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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Affleck’

Many questions could reasonably be asked of the film we will shortly be considering, namely Justice League. Given the generally lousy track record of DC movies over the last few years, will it destroy all the precious momentum generated by Wonder Woman and torpedo that movie’s chance of a genuine Oscar run? Why is all the publicity material treating the presence of Superman in this movie as some kind of well-hidden surprise, considering that Henry Cavill (who plays the Kryptonian on the big screen these days) is second-billed in the cast list? Just how much influence did Joss Whedon exert over this film, given that Zach Snyder retains the sole directorial credit? Why, given Snyder’s take on the DC mythology strains so hard to be dark and edgy and ‘realistic’, have they gone with a title as corny-sounding as Justice League in the first place? And why, given it contains a whole bunch of popular and iconic characters, are so many people approaching this movie with a general feeling of ‘Please don’t let it be as bad as I’m afraid of’?

justice-league-poster

Hey ho. With Superman still dead (I really don’t think this counts as a spoiler any more), planet Earth has been thrown into something of a state of trauma. Batman (Ben Affleck), however, fears that worse is yet to come, especially when he encounters an alien scout on the prowl in Gotham City, and this impels him to step up his attempts to find more gifted individuals to protect the planet. Chivvying him along in this, somewhat, is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). On their list of people to see are the Flash (Ezra Miller), who can run at close to the speed of light, Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is, um, a cyborg, and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). (Just why, in the context of the film, Batman is so keen to recruit someone whose only powers appear to be the ability to swim really fast and an impressive skill at fishing is not really explained.)

Anyway, things get urgent with the ‘awakening’ of an otherworldly cube, immediately followed by the arrival of a dangerous alien warrior in unusual headgear. (At this point I was wondering if Joss Whedon had done any actual work on this movie to earn his writer’s credit, or whether it was just there to acknowledge how much of his script for The Avengers was being ripped off here.) The newcomer is Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has come in search of a set of plot coupons that will allow him to recreate Earth in the image of his apocalyptic homeworld. Can our disparate bunch of heroes unite to stop him?

All right, so there are (as usual) some baffling creative decisions on display here – not the least of which is the decision to keep Superman’s presence in the film out of all the publicity. And there are some aspects of the plot which just plain don’t make any sense whatsoever. That said, I can only assume the decision not to give Whedon a full co-director’s credit must be down to some complicated technical criterion, for his influence on the movie is clear. Apparently one of his decisions was to cut the thing down from nearly three hours to only two; once, the temptation would have been to say he’d only gone a third of the way to fixing this movie, but no longer, for this is a big improvement on Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, even if it doesn’t match the standard of Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure time: I’m probably more a fan of the DC characters and mythology than Marvel’s universe (not that it wouldn’t be a close-run thing if I were forced to choose). So there’s a sense in which I’m absolutely the target audience for this movie, at least inasmuch as I know who all the characters are, not to mention the associated mythology. It does occur to me that anyone new to this might find all the casual talk of Atlantis and Parademons and the Speed Force and Mother Boxes to be utterly baffling; I don’t know how good a job they do of keeping the film accessible.

On the other hand, I’m also not the easiest person to please. This movie clearly owes a debt to the rebooting of the Justice League by Geoff Johns from a few years back, not least in the way it attempts to incorporate Cyborg as a core member of the team. I am of the generation for whom this guy is a member of the Titans, not the League, and the absence from the film’s version of the team of any Green Lantern, not to mention the Martian Manhunter, is inevitably a disappointment – although there is a tiny cameo by a Lantern at one point. (Shame they didn’t draw much more from the Morrison-Porter incarnation of the group, but then Johns is producing the movie.)

We’re still in a slightly odd world where Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and even the Justice League itself are barely referred to by those names at all (just not credible enough, I guess), but nevertheless the film works very hard to include lots of crowd-pleasing moments to satisfy both casual viewers and the die-hard faithful – from the Flash’s look of panic at the unprecedented realisation that a hostile, amnesiac Superman can actually see him coming, to the decision to incorporate classic elements of the soundtracks of the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman into this film’s score.

This is not to say this is a great film, simply one which has its moments. Again and again you realise that this is a film stuffed with charismatic performers who just aren’t being given the material they need to really shine. You never get that sense of the characters coming together as the iconic team they are; they just sort of bump into and hang around with each other. Going with an all-CGI villain like Steppenwolf is arguably a serious mistake. And there’s a point in the second act at which the plot goes off on a frankly bizarre and very wrong-feeling tangent, which the film really has to work hard to recover from.

Still – and bear in mind that, as I say, I’m inclined to be generous here – this is still quite watchable stuff, with all the various quips and one-liners (courtesy of Whedon, one presumes) making up for the tendency towards CGI-slathered heavy metal gloom (courtesy of Snyder, one is quite sure). I still think DC and Warner Brothers have a lot of work to do to turn this into a viable long-term franchise of the mighty Marvel kind, but – and in the context this really isn’t the faint praise it sounds like – on the whole, the thing to bear in mind is that Justice League could really have been much, much worse.

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‘Looking forward to Fantastic Beasts?’ asked the minion at the sweetshop: clearly, the personality-nullification programme which all Odeon employees are required to undergo had not been fully effective in this case. I was taken by surprise, anyway: there was nothing to suggest I might be of that persuasion in my appearance, demeanour, or choice of ticket on this particular occasion (well, I mean, I’ve recently grown a beard, but it’s hardly the badger-swallowing, Dumbledore kind). It may well have been the case that the minion was just being friendly, in which case I suppose I should go back and apologise for giving him a detailed critique of my expectations of the movie, focusing on the fact that a) I could barely understand a word in the trailer I saw (and it’s not just my old ears, I wasn’t the only one) and b) the whole enterprise appears to have been forthrightly Americanised now it exists in a film-only form (patience, readers, I shall give you the full details when the movie actually emerges and I’ve seen it). I expect he was only expecting a ‘You bet!’ or ‘Not really’ rather than three minutes of closely argued whining and bibble-bobble, but I was taken by surprise and this is just how my brain seems wired to operate in its default mode.

I wouldn’t usually trouble you with this sort of thing, but it does seem at least tangentially relevant to Gavin O’Connor’s new movie The Accountant. We’re at that time of year when the films are neither tentpole blockbusters nor gong-bait, they’re just reasonably sized films gunning for people who fancy going out to see a film but aren’t especially troubled by what it is. There’s a sense in which The Accountant looks like the kind of thriller you usually see at this time of year, but it’s really something slightly more quirky and unusual.

the-accountant

Let me just explain the premise of the movie to you: Ben Affleck plays a nameless individual who has Movie Autism, which is responsible for him having incredible accountancy skills. Not immediately promising stuff for a thriller, you might think, but on top of this, Ben’s tough-lovin’ father has also had him trained to be an extremely highly skilled martial artist and sharpshooter. As the movie opens, Ben is spending his time practicing shooting things from a very long way away, auditing the books for incredibly dangerous gangsters and terrorists, and helping his neighbours with their tax returns. (Hey, don’t laugh: being totally ruthless, having no idea about how to function in civilised society, and being highly expert at fiddling the US tax system appears to qualify you for at least one very prominent job in America today, at least according to the news broadcasts I’ve caught this last week.)

I repeat: this is just the premise of the movie. If you think that sounds a bit weird, the plot itself is utterly gonzo (not to mention somewhat complicated), incorporating a senior treasury official (J.K. Simmons) and an agent he’s blackmailing into finding Ben (the agent is played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a troubled robotics tycoon (John Lithgow) and one of his employees (Anna Kendrick), and a rather more extrovert assassin on a collision course with Ben (Jon Bernthal, who seems to be experiencing something of a career sweet spot at present).

In a way it kind of reminds me of the Thai movie Chocolate (directed by Prachya Pinkaew), in which another character with Movie Autism – in this case a teenage girl – becomes an ace martial artist and batters the living daylights out of half the gangsters in Bangkok, although The Accountant works much harder to seem to be a sober and serious drama for grown-ups: its success in delaying the moment when you actually shout out loud ‘Oh come on, this is all utterly absurd!’ may be the film’s single greatest achievement.

The film initially does a little dance when it comes to specifying just what’s going on with the title character, the physician involved saying he’s not really into categorising people, but eventually Ben owns up to having a form of high-functioning autism. Hmmm. It’s still basically Movie Autism, which means that all the impairing stuff is offset by effectively having cool special faculties. It seems to me we’re currently stuck with only two approaches when it comes to dealing with autistic-spectrum-related disorders in films – this one, where being on the spectrum is presented as being almost like a superpower, or the more subdued gong-bait one, which tends to be terribly po-faced and worthy. I don’t think either is particularly useful, to be honest, but then I suppose it’s difficult to communicate the reality of being on the spectrum, which can have some benefits (being spectacularly good at Pointless) but also fairly significant lifestyle issues (inability to sustain close or long-term relationships, tendency to play 2048 for sixteen hours at a stretch, general social awkwardness, and so on). At least The Accountant has a stab at addressing some of these issues, at least in passing, and it is genuinely quite a fun film.

Long-term readers may recall that in the past I have devoted many, many, many words to making jokes about Ben Affleck’s supposedly robotic style of acting, but there’s nothing on display here to derail his career renaissance (although – well, is it totally beyond the realms of good taste to suggest that when playing someone with Movie Autism, acting slightly robotic may actually be the way to go?). The strength of The Accountant isn’t really in the plot, anyway, but in the way it presents a group of really interesting characters and lets some talented actors really do their stuff with them: Affleck is engaging, Simmons is good too, so is Bernthal, so is Lithgow… So is Anna Kendrick, too, even though this is not the kind of film you would normally expect to find her in. (However… the thing about cinema is that it usually makes everyone look tall. Even Tom Cruise looks like a strapping athlete on the big screen. So I don’t really know what to make of the fact that Anna Kendrick still looks incredibly tiny next to Ben Affleck in this film. In real life she must only be about three feet tall.)

That said, the action is well-mounted and the story stays coherent, pretty much, at least up to the beginning of the third act, at which point there’s a bizarre expo-dump and any semblence of reality is cheerily bade a fond adieu. The film becomes much less about Ben’s mad accountancy skills and much more about him repeatedly shooting people in the head with high-powered firearms. Characters and subplots basically get switched off in favour of a climax which… well, let’s just say the film’s absurdity quotient does not noticeably reduce.

Well, anyway. The Accountant may be a very odd and possibly slightly suspect film, but it’s a fun and engaging one throughout. It’s honestly not that great a thriller, but all the tangential weirdness makes it very distinctive and it is driven along by some strong performances and a smart script. Worth a look.

 

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‘Batman Vs Superman is where you go when you’ve exhausted all possibilities. It’s somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp.

In case you’re not familiar with the source or context of that quote, it’s from noted comic-book movie writer and director David Goyer, explaining in 2005 why it was decided not to go with Wolfgang Petersen’s proposed film of that title. Eleven years is a geological age in Hollywood, of course, which is why Goyer now has his name on the script of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the crucial second instalment in DC’s attempt to establish a franchise featuring its own roster of superheroes. Nevertheless, does something about this strike you as a little off? It may well.

BvsS

BvS (I can’t be bothered to write the full title out every time) is the follow-up to Man of Steel, and as before is directed by Zach Snyder. I’m going to cut to the chase here: as a movie it seems to be the result of two distinct creative agendas, neither of them exactly surprising. Firstly, DC have been casting envious eyes upon the massive critical and (particularly) popular success of the Marvel Studios movies over the last nearly-ten years, and want a slice of the same cake. So BvS has the job of singlehandedly jump-starting a similar enterprise, introducing a slew of new characters and concepts (something which, you may recall, Marvel split across three or four movies).

Secondly, it – like every other Batman film of the past 30 years – is utterly preoccupied with Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which features a grim, brooding, slightly unhinged Batman in an everyday story of how to make slightly fascist social views acceptable for a young and liberal audience. The climax of Miller’s book is a spectacular showdown between Batman and Superman (here presented as a tool of the corrupt establishment).

Whatever your opinion of Frank Miller’s politics, he is undeniably a great storyteller when he’s on form, which is not something I’m sure anyone has ever said about Zach Snyder. Hmm. Well, the movie opens with a brief, portentous recap of the Kryptonian attack on Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, in which we get to see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) trying to save some of the bystanders and generally being appalled by the chaos and destruction the aliens have caused. This makes him miserable for the rest of the movie, as if Batman isn’t usually miserable enough.

Flash forward a couple of years and we learn that being miserable has made Batman even more brutal and savage in his war on crime than usual, to the point where Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is quite outraged by what he sees as unjustifiable terror tactics and unchecked vigilanteism. This at least takes Kent/Superman’s mind off the fact that his various super-deeds have proved rather controversial, because good deeds can sometimes have bad consequences (yup, this movie is that morally profound). This makes Superman miserable for the rest of the movie, too.

Also fairly miserable is brilliant entrepreneur/scientist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who considers the presence of Superman on Earth to be an affront to human supremacy. To this end he has laid his hands on some interesting green rocks extracted from one of the destroyed Kryptonian ships, in the belief they may have interesting effects on Superman.

(Also hanging around the plot is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who, to her enormous credit, isn’t miserable at all and actually seems to be enjoying herself.)

Or, to put it another way, the standard structure for this kind of story goes as follows: two superheroes meet for the first time. There is, inevitably, some sort of misunderstanding, and the two of them take each other on. However, they soon realise they’re on the same side and join forces to deal with the genuine, much more significant threat.

That’s a classic structure (and one which I adhere to myself when running superhero RPGs, for instance) – it’s done properly in the first Avengers movie, for example. However, it kind of presupposes the hero-on-hero action will be happening in the second act, which is at odds with the desire to do Dark Knight Returns on the big screen – there, the hero-on-hero stuff is the climax. The film has to compromise, which means it doesn’t really do either story justice.

And, architecturally, the mashing of structures unbalances the whole movie. This is a long film (and it certainly feels like it), and with the big battles all held back for the third act, it struggles to find things to do for much of its running time. In the end it settles for lots of brooding, apocalyptic dream sequences, heavy-going quasi-theological discussions, laborious setting-up of planned future movies, and characters glaring miserably at each other, prior to a final half-hour or so made up almost entirely of things going boom.

The real victim of the mangled plotting is Lex Luthor, who seems to have half-a-dozen schemes going on simultaneously, not all of which make complete (or even partial) sense. Or, to put it another way, his plan is to frame Superman as being responsible for various terrorist atrocities, get his hands on some Kryptonite to kill him with, blackmail him into killing Batman to further besmirch his good name, and then breed a giant half-Kryptonian monster to batter him to death. Now that’s what I call multi-tasking. To put it yet another way, Luthor is basically just a plot device rather than an actual character, which is why a talented actor like Jesse Eisenberg has to resort to an array of tics and quirky mannerisms just to give him any kind of identity. As it is, the character still doesn’t convince.

As you may have gathered, once it’s (reluctantly) finished trying to be The Dark Knight Returns, the movie has a go at being (spoiler alert) The Death of Superman, complete with a CGI version of Doomsday. Even this is not that interesting to watch, due to Snyder’s preferred aesthetic of everything that’s not actually exploding being grim and gloomy – although, to be fair, once the three heroes team up to fight the monster it actually starts to feel more like an actual superhero film (plus the only two proper jokes in the film are both near the end).

Actually, I would say that the glaring problem with BvS is not that the structure of the film is wonky – other blockbusters have got away with as much – but that the tone of the thing is so relentlessly depressing. Oh, God, it’s so horrible that Superman is flying around saving people and averting disasters! It’s so awful that Batman is fighting crime in Gotham City! The whole thing is literally this ponderously gloomy – there’s none of the joy or colour or imagination of even a so-so superhero comic. Are DC doing this just to be different from the slightly self-mocking and frequently goofy Marvel movies? If so, then distinctiveness arguably comes at too heavy a price.

You could also argue that a mainstream audience most likely hasn’t read The Dark Knight Returns and isn’t going to get all the references to it here (there are, of course, many), and isn’t going to recognise this conflicted, adversarial take on these two iconic characters. (I have to say the film kind of misses the point of DKR, too: you’re firmly on Batman’s side in the Miller book – his Superman is a compromised, arrogant figure – whereas here the Kryptonian is essentially an innocent party being roughed up by a headcase.) Certainly, the big thing – the colossal thing – BvS has going for it is that it puts Superman and Batman on the big screen together for the first time. But for some reason Zach Snyder seems to think he can only do this by making them essentially unrecognisable – Superman is a guilt-racked, despairing victim, Batman is a vicious, paranoid loon.

A friend of mine has written quite an impassioned piece in defence of BvS, saying he found it quite heartwarming to see the two characters come together and interact with each other, and that you shouldn’t criticise it just because it deviates from the minutiae of comics lore. I understand entirely where he’s coming from on the first point, but the movie doesn’t just get the little details of comics mythology wrong, it completely fails to grasp what makes these two characters so iconic and beloved.

(The only thing about the movie which is even vaguely successful is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, but here they have the advantage of not having to compete with numerous other recent on-screen versions of the character, plus she isn’t actually in the film that much outside of the climactic battle.)

To understand all is to forgive all, or so the theory goes. I suppose it’s possible to understand the reasoning behind the creative choices the makers of BvS made – the perceived need to be tonally distinct from the Marvel films, the hope of launching a slate of further spin-offs, the desire to (once again) borrow liberally from The Dark Knight Returns, the importance of ‘being taken seriously’ (whatever that means in this context) – but does that excuse the film-makers making such a botch of a premise with so much potential? I have to say I think the answer is no. There’s probably an argument to be had over whether this is just a disappointment or an actual disaster, but what’s inarguable is that it really could and should have been much, much better.

 

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An everyday scene from a typical English workplace:

Your Correspondent (spying a colleague with whom he is on friendly terms): ‘Oh, hi [name of guilty party redacted] – how was your weekend?’

Colleague: ‘All right. Went to the cinema.’

Your Correspondent: ‘Oh yes, [other colleague’s name] told me she saw you. Gone Girl, right? What did you think?’

Colleague: ‘It was okay, but I was surprised that [MASSIVE SPOILER redacted].’

Your Correspondent: ‘AUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH’

I spent the rest of the day following her around shouting ‘Rosebud is a sledge! Bruce Willis is a ghost! Darth Vader is his father!’ but the damage was done. I suppose it serves me right for not going to see Gone Girl at the weekend, but – hey! There was a Gerry Anderson retrospective in the next screen! What was I supposed to do?

gong

Recent studies have suggested that having a story spoiled for you may not in fact impair enjoyment that much, so I suppose I can treat Gone Girl as an experiment to this end. (Of course I went to see it anyway.) Given that a big adaptation like this is relying on people who’ve read the book turning up to see it, it’s possible that the makers may have been bearing in mind the fact that much of the audience may have already known the story: it’s certainly not entirely dependent on shocks and surprises to work as a film.

David Fincher’s film, based on a book by Gillian Flynn, primarily concerns the marriage between Nick Dunne (Ben ‘I’m respectable again and loving it’ Affleck) and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). Having met and got wed in New York, where both were writers, economic and family issues have led to their moving back to Nick’s home town in Missouri. But life has been tough regardless.

And it gets tougher. On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick returns home to find signs of a struggle and Amy nowhere to be found. He calls the police, like anyone would, and does his best to answer their questions, also like anyone would. But what rapidly becomes apparent is that things that are fairly unremarkable in the everyday running of a wobbling marriage can be horribly suspicious when viewed by a police detective looking for foul play. As some facts Nick would rather keep secret come to light, suspicion builds in the police, the media, and those around him – has he in fact done his wife in?

Well, obviously I can’t tell you that, but what I will say is that, before it plays its cards, the film does a very good job of making Ben (look, I’m entitled to call him that, we go back a long way – I actually paid to see Paycheck and Jersey Girl, for crying out loud) look like an ambiguous figure. And fortunately, the film does not hold back all its revelations to the end – halfway through it transitions from being a genuine mystery to an equally accomplished, and possibly even more gripping, psychological thriller.

I must confess that I did enjoy the first part of the film a lot – less obviously plot-driven, it allows the film to comment en passant on a whole range of topics. Some of these, such as the degree to which two people can ever really know each other, and the demands of marriage, are quite universal, but others will, I suspect, make this film of particular interest to the social historians of the future, particularly in its handling of the media – both the influence of social media, and the phenomenon of trial-by-TV – and its commentary on the sheer social damage caused by the economic collapse of the late 2000s. The shadow of the credit crunch hangs over this film like a fallout cloud, for money problems are at the heart of Nick and Amy’s travails – what happens to a marriage when one partner is forced to become totally dependent on the other for an income? What’s it like to feel trapped in a marriage by your own pre-nup agreement?

That said, the second half of the film is a terrifically enjoyable thriller, perhaps surprisingly so given it contains some tough material: there are F-bombs and more aplenty, some shocking man-on-woman violence, and one sequence of grand guignol gore that is all the more appalling for coming seemingly out of thin air. Even worse than this, perhaps, is the general theme of the film, which is bleak, bordering on the nasty – it makes marriage look like a blood sport, like something men and women do to each other rather than together.

That it works as it does is mainly down to Fincher’s skill in controlling the story and stopping its more startling aspects from seeming too prominent, at least until the audience has become properly invested in the characters. Without going into too much detail, this is a story which makes some pretty big asks of the viewer, but Fincher makes you agree to them quite cheerfully.

He’s helped by a really good cast: this is a story with a lot of significant characters, and they are all portrayed absolutely solidly. You can instantly believe in Tyler Perry’s superstar attorney, Kim Dicken’s cautious detective, or Carrie Coon’s concerned sibling (well, apart from the fact that she’s nearly a decade younger than her supposed twin – oh, Hollywood!). But that said, the film really depends on its two leads: Rosamund Pike isn’t the most obvious choice for the leading lady of film of this prominence, but she grabs a good part and runs like the Devil with it. Ben, meanwhile, gives a properly rounded movie-star leading man performance, quite as good as anything else he’s ever done. Given that Ben is currently heading for the big screen as a moderately unlikely and distinctly controversial Batman, I suspect all his performances until then are going to be scrutinised for their potential Wayneyness: well, here he delivers his customary wit and charm, but also the ability to seem completely ambiguous (if not actually chilly), not to mention a capacity for brutal rage. I think Ben’s going to be a very different sort of Batman, and potentially a very good one.

That’s for the future, however. For now, Gone Girl is a very accomplished and entertaining film, if one that should leave the viewer uneasy and unsettled. In a way it’s almost a shame it didn’t come out later in the year, because it’s certainly good enough to be a contender for major awards come next spring. The question is simply whether or not it will still be remembered then. A shame, as everyone involved is on top form.

 

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If, like me, you’ve been thinking that the quality of new movies under review here lately has been noticeably higher than this time last year, then an answer of sorts may be at hand: looking back, I see it’s over a month since my last visit to either the sweetshop or the coffeeshop. Clearly, partaking of the more refined fare on offer at the arthouse is its own reward. That said, the Phoenix has made a big commitment to showing Skyfall (with considerable financial success, I suspect) and as a result the kind of intelligent, grown-up movies it usually specialises in have been a bit squeezed out.

Is this why the major chains were able to lure me back with Argo? I don’t know, but this is certainly a bright and mature movie, as one would expect from George Clooney, who produced it. Directing it is… I’m sorry, there seems to be a mistake here. It says ‘Ben Affleck’. Not the Ben Affleck, the guy out of Armageddon, Daredevil and Paycheck, obviously, the one who I last caught in the utterly baffling Jersey Girl. Must be some other Ben Affleck – funny, I thought there were rules against that kind of thing. Hey ho.

The movie opens with a deftly-told slice of political history, recounting the west’s installation of the Shah of Iran, his abuse of his position and the Islamic revolution which forced him to take refuge in the USA. From here we go into a very well-mounted and plausibly nervy sequence with the US embassy in Tehran under siege by revolutionary elements demanding the Shah’s repatriation for trial. The walls are scaled, the embassy is stormed, and the entire American staff is taken hostage.

…well, not quite. Six of them sneak out just before the embassy is taken and find a haven of their own in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. If they’re caught there, it will be a diplomatic incident; if they’re caught trying to flee the country, they’ll be executed. It is a tricky situation for the State Department and the CIA, whose responsibility dealing with this sort of crisis it nominally remains.

Coming to their rescue is hangdog CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Ben… ah, I see what’s happened, they’ve got the name of the lead actor mixed up with that of the director. I wonder who it really was. Anyway, Mendez comes up with a startling plan to ensure the escape of the six fugitives, involving fake IDs, adverts in the Hollywood trade press, real-life make-up legend John Chambers (played here by John Goodman) and a chance encounter with a TV showing of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (which, if it genuinely happened, may actually justify the existence of that movie)…

Oh all right, everyone insists that Ben Affleck didn’t just star in this movie, he directed and co-produced it too – so I suppose I have to accept this is true. I don’t know what ol’ Ben’s been up to in the last eight years but he should certainly keep at it, as this is a rock-solid movie that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Having said that, I went into it knowing relatively little about the substance of the story, so I was pleasantly surprised by much of the incidental detail and the accompanying Hollywood in-jokes. Anyone more familiar with the story, or with less of a fondness for late 70s SF cinema, may find it much less of an unexpected delight.

The details of the plan are, as many of the characters admit, slightly absurd, and the movie runs with this, becoming a very deadpan black comedy for much of its first half – ‘this is the best bad idea we’ve got,’ a senior CIA man earnestly tells his superiors – with jolly turns from Goodman and Alan Arkin as a veteran movie producer who gets drafted into the scheme. (The real-life involvement, albeit tangential, of distinguished SF writer Roger Zelazny has not made it into the script.) This is engaging and very funny, but the film never quite loses sight of the seriousness of its story – a comic scene involving numerous characters in nudge-nudge SF-style costumes is effectively intercut with similar, much graver events in Iran itself.

Once Mendez jets off to the Middle East the film becomes a rather more straightforward and serious thriller: will the scheme be rumbled? Will the six fugitives be identified from reconstituted embassy records before they can escape? (I must confess that the scenes of shredding being reassembled brought back fond memories of a highlight of my own career in government service: what can I say, this film seems designed to make me biased in its favour.) 1980s Tehran is well-mounted and the movie is never less than involving.

Of course, this is a dramatisation of real events, not a documentary, and so one has to take some of what’s presented with a pinch of salt. There were a couple of moments during the film when I thought ‘this is straight out of the Hollywood scriptwriting playbook, I’ll bet it didn’t actually happen like that’ – and, generally, I was right! I’m not sure if making your improvements on history so blatantly obvious justifies them or not. Hmm. Some of the background detail has been less-obviously tweaked, in a way that presents some countries in a less than flattering light – Affleck himself has owned up to feeling bad about this. I suppose the facts are out there for anyone who’s really interested in the history, and this is just a movie, after all.

It’s a consistently clever and well-made movie, though, with some extremely effective sequences in it. Ben Affleck is not what you’d call an ostentatious director, but he gets the job done with skill and fluency. As an actor… oh, the temptation to dust off all those old jokes is almost irresistible. Ben is not terribly demonstrative, shall we say, but he has undeniable charisma and his performance makes sense given he’s playing a professional keeper of secrets – it’s not the most introspective part, either. Certainly there is no shame to be attached to Affleck’s contribution to this movie, in any department.

Y’know, even back when I was laying into Ben Affleck every time he turned up in a duff new movie, it was really done much more in sorrow than in anger, because I always liked the guy and could see he had in it him to do so much better. So to have him reappear in a movie as good and enjoyable as Argo has been one of the year’s great pleasures. Nice to have you back, Ben! Keep it up…

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 29th 2004: 

I don’t know about Daredevil 2… You’ll know my career is really on the slide when I start resurrecting the franchise. – Ben Affleck

For a writer who isn’t especially well-known out amongst the normal real-world public, Philip K Dick has achieved an odd sort of ubiquity when it comes to SF movies. Well, perhaps ‘ubiquitous’ is stretching it a bit, considering we’re talking about four movies in twenty or so years, but – off the top of my head – I can’t think of another writer in the genre with that kind of recent track record.

It doesn’t hurt that, broadly speaking, three of the four were quite well received – Blade Runner regularly scores in top ten popularity lists (although personally I haven’t much time for it and prefer the original cut – or, better yet, the source novel), Total Recall was a big smash hit, and Minority Report was rapturously hailed as a return to form for Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. However, the latest Dick movie, Paycheck, has arrived on UK screens to be met with notices verging on the toxic.

As director John Woo has many cheerleaders in the States (more likely as a result of his terrific Hong Kong-based movies than the rather mixed bag he’s presided over since going Hollywood), and this film isn’t utterly wretched, one can only presume the knives are out simply because Paycheck stars Ben Affleck. Ah, Ben Affleck. For a while now I’ve found having a pop at Ben to be a bit of a guilty pleasure, because in interviews and the like he comes across as a decent bloke with terrible instincts as to which scripts he should make.

This time round Ben plays Michael Jennings, a highly-paid expert in taking things to pieces and copying them. This is a much valued ability in the world of industrial espionage, but for Ben the downside – or maybe not – is that he has to have his memory of each assignment wiped after completing it (you can imagine the scene – ‘While you’re at it, could you get rid of Pearl Harbor, Gigli, and that full-page ad to J-Lo I put in the national press, please?’). His trusty sidekick Shorty (Paul Giamatti) is responsible for microwaving his brain on each occasion.

Ben is recruited by his old mate Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) to do a special job that will take three years to finish but earn him nearly a hundred million dollars. Ben is happy to sign up, especially as he has a bit of a thing for another of Eckhart’s employees, hatchet-faced biologist Rachel (played by that leading grand guignol comedienne of our time, Uma Thurman, in an unflattering hairstyle). However three years and one memory-wipe later Ben is alarmed to find he has chosen to waive his fee in favour of a envelope full of junk. It transpires that the pre-wipe Ben has built Eckhart a precognotron for seeing into the future, and, having sneaked a peek himself, has realised that the junk comprises the objects his future self will need in order to avoid meeting a sticky end at the hands of his evil boss…

Well, yes, it’s hokum of the highest order, but it’s an engaging enough idea and not without its’ thoughtful moments. While the plot bears similarities to Total Recall (hero has his memory messed about with) and Minority Report (hero sees vision of future he’s not too keen on), it’s closer to the former in style. This is just as well, as the lack of Minority Report‘s ponderous self-importance makes the occasionally incoherent plotting a lot less annoying. On the other hand, this never quite takes flight as a Hitchcock-style ‘innocent man in peril’ caper, as Ben’s character just isn’t likeable (or innocent) enough at the start of the movie for the audience to really warm to him. Ben himself turns in another stiff-upper-lipped performance. (In fact a lot of the time his entire face is utterly immobile.) But there’s not much meat here for any of the actors – Giamatti goes into twitchy overdrive as the comic relief, before vanishing entirely for most of the second half of the film, while quite a way down the cast list Joe Morton and Michael C Hall are solid enough as FBI agents chasing Ben.

There isn’t actually very much here to distinguish Paycheck as a John Woo film, except perhaps several scenes revolving around people sticking guns in each others’ faces, and an inexplicable sequence with a dove. The action isn’t that great and a long car-chase is actually rather pedestrian. But, as action techno-thrillers go, this is really pretty competent stuff, rather retro in an odd way (the suits and hairstyles of many characters look like seventies-vintage), quite well paced and not without some interesting ideas about memory and predestination.

But Ben’s clearly going to have to come up with something else if he wants to arrest his slide towards becoming the 21st century’s answer to Charlie Sheen [written long before it became clear that Charlie Sheen still had a lot to offer the world. Sort of – A]. If, as seems the case, mediocre movies are now getting completely trashed simply because he’s in them, it’ll have to be something special. A serious rethink is called for, or he’ll be slipping on the red leather jumpsuit sooner than he’d like…

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 24th June 2004:

Well now, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, we appear to have successfully weathered the initial onslaught of summer blockbusters, and now the multiplexes are actually back to showing films only on a single screen at a time. The downside to this, of course, is that traditionally the only films the studios are prepared to pit against the Troys and Potters – which are still very much around – are a right bunch of old yappers.

Which brings us to Jersey Girl, the first non-Jay and Silent Bob film from indie auteur Kevin Smith. Here Smith hooks up with his regular collaborator Ben Affleck once more. On this occasion Ben embodies high-flying New York music biz PR Oliver Trinke, who is of course enormously popular and good at his job, and blessed with a lovely relationship with fellow PR Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez)…

(Now I appreciate that all these facts seem almost designed to make a discerning cinemagoer deeply wary, as they sound like the recipe for an intentionally bad film. Well, the thing about Jersey Girl is the way that… er… well, okay, you may have a point there, but stick around anyway.)

…but tragedy befalls Ben when J-Lo dies in childbirth. (Connoisseurs of the actor’s art will cherish Jenny-from-the-block’s portrayal of this moment, which mainly consists of her going cross-eyed and flopping backwards.) Ben is clearly quite upset by this development (the stress causes him near-total facial paralysis and he loses the ability to vary the tone of this voice – but then again this is probably just Ben Affleck’s acting style), which leaves him an unhappy single father with serious emotional issues…

(Yes, it gets even worse, doesn’t it? Look, I knew the risks, I made my choice. Besides, Affleck’s usually been okay when Kevin Smith’s been in the vicinity in the past.)

…which eventually lead to him getting sacked and having to move in with his crusty old dad (George Carlin) in New Jersey. After a mind-boggling scene in which a teary Ben tells the tot he’d rather have died instead of J-Lo (I briefly empathised, feeling that I’d rather have died than sat through this crap) we skip forward seven years. Ben is now working as a municipal dogsbody in New Jersey (this is signified by a slight change in his hairstyle) and his daughter (Raquel Castro) has grown into an irksomely cute smart-arse. But lo! A choice is on the horizon for Ben. Will he pick the wholesome pleasures of blue-collar life in New Jersey, and a romance with video-store girl Maya (Liv Tyler)? Or will he opt to return to his high-pressure, work-comes-first lifestyle back in New York City?

Well, readers, if you can’t figure than one out in advance then – well, then I suggest you go and see Jersey Girl as you’ll probably genuinely enjoy it. This is a pleasure denied to the rest of us, who are forced to indulge in ironic chortling at just what a strange, strange movie this is.

I have no idea who Jersey Girl‘s target audience is. It barely qualifies as a date movie, as the Ben and Liv romance hardly gets going (incidentally, and I don’t wish to sound ungallant, but on this evidence the Lord of the Rings cossie designers did a hell of a job concealing the fact that Liv has shoulders like a prop forward). Pensioners and younger viewers inclined to coo over the film’s high cute-kid and nappy-changing-joke quotient will probably be less enthralled with the extraordinary scene where Liv and Ben compare their respective masturbatory regimes before opting for casual sex. Kevin Smith’s not-inconsiderable fanbase will be left aghast by the aforementioned cute-kiddie stuff. And just who on God’s green Earth would choose to see a movie the climax to which consists of Ben, Liv, and the rest of the principal cast performing a selection of Stephen Sondheim musical numbers? I haven’t got a clue.

Quite what has happened to Kevin Smith I really don’t know. It would be nice to be able to say that this must be the work of some other Kevin Smith, but unfortunately this is still recognisably a film by the guy who made Clerks and Dogma. Smith is famous for writing the world’s least convincing, most convoluted and enjoyable dialogue, and this is on display here, along with flashes of the usual scabrous wit (and a Star Wars reference). But what worked so well in his earlier comedies (almost all profane and cynical) just doesn’t play in a film which clearly wants to evoke genuine warmth and emotion. It doesn’t help that this is a film bursting with tired old cliches and glutinous sentimentality.

For all that, the movie does have a few good jokes in it and you can’t fault its intentions, and Smith has (as usual) snagged a good cast (Jason Lee and Matt Damon cameo). And – deep breath – Ben can actually do comedy quite well. But even the writing and direction are flawed: one big set-piece has Ben persuading his neighbours that some roadworks really are essential (yup, high-octane stuff, this) with a brilliant speech – but Smith cops out of having to write the speech and then getting Affleck to deliver it, basically just cutting to the aftermath and everyone saying ‘What a brilliant speech, Ben!’ This is elementary stuff and a director on his sixth movie should know better. The same goes for Ben’s toe-curling epiphany about the importance of being a good parent at the end of the movie, courtesy of a Major International Superstar (appearing uncredited, but presaged by a smug running gag about the improbability of his film career), which mixes sentimentality with crushing obviousness.

But then Jersey Girl is a film only functioning on the most obvious, mechanical and sentimental level. There’s nothing actually wrong with this, I suppose, but even so… I do genuinely have a soft spot for Ben Affleck – if nothing else his recent movies have all been consistent, and he seems like a nice guy when not acting – but if he’s now going to start going about wrecking the careers of people like Kevin Smith then I fear the time has come to be cruel to be kind. So, if either you or your career are listening, Ben: go towards the light! Go towards the light!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 20th February 2003:

‘You don’t like my costume? Have you seen Daredevil’s costume? He looks like a complete tool and nobody blames nuclear sabotage on him.’ Peter Parker,Ultimate Spider-Man #18

Younger readers may find this a little difficult to believe, but we are currently in the middle of what will one day be remembered as a Golden Age of Superhero Movies. Admittedly not every comic-inspired project is of the same high standard as, for example, Blade 2 or Spider-Man, but given that only a few years ago the average superhero picture was an aberration like Captain America or Steel, I think you’ll agree that the genre has taken a quantum leap forward of late.

The main beneficiary of this advance has been Marvel, who throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s were the world’s bestselling comics publishers but were unable to translate this into big-screen success, whilst their Distinguished Competition bestrode the world with the Superman and Batman franchises. But now it seems that every Marvel book from Ghost Rider to Brother Voodoo is in development for the big screen, and every major star in the world has got in touch with their inner fanboy and set about playing their childhood hero.

So stand up Ben Affleck, who’s doing exactly that in Mark Steven Johnson’s new movie Daredevil, based on a comic with a cult following but little mainstream name recognition. Affleck plays the troubled hero, who by day is blind lawyer Matt Murdock, and by night is blind vigilante Daredevil. (Being hit in the face by toxic waste as a child destroyed Murdock’s eyesight but boosted all his other senses to superhuman levels of acuity, also giving him a bat-like sonar sense.) Trouble comes our hero’s way when he falls for beautiful heiress-turned-ninja chick Elektra (Jennifer Garner), who is the latest target for a crimelord known as the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his deranged executioner Bullseye (Colin Farrell).

I really, really wanted this film to continue Marvel’s run of success. I’m not enormously familiar with the book, but I know it well enough to appreciate its quality, and the difficulty of adapting it successfully for the screen. (A previous attempt, in the TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, was pretty much an unmitigated disaster, notable only for the Kingpin being played by Lord of the Rings‘ John Rhys Davies.) But I have to say that Daredevil is a deeply flawed movie – but for a rather strange reason: the director is too big a fan of the original comic.

Why do I say this? Well, for one thing this is a movie trying to do too much. Into a relatively brief 105 minutes it attempts to squeeze Daredevil’s origin, some day-in-the-life-of-Matt-Murdock material, plus his romance with Elektra and his various bouts with her, Bullseye and Kingpin. This results in some extremely choppy pacing and a disjointed, episodic feel. And it shortchanges the characters – instead of an assassin plagued by an uncontrollable dark side, Elektra becomes a simple avenger motivated by a case of mistaken identity. Kingpin, too, loses much of his depth (along with height, girth and weight, but let’s not quibble).

The crowded marketplace as far as these kinds of films are concerned is another problem the film has to contend with: on the surface of it, the Daredevil comic looks like an amalgam of Spider-Man and Batman, but it’s distinguished by some intense, mature themes and imagery. The film attempts to do the same, but with limited success, lacking the dark poetry the comic often achieves. The result is a film that too often resembles Batman or Blade. It’s not really helped by Johnson’s lack of skill when it comes to the action sequences where this kind of film should really come to life – they’re either confusingly choreographed, often in that tedious, sub-Matrix style we’ve surely all got a bit sick of, or they’re flatly directed with little energy or flair.

It’s by no means totally lacking in merit. Affleck is actually perfectly competent in the lead role, but then again for some reason he’s always at least okay in any project where he works with Kevin Smith, and Smith has a cameo here as a morgue attendant (this is due to Smith writing the comic for a while – Stan Lee, who created the character, and Frank Miller, who made him famous, also have cameos, and there are a huge number of not-so-subtle comic fan in-jokes in the script). Colin Farrell is clearly having a whale of a time as Bullseye, a demented, snarling psychopath (he almost makes you forget that this is a supervillain whose sole power is that he’s, uh, really good at throwing things. Probably for copyright reasons, his adamantium skeleton hasn’t made it into the movie.) There are some quite good jokes along the way. And the film’s depiction of the grim, scarred realities of life as an all-too-vulnerable vigilante is striking, going much further even than the Tim Burton Batman movies. (Although ‘grim superheroics’ always seems to me to be like arranging punk rock for a string quartet to play – it seems to overlook the fundamental charm of the form – in the case of superheroes, their lack of grounding in the real world.)

It’s interesting to compare Daredevil with last summer’s Spider-Man. They’re both based on Stan Lee characters, they share the same executive producer, the same costume designer (no, not Ann Summers, though it’s an understandable misapprehension), the title sequences are strikingly similar and in both cases the director is an avowed fan of the hero in question. But where Spider-Man was irresistible, crowd-pleasing fun, smart and self-mocking, Daredevil takes itself too seriously and never really establishes an identity of its own. It’s too faithful to the darker elements of the comic to really win over a mainstream crowd, but too slick and glitzy to satisfy most hard-core fans of the book. This may have been a labour of love for Johnson and Affleck, but sometimes love is not enough.

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