt existing Batman comics (even if Batman Begins and The Dark Knight drew inspiration from classic stories such as Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke), but to reinvent and reinterpret them - as comics often do - to tell wholly new Batman stories. Or to be precise, a single wholly new Batman story, in a trilogy of films. So yeah, let's get down to The Dark Knight Rises already.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

1 jam 22 minit yang tidak berbaloi ditonton

8 Jam
My rating:

Sebelum filem ini bermula, panggung wayang menayangkan tidak kurang dari empat trailer filem-filem Metrowealth akan datang. Satu dimana Zul Suphian ingat dia boleh jadi pelawak, satu dimana Aeril Zafrel terpaksa cari makan dengan melakonkan filem MIG, satu cerita Islamik ala filem-filem 1 bintang Syurga Cinta dan Aku Masih Dara, dan satu filem aksi yang memaparkan cara pengendalian senjata api yang amat salah. Tiada satupun yang menarik minat saya hendak menontonnya. (Okeylah, PE3 mungkin ada potensi sikiiiit.) Filem 8 Jam ini adalah filem Melayu terakhir setakat ini yang saya rasa hendak tonton, kerana trailernya seakan-akan filem Merantau Warrior atau Ong Bak versi tempatan. TMBF pun curiga jika negara kita boleh menjayakan filem aksi seni beladiri yang setanding dengan filem-filem tersebut.

Samada negara kita boleh atau tidak, belum tentu. Yang pasti ialah Ahmad Idham langsung tak boleh.

Alang (Shaheizy Sam) seorang banduan hukuman mati yang bakal dijatuhkan hukumannya tak lama lagi, atas kesalahan membunuh. Sementara menunggu hukuman, dia menceritakan kisah hidupnya kepada Inspektor Akhiruddin (Eizlan Yusof), bermula dari zaman kanak-kanak (lakonan Fimie Don) ketika ibunya (Lydiawati) dibunuh oleh seorang along (Chew Kin Wah). Ketika di rumah anak yatim, Alang bertemu dan jatuh hati dengan seorang gadis bernama Julia (lakonan Erynne Erynna ketika kecil, Yana Samsudin ketika dewasa) - tetapi ketika masih remaja lagi, Julia dibawa pergi oleh mak saudaranya dan putus hubungan dengan Alang. Apabila dewasa, Alang bekerja sebagai peniaga pasar borong, tiba-tiba bertemu kembali dengan Julia. Mereka hidup berpasangan dan merancang untuk berkahwin, tetapi kebahagiaan mereka diancam oleh samseng dan gengster yang bermaharajalela di kawasan lorong gelap tempat tinggal mereka.

Adalah mustahil bagi saya mengulas filem ini tanpa membincang babak akhirnya, jadi terpaksa saya menge-spoil-kannya di sini: orang yang dibunuh oleh Alang, yang menyebabkannya dipenjarakan dan dihukum mati, ialah Julia. Kekasihnya Julia, cinta sejatinya dari permulaan cerita ini sampai akhir. Keputusan Ahmad Idham dan penulis skrip Tommy CT Lor untuk mengakhiri filem ini sebegini telah merosakkan cerita ini. Mungkin seorang pembikin filem yang benar-benar mahir boleh menjadikan ia sebuah filem yang berkesan; cerita tragis dimana watak utama akhirnya dijahanamkan oleh kelemahan keperibadiannya. Mungkin itu yang disasarkan oleh Ahmad Idham dan Lor - tetapi langsung tidak kena.

Kerana sepanjang cerita ini, kita diundang untuk memihak kepada Alang. Setiap peristiwa hidupnya bertujuan untuk membuat kita terasa simpati terhadapnya; kita melihatnya sebagai watak yang mulia dalam dunia yang keji. Terutamanya dalam babak-babak aksi dimana dia melawan kuncu-kuncu geng yang jahat sejahat-jahatnya mereka. Inikan filem aksi, sudah tentu penonton akan memandang tinggi wira aksi! Habis kenapa akhirnya dia membunuh seorang gadis yang tidak bersalah? Atas sebab gadis itu sebenarnya sudah bertunang, dan ingin pulang ke kampung untuk memutuskan pertunangannya agar cintanya dengan Alang boleh disempurnakan? Okey, saya boleh lihat beberapa kiasan di sepanjang jalan ceritanya bahawa Alang tidak boleh mengawal perasaan marah, dan mungkin ini suatu kelemahan manusia yang boleh disimpatikan. Tetapi akhirnya, dia bunuh Julia bukan kerana marah, tapi kerana perasaan cemburu dan menganggap Julia sebagai harta yang tidak boleh dimiliki orang lain. Wira kepala hotak engkau!

Tapi bagaimana pula dengan babak-babak aksi seperti yang diwar-warkan dalam trailer? Pendapat saya, itu pun lemah. Walaupun menggunakan khidmat pengarah aksi serta pelagak ngeri dari Thailand yang pernah terlibat dalam filem-filem Tony Jaa, namun bila diimpot ke Malaysia je jadi hampeh. Koreografi lawannya tidak imaginatif. Aksi ngerinya tidak mengujakan. Merantau Warrior ada mamat terjah buluh masa tengah lompat dari bumbung, kau ada apa? Arahan Ahmad Idham, sudut kamera dan penyuntingan juga tidak berkesan dalam membina keghairahan. Antara adegan aksinya termasuk satu babak ketika Alang mengejar seorang penyeluk saku yang juga pakar parkour (suatu kemahiran yang memang tak boleh cari makan, jadi kenalah jadi penyeluk saku kan?) yang asyik bertunggang dan berkuang tak tentu pasal. Tapi hakikatnya, filem ini lebih banyak drama dari aksi. Drama yang boring giler. Jangkamasa tak sampai 1-½ jam, tapi terasa panjang macam tajuknya.

Saya ramal filem inilah yang akan menjatuhkan saham Shaheizy Sam. Beliau telah banyak dipuji atas bakat lakonannya, dan juga berjaya menarik penonton hingga pecah panggung sejak filem Adnan Sempit lagi. Tapi disini, persembahannya tidak bagus. Lakonannya terlalu over, terutamanya dalam babak di penjara dimana beliau asyik menggigil dan menggeletar sehingga tahap lucu. Rebiu-rebiu lain mungkin memujinya (sebab dah biasa kot), tapi saya dengar dengan telinga sendiri penonton-penonton ketawa ketika adegan-adegan dramatiknya. Yana Samsudin pula, saya tak tahu kenapa beliau sanggup mengambil watak love interest yang perlukan hero untuk menyelamatkannya, sedangkan beliau sendiri telah membuktikan kebolehannya sebagai wirawati aksi. Jika industri filem kita lebih maju, tentu ada banyak lagi filem-filem dimana Yana boleh menunjukkan bakatnya yang sebenar, daripada terpaksa melakonkan watak yang tidak setimpal dengan martabatnya.

Tetapi industri kita memang tidak maju. Sebab mengapa saya kata saham Sam bakal jatuh ialah kerana Zizan Razak nampaknya sudah menjadi bintang meletup yang baru. Setiap filemnya yang saya tonton, telatahnya pasti dapat membangkitkan ketawa, sepertimana Sam dahulu berjaya menghiburkan penonton tapi gagal kali ini. Jika Zizan kini telah mengganti Sam, ini bermaksud Sam hanya beraja selama 2 tahun. Begitu singkatnya karier seorang seniman dalam masyarakat kita ini; masyarakat yang tidak pentingkan seni, yang telah menghasilkan pembikin-pembikin filem yang juga tidak pentingkan seni. Kita lihat nanti kemana arah kerjaya Sam nanti; mungkin dia dapat membuktikan ramalan saya salah dengan filem baru yang bakal pecah panggung. Tapi yang pasti ialah, jika kualiti filem tempatan masih di tahap filem 8 Jam ini, TMBF dah tak larat nak tonton lagi.

NEXT REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises
Expectations: oooohhh yeah

Monday, July 9, 2012

It's less amazing the second time round

The Amazing Spider-Man
My rating:

As good as it was, Batman Begins - the first of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy - heralded an unhealthy trend in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking: that of the reboot. I say "unhealthy" because I like continuity. After Batman & Robin, precisely no one wanted Joel Schumacher to make another sequel - and after having gone through Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, precisely no one was begrudging Christian Bale his turn as a more serious, realistic Batman. But after Batman Begins' success, studios quickly learned that they could recast and reinvent and reboot lucrative film franchises as and when they liked; as long as the property is popular enough, the movie - any movie - would always make money. The Amazing Spider-Man, Sony/Columbia's reboot of the Spider-Man franchise from Raimi's 2002-2004-2007 trilogy, has already made a respectable (if not outstanding) figure at the box-office, so it looks like the lesson still applies.

Which is sad, because it still doesn't prove that Spider-Man ever needed to be rebooted.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) was only four years old when his parents disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leaving him in the care of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Years later, as a high school senior, he finds his father's old briefcase and some scientific papers hidden inside, leading him to investigate his father's former partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Connors is researching cross-species genetics in order to discover a means to regenerate lost limbs - specifically, his disabled left arm. It is at Connors' lab at the Oscorp corporation that Peter gets bitten by the fateful spider that gives him his spider-like superpowers - although this time, his web shooters are mechanical devices based on an Oscorp-developed "biocable." But as he continues exploring these powers - in between romancing Connors' head intern and schoolmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), whose police chief father George Stacy (Denis Leary) is no fan of masked vigilantes - Uncle Ben is shot and killed by the criminal whom Peter could have earlier stopped, but didn't. And whilst Peter struggles to deal with his guilt, Connors is also facing pressure from his corporate superior, Dr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan) to deliver results - pressure that leads him to test his reptile DNA-based formula on himself.

See, the thing about Batman Begins (and I really hope I'm not talking too much about it now; I'm planning a Retro Review soon) is that it was different enough from the series it was rebooting to justify its existence. This movie does not. The all-too-familiar parts of Peter Parker's origin story feel like a rehash, and engenders a feeling of restlessness and impatience to just get it over with already. And the new stuff aren't so much departures as they are omissions; no Harry Osborne, no J. Jonah Jameson, and no "with great power comes great responsibility." I once ranted that it's unfair to deem a film "unnecessary", but I now have to issue a mea culpa. The Amazing Spider-Man is unnecessary, because we've seen this story before - even if it is well-made, and even if Spider-Man is still fun to watch.

Andrew Garfield is already being praised in some circles as being a major improvement over Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. I'm not seeing it, although I thought Garfield did fine. (Mostly I'm just surprised there's so much dislike for Maguire's version. Since when?) The movie doesn't belabour Peter's downtroddenness; he's just an average gawky and awkward teenage boy with occasional hints of cockiness and arrogance. Garfield plays this well; this Peter Parker is perhaps a more well-rounded character than in Raimi's films, which again, tend to portray him as life's butt monkey. On the other hand, the simple purity of his character arc gets diluted here, to the point where Uncle Ben's death doesn't even seem like the catalyst for his dedication to a life of selflessness. He puts on the costume and the web shooters and goes out beating up criminals at night, primarily to find his uncle's killer, and somehow by and by decides to help people instead.

There's no avoiding comparing each cast member, since that's the most visible difference between the two versions. Martin Sheen has more personality than Cliff Robertson, but Sally Field seems wrong - although that may be due to the script giving her far too little screentime, reducing her to a non-entity after Uncle Ben's death. Emma Stone is one of the biggest improvements; where Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson was dull (and extremely ill-served by her scripts), Stone's Gwen Stacy is irresistibly cute, has great chemistry with Garfield, and lets her exercise her considerable comedy chops. Unfortunately, the villain is no improvement at all. Rhys Ifans creates gravitas and sympathy for Dr. Connors, but when he becomes the Lizard, things get murky and his characterisation gets slapdash. How does a guy go from wanting to regenerate his disabled arm to trying to turn all of New York into mutated lizard-monsters?

And that brings us to the world in which these characters live in. The one Raimi created was clearly a comicbook world; the characters were deliberately campy, the emotions deliberately heightened, the drama deliberately corny, and the audience's disbelief deliberately suspended. It's a fine balance to walk - and Spider-Man 3 in particular took a nosedive off that line - but it was still a clear and consistent artistic vision. Director Marc Webb doesn't quite succeed in creating his own new vision. The movie seems to be taking a more serious, realistic tone, up until people start turning into giant lizards. I've said before that tone is the most important thing for a comicbook superhero movie to get right, and while Webb doesn't do anything wrong per se, the fantastical elements still don't quite seem to gel with the more grounded ones. (To be honest, it feels like the studio re-edited Webb's cut.)

But besides a much improved female lead character, the best thing it's got going for it are its action scenes - a critical factor for a superhero movie. While there's nothing here that beats the inventiveness of the subway train fight in Spider-Man 2, this Spider-Man looks, and moves, a lot better than the first Spider-Man at least. The action choreography is also terrific, and the way Spider-Man uses his web shooters as close-quarters-combat weapons is very cool. Most of all, the web-slinging scenes are beautifully done, and bring to cinematic life the pure kinetic thrill of swinging across city streets like Spider-Man. I don't know how many shots were live-action and how many were CGI, but the seams are invisible; it all looks real, and not like an obvious CGI figure. If there's any reason at all to reboot the franchise, it would be this: to take advantage of current special effects technology and make a Spider-Man that lives up to every comicbook-reading kid's imagination.

Then again, Raimi's Spider-Man 4 could've done the exact same thing. And that would have the huge advantage of being a fresh new chapter in Peter Parker's life, which, goddammit, is what we want to see: something new. According to reports, the (inevitable) sequels to this reboot would focus more on the mystery of Peter's parents and why they disappeared so suddenly. Which, okay, that's something we haven't seen before, although it's not exactly an iconic part of the character's story and the hints of it that we see here don't really have anyone salivating in anticipation for more. (Which is precisely also the effect of the post-credits scene. It's completely meaningless. Learn from Marvel, guys!) But for better or worse, that's what we're gonna get, and that's what we're getting right now: a Spider-Man movie that is pretty good, pretty fun, pretty enjoyable, but just isn't what anybody really wanted.

Expectations: tiru Merantau Warrior sekarang ya, Ahmad Idham?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Spider-Man that was

Yeah, let's do this! It's been ages since I last posted a Retro Review, even though I enjoy doing them. And a retrospective look at the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy is in order, since a reboot of the entire franchise has just come our way. The initial news of which was greeted with, in our uniquely Malaysian vernacular, "aiyoo, whaffor?" Indeed, it seems like a very short five years between Spider-Man 3 and this new The Amazing Spider-Man; it took seven years after the much-(and justly-)maligned Batman & Robin before the much better-received (and just plain better) Batman Begins came out. Thing is, despite the fan backlash towards the last installment, no one really thought the Spider-Man series went off the rails the way the Batman franchise did under Joel Schumacher. All its elements - from director to every cast member - seemed solid enough to deliver a much better Spider-Man 4, which was what we were all hoping for. Yet here we are, with a total reboot and a completely new creative vision, with all the uncertainty that brings. So before we check out what Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone hath wrought, let's see what baggage they have to contend with.

Spider-Man (2002)
My rating:

This is the only one I watched in cinemas, and I wasn't that hot about it at the time. I went with a friend who's a Spider-Man fanboy and he was pretty ecstatic about it (then again, he doesn't have the greatest taste in movies - sorry Ray), but I just thought it was alright. My opinion hasn't changed much watching it 10 years later. In fact, the opening scenes seemed terribly contrived in making Peter Parker the world's most put-upon high school student, beleaguered by everything from evil jock bullies to a school bus driver who drives past him for no good reason. But thing is, Raimi is going for a deliberate tonality here: a broad, purposefully corny approach that faithfully adapts the original Silver Age Spider-Man comics of the early 1960s, in all their wide-eyed earnestness and trademark Stan Lee bombast. It takes a bit of getting used to, which I eventually did - but those early high school scenes are still annoyingly on-the-nose.

It got better after Peter gets bitten by that famous radioactive genetically-engineered spider, and starts being a superhero movie. Watching him explore his newfound powers is fun, as are his initial exploits at superheroing; the circa 2002 CGI effects look a little cartoony when it comes to animating human figures, but there's a palpable sense of joy in the web-slinging and crime-busting. In between, there's the death of Uncle Ben, the tragic event that defines Peter's destiny - which didn't really affect me much. Much more effective are the Daily Bugle scenes with a pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson in J.K. Simmons, perhaps the entire series' greatest asset. Raimi's cornball tone works better at broad comedy than broad drama, and that includes the somewhat soppy romance between Peter and Mary Jane Watson. The romance factor is a big part of the film (as well as the other two), with MJ portrayed as the one great love of Peter's life. Yeah, and she goes through no less than three guys in one movie.

Kirsten Dunst gets flack for being the weakest member of the recurring cast; although she's not great, the fault lies more in how the character was written - needy, shallow, and ever the shrieking damsel in distress. Tobey Maguire fares better, and he earned quite a bit of acclaim for his performance - although I found him a little inconsistent. He, along with James Franco as Harry Osborn, seem like they don't quite get Raimi's precise tone, though both would improve in the next two movies. But the one actor who got it off the bat is Willem Dafoe, as a sneering, cackling, deliciously scenery-chewing Norman Osborne/Green Goblin. Now that's how you do a broad comicbook movie villain; I enjoyed him more than any other member of the cast (aside from Simmons). And I enjoyed this movie just fine, up to and including the fun superpowered action/fight scenes. But ten years ago, it didn't make me keen to watch its inevitable sequels - and which I didn't, not in cinemas. I only like it just a little bit more now.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)
My rating:

Widely regarded as the best of the trilogy, as agreed upon by fans, RottenTomatoes (93% approval, although the first film also garnered a respectable 89%) and even Roger Ebert (who gave it a perfect 4 stars over the first one's 2-½). I agree it's an improvement over its predecessor, but in subtle ways. The cornball dialogue remains, as does the cartoonishly heightened world it's set in; we have here a genius scientist working on a fantastic, world-changing piece of technology, and oh by the way, he also has this other fantastic, world-changing piece of technology lying around that he just uses to work on the first fantastic, world-changing piece of technology. The scene in which both are introduced would induce eye-rolls in most discerning viewers, if it weren't for the fact that what preceded it carefully laid the foundation for suspending your disbelief for it. Raimi is asking - nicely - that you just go with it, and most people did.

Because there are plenty of rewards in store once you do. The action scenes for one, including one of the best superpowered fight scenes ever filmed in live-action. Dr. Octopus is a marvellous work of character design and special effects, and never once do his mechanical arms not look real. And Alfred Molina's performance doesn't imitate Dafoe's, but matches him in essaying another pitch-perfect comicbook villain - one that engenders real sympathy and pathos. But it is in its portrayal of Peter Parker that this movie succeeds best as the definitive cinematic Spider-Man, capturing his angst, his dire financial straits, and his difficulties in balancing an ordinary life with his superheroing exploits. Spider-Man has always been hailed as the first costumed superhero to deal with ordinary true-to-life concerns in addition to fighting supervillains, and Spider-Man 2 captures it superbly.

Of course, the corniness and on-the-noseness is still there, as seen in a scene where Peter debates his life choices with a fantasy figure of Uncle Ben in what looks like a vision of heaven - and it isn't even a dream sequence. But the tone succeeds at endearing us to our hero rather than making us roll our eyes. Somewhat less successful is MJ who ends up the damsel in distress for Spidey to rescue again. Still, even when she spends the entire movie pining after Peter whilst engaged to another man, she comes off better than in the last one. (Can't blame a girl for moving on after the guy she gave her heart to turned her down.) The grand romance between Peter and MJ is another thing this sequel does well, and ends the film on an anticipatory note of big changes in both their lives. And yes, since this is the one that left me wanting more of Spidey, I'd definitely agree to putting it among the best superhero movies of all time.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
My rating:

And this is the one that spoiled it all. Although, as you can probably tell from my rating, I don't think it's the trainwreck that everyone says it is - but before we get to the good parts, the bad parts are pretty bad. It starts off with Peter being popular and well-liked, in a relationship with MJ, and on top of the world for once - a nice development from the status quo of the first two movies. But this quickly turns into both of them becoming remarkably unlikable. Even before Peter starts strutting down the street like an idiot, he's already insensitive and inconsiderate of his girlfriend - who doesn't earn our sympathies either, being all whiny and petulant. (And who then sucks face with her ex. Seriously, can this woman ever stay faithful?) And here's the thing: this is all Raimi. It's all in the same vein with his broad, cornball tone. He can blame the studio for forcing Venom into the movie, but emo hair Peter, jazz-dancing Peter, and a Peter who flaunts a new girl in front of his recently-broken-up girlfriend - all the most hated parts of Spider-Man 3 - are definitely Raimi's ideas.

Of course, the inclusion of Venom is another huge problem - namely, there's too much going on. Bad enough that Flint Marko a.k.a. Sandman turns out to be Uncle Ben's real killer - an unwise retread of Peter's origin story, methinks - there's also the alien symbiote that at first infects our hero, then finds a more welcoming host in Peter's photographer rival, Eddie Brock, Jr. And while Raimi and his writers valiantly attempt to tie it all together, both Marko/Sandman and Brock/Venom are reduced to sadly underdeveloped characters and poorly-resolved subplots. (Despite Thomas Haden Church's and Topher Grace's performances; the series has never lacked for great casting.) The seams are stretched to breaking point when Brock just happens to be where Peter is while the latter is getting rid of his black costume, thus allowing it to jump from hero to villain; you know the plot is in trouble when it has to resort to such a wild coincidence. And that's not even mentioning the movie's third villain: Harry Osborne, Peter's best friend-turned New Goblin.

Which is actually one of the things it does well, largely because it's the third act of a storyline that had been building since the first movie. Their teamup in the climactic battle is fun, and the well-choreographed action scenes benefit from the series' biggest budget to date. (Unfortunately, MJ gets kidnapped by the villain yet again; seriously, can you guys ever find something else for her to do?) Which ends the movie on a not-entirely-unsatisfying note - hence 3 stars - but it's a movie that gets worse the more you think about it. The damage it does to the character of one of comics' most beloved superheroes is galling, as is the waste of one of his most popular villains from the '90s. Which Raimi, being a fan of the Silver Age Spider-Man, has no love for, and it shows; even Venom's design is a simple recolouring of Spidey's usual digs, and doesn't even look like the strikingly matte black costume from the comics. No, I didn't hate it, but I can understand all too well why the fans did.


Despite fan disapproval, Spider-Man 3 is actually the most financially successful of the trilogy and Sony/Columbia's highest-grossing film to date. Which clearly indicates that the split between the studio and Raimi had to have been acrimonious; why would they fire him after he delivered such a huge hit? But fire him they did, and with him went Maguire and Dunst and therefore the entire franchise - or at least, this iteration of it. How successful Webb's reboot remains to be seen (and by the time you read this, I will already have seen it and be writing my review), but having seen the entire Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, it's definitely a shame that he wasn't allowed to keep helming the series. No matter how bad the last one was, I don't think any Spider-fan was angry enough to not give him another chance, or who wasn't eager to see his Spider-Man 4. But that's one for the Movies That Could've Been Awesome (But Never Got Made) list now.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bravely facing disappointment

My rating:

The past couple of years haven't been the best of times to be a Pixar fanboy. Or at least, compared to the few years before then, when they had Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 coming out one after the other. And even before then - before Cars, widely regarded as their first misstep - they had a string of massive successes stretching from The Incredibles all the way to the first Toy Story. It all started when they announced that their next film after Toy Story 3 would be Cars 2, a sequel to their least-liked movie and a not-inconsiderable critical disappointment - and although I still liked it, it was still a clear step down from their usual standard. So as any fanboy would, I placed high hopes on Brave, their 13th animated feature, to mark a return to their form.

And it pains me - despite the movie being pretty good, and one that I enjoyed quite a bit - to say that it isn't.

Merida (Kelly Macdonald), princess of the clan DunBroch, is a spunky and free-spirited teenage girl who loves shooting her bow and arrow, riding through the Scottish highlands, and generally seeking adventure. But although her father King Fergus (Billy Connolly) indulges her and her three younger triplet brothers, her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) is a lot more strict. Elinor is trying to bring Merida up to be a proper princess, and has arranged to marry her off to a son of one of three allied clans. Rebelling against her mother's plans for her future, Merida comes across a witch (Julie Walters) and asks her for a spell that will change her mother, and thus change Merida's fate. She only realises what a grave mistake she has made when the spell changes Elinor into a huge black bear - one that her father mistakes for Mor'du, the bear that he once fought years ago and intends to seek revenge upon.

This isn't the first time a Pixar film's originator was taken off his or her own project and replaced with another director. It happened to Jan Pinkava and Ratatouille, amid disturbing rumours of a falling out - but the final product, under the new helm of Brad Bird, turned out just fine. It happened again with Brenda Chapman, to whom Brave was a highly personal story and Pixar's first to feature a female protagonist. This time, the results aren't as good, and it does not achieve the thematic and emotional depths of a truly female-centric film. (Yes, yes, I know, I am a man saying this. Wait. I can prove my point.) And though we may never know what went on behind the scenes, Pixar cannot escape the charge that firing Chapman is the cause of it all. They're not sexist; they couldn't be, if they could create female characters like Jessie the cowgirl, EVE, Helen Parr, even Dory. But Brave proves they can be as blinkered about the female perspective as, well, any all-male group can be.

See, it claims to be a story that's uniquely about mothers and daughters - specifically, the way the former hovers over the latter and the latter chafes under this treatment. I gotta ask: exactly how is this different from Hiccup and Stoick in How to Train Your Dragon? Or Flint and his dad in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? Or any one of dozens of films featuring protagonists with daddy issues? You have your parental figure with expectations of a child that differs from the child's own ambitions, with all that juicy dramatic mix of love, disappointment, resentment and guilt that comes with it. That's exactly what happens with Merida and Elinor, and their story goes through exactly the same paces all those other movies do. (And makes poor use of Fergus, who is reduced to a bystander in the climax and should really have been given more to do considering that's his wife that's been turned into a bear.) In fact, Rapunzel and Mother Gothel in Rapunzel: A Tangled Tale were more interesting, and that film has a greater claim to being a uniquely female story.

That seen-it-before feeling pervades more than just the central mother-daughter relationship. There are echoes of How to Train Your Dragon (the Scottish accents), Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (the will-o'-the-wisps) - and most strangely, Disney's own Brother Bear (a human being gets turned into a bear), Rapunzel (the heroine's horse that's almost, but not quite, a cute animal sidekick), and Beauty and the Beast during its climax. I'm not faulting it for not being 100% original - which is an impossible standard anyway, and besides, taking inspiration from such a disparate variety of sources could just as well produce something original. But the other films Brave is reminiscent of are all in the animated genre, which gives the impression not so much that it took inspiration from them, but that it simply didn't know - or care - that it's all been done before.

But as I said, I still enjoyed it quite a bit, as I knew I was going to. The gags are all terrific, in particular one hilarious one involving the witch's automated message system. Beautifully-rendered visuals are practically obligatory for Pixar films, but Merida's unruly shock of bright red hair is a particularly remarkable bit of animation and character design. As derivative as its final moments are, they are still well-crafted enough to stir the necessary emotion, and put a little sting into TMBF's eyes. I also liked how subtly the plot weaved together the witch's spell on Elinor, the demon bear Mor'du, and the legend of a rogue prince that Elinor tells Merida about in the beginning without spelling out the connections. And finally, the soundtrack is gorgeous and stirring; you simply can't go wrong with Gaelic hymns and traditional Scottish sounds. This is a movie worth sitting through the entire end credits - both for the music, and the funny post-credits scene.

Still, this is a disappointment. I hadn't expected much from Cars 2, and I was willing to allow Pixar their one revisit to their biggest cash cow - but this one I was hoping to be the one that got them back into their groove. It isn't. It had all the potential to be, but the magic simply wasn't happening. Which is a bitter pill to swallow for a Pixar fanboy like myself, so I'm thinking maybe it's time I cooled my enthusiasm. Maybe their winning streak has finally come to an end; maybe it's finally become too much to expect greatness from every single Pixar film. Their next, Monsters University - a prequel to Monsters, Inc. - certainly doesn't look like it'll be anything more than an entertaining trifle - which, ultimately, also describes Brave. So I think I'll do just that: expect every new Pixar movie to be merely good, instead of yet another of the finest animated films ever made. That's not something to be ashamed of... is it?

NEXT REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man
Expectations: so, what's new?

Monday, July 2, 2012

A vampire hunter by any other name

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
My rating:

So this movie has its genesis in the novel of the same name written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who kicked off the whole literary mash-up craze with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; a craze that hinges a lot on giggle-inducing titles such as the above. I may not be American but I have a decent grasp of world history, and I know well enough that to take a revered figure like Abraham Lincoln and turn him into a badass superhero of the vampire-hunting variety is to take a pretty huge liberty with it. But not being American means it's not my place to opine on whether or not this movie - independent of the novel on which it is based - does respect to the real-life person, or the historical events of which he played a pivotal part.

But I'm kinda suspecting that it doesn't.

Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) was a young boy when his mother was murdered by Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Nine years later, his attempt at revenge fails when he discovers that Barts is in fact a vampire - from whom he is rescued by a man named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper). Sturgess tells him that vampires exist in every corner of American society, and trains him in the arts and skills of vampire-hunting - in particular, with Abe's trusty silver-bladed axe. Upon completion of his training, Abe travels to Springfield, Illinois, where he befriends storekeeper Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), reunites with his childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), and meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), with whom he falls in love despite Sturgess' admonishments against emotional attachments. And when he learns that the vampires - led by a wealthy plantation owner named Adam (Rufus Sewell) - maintain the Southern slave trade as a means to keep them supplied with human victims, Abe decides to seek more effective means of fighting them than killing them one at a time: a career in public office, that will lead him to becoming President of the United States.

When I reviewed Cowboys and Aliens last year, I noted that its biggest failing was to take a goofy premise - and title - completely seriously. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is another mash-up with an even sillier title, and also takes itself with 100% seriousness. But the devil is in the details; whereas it didn't work at all in the 2011 Jon Favreau-directed would-be blockbuster, this is a different animal altogether. If one of the elements of your genre mash-up is history, and as weighty an historical event as the American Civil War at that, then the straight-faced approach to blending it with a supernatural action movie is probably best. The movie isn't ill-served by not being tongue-slightly-in-cheek fun as Cowboys and Aliens should have been. It is ill-served by being cheesy.

Oh my goodness, it is soooo cheesy. Its trailers already highlight Abe's axe-fu skills, twirling that farming implement around like he's Bruce Lee with a nunchaku. And it never gives an explanation for how Abe's strength and agility can achieve superhuman levels, such that he can go toe-to-toe with vampires (and even survive having a horse thrown at him). The entire first half-hour is ridiculously overheated, with scenes like Abe's and Mary's courtship filmed with the same hyperactive energy as his vampire-hunting fight scenes. And cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is a five-time Oscar nominee, but here his work is colour-treated with that conspicuously old-timey sepia tone often seen in the finest music videos. You know what's another of last year's summer blockbuster-wannabes that this movie reminds me of? Scott Stewart's non-masterpiece, Priest.

Which this one is a fair bit better than, owing to not being as aggressively stupid. But it's no intellectual luminary either. Just from its Wikipedia entry alone, it appears that Grahame-Smith's novel is reasonably intelligent and circumspect in its fidelity to Abraham Lincoln's recorded life - which makes it hard to believe that he adapted his own novel for this movie's screenplay. There is hardly a line of dialogue in here that isn't on-the-nose, beginning from Abe's mother's slogan-worthy proclamation that "until all men are free, we are all slaves" a good 45 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. There's no mention in the novel of such movie-friendly sidekick characters as Joshua Speed or Will Johnson (who gets bonus sidekick points for being black). The entire first half is just your run-of-the-mill supernatural action flick with a slight period twist - a 19th-century Blade, as it were.

And the second half, when Abe starts pursuing politics in earnest, should have been when it starts getting interesting. After all, we're not here to watch any old vampire hunter movie, we're here to watch a U.S.-President-as-a-vampire-hunter movie. But instead, here is where the movie slows down interminably; the overheated CGI-heavy fight scenes are replaced with a series of dull montages that sum up Lincoln's entire political career up to the beginning of the Civil War. Which is not only dull in that Lincoln does precisely no vampire-hunting during that entire period, it also ignores practically everything about the period that makes it such a watershed moment in American (and yes, world) history. I said that I wouldn't comment on how respectful the movie is towards history that has no real national significance for me. But the impression I'm left with, from a film titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is that there isn't much about this particular vampire hunter that makes him Abraham Lincoln.

About the only things I enjoyed were the action scenes, directed with as much over-the-top verve as Timur Bekmambetov's last, Wanted - although I enjoyed that 2008 James McAvoy-Angelina Jolie starrer much more than this one. This one, I can't help but pronounce it a failure to fully exploit its premise. It disregards practically everything about Lincoln's life and times in favour of putting an axe-slinging superhero in his place, and ignores the entire social, political and economic realities of the Civil War in favour of a generic supernatural action movie. (It also wastes some pretty good performances from Benjamin Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead - the latter in particular, who deserves far more than a generic flower vase role like this one.) I'll leave it to others to comment on how this movie treats issues and themes that deserve a lot more respect than being glossed over, even in a goofy genre mash-up like this. What I do know is, a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter really ought to be more than just a 19th-century Blade.

Expectations: oh, I already know it's gonna be good