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Posts Tagged ‘Tobey Maguire’

Would it be a truism or merely trite to suggest that one of the worst ways possible to make someone appreciate a book is to force them to study it? I suspect many people would agree; many friends of mine were undoubtedly put off To Kill A Mockingbird for life after studying it at GCSE. In my own case, though, I don’t know – while it took me over a decade to go back to Pride and Prejudice after being obliged to read it at A level, I’ve always enjoyed Chaucer and was always able to appreciate the remarkable quality of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To this day I can still bang on at tedious length about the themes and imagery of this novel, and the prospect of seeing what Baz Luhrmann could do with (or possibly to) the story was an intriguing one.

gatsby

Set in New York in the early 20s, this is a tale of obsession, excess, and corruption amongst the monied folk of the city. Nick (Tobey Maguire) is new to the area, and really the only people he knows socially are his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and their friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). One other person he is aware of, however, is the enigmatic Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the immensely wealthy host of lavish parties at the mansion next door to Nick’s house. When Gatsby becomes aware of Nick, things change for everyone: Gatsby and Daisy have what is delicately known as a Past, and he is desperate to resume their relationship…

Baz Luhrmann isn’t exactly what you’d call a prolific film-maker – this is only his second project since 2001’s Moulin Rouge (one of the very first films I ever rambled on about on t’Internet). However, while Luhrmann may not make many films, the ones he does turn out are super-concentrated stuff: visuals, sound, editing and performances are all usually cranked up to startling levels of intensity. For this reason I find his films to be a bit of a change of pace, and occasionally an indigestible one: I’m surprised he hasn’t done more work making music videos and commercials, because his style is perfect for this sort of short form. Two hours plus of crash zooms, colour saturation, musical iconoclasm and restless camera pans, on the other hand, just leave me feeling somewhat embattled.

Possibly out of a sense of responsibility to Fitzgerald’s thoughtful text, Luhrmann manages to restrain himself at least some of the time on this occasion, but one is still left with an almost irresistible sense that in the making of this film, the interplay of sound and visuals was always the prime consideration, with the actual script being of only secondary importance. This is not to say that there aren’t some startlingly effective moments scattered throughout the film, but they feel like they’ve been inserted into the story from outside rather than naturally arising from within it. The Great Gatsby is a restrained, mostly internalised story, and Luhrmann has had to work quite hard to find ways to insert his idiosyncratic visual energy into it.

Which is not to say he’s taken particularly great liberties with the story: in fact, his additions to it seem atypically restrained. There’s a framing device in which Nick, now morbidly alcoholic, is recounting the events of the story as a form of therapy, but this is really it so far as I can remember. More conspicuous is the way in which the story has been subtly trimmed and reshaped so it now focuses almost entirely on the Gatsby-Daisy romance. DiCaprio, admittedly, does not make an appearance for quite a long while, but the mystery of his character is at the centre of the story nevertheless. And once he departs from the plot, Luhrmann wraps up the film with almost indecent haste, jettisoning some of the book’s most poignant moments in the process. The main consequence of this is that the character of Jordan is much reduced in significance, and her relationship with Nick almost totally excised. As a result Nick seems even more of a passive onlooker, and Maguire struggles to make the character particularly endearing.

This is not to say that the acting in this film is sub-par: Joel Edgerton is very good, as is DiCaprio – most of the time at least. Certainly, nobody is what you’d call actively bad. The problem is that at least some of the time, everyone is being obliterated by the art direction and sound design, which swamp the subtleties and paradoxes of the story and reduce it to a succession of lavish, frenetic tableaux. The human story and emotions just aren’t there when you need them to be, and the result is a film which is polished and intricate, but ultimately hollow. Given that two of the key themes of The Great Gatsby are the contrast between appearance and reality, and the perils of superficiality, for Luhrmann to have made such a superficial adaptation of it is actually quite ironic: whether this is the sort of irony F Scott Fitzgerald would have appreciated is another matter.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 13th 2002:

A conversation, c.1980 :

Me:Dad, dad! Can we go to the pictures?’

My Father:Why, what’s on?

Me:The new Spider-Man film!

[This was actually Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, a Spidey-versus-evil-kung fu American TV movie starring Nicholas Hammond that somehow got itself a theatrical release in the UK.]

My Father:What does Spider-Man do in it?

Me:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people, slides down a lift shaft! It looks great!

My Father:Oh, I suppose so…

A conversation, c.2002 :

My Father:Hey, hey! Let’s go to the pictures!

Me:Why, what’s on?

My Father:The new Spider-Man film!

Me:What does Spider-Man do in it?

My Father:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people –

Me:Does he slide down a lift-shaft?

My Father:Not in the trailer I saw. Can we go? Can we can we can we?

Me: (remembering the rubbish Hammond film and feeling rather guilty about forcing him to see it) ‘Oh, I suppose so…

Well, there’s the cycle of the generations writ large for you. Actually I needed no persuasion whatsoever to go and see this movie: one of the most exciting and overdue developments in mainstream cinema over the last few years has been that Marvel Comics and their characters have finally begun to punch their weight on the big screen: recently we’ve had Men in Black, Blade, and X-Men, and within the next year we’ll see Ben Affleck in Daredevil and Ang Lee’s take on the Hulk. And obviously, a Spider-Man movie, done right, has the potential to be a fantastic movie.

Sam Raimi’s film falls roughly into two acts. The first of these is the story of overlooked nerd Peter Parker (a tremendously likeable Tobey Maguire) whose life is transformed after he’s bitten by a genetically engineered spider. His delight and excitement as he discovers, one by one, the different powers this gives him is utterly irresistible, and the story is told with the same self-mocking humour that characterised the original comic-books. But along with the powers come responsibilities and drawbacks (not least Peter’s new inability to climb out of the bathtub unassisted) and Peter is in for a harsh lesson…

The Spider-Man origin story is the finest in all superherodom, essentially a fable concerning guilt and loss and redemption, and Raimi tells it near perfectly: so much so that you barely notice the radical re-conception of one of Spider-Man’s signature powers. The actual effects set-pieces are a long time coming but well worth the wait, and you really don’t mind such are the warmth of the performances and wit of the script.

Of course, every hero needs a villain to contend with and Spider-Man spends the second act of the film doing battle with the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, displaying a hitherto-unseen talent for manic hamming), a millionaire weapons designer driven insane by exposure to experimental performance-enhancing drugs. To be honest this part of the movie is slightly less impressive, being more formulaic superhero stuff. But the characterisation and energy continue unimpaired and the various bouts between hero and villain are visually startling. Most impressive of all is the ending, which isn’t your standard blockbuster fare, but is entirely in keeping with the source material.

Spider-Man is a treat: not only the most faithful and impressive comic-book adaptation yet, but a genuinely terrific film in its own right (much better than The Dragon’s Challenge, anyway), with great performances (apart from Maguire and Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst is great as the love interest, James Franco does a slow burn as Peter’s best friend and Cliff Robertson is just right as Spidey’s Uncle Ben), fantastic visuals, and a wonderful script from David Koepp. Hugely entertaining and pretty much not to be missed – go see! Go see!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 22nd 2004:

[Following a review of Thunderbirds.]

Oh well, onto a movie I can confidently describe as a success in all departments: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, currently mounting a serious challenge for the title of all-time box office champion. Readers with long memories and short attention spans may recall I was rather impressed with the original when it came out just over two years ago – something not diminished in the slightest by this second instalment.

Two years on from the events of the first movie – which are helpfully recapped in another stylish title sequence – things have changed a bit for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his amazing friends. The lad himself is juggling responsibilities as Spider-Man and Pizza-Delivery Boy and not making a very good job of it, his love interest Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is mixing occasional interludes of dangling-in-jeopardy with a successful acting career, and his best friend Harry (James Franco) is now a suit at his dad’s old corporation, and obsessing over Spider-Man (who he believes killed his father). Basically, being a super-hero is making Peter incredibly miserable as his work and relationships are constantly suffering. Does he really still want the gig?

Things don’t get any better when a freak accident with an experimental fusion generator – er – fuses brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina on fine form) with four malevolent cybernetic tentacles. Restyling himself Doctor Octopus, he sets out to recreate the experiment, no matter what the risks to the city. But he needs Harry’s co-operation to do this, and Harry’s price is the head of Spider-Man…

After a couple of Affleck- and Bana-shaped wobbles last year, Spider-Man 2 should put Marvel Comics’ film division back on course for world domination. This is thanks to a production in which performances, script, and direction all come together to produce a film which is thrilling, moving, and funny in all the right places. The style of the original film is continued seamlessly, with several gags and motifs re-used (Bruce Campbell pops up again in another wittily-performed cameo).

Where it surpasses its predecessor is in its freedom to just pick one story and follow it through, rather than combining the Spidey origin with various Goblin-related clashes. And it’s a very human and personal story, very much focussed on the troubled personal life and guilty conscience of Peter Parker. While people are probably going to go to the cinema to see Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus duking it out on the sides of buildings – and the battles themselves are terrific, the villain impressively realised – this isn’t really at the heart of the story. Given this it’s a shame the climax boils down to a rather generic special effects set-piece that only loosely ties in to the themes of the script. (And if anyone knows how Spider-Man finds out where Doctor Octopus’ lair is, I’d love to hear from them.)

But never mind. The performances of the cast are every bit as memorable as the special effects. Normally in a superhero movie you’re glancing at your watch when the lead character’s in secret-identity mode, but Maguire manages to be utterly engaging as Peter Parker (and seems to be quite a good sport about the achey breaky back problems which nearly cost him the role). Dunst is fairly touching, even if Franco seems ever so slightly over-wrought in a slightly one-note part.

All this just adds into the overwhelming impression of supreme confidence this movie gives off: it’s not afraid to go from quite sombre personal moments to offbeat visual humour, to include wild directorial flourishes, or even to run the risk of seeming camp and goofy. It’s also not afraid to shake things up and plan for the future: the relationships and situations of the main characters at the end are very different from how they stand at the beginning, and while it’s fairly obvious who one of the villains of Spider-Man 3 will be, the script also plants seeds for at least two others somewhere down the line.

It shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise if I tell you that Spider-Man 2 is going to be the biggest film of the summer. But it may if I add that the success is thoroughly warranted by a film which mixes thrills, jokes, maturity and heartache to absolutely winning effect. Highly recommended.

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

Being fat and lacking in co-ordination, sport (or indeed physical exertion in general) has never really appealed to me – at least, not in comparison with sitting very still for two hours in a darkened room staring fixedly in the same direction. Similarly, I’ve never really seen the need for sporting films – I don’t insist that the FA Cup final is an adaptation of the plot of Logan’s Run, and I expect the same consideration from sports fans in return. And if I were to pick my dream sport movie it would more likely be a bio-pic of darts legend Jockey Wilson than something actually about jockeys.

And yet, and yet. You never can tell. Certainly not when a film has had the quantities of money and talent heaped upon it that Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit has. Yup, it’s a sport movie, and yup, it’s a golden-statue trawling expression of American hegemony (if Working Title made a film about Red Rum or Desert Orchid, just how big a release would it get in the USA?). But I have to confess that it is actually rather good.

This is the story of three men and a horse – automobile tycoon Charles Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), slightly alarming farrier Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper), ginger jockey Johnny ‘Red’ Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire), and pint-sized racehorse Seabiscuit (played by a horse). During the Depression, all four have more than their fair share of personal tragedy of various kinds, but they’re brought together by a love of racing and a desire to win. Howard owns the horse, Smith trains the horse, and Pollard rides the horse, even though everyone around them thinks the idea that Seabiscuit has any potential must be crackers. Little do they suspect he is really a very tough cookie.

Okay, you could probably guess the plot for yourselves, as the ‘plucky outsider conquers all’ theme has been done to death in this kind of film. But Seabiscuit isn’t trying to be enormously innovative or surprising – the virtues it’s aiming for are those of solid acting and production values, stylish and thoughtful direction, and a sense of the (oh dear) transcendent and unifying power of sport within society. And it hits pretty much every target it sets for itself.

Admittedly the film is probably overlong and certainly mawkish in parts (that Howard’s son’s name is Frankie is a bit unfortunate for UK audiences), and seems a little disjointed near the start. It’s nearly an hour before the titular equine even appears, and for much of this time Ross adopts a very interesting style, piecing together scenes and sequences of the three human characters which on the face of things have little in common, but which clearly express a unity of mood and theme thanks to skilful editing and music. This works better at some moments than others, and as I say it takes a little getting used to, but ultimately works to give the characters a strong grounding which pays dividends later on. Not all of his directorial flourishes work so well – a scene where Smith spies the horse and Pollard simultaneously fighting with stablehands on opposite sides of the same yard needs only a lightbulb appearing over Chris Cooper’s head to complete it – but the actual races scenes are very accomplished, tense and thrilling.

But this is equally an actor’s movie. Jeff Bridges has been underrated as a lightweight performer for some years now, but in many ways he’s the anchor of this film, delivering a very nice turn (and most of the big speeches). Cooper’s performance as the rather taciturn trainer is subtle and nuanced, and Tobey Maguire not only proves there’s much more to him than web fluid and the Daily Bugle, but even manages not to be obliterated by the horrendous ginger perm the part dictates he undergo. William H Macy livens things up with an energetic extended cameo, and Elizabeth Banks is good as Bridges’ wife.

If this movie has a theme beyond one of simple redemption and triumph, it’s a simple one about how America regained its self-belief after the Depression (at one point it looks like adopting a Great Gatsby-ish ‘cars equals progress equals death’ position, but – probably for the best – doesn’t really stick with this). But this isn’t a particularly deep or challenging film, it’s simply a classy, well-crafted and ultimately pleasantly satisfying piece of entertainment.

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