14 July 2012

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

(Dir: Marc Webb, 2012)

How soon is too soon to “reboot” a franchise? That seems to be the main talking point around The Amazing Spider-Man, after all it’s been five years since the abomination that was Spider-Man 3 and here we are with a new cast, crew and origins film. There was eight years between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins. Seven years between Superman Returns and next year’s Man Of Steel. Five years between Hulk and The Incredible Hulk (arguably they follow on but The Incredible Hulk does actually reboot the story). Is five years too soon? No. Should they even be rebooting things anyway? Well, that's a yes / no answer.

The idea of the superhero has become deeply entrenched in today's entertainment, to the point where it could be argued that the origin stories for certain superheroes (in particular Superman, Batman, Spider-Man) have entered far enough into the lexicon of modern culture to not need repeating. Yet I see the appeal for a writer / director / actor when tackling such an established character for the first time, they want to leave their stamp and make it their own version, so what better way to do that than starting at the beginning? Especially if it’s to be the start of a new run of films. I don’t remember ire aimed at Christopher Nolan for going full on origins with Batman Begins when Tim Burton had covered some of the same ground in his 1989 Batman. In fact what irritates me more is when these films feel like they need to continuously fall back on the same villains, especially when the original comics for most characters established such a wide pool of antagonists to choose from.

The biggest mistake Spider-Man 3 made was bringing in too many villains which it didn't know how to use properly, making the whole thing a mess. Fortunately The Amazing Spider-Man not only keeps it simple with a single clear villain, but also uses one that was absent from the previous trilogy of films (or the villainous alter-ego was anyway), adding something new that doesn’t feel like a straight rehash. The villain in question here is Dr Curt Connors, aka The Lizard, played by Rhys Ifans, who is perhaps a somewhat unexpected actor to appear in such a blockbuster, but he plays Connors well. There’s an intelligence and sense of benevolence there, but then he’s forced into a situation where things take a turn for the worse, essentially leaving him infected with crazy (in quite an interesting way) and a new reptilian form.

Is it possible to make a film like this without it being swamped in CGI? These days, no. If it wasn’t CGI heavy we wouldn’t get impressive looking scenes of a man in a suit swinging precariously through the streets and around the buildings of New York. But after a while and much repetition it does get boring watching a digital figure flinging itself around like this. Better are the scenes of Peter Parker getting to grips with his powers. So what about the villain and what to do when it’s supposed to be a giant anthropomorphised lizard? Why CGI of course! I have in a couple of recent reviews here expressed a growing dissatisfaction with films overloaded with CGI, which seems a pointless complaint because hell, it goes without saying most modern big budget films will be digitised to death. Anyway, the CGI Lizard is alternately menacing and rubbish-looking. It flat out does not work when it’s “speaking”, but as a creature moving around it’s not so bad. Best of all the threat level is well pitched as Spider-Man seems seriously outmatched by his foe, so there is a challenge. All in all though, a good choice of villain.

The best decision made around The Amazing Spider-Man was casting Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker / Spider-Man. I’ll admit that after seeing him in The Social Network and particularly Never Let Me Go (which I loved), I became a fan. It's still early days in his career and taking this role was certainly a good choice for him - he’s so damn likeable and plays the well-meaning, kinda cool but actually totally nerdy loner well. In fact the best scenes in the film are when there is no mask involved. Many of those involve Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey, and she’s thoroughly sweet but perhaps not given enough to do aside from standard love interest duties, but there’s a definitely palpable chemistry there which makes all the difference. To be fair the rest of the casting is decent too – I enjoyed Denis Leary as the police chief whilst Martin Sheen and Sally Field are likeable as Peter’s aunt and uncle, despite the inevitable bit of preachiness. 

What about the choice of director though? As an established geek-friendly progenitor of one of the most loved eighties/nineties genre trilogies, Sam Raimi was obviously ideal for the previous set of films, but this time they went with what, a guy who’d only directed one prior feature; an indie rom-com!? I recall a big hint of internet surprise to this announcement, but good choice I say and kudos for its braveness. (500) Days of Summer is a great little indie film that shows Marc Webb to be an interesting and creative director producing something thoroughly interesting in one of the blandest genres out there. And to The Amazing Spider-Man he brings a focus on the characters without feeling like this needs to be rushed over to get to the web-slinging. There is of course the whole "weight of the effects of your actions" aspect, but also plenty of comedy (it’s generally a pretty good script) and successfully suggests a burgeoning romance. The action scenes are competently directed and fortunately it doesn’t feel overly dominated by them.

Time to address some key questions... Was it pointless doing another reboot “so soon”? No. Is this a better Spider-Man film than Sam Raimi’s 2002 version? Debatable, but having not seen that film in years I refuse to be drawn into making a full comparison. Who is the better Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield? Garfield, without a doubt. What’s the 3D like? No idea, I saw it in 2D, but considering how fast some of the scenes were cut I can only image the 3D would look a mess. Would I recommend watching it? Sure.

Let’s be honest, The Amazing Spider-Man was never going to be a film that would blow you away. The character is only "amazing" in his biological / technical abilities, but Garfield here proves why he remains a great upcoming actor to look out for. I want to see him in more, now. This is a Spider-Man film so you know what you’re going to get and yes it is more of the same, but at least Webb forces the film into a character based direction rather than pure dumb action. I liked the film, it kept me entertained and I will now casually look forward to the next two films in this trilogy. But with the recent influx of fantastic superhero movies since Spider-Man 3 came out - Thor, Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Dark Knight – I’m left wondering if the Spider-Man character really offers enough now?

12 July 2012

Review: The Hunter

(Dir: Daniel Nettheim, 2011)

If you look at Willem Dafoe’s filmography it makes for pretty fascinating reading. For every Antichrist, Wild At Heart and eXistenZ, there’s a Spider-Man, Speed 2: Cruise Control and Body of Evidence. His is a career that has encompassed a wide range of films; small, award-worthy, weird, big-budget and dross. But it also means he’s starred in more interesting films than you probably realise or even remember, and has worked with an impressive array of directors. He’s a fantastic character actor who rarely gets to play the lead, which is one reason why The Hunter seemed an exciting prospect.

Based on a novel by Julia Leigh (who also wrote and directed last year’s slightly strange Sleeping Beauty), the titular hunter, played by Dafoe, is a man for hire whose specific skills are requested by the oblique Red Leaf corporation. They send him to Tasmania to find, kill and extract certain parts of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger, which local rumours have suggested may still exist. His cover story of university research leaves him based in a house with Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two kids, who seem lost without their husband/father who vanished in the wilderness months earlier, whilst the local community, including Sam Neill’s Jack, resent outsiders and the ecological activists trying to put a stop to their livelihood as loggers.

What was most unexpected is that The Hunter pulls a few different threads into the story. I was expecting the film to purely focus on tracking and stalking of prey in the wilds, with a wordlessness akin to Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing. This would’ve been the easy way to go and at first it seems like this will be so, except the film spends more time on the couple of days in-between each of the hunter's twelve-day hunting cycles, and the interactions and relationships that take place here. That’s not to say we don’t see plenty of the isolated methodological monotony of looking for something that might not exist, but by gently involving Lucy and in particular her kids when he returns to regroup, it brings a level of humanity to a potentially cold story.

Then there’s the ecological aspect. Although the film calls for the lead to hunt a creature that may have already traversed the line of extinction, there doesn't seem to be much judgement on this, and we also see a balanced side to the logging aspect of the story. The environmental protestors have a sound argument and portray a certain amount of idealism, but for this community what else is there for its residents if the logging stops? There is no other work, so what are they supposed to do?  It’s easy to sympathise with both sides, making the natural hostility when this new outsider enters understandable. Where his cover story forces him to be detrimentally labelled a “greenie” by the locals, ironically they may have actually shown him some respect if he could’ve told them why he was really there. Inevitably this forces him onto a specific side.

Dafoe is excellent. He starts out as a man who has his own clearly defined rules and routines and a slightly mechanical nature, but it doesn’t take much to crack this veneer. No back story is given, but we don’t need one. We just see a man who has distanced and hidden himself from humanity, slowly being pulled back towards it, for better or worse. He’s thoroughly engaging. The rest of the cast do a decent job and there is something charming about the two kids, fortunately in a way that avoids any standard Hollywood-ised schmaltz. 

I have to say I was pretty impressed by The Hunter. It certainly helped that it didn’t go down the more conventional route that I expected for a film of this nature, but it’s a well balanced story and solidly directed. The setting / location worked strongly in its favour too, offering something lusher than we’re used to seeing when it comes to Australian-set films, and there was definitely a sense of isolation in this little microcosm. The location also allowed for decent cinematography and beautiful shots of the stunning scenery. But at the end of the day it’s Dafoe’s fantastic performance that anchors the film, giving a quietly believable depth and humanity to a potentially cold and unlikeable character. Why we don’t see Dafoe in more lead roles I don’t know.