Friday, 18 April 2014

You know what it is I love about being Spider-Man? Everything!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
(2014)

(SPOILERS) I didn’t have a whole lot of hope for the follow-up to Marc Webb’s 2012 Spidey reboot. The first one wasn’t actually terrible, but it was definitely a mess that bore the scars of a traumatic birth in the editing suite. It was also marred by only sporadically successful stylistic choices and some truly rotten design work (chiefly the villain). Add to that an unnecessary origin story with a botched “hero’s destiny” ladled on top to attempt to make it distinctive and it’s a surprise it worked at all. But The Amazing Spider-Man was blessed with a couple of great leads in Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and charisma goes a long way. There was word that Sony and the makers were well aware they had gone somewhat awry, and the sequel would pull out all the stops in an attempt to course-correct. Yet the trailers failed to convince. Gaudy, colourful and frenetic would be a nice way of putting it; a headache would be another. The finished film suffers from many of the issues of its predecessor, but also repairs a number. It’s biggest crime is overstuffing the cooking pot; it’s greatest asset is that Webb and cinematographer David Mindel are having a ball visualising Spidey’s world, at times out Raimi-ing Sam Raimi. Oh, and that Andrew Garfield is an absolutely perfect incarnation of the wisecracking webslinger persona. Seriously, it’s amazing that Maguire got away with slightly shy goofball Parker for so long.


ASM2 will probably be unfavourably compared to this summer’s superhero darling Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it’s certainly true this lacks the thematic depth that is Captain America’s greatest asset. But there’s a level of swings-and-roundabouts for what works and what doesn’t in both; The Winter Soldier isn’t the unalloyed perfection some have suggested. In terms of action, even though Webb rather goes overboard during the climax, ASM2 is much more impressive than Soldier’s sometimes in cohesive staging. There's the occasional dodgy moment, where his fondness for variable frame rates during the action results in a duff shot, but in the main his confidence is infectious. Both pictures suffer from not knowing when to stop, a malady typical not just of the modern superhero movie but the modern blockbuster generally.


Fatigue has set in by the time we reach the big fight between Electro and Spidey, and there’s still the Green Goblin to come and the all-too-quickly-gotten-over demise of Gwen Stacey (Stone). Passages where ripe for expansion are skirted over (Harry Osborn being disinherited from Oscorp momentarily puts us on his side, and it would have been much more effective if everyone hadn’t been in a rush to turn him utterly evil). Spidey’s a homespun character, not intended to philosophise deeply over the meaning of the world and where the state of his country, so it doesn’t seem appropriate to complain about a lack of subtext in ASM2


Where he needs to deliver is in terms of heart and soul, and with Garfield in maximum charisma mode the movie has something going for it that Captain Bland wholly lacks. If The Winter Soldier is the more impressive movie overall, because ultimately it’s innovation outweighs the de rigueur side of the Marvel plotting, Spidey succeeds in its own way, despite suffering from déjà vu at crucial moments. It could have been a great movie if it just knew when to stop; shorter, punchier, more emphatic. There are individual set pieces here that are some of the best co-ordinated in the superhero genre thus far. But the picture goes so far beyond the point where the audience is on side that it’s easier to recall the water-treading fireworks of the last act rather than the giddiness and deftness of touch of the first two.


The opening sequence finds Peter’s father (Scott Campbell) and mother Mary (Embeth Daviditz) attempting to leave on a jet plane, not knowing when they’ll be back again. After the tepid goings on of the first movie, Oscorp shenanigans that only succeeded in mildly irritating and skewing the notion that Peter is just and ordinary teenager blessed with a very special power (which brings great responsibility etc), it feels like the makers have grasped the mettle of his plot thread, for better or worse, and are running with it. It’s an invigorating, exciting scene, even if is perhaps an overt call back to the demise of Kirk’s pappy in the also Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci scripted Star Trek (also on the authorial credits are Jeff Pinker and James Vanderbilt). So it’s a shame that nearly every subsequent return to the subject of Peter Parker parents is hard work. 


All those shots of dad’s briefcase, Peter becoming obsessed with tracking down “Roosevelt” and creating a sprawling map on his wall during an overnight montage (well it seems like it), Aunt May (Sally Field giving it prestige value but little else) having to be told Peter isn’t rejecting her. Most awesomely stupid (The Awesomely Stupid Spider-Man?) is Peter’s eventual discovery of the truth of Roosevelt. He enters a disused subway station, puts some coins in the slot and a whole carriage ascends from beneath the tracks. I mean, what? Apart from being a really dumb attempt at a “Let’s do an impressive Bat Cave thing”, when did Pere Parker find time for this? How did no one notice? Why did he do it? And the whole effort (on the plane) to download what is revealed as a tape message seems like a terrible bother when he might have just placed same explanation in a safety deposit box.


I wasn’t especially taken with the idea that the spider serum has the effect it does on Peter because dad incorporated his own DNA into the initial experiments. Besides the (almost) complete lack of random chance in attaining the super power, it provides a neat cop-out justification for him not helping Harry. But the use of Norman (Chris Cooper) and Harry Osborne (Dan DeHaan) wins points for beating out a different path, at least initially. Norman is dying, then dead (although we never see a corpse), from a genetic condition that renders him with a scaly green tinge and great gnarled (green) talons. Don’t forget, kids, if you’re deformed you’re also evil. Even if you didn’t start that way, being disfigured will inevitably turn you to the dark side, even over the course of a couple of hours. Norman never becomes the Green Goblin, but since Harry also has the condition it’s only a matter of time before he uses Oscorp facilities to search for a cure. One has to wonder why, given all the resources at his disposal, Norman didn’t take a similar chance to junior, particularly given the remarkable healing abilities of the survival suit. Why didn’t Norman just get in the damn thing, since Harry appears to be on the verge of death when he dons it?


The scenes of Harry taking control of Oscorp, favouring Felicity Hardy (Felicity Jones, who will no doubt be doubling up as the Black Cat next time out), and then encountering a coup at the instigation of a deliciously rotten Colm Feore are some of the strongest in the movie. As with the picture generally, the need to accelerate Harry’s decrepitude means there’s no chance to savour this. No sooner has he been deposed than he is releasing Electro, and no sooner has he suffered the adverse effects of the spider formula than he is reborn as an insanely hell-bent Goblin. DeHaan’s a great actor, but the quartet of writers needed to spend more time giving him a truly memorable character; someone you enjoy watching as much as Garfield’s Parker but for opposite reasons. It goes without saying that DeHaan wipes the floor with the Grand High Franco incarnation of Harry from the Raimi trilogy, but if he’s to be the Sinister Six mastermind he needs beefing up as an antagonistic force.


Of course, it’s Electro on main villain duties and I’m not sure if it’s a complement or not to say that Jamie Foxx’s character is more interesting as the villain than in the persona of uber-nerd Max Dillon. Transforming Max via an encounter with a tank of electric eels isn’t even a stupid idea the writers came up with (it comes from one of the cartoons). Somehow that’s even worse, since you cant even take the credit of having brains enough to use the good ones. Dillon’s dribbling inferiority complex and worship of Spider-Man is arguably over-played (inspired by Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor?), but at the same time I enjoyed the willingness to go OTT and, well, cartoonish with the character. Particularly appealing is Hans Zimmer (in general this is one of his good scores, even if the main Spider-Man theme sounds uncomfortably similar to the one for ‘70s TV show Superstars) cutting loose and embracing the whacky for Max and the kinetic electric for Electro; indeed, his scoring of the initial set piece between Spidey and Electro is a perfect complement. This is the sound of a composer having fun, something I’d more associate with Jerry Goldsmith or (once upon a time) Danny Elfman.


The problem is Max’s character is never quite there, never feels sufficiently distinctive with his one-note obsession with whether anyone remembers him or not. That could work, but perhaps needed someone to go even broader than Foxx manages. As Electro, his powers take on a Sandman ability to dissolve and reform; in terms of superpower if not personality (he quickly becomes second fiddle to Harry Osborne) he’s impressively positioned and rendered, even if floating about in a hoodie was obviously something that should have been nixed at the first production meeting. That said, the suit isn’t much improvement. For some reason Sony have completely ballsed up the villain designs in this iteration. Raimi stumbled with the Goblin, but got Octopus and Sandman just right. Curt Connors was a travesty, removing all the personality from the lizard design and even relieving him of his trademark lab coat. Whether or not Electro’s particularly whacky lightning bolt mask could have been transferred effectively to live action I don’t know, but what they do come up with is wholly lacking.  It looks like a X-Men cast-off. That said, I was surprised Electro works as well as he does, because the advance materials suggested he’d be as middling as the Lizard.


Perhaps less is more, since the best villains in the ASM2 are little more than cameos. It might have been better to have locked up Electro and left him there for The Sinister Six, particularly since the focus shifts to Harry (again, during the first two acts, Webb juggles the parallel plotlines with some skill; it makes it all the more disappointing that the movie lurches off the rails). Paul Giamatti, a barbed wire tattoo across his forehead and voicing an irresistibly uproarious, upbeat, Russian accent is a delight as Aleksei Sytsevich. This Rhino has no super strength, but he sports a super suit, in which he rampages come the climax (the mech over mutation choice recalls Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in the first Raimi film). The rhino bookend is, on paper, a nice touch, and the Spidey versus an exasperated villain aspect, besting him at every stage, has never worked better than during their first encounter. 


The final scene, where a bespectacled kid in a Spider-Man costume steps up to the plate, is the kind of sick-making “good New Yawkers get behind their hero” thing we saw in Spider-Man 2 (10 years ago, is it really so long?) It’s in keeping with a series that has very much stayed true to the idea of a hero who protects the innocent; there are numerous scenes in this movie where Webb’s superbly envisaged predictive spider-sense (like Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes but even more hyperbolic, if that’s possible) is used to save the lives of one or more bystanders. With all the criticism of the ultra-carnage of Man of Steel last year, no one will be able to level a similar accusation here. But with the kid thing, it really doesn’t need rubbing in that Spidey is a hero. It’s never a good idea to cut to crowds cheering a hero on; that’s what the movie audience is for. The good side is Garfield’s self-effacing bravado drags us unscathed to the end credits, but it really didn’t need to be there.


The other great pleasure here is one of which I had no foreknowledge; Marton Csokas as the outrageously named and similarly outrageously accented Dr Kafka. If the spirit of Sam Raimi lives on in these movies it’s with Dr Kafka, but even Raimi never went this far into a broad comedy performance. The Doctor also derives from the comics, presiding over the Ravencroft Institute, albeit with a change of gender (Csokas was also in Noah, which I saw last week, but I can’t say he left an impression there). It probably says a lot that in a scene where Kafka is poking and prodding Electro, off the leash as a ghoulish parody-version of Dr Freud, you want to see more of him rather than his patient. He’s on the receiving end of an Electro lightning bolt, but I hope that doesn’t prove to be Kafka’s final end in this trilogy/quadrilogy. If it does, Csokas can sits comfortably in the knowledge he stole his scenes absolutely.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t as satisfying as any of the Raimi movies but, before you take that as a decisive negative, I’m a bit of fan of the flawed third instalment. Sure it doesn’t need Venom, but it gives us the wonderfully whacky emo Parker scene (surely the strongest indicator of whether the viewer is on the wavelength of its director). Where Webb’s take absolutely improves on Raimi’s is in the personification of its title character. I didn’t read a great many Marvel comics as a kid, but even I knew Spidey had a one-liner or quip for every occasion. Despite the portentous air of predestination the writers choose to bog Peter down with, this Spider-Man brings back the fun of the character. He’s not only witty verbally, but is quick with the sight gag, and this extends to the humorous staging of scenes.


The side effect is it’s not always possible to juggle an essentially light-hearted character with the doom-laden backstory and sudden heartbreak this movie also fosters. It leaves it looking cynical and calculated in the final analysis (which, of course, it is; Sony wants to pump its slender franchise to the max). But there’s some great material in here; the whole of Spidey’s back-and-forth with Aleksei, the “Lick my hand” before flattening Max’s slap-down hair, sporting a fireman’s helmet while hosing down Electro, allowing Gwen to escape Oscorp through some expertly judged clumsiness as Peter entangles himself with security. There are times, such as when Peter is comforting his aunt, when you wonder if Garfield might be too accomplished an actor for this part, but there’s no doubting he absolutely has the comic chops. Full marks too for limiting the mask-less Spidey screen time in this movie. That hang-up of needing to see the actor’s face (to justify the fee?) has been evident ever since Batman Returns, but ASM2 only goes there when it is absolutely on-point; the death of Gwen Stacey.


While the editing of this sequence is about as perfect as you could hope for, by this point the barrage of effects and fights has been so relentless there’s no chance to let the moment breath. There is some reasonable groundwork as a foreshadowing to the tragedy. Perhaps answering critics who found Peter’s betrayal of his promise to George Stacy (Dennis Leary) too much and utterly lacking contrition or moral compass, he is haunted by a vision of Gwen’s dad, leading to a break-up with her. This element is effective, even if you just know something bad will happen when he finally allows Gwen to get involved. Stone and Garfield make a great screen couple, full of zip and sparkle and genuineness when they split then get back together. Their relationship was easily the best part of the first movie, and it’s a compliment that it is only one of a number of great elements here. That is, until her death. 


Which ends up just another part of the extended melee of the finale. An episode that had such impact in its original form shouldn’t have been dealt with here with such graceless urgency, particularly given how the zest between the screen Peter and Gwen. There’s nothing wrong with the execution (so to speak; as per the comics, it’s the fall/web-slinging halt of the fall that kills her) but it’s just one of many targets the makers want to hit on their way to setting the scene for 3. Since they’re not ultimately the focus of the movie, her demise inevitably gets short shrift. Peter experiences a mourning montage, gets over Gwen and bounces back into action like nothing ever happened. Spider-Man probably isn’t the superhero movie you want to see end on a downer, but it could have been handled better than this.


But hurry onto the next thing. The Amazing Spider-Man 3. Garfield ain’t getting any younger, you know. And the villains will be? Goblin, Rhino, Lizard, Electro for starters. Dr Fear is the mysterious man who visits Curt Connors at the end of the first movie and Harry here, but I don’t know that he amounts to a super villain. Dr Octopus? The Vulture? (We see a couple of suits.) Alistair Smythe (B.J. Novak), who in the comics invents the Spider-Slayers? The Black Cat, before switching sides? If the first half of AS2 is the template, rather than the extended climax, Webb could be onto something good, but the tendency for a grab bag of villains to devolve into a torrent of special effects may prove irresistible. 


The X-Men: Days of Future Past mid-credits clip threw me for a moment, I have to admit. Not because I thought for Sony and Fox might be intending to combine powers but because I couldn’t conceive of a reason why one studio would promote a competitor’s movie. Even the stated reason (Webb owed Fox a picture, so this was gratis compensation) seems a bit weak. That scene, and the recent trailer, looks quite decent, so perhaps both the tired franchise entries this summer will have a bit of juice to them (whether the accusations against Days’ director impact its box office remains to be seen).


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffers from many of the over-cooked formula problems as Spider-Man 3, but there’s too much to enjoy in both entries to dismiss them out of hand. This wont be taking the superhero movie of the summer crown from The Winter Soldier (and even if it’s good, I cant see Days of Future Past being great), and that’s absolutely correct, but it doesn’t deserve to become a kicking ball for the things it gets wrong. Maybe Webb should have ended the picture when Gwen leaves for London. What’s worse? No third act, or a third act so over-extended you lose touch with how great the movie was prior to that point?


***1/2

I’m not going to stop stating it. I’ll state what I want to state in whatever state I want to. Fuck you!

Dom Hemingway
(2013)

(SPOILERS) It’s easy to make bad British crime movies, particular ones that also try to do the funny. They can end up seeming like lads’ days out. Guy Ritchie cornered this market back in the late ‘90s, in a mostly quite poor post-Tarantino glut. His technically elaborate slices of cockney mayhem followed a similar wannabe hard man course (from a posh boy) as Tarantino during his inadvisable bouts of attempting to show he was a tough as his characters. In their obsession with showing how cool they were, these movies often lacked much beneath their veneer and posturing. Not that substance is essential; attitude is a reasonable-enough aspiration, the first or second time round. But if it drives the engine, character and story inevitably lose out. And their makers end up looking juvenile. Richard Shepard’s latest film succeeds in being cool, very funny and surprisingly affecting. In this respect, it’s not dissimilar to his earlier, also very good and under-appreciated, The Matador.


The mixture of comedy and pathos is a difficult juggling act, and it requires a strong authorial voice to carry it. The recent Filth lived up to its name on many levels, but couldn’t quite marry its aspirations with a steady guiding hand. In contrast, Sexy Beast, now something of a British crime movie legend thanks to the indelible performance of Ben Kingsley, is narratively less certain but has a guiding hand so steady and certain in Jonathan Glazer that the cracks are papered over with finesse. That film, like Dom Hemingway, features a safecracker as the central character (a favourite movie criminal profession) and a shift of focus following midpoint carnage. 


The difference is, Sexy Beast retreats from its show-stopping showdown into something more run-of-the-mill and thus slightly disappointing. Dom changes direction completely, and those expecting it to stay true to its crime movie furnishings will no doubt come away put out. But I found it a refreshing, unexpected decision, one that adds all-important heart and purpose without seeming glib and without the feeling that it has lurched onto another track because it doesn’t know what to do with itself. On the contrary the whole movie is revealed to be about Dom Hemingway, past his prime and strutting a persona instead of a rounded person, and what he really values as opposed to what he thought he values.


I don’t think Shepard is quite up on a level with the McDonagh brothers (In Bruges, The Guard, Seven Psychopaths), but his writing and direction are highly distinctive and he imbues his characters with a warmth absent from many who dabble in this genre. And, while it is no criteria for success, he knows the value of telling a story concisely. In an era when the length of a movie is seen as some kind of indicator of whether it is any good (so it must be about two hours, and anything less probably means there’s something amiss), his pictures clock in closer to the 90-minute mark. Yet that feels exactly like the right length for them.


The premise is straightforward; Dom is released from prison after a 12-year stretch. He didn’t snitch, so he expects compensation This results in a trip to the South of France with his old cohort Dickie (Richard E. Grant) where they meet old his boss, who just happens to be “one of most dangerous men in all of Europe” (Demian Bichir as Monsieur Fontaine). If this scenario has a passing flavour of the exotic encounter between Ray Winstone and Kingsley in Sexy Beast, it reveals itself as something else entirely. Both primo hard men die, but Dom hasn’t inveigled into one last heist. When it comes, his safe cracking moment is an expertly executed set piece of humour and tension. Yet it is only there to reconfirm that Dom has to make amends with his family. And it’s this aspect that will either make or break the movie, depending on expectations and how satisfying you find Dom’s change of heart.


If Shepard comes up short anywhere, it’s that his female characters are (intentionally?) cyphers; inserted to signal shifts in direction for Dom. Paolina (Madalina Ghenea) is lusted after by Dom, predicating his verbal meltdown in which he insults Fontaine. She also becomes his nemesis, and so facilitates his shift in values when she makes off with his money. Melody (Rome’s Kerry Condon) is the sage on whom Dom reluctantly administers CPR, rewarding him with the promise that “good luck will shine down on you when you least expect it and most need it”. Later she returns at an opportune moment, to all but wave a magic wand for a despairing Dom. Asked what he most wants, Dom blurts out his money, before admitting that it is really his daughter’s forgiveness (“Just by picking her, you’ve already shown that the pendulum of luck is swinging your way”). So it’s appropriate that, when Dom encounters Paolina again, he doesn’t really intend to make good on his threat to kill her; he has different priorities, even if the swiped ring is a nice (unnecessary) consolation prize. 


As for daughter Evelyn (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, looking almost ordinary without her blonde locks), Clarke gets to show off her singing voice, but there’s no added dimension to being told he was a bad dad (which predictably means we sympathise more with Dom than her). Ineed, the scenes between Dom and her boyfriend Hugh (Utopia’s Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) are more memorable for Dom’s clumsy prejudices. That doesn’t mean his change of heart isn’t felt, it’s just that Evelyn isn’t so much a character as symbol.


I’ll admit I wasn’t sure Dom Hemingway was going to work for me, what with the first scene introducing us to Dom’s macho bravura (“Study my cock”) while a member of prison staff is servicing his member. I’ve been more than convinced of Jude Law’s redefinition as a fine actor over the past few years, just as he has hit middle age and started losing his hair. He’s playing older here (I think), and his hirsute mutton-chopped visage and antique suits give him an out-of-time flavour. As if he should have been knocking about up busting open safes during the ‘70s, even though he’s much much too young. But I was given pause by Law doing his best Ray Winstone; he may not be so pretty any more, but he’s never really been anyone’s idea of bruiser potential.


It’s not until he falls in with Dickie Black (Grant giving it some like Withnail never went away) that Dom begins to click. The fish out of water, man out of time thing could have been overdone (no smoking in pubs?) but it works because Dom is defined by his idea that he is someone (“I AM DOM HEMINGWAY” he shouts as he drunkenly speeds towards the accident that redefines him) and a code of honour that few in the next generation share (“I played by the rules” he complains at one point). The affectation of Law and his eccentric dialogue takes hold, and his heightened demeanour becomes a pleasure to watch and hear.


Dom is coarse, crude and vulgar with a hint of poetry. His extensive vocabulary is at odds with his intelligence and demeanour; he’s a relatively simple man with big anger issues, but you add in a delicious turn of phrase and Dom becomes a character to savour. He is “a peasant at heart, a petty serf” who once played the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. The mock-Shakespearean language is a joy, and you’d never guess Shepard’s origins are transatlantic. “Misfortune befell me,” opines Dom, as if he is about to break into a tragic ode. But then he can flip completely, intoning, “That’s the fucker who I am” with savage menace. Law relishes the opportunity to deliver these lines, knowing full well this sort of thing doesn’t come along too often (“After much heartbreak and ruin the pendulum of luck has finally swung back to Dom Hemingway and I intend to enjoy each of his fickle pleasures, whether it lasts for a minute or even a lifetime”). As much as the mid-point gear change will qualify your enjoyment, so will Shepard’s use of language since realism is not high on his list of priorities.


The other key ingredient in the success of Dom Hemingway is Reg, in a role written for him by Shepard. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to suggest Grant hasn’t been especially well-catered for in his post-Withnail & I career. The particular brand of splenetic superiority found in his collaborations with Bruce Robinson is a perfect fit for his natural OTT-ness. Cast without due care or attention his presence can seem under-nourished, with characters that fail to support his energy. Alternately, he can come across as plain hammy or lacking in register. How many memorable roles has he had over the last two decades? Whether it’s by choice or just that no one can write for him, it’s probably true to say that most people love him in Withnail but are indifferent to him in almost everything else. The picture’s cult success served him for a period in Hollywood (see With Nails) but this is the first movie since that truly serves his personality. 


It’s curious that, say Terry-Thomas is rightly celebrated for his magnificent comedy turns as a cad and a scoundrel in film after film, but there appears to be resistance to Grant cutting loose doing what he’s best at; box him in and you reduce his capacity for inimitable performances. The only difference between Grant and Law enjoying Shepard’s lines is that Reg makes it look so easy. There are too many choice passages to quote, but imagine Withnail uttering the following and you get the general idea; “He was raised in an orphanage and kills people for a living. Of course he has a well-stocked bar”, “You’ve got to beg forgiveness of him. You’ve got to put on trousers”, “I ain’t burying your body out here. Because I’m too fucking old and I didn’t bring the right shoes”. Then there’s this exchange:


Dickie: I’m just stating what I’m stating.
Dom: Stop stating what you’re stating.
Dickie: I’m not going to stop stating it. I’ll state what I want to state in whatever state I want to. Fuck you!

The side effect of Dickie’s presence as a supporting character is that he bows out with insufficient notice; the movie is, after all, about the titular man himself. But the chemistry between Law and Grant is effortless, and their repartee is a delight. Quirks such as Dickie’s false hand (“I thought it was a fashion statement. You always were a bit of a clothes fan,” says a baffled Dom) and that familiar Grant cackle of laughter when Dom cracks Lestor’s safe (“You did it, Dom! You did it!”) mask the fact that Dickie is the more circumspect and much less firebrand of the duo. Repeatedly Dom oversteps the mark and Dickie must attempt to salvage the situation or bring him back down; in that sense he’s more I than Withnail. Love the Grant. Great to have him back and remember why he made such an impression in the first place.


Elsewhere, Bichir brings just the necessary quotient of tempered menace to Mr Big. The scene in which Dom rants apoplectically is sort of the inverse of Kingsley in Sexy Beast; it’s Ivan (“Ivan-a”) who just watches him raging and you’re unsure quite what will happen next. That he doesn’t attempt to kill Dom is is unexpected (“I do owe you, Dom”), instead forcing his guest to eat crow, or rather “The rabbit is getting cold” (earlier Dom has been emphatic; “Rabbits are pets. I don’t eat pets”). 


Pets are also central to Dom’s second altercation with a (potential) employer. Lestor (Jumayn Hunter) has never forgiven Dom for what he did to the family feline (“You’re a killer of cats, Dom. And I want nothing to do with you”) so it should probably be little surprise that he fixes the safecracking challenge, concealing one safe within another. The price will be the severing of Dom’s prize appendage (thus neatly paying off the opening posing). Where Dom’s outburst at Fontaine sees us wincing with Dickie, so his grandstanding 10-minute try-out has us laughing and cheering along with his best mate (“And that, my friends, is how you open a safe”). The scene emphasises Melody’s ministrations that higher forces are saving Dom from himself; he must have known severing the safe alarm would bring the security team running, but he can’t have foreseen Lestor’s intentions or he would never have shown up. Making their arrival at that crucial moment more than fortuitous.


Richard Shepard has been making movies for more than two decades, but I’ve only seen a couple of them (I recall the release of The Linguini Incident and electing to give it a miss, even though I’m usually an easy sell for a Bowie turn). I loved The Matador, though, and this is even better. As with that picture Shepard pulls off a deft combination of the funny and the threatening, making left-field turns in direction that should but don’t seem out of place. Dom Hemingway may not have been greeted with acclaim, but if there’s any justice this is a cult movie in waiting.


****


Sunday, 13 April 2014

He speaks to you. You must trust that He speaks in a way that you can understand.

Noah
(2014)

Given the amount of discussion it has heralded, the talk of how it is difficult, how it doesn’t take the course of your average Hollywood blockbuster, and how it may offend those of a Biblical persuasion (no small deal when the mighty dollar is at stake and this group is surely envisaged as the film’s bread-and-butter audience), I expected Noah to be a much more interesting film than it is. Particularly given director Darren Aronofsky’s previous pictures, not all of them masterpieces but every one thought provoking and resonant. Here he takes a couple of chapters of The Bible and expands them with scant regard for whether there is sufficient material to justify his action. The result? He is unable to populate his film with sufficiently interesting or multi-dimensional characters to sustain its scale and scope. Additionally, the attempts to imbue Noah with “challenging” ideas and pose pertinent questions about how we are treating our world carries more wisdom than if, say, Michael Bay was at the helm of the ship but not that much more. Given Aronofsky’s inventiveness and elaboration on The Bible, you come away wishing his invention had been more inventive. Or, and this is the crunch, wondering how much more stimulating Noah would have been if he’d tackled the warts-and-all implications of Genesis.


Treating a text such as this with overt earnestness, and then labouring all your themes, you’re ripe for the kind of mockery that was second nature to Monty Python (or even Mel Brooks). If you go this route you absolutely need to imbue your material with dramatic heft for it to work. If you leave your audience the space to idly ponder the daftness of the scenario, that’s when you’ve entirely lost them. Aronofsky needed to foster pace and incident, John Cusack in a limo out-pacing the encroaching flood waters, rather than the one-note, going through the motions, relationships between Noah and his kin. The only other way I could see Aronofsky’s sceptical approach to Noah (the character) working is if he had fully embraced a Terrence Malick-esque subjectivity, that interior voice wondering and debating whether the Creator (Aronofosky doesn’t refer to God; the director’s Biblical literalism is cherry-picked, as God never has a voice in the story, despite there being most definite supernatural/miraculous acts) really has a plan. Such fractured perceptions might have been a way of fleshing out a bare bones narrative in a semi-compelling manner. But Aronofosky’s film is so much filler. At two-and-a-quarter hours it feels much much longer, and it only occasionally sparks into life with a compelling set piece or moral debate.


The director’s whole approach is curious. As an atheist, he has taken the interesting choice of embracing many of the fundamentalist and less easy to swallow aspects, at times elaborating and pushing further in that direction. The rock monster Watchers, for example, are one of the more fascinating peeks into a semi-hidden history in The Bible; a mere few lines referencing the Nephilim, the (offspring of) the fallen angels. But he chooses to render them in Lord of the Rings CGI fashion, a decision that robs them of the myth and majesty of the concept, and the most resonant idea of the temptations of the flesh (and the fall); the idea that these angels stumbled when they slept with women and fostered a race of giants is surely more coherent with Aronofsky’s themes than the noble version shown here (they were embroiled in the physical world when they came down to help mankind). Their big moment of “clobbering time”, as Tubal-Cain’s band of bastardly humans attempt to get aboard the Ark, recalls nothing so much as the Ents storming Isengard, taking out multitudes of Orcs as they do so. While Aronofosky visualises their entanglement in matter in an interesting way, turning them into semi-cute sloppy-moving creatures, it is perhaps the least fascinating thing he could have done with them. Particularly when they set to work building the ark (very usefully for Noah that, puts paid to a lot of heavy lifting). As for their eventual escape from their physical bonds… if they could have done that all along why didn’t they do it earlier?


Aronofsky also wants to treat his humans in a realistic, hard-edged manner. His depiction of the antediluvian Earth finds an unarresting semi-barren terrain we’ve seen in many a post-apocalyptic movie (and there are enough cues to suggest Noah could, at a pinch, be set in the future, which ties in neatly with the environmental theme). This should be a world we’re sorry to lose, not one that’s already been lost. I did a double take at the last scene, at what looked a little like the stretch of beach from the end of Planet of the Apes. Aronofsky’s one nod to the idea that the pre-Flood environment was different is the visible stars in daytime; there’s certainly nothing exotic here (the occasional invented species aside; maybe he should have shown Noah flipping out with dinosaurs). Of course, to have a lush environment would rather defeat the goal of presenting man as the ruination of the Earth. So Aronofsky has to bend and fit it every which way to tend his vision. Noah is a vegan too (as is the director), which tallies with The Bible, the preservation theme and the idea of his being a keeper of the memory of Eden.


This unkempt fusion of hard-edged grimness with Peter Jackson fantasy (except without Jackson’s energy) continues through to the depiction of the Ark. It’s a J J Abrams mystery box devoid of mystery. The animals succumb to a magic sleeping draught, which presumably preserves them in a kind of hypersleep until Noah awakes them with his special medicare kit (they have to be aroused in the correct manner, mind). So the two-by-two approach is retained (just two woozy mosquitos?) and the general unlikeness and enormity of the task, but the difficult logic of how to feed them and clean up after them requires attention? Yeah, because people would totally buy into it otherwise. This comes after Gandalf, I mean Methuselah, and his magic beans, I mean seed from Eden, sprouts a forest in seconds. There’s also the magic skin of the Serpent; I don’t know what fascinating nook of Aronofsky’s mind this comes from but it doesn’t have much power even as the symbol of returned heritage. It looks silly, because it we aren’t invested in its meaning.


Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, of course, as he actually is that old now) potters about with some very Gandalf-like magic tricks up his sleeve and a quest for berries. Methuselah curiously buys the farm as the floodwaters rush in, such his fruit obsession. Noah doesn’t offer to bring his 969 year-old grandpappy along (I think it’s generally considered that Methuselah dies pre-Flood), whose genuine magic (refertilising Emma Watson’s Ila) is supplemented by your common or garden shamanism (drugging Noah to induce more visions of disaster; also in support of this all arising from Noah’s self-induced divinatory skills rather than at the Creator’s behest). Noah doesn’t hear God, certainly not in any empirical sense; he has prophetic dreams, just like any modern doomsayer who is invariably proven wrong.


While I’m critical of the push-pull between Aronofsky’s opposing inclinations in making the film, he occasionally produces something winning or drops in a reference without making a meal of it. How Enoch walked on with God was always a particularly evocative in Genesis, and it crops up casually in conversation between Noah and gramps. I really liked the visualisation of the waters rising from the Earth. Noah’s light source is a bit too much like magic fairy dust, but on the other hand Tubal-Cain’s rocket launcher is random enough to be quite groovy. There was a chance here to go for it with the idea of pre-historic technology (see also Edgar Cayce and Atlantis), but for all the talk of how much he goes off the beaten track, it’s repeatedly disappointing to discover how much Aronofsky has reined himself in. How mundane the results are.


Yet, when it comes to Noah telling a story – be it the Watchers’ descent into matter, or the account of the seven days of Creation – Aronofsky excels. The latter is a magnificent sequence, as God and evolution merge together to make everyone happy. Or, more probably, unhappy. There are intimations of the kind of gnostic ideas explored in Jonathan Black’s The Secret History of the World, with Adam and Eve depicted as shining beings not yet sealed into matter. Or maybe he’s just shouting out to Kubrick’s glowing Star Child.


Elsewhere, Noah’s journey into the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is man’s encampment has a palpably bestial horror. It’s the confirmation of everything he fears about the evils of humanity, and the moment we can best comprehend his decision. Later, we hear the sounds and screams of those clinging to yet-to-be-submerged outcrops (Aronofsky appears to be inspired by Doré’s The Deluge) above the wind and rain, as Noah sits impassively over his family while they plead with him to show mercy.


Visually Noah is quite dour. I like much of regular Aronofsky cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s work, but here he merely contributes to a generally derivative and unengaging visual style. the unadorned Ark is symptomatic of Aronofsky's what-if aesthetic; there's something deeply at-odds with itself in having a functional container fashioned by Rock Monsters. Everyone is adorned with the kind of designer duds we’re used to from the likes of Jack the Giant Slayer and Clash of the Titans (reboots) and that’s not meant as a compliment. No matter what purported era of history or fantasy you’re transported to, if it’s Hollywood there’ll be a young hero in a hoody. Guaranteed. Clint Mansell’s score is solid, but too reminiscent of The Fountain in places; not a good thing, since that film is superior in every conceivable way to Noah.


In the end, the absence of the Old Testament God is as problematic as the removal of the Olympians from Troy; there’s nothing especially gripping about a nutter obsessed with the end of the world that we haven’t seen many times before. If this is actually at the behest of a belligerent Creator, isn’t that a more interesting and difficult premise to explore? Doesn’t it get to the root of His less than benevolent depiction in Genesis? Aronofsky plunges into fantasy but lets God off the hook. Perhaps because his fascination only extends so far; I’d argue that the idea that God regrets the creation of man is the most interesting part of the tale. If Aronofosky was making the story of Abraham (which he actually seems much more attuned to, if Noah’s tests of faith are anything to go by), he’d be seized by a furious headache and drag his son off to the slaughter; it’s no good psychologising a story with 21st century insights if you lose what makes it so powerful in the first place.


If you’re going to muster the mythic for a Biblical epic, at least attempt to make it enthralling. Aronofsky seems to have perversely fixated on neither side. There’s too much fantasy to embrace the horror/wonder of the end of the world, and he’s too down-to-earth to really go for broke with his visualisation. The battle for the soul of man has no import when Aronofsky can muster only stereotypes not archetypes. This doesn’t look so much different to any gritty version of an epic myth we’ve seen since in the near-15 years since Gladiator, but it has no engine to keep it going. We are not entertained. It takes enough time to get to the Flood, but at least there’s a modicum of momentum there. The manufactured crisis of faith never grips, despite Crowe giving it his all (and a number of daft haircuts).


With God exiting stage left, Aronofsky needs his antagonist. Other than the duelling Noahs, that is (another nice moment, of Luke on Dagobah proportions, has Noah seeing himself in the pit of iniquity that is the human encampment). Tubal-Cain is Hollywood villainy at its most banal. I’ve seen it said his character has a point. If so, it only ever rings true when Noah’s gone right off the deep end, as Tubal is only ever a nasty piece of work. Obviously, since he’s played by Ray Fackin’ Winstone. Or rather, Ray Winstone with a natty two-pronged beard. Since The Bible doesn’t mention that Ray Winstone didn’t stowaway aboard the Ark, Aronofsky quite reasonably assumes he might have done.


Any valid sentiments Tubal-Cain has about Noah’s behaviour and dooming mankind to a watery grave are thus nullifed. But this goes back to the idea of leaving out God as the bad guy (or Bad Guy). We have no sympathy for Tubal-Cain as soon as we see him killing Noah’s pops (ain’t that symmetrical?), and because Winstone plays him in fackin’ cant mode (does he ever play anyone in any other?) it’s going to be an uphill struggle to accept his point of view. His surrogate play for Ham’s allegiance is fairly weak stuff, weakly argued, and when it comes to the big confrontation, which plays out in a four-way encounter lacking any tension, we can only conclude that, if Ray had absented himself, the picture might at least have ended fifteen minutes earlier (not enough of an excision, but a start). As with the big G, if Aronofsky had taken a different tack, casting someone urbane as a counterpoint to Noah, so the reason in his words had a chance to shine through, he might have created a genuine tension between ethoses (blubbery Val Kilmer was considered, and he’d have been a much better choice, as would Liev Schrieber so long as he wasn’t in Sabretooth mode). Instead Tubal-Cain disgusts everyone by extinguishing a species every time he gets peckish. 


It’s been said that the Noah of The Bible is something of a blank slate; he “listens and acts”. Which most certainly isn’t the interpretation of Aronofsky and Crowe. Here, Noah has visions and gets tough (and, as noted, the Watchers do all the building while Noah props up a shovel).  Crowe is strong and intense as only he can be, and on the few occasions he’s allowed to show softness the realisation of Noah as a fully embodied character peeps through the rain cloudes (these occur mostly during the first half; his dissolution into acceptance when he’s about to off his grandkids has been so over-egged it completely flounders). Unfortunately, the character is mostly one-note, and his obsessiveness quickly becomes tiresome.


There’s a fantastic scene where Noah goes out to find Ham (Logan Lerman, whose performance might be the strongest in the film, certainly the one that makes the most out of fairly little) as the rains lash down and the rush of Tubal-Cain’s forces arrives. Ham, rather obsessed with finding a home for Mr Perky, has ventured into the world of men to find a wife. He finds Na’el (Madison Davenport) and as he leads her back to safety she gets caught in a bear trap (damn things get everywhere). Noah looms out of the woods and pulls Ham to safety as Na’el gets trodden into the ground by the onslaught. This moment encapsulates why Noah is wrong; we really don’t need another hour of Winstone fackin’ cursing him or Noah getting all infanticidal at the prospect of Ila giving birth to a girl. Noah’s struggle should engage on some level, but it ends up beating you into semi-oblivion.


If Ham is relatively well drawn, Aronofsky leaves out the character’s most famous moment; Noah cursing him and his line on discovering dad pissed out of his gourd and in the nuddy; as any good father would. The extremity of Noah’s response has given rise to speculation that Ham got up to other terrible things on discovering a bladdered daddy but, as Mel Gibson knows well, people will talk any old shit when they’re pissed. There’s also a whole distasteful racial interpretation to Ham’s cursed lineage that has gained cachet at various points (particularly since it presented a handy convenience to justify slavery), most recently by Mormons. Aronofsky’s makes a curious break with Genesis here by sending Ham off alone. Maybe he’ll return at some point after Noah has expired, and marry one of his twin sisters. Incest is left as the elephant in the room in the Noah story, and Aronofsky manages to both leave it unsaid and emphasise it with Ila’s twin daughters. Perhaps genes were much more resilient back then.


The rest of the family are complete non-entities. Understandably since Mrs Noah doesn’t even merit a name in The Bible, Aronofsky tries to give her some form. He does a lousy job, is all. Jennifer Connelly is forgettable in her second (well, third with Crowe if you count Winter’s Tale) teaming with Crow and Aronofsky. She made much more of an impression in both those previous roles (the lousy A Beautiful Mind and the overwrought Requiem for a Dream respectively. Emma Watson, on the other hand, is outright terrible as Ila. And she’s the one given the big emotional scenes, blubbing over her new-borns and delivering a “Duh, really?” speech at the end that only stands out for being a complete clock-watcher. Still, at least you couldn’t call her forgettable. Unlike pretty boy Douglas Booth, whose utter lack of presence as Shem guarantees a big future as a vacant teen heartthrob.


I hoped Noah would be a provocative film, conceptually and philosophically. I didn’t expect it to be a boring one. Unfortunately it just hangs there, its director hoping the occasional extreme act or extreme acting will do the business. This isn’t, as some have suggested a piece of work with the insight or thoughtfulness of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (surely an influence on Aronofosky, since Noah’s reading of God’s will is interiorised; but it just underlines that the “eye of the beholder” reading of faith has been done to death at this point). There’s a kind of poverty to Noah’s ability to muster strength enough to hit only the most obvious of targets, and the manner in which it looks like every fantasy movie that surrounds it (only more austere, if that’s possible). Intermittently we are offered glimpses of greatness, and those moments mean the film isn’t a total bust, but coming from someone with such previous form as Aronofsky this is a massive disappointment.


**1/2