Blimey. Okay, given that I’m not going to be seeing the prologue for at least the next few days, this is my first proper glimpse of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming third Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, a blockbuster for which the phrase ‘hotly anticipated’ is an insane understatement. Nolan set himself a huge hurdle to leap with The Dark Knight, and it’s perfectly possible that the ludicrous levels of expectation may in some terms end up working against the film – but the trailer has gone live over at Apple (and is available in an embed below, which may or may not get yanked soon…) and what we’re seeing so far looks pretty damn impressive; certainly a massive improvement over the “Oh crap, we’d better throw together a couple of shots along with a sequence of Gary Oldman mumbling incoherently in a bed” teaser trailer we got a few months ago:
From advance reaction to the prologue, it looks like one of the more divisive elements (unless there’s some serious fiddling happening in the next few months) is going to be Bane’s voice – and the one line we get here isn’t exactly the model of intelligibility, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
And while we don’t get a full look at that controversial costume, we do get to see Anne Hathaway in action as Selina Kyle (including an oh-so-appropriate mask), and as I suspected, whatever she may be wearing, it looks like Hathaway is going to be giving a seriously impressive performance as Catwoman. There’s eye-candy here, and spectacle (which promises to be pretty amazing in the IMAX format, especially considering the film will feature almost fifty minutes of IMAX footage) – although, as with the first The Dark Knight trailer, and almost all the publicity for Inception, there’s very few signs of exactly how this all fits together – but what’s really surprising is exactly how political that speech from Selina Kyle feels. It’s one of those moments where art accidentally coincides with real life (after all, the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises would have been finished long before the Occupy movement got going), but it certainly looks like Nolan isn’t backing away from melding real life issues with superhero action in the same way he did with The Dark Knight. On top of everything, there’s some very interesting hints at how time has moved on for all the characters, and a general sense that whatever happens, even if The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t top The Dark Knight, Nolan is currently at the top of his game and would probably have to really try hard to completely mess this up. Whatever happens, July 2012 feels like a very long time away right now…
If you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games yet, treasure that feeling – it’s unlikely to last very long. With the Harry Potter series having come to an end, and the death-rattle of the Twilight Saga already beginning with the release of Part 1 of Breaking Dawn, Hollywood is desperate to generate another hugely popular multi-volume teen franchise. Given the excitement that already exists around teen dystopia series The Hunger Games (and its two sequels), the upcoming movie adaptation isn’t much of a surprise, and anyone following movie news websites for the last twelve months will have been deluged by reports and rumours about casting of the various characters, making it pretty certain that even if The Hunger Games isn’t the next Twilight (in terms of impact), it’s going to be pretty damn close.
Now, the first trailer is out for the movie adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (who hasn’t directed a film for nearly nine years (horseriding drama Seabiscuit in 2003), although he’s had a major reputation as a screenwriter ever since 1986’s Big)… and I’m actually kind of impressed. The story of teenagers chosen by the government to compete in a fight to the death, it’s essentially a teen-centric fusion of The Running Man and Battle Royale, and there’s certainly a healthy dose of kookiness in the costume design and general appearance of The Hunger Games’s future world (especially in the wonderfully eccentric names – with everything from Peeta Mellark to Haymitch Abernathy). The trailer certainly isn’t without its cheesy moments, but the casting looks pretty strong – especially Jennifer Lawrence, who was exceptional in the drama Winter’s Bone and did a wonderful job as a youthful Mystique in this summer’s X-Men: First Class – and the restless, hand-held visual style actually looks like it’s going to give the film a healthy amount of edge. The fact that it’s aiming at the Twilight-related market means there’s going to be a number of people lining up to rip the hell out of The Hunger Games at the first opportunity, but I’m now genuinely interested to see how it turns out. The only question is – do I read the books first to see how it measures up, or leave myself unspoiled? Only time will tell…
He almost had me. I was wavering. I’ve recently bought a Blu-Ray player, and despite my better nature, I was finding myself looking at the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-Ray and thinking “Hmm… maybe.” It’s not like I didn’t know what I’d be getting – I knew there’d be no sign of the treasured original versions of the classic trilogy (still only available as non-anamorphic DVDs, mastered from the 1993 Laserdisc Editions), and that it’d essentially be giving us spangly High-Def versions of the prequels and the 2004 DVD versions of the original trilogy (complete with the less-than-welcome addition of Hayden Christensen’s mug edited into the final sequence of Return of the Jedi). After all, there couldn’t be anything left for Lucas to tamper with, could there?
Yes, there could.
The rumours have been flying around for the last couple of weeks – and while it looks like we’re not going to have full confirmation until the release in a week-and-a-half as to whether or not there are any other ‘surprises’ in store, there are a handful of big changes that we already know about. For a start, there has been some audio ‘tinkering’ – some of that is just remixing the original audio, punching up a few elements (and getting right a couple of music-mixing issues that affected the 2004 DVDs, especially the original Star Wars). There’s one major visual change – to Episode I: The Phantom Menace, where the puppet of Yoda has been replaced with a CGI version of the character:
This isn’t exactly surprising, and actually looks pretty good – it’s probably a mark of how little general Star Wars fandom actually cares about The Phantom Menace that nobody seems particularly upset about it (that, and the fact that the Phantom Menace puppet was weak, and somehow looked less convincing than the one used in Empire 19 years previously). If that was the only change, I don’t think anyone would be worked up right now.
Well, thank goodness that George Lucas is on hand to prove me wrong:
Words fail me. They really do.
I can see the thinking behind it – connecting Vader’s final moments with the Emperor to his first moment with the Emperor back at the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – except that the completely daft Frankenstein-stagger and scream of “NOOOOOOO!!!” in that film is widely regarded as one of the few moments where the otherwise fairly good Episode III (and about the only of the prequels to be artistically valid as a movie) is genuinely, diabolically awful. The thinking may be plain, but the execution of it, and the fact that Lucas is once again going back in to a film that was finished in 1983 and going “It’s okay guys – just one more change…”, and mucking around with such a critical section of the original Trilogy… it’s breathtaking. It really is. The level of clueless arrogance it takes to do this, and not in any way provide an alternate version of the movie, beggars belief. It’s not even as if I care about Star Wars that much any more, and I’m still kind of speechless.
The sad thing is that there’s no reason whatsoever for this. Multiple film versions are a fact of home entertainment life – the recent Alien Anthology Blu-Ray is a masterclass in presenting differing editions of films, while the granddaddy of them all is the 2007 Blade Runner special edition, which gave us every single version of the film available (a newly tinkered one, and the originals). Hell, if the Star Wars Blu-Rays just had the 1997 versions of the Special Editions versus the newly tinkered versions, that’d be a start – or an option to switch to the original, less-tinkered with audio. But that’s not the way Lucas rolls.
I’m a little sad. I’m a little vexxed. But, most of all, I’m glad I knew in advance so I can save myself some money. I’m sure 97% of Star Wars: The Complete Saga will look gorgeous on Blu-Ray, but I’d rather not have to mentally edit the terrible, terrible 3% out of my brain while I watch them. I’ll stick with the DVDs, thanks very much, and the sad fact that while it gave me some very good times in my formative years, Star Wars really doesn’t mean that much to me anymore.
So thanks, Lucas. Thanks a bunch.
(EDIT: There’s an interesting article over at Entertainment Weekly which makes some good points (even if it also overdoes the ‘kids are stupid, and anything aimed at them is generally rather silly and infantile’ theme) especially that while the Star Wars films are great works of popcorn cinema, they ain’t perfect. It’s okay to enjoy the hell out of them, but it’s also okay to grow up, realise their deficiencies, and that there are much better films out there. I think it says a lot that Empire is still widely counted as the best of the bunch, when it seems that the pulpy energy and vitality in Empire was a happy accident that Lucas made damn sure wouldn’t happen again (I have a major fondness for Jedi, but you can already see some of the flatness and woodenness that bedevilled the prequels creeping in in multiple sequences). It’s mainly as a film lover that this tweaking annoys me – as I said, if Lucas just made the originals (or as close to the originals as we can get) available, he could fuck about with new editions to his heart’s content and I wouldn’t mind in the slightest. The original Star Wars (none of this ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’ nonsense) is a significant work of American cinema, and the fact that the director has gone psychotically out of his way over the last twenty years to prevent anyone from seeing it in its original form… well, it’s rather sad. But I’m not really raging about this. I think my days of raging over Star Wars are well and truly over.)
The Low-Down: It may have an attention-grabbing concept and a star-studded cast and crew, but summer blockbuster hopeful Cowboys & Aliens has to go down as a major damp squib, stymied by huge tonal misjudgements, a lack of purpose and a shocking paucity of actual fun.
What’s it About?: In 1873, brooding gunslinger Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the middle of the Arizona desert with no memory, strange injuries and a mysterious metal band shackled around his wrist. Journeying to the local settlement of Absolution in search of help, the stranger learns that he’s a wanted fugitive, falling foul of local law enforcement and the ruthless cattle baron Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). But all of these problems are soon to become academic when otherwordly lights appear in the sky, and Absolution comes under attack from extraterrestrial forces – ones which may hold the key to Lonergan’s forgotten past…
The Story: You’ve got to give the makers of Cowboys & Aliens this, at least: it’s a bloody good title. It’s commonly said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it anyhow, so it helps if your cover has a name on it that’s as immediately and concisely communicative as this one. “Cowboys & Aliens” – a neat and playful subversion of the age-old cowboys and Indians trope, and a title that’s pregnant with the promise of two iconic fictional worlds meeting in a pulpy collision. More elaborately conceived movies, such as Inception and Green Lantern, have required four or five trailers to explain what they’re actually about, or why we should care: Cowboys & Aliens does it with three words.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the good omens for director John Favreau’s movie end. Certainly, that title – taken from a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, which was only at the conceptual stage when the movie began development – created some decent initial buzz around the project, but despite an extensive marketing campaign, the film has underperformed thus far both in the US and internationally, at least relative to its budget and blockbuster aspirations. Undoubtedly, this will lead to assessment of the way the film has been sold, the bankability of its leading players, or the commercial viability of its chosen genre(s), but the explanation may be a lot simpler than that: essentially, Cowboys & Aliens just isn’t a particularly good film, squandering the highest of high concepts in what turns out to be a bland and largely joyless experience.
Certainly, you don’t get the impression that the failure of this movie is down to a lack of trying, at least from an investment perspective. An absurd number of studios – including heavyweights like DreamWorks, Paramount and Universal – have thrown money at Cowboys & Aliens, allowing an almost comical embarrassment of creative talent to be corralled together. In front of the camera are acclaimed stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde; behind it is well-liked Iron Man helmer Favreau, shooting from a script credited to two of Hollywood’s most in-vogue writing duos (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), plus Lost’s Damon Lindelof; meanwhile, backers and producers include the likes of Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg. Add into the mix a reported budget of $163 million, and you get the impression that the makers of Cowboys & Aliens took this project very seriously indeed.
Ironically, it’s seriousness that proves to be this film’s most prominent undoing. The filmmakers have gone on record as saying they wanted to avoid taking an overtly broad and jokey approach to this material, which is an understandable and potentially sensible decision; however, there’s a difference between avoiding flippancy and avoiding levity altogether, which is the approach Favreau and co appear to have bafflingly settled on. What results is a handsomely-mounted, competently made but staggeringly solemn experience, which resists almost every invitation to have any fun with its concept whatsoever. Characterisation is limited to a few variations on “scowling”, the visual palette is dark and muddied, and the world of the film is generally a cold, dour and dreary place to be.
This approach hardly plays to the strengths of the director, who was surely hired on the back of his brash, boisterous and jovial Iron Man films; it certainly doesn’t work in favour of the material, which was surely crying out for a more playful treatment than this. Part of the fun of a typical mash-up is watching the well-defined conventions and tropes of two different genres colliding and feeding off each other; Cowboys & Aliens takes Western and sci-fi elements and grinds them up into a consistent but utterly flavourless grey mush. This would be more forgivable if the film had gained in gravitas what it lost in humour, but that can’t really be argued as being the case either, as none of the constituent parts are sufficiently developed enough to be of much interest without the neutered novelty of the mash-up framework. Cliché-shackled characters, unmemorable aliens, pedestrian mystery elements and curiously underplayed twists wouldn’t really be anyone’s idea of good building blocks for a light, frothy film; they certainly don’t pass muster in a movie that fancies itself as a brooding drama.
In this kind of unfertile territory, the film’s starry cast comes across less like an asset and more as a crippling waste of resources. Craig probably comes out of it best with a typically intense performance as amnesiac protagonist Lonergan, but the material barely tests him as an actor; still, he fares better than Ford, who was probably hoping this film would restore his movie star status beyond Indiana Jones, but who ultimately fails to bring any real interest to Dolarhyde, a half-baked semi-adversarial role that feels like a leftover from a previous draft. Wilde continues to content herself with turning up and looking striking in another sorely underwritten female blockbuster role (see also: Tron Legacy); meanwhile, vastly overqualified supporting cast members such as Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown tussle for scraps on the periphery, making no impression. It says a lot that the cast member who makes the biggest impression is the one who isn’t there: namely Robert Downey Jr, who was originally cast in Craig’s role and would have made an infinitely more interesting foil for Ford (rather than the sour-faced Craig/Ford pairing we get here), as well as adding some much-needed lightness, spark and purpose to proceedings.
In the final analysis, it’s a sense of any actual function that’s the quality that Cowboys & Aliens most demonstrably fails to provide. It’s an uninteresting, middling film that simply sits there, inert, failing to engage any particular audience to any measurable degree; not a big or spectacular enough a disaster to derail the careers of anyone involved, but never doing anything to warrant a place as anything other than a minor, forgettable footnote on a few CVs. For all its potential promise, all Cowboys & Aliens really achieves is showing how easy it is topple off a high concept and fall flat on your face.
The Verdict: Failing to capitalise on the pulpy promise of its title, Cowboys & Aliens is a dreary slog that squanders the talent and money at its disposal, and makes the spectacle of 19th-century outlaws fighting frog-men from outer space seem dry and dull. And I can’t think of anything more damning than that.
Ah, the predictability of Comics Fans – they complain bitterly if a comic or a character remains the same for too long, and then they complain even more bitterly when someone comes along and does something different. I’ve been largely away from the internets for the last week, but it’s safe to say that there’s been a certain sense of “Huh?” in reaction to the first officially released picture of Anne Hathaway in the role of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, from Christopher Nolan’s upcoming ludicrously anticipated third Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. It’s no surprise to find some people are going “I don’t like it!” and “It looks cheap!” and “Betrayal!” amongst many other reactions – and I have to admit, my first reaction to the picture was (a) good lord, Anne Hathaway looks wonderfully bad-ass in that shot, and (b) It doesn’t look tremendously Catwoman-y, does it?
After all, this is Catwoman we’re talking about – a pretty-much iconic role, one of the major parts of the Batman mythos and a character who’s been the subject of more absurdly sexy and over-the-top comic book art than the brain can comfortably encompass. From the moment it was announced that Selina Kyle was going to be appearing in The Dark Knight Rises, there’s been massive speculation about what sort of look they’d go for, with most people expecting something along the lines of the relatively recent costume redesign courtesy of artist Darwyn Cooke:
It’s a look that’s much more practical than the original skin-tight Catwoman suit (and which the Hathaway look actually sticks relatively close to, apart from the fetishy helmet with the cat-ears); it’s a look that’s stuck in the comic books ever since, and is also strongly featured in the upcoming Batman computer game Arkham City (along with a truly insane amount of cleavage). There’s also the jaw-dropping and iconic art from comic artist Adam Hughes, that’s pretty much cemented the idea of what Catwoman’s supposed to look like – (in short, Audrey Hepburn with bigger cleavage):
And that’s the version of Catwoman everybody’s used to – confidant, daring, riding the line between heroic and ever-so-slightly-amoral, and unashamed about using her sexuality to get what she wants. A woman who can get away with wearing a catsuit complete with tail and ears, because she’s so goddamed sexy she can get away with it. A woman who’s so cool, that instead of trying to defeat or arrest her, Batman ends up dating her. An icon.
I can understand people looking at the Hathaway photo and being disappointed. I can understand that Catwoman is one of those iconic characters who audiences have major, major expectations for, and if their expectations aren’t met, there’s going to be trouble. And yet, I like the photo. I like the look. I’m still just as excited about The Dark Knight Rises as I was before, and it’s partly because we’re not getting the version of Catwoman we were expecting.
And really, when you stop and think about it, why is anyone surprised by this? The ‘classic’ version of Catwoman is a ridiculously distinctive character, but she’s also very definitely the kind of character who fits best in a comic book universe. In a world where people like Superman, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter, it doesn’t seem too unconvincing that a girl might dress up as a cat to aid her life of crime. The most recent version of Catwoman’s origin has her as a prostitute who turned to a life as a costumed criminal to claw her way out of a life she hated, and eventually got herself into the world of the super-rich. She’s even, of course, been a mousy secretary brought back to life by cats and turned into a demented vigilante, in the frankly rather bonkers Batman Returns. And let’s not even talk about the insanely awful horror that was the 2004 Catwoman movie…
But I don’t think any of these iterations of the character would work work comfortably if you just dropped them down in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s version of the Batman mythos. Love them or loathe them (and I know there are plenty who don’t care for Nolan’s Batman movies), both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight give us a rigorously thought out and incredibly grounded version of Batman, to the extent that The Dark Knight frequently feels like a Michael Mann crime thriller where Batman keeps wandering into shot. There’s a deliberate attempt to keep things as real and believable as is possible, and not to throw chunks of the mythology and iconography of the comics in just to please the fans. From the way the Batman costume is introduced to the use of the Joker in The Dark Knight, these are films that are going about their business in a real and serious way – the kookier members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery were automatically out of bounds (Could anyone really see the Mad Hatter or the Riddler making an appearence?), and even the familiar ones were going to be reinterpreted (It’s worth remembering that Heath Ledger’s scar-faced Joker is a bit of a leap from the way the character is normally portrayed).
Basically, I think it was pretty damn unlikely that the wildly sexy, ‘look at me, I’m dressed as a Cat and making sexy cat-noises and I JUST DON’T CARE’ version of Catwoman was ever going to turn up in a Christopher Nolan movie. For better or worse, this is going to be a realer take on the character – it may not be as attention-grabbing or iconic, but it’s what happens when you build a costume to fit the character, rather than moulding a character in order to fit a costume. Plus, it’s what happens when you drop a character like this into a world that’s already strongly laid down after two films – sometimes, the character has to be shaped to fit the world. Another thing that’s important thing to remember – we still have absolutely no idea what kind of Catwoman character we’re actually getting in The Dark Knight Rises, and from the look of this they’re deliberately avoiding the attention-grabbing sexiness, and instead going for what they think a supercool female thief would wear for practical gear (the fact that, as confirmed in other paparazzi-taken photos of a stunt double, she’s wearing flat boots rather than stilleto heels is a very good thing). I’d hazzard a guess that we won’t hear Anne Hathaway say the word “Meow” once. My own personal speculation on this is that this may even be a version of Catwoman who doesn’t even call herself Catwoman – she’s a female cat burglar in a city where a bloke dresses up as a bat; I think it’s perfectly possible a tabloid Gotham newspaper could run a very grainy picture of her crawling across a rooftop with the headline ‘CATWOMAN!’ (A theory I expect to be completely wrong, of course). The point is, anything goes. And they wouldn’t have gone with that costume if there wasn’t a specific reason for it.
Is it as sexy or iconic as the classic Catwoman costume? No it isn’t. But I suspect it’s going to work brilliantly for the character that we are getting in The Dark Knight Rises. Honestly, my first reaction to the costume was similar to my first reaction to Matt Smith’s costume as the Eleventh Doctor Who (a guarded ‘oh’ and a ‘Hmmm… maybe it’ll work’), a look that grew on me to the extent that I now can’t imagine the Eleventh Doctor any other way. Comic fans are a little too used to the ‘But it’s got to look EXACTLY like the printed page otherwise it isn’t real!’ approach – I’ve noticed a similar level of grumbling relating to the new Judge Dredd movie adaptation and its costume redesign, with fans complaining “The helmet looks too big!” and “Hmm, I’ve seen better cosplay costumes”, when Dredd is a $20-30 million indie-produced movie that’s going for a grungier, looser visual adaptation, and simply doesn’t have the budget to make the entire film look exactly like a 2000AD strip. It’s also worth remembering that slavishly following the comic is an approach that doesn’t always work (most recently, in the case of the rather ridiculous Green Lantern costume). Nolan and co are doing something different – and whether or not it works in the final movie, the fact that they’re being daring enough to steer away from the iconic look of a character like Catwoman is something I think should be applauded.
And, finally, there’s two other things to bear in mind:
1: Anne Hathaway still looks damn cool in that picture.
The Lowdown: A likeable dose of old-school pulp adventure, Captain America – The First Avenger takes us back to the 1940s for an introduction to one of Marvel Comics’ biggest characters. The End Result? Action, fights, romance, and a blockbuster that’s simultaneously great fun and a little too lightweight for its own good.
What’s it About?: It’s 1942, and while Nazi-sponsored supervillain Johann Schmidt – aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – has uncovered an ancient artefact that could grant him unlimited power, wannabe US soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still unable to go and fight for his country thanks to his puny frame and weak constitution. But Rogers’ determination leads to him becoming an experimental subject for a Super Soldier serum, and soon the transformed Rogers is becoming the patriotic hero Captain America…
The Story:(Spoiler Alert – it’s extremely difficult to talk about Captain America – The First Avenger without discussing its ending, and how it fits into the wider Marvel Studios shared universe. As a result, if you don’t want to learn details of the ending, consider yourselves warned…)
It’s weirdly refreshing to see a blockbuster that’s so old-school in its approach as Captain America – The First Avenger. Favouring a gentler visual style and a sense of heart and sincerity, this is a long way from the brash swagger of the original Iron Man – but then, Captain America is a long-lived comic character created in a simpler, more optimistic age. In this case, he first appeared as a contemporary wartime comic-book hero written by Joe Simon and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby back in 1941, and was then revived in the Sixties (thanks to the classic ‘frozen-in-a-block-of-ice’ plot device). The ‘man out of time’ aspect has gone on to become a key part of the character, especially in the acclaimed run written by Ed Brubaker, as well as the character’s appearences in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates (which has ended up as the blueprint for much of Marvel’s celluloid ambitions), but Marvel have surprisingly only given this subplot the minimum amount of screentime here.
Instead, what we get is a full-scale origin story for Steve Rogers that harks back to the original Captain America 40s comics (with a certain amount of the Brubaker run), a broad wartime adventure romp of heroic, handsome men battling dastardly villains that also acts as a direct prologue to The Avengers. It’s given a reliably workmanlike and professional handling from director Joe Johnston, a journeyman filmmaker who graduated from special effects work on movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars Trilogy. Johnston isn’t the most exciting director in the world, but he has trodden the pulp road before in the well-remembered adventure romp The Rocketeer (even if he also perpetuated the pretty damn bad Jurassic Park III), and it serves him in good stead here.
At its best, Captain America captures the fun of good old-fashioned boy’s own adventures, and Johnson’s fun Xeroxed-Spielberg approach is lively and enjoyable (especially in the hugely entertaining montage showing Steve Rogers’ life as a daftly-dressed fund-raising figurehead for the USO), while he handles the demands of a superhero blockbuster far more confidently than Martin Campbell did on Green Lantern. Most important of all, Johnston knows when to give the cast room to act, and coaxes fine performances out of everyone involved, most notably Chris Evans as the all-important title character.
More than most superhero films, Captain America was going to live or die on its casting. It’d be incredibly easy to play such an old-school example of clean-cut, wholesome heroism with a post-modern wink, and some fans were probably expecting exactly that when Evans was cast, considering he’d been previously been best known for his great turn as the wisecracking Johnny Storm in the otherwise lacklustre Fantastic Four movies. It’s to Evans’ credit, then, that he avoids that temptation completely, instead playing the role admirably straight. Where Robert Downey Jr. got a comparitively easy ride as the brash Tony Stark, Evans goes for determined and wholesome beefcake heroism and pulls it off without a hint of mockery or camp (even in the pre-transformation sequences where some not-always-exceptional CGI renders him as a short, spindly weakling).
It’s this mix of earnestness and heart that makes Steve Rogers’s journey from heroic weakling to good-hearted superhuman into a genuinely effective one, aided by efficient action storytelling and strong casting. From Tommy Lee Jones’ streotypically gruff General to Stanley Tucci as the mild-mannered scientist who gives Rogers his chance at heroism, there’s barely a weak link – and there’s also finally a Marvel heroine who’s a strong character in her own right, with Hayley Atwell kicking impressive amounts of arse as Peggy Carter as well as proving to be a thoroughly engaging romantic interest (something which Thor was seriously lacking).
Of course, the down-side of Captain America’s relatively simple, subtext-free origin is that there’s not an awful lot going on here beyond the well-mounted, energetic action sequences. As seems to always happen with wartime-set pulp adventures, there are major echoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (especially in the mirroring of Steve Rogers and the Red Skull, as different sides of the same superhero coin) but the Raiders comparisons aren’t always deserved, even in terms of the stuntwork, and there are a few too many times when the film’s happy to be a lightweight diversion and absolutely nothing else. Plus, we once again have a Marvel Studios film that’s oddly tentative about its genre – it happened with Thor, which went a bit too far out of its way to tone down the more mythic elements and present Asgard as ‘advanced technology’, and it happens here in a particularly bizarre way.
In short, just over halfway through a film about a World War 2 hero who’s best known for beating up Nazis, Captain America – The First Avenger essentially stops being a WW2 film. The Red Skull’s organisation Hydra is quickly distanced from the Nazi threat (with Schmidt intending on wiping out Hitler along with everyone else) and played more like generic Bond villains (complete with faceless henchmen) than the genuine evil of the Nazis; while, thanks to the Red Skull’s access to advanced Asgardian technology, the 1940s-set story is soon awash with laser cannons, disintegrations, and the kind of modern brushed-steel interior sets you’d normally get in recent blockbusters like G.I. Joe. It all climaxes with a expansive battle Bond-style final battle that owes a serious visual debt to The Spy Who Loved Me (and a brief one to Goldeneye), and the end result is a a film that spends half its time adoring 1940s style and storytelling, and the rest of it shrieking “We’re not making a period film! Honest!”
This is especially weird considering the end of the story, where Steve sacrifices himself to save America from destruction – an act that should represent the whole generation who were willing to sacrifice themselves to fight the Nazi threat, but doesn’t carry the power it should simply because the film’s been distancing itself from World War 2 with such determination. There’s also the simple problem that, stripped of the man-out-of-time aspect (which is being saved for The Avengers, and the planned Captain America sequels), we once again get a superhero origin story where the character’s emotional journey is essentially finished 2/3rds of the way through the movie. Thor wasn’t as consistent in terms of pacing, scale and execution, but it was far more engaging in terms of its central character’s emotional journey throughout the film, as well as in its fascinating multi-layered villain. Here, Hugo Weaving does everything he can to make the ludicrously evil Red Skull a charismatic (if two-dimensional) villain, but the conflict between the two characters isn’t strong enough to drive the remainder of the film, and eventually resolves with a head-spinningly bizarre sequence that’s as blatant a piece of “Well, we’ll be seeing him again” storytelling that Marvel have yet pulled off.
By the climax, everything’s in place and Steve Rogers is awake in the 21st Century, but it’s pulled off in a strangely paced sequence that feels more like the opening of the next Captain America story than the climax to this one. It leaves Captain America: The First Avenger feeling a little too much like a prologue, and not enough of a film in its own right, while it’s another Marvel film that once again has the whiff of corporate product about it – it’d certainly be interesting to see Marvel Studios take a couple of steps back and maybe allow a couple of their films more creative freedom rather than micro-managing projects to death. It’s a pity that the flaws in Captain America – The First Avenger mean it doesn’t quite stick in the memory, as it’s got a sense of fun and a lightness of touch that puts it well ahead of the grimmer recent superhero output, and trashes the hell out of misfires like Green Lantern. One thing, however, is for sure – after this nonsensical amount of build-up, Marvel had better have something really special with The Avengers, or there’s going to be trouble…
(A quick note about the much-vaunted post-credit teaser for The Avengers – it’s short. Really, really short. And so quickly edited that it’s mostly impossible to make out. I understand the importance of the slow reveal, but making people wait through the credits for a micro-tease like this isn’t the best intro to actual Avengers footage they could have done…)
The Verdict: Undemanding, lively and fun, Captain America – The First Avenger is a little too lightweight for a WW2-set superhero film, but charming performances and a fun visual style hold it together despite some weird storytelling choices and an uninteresting bad guy. Evans makes an excellent Marvel hero, though, and once The Avengers ride is over, a proper self-contained Captain America movie could be an enticing proposition…
The Low-Down: The lavish finale to one of the biggest franchises of recent times, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 plays with massive stakes and wins big, delivering a fine ending to the Deathly Hallows story and an emotional send-off for the Potter franchise as a whole, as well as being a superbly made film in its own right.
What’s it About?: Things are looking bleak for teenage wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends: the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has acquired the most powerful wand ever to exist and the forces of darkness are closing in. Harry’s only option is to complete his task of locating and destroying the Horcruxes, magical artefacts protecting the Dark Lord’s soul: a mission that will involve a daring bank heist, deadly duels and an all-out war on the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, culminating in a final conflict with Voldemort himself. It all ends here…
The Story:(WARNING: No story details in this review will come as a surprise to fans of the book, but anyone who’s managed to stay unspoiled for the last four years may want to tread carefully…)
Let’s make no mistake here: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is a Big Deal.
A lot of films get branded as “event movies” these days; generally, it’s little more than marketing rhetoric, designed to add unwarranted cultural justification to the latest identikit special-effects showcase. Naturally, Warner Bros has been hyping David Yates’ film to the rafters as well, but in this case, its reputation would have preceded it anyway. It’s the direct follow-up to one of 2010’s most successful movies and an adaptation of the fastest-selling novel of all time. It’s also the finale to a cross-media franchise that has produced the highest-grossing film series of all time, one that has been gradually building to this point of payoff for the last decade. It all comes down to this.
No pressure then, Mr Yates? Judging from the finished product, the answer seems to have been: no, not really. The weight of expectation may have been high, but brush away the hype and you find that Deathly Hallows Part 2 is rock-solid enough to withstand it all. A surprisingly different beast from the quietly excellent Deathly Hallows Part 1, the final Potter is a splendidly-mounted production that knows just how to wrangle its sprawling, challenging source material into something manageable, blending complex lore and grand spectacle with sincere emotion and sombre reflection. It’s reverential enough to please the diehards, while being broad and entertaining enough to convince as a genuine cross-demographic crowd-pleaser. Yates is juggling with an unprecedented number of balls here, yet manages to keep almost all of them in the air, in a way that rarely feels like a great strain.
It could have all turned out so different. I’ll admit to having been hugely sceptical when Warner Bros announced in 2009 their plans to divide JK Rowling’s final Potter tome into two parts, a decision I feared had been made for all the wrong reasons. After all, previous films had done a terrific job of condensing breezeblock-sized tomes such as Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix to manageable lengths; opting against taking the pruning shears to the (admittedly far denser) Deathly Hallows could have ended up as a creative and commercial indulgence, a formless maelstrom of needlessly-included material and meandering pacing. Indeed, such criticisms were aimed by a minority of critics at last year’s Deathly Hallows Part 1, but seeing both halves of the story goes a long way to dismissing these concerns. Part 1 was an equally handsome, well-executed production, but it was burdened by the majority of the book’s expositional heavy lifting and slower, uncinematic passages; as a result of its predecessor’s work, Part 2 is able to give a proper account of the truly climactic and conclusive elements of the story, which are delivered with enough scale, gravitas and forward impetus as to make the entire split feel justified.
Admittedly, there are hiccups along the way. As a film that’s exclusively interested in endings, it’s perhaps predictable that it has trouble finding a way to start, throwing the audience right into the momentum stream of the previous instalment’s finale in a way that’s somewhat disorienting. Deathly Hallows 2 is weakest in an opening half-hour that really doesn’t fit any conventional ideas of a “beginning”; the Gringotts bank raid sequence, though wonderfully realised, has the feel of a loose end from Part 1, while the subsequent meeting with Aberforth Dumbledore (Ciaran Hinds) comes across as a vestigial element from the book, condensing Rowling’s revelations about the hidden past of Michael Gambon’s Albus Dumbledore to the point of inconsequentiality.
Yet once the action returns to Hogwarts in preparation for the all-out war that closes the novel, the film finds its climactic identity, drawing in iconography from the preceding seven films to create lines of symmetry extending through the entire series. The opening Chris Columbus-helmed Potter entries don’t always get a lot of credit, but they did a fairly stellar job of creating a solid architecture within which the more adventurous later films could safely experiment; Deathly Hallows Part 2 clearly recognises this, and spends much of its running time nostalgically venerating that architecture or cathartically dismantling it. The epic good-vs-evil conflict represented by the Battle of Hogwarts is grand enough on its own, but by setting these events against a backdrop of familiar locations such as the Great Hall and the Quidditch stadium falling to ruin, the film is given an easy shorthand method of evoking the end of an era, one that it does not waste. Credit must also go to Alexandre Desplat, returning to scoring duties from Part 1, who makes the sensible decision this time to complement his own accomplished compositions with some of John Williams’ most iconic melodies, restoring a musical consistency to the series that had been on the wane.
Of course, there’s more to this series’ lore than castles and chord progression, and while it can’t be said that Yates makes maximum use of the human players in the Harry Potter legend, it’s arguable that he doesn’t need to. After all, Potter is uniquely able to demand anything it requires from the cream of British acting talent – even if “anything” means “nothing” in many cases. Heavyweights such as Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Emma Thompson and Miriam Margolyes are essentially reduced to roles as glorified extras, present only to serve the series’ overall continuity, though the adult cast retains some standouts: notably Alan Rickman, whose Professor Snape delivers one of the most emotionally important moments of the series, and Ralph Fiennes, cutting loose as a Voldemort who becomes tangibly more volatile as his immortal power gradually ebbs away. However, the true lynchpins of Deathly Hallows Part 2 cast are its youngest members, vindicating the remarkable gamble of founding its entire future success of the franchise on the development of a gang of unknown pre-teen actors. Complaints can always be made, but seeing the way Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Matthew Lewis and especially Daniel Radcliffe have come to occupy and embody Rowling’s characters, it’s hard to see how the choices made back in 2001 could have been paid off significantly better.
In the final reckoning, and once the surprisingly effective epilogue scene has faded away, it’s this pleasing correlation between risk and reward that resonates most strongly. The Harry Potter films could have easily ended up as a creatively compromised series of cash-ins; instead, Warner Bros utilised the power of the brand to mount an unprecedented experiment in serialised cinematic narrative, hiring the industry’s best talent to tell a seven-year story in (more or less) real time, while betting millions of dollars on untested children and the outcome of a story that they didn’t even know the ending to when they committed to the project. In an increasingly sterile, risk-averse Hollywood environment, that’s a hell of a bet to make; as critical plaudits and record box-office takings roll in for Deathly Hallows Part 2, it can be concluded that it’s paid off handsomely. Whether we’ll ever see anything like it again is unclear; whether this model could ever produce the same success of Potter is unlikely. The long-term legacy of the Harry Potter movies will only become clear in the coming decades; for now, it’s just worth enjoying the end of a not-always smooth but ultimately satisfying ride.
The Verdict: It’s not easy to bring closure to ten years of swirling plotlines and weighty expectations to a close, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 pulls it off with a minimum of fuss, delivering a satisfying adaptation of a challenging book and hitting all of its climactic marks, while skimping on none of the humour and heart that’s given the series its spark.
The trailer deluge just keeps on coming, and here we have the first decent look at The Amazing Spider-Man, an upcoming superhero reboot that certainly qualifies as risky. In certain respects, I’m glad they’re rebooting the Spider-Man films – while I enjoyed them, the Raimi films never completely gelled with me, while the third film was an overcrowded and near-incoherent mess, and losing Tobey Maguire and (particularly) Kirsten Dunst didn’t strike me as problems. So, when the original plan for Spider-Man 4 collapsed (and considering that Raimi allegedly wanted John Malkovich as the Vulture, possibly this is a good thing) and Sony went for a full reboot, I was intrigued – especially when they suggested it was going to be much closer to the Ultimate Spider-Man incarnation of the mythos, keeping Peter Parker as a teenage highschooler. (For those not in the know, the ‘Ultimate’ Marvel universe was invented as a way to retell classic Marvel stories in a more contemporary way, although it’s evolved and now stands more as an ‘anything can happen’ alternate to the normal Marvel universe.)
When the director was announced – Marc Webb, a music video director who’s best known for helming offbeat romantic comedy drama 500 Days of Summer – I remained intrigued, especially since he wasn’t a natural choice for a big film, and his hiring definitely suggested they wanted a more modern, relationship-based take on the material. When the casting was announced I was intrigued (and also slightly perplexed when Emma Stone, who would have been absolutely perfect as redheaded Spider-Man girlfriend Mary Jane Watson, instead got cast as a different Spider-Man girlfriend, Gwen Stacey), and I knew the selection of Andrew Garfield in the lead role was definitely a good move even before I saw him in The Social Network. The one thing I was hoping, however, was that we wouldn’t get a full origin again – my fingers were crossed that maybe saner heads would prevail, and we’d get something along the lines of Marvel’s recent take on The Incredible Hulk – giving us the character’s origin in the opening credits, and then straight on with the story.
However, that’s exactly what we’re getting in The Amazing Spider-Man, as this trailer confirms, and while this is a nicely shot (and mostly relationship-heavy) teaser, which certainly looks much more modern and without the slight level of retro-cheese that Raimi added (which was, admittedly, trying to capture some of the tone of the original Stan Lee comics, if not always succesfully), it’s the origin. Again. Only a decade after we first got the origin. There’s a different villain (the less attention-grabbing Lizard aka Curt Conners, played here by Rhys Ifans), but a lot of this is going to play the same to the extent that it’s in danger of feeling more like a remake than a reboot. After all, Spider-Man doesn’t have the same wild variations in tone throughout his history that Batman did, meaning it isn’t as easy to do a stylistic shift like what happened between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins. That was a reboot that justified its existence thoroughly (whatever you thought of the resulting film), whereas this reboot is happening simply because (a) it’s Spidey!! In 3-D!!! and (b) Maguire and Raimi became too pricey (especially considering the mess of the third movie), and Sony need to keep making Spider-Man movies or the rights will switch back to Marvel Studios. Yes, I’m sure that the CG-heavy Spidey POV shot will look great in 3-D, and that Garfield will make an excellent Spider-Man, even if it’s going to be hard dismissing memories of him in The Social Network while watching. I’m also sure that Emma Stone will be much more engaging and less slappable than Dunst was as the female lead (although can anyone explain why, despite blonde being her natural hair colour, she looks so much better (and sexier) as a redhead?). Leaving aside the context, this is a pretty good teaser (and certainly more immediately exciting than the rather low-key, threadbare Dark Knight Rises trailer), and I’ll certainly be there to watch the film in 2012… but until then, they’re going to need to pull something fairly spectacular in order to convince me The Amazing Spider-Man has a better reason to exist than ‘Money, Money, Money’…
Despite the collosal trailer deluge of the last week, there was one I was looking forward to more than any others – the first proper glimpse of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming third Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises.Well, it’s finally online at the film’s Facebook page (an official workable embed on this page will, hopefully, be coming soon…), and what are my thoughts? Well… I have to admit that it’s surprisingly low key, and I’m not sure if the accidental echoes of the first trailer for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace are a particularly good idea (mainly in the use of captions). However, it’s worth remembering that the first teaser for The Dark Knight was pretty damn low key as well – dialogue from Michael Caine over a disintegrating bat-symbol, followed by a bit of Heath Ledger’s laughter – and this does its job, giving us plenty of old clips, and the very smallest glimpse at where the story of The Dark Knight Rises may be going, with a hospitalised Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) pleading for Batman’s return (which, I’m assuming from this scene, means that he’s figured out Bruce Wayne is Batman). Plus, a very quick look at Tom Hardy as Bane in full dramatic stomp mode. And that’s our lot. It’s possibly the least intriguing trailer for a Christopher Nolan film that I’ve seen for a very long time, but it’s also the most traditional – and that’s possibly because with so much information flying around (even for someone who’s doing his best to avoid spoilers), it feels like the trailer isn’t really telling me that much I didn’t already know. Whatever happens, though, I’m thoroughly intrigued, and the one-year countdown to the July 2012 release of The Dark Knight Rises starts now…
Hmmm. That’s my main reaction to the first trailer to John Carter, Disney’s upcoming adaptation of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars (the first in the John Carter of Mars series). It’s not a negative hmmm, but it’s not a completely convinced hmmm either, and that’s mainly because this is a project I’m going to have a hard time being objective on. Burroughs’ pulp SF adventures have been massively influential over the years – they don’t quite have the atmosphere and weird poetry of something like Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, but they’re still a brilliant example of early 20th century high adventure, packed with colour and adventure and one man battling against strange foes. They’re also books that were read to me by my father starting from when I was five years old – we got through almost half the entire series, and so there are chunks of the John Carter saga that are indelibly imprinted on my imagination.
This adaptation has been in the pipeline for decades, and became much more likely with the rise of CG – there was a version with the director of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow attached which never happened (and some might say that’s a good thing), while the most recent director to walk was Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau. However, it’s finally happened under the directorial eye of Andrew Stanton, the helmer of Pixar films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, making his live-action debut on a movie that’s also the first live-action Pixar co-production (alongside Disney and – gulp – Jerry Bruckheimer Productions), which is certainly promising (even if, in a fit of nervousness, they’ve lost the ‘of Mars’ from the trailer). And the teaser is intriguing in a whole number of ways, from the lush design to the opening scene that shows they’re keeping the framing device intact – the classic pulp trope of having the tale of wild adventure be a discovered manuscript bequeathed to or discovered by the author. Of course, for anyone who suffered through X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the fact that they’ve cast Taylor Kitsch (aka Gambit) as John Carter and Lynn Collins (aka Wolverine’s immensely forgettable love interest) as Martian princess Deja Thoris is a little less reassuring. Also, it’s not quite as pulpy or as – frankly – Martian as I expected, with a lot of shots looking a bit too Earth-like for my preference (I mean, I know it was shot on location in various US desert areas, but it’d be nice if it looked a bit more alien), while the fragments of dialogue we get here are a tad clunky out of context. This is a teaser, of course, that’s simply out to set the scene and get the 99.99% of the audience who aren’t seriously into Edgar Rice Burroughs adventures excited. I’m going to be really interested to see exactly what they pull off here – my fingers are crossed, but it’s going to take a little more than this to completely blow me away…