Talking Movies

December 20, 2011

On Doubting The Avengers

I can’t get excited about The Avengers, allegedly the biggest or second biggest film of 2012 depending on who you talk to, even though it should be catnip to me.

The Avengers consists of one successful film franchise, Iron Man, two newly launched franchises (that with their Norse Gods magic as opposed to super-science technology don’t really synch with the interior logic of the successful franchise), Thor and Captain America, and one franchise that has failed to launch, twice, Hulk. That mixture just does not cry out for a super-team-up super-franchise. If in 1991 John McClane and Riggs & Murtagh had joined forces for a super-team-up action-movie buddy-cops super-franchise, Die Hard with a Lethal Weapon, it would have made far more commercial sense than Marvel foisting The Avengers on us.

Commercial sense (and interior logic) aside I have grave screenwriting concerns about the movie. Does anyone really think that one film can successfully contain so many characters? Think about it. Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Pepper Potts, Agent Coulson, Loki and The Krulls. What exactly can be done in 2 hours in terms of actual story once you’ve finished establishing ground rules for all those characters (in case some people, as is highly likely, missed some of their cinematic instalments), introduced Hawkeye and somehow not made him ridiculous, and given the stars ego-balanced arcs?

If by some miracle you manage to synch all the fictive micro-universes together into one coherent macro-universe, and massage all the egos involved in juggling several franchise characters, what villains are you left with after the customary slaughter of bad guys in the denouements of the existing franchises? The Krulls. Oh, great. What works well in comics doesn’t necessarily work well in cinema. The Krulls immediately invoke the Mission: Impossible 2 peril. If everyone in every scene could really be someone else wearing a mask then you cease to emotionally invest in anything that happens because it mightn’t be real.

Given these problems does anyone really think that co-writer/director Joss Whedon has it in him to pull this off? Whedon has after all directed only one two film, which had a fraction of the budget and star power of The Avengers, while his most recent filmed screenplay has been sitting on a shelf for over a year, allegedly while the studio debates whether to convert it into 3-D because all horror films have to be in 3-D now. Paranormal Activitys rake in the money without being in 3-D which leads to the suspicion the studio thinks The Cabin in the Woods sucks just as much as Buffy Season 8. Whedon apologised for that arc (so awful that Wolves at the Gate, the largely stand-alone volume written by his Cabin co-writer Drew Goddard, is the only remnant worth salvaging) citing unlimited VFX giddiness…

Thus giving Whedon an unlimited special-effects budget, without Goddard’s counter-weight, may be as counterproductive as giving Richard Kelly the money he always needed to ramble on about aliens, time-travel, philosophy, and water.

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

December 1, 2009

The Box

Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly ends his rollercoaster decade with an attempt to edge back towards the mainstream by aping I Am Legend and releasing a Christmas horror based on a Richard Matheson story. Kelly succeeds, to an extent, as his third film as director is closer in feel to his sublime Donnie Darko than to his vey muddled sophomore effort Southland Tales which was delayed for years before being given a notional distribution. But getting more coherent doesn’t mean getting better…

The Box opens promisingly, speedily establishing the lives of happily married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz and their twelve year old son living in Washington DC in an acutely observed 1976. The Viking exploration of Mars dominates the TV news, and this family, as Marsden’s NASA scientist and aspiring astronaut designed its camera system. A series of unfortunate events (including an incredibly odd scene featuring a creepy pupil disrupting teacher Diaz’s class) serve notice that this is one of those many, many films in which things will not go well for James Marsden. And sure enough into their money worries comes a mysterious box with a button under a glass dome, left on their doorstep with a card from Arlington Steward. Frank Langella is wonderfully sinister as Steward who visits them to explain the function of the button: if pressed two things will happen, someone they do not know will die instantly, and he will pay them 1 million dollars…

Langella is a fine actor yet Kelly does a very unsettling Two-Face style CGI make-up job on him to communicate otherness, though it is so effective it makes the plonky 1950s B-movie music that accompanies him seem scary. The 1950s B movie vibe ramps up as paranoia sets in that Mr Steward wants more from the couple than just a simple decision on whether or not to push the button and that he might not be working alone. Coincidences, a baby-sitter with a secret, an inexplicable killing by another NASA employee and a punch up at a wedding rehearsal dinner all broaden the terror of the story efficiently but then Invasion of the Bodysnatchers intrudes too obviously and our heroes start reading books explaining the plot. You are now leaving Darkoland, welcome to Southland. Cue embarrassingly bad special effects involving water, mutterings of conspiracies and aliens and alien conspiracies, and half-explained sub-plots involving time-travel, moral tests and free will.

Marsden is nicely sympathetic as the hero, infinitely more effective than Diaz whose now fading looks highlight her feeble acting skills, but the script’s convolutions defeat his best efforts while Langella’s villain is over-explained out of existence. There is much to like here but Kelly’s persistent concern with elaborate conspiracies suggests only low budgets which restrain his imagination can inspire him to succinct brilliance. Paradoxically, avoiding The Box could improve his work.

2/5

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