Friday, 30 May 2014

The Amazing Yes Men

June 23, 1989 saw the release of Tim Burton’s Batman. With its dark palette, gothic atmosphere and clear references to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, there’s a strong argument for the film being the first ‘modern’ comic book movie. It stood apart from Richard Donner’s earlier, camp efforts with Superman and carried a rather less family-friendly certificate. However, with its carefully timed blitz of promotional comics, action figures, collector’s items, high street store events and rushed out videogames, there’s absolutely no denying that Batman was the first real instance of ‘event’ cinema. For a few weeks, Batman’s iconic emblem could be found on posters, Prince soundtracks, stationary and more. There was no escaping the movie – and why wouldn’t you want to be a part of something that was seemingly everywhere? Such heavy exposure played no small part in a tidy $400 million at the box office, against a now laughably small budget of $48 million.

The Dark Knight’s decisive role in contemporary Hollywood is twofold.

As a kid, I loved event cinema. When that sudden rush of marketing hit, you felt like something big was just round the corner – and when dealing with films like Jurassic Park and Toy Story, the sudden explosion of interest seemed more than warranted, the films themselves the satisfying end note to a brief frenzy. Even the marketing for Avatar – possibly the last Hollywood film to employ this promotion technique – caught my attention, and gave some sense of scale to the film. Given the end result, I’m sure it’s Avatar’s position as event cinema that helped contribute to many seeing the film as exactly that – an event. People don’t really seem to view cinema in that same way any more.

Contrast this to the rumblings coming through from Warner Bros. regarding their latest take on Batman, a film we recently learned had the mealy-mouthed title of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The grand unveiling of film’s moniker and logo came a week after the internet got its first glimpse of Ben Affleck in the cape and cowl, with Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot simultaneously teasing her forthcoming costume reveal across Facebook and Twitter. There’s a small peak in interest and discussion around the suit, and then everyone’ back to waiting for the next tidbit to drop. And this is how we’ll all continue acting until May 6, 2016, when Batman v Superman arrives in cinemas and we all immediately hop trains to start chasing info on the Justice League movie.

Hollywood cinema has swapped out the one-two punch of event cinema for a new tactic – one where we’re all endlessly chasing after a carrot dangling before us promising something more. Sometimes that carrot is a blurry set shot, sometimes it’s a 30 second teaser for a two minute trailer. Often, it’s a two hour movie that feels somewhat incomplete, but we’re okay with that, because there’s the implicit understanding that it’s just building towards something better. So what if Thor was awful? It’s just so we can all have the scene set for The Avengers. And hey, if you’re saying The Avengers came off as rushed and clunky, with a whole load of cheap scenes on a heli-carrier countering the expensive city finale, just wait until you see how much more intense The Avengers 2 is gonna be!

Regardless of your stance on the relationship between marketing and cinema, there’s surely something damaging about shifting cinema in such a way that it no longer acts as the lynch pin for the marketing, but is instead just another channel in the mix? To be clear – Batman v Superman isn’t The Man of Steel 2­, and it isn’t the new Batman film either. Its own title is quite earnestly stating that it’s nothing more than a prologue for Warner Bros. own Avengers analogue.

(On a side note, what does Dawn of Justice even mean? How does that play out in the film?


As the camera pans the horizon, all is again calm, with only a sobbing Lex Luthor cradling his now balding head breaking the peace. Super-Cavill steps forward from the wreckage, and approaches a moody Batfleck who’s subtly flexing even though the battle’s already over.

BATFLECK: I was wrong about you, Cavill-man. We’re fighting for the same thing.

SUPER-CAVILL: Yes, for what’s right.

Batfleck jerkily grasps Super-Cavill’s hand to shake it, as Wonder Gal approaches the pair, shaking city debris from her shoulders.

BATFLECK: For what’s just.

Wonder Gal places her hand over both of theirs and gives them a smug half-smile. The camera pauses to observe her glinting canine.

WONDER GAL: Together, in league.

Batfleck suddenly looks to the sky, his moody countenance broken by the sheer joy of what he’s realised, and what it means for the three of them. A single tear breaks from his eye and washes away the dirt from his face.


Cue score)

These films are just components in a marketing plan, where things are broken into ‘Phase 1, 2 and 3’, future releases speculated upon before their prequels are even out the door. They follow house guidelines, so much so that directors become interchangeable and their names moot. Did Thor feel like a Kenneth Branagh film to you? Was Ant Man looking like it was still going to carry Edgar Wright’s distinctive style when he finally left the project after eight(!) years, citing creative differences (only to be shortly followed by Drew Goddard, leaving Daredevil without a director also?)

For these films-as-marketing-channels to work, they need Yes Men – the kind of directors that do just what the studios ask, or else bow to the money and let the suits run the editing suite. This is why Marc Webb’s fingerprint is almost invisible on The Amazing Spider-man 2, and why the film’s premiere was quickly followed up by a mobile phone app revealing sneak previews of the Sinister Six. Who needs room to breathe when the next train’s already started pulling out of the station?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Amazing Spider-man 2 Review

What happens when a film comes along and smashes it at the box office, despite studio execs swearing it off as a total dud and setting up damage control before it’s even out the gate? A major tentpole film that, from its onset, was really just a way to keep a big brand in-house, and prevent it from falling back into the hands of its (now highly profitable) owners? A film that, despite this, still managed to sneak in moments of real charm and awe amidst the frankly dire scripting and bureaucratic influence – largely thanks to its inspired central casting and left-of-field choice of director?

If the answer you’re hoping for is: “the execs clapped everyone on the back and left them alone to make whatever movie they liked”, unfortunately your future career in Hollywood just got laughed out onto the long bus ride home. If you instead opted for “the studio made sure they got their claws in real good for the factory-line sequel and marketed that fucker to kingdom come”, you’re gonna make a lot of money and very few friends. You were also likely involved in the processing of The Amazing Spider-man 2, the latest attempt to turn cinema into a two-hour promise of future satisfaction (way, way down the line). Largely starved of the idiosyncrasy that saved its prequel from being a dud, ASM2 is disappointing in soullessness.

Picking up where we left off last time, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is having the time of his life as Spider-man, throwing out quips left, right and centre as he careens through New York’s skyline. When not wearing the mask however, Peter has to juggle his on/off relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) against the answers to his parents’ fates and sudden return of former best friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan) – a man with his own share of problems. Confusing things even further is the unfortunate transformation of loner Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into the neon-blue Electro – a walking lightning bolt who finally has the power to strike back against a world that ignored him.

I have to be frank – just thinking about ASM2’s various plot threads is making my head hurt, but thankfully the film spends almost two and half hours languidly moving across them – plenty of time to let them wash over you and leave you wondering when exactly things are actually going to happen prior to the “game-changer” climax. This is paint-by-numbers plotting in its worst form, setting up future franchise spin-offs and sequels with nary a hint of character or consistency in the here and now.

Case in point – Andrew Garfield’s Parker somehow wavers between valley boy and techno genius as the plot demands it, with the only real moments of solidity for his character coming when he’s wearing a mask (oh if only this were some metaphor on growing up) or stood alongside Gwen. The film’s romance thread continues to hold much of the charm for the franchise, though here it no longer has the room to breathe as allowed in ASM1, and suffers for getting caught in the tide of studio manoeuvring. More generally, the film darts confusedly between the more ‘realist’ tone of its predecessor into lazy comic scripting ala Shumacher’s Batman and Robin, failing to ever find the heart it desperately needs. Dane DeHaan’s excellent performance as Harry almost pulls it out of the bag, but the ‘necessary’ twist to his tale ensures anything emotive there gets side-lined for BIG TIME FUN / a brutal example of throwing a woman in the fridge.

Much like its dark twin Spider-man 3, ASM2 does at least manage to dazzle on the SFX front, and whilst most of Electro’s narrative is frankly cringe worthy, his climactic transformation into a bodiless avatar of electricity, able to travel through mains adaptors and create light collages of his face amongst Manhattan’s skyscrapers, points toward a sense of personality the film could have played a hell of a lot earlier. Instead, most of the film’s critical plot points prior are all signposted by the sudden swell of hellish indie-pop, as Sony’s latest signees all get their turn to soundtrack the “hot new Spider-man film BOOYAH!”.

So what if I’m being harsh? The traces of genuine character in this film are forced to go down like shards of glass in a poisoned chalice, and I defy you to tell me that Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are capable hands for any script ever. Forget Age of Extinction – we already got this year’s Transformers stand-in.

(And if you think I've finished with my soap box just yet - har har are you in for a treat! Factory line franchises are forcing Hollywood cinema into a black hole, and it's all thanks to The Amazing Yes Men. Look out for the article later this week)