Monday, December 17, 2012

Writers No One Reads • Dalkey Archive Press, or How to Publish Writers No One Reads
I always find it odd when people complain about things that are, when you get down to it, not really their concern. In this case somebody upset with how a publisher chooses to market their books. Sure maybe that choice is a bad one but still they get to make it. As a critic I often use the idea of what a creator "should have done" but that's mainly a tactic to expose flaws (or at least expose decisions I don't agree with). Not exactly the same thing because not only is reconceiving art an ancient practice but such commentary is actually an essential part of the process even of usually internalized.

This post was done on my tablet as an experiment. Not sure it will be repeated often because it's so much slower than a desktop.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb 2012)

This seemed like a "what were they thinking" film except I know what they were thinking - money.  Something worked before so let's just repeat it then we can rake in the cash.  Which apparently worked since it was the 6th highest grossing film of the year.

Still the decision to basically repeat the first film was a deadening mistake.  Origin stories are always the least interesting and in this case we get it again in tedious step by tedious step.  This is a film that really needed J. Jonah Jameson.  One odd change is the removal of one of the most interesting aspects of the story.  When Parker first acquires powers his immediate reaction is how can I make money with this?  That may or may not be purely American but it's certainly reasonable and honest.  The wrestling bit also explains his costume but in Amazing that's all gone leaving a more convoluted reason for the pose.  My guess is the filmmakers were trying to be "serious" and follow the Nolan path (perhaps why Parker seems so dour) except what they did was make Parker a more narrow character.

It doesn't help that the conception of Parker is a bit less, well, heroic.  For one thing he steals the ID of a student at Oscorp and it's hard to overlook this when we're treated to a shot of the real student being forcibly evicted.  Parker doesn't seem to care.  He later steals a drink from the convenience store and I wonder if viewers are supposed to not notice that's what he did.  There's even a mean-spirited scene on the subway where Parker beats up (mostly) innocent bystanders and humiliates a woman by ripping her shirt off.  Admittedly Parker doesn't do this deliberately but the filmmakers conceived, wrote and shot it so clearly this was intentional.

By now we're used to Hollywood high school students not actually looking like high school students but the actors here seem to be almost a parody of that.  Garfield always seems a little befuddled as Parker and Emma Stone apparently wanders the halls most of the day.  There's not much to the rest of the cast either.  I assume if I'd ever seen Rescue Me then I could accept Dennis Leary in a dramatic role but I haven't and I can't.  The one good thing about the film though is Martin Sheen who is far more lively than the mask-like Cliff Robertson in the first film.

The IMDB says the film had an estimated budget of $230 million but I wonder where that went.  The fx for The Lizard are almost laughable, looking like something from a direct-to-video B-movie.  The city shots are closer to animation than to anything that might appear to be a person swinging on slender threads between buildings.  Even the final fight happens on a set where little has been done to make it less set-like.  In itself this isn't necessarily a problem (much of The Avengers is also barely disguised sets) but since the intention appears to have been grit and darkness then artificiality doesn't sit very well.

The film mashes together the familiar origin story with elements of the Captain Stacy sequence and The Lizard origin.  Parker's parents follow the Ultimate versions but their fate is left open, probably a subject for the sequel.  It's hardly surprising this doesn't all fit very well.  At one point The Lizard discovers Parker is Spider-Man because Parker used cameras with large "Property of Peter Parker" stickers.  People do dumb things in real life but this is a stretch.  Gwen is made something of a budding scientist (though that is toned down for Parker) but still ends up mostly the damsel.  Just imagine if when she was hiding in the closet and The Lizard's face bursts through that she punched him between the eyes instead of screaming.  That's why her character is no kind of improvement.

I have a feeling that the people behind Amazing were mostly hired guns.  It's no accident that the best superhero films have been made by real fans like Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer and Joss Whedon, people who understand the source and how that can be brought to another medium.  Amazing's staff are on board for the sequel so all we can hope is that they learned from their mistakes - unlikely but that's what hope is for.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Skyfall (Sam Mendes 2012)

One surprising thing about Casino Royale is how much the Bond fans loved it when the entire purpose of the film is to show that Bond became Bond by systematically removing every human element until he’s little more than an android.  The Daniel Craig Bond relaunch benefitted from being “of our time” so that while I would still say those are the best two Bond films (and I’ve never been any kind of fan) the reactions were also colored by their apparent rejection of some of the silliness and excesses of earlier efforts.

Skyfall, though, would fit in the mid-range of the Brosnan films, closer to straight thriller and somewhat plausible but still lacking the focus and intensity of the first two Craig or the better Brosnan.  In fact, Skyfall overall recycles the premise of The World Is Not Enough with some wronged person seeking revenge on M for her past transgressions though Skyfall combines the smart, scheming villain and the physically damaged, violent villain into one character.  Skyfall even repeats the device of an illegal transaction being paid through a casino gambling debt.

And it’s that one character that’s the biggest hurdle the film never overcomes.   Despite early claims that he can show fear like nobody, not even Bond, has seen in the end Silva (Javier Bardem) turns out to be just another Bond evil genius complete with lair and a barely plausible motive.  His dastardly scheme requires to-the-second timing involving numerous people across many blocks of London needing months of elaborate preparation just so that he can simply shoot M.  Sure he has to Make A Statement but there are more effective ways.  Though the filmmakers wisely chose to omit Silva tracking Bond towards the end they still had the Hollywood idea (even if this is technically a British film) that hackers can do anything, even blowing up MI6 offices in some way that makes no sense at all.  The revelation that Silva was formerly with MI6 teases us with the idea of a much more interesting film: 007 vs 006.

It’s odd that the film shares a major plot device with The Avengers where the bad guy engineers his own capture and is then held in a completely transparent cell while being visited by the chief spymaster.  Considering production time there’s no way the Skyfall writers could have seen The Avengers in time but it’s hard not to wonder if they’d read the script, whether this was just a coincidence or if they were both inspired by something else that escapes my memory.

But Skyfall mostly runs on these ramshackle ideas much like the series always has.  I suppose the point of Bond’s fake death at the opening is to establish that he’s burned out because another agent was killed or because he’s after a MacGuffin or because uh just because.  You have to wonder why a fabulously wealthy crook would want a dusty, dirty deserted island – at least previous Bond villains hired enough henchmen to clean up a bit.  (Not to mention that a faked disaster that sends everybody off the island will attract vastly more attention not less.)  Why is Bond given a 1950s-style tracker that he has to turn on?  This is the 21st century so it would make more sense to give him a permanent subcutaneous device.  We’re asked to believe that Bond of all people will store his old car but has not a single emergency pouch of weapons and supplies anywhere.  After all he didn’t just walk out of that river at the beginning of the film and then swim over to the tropical island.  If Silva is such a threat why send just one agent, especially one of dubious ability. 

And is this the place to point out that 2012 is a bit late in the day to continue the long tradition of Bond misogyny?  Of the three main women characters one is killed as a game, one is killed after being hunted (during which she says she’s bad at shooting just like any damsel) and one is literally sent to be a secretary.  Bloody hell.  Even the doctor is so overwhelmed by Bond’s manliness that she abandons various professional responsibilities and legal duties to give him information.

I suspect that the idea behind Skyfall is that it would be the fall and redemption of a “hero” (since Bond always seems to me like a mercenary who just happens to be working for the good guys).  Something along the lines of Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again though with less color.  Or maybe that never entered anybody’s head.  In any case the script is too episodic and Bond far too blank a character (despite Craig being easily the best actual actor to play the role) for the film to be anything more than the usual spy outing.  The Tennyson quote was a nice touch though.