Talking Movies

August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

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I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting,Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

August 21, 2013

The Mortal Instruments

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Love/Hate star Robert Sheehan gets his chance to shine in the new Twilight, which wastes no time in skipping to that franchise’s most farcical elements.

Absurdly named heroine Clary Fray (Lily Collins) turns 18 in a Brooklyn apparently inhabited entirely by British and Irish immigrants. Trading an awful poetry reading for a nightclub jaunt with best friend (who wishes he was more) Simon (Robert Sheehan), Clary finds herself the witness to a seemingly mystical murder by Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Isabelle (Jemima West). The next day her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) is kidnapped by Pangborn (Kevin Durand), who then tortures Clary’s father figure Luke (Aidan Turner) for Jocelyn’s secret; exposing Luke as a werewolf. Jace saves Clary’s life, initiating her into the Shadowhunters – an ancient society of warriors against demons led in Brooklyn by recluse Hodge (Jared Harris). The society is fading away because renegade member Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) stole their creation matrix, before Jocelyn stole it from him; only Clary knows how but her memories are magically blocked…

The Mortal Instruments is great fun for its first act. It almost feels like Kaboom director Gregg Araki at his most playful let loose on a Stephenie Meyer story treatment adding very tart jokes and acidic gay characters like Shadowhunter Alec (Kevin Zegers) and warlock Magnus Bane (Godfrey Gao) to shake up the Mormon moralising. And then suddenly the movie loses its knowing outrageousness and becomes instead a case study of Damon Lindelof’s concept of ‘story gravity’. The stakes have to be raised so high that the film burns thru plot points in an hour that took it the original Star Wars three movies to deliver, and even has characters chiding each other for not recognising that story gravity requires a terrible ‘secret’ to be revealed. This film doesn’t earn Star Wars’ surprises, or an outrageous appropriation of The Matrix.

After rendering JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier a demon-hunting weapon everything descends into a ludicrousness that left the target audience of teenage girls in fits of hysterics during ‘emotional’ scenes, groaning at a ‘revelation’ involving a family insignia, and cringing at a closing insistence on criminally unsuitable romantic tropes. This is not the fault of the actors mind. Collins is an adequate sub-Nina Dobrev, and Jamie Campbell Bower delivers his zingers without distracting us from how really really good-looking he is. The great Durand is underused, but, despite a cockney accent, smuggles in some Donald Sutherland touches, and acts opposite Robert Maillet; who’s even taller! Headey meanwhile shows Rhys-Meyers how to have the presence to appear for just 10 minutes but make an impact. Director Harald Zwart includes pleasingly visceral horror, but he’s ultimately defeated by the wildly uneven screenplay.

I don’t really want to see more instalments of The Mortal Instruments but it’s frankly impossible to guess what Cassandra Clare fans will forgive.

2.5/5

Hysterical Violence or Kick-Ass 2

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I haven’t yet seen the sequel to Kick-Ass, a rambunctious movie which came 8th in my Top 10 Films of 2010. Luckily Elliot Harris has, and, after his brace of contributions on the topic of zombie bleakness recently, he’s happy to defend Kick-Ass 2’s comic-book violence against its hostile critics. 

I must admit, I am somewhat bemused by the level of negative feedback about the level of violence in Kick-Ass 2. Having read the reviews and heard the radio DJs run down this movie, I had expected that director Jeff Wadlow (Never Back Down) had abandoned the high concept exploration of real-world superheroes in favour of continuing the shark-jumping antics of the final fight scene from Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. Despite these reviews, I felt that the film was a justified use of a free ticket that I’d built up from repeat patronage of my local cinema. In fact, I would have been happy to pay for it.

Kick-Ass 2 is far less violent than is being made out. It’s no more violent than Christopher Nolan’s last Batman and much less violent than Zack Snyder’s Superman. It’s most certainly less violent than Kill Bill Vol. 1.  All of which raises the question, why has there been such an unjustified negative back-lash?

One possibility is Jim Carrey’s refusal to promote the film. Carrey plays the role of Colonel Stars and Stripes, a former mafia hard-man turned born-again Christian turned superhero. Despite his involvement in the film, Carrey refused to take part in the marketing of the movie, citing via Twitter1 his opposition to the film’s use of violence. It really is hard to find anything within the film to support his point. While his character is killed, we don’t see his death. Wadlow instead opts to end the scene with a defeated Carrey nearing death and facing his final execution. Surely if Kick-Ass 2 is the ultra-violent gore-fest that everyone is complaining about Wadlow would have embraced this grisly death?

Carrey himself cited Sandy Hook as his reason for disassociating himself with the film. There is no doubting that Sandy Hook is a tragedy, but I can’t see its correlation with Kick-Ass 2. While Kick-Ass 2’s central characters of Kick-Ass/Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Anna Karenina) and Hit-Girl/Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz, Hugo) are only high-school kids; and the film depicts their difficulties in fitting-in in school; this doesn’t mean that there is any comparison. While the first Kick-Ass’s central theme was the exploration of real-life superheroes (and arguably mental illness/indoctrination), Kick-Ass 2 shifts tone to explore the themes of the need to fit in and dealing with loss. Countless films have explored these themes. Even superhero films have. None have been criticised for this and barring one near-shark-jumping scene in the cafeteria, the school is nothing more than a stage for character interactions.

The only other possibility that comes to mind is the scene in which a rape is threatened but not perpetrated due to erectile dysfunction. The scene is played out for laughs in what is clearly appallingly poor taste. There is no justification in the use of rape – threatened or perpetrated – as a point of comedy. It’s beyond poor taste and shows bad judgement on the behalf of Wadlow in retaining the scene. Surely it could have been re-shot as the beating that it ultimately becomes without any inclusion of, or reference to, rape. It must be said, however, that the scene is in keeping with the assaulter’s character and there is plenty of cinematic precedent – Cape Fear and Deliverance to name but two.

Despite the attempted rape scene, the negativity surrounding the film does not centre on this – violence is repeatedly mentioned, not sexual violence. So something doesn’t add up. At the time of writing this piece, I have yet to find any suggestion that the film was re-cut to reduce the violence. If the cut that I saw in an Irish cinema is the same as the U.S. cut, then I’m baffled as to exactly what the critics are objecting to. Is it simply a case of it being fashionable to object to violence? Are people lazily picking up on Jim Carrey’s objections (possibly to an alternative cut)? Is it that by his drawing the film into the real world, people are finding it harder to desensitise themselves from the effects of the cinematic violence?

The idea of examining the real-life effects of what would happen if superheroes truly existed has been studied in a number of places: Kick-Ass, Super and Mystery Men to name just three. Of these four (if you include Kick-Ass 2), Super is by far the most violent. While Super is arguably in-your-face about its violence, and even the first Kick-Ass for that matter, Kick-Ass 2 is much less gratuitous in its use.

Kick-Ass 2 possesses a dark humour about death, and is clever in its examination of the concept of how superheroes could fit into the real world. The film is funny (barring the aforementioned rape scene) and smart. It has a lower body count and, most importantly, is significantly more entertaining than Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The World’s End and Only God Forgives. In my opinion, Kick-Ass 2 deserves praise for this. It has a greater basing in reality than any of the Marvel films and genuinely reflects on the effects of what would happen if you or I were to attempt to become a superhero.

Kick-Ass 2, in my opinion, manages to avoid the latterly shark-jumping antics of its predecessor and presents a truly interesting and engaging story. This is by far the best summer blockbuster and is undeserving of the negativity surrounding it.

1 http://www.slashfilm.com/jim-carrey-cannot-support-violence-in-kick-ass-2-mark-millar-responds/

 

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