This week on Radio 3’s Morning Brew, I talk to Phil about Pierre Coffin’s new animated prequel, Minions, as well as the Sam Raimi-produced remake of the Steven Spielberg-produced horror flick, Poltergeist. I also give Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet a brief mention.
Spider-Man returns in the second film of this rebooted franchise. Not so long ago, Tobey Maguire was playing Spider-Man under Sam Raimi’s direction in the first of what was supposed to be a definitive series of films, taking the arachnid-like superhero to new heights of onscreen action.
But, only 12 years later we are already into the second film of Andrew Garfield’s tenure as web-hurling vigilante, with Marc Webb again directing. Webb’s Spider-Man is darker, exploring more deeply the self-doubt and romance found in the comics. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ups the ante, trying to deliver more action, more villains, more romance, more humour and even more backstory.
The extent to which this film succeeds may, in part, depend on the expectations of the audience. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is one of the three films likely to go big at the box office this summer, along with Transformers: Age of Extinction and X-Men: Days of Future Past. All three films are attempts to breath new film into well established and one may say, tired franchises.
Achieving the kind of huge, global box-office these films aspire to demands reaching a broad audience, many of whom will be unfamiliar with the origins of the stories in question. This of course presets a challenge for films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, since so many die hard fans of the comics will be amongst the first to see the see the film and will flood online with opinions often based on their expectations of how the film should treat the original source materials.
This, together with the short time elasped since the last Spider-Man franchise makes treating The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with any kind of objectively a real challenge. The film just begs comparison and with so many alternative versions of the story alive in people’s imaginations, one wonders how audiences will react. So much so, that one scene, which hints at other possible villains will for many film-goers, evoke immediate memories of villains from the Raimi-era Spider-Man films.
My feeling is those who go into The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with some kind of open-mind may well enjoy this film. It does groan under the weight of too many villains (at least three), too much on again, off again romance and a rather silly performance from Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon before he transforms into the much more satisfying persona of Electro, but this Spider-Man/Peter Parker is full of the self-doubt, adventure, humour and inability to get the whole romantic thing right which make the character of Spider-Man interesting.
Andrew Garlfield does at times seem ill at ease in the role and overwhelmed by sharing the screen with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, but that’s part of the point. Peter Parker is in over his head, he is out of his league and here, haunted by the shadow of Stacy’s father (Denis Leary) and the promise he made to not put Gwen in harm’s way, he is constantly second-guessing himself.
And, while Garfield does well, Dane DeHaan almost steals the show as Parker’s childhood friend, Harry Osborn. DeHaan was brilliant in last year’s Metallica: Through the Never and every scene as Osborn confirms his talent and promise as an actor.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does spend too long giving us even more backstory (about Parker’s parents) and not invest enough in developing some of the characters. But, despite all the focus on action and fight sequences, we also get some compelling, well paced moments between Garfield and Stone and also, Garfield and DeHaan, which give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a real sense of humanity and purpose.
In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, director Marc Webb has created an ambitious, exiting, tragic and largely satisfying Spider-Man experience. This might not be a film for the Comic-Book fundamentalists, but for the rest of us, it is a thrilling, enjoyable romp, that even this comic/blockbuster jaded review must admit, was very fulfilling.
Oz the Great and Powerful sits at the intersection of two contemporary trends in cinema; it is both a prequel to a well loved classic and a CGI fuelled recreation of a familiar fantasy world. Therefore any viewer would feel compelled to approach this film with an equal measure of hope and trepidation.
The cast is strong, with James Franco as OZ, whom we meet at the start of the film working as a disreputable sideshow magician in a travelling circus. Despite cloaking himself in the guise of performance and artistry, his passions are largely carnal and material. Franco is well suited to playing this kind of likeable rogue.
Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams play the three witches, in decreasing order of evil, from really bad, bad to cute. Zach Braff plays Oz’ sideshow assistant and Joey King plays a crippled girl who asks OZ for help, with both actors playing parallel roles in the fantasy land of Oz, with Braff as a servile flying monkey and King as a doll-like porcelain girl who this time is healed by OZ in the one of the film’s few cinematically imaginative moments.
Despite being called a “spiritual prequel” to the original Wizard of Oz, Sam Raimi gives us very little of the magic and sparkle of Victor Fleming’s original. Both films start with Kansas shot in stark, narrow perspective black & white, before exploding into widescreen colour when we enter the land of Oz. In Fleming’s version, as catch glimpses of Oz from inside Dorothy’s black & white cabin before she seems to explode into colour before our eyes, in one of the most magical and cleverly constructed scenes in film history. By contrast, Raimi’s OZ appears in colour as one scene is edited into another. It’s a flat and unspectacular transition, more like a pop culture reference played for the a-ha effect than a visual and creative statement.
In many ways Oz the Great and Powerful is not like Wizard of Oz and sits more naturally with films like Alice in Wonderland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, where discontinuity is a poor substitute for wonder and cuteness is confused with goodness. William’s Glinda is good largely in the sense of being kind and nice, with power “owed” to her because of her father’s achievements, rather than her own moral compass.
When we first meet Kunis, she is looks as if she could engage Oz in a sword fight, her costume, pinned blazer, curved broad-rim hat and tight trousers make her appear like a female Musketeer, or maybe Zorro’s apprentice. It’s a great look, but it makes no sense in the context of the film. There are many moments like this, which after a while feel less like holes in the story than statements that plot and narrative don’t really matter beyond simply being a rod upon which to hang special effects.
In many ways Weisz’ Evanora is the best drawn, most coherent character. But, the plot ultimately does not let her character flourish. In fact, for a film with three strong women in lead roles, we get very little sense of how these females could be leaders in their land – they can only draw down authority by being either a winsome angel or a shrill bitch. And, even the one who has the arc of historic justice on her side can only really win when she has a man to sort things out.
By contrast, Wizard Of Oz still enchants us because there’s something beyond the cuteness and charm; a narrative arc that has some profound things to say about growing up, about one girl’s journey into adulthood. When Dorothy looks behind the screen, she not only sees who Oz really is, she not only peels back the magic of cinema, she actually sees the world as an adult, stripped of all myth and pretence.
When the same metaphor is used in Oz The Great And Powerful, all we see is an undramatic screen kiss, robbed of any real emotion. That’s fitting in a way, because this film is trapped in it’s own artifice, weighed down by the CGI and 3D tricks and in fact, no better than the cheap, formulaic and amoral sideshows which it ironically mocks in its opening sequence.
Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-man) re-teams with James Franco for this big budget prequel to the classic MGM musical, dispensing with the songs but layering on the lurid 3D visuals. Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis also star.