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Posts Tagged ‘Liev Schreiber’

…anyway, while the distaff members of the family and our patriarch were off enjoying Mary Poppins Returns, in the screen next door Young Nephew, his dad, and your regular correspondent were settling down in front of perhaps the most-directed film of the year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman.

This has been an exceptional year at the movies even by Marvel’s standards, and it feels entirely appropriate that it should end with a movie showcasing the company’s most iconic and popular character – all the more so, given that the year has also seen the passing of both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators not just of Spider-Man but also of much of the wider Marvel world, the sheer extent of which is perhaps the raison d’etre of the new film.

It opens conventionally enough, with a brisk recap of the career of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine), super-heroic protector of New York City. But then things switch to the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is basically just an ordinary kid struggling with fairly typical problems: mainly that he doesn’t get on with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who is insisting that he starts a new school, curtails his hobby of making graffiti, and spends less time with his beloved but slightly shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles is out with his uncle one night doing something mildly illegal when he is bitten by a rather peculiar spider, and finds his life becoming even more complicated and stressful.

While coming to terms with his new-found wall-adhering powers, Miles finds himself caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has constructed an ominously big and complicated gadget with the power to blow holes in the fabric of the universe. Spider-Man charges Miles with helping him to destroy the Kingpin’s machine before – and this is probably quite a shocking moment if you haven’t read the publicity for the movie – he is killed in action battling the supervillain and his henchmen.

The city mourns, naturally – and so does Miles, of course, not least because he’s accidentally broken the gadget Spider-Man gave him to save the day. And then things take another left-field turn, with the appearance of another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) at the grave of the one Miles originally encountered. It turns out that this new Peter Parker is a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged Spider-Man from a parallel universe, who has been dragged here by the Kingpin’s machine.

The older Spider-Man basically just wants to leave, before being out of his home universe causes his cells to disintegrate, and initially turns a deaf ear to Miles’ plea that he train him or help in the destruction of the machine before even more damage is done to the fabric of the cosmos. But soon enough that old heroic spirit is rekindled and the duo set out to thwart the villain and save the day. But it seems that the damage to the multiverse is more extensive than anyone has realised, with a bevy of other Spider-People also in the mix…

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded sort of person, not carrying around too much in the way of prejudice or bias – but I have to say that while it would take hospitalisation or worse to make me miss a live-action Marvel adaptation, I suspect there are a large number of parallel universes where I didn’t see Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen, simply because it’s an animated film. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that I’m not alone in this, because this movie is doing appreciably less business than the live-action Aquaman movie, despite being at least as good.

Then again, I say this as a fairly dedicated follower of all things comic-booky, which really puts me into the target audience bracket for this film. I’m pretty sure this is not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made – that title is still surely held by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and it will take something very special indeed to dislodge it – but in one very specific way at least, it certainly challenges for the title of greatest comic-book movie.

Up until fairly recently, most comic-book films were rather conservative beasts, largely determined not to appear silly or childish and keep the mainstream audience on board. The stories inevitably lost some of their colour, energy, and inventiveness in translation because of this, and it’s only in the more recent of the Marvel Studios films that the film-makers have become confident enough to let some of the sheer exuberant goofiness and innovation of the comics creep back in. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a Marvel Studios film, but in the same way it isn’t afraid to trust the audience’s ability to get its head around some new ideas – most obviously, that the whole movie is set in an alternative continuity (or parallel universe, whichever you prefer). This allows the introduction of not just the Miles Morales Spider-Man (a comics presence, initially in Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, since 2011), but also a striking new version of Dr Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn).

At the centre of the film is an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spidey, which is handled with immaculate deftness and storytelling skill. But going on around it, and really making the film sing, is a very different kind of story, basically just celebrating the boundless imaginative palette of comic-book storytelling in general, and super-hero stories in particular. Miles Morales and the initial pair of Peter Parkers are eventually joined by a parallel-universe Spider-Woman who turns out to be Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and also a manga-influenced version of the character who’s a teenage Japanese girl from the future, not to mention the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (secret identity Peter Porker). Perhaps most joyously entertaining of all is the appearance of a hard-boiled black-and-white version of Spider-Man from a pulp-inspired universe, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage in his own inimitable style.

The film’s defining visual conceit is to animate each of these extra-dimensional visitors in a different style, even when they’re all in the same scene – Spider-Ham always looks like a Looney Toons character, the Japanese character is presented in an anime style, and the Cage Spider-Man comes from a noir universe where the only colours are black and white (there’s a lovely running gag about him trying to make sense of a Rubik’s cube). The result is a dazzling visual treat, before we even reach the bravura climax where the different dimensions collide with and collapse into one another.

The script manages to do full justice to the potential of the concept, and – unsurprisingly, because this is a project in which Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had a hand – is also immensely clever and funny. I was still a bit unsure about whether my decision to come and see this film had been the right one as it actually started in front of me, but one of the very first things that happens is a gleeful gag at the expense of Raimi’s somewhat less-than-wholly-beloved Spider-Man 3, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

Into the Spider-Verse is filled with good things and inspired bits of invention; the moment at which Lee and Ditko are given due credit is especially moving, of course. Despite its relatively modest box-office take so far, apparently the film has done well enough for a slate of spin-offs and sequels to already be in development. We have been here before, of course, with Sony’s arguably over-ambitious plans to diversify its Spider-Man series following The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the end that just led to Spider-Man being leased back to Marvel Studios on a sort of time-share basis, and also the distinctly so-so Venom movie (which doesn’t explicitly mention its links to the parent franchise). Hopefully this time things will be different, for Into the Spider-Verse shows that there is potential for a really interesting series of films just focused on Spider-Man himself.  This is the best non-MCU Marvel movie in ages.

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Have you ever wondered what Tobey Maguire has been up to since the end of his days as the Spider-Man-before-last? Me neither, but apparently he has become a movie producer and he has a project out at the moment: a YA SF novel adaptation entitled The 5th Wave, directed by Jonathan Blakeson. I am usually a bit wary of this sort of thing, but then I recalled how genuinely accomplished some other films of this ilk turned out to be and decided to give it a go. Plus we were having the plumbing done and I was under instructions to stay out of the house until tea-time that day.

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So it was that, in time honoured style, I turned up to one of the very last showings of The 5th Wave in Oxford, which possibly makes reviewing it a bit unnecessary. But what can I say, it’s pathological. The film opens with Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz), one of your feisty young teenage girl heroines, making her way through a discreetly post-apocalyptic landscape. It quickly becomes apparent that events have forced her to adopt a ferocious, kill-first-ask-questions-later approach to life.

But how has such a state of things come to pass? I probably don’t hear you cry. Well, anyway, the film jumps back and explains anyway. Cassie is just an ordinary all-American girl until the day that a mysterious giant object appears in the sky, circling the globe and refusing to respond to Terran communications. The visitors are quickly christened, rather unimaginatively, the Others, and the cast work very hard to pronounce the capital letters. It transpires the Others are up to no good and have availed themselves of the Bumper Book of Apocalyptic Cliches, which they go through at a fair old clip. First of all they switch off all the electricity (including all the teen characters’ smartphones: it really is the end of the world as we know it), then they manage to contrive worldwide floods and tsunamis. (‘I can’t imagine what it was like on the coast,’ says Cassie via the magic of voice-over, but luckily the viewers don’t have to try, as this is exactly sort of set-piece VFX sequence which is the meat and drink of a genre movie nowadays.) Next is souped-up bird flu.

Well, at this point the survivors pitch up in refugee camps, where things appear to take a turn for the better when the US Army turns up under the command of Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber). However, Vosch has grim news of a fourth wave of alien activity – the Others have taken human form and are infiltrating the survivor enclaves. To this end Vosch is under orders to take all the children into protective custody, youngsters being easier to screen for alien-ness. Needless to say this proves controversial and in the ensuing ructions Cassie finds herself cut off from her little brother and ultimately left alone in the wilderness…

From this point the story cuts back and forth between Cassie’s various travails (wandering cross-country, getting into scrapes, being rescued by a mysterious hunky stranger played by Alex Roe – there is inevitably some coy sexual tension to be dealt with) and the doings of the kids taken in by Vosch and his men. The kids are basically recruited as child soldiers and prepared to be sent off to fight the apparently-imminent fifth wave of alien beastliness…

Okay, so let me think about this. We’ve got a tough but caring young female lead, played by a notably capable young actress, who is frequently seen yomping through the woods carrying a deadly weapon she is happy to use. We’ve got the younger relative she is the selfless protector of. We’ve got a couple of guys, one very rugged, one more non-threatening, both of whom have a bit of a thing for her. We’ve got a dash of intellectual strong meat (the child soldier stuff). And we’ve got an absolute cartload of genre tropes. What does all this remind me of…?

It would be great to be able to review The 5th Wave without making some kind of reference to The Hunger Games, but at this moment in time it is far beyond my ability. Anyway, the game the producers of this movie are playing is very obvious to anyone keeping up with modern cinema trends: they’re gunning for the same huge audience the quartet of Suzanne Collins-derived films managed to tap into.

The 5th Wave‘s fairly modest take to date seems to indicate they haven’t really managed it, and I would cautiously suggest this is because the film is – how can I put this with a sufficient degree of precision? – lousy. The opening sequence is effective enough, but once the story proper gets underway, a ripe smell rapidly begins to permeate proceedings. This is one of the tritest apocalypses I can recall seeing, with most of the adult characters being shuffled off-screen with almost unseemly haste, while the collapse of communications and transport systems doesn’t appear to interfere with Moretz’s ability to find hair care products. The whole thing is shot in such a blandly good-looking style that even the piles of corpses which occasionally pop up don’t have much impact.

Beneath the affectless surface lurks a script in which lines such as ‘Let the weight of our hope drive you forward!’ qualifies as inspirational rhetoric rather than a garbled mixed metaphor. And they really should have considered renaming the bad guys: ‘I’m not an Other!’ cries one outraged character during a key scene. ‘Not another what…?’ I thought, before I realised what he meant. Later on there is a scene with one character declaring their love for another which is, quite simply, shockingly hackneyed, to the point where one feels embarrassed for the actors and oneself while watching it. None of it feels like it really means anything, it’s just a collection of stuff bolted together for its own sake – it uses a bunch of SF tropes but never feels like actual SF, somehow (and I suppose the absence of actual aliens helps keep the budget down). People run around and stuff blows up but you’re never in danger of caring about any of it.

The problems run deeper, especially when it comes to all the stuff about child soldiers. The film’s handling of this topic is grotesque, with none of the thoughtfulness and intelligence of Ender’s Game (I’m aware that saying nice things about Ender’s Game probably makes me an insane homophobe in some people’s eyes). Either the film is trying to make a point about child soldiers in the real world but doing it with great crassness and a total lack of subtlety, or it’s just doing a story about child soldiers, with a stunning lack of appreciation of how inappropriate this is. Either way, I found it rather repulsive (which, ironically enough, pretty much describes my dad’s reaction to The Hunger Games, a film which I find mostly commendable).

This is grim stuff, my friends, grim, grim. I’m not sure that Chloe Grace Moretz is quite in the same league as Jennifer Lawrence, but she is still a performer with talent and presence, none of which really gets anything like the outlet it deserves in this load of old nonsense. She’s still better than the other junior members of the cast, who are as flat and mechanical as their characters, and most of the senior ones, too. Maria Bello has fun going over the top as a drill sergeant, while challenging Moretz for the title of best thing in a really bad movie is Liev Schreiber, who at least has the charisma to rise above.

We are threatened with at least two more instalments of this faintly unsavoury and distinctly unoriginal saga – possibly more, if the SOP of these series is followed and the final film is hacked in half to maximise the revenue stream. I very rarely feel guilty about going to the cinema but I’m fully aware that by paying to see The 5th Wave I’ve only made the appearance of a follow-up more likely. I feel really bad about this. Don’t make my mistake.

 

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Looking back on the list of films I’ve seen so far in 2016, an unusual pattern develops – there’s been Joy (based on a true story), In the Heart of the Sea (based on a true story), The Revenant (based on a true story), and The Big Short (based on a true story). So far the only film with the guts to go ahead and actually be fictional is Creed.

Joining the list now is the critically-acclaimed Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy. I guess we’re just not living in fictitious times any more, for there are a whole bunch of these movies about at the moment, including a significant percentage of the Best Picture Nominee shortlist (let’s not forget Bridge of Spies is on there too). Perhaps it is just the case that being based on true events is more likely to give your film gravitas, and thus turn it into Oscar bait.

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The subject matter of Spotlight certainly gives it gravitas, for this is a film dealing with the most serious issues. It opens in 2001 with a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), taking over at the Boston Globe, which naturally causes a little uneasiness amongst the rest of the staff. Amongst these are Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) and his team of journalists, a group specialising in highly sensitive long-haul investigations.

At Baron’s request, Robertson and his team revisit an older story – that of a paedophile priest. What makes this unusual is the suggestion that documents exist proving that a cardinal in the Catholic Church was aware of this man’s activities and complicit in ensuring they were covered up. This is a provocative, even explosive story in a strongly Irish-Catholic city like Boston, and the journalists (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Matt Carroll) have to tread softly as they follow up their leads…

Well, Michael Keaton may not have won the Oscar last year, but being in an acclaimed film brings its own benefits. You could possibly argue that Spotlight only serves to confirm Birdman’s thesis that you can’t get anywhere as an actor unless you’re willing to play a superhero (Batman, the Hulk and Sabertooth set out to take on corruption in the Church!), but it’s impossible to deny that this film features an ensemble cast of the highest quality, doing excellent work together.

The team dynamic is actually a fairly crucial element of the film, as this is – after all – a story about a team. On paper this may look like (yet) another film examining the self-inflicted troubles of the Catholic Church, and the revelations which come to light in the course of the story are damning (there’s a grotesque encounter with a retired priest who openly confesses to molesting children, but is at pains to point out that he got no personal gratification from it, as if that’s some kind of an excuse). If you’ve seen Silence in the House of God, a straight documentary on this topic, you may already be aware of some of the astonishing statistics involved – 50% of all priests fail to meet the celibacy requirement, and 6% have some history of inappropriate behaviour. Spotlight puts this information over powerfully, though, and in a way which is accessible as a story.

But this isn’t simply an exercise in angry Vatican-bashing. Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, the film manages to be, if not upbeat, then certainly guardedly optimistic. This isn’t necessarily with respect to the Church, but to society in general – terrible things did occur, and they were covered up for a while, but in the end the truth came out and justice of a sort was done. And this, the film suggests, was largely down to the efforts of journalists, who emerge from the film as dedicated, heroic figures, devoted to the idea of truth.

Sensibly, the film isn’t quite as black-and-white as that, and the various characters are depicted as flawed and troubled and capable of making mistakes – as well as of feeling the strain that their profession places upon them (Ruffalo plays a lapsed Catholic who is eager to attack the Church for his own reasons, Carroll has real difficulty sitting on the information they uncover). But this is a journalists-break-a-big-story film in the classic style, and you do identify with them and thrill at the moments when they face down their opponents or make the big discovery they’ve been searching for.

I have to say that Tom McCarthy’s name rang only a vague bell when I first heard about this film, but only the most cursory research revealed that he was the guy behind The Station Agent, one of my favourite films of the mid 2000s (apparently he was also involved in making Up, which suggests an interestingly eclectic CV is on the cards). The Station Agent was a no frills picture of the highest quality, and the same is arguably true of Spotlight, too.

Certainly compared to some of the year’s other big films, McCarthy’s directorial approach is almost underplayed: there are no big narrative devices here, no bold conceits or especially memorable choices of shot. (Though he does quietly contrive to have a church in the background of many of his exterior scenes, perhaps attempting to indicate the ubiquity of the institution in Boston.) He just gets on with telling the story in an intelligent and mature manner and does so extremely well. Is that enough for a film to garner significant awards glory in the modern world? I don’t know, but this film has the subject matter, the script, the performances, and the storytelling to be a serious contender in any sensible competition.

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I wonder if this is an appropriate juncture at which to repeat the anecdote about my TV exploding on Christmas night a few years ago? I’ve mentioned it before, but basically, what happened was this: the tube went bang and we had to spend the next few days watching a portable set. This would not be particularly noteworthy were it not for the fact that I was watching The Omen at the time (we had got to the graveyard sequence), despite the disapproval of some of the more devout members of my family. (I still think showing The Omen on Christmas night has a touch of crazy inspiration about it. Hey ho.)

Anyway – and skip on if you’ve heard this one before – the next day one of these more zealous relatives sidled up to me with the air of someone doing something of import.

‘Apparently the TV blew up last night,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘While you were watching The Omen.’

‘Yes,’ I said, bracing myself for the inevitable.

‘Do you not think that you’ve been sent a message?’

‘I think it’s nature’s way of telling us we need to stop renting such an old TV set,’ I offered.

This was clearly not the hoped-for response and he went off looking just as disapproving as the night before. I must confess to doing something that would probably have completely outraged him a few years later: while staying at his house over New Year I stayed up late and watched Omen 2 and Omen 3: The Final Conflict on his own set without telling him. Needless to say nothing went bang in the night (but both films were sort of schlocky and the third one is actively bad).

I will happily stand up and defend the original version of The Omen against anyone, partly because I can’t believe the supreme power of the universe has nothing better to do with its time than go around frying home entertainment systems, but mainly because it’s a really great film. These days, of course, it seems that virtually nothing is sacred (if that’s the right word in this context) and so inevitably it got remade a few years ago.

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The remake was directed by John Moore and stars Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber. Schreiber is Robert Thorn, a young American diplomat based in Rome, whose wife (Stiles) is in labour when the story gets going. He is distraught to learn that his child did not survive, and – somewhat against his better judgement – agrees to substitute a orphaned newborn, without telling his wife.

Five years pass, and, following the mysterious death of his boss, Thorn is now the US ambassador to Britain. His son has grown up to become a slightly creepy little devil, but Thorn is willing to overlook little things like nannies committing suicide, his child going berserk when they try to take him to church, hellhounds lurking round the house at night, and repentant Satanists shouting  at him about the great evil he is mixed up in, to begin with at least. But then he is approached by a photographer (David Thewlis) who believes he has the beginnings of an answer to the mystery of his son’s real parentage…

I’m going to say some fairly negative things about the remake of The Omen, and I feel compelled to preface them by saying that this is a perfectly competent film (much better than Moore’s latest offering, the utterly hopeless A Good Day to Die Hard). The acting is fine, the script is fine, the special effects are okay and the direction is acceptable. However, watching it one is simply struck by a colossal sense of redundancy, even outright pointlessness, because this is one of the most mechanical, uninspired remakes I have ever seen.

It’s very tempting, when doing a remake, to go a bit crazy and change everything about the story and in the process lose what made it so special in the first place. It must be almost impossible to resist doing something unusual, simply to put your own distinctive mark on the film. But Moore isn’t having any of this: his version of The Omen consists almost entirely of the most memorable beats and scenes from the 1976 film, limply restaged. It’s almost like Gus van Sant’s reviled shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.

Even if you haven’t seen the new version, you could look at a list of the supporting cast and a copy of the script and guess just who’s going to be playing which part: in other words, everyone is cast wholly to type and delivers an appropriately unsurprising performance. This even extends to Mia Farrow as the Antichrist’s new nanny – stunt casting which sort of suggests the makers of this version were trying to adhere to the ‘get someone from the original to cameo to keep the fans happy’ principle but got The Omen mixed up with Rosemary’s Baby.

And it’s not even as if there isn’t room for reinterpretation in this particular story. The 1976 film is all about the men: Gregory Peck and David Warner head off to Italy leaving Lee Remick to be a victim, left in the dark. You would have thought that they could find something more interesting for a strong, smart actress like Julia Stiles (who is, after all, top billed) to do – involve her more in the investigation and the denouement. No: she just comes across as passive and weak and perhaps even a little bit stupid. Everything is as it was: the only addition is some stuff about the Vatican, who are apparently fully aware of what’s afoot but never do anything about it, while – in a choice I can sort of understand – the music cues from the first film are conspicuously absent.

Disappointing as this lack of innovation is, it’s matched by the way that this film seems to have no desire to be anything more than a mid-range genre movie trading off the reputation of a classic. The original Omen was a prestige production with A-list stars and an impressive budget – almost unheard of for a horror film at that time. The new film doesn’t have anything like the same class or ambition – it’s a competent little film, but the emphasis is always on the little. As I said, not bad, just utterly pointless.

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