Archive for Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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?



Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2008 by dcairns

We don’t really hear much about Armond White in the UK, so it was a surprise to discover how much he turns up in movie conversations in New York. He’s the King of Hyperbole, read for the sheer insanity of his pronouncements, which tend towards either ecstatic transport or queenie indignation, often bearing only the most tangential relationship to the film under discussion.

The only review I read by White during my visit was for Scott Frank’s THE LOOKOUT. Boy, was White angry about that film. Since he also mentioned the fact that he hated BRICK*, which I rather liked, I figured that THE LOOKOUT was probably at worst inoffensive, at best rather good. And so it proved to be.

Scott Frank is the screenwriter of OUT OF SIGHT, probably Soderbergh’s most effective mainstream entertainment, and the film which more than any other helped confirm George Clooney as a genuine movie star (it also created a fleeting, illusionary halo of tolerability around the person of Jennifer Lopez). I’m not crazy about Frank’s other credits (Armond White, however, apparently loves MINORITY REPORT) but I was interested to give THE LOOKOUT a try sometime.

Basically, the film deals with a character played by BRICK’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who suffers brain damage during a reckless nocturnal drive and goes from being a high-school sports star to a bank janitor who has trouble remembering and sequencing events. Comparisons to MEMENTO are inevitable, but I think there’s room for more than one film about this relatively common kind of problem.

Induced by an acquaintance (Brit Matthew Goode, sporting a pitch-perfect U.S. accent) and a too-good-to-be-true girlfriend (Isla Fisher) to help out in a bank robbery, LGL’s character finds himself in over his head, outgunned and outplanned, and must work around his multiple mental disabilities in order to emerge alive.

“In THE LOOKOUT, Gordon-Levitt cements his indie rep as the poster boy for dysfunction,” writes White, suggesting a deep discomfort with any movie presenting a hero who is not perfection personified (he loves his Spielberg). And: “It takes a highly naive, cynical performer—or a doltish film critic—to find this nonsense interesting or surprising.” Naive AND cynical, that’s a nice mix. Where does Hollywood find such performers? White really seems not to believe that people with brain damage exist. The fact that JGL’s character lives with a blind man (aw, it’s Jeff Daniels — we LIKE Jeff Daniels!) seems to make him even angrier, although this is surely just WHAT WOULD HAPPEN. People with different disabilities are often housed together, so they can help each other out.

Of course, disabilities rarely DO exist in Hollywood. THE LOOKOUT doesn’t necessarily make the very best use of the issues it raises, but at least it raises them. It’s essentially a decent, tense film noir with some unusual characters. I wondered if it would be brave enough to have a downbeat ending, because I think most of the best noirs do — MINORITY REPORT would be immeasurably improved if it ended just after the Cruiser realises he’s been set up — but then I figured the film was so pervaded with loss and sadness, nobody would want to see it end worse than it started. But it’s inherent in the film’s premise that sometimes you lose something and you can’t get it back, things can NEVER be as good as they were, so the upbeat conclusion is still rather sad. This strikes me as pretty brave for the mainstream, and perhaps explains why the film didn’t do better. It’s a stylish thriller with great music and performances and the story is suspenseful and satisfying — but so many people like White are deeply uncomfortable with anything that suggests that life for some of us — or ALL of us — might not be perfectable.

Although some aspects of the film are predictable, this didn’t strike me as bad: our greater ability to work out that JGL is being exploited means that we can feel anxious long before he does. I thought it was also rather smart that the film encourages us to underestimate the hero in just the way the bad guys do. His stripper “girlfriend,” played by Isla Fisher and rejoicing in the name of Luvlee Lemons, is something of a cliched Tart-With-A-Heart: Frank wrote a proper femme fatale, but Fisher didn’t want to play unsympathetic. I think that’s a terrible choice, since femme fatales are MUCH more enjoyable that T-W-A-Hs. And Fisher telegraphs her character’s niceness in one dreadful scene by staring at JGL through a windscreen and assembling a variety of emotive expressions on her face, with a good bit of Dallas-type Odd Lip Movement.

Nevertheless, I would unhesitatingly suggest that those in search of a good modern thriller to try this one on for size. If you don’t like the movie, you can still get endless fascination by trying to figure out what the hell Armond White means by “Being an indie puppet means a willingness to pervert contemporary notions of heroism, and in THE LOOKOUT, Gordon-Levitt once again plays a moral defective as if the film’s absurdities made sense.”

“I know what all those words mean, but that statement makes no sense,” ~ Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons, studying a marquee that reads “YAHOO SERIOUS FILM FESTIVAL”.

*Self-conscious neo-noirs never seem to work, since the stylistic excesses of the classic noir were committed with a kind of innocence: the term film noir had not been invented, and filmmakers were just doing what seemed natural and right at the time. Yet BRICK’s teen-noir pastiche struck me as fresh and satisfying. It helps that the film has a bright, saturated look and surprise framing and cutting that have nothing to do with noir archetypes. At times it verges on BUGSY MALONE territory, with all those kids acting like gangsters, especially when school principal Richard Roundtree calls the young hero into his office and tells him to BACK OFF, but I enjoyed even that moment. The whole film is very self-conscious and cute, but sincere too.