Archive for The Avengers

Webb Head

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2012 by dcairns

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN — enough has been said about whether this was an absurdly rapid reboot (I’d say so), about whether there are too many superhero movies (I’d say so) or about whether making every superhero film an origin story betrays a lack of imagination (it does)  – having caught the film at last, I want to say that it’s pretty good, for a superhero movie.

It’s really two movies. Director Marc Webb must’ve been hired partly for his name, and partly to bring the characters to something like three-dimensional life. This, he succeeds in. The film is actually emotional, the leads are appealing and convincing, and everything involving Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Sally Fields and Denis Leary is good, human drama. The filming is a little ordinary, to the point where you can barely even tell it’s in 3D for the first ten minutes or so.

Then there’s the action side. This is kinetic and packs plenty of visual oomph. We’re used to big movies being kind of patchworks, with the visual effects and second unit guys handling everything that doesn’t involve standing still and emoting, but the result is particularly striking in this case. On the other hand, the dialogue in the scenes involving Spidey and the Lizard, his hulking foe, is pretty pitiable, a collection of clichés and disconnected one-liners. I’m guessing that two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (PAPER MOON, STRAIGHT TIME) didn’t write those bits.

As well-staged as it is, the monster-fighting doesn’t offer much we haven’t seen before, although the web-slinging and city-swinging is MUCH more convincing here than it was in Sam Raimi’s cartoony pastel Manhattan. And the film’s villain, Rhys Ifans / the Lizard, isn’t very well integrated into the other storylines. Ifans, maybe the film’s best actor (see his AMAZING turn as Peter Cook in Not Only But Always), gives probably its weakest central performance. I don’t think anybody involved was really enthusiastic about, or believed in, the mad scientist transformation stuff.

Here’s where the origins story thing hurts the movie: it’s actually sort of interesting, in a nerdy formulist way, to watch Spider-man’s origin get re-told, exactly the same key story points expressed in different ways, but like the first Raimi film, the movie takes an age to get going because we also have to see the villain’s origin. And Raimi did this in EVERY ONE of his Spider-man movies (and in DARKMAN). How much more interesting (and speedy!) it would be to have the monster already at large and have the hero uncover the secrets of its existence and motivation. The only recent movie I can think of that does anything like this is THE AVENGERS. Which is part of why I respect THE AVENGERS.

Then we ran (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, Webb’s previous effort, and it was so much better than THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that I did kind of wonder — has Webb wasted several years of his life? He could clearly have made two movies like (500) in the time it took him to make the blockbuster, and for that money he could have made (50). Of course, the economics of the film biz doesn’t work that way. But I’m hoping that the bigger movie will allow him to make more smaller movies.

(The harsh version: John Cassavetes to Martin Scorsese, after the latter had made BOXCAR BERTHA. “You just wasted a year of your life.”)

Webb has a real gift, clearly, for casting handsome couples — Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel go great together. And the playful narrative choices (think ANNIE HALL’s splitscreen, animation and subtitles) and non-linear structure via first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber keep the thing constantly on its toes. The pity of it is that a super-hero blockbuster COULD have precisely those virtues — the nasty but very funny KICK ASS practically does. (KICK ASS also has a more convincing sense of the modern world, with its hero becoming a YouTube sensation. In AS-M, a giant lizard rampages across the Williamsburg Bridge and nobody shoots it on their phone, leading the cops to dismiss it as a fantasy.)

There’s also emotional depth — you may tear up, and you certainly may recognize bits of your own life, sharply observed. The film is so much fun that it could coast by on charm alone, but it chooses to get into real heartbreak, which is what separates the truly romantic from the mere romcom. And this comes out even in the ludic filmmaking choices — a splitscreen comparison of expectation versus reality late in the show creates a genuinely anxious, sinking feeling in the stomach.

I carry in my mind the idea that we’ve lost the ability, for some reason, to do good romantic comedies, but while I stand by the idea that it used to be somehow easy and natural to do those films well and now it seems to be hard, there have been some really good funny romances in the last twenty years. It’s just that, from GROSS POINTE BLANK to SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORLD to (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, they more often seem to be predominantly from the male perspective. Am I wrong, or why is that?

Exposition

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2009 by dcairns

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Looking at Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES reminded me that there was another version of the story idea — SO LONG AT THE FAIR, directed by Antony Darnorough and Terence Fisher.

Terrific thriller! It’s based on a sort of urban legend, about a couple (in the story it’s a mother and daughter, in the film it’s a brother and sister) who travel to the World’s Fair (but which one? the filmmakers wisely plump for the Paris Explosition of 1896, with the Eiffel Tower), where one of them promptly vanishes. Everybody at the hotel denies that the vanished relative ever existed.

This is one case where I’m not going to get into spoilers, although if you’ve read Hitchcock-Truffaut, you’ve read the solution. It works pretty well in the movie, and Hitchcock later recycled it for a TV episode.

Two things are striking about the film –

1) It’s successfully starry: Jean Simmons as the frightened heroine, who feels she’s losing her mind as reality is rewritten by conspiracy around her; Dirk Bogarde as the artist/swain who eventually comes to her aid; also, as if that weren’t enough, Honor Blackman; and David Tomlinson as the vanishee.

2) It’s from that period where British cinema was apparently bent on suicide, eradicating anything of interest domestically (Powell & Pressburger), while hemorrhaging talent abroad, and yet it’s a convincing film, compelling and exciting and stylish — but the talents were instantly dispersed to prevent the experiment being repeated.

Fisher of course boomeranged off to Hammer films, where he was productive and successful within that niche/ghetto of the genre sausage-factory. Darnorough, who had just collaborated with Fisher on a Noel Coward adaptation, THE ASTONISHED HEART, plunged into producing for a few years, before abandoning the industry. Jean fled to America and the waiting fingernails of Howard Hughes, Dirk fled to Europe and an amazing reinvention as art-house star. Honor became the first woman to do King-Fu in leather on telly in The Avengers, and Tomlinson was scooped up by Disney. And the writers, Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne, who did an incredible job escalating the suspense and creating endearing protags, were allowed to slip out of the industry, despite a collaboration with Rene Clement on MONSIEUR RIPOIS for Mills.

For this one brief moment, they’re all together, producing a great entertainment. Simmons and Bogarde are great together. When he volunteers to rob a hotel safe to verify her story, she gasps, “Will it be dangerous?” “Goodness, I hope not, why?” asks Dirk, genuinely surprised. What a lovable chap!

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I don’t know how the co-directing worked. Fisher had already helmed a few little movies at this point, so presumably didn’t need help. A few suspense sequences have real panache, popping out from the rest — Fisher’s work? The production design is impressive, with flags waving from special-effects towers at the Exposition, and a fatal balloon ascension, and madly cluttered Victorian rooms. Cathleen Nesbitt (THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK begins to seem like a central hub of British film), as the steely hotel-keeper, is so convincingly French she convinced the French. The wrapping-up at the end is satisfactory, especially as the film is a new romance, weaving an elaborate thriller plot just to bring together a charming young couple.

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Dr. Man and Mr. Woman

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2008 by dcairns

Adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde seem to fall into pairs…one good… one evil.

Comedy versions: THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (original) = good. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (remake) = evil.

Eurotrash versions: DR JEKYLL AND THE WOMEN = good. DR JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF = evil.

Lost versions: DER JANUSKOPF (Murnau) = no doubt good. THE UGLY DUCKLING (Comfort) = probably fairly evil.

Transgender versions: DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE = good. DR JEKYLL AND MISS HYDE = pure evil.

Well, I say good, but the Hammer sex-change version is a mixture of crass errors and unexpected joys. The idea and title could strike you as cheesy, but then they have an amazing casting coup in Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick as the titular pair, their physiognomies lining up in a remarkably convincing way. “Sister Hyde” isn’t a nun, or a nurse, she’s literally alibied as Jekyll’s sister, and there’s a convincing family resemblance. Both actors seem to exude some kind of powerful pheromone that makes them appealing to gay audiences. It’s a real shame the film doesn’t find that much for Martine to do — she barely speaks, and though she clashed with Baker and Hammer films over their urge for more nudity, the film doesn’t even allow Mrs. Hyde to experience sex as a woman. They’re slightly afraid of the story’s possibilities.

Note: NEVER be afraid or ashamed of the story you’re telling! If you are, don’t tell it.

Remembering the good things, one always starts the film with high hopes, and it never fails to disappoint. The opening is truly spirited, with a foggy Victorian London set and a gory reenactment of a Jack the Ripper attack. Roy Ward Baker directs with, if not gusto, then a cheap, non-brand-name equivalent. He’s a bit zoom-happy, and I always feel he wasn’t quite happy in the horror genre that Hammer landed him in (although his QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is a favourite), but he does some interesting things with the camera and creates a bit of pace and atmos, helped immensely by Norman Warwick’s misty night cinematography, all shafts of light and lurking silhouettes. Production designer Robert Jones, following screenwriter Brian Clemens from TV’s The Avengers, designs the exteriors in monochrome, so that splashes of red photograph more brightly.

First transformation: Bates to Beswick in one shot: the camera wobbles around Bates as he crouches in an armchair before a full length mirror. With his head in shot the whole time, we end on his back, looking past Beswick reflected back at us in the glass. At first I thought this was a fake mirror, really a door leading into a duplicate set, as in the Mamoulian version — but no! Just a real mirror angles so as to reflect Beswick, sitting ALONGSIDE Bates, moving in synchronisation with her.

Beswick, and the shoulder of Bates.

Doing a transgender Jekyll isn’t enough for writer Clemens, he fuses Jekyll with Jack the Ripper (Jekyll needs to harvest fresh organs to supply him with female hormones for his experiments) and throws in Burke and Hare as well (in the wrong city, 60 years after Burke was executed, long after medical grave-robbing was effectively stamped out). This is either way too much of a good thing, or not quite enough. But I like the way Hare gets blinded by an angry mob and transforms into the blind “witness” from Fritz Lang’s M.

My problem is more with blending real and fake horror. Anyone who’s researched the Ripper case, as Fiona and I did for a screenplay entitled THE DAUGHTERS OF JOY (still available if there are any takers) will realise that the Whitechapel murders are not funny. Of course, there was very little Ripper lit when Clemens wrote his screenplay, so I guess the nostalgically safe horror of Madame Tussaud’s was easier to swallow. But within  just a few years, the idea of an anonymous madman murdering impoverished working girls would cease to be so distant. And I still don’t see what could really have struck anybody as funny about it.

Fun stuff –

Beswick whipping together a slinky red outfit from a pair of curtains in mere seconds, like a wicked Von Trapp kid. The buying an even slinkier red dress, which Fiona admired (though not as much as she covets Fenella Fielding’s outfit from CARRY ON SCREAMING). I thought the cossie was a bit fancy dress, like something for an Anne Summers costume party, but Fiona thinks that may be the point: “Remember, it was bought by a man.”

The not-quite gratuitous scene of Martine examining her new breasts before the mirror — it’s what would happen. That, or she might curl up in a ball bemoaning the loss of her wedding tackle. It’s followed by an even more surprisingly blatant shot: as she squeezes her bosom, she notices that the hand doing the squeezing is now male. A lot of the transitions are done this way, with Bates’ hands suddenly womaning out on him at odd moments.

The first transition also features a cutaway of one of those little weather houses, where the man disappears into one door and the woman emerges from another. A witty touch, in a film that more often resorts to enjoyably shit lines like “Burke by name and berk by nature!”

We were also amused by the “ironic” death scene, where Jekyll, fleeing over the rooftops, loses his grip on a drainpipe thanks to Hyde’s weak, womanish fingers, and falls to his/her death/s. And for the only time in a J&H film, Hyde does not revert to a peaceful Jekyll in death — instead we get a mutant hermaphrodite, face split between Bates and Beswick (by way of a crude makeup) like the Janus-face of Bergman’s PERSONA.

Two-Face.
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