Tuesday, 16 July 2013

I'm not angry, just disappointed...

The one thing worse than a bad film is a disappointing film. A film that wastes an exciting premise, throws away a great idea, that gives a good cast a bad script or smash-cuts and flashbacks through a plot riddled with gaping holes is a greater crime than just churning out a by-rote genre cliché. I mean, without a half watchable genre cliché movie, Bruce Willis would be a janitor by now, and everyone loves a Bruce Willis movie, you follow?
You can forgive a bad film, you can see them coming a mile away and know what to expect. Generally there will be a Kate Hudson or Sandra Bullock on board, perhaps even a Matthew Mcconaughey (although his recent form is a drastic improvement on the likes of Failure to Launch). Descriptions will include dubious enticements such as ‘heatwarming’, ‘feel-good hit of the season’ or even *shudder* ‘based on a true story’.
In 2012’s tidal wave of big ticket movie releases, Prometheus sadly left audiences slack jawed with disbelief at how little sense any of the last 120 minutes or so of their lives had made. In a franchise that has been more miss than hit, the 2 original films still created an expectation that Prometheus fell some way short of, hence the backlash of social media like this
This year, no doubt filling the Razzie nomination corridors with plenty of early buzz comes Pacific Rim. On the face of it, this looked epic. Guillermo Del Toro at the helm, harking back to the Japanese monster movies so much the aliens are even named after the genre and most of the film is set in Hong Kong, We see giant fighting robots against alien Kaiju (Japanese for giant monster) the size of skyscrapers, full 3D, a special effects bonanza. Who would not want to watch that concept as a summer action blockbuster? You’d have to be dead inside not to have a little stir of excitement at the previews.
And yet, sat in a near empty cinema on opening weekend I already had the sense that people knew something I didn’t. Let me precursor this first criticism by being clear that I abhor the mentality of people who go into films and comment ‘That would never happen’. This utter lack of imagination and misunderstanding of the fundamentals of film entertainment make me prone to violence. Films that stretch the fantastical can open windows into new worlds that we should peer through with glee and fascination. HOWEVER. Films that aim for sci-fi and end up a royal mess, endlessly contradicting even the central premise of the film are knuckle bitingly frustrating. Pacific Rim is constantly guilty of this, going off on tangents to set up bizarre plot strings to immediately cut them in half with the next sentence of dialogue. One minute the heroes are grounded, the next they are being cheered to a victory, one minute they can’t interface with alien technology, next they are flying through it, AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD when those robots keep jumping in the sea, why is it never more than knee deep on them while building size beasts can swim down into it?
Gripes of that nature aside, Pacific Rim feels so by the numbers it could have fallen straight out of the handbook. Del Toro seems to have made the film from a glued together pastiche of scenes of other movies, Deep Blue Sea, the recent Godzilla remake, Independence Day and Matrix amongst others have been chopped up, glued together and rolled out in what looks like a big budget episode of PowerRangers. The central concept is so formulaic it dropped straight out of a cookie cutter, with characters stamped out the same mould to match, ready for cardboard actors to be slotted in.
Brit Charlie Hunnam leads a cast of UK ‘talent’ who seem desperate to out-underperform each other. The acting is as wooden as the script is clunky. Even the normally charismatic and watchable Idris Elba struggles to offer any relief from the disinterested performances, as the cast of jobbing TV actors fail to summon up any more emotion than the robots they pilot. When the two ‘scientists’ appear things hit a new low, as deeper depths of cliché are dredged to produce a poindexter nerd and hand-ringing, stammering British professor, complete with OTT plumb accent, dontchewknowoldboy. Are we not past that now?
Del Toro is not alone in turning the inherent school boy appeal of giant fighting robots into utterly rubbish films. Michael Bay has managed the same feat in two of his three Transformers films, and Pacific Rim feels like as cynical an attempt to sell robot toys as that franchise was for Mattel.

This rant is born of an expectation that with Del Toro’s pedigree I expected better. Pan’s Labrynth was a
film as full of wonder and imagination as any creation of CS Lewis, interwoven with wrenching violence and the pathos of human drama to create an inspired and brilliant film. The Hellboy franchise captured the humour and action of the comic origins brilliantly, retaining that same flair for the imaginative touch with monster make up. The Troll Market scene in Golden Army makes Mos Eisly cantina regulars look like your normal next door neighbours. Surely a director who can put that together so brilliantly can knock up a better effort of a classic Japanese Kaiju movie? No? *sigh*.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Marvel's Big Screen take over

Having just stumbled out of Iron Man 3 into a damp, brisk and un-spring-like evening I can’t help but wonder at the financial behemoth Marvel has become at the big screen.
Robert Downey Jr, his last solo outing as Iron Man?
Kevin Feige is the producer and alchemist of success that seems to have turned a back catalogue as immense as it is rich with box office potential into a steamroller of seat filling blockbusters.

The end of the ‘90’s was a time when the superhero movie seemed moribund, DC’s long run as the source of comic book movie success had crumbled to an ignominious end with Christopher Reeve’s Superman franchise and the 90’s run of Batman films both finishing on face-achingly sour notes. As DC’s cinematic star waned, Marvel came to the fore. One of the lesser known of Marvel’s hero’s, Blade, became an unlikely success on film in ‘98, but the first big hit of Marvel’s re-invention as a film house rather over comic specialist was ‘X-men’, spearheaded by Hugh Jackman’s charismatic fan favourite, Wolverine. X-men has long been one of the most popular comics in the Marvel stable, with the animated adventures running almost as many plot threads and generations of mutant hero’s as the paper pages. In a Marvel multi-verse, the X-men canon is perhaps the biggest and most richly developed universe, with a giant cast of characters engaged in epic story arcs. As such it always stood poised to be successfully turned into a film franchise with endless potential.

Team X-Men suit up for a cinematic turnX-men 1’, then, with so much financial expectation hanging off it was perhaps not a time to take risks, but in what has been a trademark of Marvel’s film development strategy, risk was the route they took. In a strong rd chapter ending the first trilogy arc, and an even ropier first solo outing for the Wolverine, X-men is pushing out film number 5 next year in ‘Days Of Future Past’ (rumour has it the giant Sentinel robots, evil stars of the animated series, are due to appear) and Jackman is running solo again in a much anticipated ‘The Wolverine’ this summer.
ensemble cast, they took a chance on the then relatively unknown Jackman, and it paid off in spades, fans receiving the film well, and despite a rough 3

With such a broad array of characters to choose from, not every Marvel comic conversion would be a gem in cinematic quality or fiscal success. ‘Daredevil’ was only memorable for Colin Farrell’s ludicrous, gurning over-performance as the murderous Bullseye, and the risible spin-off it spawned in ‘Electra’ only proved that alongside the equally woeful ‘Catwoman’, Marvel are yet to successfully find the formula to a female led hero movie. Here-in lies the power of the re-boot, however. Daredevil reboots have been in discussion for several years, the failed Fantastic Four franchise is already set to be relaunched with a new look team and X-men was re-invigorated with the ‘First Class’ arc to both critical and box office acclaim.

Spiderman too has been saved by the re-boot. Tobey Maguire’s mono-expression, varnished wooden performances stacked alongside some drab plots left the franchise burned out after the Raimi’s 3rd film in a trilogy that started average and on a sharp decline, but the arrival of the infinitely more engaging Andrew Garfield and the equally watchable, but slightly less convincing as a teenager, Emma Stone delivered new success with The Amazing Spiderman in 2012, with sequel set for 2014.

Risk taking has been key to Marvel’s success as they snowballed through the 00’s. The biggest risk of all being a project so huge and so fraught with danger, Feige and co. may as well have started to build the pyramid of Giza upside down. The Avengers project was an inspired piece of high-investment cinema planning. Putting together a superhero team movie depended upon the success of the stand alone films that launched each member of the team into the film going public’s eye. Each film was challenged with communicating a rich back story, building rapport with both the character and cast and weaving together plots that would culminate in the Avengers showdown.

Each stepping stone could have brought the project to a halt had it failed, and Marvel proved they have the stones for the high stakes gambles. Left-field directors were brought in, Kenneth Brannagh doing Thor, Joe Johnston on Captain America, Jon Favreau on Iron Man and Joss Whedon on Avengers it’s self. Success built upon success however, Downey Jr’s scene stealing turns as Tony Stark made Iron Man an instant success, Captain America, despite fears its jingo-istic tone might be too much for a modern audience, delivered hard core dollars at cinemas, and even the most obtuse and difficult screen translation, Thor, did well. The only struggler remained The Hulk. After Ang Lee’s unfortunate efforts, full of retro split screen action and the ridiculous ‘flying’ Hulk, Edward Norton’s troubled production delivered a better film but a disengaged star. Indie movie darling Mark Ruffalo raised eyebrows as a choice for the Avengers blockbuster, but proved a perfect fit, and in a film dominated by Downey Jr’s pithy one liners, his is the one that steals the show in the climactic last battle. It was Norton’s Hulk movie, however, that first sent electric thrills through Marvel fans by mooting the Avengers film with a Stark cameo and casual mention of ‘We’re putting a team together’ in the final scenes.

The Avenger’s project built film cross-over like no other series before. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s charmingly bureaucratic Agent Coulson (“His first name is Agent”) pop up across the web of films, building the tension and excitement to the final Avengers release with in-references to SHIELD and the
Avengers - The ultimate superhero movie?
Avengers Initiative. The now signature Marvel post-credits teasers further rewarded patient fans with snippets of forthcoming action, so come the Avengers launch, Marvel had created a monster with comic fan excitement matched by those yet to turn an illustrated page. With each character movie delivering strong financials, Avengers inevitably went ballistic on release, breaking box office records hand over fist.

The Iron Man and Pals affair that many feared was present to an extent, with Downey Jr’s screen presence dominating many scenes, but the delicate balancing act of giving each character sufficient time and development was beautifully handled. Thor might feel aggrieved that his role in the final battle was perhaps not befitting that of an actual demi-god, and perhaps Captain America wouldn’t thank Agent Coulson much for the costumer revisions that looked a little ridiculous, but to find fault like that would be like criticising Raiders of the Lost Ark for Dr Jones’ floppy hat. The only post-release voice of dissent was from Jeremy Renner, who cited Hawkeye’s slightly more marginalised role as a disappointment.

So now a set of ‘next chapters’ fall into line. Some words previously I mentioned that this diatribe was begat of viewing the first of those next chapters, the excellent Iron Man 3. Seeing an anxiety ridden Tony Stark stripped of his suit and facing his most dangerous enemy to date allows for a more paired down film following the enormity of Avengers, all until a glorious climactic sequence that literally explodes with action. End scenes to the film drop strong hints that this is Downey Jr’s swan song as a solo Iron Man, with Avengers 2 rumoured to be his last outing in the tin suit. Quite how they might fill the boots of a role owned so completely by an actor I have no idea.

Thor and Captain America sequels are imminent, with new hero’s added to the film roster rumoured to include Ant-man in his own film, and an array of new heroes reported to be joining the Avengers line up, the most popular seeming to be Wasp, as female company for Black Widow. The size of the universe at hand allows for endless excitement as fans debate on what story arcs might be tapped, what hero’s may cameo in which other films, what villains will usher forth to be vanquished and so on. What seems guaranteed is that since Disney acquired the Marvel film rights for what seems a paltry $4 billion in 2009, on current form they should see endless return on that investment.  

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Staying power in film watching. Turn on, tune in, turn off again.

For some reason, once a film has started I feel bound to sit to the end. Often it doesn’t really matter about the quality of the film in question, its run time or even the subject matter. Once I’ve started a film from the beginning, I am loath to do anything but sit through to the finale.
This is mostly driven from an outright curiosity to find out how the plot resolves and to what degree of satisfaction. Partly its out of a kind of respect to the film maker to allow them the opportunity to express the fullness of their vision, it might even be a kind of latent optimism that even the worst film can find some redemption in a dramatic denouement that adds a new dimension to an otherwise pretty average effort (see the collected works of M Night Shyamalan for examples).
Until relatively recently I’ve felt the same about books, once I’ve got past the first few chapters, its quite a wrench to abandon even the most turgid read. My patience on this was tested beyond its limit finally by Ulysses by James Joyce. A book I found so thoroughly un-engaging I didn’t even make it half way through. Like the lifting of a bad sign, putting down this first unfinished text removed the barricade, and the realisation that life is too short to waste on tedious books set in, and now I have little patience for a novel that offers little enjoyment back.
A similar awakening has now prompted me to reconsider my grim determination to see out a film once started. The offending piece was David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. At an alarmingly impatient 18 minutes in to this film, tolerance for its disjointed verbal masturbation was entirely spent, the disc was ejected and I hope never to see the like again.
Big deal.
Those 18 wasted minutes were filled with increasing anger that Robert Pattinson’s disconnected rambling had been confused at any point with a proper film script. It’s an obvious attempt at ‘higher level’ film making, but a point seems to have been missed in that in order to be as didactic as it so obviously intends to be, some level of coherence is required.
This is where I find the art house wing of cinema so deeply frustrating. A film can carry a message, be gloriously creative, play with timelines, characterisation, perceptions of reality and other cinematic conventions to push the boundaries of originality, but when it does so with both a transparent self-awareness and such a wilful lack of class and grace as Cosmopolis it becomes repugnant in its on conceited narcissism.
You all know one of those.

Clapping a more cerebral film in the cinema is just self-congratulatory, it’s that knowing nod to your fellow beard strokers that you ‘got it’ too. In the same way making an art house film for the sake of being art house is just as insular and inward looking, it saps the joy out of cinema for the sake giving those most pretentious of viewers the satisfaction of their own smugness. I highly suspect they get as little enjoyment from the actual film as anyone else, but they are so busy enjoying the afterglow of superiority from merely attending a showing they can barely contain their excitement at the opportunity to look down on the proletariat, queuing to watch something that isn’t even in a foreign language.
I hope that Cosmopolis was an exception, both in the nature of its presentation and the ease and complete lack of guilt with which I switched it off. Watching a challenging film should be a rewarding experience, just as a well-made challenging film should be rewarded with audience, otherwise all films would look as lacking in substance as Michael Bay carefully juggling his ratio of explosions to female nudity. I hope that I will, in future, listen to that nagging inner voice and both offer films the time they deserve and, so much more importantly, learn that vital lesson and never watch a film starring Robert Pattinson again.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The incomprehensible enigma of Nicolas Cage

So about 20 minutes into the really quite appalling Drive Angry last night, I was forced to consider just what on earth is going on with Nic Cage. A fairly prolific presence in Hollywood, Cage’s films seem as likely to be cinema success stories as they do straight-to-video discount bin leftovers.
Cage going nutsA keen cinema goer might find themselves a fan of a certain actor, enough to perhaps take a punt on a film just for their presence in it. Would this even be possible with Cage? Although he probably has one of the most reliable types of film to appear in, with a high action movie bias, the swing in quality is galactic. Just a quick check of Cage’s recent woks cause much head scratching. For instance, he is at his wild-eyed, manic best in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant. Fuelled by cocktails of drugs and plunging deeper and deeper into spirals of insanity, it’s a role that was tailor made for Cage. Similarly, the ‘eccentric’ Big Daddy from Kick Ass allows Cage license to unleash the inner lunatic, as he coaches his sociopathic daughter to higher levels of violence in the name of justice and revenge.
However, efforts like Drive Angry, Season of the Witch and Bangkok Dangerous make that 1996 Best Actor Oscar all seem a long, long time ago. That’s a fact that gets forgotten. Cage has an acting pedigree beyond his rich Hollywood Coppola-dynasty lineage. Plaudits for Leaving Las Vegas aside, the likes of Raising Arizona, Red Rock West and Wild at Heart are all high-class cinema and all showed his range without the bat-shit lunacy that has become so much the signature of recent films.
They in turn ushered in the golden age of Nic Cage action classics. The Rock, while dominated by the charismatic screen presence of Connery, has a terrific cast of action stalwarts in which Cage formulates his oft used character of the reluctant action hero. More circumspect than the Hollywood norm, the slightly more cerebral kind of lead who still isn’t afraid of a scrap seems more accessible than the bullet proof, unflinching, stone eyed action-monger of, oh I don’t know why Jason Statham springs inevitably to mind. Reappearing in the car-porn celebration that is Gone in 60 Seconds, slightly second rate Indiana Jonesing of National Treasure and the in every way awful Next, it’s been a successful device Cage has made his own.
Con Air nearly fits the above mould, but is ruined by the ridiculous scene where he walks down Cyrus The Virus’ gun, and doesn’t even bat an eye as he shoots a lump out of his arm. Here Cage plays it straight in a plane full of crazies, Steve Buscemi taking the crazy cake with his turn as the Lecter-esque Garland Greene.
Completing Cage’s 90’s triumvirate of action classics was the John Woo gun ballet of Face/Off, where Cage practically pops his eyeballs out of his own head in his efforts to take his gurning edge-of-reason nonsense to it’s uppermost limit. But then, how would you feel if John Travolta was wearing your face? Either way it was probably the performance that really earned Cage the reputation in the pubic conscience for some loving fan to create this fabulous montage of mental.
In the mix of styles are also Cage the sensitive, in the surprisingly touching The Weather Man, and further proof he can do powerful without the unhinged element in the excellent Lord of War. Littered amongst are a spattering of rote action flicks, some kids stories and even a few cartoon voice overs. Versatility is as much his signature as the apparent lack of control of his eyebrows.
So Nic Cage can clearly do the business in rolls of all shapes and sizes, so what is that makes him incapable of choosing wisely when those scripts land on the desk? Why for every soaring entertaining high is there a crushing, demand-the-2-hours-of-life-back low? Is it just the cash? There are obvious passion projects for a notorious comic book fan, Ghost Rider being the obvious, and most disappointing stand out. Is it for the hell of it? In Drive Angry, was it for a bet that went sour? He is a law unto himself, that remains fact. His films as entertaining as they are frustrating, hs presence as divisive  as each person’s contact with his varied back catalogue. Doubtless though, he will remain a divisive an unpredictable element in Hollywoodland, and in a world so focused on ‘safe’ investments, a few more mavericks like him would do no harm at all.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

It's just an ego trip, really. Isn't it?

So I want a blog. All of my own. Why on earth do I want to lumber myself with this ongoing responsibility? I’m not a writer by trade, I’ve got no agenda I want to push and I am certainly not doing this with a view to eventually plugging a second rate spin off book (I’m looking at you, @queen_uk). Still, I want to do a blog and I am the kind of person who gets an idea, then it niggles away until the idea is put into action, for better or worse.
So I’ve been mulling about what to write my blog about for a few weeks. I know that to encourage readership, maximise opportunities for engagement and manage expectation of audience, a blog should stick to one topic, one main area of focus. In case you hadn’t guessed from that sentence, I am ‘in marketing’. Officianado’s of great comedy will know Bill Hick’s stance on people ‘in marketing’. Re-reading the first half of this paragraph I can see his point. Anyway, I’m a digital marketing specialist, and there is already an internet full of tech blogs plagiarising Mashable and Econsultancy, so no point climbing aboard that bandwagon.
What else could I write about? Music? I love music, but most of my collection wasn’t even recorded this century (specialist area, early to mid 90’s grunge scene), so it’s not like I’ll be keeping people up to date with the latest dubstep anthems or uncovering hot new musical talent. I'll leave that to Zane Lowe to get sycophantically over excited about.
Film then. Big fan of films, love going to the cinema, have a subscription to Empire and a decent home collection of DVD and Blurays, plus a Blockbuster online account with a watched list nearly in 4 figures. Fair bet there will be the odd film review posted on here, plus childlike anticipation of each quarters new crop of celluloid thrills. Will this give me enough fodder to keep a whole Blog going all on its own though?
I could go down the route of being a bit saucy, blog on sex and relationships, maybe be flirty and a bit ambiguous about my sexuality. That kind of behaviour is best left to young Hollywood ingénue, desperate to carve their mark on cinema beyond topless murder victim #3 in a cheap horror sequel. It seems their only avenue for career advancement is to appear to be as sexually accessible by as many people as possible, especially their current interviewer. Regardless of that, I would desperately underqualified to write about sex on the internet, there are images of illicit behaviour on certain websites (so I hear) that will widen eyes more experienced than mine.
After some pondering, I came to the conclusion that, all things considered, I was best off just blogging about whatever the hell I feel like, whenever the mood takes me to post. And, to answer the question first posed, the reason for Blogging need be no more complex than the fact I enjoy writing. So there it is, I think. This is what the internet, possibly the world’s greatest invention, has come to. A massive compendium of small vanity projects from people like me, with a little bit too much spare time. But at least whilst I am on here, blogging about nothing very much, I am not sloganeering a new cringe-worthy marketing tagline.
You see what Jon’s doing there? That’s clever. He’s going for that ‘at least I'm not marketing to you’ dollar. That's a big market, good work, Jon.