The (Seriously) Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review on April 20, 2014 by Spike Marshall

Amazing-Spider-Man-2-Official-High-Res-Banner

This isn’t a review and it’s hopefully not big on spoilers. It’s designed to be more of a post film analysis, rather than something designed to sell you on a movie. If you’re still unsure about seeing the movie I’d say give it a shot, I guarantee that it’s not going to be widely loved but if you do manage to synch up with it’s very peculiar wavelength you’ll be one of the cool kids, and at the end of the day isn’t that what we all want? To be one of the cool kids.

Anyway to business, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (hereby  referred to as ASM 2) is a film that feels caught between two masters. On one hand the film feels perfectly happy to focus on a self contained narrative, pitting Spider-Man against the latest freak of the week, Electro. On the other hand the film feels obligated to keep powering the meta-story of the franchise at the expense of said self contained narrative. As such we end up with a film where all three acts feels like very specific and very unique movies. The first act is Spider-Man vs. Electro, this segment establishing Spider-Man’s status quo, evaluating Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacey, introducing Max Dillon, showing his subsequent transformation into Electro and crescendoing with Spider-Man and Electro’s (spectacular) showdown. The film achieves all of the above in roughly an hour, the second act promptly remembers that this is an Orci and Kurtzman script and swiftly introduces a plotline about magic blood and sets Peter off on an internalised journey of discovery. During this period the film infrequently checks in on it’s villains, not for any plot reasons but more as a means of habeas corpus. The third act has absolutely nothing to do with the second act and serves as a pat continuation of the conflicts set up in the first act via the means of super-powered smack down. Once this is all settled the last twenty minutes of the film are essentially an internal micro-sequel to ASM 2 playing out within the movie itself and building from some of the nebulous themes explored in the second act, in much the same way the last forty minutes of THE DARK KNIGHT play more as hastily constructed sequel than an actual third act . This micro-sequel establishes a villain, deals with a villain, disrupts the status quo, teases the next sequel, establishes another villain, resolves Spider-Man’s internal conflict, dispatches the new villains and establishes a new status quo within the space of about twenty minutes.

Structurally speaking the film is a goddamn mess and it feels like there’s a lean 80 minute film that director Marc Webb is 100% invested in which has been padded out by second unit stuff designed to establish Sony’s vision of a connected Spider-Man franchise of films. The franchise aspects of the film feel as rote and unfun as the machinations of IRON MAN 2, whilst the Electro story has the giddy, anything can and will happen, tone of THE AVENGERS. It’s the equivalent of having your dessert poured over the broccoli to better expedite your meal eating experience. So as a whole I should hate the film, right? Well I kind of do and I don’t, and generally I find myself falling more into the “yay” rather than “nay” category. The reason for this is because despite the overt corporate nature, exemplified by the blatant attempts at franchising, the film feels like a wildly loony beast. On a scene by scene basis the film operates that is feverishly inventive, well acted, and beautifully shot. Webb doesn’t just have an eye for gorgeous visuals (and the film is routinely beautiful looking) but also a knack for offbeat compositions and sequences. From the exhilarating first person web slinging sections, to the use of slow motion and freeze frame to indicate thought processes all of Webb’s action sequences are not only driven by a kinetic energy, but also it’s own quirks.

A big part of this energy and quirkiness comes from Hans Zimmer’s score (which if you’re British can listen to via Spotify above). Taking over scoring duties from perennial bore James Horner, Zimmer has constructed a score that is brimming with personality. Working with a supergroup of previous Zimmer collaborators Six the score is a mixture of musical styles a world away from Zimmer’s usual rhythm and string scoring style. There are elements of Zimmer’s usual pacy scoring layered throughout the film, but they’re offset by playful woodwind accompaniments, distorted guitars, dubstep beats and ranting vocals. In particular Electro’s theme is kind of stupendous, with a muttered paranoid refrain increasing in tone and aggression as the woodwinds used to signify his more human side give way to, at times diegetic, dubstep. It’s a frenzied, multilayered, exciting piece of music and it perfectly complements the spectacular melancholy of Spider-Man and Electro’s first tet-a-tet. The entire crux of the sequence is Spider-Man trying to reach out to the newly formed Electro and the score manages to be both tragic and visceral at the same time, discordant elements bonding together to create something really memorable.

The eccentric, pulsing score, perfectly captures the gorgeous visuals of Electro, pulses of electricity peeling away from him in brilliant blue and purple strips. In comparison to the rather drab action and look of the original film, Amazing Spider-Man is constantly awash with colour both visually and in terms of it’s general tone. In fact, for better or worse, the film it reminds me of the most is BATMAN FOREVER. Largely in how willing it is to engage with the more loony aspects of the comic books. From; wonderfully malevolent German Psychiatrists, to degenerative diseases that can turn a man’s hands into talons, secret laboratories hidden in compartmentalised subway trains and giant mechanised power suits the film is practically giddy with the possibility afforded to it by it’s source material. But this unbound comic book sensibility also casts harsh light onto the moments of the film that are more grounded. With a film that can be so filled with joie de vivre it has a nasty habit of being it’s own major buzzkill. Take for example the entire second act which sees Spider-Man show up for one minor scene, and worst of all banishes Andrew Garfield to scene after scene where he’s in scenes by his lonesome. Garfield is fantastic as Spider-Man, imbuing the character with humour and warmth, but he works better as part of an ensemble. His scenes with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne effortlessly convey the intimacy and friendship of the respective relationships, but when the film casts him adrift for it’s long middle section he feels hopelessly alone. In fact the film is very good at creating amazing pairings of actors and then doing nothing with them, giving us just enough to want more of the dynamic but not enough to leave you truly satisfied. DeHaan for example has some amazing scenes with a variety of characters in the film, but the more indelible pairings are tragically cut short. It’s essentially a casualty of the film’s bloat, the need to jam so much plot into such a short time frame that forces the movie to be fairly cutthroat at times with it’s more character led scenes.

When all is said and done I’m probably a little easy on the film, largely because the first hour perfectly encapsulates the kind of Spider-Man movie I’ve always wanted to see. Spider-Man as a superhero who helps people, who feels like part of a community, and has genuine compassion. The first act is fun, exciting and spectacular looking and the subsequent deflation in the second act and rather pat conclusion only serve to reduce the film from exceptional to great. It also has me salivating for the next film, as the film largely feels like it’s done all of the legwork vis-a-vis both rebooting Spider-Man and establishing the tone and structure of the franchise.  It’s just a shame that to get to that point it sometimes feels like this, great, film has been sacrificed for the greater good. But when the sacrificial film includes broadly evil German doctors, zany comic book action and amazing turns by all of it’s core cast I don’t particularly feel too let down.

Mass Effect 2

Posted in Button Bashin' with tags , , , on February 4, 2010 by Spike Marshall

The rather enigmatic Collectors

The first MASS EFFECT, released in the shadow of HALO 3, was a game that seemed to be a sleeper hit within my circle of friends. My friends picked up the game in the following years and each found something to love about it but at release it seemed to just get ignored. It’s easy to see why in a pre-COD4 world HALO 3 was the big game for the 360, the first real system seller and everything else paled in comparison to it (the fantastic Orange Box was another casualty of this, it’s amazing multiplayer mode hemorrhaging users almost immediately). It didn’t help that Mass Effect was a distinctly difficult game to get into, it was difficult and at a completely different tempo to what was expected by XBox 360 owners. Compared to the user friendly interfaces and general high production values of HALO 3 the game was glitchy and cumbersome. Menu’s were bewildering and cluttered, the inventory NEVER felt right, the graphics whilst suiting the game were jerky and the frame rate would grind to a halt if you even attempted to run down a corridor. These were problems that were ironed out eventually, the ability to install to Hard Drive countered a lot of the performance issues, but they all helped in making Mass Effect a game you really had to invest yourself in. Of course if you did take the time with the game and had the patience to predict and deal with its niggles and bugs (I must have saved around 200 times when I first went through the game, just to make sure I didn’t end up falling through the floor and having to start again) you were rewarded with a universe that felt vital, characters that were interesting and fun, and a story that just worked. It was a real roughly hewn gem of a game.

MASS EFFECT 2 in comparison is a lovingly and skillfully cut diamond. From the first minutes of the game the production values on show are considerably improved, a yawning chasm into the void of space showing off an overhauled graphics engine and fully implemented physics. It’s tempting to just stand around and watch as debris slowly floats away from you and gets picked up by the gravity pull of a nearby planet, objects slowly fading away into the distant blue of an alien atmosphere, of course whilst this is happening there’s important heroic business to attend too and as such there is little time for idle gawking. In terms of visual design it’s up with BIOSHOCK in terms of making you want to stop and really take in your surroundings and the game never really lets up. In terms of sheer design work MASS EFFECT 2 just towers over its predecessor, but that’s to be expected. Playing Mass Effect 2 makes you understand that MASS EFFECT was more of an exercise in world building than anything else. With all of the basics covered in the previous game MASS EFFECT 2 is far more concerned with plotting and character than set up, it’s central mission being the recruitment of a squad of mercenaries to undertake a task no one expects you to return from. With all the pieces already in place from the previous game MASS EFFECT 2 is allowed to explore the more peculiar, nicher sides of the universe, exploring smaller colonies and seedy spaceports and really expanding your knowledge of how the universe works. Continue reading

Spike’s Top Albums of the 00s

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2009 by Spike Marshall

Seen as I’m getting all reflective about stuff, here’s my top 10 albums of the 00s in Alphabetical Order, because I could never hope to rank them otherwise.

Spike's Albums of the 00s

Spike's Albums of the 00s

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

The first Arcade Fire I ever heard was their EP, Us Kids Know, and I was a massive, massive, fan of their work from Funeral onwards. But as much as I loved Funeral I think Neon Bible is an album which just ‘clicks’ and works on a completely different level. Whilst Funeral had moments of ramshackle greatness (Rebellion, Power Out, Wake Up) it was an album that felt like an advertisement for their live show more than anything else. Neon Bible felt like a more cohesive piece of work whilst keeping the discordance of their previous work.

Amanda PalmerAmanda Palmer – Who Killed Amanda Palmer

For everything the Dresden Doll’s achieved I found myself drawn to Amanda Palmer’s solo record as ‘their’ definitive. Whilst only one half of the duo is presented on the record, each song carries the base DNA of what the Dresden Dolls had been doing over the course of three albums. Whilst the spiky punk edge was varnished from her record, Palmer was able to craft insidious little pop songs that had all the nasty little barbed lyrics and manic intensity of the Dresden Dolls whilst making her own sound. Runs In The Family and Guitar Hero weren’t a revolutionary step for Amanda Palmer, but they marked the evolution and growth of her previous sound into something truly special.

DeVotchKa – How It Ends

Whilst the plaintive, aching, title track is what drew me to the album in the first place ‘How It Ends’ turned out to be an almost perfect album from a group that had been operating on the periphery of the music scene. Chic balkic rock was all the rage amongst the indie scene throughout the 00s and whilst groups like Beirut and Gogo Bordello received accolades for their appropriation of this Romani/Slavic sound DeVotchKa simply powered on, slowly building up their sound and moving away from straight homage and into a place where the orchestral elements were still their, but they actually served a purpose in creating great, inspiring, music rather than being mere affectations. How it ends with it’s simple pianos and soaring cellos is an obvious stand out of the album, but songs like The Enemy Guns and She Loves Me both show a band who have mastered their sound and are comfortable to experiment within it.

Esbjörn Svensson Trio – Leucocyte

When it comes to Jazz my head is stuck in the 50s and 60s. To me Jazz is Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck and as such it takes a lot for me to embrace less ‘traditional’ Jazz. E.S.T.  were one of the few contemporary Jazz bands who really struck me and it’s because despite the ‘pretension’ of their music and experimentations with form, the band were always concerned with the music and as such you often felt that their albums were three musicians jamming, rather than a bunch of jazz artists trying to deconstruct the form. It’s one of the great musical tragedies that Esbjorn Svensson was killed before his time and just when his group was starting to make some truly accomplished works.

final-fantasy-blogFinal Fantasy – He Poos Cloud

Owen Pallett is the kind of geek that can make other geeks uncomfortably because he approaches his geekish subjects in ways that feel cryptically ironic, but also uncomfortably honesty. As such it’s hard to tell if he’s really geeky or just being wilfully ironic, and songs about his relationship with The Legend of Zelda games do little to help with this problem. The touring violinst with Arcade Fire and collaborator with several other groups from The Hidden Cameras through to The Last Shadow Puppets Pallett’s two solo records have both been minimal affairs, his compositions designed to be played by a solo performer. Yet these limitations never stopped his brand of baroque pop from sounding incredible. His scathing, literary, lyrics fuelled with geek references coupled with quaint, propulsive, insidiously addictive violin compositions helped to craft two albums that were small in stature but still enrapturing.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver

Deftly ironic lyrics? Propulsive, ever building beats? Immaculate soundscapes? Yeah, this is an album I was almost designed to love. Everyone’s who played GTA IV is familiar with Get Innocuous! and it’s ability to make even the smallest action seem utterly iconic. To me, Sound of Silver is probably the most ‘of its time’ album on my list. It’s ironically hip and detached, but it’s also got an infectious sense of fun and at it’s core it’s an album which just demands people pay attention and start dancing. Songs like North American Scum, Sound of Silver and All My Friends have so much energy and so much spark that it’s often hard to categorise just what works about them, it’s like trying to quantify fun.

Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell – Sunday at Devil Dirt

There’s something about the matching of these two voices, grunge singer Mark Lanegan’s american personified voice and Isobel Campbell’s sweet ethereal tones, which gives me shivers whenever I hear them. As individuals they would be great performers, but together they have the kind of frisson and interplay which made Nick Cave’s duet with Kylie Minogue work so well. It’s a beautiful, soulful, simple album.

The National – Boxer

Alligator has the better singles but in my mind Boxer is the stronger album by the National. As individual pieces many of Boxer’s songs don’t really match up to Alligator (in fact Start A War and Slow Show are the only songs I can listen to outside of the context of the album and REALLY appreciate) but as an expansive whole there’s some kind of audio alchemy going on. The tone of the album is perfect and within its own context the album is almost flawless. The only gripe I possibly have with the album is the cacophony of noise the band seem intent on ending all of Boxer’s songs with when playing them Live which whilst sounding great, often takes away from the sleepy, dreamy qualities of the album I really enjoy.

The National

Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, You Are The Destroyer

Concept albums are terrifying things, spawning mental images of beardy prog rock bands and half boiled homage to Tolkien. In the case of Hissing Fauna, You Are The Destroyer the concept seems almost accidental, wounded self destruction transposed to music by the albums creator Kevin Barnes. Dealing with Barnes’ deteriorating personal life the album is a spiral of madness and melancholy crescendoing with the horrifically wounded The Past Is A Grotesque Animal before transmorphing into something almost blissfully prog rock. Despite the album being a soundtrack to the disintergration of its creator’s personal life there’s an underlying quality which makes it almost irresistible. The melancholy is constantly balanced against sparkly, almost pop like, music and even the Past Is A Grotesque Animal (a 12 minute long evisceration of his relationship with his wife) is made into something almost beautiful, the embarrassingly painful lyrics backed by a beat that is almost hypnotic.

Queens of the Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf

Josh Homme might be an egotist beyond repute and Nick Oliveri probably was an abusive girl friend beater, but the two of them together with the help of Dave Ghrol and Troy Van Leeuwen would create an album that was a piece of flash in the pan brilliance. I’m not a heavy music sort of guy, I’m not a fan of metal and I prefer my punk to be post, so the fact I adore this album has always been a bit of an enigma. I think personally there is a melody and throughline to the heaviness which allows me to latch onto something, it’s also pretty kick ass.

Spike’s Top 20 Films of the 00s: #20 Oldboy

Posted in Asian Cinema, Movies on July 6, 2009 by Spike Marshall

Oldboy 2With a red band trailer circulating for Park Chan-wook’s vampiric new project THIRST I’ve been thinking about the series of films that took Park from the Asian cinema ghetto and placed him into the global, critical, consciousness. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy benefited from, and perhaps in its own way helped kick start, the western fascination with Korean cinema. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was one of the first modern Korean titles to receive a wide release in the United Kingdom, as part of the now defunct Tartan brand, but the influx of Korean cinema onto western shores seemed to happen around the time that Oldboy found its way onto western DVDs.

Bolstered by massive amounts of critical praise the film found itself even enjoying a limited theatrical run. Such was the success of Oldboy that Park Chan-wook went from being another anonymous Asian director to actually having people actively waiting for his next release. This change in perception was almost certainly due to Oldboy itself, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance whilst being a fantastic film was savaged by most reviewers largely due to the fact it’s subtle and reflective look on the cyclical nature of violence was marketed alongside the hyper violence of Takashi Miike and the perversion of Shinya Tsukamoto on Tartan’s infamous Asia Extreme catalogue. So six years after release how does the film that turned Park Chan-wook from an enfant-terrible into a critical darling hold up and does it deserve a place in the top 20 films of the 00s?

Oldboy 2

Of course given that this is was a film released in 2003 I’m going to not hold back on the spoilers so if you’ve never seen the film I’d flitter off elsewhere.

The most striking thing about Oldboy is how rock solid the thematics of the piece are in contrast to how experimental the film was at times. Chan-wook’s previous films were remarkably formal affairs, offering striking cinematography and character focused storytelling over cinematic tics and tricks. Whilst still retaining some of his previous formalism Oldboy also had a kitchen sink style feel to it at times. For every effect that works seamlessly, for example the use of the bleach bypass process to accentuate the putrefied colour scheme of the film is used perfectly to create a feeling of rotten elegance, there is an effect where you understand the intent but can question the quality. Oh Dae-Su’s descent into madness as he is held captive is perfectly captured by claustrophobic camera angles and Choi Min-sik’s delirious performance and noirish voice-over and is almost sabotaged by crude and over zealous use of CGI at one point. But even with a few stylistic missteps the film is still absolute stunning to look at. As mentioned earlier the film employs the bleach bypass process used by Darius Khondji in films like Se7en and combines it with a colour scheme of festering greens and dark reds to create a look that is rotten and decadent at the same time. It’s a beautiful baroque painting of a film that’s been left to curl and yellow in a dank basement and the look suits the subject perfectly, but really despite being a visually astonishing film Oldboy’s power comes from its narrative and thematic heft.
Oldboy 3Oldboy plays a number of narrative tricks, the first being the sleight of hand involving the imprisonment of its hero Oh Dae-Su who is introduced at his most iconic, holding a man from the precipice of a tall building by his tie, before flashing back to his doughy, drunken, self locked up at a police station. This incarceration is going to be a prevalent theme throughout the  film as Oh Dae-Su moves from the confines of the police station to the confines of his private prison and then the metaphysical confines of the machinations of his nemesis Lee Woo-jin. With an initial viewing we’re lead to lead to believe that Oh Dae-Su’s incarceration in a private prison is the set-up for a revenge story, his training regimes and attempted escapes giving us a picture of a man who has shaped himself from slovenly normality into a bestial force of nature. The transformation, both physically and mentally, of Oh Dae-Su is the primary concern of the first act and it serves to align our sympathies with the character. Oh Dae-Su is the central protagonist of the film and he occupies at least 90% of the scenes in the film and as such we find ourselves relating to him despite early revelations that he’s not the most pleasant person in the world. This relatability is important with Oh Dae-Su because we have to witness his transgressions, without being repulsed by them. In a standard revenge film Oh Dae-Su’s brutality and single mindedness would be a virtue, in Oldboy his transformation into a lean, mean, vengeance getting machine is part and parcel of Lee Woo-Jin’s ultimate victory

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The end of the film suggests a traditional happy ending. The villain has been dispatched, his henchman overpowered and killed, and the hero is going to spend the rest of his life with the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately in Oldboy’s case the villain killed himself after achieving all of his goals and the hero has chosen to carry on an incestuous relationship with his daughter rather than face the truth of his predicament. The end of Oldboy, with Oh Dae-Su first being reduced to a primal beast like state and then begging to have the truth of his crimes erased from his memory completely changes the the nature of the revenge story at the films heart. The ending of the film switches the focus of vengeance from Oh Dae-Su to Lee Woo-jin and paints the two characters in different lights. Whilst Lee Woo-jin is undoubtedly still the villain of the piece, his heart ache and emotional investment in his scheme makes his revenge seem far more ‘earned’ than the brutish vengeance demanded by Oh Dae-Su. Lee Woo-jin is quite obviously insane and his desire for vengeance comes from a place that is both irrational and utterly rational. Oh Dae-Su’s initial crime is a forgettable moment of gossip, but the ramifications of this action (the death of Lee Woo-jin’s sister and, arguably, the destruction of Lee Woo-jin himself) are far too significant for Lee Woo-jin to accept. When contrasting the two characters it becomes interesting to see that Lee Woo-jin’s violence and insidiousness is dictated by love, whereas Oh Dae-Su’s violence and brutality are dictated by a logic skewed by a decade and a half of imprisonment. Lee Woo-jin is guilty of incest himself and is for all intents and purposes the villain of the piece, but his systematic destruction of Oh Dae-Su as a person is so complete that it becomes difficult to root for the films hero, his final, awful, decision just compounding this problem.
Oldboy 4
Going back to my initial point about narrative tricks, the greatest trick the film plays is using the language of archetypal revenge movies to align the audience with a character who starts out as vaguely repugnant and is then reduced his most base and brutish form. Oh Dae-Su’s actions are never pleasant (from his oafish behaviour in the police station, to the revelation of all of his enemies, to the way he eats a live squid, to his attempted rape of Mido, to his brutal torture techniques through to his final decision to live with his incestuous relationship) but the use of subjective camera, the use of cinematic tropes, Choi Min-sik’s powerhouse performance and the use of music create a character who is lamentable and almost charming in his singularity of purpose. Lee Woo-jin is weird and aloof throughout the film, Oh Dae-Su in contrast is down to earth and given these two archetypes we as the viewer tend to gravitate towards the earthy and knowable. As such we find ourselves on Oh Dae-Su’s side and stylistic choices like the one shot corridor fight create heroic parallels for Oh Dae-Su whilst the use of     Vivaldi in the torture scene makes a moment that should be horrifying exhilirating instead. In fact Yeong Wook-jo’s score is used to accentuate character beats and cement audience expectations at every turn. Oh Dae-Su’s music is punchy and taut whilst the themes associated with Lee Woo-jin are more formalised and often far more melancholic. We’re even given hints as to the true nature of Mido through the melancholic waltz which accompanies some of her scenes.
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As such the entire point of the film is to question our notion of revenge and vengeance. The trilogy of films Park Chan-wook concerning the theme of vengeance would all look at the nature of revenge in different ways. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance took a nihilistic view on the dehumanising effect of vengeance and retribution, Lady Vengeance examined just who deserved vengeance and who was entitled to become a punisher, Oldboy changed our notions on what exactly we expected from a revenge film. Despite the journey being centred on Oh Dae-Su the ultimate revenge was had by the villain of the piece and in doing so he burdened the hero with all of his own crimes. Lee Woo-jin’s murderous nature and incestous relationships were replicated in Oh Dae-Su against his will, Oh Dae-Su’s quest for vengeance an extension of the prison he had spent a decade and a half in. The more Oh Dae-Su struggles to find the truth the more he follows the path Lee Woo-jin has set for him.
Oldboy is a film about men and the monsters they can become due to obsession. From Oh Dae-Su’s bestial transformation, to the calculating inhumanity of Lee Woo-jin. It’s a film powered by three fantastic central performances (Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-Su, Yu Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin and Kang Hye-jeong as Mido) and given shape and form by the intellect of Park Chan-wook. It’s a beautiful, jacobean tragedy of a film, with vibrant set design conflicting with the rot of the bleach bypass process and the eulogised score. It’s beautiful, primal, vulgar and intellectual.
Oldboy 5

Batman Begins

Posted in Movies, Review with tags on July 18, 2008 by Spike Marshall

One of the problems with Batman is that he is a character who is hard to relate too. Compared to the more blue collared heroes of Marvel the DC heroes have always strayed away from the common man angle. Superman is a deity, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, the Green Lantern is an interstellar cop and Batman is a playboy billionaire driven to the point of madness by the murder of his parents. Having his parents be killed in cold blood at such a young age not only distances the character from his readers but limits how you can tell the story of Batman. The character is essentially going through long term post-traumatic stress, raging against the world which disrupted his life and as such you can either write the character as a cipher or a mad man.

The live action Batman films all seemed to realise this with Burton’s first film portraying Batman and Bruce Wayne as a barely contained psychopath. The following films would marginalise Batman’s role in the story until he was little more than a supporting character in his own movies. Whilst the previous films would contain brief flashbacks to the murder of Wayne’s parents they never took the time to look at the origins of the character with even Tim Burton’s first Batman film showcasing a fully formed crime fighter.

Christopher Nolan’s 2005 resurrection of the character would devote nearly half of its runtime to the origins of Batman and would become the first Batman film that was as much about Bruce Wayne as his secret identity. Featuring extensive flashbacks to his youth in Gotham and showing the training that Wayne would undertake to become a masked vigilante Batman would only show up about an hour into the film. Instead of the infallible and omniscient Batman of the past we were shown a young and inexperienced crime fighter struggling to make a difference.

By focusing so much on Bruce Wayne’s formative years Batman Begins actually manages to develop something of an emotional core. Thanks largely to the work of Christian Bale and Gus Lewis (who has a few scenes as the young Bruce Wayne) Batman Begins actually creates a Bruce Wayne that feels real, a Bruce Wayne consumed by anger but who actively fights against the darkness inside him. Whilst Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney all embraced the inherent nuttiness of Wayne none of them seem to have the sense of inner turmoil that Bale brings to the role.

“Swear to me!”

With his previous work in American Psycho it was easy to assume that Bale would have brought some Patrick Bateman to the role but in fact he eschews a lot of the expected acting choices. For one Wayne never seems overtly crazy, his mission is driven by a deep insanity but when he dons the mantle of the bat it is a cathartic release for the character. Whilst I’m not usually a fan of Bale’s work have to admit that his acting choices and sheer physical presence really help to establish Wayne as a character. His Wayne is truly happiest when he is at work but he also has the mental discipline to make his social interactions not seem too rigid. Despite being uncomfortable with his role as a playboy Billionaire he never comes off as a kooky or as odd as the previous Batman.

Aiding Bale are some absolutely terrific supporting performers. Chief amongst them is Michael Caine as Wayne’s erstwhile Butler Alfred. Caine, like Bale, moves away from what you would expect of Alfred and creates a character that feels real. Whilst the general notion of Alfred is an incredibly proper and traditional butler Caine opts for a slightly more blue collar approach. He is a lot more forthcoming than any previous version of Alfred and this fact is relayed in simple things like his accent. Instead of going for a traditional ‘proper English’ approach to his line delivery Caine gives Alfred a military standing and doing so he sets himself up as an equal force to Wayne. Instead of being a surrogate father figure to Wayne Alfred becomes Batman’s conscience, the force trying to stabilise and guide the crime fighter. He also offers a little lightness to counterpoint Bale’s strict and at times joyless performance.

An impressive ensemble of British actors rounds out the rest of the supporting cast. Liam Neeson seems to be having quite a lot of fun as Ducard, the man who mentors Wayne and schools him in the ways of the Ninja. Tom Wilkinson is legitimately threatening and repellent as Falcone, a mob boss who currently controls Gotham. Cillian Murphy gives a lot of depth to a wafer thin character as Dr. Crane, his slimy intonation and gangly frame making him an interesting contrast to Bale’s Batman. In fact only Gary Oldman as Sgt. Gordon seems to get the short shrift of things, his role in the film teetering on the edge of being a comic sidekick. He’s given some of the worst material the script has to offer and you can actually see Oldman’s interest wane as the movie goes on. It’s a shame because Gordon is a key player in the Batman mythos and in Batman Begins he just seems to not really be utilised aside from two key scenes. His interactions with the young Wayne after the shooting are really well done and his conversation with Batman about escalation is some of the strongest work in the film, it’s just unfortunate everything else is so flat.

“You want my opinion? You need to lighten up”

Gordon is probably the biggest casualty of a script from David Goyer and Christopher Nolan that is at times just horrible. Whilst the bare bones of the story are fantastic and show a great love for the Batman mythos it’s the individual dialogue which really cripples the film. There’s a certain lunk headedness to lines like “My name is merely Ducard” “I got to get me one of those” and “Protection for them” which work to sabotage the entire production. The film veers wildly from being understated to being overstated and the effect is incredibly jarring at times. Ducard and Bruce’s training session on an ice flow is a really great piece of writing but when they meet again Ducard has switched from a sage mentor to a ranting villain who even delivers a speech about killing Wayne’s parents by proxy.

What hurts the film more than anything is the shift in tone halfway through the second act. The first act is probably one of the best bits in the film and in the Batman films in general. Seeing Wayne recount his past horrors and become a man strong enough to become Batman is fascinating and it’s handled in a really interesting way. Despite the presence of ninjas and Gotham’s sprawling Art-Deco design it feels like a grounded movie. It’s certainly not a realistic film but it feels like a revenge film grounded in an approximation of reality.

This tone is maintained for about an hour and a half and even Batman’s first few jaunts are handled in a way that feels a million miles away from standard comic book fare. Batman is a shadow in the film, striking out from the darkness and picking off his foes like something from a horror film. Even the films villains are handled in a more grounded way. Falcone is an archetypal thug, a gang lord with the entire city on his payroll whilst Dr. Crane is just a sadistic psychologist who’s gotten into a scheme to make some money. Crane is the more outlandish of the two and even his heightened moments are him just trying out a fear toxin on patients.

The problem comes when the film starts to amp up for its major finale with the grounded elements being replaced by typical super heroics. Whilst the finale isn’t bad it feels like a betrayal of the good work set up previously. Batman trying to escape the police in his modified tank is a thrilling piece of vehicular action but it also throws the intelligence the film had been building out of the window. Similarly the major action set piece on board of an overhead tram has stakes that are too high for the modest beginning of the film and reduces Gordon to little more than a comedy sidekick.

“Does it come in black?”

Part of the problem is that Nolan whilst being a great director when faced with character and thriller elements doesn’t seem to know how to film an action sequence and as such most of the action beats are incredibly confused. In fact the final fight on the tram itself is so muddled that it starts to become unclear exactly who has done what. As such the earlier moments where Batman is prowling around the city trying to find information work far more effectively than any of the later action climaxes.

Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman however is one that actually works. Having Batman work against mobsters in an art-deco (with a hint of Blade Runner’s drizzly dystopia) version of Gotham actually seems to suit the character really well. Like Batman ‘89 it just feels like there is a conflict over the story and tone of the film with the influence of Goyer and Nolan apparent in several key scenes.

Still with a fantastic score (the combined work of James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is some of the best stuff that either composers have created in a while), some incredible cinematography and a fully rounded central hero it is hard not to view Batman Begins as the best Batman film in the series.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Posted in Movies, Review with tags , , on July 16, 2008 by Spike Marshall

1992 would see Tim Burton’s Batman sequel hit cinemas as Bruce Timm’s animated series debuted on TV. Batman: The Animated Series would become viewed as a landmark in children’s entertainment and its success would spur on the development of a big screen animated outing the following year. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’s surprisingly adult plot would be indicative of the series as a whole which infused the pulp character with humanity and intelligence.

Running for five years Batman: The Animated Series would eschew the standard practices of children’s cartoons and instead build its own style and iconography. Distinguishing itself from the popular Marvel cartoons of the time Batman: The Animated Series adopted a stylised art-deco look in contrast to its competitor’s attempts at realism. It also used the timelessness of Tim Burton’s Batman films to great effect to create stories that contained modern sensibilities and technology but had the ambience and look of classic noir.

The series also largely eschewed the continuity of the comic books and films presenting classic Batman characters and stories in new and interesting ways. As such Batman: The Animated series would both create and revitalise, adding new villains to Batman’s rogue gallery and giving new context to his existing enemies. The Joker’s psychotic girlfriend Harley Quinn would be a creation of the animated series as would the tragic back story of Mr. Freeze. Previously little more than an outlandish thug with a freeze gun Mr. Freeze would gain a melancholic edge in the cartoons. This facet of his personality and revised back story would be adopted into the comics themselves and would be ultimately used for Joel Schumacher’s fourth entry in the film series Batman and Robin.

“Looks like there’s a new face in Gotham and soon his name will be all over town… to say nothing of his legs, and feet, and spleen, and head…”

The show would also take its time in setting up plot points and situations, a chief example being the use of Harvey Dent a number of episodes prior to his transformation to Two Face. In setting up the character as a friend of Bruce Wayne it granted his cataclysmic turn to darkness a far great emotional impact. This kind of emotional climax was what Batman: The Animated Series was all about with the writers often favouring smaller moments over grander payoffs.

Instead of simply offering setup for a climatic fight the individual episodes of Batman went in various different directions. Sometimes they would focus on the Batman himself as he went about his detective business, sometimes the focus would fall on a peripheral character with the Dark Knight as a background force. In doing so the series managed to build up a cast of heroes, villains and supporting players that had incredible amounts of depth for a cartoon series and this depth would be employed brilliantly when Mask of the Phantasm tackled the origins of its lead character.

Mask of the Phantasm takes place with Batman fully integrated into the running of Gotham city. His tacit agreement with Commissioner Gordon allows him to track and bring in criminals with impunity. However a new costumed avenger starts to brutally murder mob bosses leading the public, spurred on by ambitious city councilman Arthur Reeves, to view the Batman as the culprit. Hounded by the police as he tries to unravel the identity of the enigmatic crusader Bruce Wayne’s life is turned around by the reappearance of the love of his life Andrea Beaumont.

Andrea’s appearance causes Wayne to reminisce about his past and in doing so we’re given an insight into the birth of Batman. The film switches between the present and the past and as such we’re given a glimpse into Wayne as a fledgling crime fighter, fully trained but lacking the iconography which would make him famous. We see him donned in dark clothes and a balaclava, combating crime but failing to make a psychological impact. We even see Bruce swayed from his quest by his blossoming affections for Andrea. It’s a fascinating insight into the character and it marks the first feature in the series to look at this period. Batman Begins would be a full blown origin story but all the other Batman films up to this point focused on a character that had found and made peace with his identity, a vigilante who had already perfected his craft.

“So, tell me – with all that money and power, how come you always look like you want to jump off a cliff?”

Like Batman Begins the film would take its inspiration from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One a one shot comic book which depicted Batman’s fledgling year. Whilst Year One was a far grittier and nastier take on Batman’s first forays into crime fighting its influence can be felt in the way Bruce Wayne interacts with his parents and criminals in Mask of the Phantasm. Whereas earlier films would show Bruce Wayne being spurred on by his parents murder Mask of the Phantasm created the notion that Bruce’s mission was in servitude to them. Certainly his desperate pleas for another option when he finds happiness suggest that this Bruce Wayne could have exorcised his demons without donning the mantle of the bat.

What makes these earlier scenes work is Kevin Conroy’s fantastic performance as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Conroy’s voice work would be one of the lynchpins of the animated series and his magnetic and divergent turns as Bruce Wayne and Batman would help to create a sympathetic core to a character who could have easily been a silent loner. Conroy would be helped by a large ensemble of fantastic voice actors but the stand out supporting performer would prove to be Mark Hamill. Despite being best known for his heroic turns in the Star Wars trilogy Hamill established a career in his later life as a remarkably talented voice actor, his focus being on characters of the more villainous persuasions. With voice work in everything from Spiderman to Miyazakis Laputa: Castle in the Sky Hamill would bring a unique blend of humour and darkness to each of his roles.

But his most famous voice work would be playing Batman’s arch-enemy the Joker in the Animated Series. Clearly enjoying himself immensely Hamill would, with the help of some truly fantastic strips, create a Joker that wasn’t just good for a children’s show but which actually threatened to be one of the most interesting and bravura interpretations of the character. Perfectly capturing the Jokers conflicted and psychotic nature Hamill was able to be both funny and terrifying at the drop of a hat.

“Mi casa nostra es su casa nostra.”

The Joker’s appearance halfway through The Mask of the Phantasm should really spell doom for a production already juggling two comprehensive plotlines, but somehow it manages to handle the flashbacks, the phantasm and Batman’s most iconic showdown with his greatest nemesis incredibly well. Considering its lean runtime and exuberance of Hamill’s performance there was a danger that the Joker would once again dominate proceedings, but whilst the character is exceptionally memorable he’s reined in enough to serve as a suitable heavy without completely destroying the focus of the story

In fact despite a somewhat episodic nature Mask of the Phantasm manages to have one of best stories in all of the Batman films. Part of this is due to the fact that all three plotlines serve to flesh out one larger story which ties together all of the major and minor characters. In fact one criticism to be levelled against the film is that everything is wrapped up a little too tightly, to the point where the finals final climatic showdown occurs in a ‘World of Tomorrow’ museum which Bruce Wayne and Andrea visited when they were first dating. Simply having the Joker make his hideout at a random museum would have been fine, but by establishing an emotional connection for the other characters it makes everything seem a little trite.

But it really is a minor criticism and the museum provides a fantastic backdrop for one of Batman’s most explosive encounters with the Joker. With Jetpacks, robotic knife wielding housewives, toy biplanes and a fight against a miniature city thrown into the mix the final ten minutes is a suitably cathartic climax to a film that had avoided the usual Batman super heroics.

With a sumptuous score from Shirley Walker and some amazing animation Mask of the Phantasm is a perfect showcase of the style and intelligence that made Batman: The Animated Series so fantastic.

Batman ’89

Posted in Americana, Movies, Review with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Spike Marshall

“What are you?”

“I’m Batman”

If you are of a certain age that exchange between a terrified mugger and psychopath in a leather bat suit is probably the most iconic Batman has ever been as a character. Whilst I am not unaware of the failings in Tim Burton’s gothic take on the character I’ll admit to having a massive amount of love for the film he created. Of course the problem is disengaging nostalgic affection from the critical process and as such I’ve had to try and take something of an objective look at a film that was a defining cinematic part of my childhood.

Back in the late 1980s Batman was going through some interesting changes. Whilst the general publics concept of the character would be rooted in the colourfully cult TV series of the sixties Batman’s comic book audience were being introduced to a darker and more introverted version of the character. Frank Miller’s 1986 comic The Dark Knight Return’ would showcase an older Batman, a battle ravaged veteran who had attempted to retire his nocturnal activities. Switching between Batman’s own introspective musings and snippets of the media reaction to his reappearance The Dark Knight Returns would show both the need for and damage done by a zealous vigilante. It would make the fascistic underpinnings of the character plain for all to see and set a precedent for grittier content in comic books.

Alan Moore’s 1988 comic The Killing Joke would take the Batman’s greatest foe and delve into his tortured and fragmented past. The comic would both provide back story to the Joker, a character who had been up to this point something of a homicidal cipher, and counterpoint his madness against the Batman’s own psychosis. Leagues away from the classic heroism of his initial run we now had a character who was only one step removed, psychologically speaking, from his foes.

“You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”

Whilst Burton would take elements from both of these stories (to my mind the use of media in Batman is similar to the use of media in The Dark Knight returns) his main source of inspiration would seem to be the Bob Kane’s original Batman run. Showcasing a character hidden in the shadows, ready to kill and teetering on the edge of sanity. Whilst an action orientated actor would have been more of an obvious choice Tim Burton’s casting of Michael Keaton as Batman would become of the films greatest strengths. In a film almost overshadowed by one key performance (more on that later) Keaton, better known for more comedic roles, was able to deliver a performance that was nuanced, subtle and iconic.

To anyone who had seen his title role in Tim Burton’s previous feature Beetlejuice it would have been an obvious fit to cast Keaton as the maniacal Joker. However having Keaton play Batman served to create a duality of sorts between the hero and his most dangerous nemesis. Jack Nicholson would be the one to secure the role of The Joker and would craft a performance that was utterly memorable but also damaged the film as a whole.

When you watch Batman it is hard not to realise which element of the film Burton is drawn too as a director. His focus on the Joker is in hindsight not at all surprising. In fact the Joker has more in common with a traditional Tim Burton hero than anything else. The artistically oddball elements of the Joker aren’t a million miles away from the heroes of Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and A Nightmare Before Christmas. Whilst Burton would also accentuate the oddball qualities of Bruce Wayne the focus primarily rested on Nicholson’s infectious performance.

And where is the Batman? HE’S AT HOME WASHING HIS TIGHTS!!”

The problem is that Nicholson’s take on the character is perhaps a little too fun, a little too charming. It is very hard to actually view the Joker as a villain because he’s the most entertaining thing in the film. It also doesn’t help that the Joker is given the most iconic moments in the film. Really you’re supposed to be made uneasy by the Joker, but when he is raiding and redecorating posh restaurants/art galleries, killing mob bosses with electric buzzers and quills and committing mass murder by way of festival balloons he is more impishly charming than horrifying. There really is nothing to match the Joker’s sheer presence and sense of fun and as such you almost start to miss his presence when the film focuses on the Batman or its periphery characters. With his outlandish crimes and brash purple and orange motif the Joker is a blast of colour and vibrancy in Burton’s claustrophobically gothic vision of Gotham. As such he becomes one of the more identifiable and entertaining aspects of the film.

“More Like Bruce Vain”

Of course with Nicholson and Keaton giving their all in the star spots you’d expect the supporting cast to be somewhat overshadowed. In fact Burton’s quirky style actually manages to make surprisingly thin character at least a little interesting. Vicky Vale would be your standard love interest, but she is so Burtonised and kooky that Kim Basinger actually makes the role kind of fun whilst even minor roles like Knox and the Joker’s right hand man are given life by a script that occasionally sparkles. Even Alfred Pennyworth is given a little to work with as he attempts to humanise his charge’s feelings for Vicky Vale.

So the problem with the film isn’t the cast (even actors who have little more than a cameo such as Billy Dee-Williams manage to inject personality and charm into their characters) and it probably has less to do with Burton’s visual style. Tim Burton’s use of matte paintings and set based shooting makes everything feels slightly claustrophobic but the actual look of Gotham is certainly memorable. With its art-deco stylings and gothic spires Burton’s Gotham looks like a city lost in time and place. Elements of the city suggest American design other facets are decidedly European and whilst the set dressing is very much Prohibition era the actual technology in the film is bang up to date. It really is a melting pot of ideas and yet somehow the film manages to shoulder the majority of its excesses.

What is surprising about Burton as a director is his aptitude for set pieces. Sequences like an attack on a restaurant are filmed with a bizarre mix of comic book pulp and modern extravagance. Despite the fact that the leather bound Batman is completely restricted in his movements Burton actually manages to create sprawling action sequences around the character. Compared to the rapid fire editing of Batman Begins it’s refreshing to see what Batman is doing, even if at times it is painfully obvious he can’t actually move all that well and the third act whilst horribly misguided has perhaps the strongest climax of any of the Batman movies.

“Think About The Future”

Of course the thing that makes these action segments work is the score by Danny Elfman which is probably more iconic than the movie itself. His signature Batman theme is immensely evocative as well as being surprisingly suited to action sequences and it works to give yet more energy to the film. Whilst many seem to dislike Prince’s contribution to the soundtrack its use in the film is really quite clever. Prince’s proto Pop/Dance numbers do clash with the vision of Gotham that Burton has created, but that’s part of the point. The Prince songs in the film are all diagetic, pieces of music heard by the characters themselves which serve as the Joker’s own personal soundtrack. As such it is meant to be as jarring as the Joker’s façade and in that context it works incredibly well.

I’m done praising the film now, so time to focus on what I feel weighs down the whole product. Batman has charm to spare; it’s got an electric cast, a great soundtrack and a director with a unique vision. In fact the only thing it lacks is a decent script. Whilst the film is filled with some great dialogue it is also lumbered with some of the worst structuring to befall a Batman film. Batman and Robin may be the worst film in the series but it doesn’t meander anywhere near as much as Batman and that’s one of the main problems. At times the wealth of ideas makes it clear that a lot of writers have had a crack at the basic story of the film.

Whilst the Batman script would be completed by a long time comic book fan, the 1988 Writers Guild Strike would remove the original writers away from the production process. Non-union writers were brought in for rewrites during production itself and the results are sometimes palpable in the film itself. One story concerning these rewrites focuses on the finale itself, in which Batman battles to the top of a Cathedral to save Vicky Vale from the Joker. This was an element added to the script during the rewrites without Burton’s knowledge. Apparently Burton only found out after $100,000 had been spent actually building the Cathedral steps and as such he found himself with a costly set up and no idea of how to properly utilise it.

“Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds”

If you take the studio rewrites as fact then it starts to make sense why the film would focus so much on the Joker. At the time Jack Nicholson was the films biggest asset and as such it would make sense for the studio to want to accentuate that asset. The third act in of itself is just a complete mess, with a sudden diversion away from the established tone of the film to make way for pantomime theatrics. Batman was never a serious film but seeing the Joker pull out a revolver with a 20 inch barrel and shoot down Batman’s plane took the film to a jarringly campy place. Similarly the motivation for the Joker to take Vicky to the top of the tower was never really dealt with. Whilst it seems odd to nitpick in a film which features a bleached skin hitman being sent to a brutal death by way of lassoed gargoyle the final act was rife with inconsistencies. Not to say that the final part of Batman isn’t fun, it just feels overly chaotic and very messy.

In fact messy is probably the best way to describe Batman. Its first act despite a strong start struggles to build up momentum (partially due to the emphasis put on the Joker’s origin) but it builds to a great 2nd act before going off the rails in spectacular style for its finale. For me it is a film I enjoy for its at times feverish imagination, its fantastic production design and the fact it allowed Tim Burton free reign to make one of my all time favourite films.

Over the following week I’m going to be reviewing my favourite Batman films in the run up to the Dark Knight’s release on the 18th.

So tune in next time for my review of Batman: Mask of the Phatasm.

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

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