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Posts Tagged ‘Emma Stone’

When is a Marvel movie not a Marvel movie? When it isn’t made by Marvel Studios itself, but by someone else who bought the rights to one of the company’s characters many years ago. It has been wisely observed that one of the things that makes Marvel Studios’ achievement in building up its world-conquering franchise-of-franchises so remarkable is that it has done so without access to Marvel Comics’ most popular characters – 20th Century Fox have the film rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, while Sony owns Spider-Man (for some reason Universal have hung on to Sub-Mariner and Lionsgate to Man-Thing despite neither seeming particularly keen to make a film about them). Marvel have built their empire with characters who are, comparatively, second-stringers.

This achievement has not gone unnoticed by the people who do own the rights to Marvel’s big-hitters, and it appears to be affecting how they make their own movies. You would have thought another decently-made instalment in the Spider-Man franchise would essentially be a licence to print money anyway, and this is basically what Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is.

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The sequel finds Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) juggling his self-appointed responsibilities as Spider-Man with his relationship with winsome girlfriend Gwen (Emma Stone). He is constantly aware of the danger he may be putting her in, having already got her dad killed in the first film. He is also still trying to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance.

More pressing issues arise when a much put-upon and overlooked electrician (Jamie Foxx) suffers a freak accident and is reborn as vengeful glob of sparky evil Electro, while the death of dubious tycoon Norman Osborn leads his son Harry (Dane DeHaan) inheriting the company. Harry also learns that this isn’t all he’s inherited from his dad: he has a terminal genetic condition, but it transpires that – would you believe it!?! – the blood of Spider-Man could provide a possible cure…

As you can probably see there is a lot going on in this film: possibly even a bit too much. Then again, one of the distinctive things about Webb’s take on Spider-Man is just how many things are turned up to eleven – the colours are brighter, the CGI more elaborate, the emotional content more overwrought, the plot more crowded. Just about the only thing that gets soft-pedalled is the humour and quirkiness, but – as with the first film – I suspect this is more born from a need to be different from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy than anything else.

That seems to be slightly less of a concern this time around. While the appearance of Electro might indicate this run of films is intent on excavating the lower reaches of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, the movie also includes a new version of the Green Goblin. They still shy away from creating their own version of J Jonah Jameson, though. And there’s an extent to which they’re on a hiding to nothing with this approach, anyway: you can’t properly do Spider-Man on film without including plotlines about his difficult lovelife, so this film inevitably recalls the Raimi ones in that respect.

On the whole it is a fun and entertaining package: what it lacks in narrative focus it makes up for in colour and incident. Garfield and Stone are engaging leads, even if I didn’t find their scenes together to be as irresistibly cute as the director clearly did. The pathos of the Electro character is a bit undermined by Foxx’s tendency to go OTT, plus the character’s origin (he is basically savaged by a shoal of electric eels) – well, it’s possibly not the silliest origin story in the history of superhero movies, but it’s definitely high on the list. Dane DeHaan (possibly cast on the strength of his performance as a supervillain-in-the-making in Chronicle) is really much better as the new Goblin.

While we’re on the subject of villains, do not be fooled by the prominence of the Rhino (played by Paul Giamatti) in the publicity: he’s barely in it. His presence is part of the only element of the film which felt to me like a real misstep: an elaborate and drawn-out coda to the main action which is mainly there to set up not just the next Spider-Man movie, but also a Sinister Six spin-off. (There are not-very-subtle indications that other projects headlining Venom and the Black Cat may also be in the producers’ minds.)

It’s very hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to replicate the success of Marvel Studios’ model of putting out at least one film a year, but whether they can do so from such a narrow base remains to be seen: especially if, as is apparently the case, on-screen crossovers with the Fantastic Four have been ruled out. This kind of film has always been made with one eye on potential sequels – but now it seems that building a franchise is starting to take priority over the quality of the actual film. That’s something that the producers of the Spider-Man series might want to bear in mind in future – for the time being, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an entertaining film that ticks all the boxes for this particular character – it’s just a little too preoccupied with Spider-Man films of the past and future to really be something special itself.

 

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This early in the New Year, most cinemas are knee-deep either in highbrow Christmas blockbusters still hanging in there, or earnest, serious-minded Oscar contenders trying to build up some momentum ahead of the coming gong season. However, on the principle some people won’t be interested in either of those things, a few unrepentantly basic genre movies have snuck out, as usual. Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad certainly qualifies as one of them, despite the fact that the size of the budget and the calibre of the cast might indicate otherwise.

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This is one of those movies with no discernible ambition to do anything new; its success or failure has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with the polished assembly of parts you have probably seen before (many times before, in some cases). It’s 1949 and the rising power in the L.A. underworld is a ruthless ex-boxer turned gang boss, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). He has the town in his pocket, thinks he owns enough judges and policemen to make him untouchable, deals ruthlessly with his rivals, and so on.

However, the chief of the LAPD (Nick Nolte) is not about to roll over to this guy and assigns stone-faced veteran cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin doing his Tommy Lee Jones impression again) to bring him down – using whatever tactics the job may require, none of that due process foolishness involved. In a slightly surprising development, O’Mara lets his heavily pregnant wife choose the other members of the team, which may explain why one of them appears to be a wild west gunslinger who’s wandered into the wrong film. O’Mara’s second in command is high-living maverick Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has a special connection to the case, mainly because he’s knocking off Cohen’s girlfriend (Emma Stone).

And you can probably write the rest for yourself: the Gangster Squad gets off to a shaky start, but soon gets the mob’s attention, things go back and forth for a while, the Squad member who’s basically been walking around with a bullseye on his face all film gets killed in a stakes-raising development, and so on. It is, to be blunt, very formulaic and highly derivative, most obviously from The Untouchables.

Having said that, just because something is formulaic that doesn’t mean it’s incompetent, and the reason cliches exist is because they actually work. Gangster Squad is a professionally assembled film, it looks polished, the characters have something of the coolness they’re clearly supposed to (they all wear fedoras – except the cowboy, who wears a stetson – and smoke like chimneys), and with a cast like this the performances are obviously going to be decent. The action scenes, which are frequent, are well-choreographed, and the plot does grip to some extent even though you nearly always know roughly what’s going to happen.

On the other hand, it would be nice for a film in this kind of hard-boiled genre to go beyond the basic requirements of the form – for instance, it’s such a relentlessly blokey film. There are two proper female characters, O’Mara’s wife and Wooters’ girlfriend. The wife spends most of the film in either the kitchen or the bathroom, tearfully asking her husband not to go off to fight (obviously he doesn’t listen to her, or there’d be no movie). Emma Stone as the girlfriend doesn’t spend the whole movie in bed, but her role is largely decorative and a real waste of her talents. Both roles are secondary to those of the men, and we never really get a sense of them as people in their own right.

Then again, it is 1949, and this is a movie aimed full-bloodedly at a male demographic. Gangster Squad has had its release date shoved back by four months to allow a major sequence to be reshot – the original featured a gunfight in a cinema, which for obvious reasons you can’t really put in an entertainment-minded movie these days. From watching this film, I can deduce that it is considered inappropriate to show people firing guns in a moviehouse, but perfectly okay to depict dozens of people being blown away by submachine guns in any other urban environment. What a curious and somewhat counterintuitive world it is we live in.

This is still a savagely violent film in places – someone gets literally ripped in half very early on – but the director seems, rather slyly, to have front-loaded it to some extent: a lot of the really intensely nasty stuff happens very early on, giving you an instant impression that this is an extremely violent movie, an impression which lingers even after the film calms down a bit. It’s not quite as graphic as it seemed at the time, now I consider it, but this is still a really strong 15 and definitely not for the squeamish.

This isn’t actually a bad film, and perhaps the fact I’ve never really been a particular fan of gangster movies is a factor in my indifference to it. It’s solid enough genre stuff, but the best thing about it is probably the late-40s art direction and costuming. But from the talent involved, you’d be forgiven for expecting something rather more striking.

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I suppose it says something about this year’s blockbusters, not to mention the quantity of associated hype, when a new Spider-Man movie has been on the schedule for ages but – until recently – has received relatively little attention. There’s a sense in which it’s been squeezed out by the massive buzz surrounding both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (expectations of which are reaching ominously Prometheus-esque levels). This is a shame because Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man has much to commend it.

The life of brainy teenager Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has been shaped by the death of his parents in mysterious circumstances when he was but a lad. Awkward and lonely, the chance discovery of some of his scientist father’s old papers changes his life, for they contain a (hmmm) secret formula which is the secret to trans-species genetic modification. His father’s old friend and unidextrous authority on genetic engineering and reptiles – must have been an interesting degree course – Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is still working on this and while visiting Connors’ lab Peter is bitten by a genetically-modified spider.

Weird things start happening to Peter. He becomes much stronger and more agile, starts sticking to walls, and finds himself completely unable to climb out of the bathtub unassisted (Don’t Write In Dept.: I know I used that gag writing about the first movie – if they start making original films, I’ll start writing original jokes). In an attempt to discover the reason for this, Peter passes the secret formula on to Connors, who – being a scientist in a Marvel movie – sees nothing untoward in using it to inject himself with lizard DNA in the hope his arm will grow back. Unfortunate events ensue.

If we were living in a parallel world where this was the first full-length live-action Spider-Man movie ever made, I imagine The Amazing Spider-Man would have received very positive reviews, for it is undeniably an accomplished piece of movie-making. But I also suspect some critics well-versed in the lore of the comic would be nonplussed by the decision to use the Lizard as the main villain, not to mention the omission of key characters such as Mary-Jane Watson and J Jonah Jameson, and finally the decision to generally fiddle about with the Spider-Man origin story.

But, of course, this is not the first full-length live-action Spider-Man movie (The Amazing Spider-Man was once set to be the title of what eventually appeared as Spider-Man 2). Sam Raimi made that, not very long ago at all. There are spiders and lizards and critters of all kinds in this film, but there’s also an elephant in the room, and that elephant is Raimi’s Spider-Man – as close to a perfect retelling of the classic Spider-Man origin as we’re likely to see. This film is effectively Spidey Begins – an attempt at a from-scratch reboot, but one unable to use one of the classic villains. (I believe the Lizard was one of the villains set to appear in Raimi’s abandoned Spider-Man 4.)

Webb’s movie has a much harder job to do than Batman Begins, in that the Raimi movies were made not that long ago and were, on the whole, considerably better than the Burton and Schumacher Batman movies. Setting out to do something tonally and narratively different, which was clearly part of the brief here, therefore involves intentionally moving away from something which was generally very good in the first place.

If we’re going to compare Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t, it’s fascinating to see how two films which visually look very similar can actually feel totally different as viewing experiences. The most obvious thing about Amazing Spider-Man is that it plays the story a lot straighter than Raimi did, with much less comedy and weirdness. Which you prefer is really a matter of taste, but personally I think Raimi’s approach was slighty more to my liking.

That said, there is a lot to enjoy in Amazing Spider-Man. The performances, from a strong cast including Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary and Sally Field, are uniformly very good. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker as less outwardly nerdy and more gauche and awkward than Tobey Maguire, but pulls this off very well and is – perhaps – better than Maguire at doing Spider-Man’s wise-cracking-through-the-fights schtick. The effects work and action choreography are also top notch.

I wasn’t so wild about the mystery-of-Spidey’s-parents plotline, an element which the now-obligatory mid-closing-credits tag scene promises will continue in any future sequels. It’s also a real shame that the only thing that Emma Stone is given to contribute to the film is a selection of short skirts and boots (and, given she’s playing Gwen Stacy, one wonders if she’s signed up for the same number of sequels as the other main actors). The romance in this film feels mawkish and syrupy rather than charming and it feels as if the whole thing grinds to a halt every time it goes into this mode – I felt like throwing things at the screen every time the ‘romance’ theme started playing. (James Horner’s score suffers from the lack of a strong theme for Spider-Man himself.) And a small quibble – Spider-Man’s habit of taking his mask off in public at regular intervals also makes the idea of his identity staying secret rather implausible!

It’s surely arguable that we really didn’t need another film telling the origins of Spider-Man only ten years after the last one – although I suppose a lot of the kids enjoying the screening I attended weren’t even born back in 2002 – but given that we have to have one, The Amazing Spider-Man does about as good a job as one could imagine, and, in all honesty, a much better one than I was expecting. Hopefully with the sequel Webb and associates can do something with much more of its own identity to it; I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 19th 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the movie review that’s not afraid to be wrong. Well now, first off this week we look at the latest offering from Ricky Gervais, who’s risen from near-obscurity to international acclaim and bona fide movie stardom in only the time it takes a rather lazy and feckless person to write 170 editions of an intermittently popular internet film review column. Currently he’s on screen in The Invention of Lying, which as usual he co-wrote and directed, on this occasion with Matthew Robinson (fans of the Og-monster can take heart: Gervais’ regular collaborator Stephen Merchant gets a tiny cameo).

Gervais has described this film as an attempt at ‘the funniest Twilight Zone episode ever’ , which isn’t at all misleading, although I don’t recall Rod Serling ever launching a Zone story with an extended comic riff about masturbation, as happens here. Anyway, it’s the story of Mark Bellison (Gervais), an unsuccessful staff writer at a film company. His mum is in a care home and his most recent date with the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner) was hardly a great success. But his life changes forever when Mark discovers he has the unique, near-supernatural ability to say things that aren’t literally true!

For Mark lives in a world superficially almost identical to our own, but where everyone is completely, literally and brutally honest all the time. All their movies are documentary lectures on historical fact. Their advertising is unrecognisable. People openly admit to the shallowness of their love lives. In this world Mark’s new faculty gives him immense power, as everyone takes every word he says at face value, but it brings unexpected responsibilities with it, too. More importantly, though, is he ever going to get anywhere with Anna in the romance department?

Well, you’re going to find this movie deeply irritating unless you cut it some serious slack right from the start, because the premise is so high-concept it’s practically piercing the ozone layer. Do people in this world have dreams? Don’t they ever use conditional sentences? Isn’t the use of the imagination crucial to our existence as human beings? Forget all these questions and many more, as the film ignores them, and while you’re at it do your best not to notice that a lot of the humour derives not from simple honesty but people apparently lacking any kind of interior monologue and being compelled to say every thought that crosses their minds, which surely isn’t quite the same thing.

This is really a one-joke comedy, but Gervais is tremendously inventive when it comes to continually putting new spins on it. Most striking is a long section in the middle where the film suggests that not only is fiction essentially a kind of lying, but so is religion – there are shades of Life of Brian in how this is articulated. The laughs never stop coming – quite the opposite – but the movie is quite serious in exploring the ramifications of its central idea. At first glance the movie appears rather thought-provoking, but in the end it seems content to simply nose around big and complex ideas rather than do anything with them or come to any kind of conclusion about its main theme – is it okay to lie to people if it makes them happier?

Probably quite sensibly, it doesn’t try too hard to be naturalistic, but Ricky Gervais gives a typically classy deadpan performance in the middle of everything – and hints at having considerable potential as a straight actor, one sequence where he attempts to comfort his sick mother being startlingly moving. Garner is her usual perky self, and it’s presumably a credit to Gervais’ growing international clout that he’s secured cameos from actors of the calibre of Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry off EastEnders. The direction is nothing to be ashamed of, but for me the reliance on using classic pop songs to set the atmosphere got wearing – Charlie Kaufman was mercilessly lampooning this six or seven years ago.

It won’t split your sides, and I suspect a lot of people will be left distinctly unimpressed, but I found The Invention of Lying consistently amusing and rather likeable – even if it’s a bit less clever and profound than it probably aspires to be.

Moving on, one fictional milieu which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years is the good old Zombie Apocalypse, which is so ubiquitous nowadays you wonder if the media know something we don’t. Forty years after its arguable invention, it’s even gone multimedia – in addition to movies like the Resident Evils, the 28… Laters, the fruits of George A Romero’s sudden increase in work-rate, and various others, there are now high-profile Zombie Apocalypse comics (The Walking Dead), TV series (Dead Set), and novels (the utterly brilliant World War Z). It’s getting so it’s difficult for any new project featuring hungry cadavers and the collapse of society to stand out from the (probably quite smelly and slow-moving) crowd.

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland solves this problem by playing the whole thing for laughs. In this movie Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a fairly useless twitchy geek making his tentative way across the corpse-ridden US after – we’re told – mad cow disease mutates into a zombie-causing strain. Hmm. (Taxonomists of the undead will note that this movie features another sighting of the recently evolved ‘running zombie’, which seems to be competing well with the traditional strain, particularly in relatively low-budget projects which can’t afford vast mobs of extras.) Anyway, he soon hooks up with zombie-hating, cake-loving badass Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a man crazed with a lust for revenge since zombies ate his puppy, and the duo in turn encounter Wichita and Little Rock (the agreeably comely Emma Stone and surprisingly tolerable child-actress Abigail Breslin), sisters who are heading for a supposedly zombie-free enclave outside Los Angeles. (The thing with the weird names is just one of a few slightly laboured elements of a script which in places tries a little too hard to be quirky). Will this odd quartet survive the manky hordes roaming the land of the free?

Hang on, you may be saying: didn’t the peerless Shaun of the Dead do the whole comedy Zombie Apocalypse routine over five years ago, and set the bar extremely high to boot? True, Shaun was my point of reference going into this movie, and to start with Zombieland falls a long way of its standards – the opening sequence just isn’t particularly funny, with the script somehow missing the right beats and the tone distinctly uncertain. But things improve considerably as soon as Harrelson comes on screen, as he gives a barnstorming and endearingly absurd performance which is exactly the thing the film needs. It improves enormously as it goes on and stops trying to be funny and horrific at the same time. In the end it’s not a true comedy-horror fusion, or a parody of zombie movies, but simply a broad and very offbeat comedy (a bit too offbeat to be really credible in places), which adeptly includes effective moments of romance, emotion, and action. Not to mention splatter and pus, of course.

I found myself enjoying it hugely as it went on, but am reluctant to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the fun. The small cast give likeable performances, the post-apocalyptic landscape is convincingly rendered (well, the electricity’s still on everywhere, but…) and Fleischer’s direction is mostly neat and effective. There are a few whistles and bells with the graphic design (captions whizzing around the screen) which I wasn’t mad about, and the thrashing heavy metal soundtrack didn’t do a lot for me, either, but by the end I was laughing out loud longer and more frequently during Zombieland than The Invention of Lying. My sources (okay, the inter web) tell me it’s done rather well at the box office – and this is one instance in which, if they can keep the quality up, a sequel would be very welcome. It’s definitely a comedy more than anything else, but Zombieland is also a quality piece of work.

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