The Amazing Spider-Man – Review

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)  

Directed by Marc Webb. Starring Andrew GarfieldEmma StoneRhys IfansDenis LearyMartin SheenSally FieldIrrfan Khan.

When the news of a reboot for the Raimi-Maguire Spiderman was first announced (and not just a reboot, but another ‘origin’ story, only 10 years after the first one), the obvious question on anybody’s lips was “Why on earth?”. What followed was a sort of anti-campaign from fans and critics alike: we all seemed to have decided we were going to hate this film, at all costs. When eventually first teaser was released in 2011, with all that badly CGIed, cartoony, extended point of view shot, looking more like a video-game than anything resembling a real film, we had already made up our minds that new incarnation of Spiderman was going to be not just redundant, but the final nail in the coffin for possibly the most beloved superhero of them all.

Well, I am happy to eat all my words back and say that I could not have been more wrong: The Amazing Spider-man is possibly the best Spiderman movie we’ve ever seen (I would have to watch the second one by Raimi again to really work out which one is now my favourite), but more importantly Andrew Garfield is the absolute ultimate Spiderman.

The line that everybody has been saying over and over again to describe this film is that it is a more realistic version of Spiderman (if you can call realistic the story of a man in spandex swinging through the skyscrapers of New York); what director Mark Webb has managed to infuse in it, is not the usual gritty and dark realism we’ve come to expect from those Nolan-directed Batman movies, but one steeped in real characters and real feelings, where people can be hurt both in a physical and emotional sense. And if you thought the Raimi-directed films were love stories first and foremost, and ain’t seen nothing yet!

The comparison with the previous incarnation of your friendly neighbour,  given the fact that we are meant to buy into another origin story so soon after the first one, it’s not just unavoidable but also quite fair. The ghost of Raimi is constantly behind the corner, but cleverly Mark Webb (who has obviously studied his source deeply and intensely) has manage to avoid most of the obvious comparison by giving the story a completely new spin (you will forgive me the pun), steering away from anything which could give us any sense of Déjà vu, making the story and the characters different enough at each opportunity, giving us a new baddie and a new girlfriend too.

While I was watching it, the only thing I felt I was missing from this version, was that sense of wonder and excitement that came with the first one, when Peter was swinging across NY for the first time. But having now seen it all, I am willing to admit that the film is keeping all that for the end and I was just waiting for it because of my knowledge of the 2002 version.

And of course on this one we get the added dimension given by the 3D technology, which seems to be have been created for this kind of films: I’m not your number 1 fan of 3D, but seeing this in an IMAX Theatre, I have have to tell you I found myself flinching from time to time and having a sense of vertigo that I am sure it would not have been so strong if it had been in 2D. So for once, kudos to the gimmick!

The final result is a film that manages to be just as fresh and exiting as if it was a completely new story, and it still manages to keep us guessing, thrilled and entertained throughout.

Somebody may argue that, clocking at around 136 minutes, it is all probably too long, but not me. Never once I felt anything was superfluous or in need of a trim. Andrew Garfield is so good and likeable in the main role and the chemistry with his co-star Emma Stone so sweet and believable (Yes, I know those 2 are together in real life too, and it shows) that I was just happy to be in their company. And even if Mark Webb took his time before the new Spidey costume made its first appearance, I would have been absolutely fine without seeing it for even longer. And if the film works as it does it’s because we do actually spend some proper time with these characters. It’s crucial that those scenes don’t feel rushed.

Rhys Ifans as the one-armed scientist/lizard, has enough screen-time  to flesh out his character into not just your stereotypical baddie, but a proper two-dimentional persona, making that extra twist at the end even more believable  (and giving Alfred Molina from Spiderman2 a run for his money for the top spot on Spidey’s best enemy list).

One the downside, James Horner‘s music, while one one hand was nicely judged on some of the more intimate and poignant moments, felt too saccharin and sweepy in what should have been much quieter scenes, but more crucially, it seemed to lack that Hero-theme which this type of films require. The kind of theme you can still hum by the time you leave the theatre, just like in Superman or Indiana Jones or even Harry Potter  (God, is John Williams really the only composer who’s able to do that?).

I’m also in two minds about the costume itself (I know, now we are on geeky-territory, but what do you expect from a moviegeek writing on his blog?!): though it look cool from far away and even on the poster, more often than not it seemed to fit awkwardly on Garfield’s body, creating strange creases and looking more like plastic than anything else…

The CGI work though has still a few cartoony moments is pretty good, and certainly the best we’ve seen so far in any Spiderman movie. I was pleased to see how little of that video-game-like point of view from that first trailer was actually left into the film. It must have been a case of listening to what the fans had to say and acting consequently.

Three editors are officially credited in the film and that’s always a sign of a film going that’s gone through several permutations. As someone very close to the art of editing I could see that despite those 136 minutes some of the transitions were a tiny bit too quick: the explanation of how Parker was able to make his web seems to be the sequence that suffered more than any other.

But I know, I am really picking needles here! It might not be the most original story you’ve ever seen (well, it not!), but it’s a thrilling romp and thoroughly enjoyable. And yet, despite all the action, the spinning, the spectacle (and the film has a lot of that!) what really shines at the heart of The Amazing Spiderman it’s the relationship between Garfield and Stone: it might be just marketing campaign to draw in the female audience as well as the the comic fans and the geeks, but it also gave the film such an emotional depth that I completely won me over. In fact in a way it’s the simplicity of the story itself that makes this such a pleasure to watch (I did enjoy the Avengers, but I still have trouble at explaining some of that story…).

If you add to all this, Andrew Garfield‘s spotless performance (in fact in a couple of moment really Oscar-worthy! If only Hollywood was brave enough to allow those types of performances in the Oscar race…) the perfectly balanced and well calibrated direction, and some wonderful supporting cast (Martin Sheen, I love you!) and some thrilling visuals, what you get is one my favourite superhero movie ever.

8.5/10

The Adventures of Tintin – Review

The Adventures of Tintin – the Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Steven MoffatEdgar WrightJoe Cornish. Stars: Jamie BellDaniel CraigAndy SerkisNick FrostSimon Pegg 

I should probably tell you straight away that I have been waiting for this film for about 3 decades! Yes I know, quite a bold statement which may give away my age, but it will also tell you about my level of expectations for this film. If then you add the fact that I’ve grown up watching Spielberg movies back in his golden years (obviously the 80s) and that I’ve also been an avid fan of all Tintin comics ever since I was a little boy, you can probably get an idea of the kind of palpitations I had when I sat into the theatre and wore my 3D glasses. Having said all that I will still try to give an unbiased and honest review as much I possibly can, praising the (many) merits of the film but also highlighting some of the faults which in my option prevented Tintin from being the masterpiece I really wanted it to be.

For a start I was very  pleased to see how respectful Spielberg was with the handling of the original material. After all, this is the man who wanted to turn Harry Potter into an American, combining several books into one (A bad, bad, bad idea Steven!). The story of this film actually combines several of the Tintin books: ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ (in which Tintin befriends Haddock and saves him from smugglers) and the two-parter ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ (which is the core of the story about the search for the lost treasure). There are also some very small elements and secondary characters from other stories too, but as far as taking liberties that’s where Spielberg stopped. Everything else is precisely how the Belgian creator, Hergé had imagined it: with that same sense of adventure, mystery, intrigue, action and fun. In other words the same mood and atmosphere that made the comics so successful  (at least in Europe) and incidentally, in a way those same elements that were also at the centre of one of Spielberg’s classic, Raiders of the lost ark.  It’s not surprising that Hergé himself, after seeing that film back in 1981 thought Spielberg was the only person who could ever do Tintin justice.

Spielberg pays homage to Tintin’s creator right from the start, not just in the beautifully design title sequence (reminiscent of the one from Catch Me If You Can), where he show us so many elements from all Tintin stories, not just in the colour palette he chooses for the cinematography of the film or in the way each character’s face looks, but he even goes as far as having Hergé himself appearing as a street artist drawing a portrait of Tintin the way we are used to see him in the comics: pure genius!

On the whole I must say that I wasn’t as bothered as I thought I was going to be by the motion capture animation. In fact you stop worrying about it about 5 minutes into the film. The characters look more cartoony than realistic and that helps getting away with the fact that their eyes (especially Tintin’s) are slightly dead. This is first and foremost still an animated film (I can place a bet right now that it’s going to be nominated at the Oscars next year, and probably it’s going to win one too!). One thing is for sure: it does look magnificent! From the moody dark shadows reminiscent of those film noir from the 40s, to the great vistas straight out of a David Lean classic, the impeccable cinematography (Spielberg is even credited as Lighting Consultant) is not just beautiful but impressive and atmospheric.

Spielberg in his first animated venture (and his first use of 3D too!) looks like a little boy who’s just been told he can do what he wants for his birthday: he appears to be liberated from any restriction he may have had on a normal feature film and seems to have a lot of fun in finding new beautifully inventive ways to transition from one scene to the next  in a way you could only do in animation (or with a lot of very expensive CGI): Spielberg’s camera floats, glides, flies, moves through glass, shoots straight into mirrors and gives us views which would otherwise been virtually impossible and yet, most of the times it’s never showy, it’s never forced or indulgent (in the same way,it wasn’t forced in ET, when the camera never showed us any adult – mom aside – for most the film and yet it didn’t make it annoying… In fact most of the audience didn’t even notice).

It’s like watching a master at work who knows exactly where the camera should be at which time. It all culminated with one of the most impressive and perfectly executed chase sequence ever portrayed on screen. Impressive not just because of its pace and its edge-of-your-seat thrills, but also for its meticulously choreographed  technique: in fact it takes place in just one impossibly-long shot, which adds to the tension and to the sense of fun. If you ever wondered why didn’t they just film the whole thing for real, that sequence alone (which by itself is worth the price of the entire ticket) should serve you as an answer.

I just wished that same tension and fun of that sequence had been present throughout the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong, this first adventures of Tintin is a roller coaster ride like few others. Essentially it’s one action set piece after another, and yet somehow I felt there was a strange tendency to resolve problems much too quickly. It’s almost as if Spielberg was so preoccupied to get us to the next action sequence that he almost forgot how to makes  like the one we were watching. I give you a few examples:  a chase sequence at the front of the film, ends much too soon before it has time to climax. Later on there’s a scene where Tintin has to steal a key from a bunch of sleeping goons. A lot of time is spent setting up the dangers and then just when the sequence is about to get fun, Tintin gets the key. There’s another scene where Tintin faints close to the propellers of a plane and once again he gets saved much too quickly.

Whatever happened to those classic Spielberg action sequences that were so tense despite being so simple? I’m thinking of Indy trying to get the antidote to the poison he’s just drunk as the little bottle gets kicked around a room full of screaming people in the Temple of Doom, or fight sequence by the plane in Raiders, or even the glass breaking sequence in the otherwise weak Lost World? (In fact they are too many to even mention).

The pace of the film is strange and a bit uneven. It has moments of long exposition (this is a fault that comes with the source material to be completely fair), then lots of little short action scenes (as I said, slightly too short to feel important. I would have rather had fewer set pieces but longer in their execution) and sometimes it’s even anticlimactic (I’m thinking of the last 10 minutes of the film for example). I don’t think it’s necessarily an editing problem. Since this is animation, there isn’t a lot of extra material that can be added to add tension to scene.

I  am probably picking needles because as I said before I love these stories (and the story-teller) way too much.

The comedy aspect of the film is a bit of a hit and miss: the Inspector Thompson and Thomson are obviously aimed at the younger crowd, but they’re also the weakest characters (we had a glimpse of that in the trailer itself, as one of them falls off the stairs: a scene which in the theatre where I was, full of kids, was received with dead silence), on the other hand Captain Haddock is perfect. I don’t know whether it’s the script, or Andy Serkis’s performance or both, but most of the jokes around him seem to work perfectly. Same goes for the little dog Snowy who is in almost every scene of the film, even if just in the background licking a massive bone in the desert. The audience I was with seemed to love him and so did I.

And finally Tintin himself which in this whole 3D world is probably the most two-dimensional character. Aside from the fact that he seems to get a kick out of solving puzzles and getting into adventures, we know very little about him. I’m not really blaming Spielberg for that, this exactly how Tintin was in the comics, but I do wonder if some character development would have been really seen as sacrilegious by the hard-code fans. Certainly not by me.

Finally I feel I should say a few words about John Williams score, the first one in years (especially if we dismiss the very forgettable one for the 4th Indiana Jones). There’s a very quirky and weird title music (which never really seem to play out throughout the rest of the film) which is the most un-Wiliamesque theme in a while. It’s certainly not bad, but it feels slightly detached from the rest of the film. The Star Wars title music was never repeated throughout the movies either, and yet it felt part of the score. This title music feels like it belonged to can other film (in fact it felt like a non used cue from “catch me if you can”). It’s hard to review the score, because for most of the film I felt it never really had the time to breathe as much as it should have. The comic cues suffered more than the others (the ones for the Inspectors for example), as they were covered by the dialogue and the rest of the sound effects to the point where I even wondered whether any music was needed at all. In fact on the whole I felt there was way too much music in the film (in fact there was hardly a moment without) and yet it had very little time for the music to shine. Having said that, I was still able to hum some of the Tintin action tunes once leaving the theatre… and that’s always a good sign.

To recap, I think Tintin has definitely legs for a sequel and even more than just one. It is a solid action-packed fun-ride for the whole family which is not as loud, dumb and insulting as some of those Pirates of the Caribbean films were (especially the latest sequels). It’s proper film-making with the heart in the right place.

I’ll be looking forward to the next one, even if I am very aware I have now passed the average age of the target audience…

7.5/10

Check out my other reviews of movies by Spielberg: Raiders of the lost art, ET The Extra-Terrestrial, War Horse

Raiders of the Lost Ark – 30th anniversary Review

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) 

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Harrison FordKaren AllenPaul Freeman

Call me childish, call me narrow-minded, call me a “blockbuster-junkie”, call whatever-you-want, but to me this is the perfect film!

Such a bold statement might require some explanation (which hopefully I will be able to give in this post) and certainly begs the question: what makes a film perfect? And, is this really one?

The answer to the second question is a simple and resounding YES.

I believe a perfect film is one that can be watched over and over again: a film that you never grow tired of and that whenever is on TV and you stumble across it, you end up watching. A perfect film is one of those where you struggle to pick up one favorite scene, because they’re all so good. A perfect film is one of those you really wouldn’t change anything about it and where all its elements (story, direction, acting, music, cinematography, editing and so on) come together in a such a way that it’s virtually impossible to choose one over the other.

Raiders of the lost Ark is 30 years old this month, but still shines as if it were made yesterday… except that it wasn’t because, as we all know “they don’t make them like this anymore“.

I still remember going to the movie theatre when it first got released (Yes, I’m giving away my age: clearly I’m not a teenager!) and being absolutely blown away by it. At the time there was nothing like it  (and arguably, that’s probably still true today).

Ever since then people have been trying to  imitate its winning formula, and, needless to say, most of them failed miserably. Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about (and to prove my point), just think of Lara Croft, Prince of Persia, National treasure, The Mummy Trilogy and even those films inspired by the Dan Brown‘s books: well, those are the most successful ones… Enough said. I won’t even go into the list of endless B-movies.

I find quite hard to write about “Raiders”, mainly because I’ve seen it so many times and I know so much about it, that I almost feel compelled to write every single details filling up pages and pages… But don’t worry, I won’t.

Right from the word “go”, from when the summit of the Paramount logo dissolves into a Peruvian mountain (a Visual device which will become the trademark of the entire series), you know you’re in for something which is not only original but clever and handsomely made.

What follows that logo is probably one of the best first sequences of any action movies ever made. The mysterious forest, the haunting music, the bloody  statue, the group of explorers, the old map, the hidden cave, the pulsating tension, the crawling spiders, the giant web, the deadly traps, the decomposed body, the big scares, the golden idol, the sliding  door, the traitor, the whip,  the rolling boulder, the French baddie, the wild Hovitos, the arrows, the chase across the fields, the swinging vine, John Williams‘s “raiders theme”, the snake on the plane, the jokes breaking the tension: and all this is just within the first 10 minutes!!! It is such an incredible edge-of-your-seat beginning that after that the film can afford to launch into a very long scene with some massive exposition

And I haven’t even mentioned the hero himself, Indiana Jones.

Harrison Ford deserves a lot of credits for the success of this film. Who knows what would have happened if Tom Selleck had played the role: he was the first choice, after all (I will be eternally grateful to Magnum PI).

Harrison Ford manages to make Indiana Jones strong and frail at the same time, funny and sad, invincible and weak. Indy is a hero but he gets hurt, tired, dirty and sweaty. It doesn’t matter how far-fetched and over-the-top the action might be, Ford makes it feel real.

Spielberg directs it all with clockwork perfection but he’s also able to improvise on the spot and use it all to his advantage (most famously, the now-classic scene where Indy shoots the sword-man, which as we all know by now, was pretty much improvised on the spot). He orchestrates it all with a mastery that’s never showy and always serving the story and the action as he uses all the tricks in the film-maker book: long lens shots during a chase sequence, a tracking shot across the desert to show the scale of the landscape, a single one-take shot during a drinking competition.

He also knows exactly how to pitch the film: helped by a carefully crafted script, all the improbabilities are always levelled by humour, the action is always counter-balanced by actual dramatic scenes, the magical sense of wonder is always routed to reality and however cartoony some of the characters might be, they’re always incredibly detailed.

Paul Freeman‘s Belloq is not just a baddie. There’s so much more to him: the care and attention he has for Marion, and whole untold back-story and a passion for archeology he shares with Indy are enough to give him more depth and somehow make him more scary. He also gets one of the best lines in the film: “we are only passing though history, this… this IS history”

What started off as a tribute to those Action Saturday Matinee that Spielberg and Lucas loved so much, here becomes a rollercoaster of sheer invention, cracking action and incredible fun. So many scenes are now become classic iconic moments in movie history, whether it’s to do with snakes in  “well of Souls”, or ghost-like creatures during the opening of the ark, running though the streets of Cairo, or fighting with a bald guy by a plane out of control, in a secret chamber underground, or in a massive warehouse with thousands and thousands crates (incidentally, one of the best “last shots” of any movie!!).

This is so much more than just pure escapism: this is a manual of “storytelling with pictures”.

10/10 

Here’s there’s a great fan-made running-commentary of the film. A real work of genius and love for the film made with great care and attention. Well done Jamie!

Raiding The Lost Ark: A Filmumentary By Jamie Benning on Vimeo.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec – Review

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) 

Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Louise BourgoinMathieu AmalricJean-Paul Rouve

Director Luc Besson finally returns to live action after a 6 years hiatus, though after watching this film, I wished he had waited a little bit longer. 

The film is adapted from Jacques Tardi’s early ’70s comic book series, set in 1912 Paris: in fact it’s taken from 2 different adventures (the first one is the story-line about the pterodactyl and the second one about the mummies) and throughout the film there is so much going on that I really wished thinking they had sticked to just one of storylines.

The international posters sells “Adele Blanc-Sec” as a cross between Indiana Jones and Amelie (and that’s an already pretty bold and yet suspicious claim as the two films despite being both very good are surely quite incompatible with each other), but there are also hints from the Tintin strips and even reminders to Lara Croft herself.

The film certainly looks very stylish and quite expensive (though some of the CGI work looked a bit ropey): both the cinematography and the art direction are top-notch, as we’ve come to expect from Besson’s films. The 1900 Paris is recreated with ravishing details as the camera swoops along the many sets, and locations but unfortunately it’s the story-line that ultimately lets it all down.

The plot is so convoluted that in the end it takes all the fun away from what could have been quite an enjoyable experience.

It’s hard to see what the target audience for this film should be. Sometimes it is all so silly that you could be forgiven to think this is one for the kids, and yet the use of the voice over and the actual structure of the story both seem to aim at a much more mature type of audience (and let’s not even mention the completely gratuitous nudity, which is just baffling and really pointless).

There are individual some good scenes here and there (for example the Indiana-Jonesenque adventure in Egypt) which give you a glimpse of what the film could have been if it had sticked to a more simple genre.

But where the film really fails completely is in its comic timing (there’s one funny joke toward the end, to do with a certain pyramid in Paris…): the comic characters are so stupid and over the top that not only are more reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther films, but they somehow manage to diminish the impact of the rest of the film, especially from both the most poignant moments.

In the end it is very hard to take any of that seriously, or to care for any of the characters on the screen (despite a good performance by Louise Bourgoin, in the title’s main role). All you’re left is a sour taste about all that money wasted on a messy and flippant film which is all style and very little substance.

Mr. Spielberg, do watch it closely and learn your lessons for your your upcoming Tintin.

6.0/10

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