Tag Archives: Emma Stone

La La Land

“I was a bit curt. Okay, I was an asshole.”

Every year awards season brings out that one film that everyone falls head over heels in love with. Almost every time it’s a film that’s been doing the rounds for months before it gets to us in the UK and we’ve been beaten to death with headline after headline telling us how it’s the greatest film you’ve ever seen, destined to change the world.

It never does.

And neither will La La Land.

Daydreaming jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) seem to keep crossing paths with each other. When the pair eventually give in to their destiny and become a couple, they begin to push each other to follow their dreams.

Time goes on and whilst things on the surface seem fine, life just has a habit of getting in the way. As the happy couple’s aspirations start to pull them in opposite directions, the hard work just gets harder as the pair have to make some tough decisions.

Oh, and it’s a musical.

I really hate musicals. With a blinding passion. I hate them so much that I considered not going to see this preview screening and instead acting the hermit at home watching playoff football.

I dislike this genre so much that I’d rather stab myself repeatedly in the leg with a blunt pencil dipped in Ebola and knob cheese than suffer through a collection of dickheads singing and dancing their way through conversations that would be much more effective if they were just spoken. Like a normal person. Not like a dithering granny who can’t help herself as she bursts into song while washing the dishes.

Saying that, I don’t have an awful lot of time for silent cinema either, yet I gave The Artist a fair shot. It’s only right that I give the same chance to La La Land.

Unfortunately, what should be an homage to the golden age of Hollywood, feels like a grim reminder that the musical has no place in Hollywood any more.

Damien Chazelle, the director behind the sublime Whiplash has tried to capture lightning in a bottle a second time with his love letter to musical cinema. There’s no denying the man has an eye for a good film and the parts of La La Land that work, look great. He’s made a near perfect choice for his leading actors. Both Gosling and Stone are spectacular to watch and are undeniably on top form (as their recent Gold Globes wins can attest to). But the good parts don’t outweigh the poor; and there are plenty of those.

For starters, the film is dull. Just dull. Its overlong runtime of around two hours feels stretched to within an inch of its life as we watch this pair of dullards, seemingly unable to get their shit together, sing and dance through their lives. Apart from the opening salvo of imbeciles dancing and singing over cars on a packed motorway, and a concert with John Legend doing the singing, I’m pretty sure that Gosling and Stone are the only ones doing any vocal work. So dragged out is this damp lumpy fart of a movie that I was begging for it to be over. I was checking my watch hoping to see the time tick away faster. I was sick of listening to their voices.

Let’s be honest about this, whether or not I like musicals, I should be able to remember some of the songs, right? Nope. All of them are completely forgettable. Considering the film’s biggest song “City of Stars” won the Golden Globe for Best Song, it’s pretty bad that 12 hours after I saw the film, I can remember nothing but the opening line. It’s “City of stars”, if you’re wondering.

La La Land shifts its tone so often that it doesn’t feel like I’m watching a musical or a romantic drama. It feels like a mish-mash of ideas splattered onto a page with little regard for how it plays out. As a romance-filled drama, it almost plays well; but just as it looks like it might do something interesting, it bitch slaps you with another rubbish, forgettable song that resets any good will it had dragged from me back down to zero.

The awards it has garnered in the last day and the untold number of people ejaculating over social media, thoroughly in love with this shambles of a film, tell me I’m in a very small minority when it comes to my negative views on this musical farce. But don’t worry friends, I hate it enough to balance the books perfectly. What a complete waste of two hours that I’ll never get back.

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The Croods

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


croods26] The Croods (22nd March 2013)

Budget: $135 million

Gross: $587,204,668

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%

Lilo & Stitch takes its time before revealing its heart.  Oh, sure, its appearance is obvious from pretty much the start of the film, but the true extent of its heart isn’t revealed until later into the movie, firstly disarming and softening up the audience with extremely funny comedy and then, when their guards are down, putting them through the emotional ringer.  It swings for the fences – of course it does, it’s a Disney movie, that’s what they do – but waits until such a time that the act is earned.  It’s also a flawlessly constructed film that never puts a foot wrong, contradicts itself or bends the world to the will of its protagonists, but the tone and heart reveal is still mighty important.

By contrast, How To Train Your Dragon, after its purposefully slightly chaotic opening scene, wastes no time revealing its heart.  If Lilo & Stitch hides the extent of its heart and then gradually rolls up its sleeve, How To Train Your Dragon rips off its sleeve at the outset and spends its runtime shoving it in your face screaming, “LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT MY HEART AND EMOTIONS!”  It swings for the fences from the outset over everything which makes certain scenes and gestures feel unearned because its prior swinging for the fences ends up accidentally robbing certain scenes of their impact – or, in other words, the Stoick and Hiccup stuff doesn’t work because Stoick is mostly just a one-dimensional disapproving jackass until he isn’t, which makes him insufferable until the switch and makes the switch itself ring hollow.  It’s also a problematic film that doesn’t quite work, due to it contradicting itself, bending the world to the will of its protagonist, and that certain other thing that I still can’t explain, but I know I’m in the minority on all of this.

Of these two approaches, The Croods opts for the first, which itself is a smart idea – and before I go on, I must stress that I say this because I prefer films with pacing, not because I think that all animation should be like Disney; I don’t think that.  But it also tries something different than the prior two, it rarely swings for the fences with its heart.  Oh, it still swings for the fences with its comedy, which is broad and loud and very physical in nature, but when it does reveal its giant beating heart, it’s decidedly more reserved, more understated.  There are still grand emotional gestures and BIG scenes, but in a way that doesn’t feel as pervasive as in those other two movies.

Now, of course, this might also be down to my own personal baggage.  Lilo & Stitch’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the general bond of a family regardless of how non-traditional they may be – which both worked, and still do work, gangbusters for me – whilst How To Train Your Dragon’s heart trades on the bond between a “pet” and their owner, and the approval of and bonding between a father and son – the second of which, as previously discussed in detail and thanks to personal stuff, does not work for me.  The Croods’ heart, by contrast, focusses solely on dad Grug’s attempts to protect and earn love from his family.  It doesn’t have a secondary outlet for its heart, like those other films do, especially since Eep is way less important to the film than she first appears – more on that shortly – and my general disinterest with tales about fathers and father figures in media may explain why I found the heart of this film less in-my-face than in Lilo & Stitch.

Not to say that it doesn’t work, mind.  The Croods pulls it off spectacularly well, which is why I rate the film so highly – more on that in a moment – but that’s probably why I find it more quietly moving instead of openly moving.  Looking at family through the perspective of women, and especially sisters and mother figures, touches and interests me based on my own experiences, so Lilo & Stitch’s heart piledrives me into the middle of next week.  I am a dog owner back home, so that part of How To Train Your Dragon’s heart shivs me in the gut.  But father figures have never held as much of an impact for me as I was primarily raised by my mother, so The Croods’ heart makes me warm and fuzzy but not as majorly as in those prior films.

Those of you who do not obsessively follow along to director’s credits in animated movies may be wondering why I have spent so long comparing The Croods to How To Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch.  Well, each of those films share a co-writer/co-director in the shape of one Chris Sanders.  Sanders began his career as a character designer for criminally forgotten 1980s kids TV series Muppet Babies, before making the transition to Walt Disney Feature Animation during their Renaissance in the 90s, working predominately on story for The Rescuers Down Under, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, along with helping script Mulan.  In the late-90s, Sanders was approached by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to direct his own film, under the provision that its budget would be lower than typical Disney fare ($80 mil for Stitch vs. $130 mil for Tarzan, for example).  Dean DeBlois would eventually be brought on to co-write and co-direct, and the results would come forth in 2002’s very successful Lilo & Stitch.

Then, however, something happened.  Sanders had started significant work on American Dog, a film about a Hollywood star dog who gets lost in the desert.  By the time that it came to screen the film to higher-up executives, control of Disney’s feature animation division had switched from Michael Eisner to Bob Iger, and ex-Pixar head John Lasseter – who, according to rumours that I can’t substantiate, was allegedly not a fan of Lilo & Stitch – was brought on as Chief Creative Officer of the studio.  These test screenings did not go well and Sanders was inundated with notes and suggestions.  According to Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and several other animators, but not Sanders himself – he has stayed quiet on the issue – Sanders actively resisted these changes and was removed from the film.  Soon after, Sanders negotiated his release from Disney and signed onto DreamWorks.

(Because I know you’re curious: American Dog was handed over to Chris Williams of The Emperor’s New Groove and Byron Howard of Tangled, re-tooled significantly in the space of just 18 months, and released as the mild 2008 hit Bolt.)

Upon joining DreamWorks, Sanders got to work on Crood Awakenings, which itself has had a tumultuous road to being a finished product.  First announced in 2005, the film was to be another entry into DreamWorks’ five-picture deal with Aardman Animations, with a script by Racing Stripes and Quest For Camelot writer Kirk DeMicco and John Cleese.  Yes, that John Cleese.  The pair had been trying to get a film version of Roald Dhal’s The Twits made, which lead to DreamWorks getting a hold of their script and inviting the pair to work on an idea of the company’s, them both settling on the germ of an idea that would grow into The Croods.  Of course, the Aardman angle didn’t pan out – more on that in the Flushed Away entry – and the rights reverted back to DreamWorks.

Enter Chris Sanders in March of 2007.  DreamWorks’ newest signee was barely in the door and already chomping at the bit to get to work on a new film, even planning on significantly re-writing the film in question.  This was to be Sanders’ big new pet project… and then How To Train Your Dragon happened.  Prior to Sanders and DeBlois coming aboard, the project was allegedly a mess and needed a total overhaul, with Co-President for Production Bill Damaschke believing Sanders to be the best man for the job.  Sanders called in DeBlois, the duo remade and re-tooled How To Train Your Dragon in the space of a year, it received critical acclaim and financial success, and then, with DeBlois staying on Dragon duty, Sanders moved back to The Croods, with DeMicco returning to the project in a co-writer/co-director capacity.

The resulting film… is nowhere near as monumental or interesting as its journey into existence, hence the last page of content.  Isn’t it interesting to see how chaotic the world of animation can get, though?  Look, I like The Croods – I think that it’s a very funny, very well-animated, and surprisingly moving film – but there’s not really much to say about it because it doesn’t swing for the fences.  It tries to be lower-key in nearly every facet, a film that works as entertaining entertainment and not much more.  It succeeds, and I must respect a film that knows its limits and doesn’t try to be something that it’s not, but that automatically makes it the least interesting of Chris Sanders’ projects to talk about – Lilo & Stitch is an amazing movie that I could talk for hours about, How To Train Your Dragon has its conflicted push-pull nature and problematic issues that keep it from greatness which makes it interesting to talk about, The Croods… has clever character animation? Where the titular family only occasionally walk like recognisable humans, instead remaining in their less-developed Neanderthal states.

The one really interesting thing about the film that I can go into detail about is with regards to the film’s main character.  Now, going into this film, I had been led to believe that Eep, the daughter of the clan voiced by Emma Stone, was the lead character of the film.  The marketing had said so, the entire premise of the film hinged on her, and Sanders had worked with female protagonists before with Lilo & Stitch – Lilo’s arc in that film being just as vital and central to the film as Stitch’s.  I even noted The Croods down in my Monsters vs. Aliens piece as one of 11 animated films in the last decade to feature lead female protagonists that aren’t princesses (because this medium does have a gender problem).

Turns out that a severe hoodwinking has been ongoing as Eep is not the protagonist of The Croods.  Instead, she’s the perspective of The Croods, she’s how we see the family and how we’re supposed to feel about them changes as her thoughts on them change.  She provides the bookending narration speeches that animated films are overly fond of nowadays, but her arc is relatively minor – learning to not resent her father so much – and she’s shuffled back into the deck once the real narrative momentum kicks in.  She is not our protagonist.  Our protagonist is actually Grug, the Nicholas Cage voiced patriarch of the family, and his arc – where he learns that change and new are not necessarily bad things and that being overly protective is going to drive his family away from him – is the one that gets the lion’s share of the screen time.

Now, yes, I was and still am disappointed by this reveal.  Animation has a major gender problem – there’s nothing wrong with princesses as a concept, but there is something wrong when they are the only option available – and there should be more female-led and female-focussed and female-created animation out there.  Going to all of the effort of making out an animated film to be about the lead female character only to have the actual film side-line her in favour of focussing near-exclusively on the father – and the boy that she’s fascinated by and sweet on, Guy – feels like, for lack of a better phrase, a real dick move.

That being said, the stuff with Grug is really well-done, enlivened by the fact that we are encouraged to look at him primarily through Eep’s eyes.  Grug starts the film as a real irritant, a drag whose desire to protect his family crosses the line from nobly intentioned to selfishly suffocating, but he’s not solely that.  He’s capable of being funny, his tight-knit plans do help the family to survive in certain cases, and he does truly care.  But because we see him through Eep’s eyes, we also see how his intentions can be perceived by people who aren’t as fanatically devoted to him.  It keeps the viewer at that distance since, otherwise, the film runs the risk of becoming a “Father Knows Best, You Silly Women” story instead of a tale about a father learning to loosen his control on the world, accept change and tell his family every once in a while that he does truly love them.

The film commits to this too.  Grug comes further and further to the forefront as the film progresses, first becoming petty, out-of-his-element, and spiteful over the world telling him that his daughter and the new man taking charge of his family’s life are both right, before eventually softening, working through his issues, and becoming a more noble and tolerant member of the family.  Each stage corresponds to Eep’s relationship with Grug, with the tonal handling of the whole affair – first wacky comedy, then pathetic bitter alienator, awkward cringe comedy, and finally genuine heartfelt sincerity – providing a strong marker for how far along his road he is.

It all leads up to the sequence in which Grug selflessly throws the clan and Guy across the chasm, recognising that he can’t adapt and that the best thing that could happen for the family that he cares for is to sacrifice himself to save them.  That’s the moment in which The Croods reveals that it’s been buttering up the audience for a genuine emotional payoff, and it’s a legitimately moving sequence.  I was even genuinely fooled into thinking that this was the film’s endgame.  The film is building, from pretty much the outset, to some kind of grand gesture that puts Grug back into the genuine best interests of the family without suffocating them, and this seemed to be it.  I genuinely thought that we would end with Grug dead and the family making a new life for themselves in the new world, especially since there is no full-on antagonist for the film; wise move.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t going to, this is a family film after all and family animation rarely seems to want to push itself to as dark places as the medium and genre used to, but I believed it might, which is a credit to the film’s writing, pacing, and individual scene direction.  Therefore, as legitimately sweet as the final 15 minutes are, they still feel a little extraneous; the film rewarding Grug’s redemption and selfless act of kindness by reuniting him with those he values most.  Not helped, mind you, by the fact that his story offers three separate endings of varying quality for Grug before it settles on the Second Chance ending.  Again, it’s my fault for thinking that this light-hearted family comedy would end in a way that could even be remotely construed as bittersweet, but it still feels like punch-pulling.

Then again, if it had, audiences probably wouldn’t have kept coming back.  Yes, at the time when DreamWorks needed it most – mainly because of what’s to come, which we mostly won’t be covering here – The Croods was an out-of-the-box hit.  It opened to a great $43 million, comfortably beating the rest of the chart, and the typical strong DreamWorks hold – even major underperformers like Mr. Peabody & Sherman (32%), Rise of the Guardians (43.7%), and next week’s Turbo (35.5%) rarely drop more than 50% between opening and second weekends – was bolstered by a near-total lack of competition and strong audience reception, helping it to a very strong 10-week run on the Top 10.  It would close a hair’s breadth away from $190 million domestic.  Overseas, the film also did excellently, securing another $400 million, and making The Croods the ninth highest-grossing DreamWorks film worldwide.

So, why?  Why The Croods?  This is the through-line for the final leg of this series, after all; why The Croods was majorly successful and yet Turbo and Rise of the Guardians were not?  Well, much like with the film itself, the answers are pretty obvious and unspectacular, but you can’t exactly dispute what you’re seeing because, hey, they work, don’t they?  First off, the release date: end of March.  Same release date as the first How To Train Your Dragon, which worked gangbusters before and why not stake out a little patch of Chris Sanders’ own?  Plus, it was also the first proper animated film of 2013, Escape From Planet Earth came and went with almost literally no fuss a month earlier, and the next film for release, Epic by Blue Sky Pictures, wasn’t due for two full months which, in box office land, is practically an automatic monopoly for whatever did take its slot.

(Side Bar Notice, real quick: after Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation had fulfilled their contract with Paramount and, thanks to Paramount offering them a poor deal and wishing to make their own in-house animation studio, the company switched distributors to 20th Century Fox, where The Croods was distributed.  20th Century Fox also own Blue Sky, makers of Epic, so this release date will have been strategically determined and deliberated on majorly for a long, long time.  In fact, with the exception of next week’s Turbo, one can’t really foot the blame on DreamWorks’ underperformance with release dates, Fox have been really good to them with that.  Anyways…)

Second off, marketing.  If you haven’t yet, scroll back up and watch the first trailer for this film.  Yes, it recalls the tone of How To Train Your Dragon, but the tone of How To Train Your Dragon is also markedly different to anything DreamWorks have cooked up, especially in regards to the marketing.  The comedy isn’t excessively broad, that wondrous sense of discovery that the film has is on display, it doesn’t give away every beat and every gag but the audience knows what they’re in for, which is what Rise of the Guardians didn’t do and consequently paid a heavy price for it.  It’s a good trailer, it’s a strong trailer, and other types of marketing were bloody everywhere come release time, you couldn’t move for advertising material of some kind for The Croods.  Fox put their all into the marketing for this one and did so in a way that differentiated the film from the accepted tired DreamWorks formula without confusing or leaving the audience in the dark.

And third off, it’s a funny heart-warming film about family by a really talented storyteller.  Of course it was going to do well!  Good films about families will always, always bond with the movie-going public.  They’re sweet and sincere in a way that resonates harder with audiences because the typical audience for animated features nowadays are families.  It allows the heart to cross age levels, tap into insecurities in all generations, go broad but not gross with the humour because most audience members need to get every joke, and just generally be true family viewing.  Why do you think Paddington is still raking in all of the money ever?

The Croods is small and intimate and character-focussed, which is something that family filmmaking has mostly forgotten nowadays in search of spectacle, but the ones that do remember are the ones that end up making the most cash.  There is spectacle in The Croods, that $135 million budget is not just from it being 8 bloody years in the making, but it never drowns out that character-focussed centre, and those are the films that stick with people and the families that the film is aimed at.  I don’t think The Croods is brilliant, not by any stretch of the term, but it is very good for thuddingly obvious reasons that become clear when watched, and the reason why The Croods was a major success is not because of any fancy formula.  It’s just a very good film, marketed brilliantly with a clear target audience that it speaks directly to, released at a perfect time.


Next week, we close out the film side of this series by looking at a film with poor marketing, a target audience that no longer exists, that was released at the single worst possible time.  Did Turbo deserve the death march that it was forced down, and could anything have been done to stop it?  Those are the questions that we shall be addressing next time.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch lost someone he could have saved.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Bonkers, brilliantly acted, funny, completely absorbing plus other labels.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

_AF_6405.CR2For most of the latter part of last year, I had to put up with only being able to hear about and read other reviews of Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). You see, in the UK, sometimes we get films much later than in the US, excluding press/festival screenings and so on. Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me so much. But when a film like Birdman comes around, and every other review is declaring it one of the best of 2014, with as interesting a premise as it has, then that kind of sucks.

Come the 1st of January 2015, a little worse for wear with an aching hangover, I began my plans to find a cinema near me showing this existential comedy. And I did, on Friday 2nd. Since which time I have been processing, re-thinking and trying my damned hardest to work out exactly what I think of Birdman beyond simply “that was bloody brilliant.” I will endeavor to describe it – and my feelings towards it – as best I can.

It’s directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, a critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker who is arguably best known for his first feature film, the award winning, compelling, intelligent Amores Perros. Although, virtually all of his films are just as highly regarded by the majority of people. Biutiful (starring Javier Bardem), 21 Grams and Babel too were all very well received upon release and have each been nominated for and won many different prestigious awards. It’s fair to say then than Iñárritu had a fair bit of pressure on his shoulders to produce yet another groundbreaking drama of as equally high quality.

In which case, surprising as it is, his response to this weight of expectation was to produce what is his effectively first foray into the comedy genre. In saying that, it’s not what you might describe as a typical, gag-a-minute, Airplane!-esque joke-reel. Straying away from conventions, as he did so stunningly with Amores Perros, it’s… a bit odd. Bloody brilliant. But odd.

Unlike the title probably suggests to anybody unfamiliar with exactly what Birdman is, it’s actually not a superhero film at all. It’s about an aging actor, played by Michael Keaton in a career-best performance, who used to be in a trilogy of blockbuster superhero films 20 years ago, playing the character Birdman. Obviously considering Keaton’s rise to fame playing the caped crusader Batman in Tim Burton’s series of films, it’s probably the most apt piece of casting you’re likely to see for, oh, I don’t know.. all of 10 minutes? Right up until Ed Norton appears as the most arrogant actor known to man, clearly playing on his exaggerated reputation.

Much as Keaton is now a lot older, so is his character Riggan Thomson. For the sake of Michael Keaton’s mental well-being, hopefully unlike the real actor playing Riggan, the sleep-deprived movie-star constantly hears the sarcastic voice of Birdman in his head, patronising him and making snide remarks at every turn in his desperate attempts to get his career back on track. Ploughing his own money into the production, Riggan claws at his last moments of sanity and languishes on his reputation as he pushes himself to adapt the Raymond Carver story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a stage play on Broadway. Gradually the toll it takes on him being writer, director, producer and starring in the lead role begins to wear him down. He notices how his own relationships to his ex-wife and rebellious daughter, as well as his co-stars and longing for adoration/attention from fans and critics alike, mimic those of the character in his play.

From the way I’ve described it above, it doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of film to make you laugh out loud as frequently as it does. In fact, I’m well aware that by putting it in black and white like that, I’ve made it sound kind of boring. The genius in the film lies with the way the story has been told and the way it has been made. It’s almost two hours long in total, however, it’s all filmed as if the whole movie is just one continuous single shot. This isn’t a completely unique concept for a film to attempt; indeed the Director of Photography on the film, Emmanuel Lubezki, was praised for very similar shots during Gravity. The twist is that the plot takes place over the course of about three days. From the early scene re-casting of one of the characters in the play at the last minute, to the disastrous preview show and Keaton’s breakdown, all the way through to the morning after the opening night; it appears as if all you’ve witnessed is one camera on record for two hours solid. The pace of the film, the way it’s been stitched together, even just little things like keeping the lighting right, it’s seamless. A remarkable achievement by all involved. I’ve read a few reviews and articles and I still cannot fathom how some of the scenes were even created.

Honestly, it is absolutely bloody brilliant from start to finish. Even something so simple as the soundtrack is, well, not so simple. Just one bloke who improvised some drum beats, banging away on his kit in a rather jazz percussion sort of way (who occasionally pops up on screen himself) fits the organised-chaotic tone.

I’ve already mentioned Keaton and Norton, but I’m still struggling to decide who was better. I genuinely, hand on heart believe this tops any performance of theirs in any other movie. And yes, even better than American History X, by the way. It’s just a joy to watch two actors simply be that good. If someone put a gun to my head (you’ll get why that’s a funny reference after you see the film), then I’d lean slightly more towards Keaton who really is sensational. He’s extremely funny, manic, completely absorbed in his role and it’s like finally seeing that guy who showed such promise in Beetlejuice just completely fulfilling his potential. And that makes me happy. It isn’t just those two, though. The entire ensemble cast, including the likes of Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis; they’re all fantastic too.

To be a bit of a dick for a minute and put a label on something (or rather take it off), I suppose it isn’t ‘perfect’. The dialogue is not always its best asset. Although I did really like Emma Stone’s performance as Keaton’s recently out of rehab daughter-turned-Personal Assistant, it’s just that some of the role her character plays seems a tad out of place. A scene on a rooftop shared with Norton starts out really well, as a chemistry between them begins to fizzle, but ends up with a rather cringing game of truth or dare. A scene later on in the dressing room between Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough was.. well.. meaningless beyond simply giving in to what the audience supposedly want.

It doesn’t detract really, it’s still overall an absolutely amazing movie. It’s so deliberately and anarchically hypocritical. One minute it’s slagging off blockbuster movies and the kinds of people who throw money at the likes of Michael Bay to make shitty Transformers movies, and studios who churn out superhero flick after superhero flick. And then in the next moment, it’s subtly mocking the pretentious, holier than thou snobs who sneer and turn their nose up at things they’re ignorant of in order to appear superior. There’s rants, there’s tirades, there’s beautifully delivered put downs and some more emotional aspects that almost catch you unawares. Yet Birdman is totally self aware, fully prepared to poke fun at itself all whilst maintaining something spectacular.

The more I’ve thought about it since leaving the cinema earlier this month, the more I’ve wanted to go and watch it again. It was the first new release film that I watched in 2015 and already it’s going to have to be a hell of a film to top it at some point during the rest of this year. I urge you to see it before it leaves cinemas!

You can hear Owen talk about Birdman plus other new releases Unbroken, The Theory of Everything and more with Steve, Gerry and Matt on the upcoming Failed Critics Podcast.

Callum Petch’s Bottom 10 of 2014: #10 – #6

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Happy New Year, everybody!  Over the last two days, I have shared with you the 10 films that stuck with me the most throughout 2014 for the right reasons.  Plaudits were thrown about, praises were slathered, and good times were had.  If you missed those articles, you can find them located here and here.  Today and tomorrow, though, I share with you the 10 films that stuck with me the most throughout 2014 for the wrong reasons.

I have never actually done a Bottom 10 list before.  As mentioned in the first of my Top 10 pieces, prior to this year I had to carefully select what films I went to see, but this year I could toss quality control out of the window and see everything.  Therefore, in the name of film criticism, I have seen a lot of total sh*t this past year.  However, this is not a list of the absolute worst made films of 2014.  Some of them are on here, but that is not what the list is about.  It’s too easy and not particularly interesting, especially since many of them are akin to shooting fish in a barrel with a blunderbuss machine gun.  I mean, are any of you at all surprised that Pudsey The Dog: The Movie turned out to be horrendous?

No, this list is a Bottom 10 and encompasses the films from 2014 that made me angry.  To get on this list, a film had to have left me with a strong negative reaction that did not go away after a short while.  These are the films that drew my anger, swallowed me in disappointment, offended my being in some way shape or form, or also represent everything that is wrong with filmmaking and the film industry today.  How much do these films deserve to be on this list?  Transcendence, Annie, Blended, and 300: Rise Of An Empire missed out on placements.

So, same rules apply here as they did for the Top 10, and same presentation style applies too – today, we count down #10 to #6.  If we’re all set, don your bile protection gear, don’t look directly into the films that are listed here, and ONWARDS, AOSHIMA!

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.


boyhood10] Boyhood

Dir: Richard Linklater

Star: Ellar Coltraine, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Again, this is not a list of the worst films of 2014.  I can name you at least 20 or so films that I saw that are worse than Boyhood.  No, Boyhood is on this list because, more so than any other film released in 2014, it annoyed me.  It confounded me, it irritated me, it baffled me, it enraged me, it majorly disappointed me, and these feelings have remained with me ever since I saw the film because people won’t shut the hell up about the goddamn thing and because we might as well FedEx all awards ever to its undeserving doorstep now to save time and money on postage.

Look, my seething distaste for Boyhood is very much equal parts it not being a very good film, and my own personal feelings and baggage.  Boyhood purports to be a look at the coming-of-age of a white, suburban, straight, middle-class male throughout the 2000s but does so in a way and tone that feels like it’s putting down the final word on the matter.  That this is how it was for everybody, that it’s making some giant statement about it all, especially since the film keeps throwing out philosophical sound bites and barely tolerable bullsh*t about how “the moment seizes you” and stuff.  It looks down from upon high and decrees “THIS IS WHAT BOYHOOD WAS LIKE IN THE 2000s” with absolutely no self-awareness or analysis of what it actually means to be that kind of privileged white, straight, middle-class male, which makes its declarative nature all the more insufferable.

“Oh, but Boyhood is a character piece!” I imagine many are trying to counter with right about now.  Problem with that argument is that the film fails at that, too.  Mason, Jr. is a non-entity.  I spent two hours and forty minutes in his company – watched him go through 12 years of life – and the most I learnt about him is that he possibly has a interest in photography, and that his actor grew up to resemble Ethan Hawke so much that I’m honestly not 100% certain that he’s not just a clone of Ethan Hawke.  I don’t know what makes him tick, I don’t know what his aspirations are, I don’t know how he progressed from his six year-old self to his eighteen year-old self.  He feels less like a character and more like a blank slate that either you’re supposed to project your own self onto or who is supposed to stand in for every white privileged guy ever.

“But the whole point of the movie is that your adolescence cannot be boiled down to big standout moments!  That’s why it skips Mason, Jr.’s first kiss, first job, rambunctious teenager phase, etc.!”  OK, so why does the entire first half of the film concern itself with the theme of being too young to truly understand how the world works?  Much of the film’s first half dedicates itself to the lives of Mason and Olivia, Mason, Jr. and Samantha’s parents, and the complicated nature of their various relationships, living arrangements and procession of step-parents as viewed through the eyes of children who will never truly understand why these things are happening.  That’s why there is this ridiculously cartoonishly delivered sequence where Olivia bolts with the kids away from her alcoholic and abusive new husband.  That is a major standout moment of somebody’s life, and its grand theatricality – not helped by Marco Perella swinging for the fences with his playing of that scene – goes against the low-key nature of the rest of the film.

Yet the film drops that theme at about the halfway mark and just ambles about aimlessly for its remaining runtime.  It’s maddening to see a film wilfully waste its potential and possible avenues of storytelling and thematic resonance at damn near every opportunity.  Patricia Arquette has been getting major praise for her role as Olivia and understandably so, she does great work, which makes it all the more infuriating that, despite being Mason, Jr.’s primary parent and guardian, the film repeatedly side-lines her in favour of even more screen time with Mason, Sr. in a bunch of scenes that eventually reduce themselves to just hitting the same beats over and over again.  Olivia gets an outstanding scene near the end where she breaks down as an uncaring Mason, Jr. gets the last of his stuff from her house about the passage of time, and of heavily implied regret for giving her life to him instead of living it for herself.  That scene is outstanding, which only makes it all the more infuriating that the film isn’t about her – the one character in the film with an arc, thematic resonance or f*cking something going on.

That’s ultimately what annoys me most about Boyhood, is the fact that it has nothing going on besides its “shot over 12 years” gimmick.  It is a film with no central character, no consistent thematic arc, and nothing interesting to say because it actively steers itself away from having anything interesting to say.  I get the feeling that Linklater started this project with a real passion and desire, only for that to fade away from him as the years progressed, eventually becoming more of an obligation than anything he was seriously interested in working on – the film gets lazier and lazier, just drifting through its last forty minutes with no drive except for some half-assed pseudo-philosophical rambling (very much like a teenager).  Linklater is better than this, he has consistently proven over the last 12 years that he is a better filmmaker than this, and that’s why Boyhood disappoints me so.  It’s a pointless, muddled, dreary slog of a film that also touches on something real and honest infrequently enough to make its bungling of everything even more irritating.

Also, its last scene is one of the worst and most aggravating that I have seen all year, and the film managed to make me hate Arcade Fire for a good two hours after I left the cinema.


09] Let’s Be Copslet's be cops

Dir: Luke Greenfield

Star: Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans, Jr.

Let’s Be Cops is not the worst comedy of 2014 – that honour goes to Sex Tape, since that barely qualifies as a film, let alone a comedy.  It is not the most offensive comedy of 2014 – that honour goes to Blended.  It is also not the most disappointing comedy of 2014 – A Million Ways To Die In The West – or the most pointless – Horrible Bosses 2 – or the biggest pile of evidence that we should stop allowing British people to make comedies – Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie.  What Let’s Be Cops is, and why it is on this list instead of the far more deserving Sex Tape, is the most perfect encapsulation of everything that is currently wrong with the American feature-length comedy movie.

2014 has been a pretty miserable year for out-and-out comedies.  Of the many, many, many comedies released these past 12 months, only two were actually any good – Bad Neighbours (which came this close to cracking my Top 20) and 22 Jump Street (which had a very good chance of actually cracking the Top 10 if I had managed to watch it again before list-making time) – the rest were either diverting but pointless, or just plain torture to sit through.  I realise that every year has maybe two great straight comedies – a number that’s bumped up to four if you include comedy-dramas or black comedies – and a whole load of tripe surrounding them, but you’ll have to forgive me for being disappointed that an increased number of releases this year led to the same number of hits compared to misses.

The American comedy is currently stale, and Let’s Be Cops is such a grab-bag text of all of its worst impulses that I’m honestly still not sure that it wasn’t intentional – a desire to make a comedy I can point to for all aspiring comedy filmmakers and go “You see that?  Don’t do that.”  A loose rambling structure that sacrifices these things we call “set-ups” and “punchlines” in favour of dropping talented comedians with decent chemistry into scenarios and praying that they can improv up enough gold to fill out the runtime, direction and scene set-ups that are dull and interchangeable, editing that doesn’t know when to stop a scene, a needlessly stretched out runtime that gets way too close to two hours, genuinely funny material being beaten into the ground or stretched so thin that the entire enterprise feels endless, a casually tossed off sexist attitude towards women, a final third where the jokes are dropped completely because apparently only Phil Lord & Chris Miller know how to make plot funny anymore…

Let’s Be Cops also has the extra dead albatross of being released in the immediate aftermath of the tragic events that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri which have sparked off an additional nationwide conversation about police brutality, racism and militarisation of the police force, adding an extra layer of awkward tastelessness to jokes like our two leads playfully brandishing their loaded guns at each other in a public restaurant.  But, honestly, that’s the least of its problems.  Let’s Be Cops could have used its premise to explore and ask tough questions about the current state of the police force in 21st century America, but it didn’t have to and it’s not automatically lesser for not doing so – there’s nothing wrong with a silly comedy and at no point did either of the Jump Street movies use their cop-comedy premises for social satire.  What is inexcusable, though, is the sheer laziness and half-assery of the film’s entire construction.  This is soulless, paint-by-numbers filmmaking where the only people trying are its two stars, which only serves to make them look desperate.

Again, Let’s Be Cops is not the worst comedy of the year – holy hell, is Sex Tape ever an appalling train wreck – but it is a perfect distillation of everything that is currently wrong with the comedy genre.  This trend of foisting near-laugh-free scripts on talented actors with lightning chemistry and expecting them to do all the heavy lifting with endless improv needs to stop.  I don’t care that the majority of today’s movie star comedians and comediennes come with an improv background; there is a never a better substitute for tight editing and a raucous script stuffed to the brim with proper jokes from start to finish.  Bad Neighbours got that, 22 Jump Street got that, why can’t anything else get that?


new york winters tale08] A New York Winter’s Tale

Dir: Akiva Goldsman

Star: Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown-Findlay

That’s right, folks.  A film that I declared back in February to have been “one of the worst films that I have ever seen” is only #8 on my Bottom 10 of 2014.  And, honestly, it’s really only here out of some sort of obligation.  Oh, sure, A New York Winter’s Tale is pure garbage of the highest order, but it’s a film that I have warmed to since then, probably because it, unlike a lot of the tripe populating this list, at least is completely sincere in its attempts to be good.  Therefore, although I hated it at the time, I don’t hate it with the same ferocity that I once did.  Not anymore, I feel like I have moved on from it.

Again, though, that doesn’t stop A New York Winter’s Tale from being a complete and total failure on every single conceivable level of filmmaking.  The dialogue is atrocious, the plot is nonsense, it looks dreadful in both the practical sense – of set design, shot composition, costumes, hairpieces and such – and the computer-generated sense, it boasts atrocious performances from everybody involved, it is paced like a marathon populated by narcoleptics, its attempts at thematic resonance and foreshadowing are quite literally laughable…  I’m honestly not sure what’s more inadvertently hilarious, the movie or the fact that a former Oscar winner convinced Village Roadshow Pictures to give him $60 million and several talented high profile actors to give several weeks of their lives to filming this piece of guff.

The plot powering this guff – based on a novel I haven’t read but is apparently, by all accounts, nowhere near as rubbish as this – centres around Colin Farrell as a potential miracle maker who was raised and then hunted by a demon, played by Russell Crowe, legitimately named Pearly Soames (real name, not the gender-flipped version of Pearl from Spongebob Squarepants), who works for Lucifer, played by Will Smith (an incredibly sleepy and checked out Will Smith, before you get excited and, yes, it is problematic that the one major black guy in the film is playing Satan).  It turns out that Colin Farrell’s miracle is to apparently cure a young woman’s terminal tuberculosis through the power of love, whilst Pearly (real name) hunts the pair down with murderous intentions cos Lucifer don’t like any sunshine or kittens getting out into the world, thank you kindly.

See, this all sounds like the most enjoyable nonsense, a “So Bad, It’s Good” of epic proportions.  Yet, whilst I was watching the thing, I didn’t find it funny because it is so po-facedly earnestly serious about its stupid endeavour that any fun to be had at its ridiculous awfulness was lost.  This was a film with a Pegasus, a ridiculous pace-killing near-century time-skip, and a sequence in which somebody is quite literally f*cked to death, and all I could do was check my watch, yawn and question whether walking out would be preferable to continuing to submit myself to the thing – although I did laugh at the reveal of the Pegasus, mostly because it looks like what you’d get if you asked a 5 year-old to recreate the Tri-Star logo in MS Paint in the next 30 minutes.

But I no longer hate A New York Winter’s Tale.  I did, once upon a time, enough to write a long-winded and pretty funny review (if you’ll allow me one of my five annual tootings of my own horn) tearing the thing to shreds, but no more.  I have made my peace with this film’s existence.  If I were to ever see it again – preferably in the company of friends, drunk on soda of various kinds, during a Bad Movie Night – I’d probably be able to crack wise at the thing effortlessly and have myself a gay old time.  It is still one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my 20 years of existence, but as previously mentioned this is not a Worst Movies of 2014 list.  Therefore, A New York Winter’s Tale stalls out at #8.  The bile saved from this can instead be deployed on other, more deserving films, such as…


07] Transformers: Age Of Extinctiontransformers 4

Dir: Michael Bay

Star: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci

This one is just as much my own goddamn stupid fault as it is the film in question.  I stupidly – and it is stupidly, there is no other word or reasoning to make this alright – let a part of me become somewhat hopeful that this time things would be different.  The Transformers series, under the creative direction and influence of these people, gave me absolutely no reason to believe that it could produce anything great or even worth my time.  Yet, a part of me was allowed to be quietly optimistic.  After bottoming out with Revenge Of The Fallen, Dark Of The Moon took the series’ first tentative steps towards being a good movie – it wasn’t one, but it was on the path to at least being entertaining – and 2013’s underrated Pain & Gain proved to me that Michael Bay hadn’t forgotten how to make movies.  So a part of me got a little hopeful; this time, things were going to be different.

They weren’t.  They weren’t at all.  Age Of Extinction is a regression back to all of the same toxic sh*t that Transformers, Revenge Of The Fallen and to a lesser extent Dark Of The Moon had peddled beforehand, only now even more bloated and expanded and epic-ised (which isn’t even a real word but was likely a direction used for scene prep at some point during this thing’s production) to levels that make the resulting product an endurance test instead of anything that anybody could find entertaining.  Casual racism, creepy paedophilic undertones, an actively hateful bordering on misogynist view of women, product placement – including product placement for The People’s Republic of China despite current world events making that one of the most tone-deaf things one could do – abysmally directed and incomprehensible action, active wasting of interesting themes, and an utterly awful Imagine Dragons song – which is a step down from Linkin Park.

And in other news, the sun rose today, the sky is blue, and George Clooney is an incredibly sexy man.  Look, I get that we have all collectively realised that the Transformers movies are abhorrent pieces of trash and that their continued financial success will be one of life’s big mysteries.  Age Of Extinction’s appearance on this list is that barrel full of fish that I mentioned earlier, but sometimes really obvious fish need shooting for a reason and this metaphor has broken down.  Point is, Age Of Extinction is a reminder that there are people out there who have nothing but contempt for the movie going audience.  Who believe that they can push out thoughtless, stupid, toxic crap and that people will show up to buy it because the explosions are big and shiny and purdy.  There is always room for big dumb action films – the Fast & Furious franchise is beloved for a reason, after all – but those are films that do so with glee, joy and smartness, as crafting a good big dumb action film takes actual effort.

Age Of Extinction is not that film.  It is a cynical, joyless, mindless exercise whose sole reason for its existence is to line Paramount Pictures executives’ pockets with more money.  And I went into it stupidly thinking that it wouldn’t be.  People went to see this and not Edge Of Tomorrow, and, thanks specifically to China, we will be suffering through two more of these sh*tfests.  Well done, everyone.  Sterling job.


906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 206] The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Dir: Marc Webb

Star: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx

We are in the middle of a full-on comic book boom at the cinema.  Now, admittedly, we’ve been in one since the early 2000s when Spider-Man, X-Men and Blade were ruling the box office, but we’re really in the midst of one.  Every studio has, or is attempting to cultivate, their own comic book empire out of the materials that Marvel Studios hasn’t already swallowed up, everybody is trying to serialise everything, and Marvel this year dictated the exact days in which I need to sit my ass down in a cinema for the next five years.  This boom will bust out eventually, but things are looking good for now.

They won’t look so good for very long, however, if studios keep pumping out films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  This one was a time-bomb, folks.  As you may have gathered from my original review, I strongly disliked the film but I didn’t hate it at the time – I thought I’d found a couple of redeeming factors and let the potential of the series dilute some of my venom for it.  But then it sat in head.  And sat.  And sat.  And, for at least three months afterwards, it wouldn’t leave because myself and my friends kept finding more and more wrong with it the more we let it settle.  We found new problems – like the incredibly poor pacing and structural mess that robs anything of any resonance – whilst old problems – the incredibly creepy and borderline sexist crap with Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey, Peter’s problem of him being a giant dick – were found to be even more systemic and problematic.

In the end, though, it all comes back to this simple fact: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not a film.  It is a commercial for the next film, and also a Sinister Six film that literally nobody was ever asking for.  This is not a film that was made by a cast and crew with a vision, a story to tell, and the drive and passion to pull it off.  This was a film ham-fistedly dictated by a studio for the sole purpose of forcing a franchise and making a lot of money because, “Yo!  Those kids loves them some Spider-Man!  I spies dollar signs, boys!”  There is no narrative reason for this film to exist, there is no thematic reason for this film to exist; this is a film that exists because Sony saw that Marvel Studios have made Scrooge McDuck-money with their franchises and shared universe continuity and wanted that green without actually having to do the work necessary to earn it.

Do you know why Marvel can unveil concrete dates for a five-year plan of films and the only negative thing it does to us is make us contemplate our own fragile mortality?  It’s because they, first and foremost, tell stories.  Each film so far, despite this shared-universe thing and their franchising and sequelising and such, works as a film on its own.  They tell complete stories, have effort and craft put into them, and each of them exist because, or give a good enough illusion, somebody wanted to tell a story, first and foremost.  Are they often still safe, less groundbreaking and risky than they appear, and mandated by the producers at the studio?  Well, yes, undoubtedly, but the films are great and satisfying and fun and have real effort put in that I really don’t care.

Marvel Studios, essentially, have earned my trust, and near everyone else’s trust, in this grand experiment because they have proven first and foremost that their movies are worth the commercial avenues that they will be taken down.  Sony don’t want to wait for that trust and have forced the Spider-Man license through the most cynical, money-driven, bereft-of-ideas ringer they could get their hands on, and practically every problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can be traced back to a studio wanting their money now and not thinking through, or putting any effort whatsoever into, a single one of the film’s creative decisions.  When people disparage comic book movies and serialisation of movies, this is what they are referring to and I shiver at the possibility that I will be seeing more Amazing Spider-Man 2s in the coming future.

Sony, just torch the franchise and negotiate with Marvel.  Please?  It’s clearly been more trouble for you than it’s worth.  Just wash your hands of this game and move on.  For all of us.


Well, we’ve made it halfway through the list.  Agree?  Disagree?  Think I was being too harsh/not harsh enough on some of these?  Let me know in the comments below!  Tomorrow, we wrap up this week with the absolute bottom of the barrel.  Brace yourselves…

Callum Petch only dreams in black and white.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Amazing Transcendence, The Amazing Love Punch

THE-AMAZING-SPIDER-MAN-2Welcome to this week’s podcast; the first one since James took temporary leave (of his senses in trusting the pod to this lot).

Callum Petch makes his return to the pod, and along with Steve and Owen reviews the latest blockbuster effort featuring the masked web-slinger, as well as Johnny Depp sans Tim Burton and white-face make-up in Wally Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence.

Join us next week as we drag a stranger off the street to keep Owen and Steve company whole they try and find a new release to review that isn’t The Other Woman.

LISTEN VIA ACAST FOR THE MOST INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Amazing-Spider-Man-2-Peter-Parker-Harry-OsbornSecond verse same as the first, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes all of the exact same mistakes the original did, burying the nugget of a great film deeper and deeper the longer it goes on for.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Did you see The Amazing Spider-Man from 2012?  Congratulations, you don’t need to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2!  You know, the lazier of us film critics like to snarkily dismiss sequels with the phrase “more of the same” as if that is inherently a bad thing.  Sometimes it’s very much a good thing, something that works happily repeating its formula in a “if it ain’t broke” manner.  Sometimes, though, it is a bad thing, the observation that the sequel hasn’t learnt from the previous film’s failings and the growing loss of patience on the reviewer’s behalf.  This film is one of that kind.  The second one.  I am not kidding, this film makes the exact same mistakes as the first one did with the exact same potential of a great movie permanently bubbling underneath the near-endless mess of bad ideas or poor executions or bad ideas with poor executions.

Ladies, gentlemen and others, this was maddening to sit through.  In fact, in lieu of a traditional review, I am going to dedicate my time and your time to a couple of case study examples as to how this film fails, in order to fully impress upon you, the reader, the way in which The Amazing Spider-Man 2 spends upwards of two hours taking a giant extended piss on its potential.  No, there will be no spoilers, nothing more than the trailers have shown off, but I feel that this is a far more productive usage of our time.  This film and its predecessor will be used by future, more intelligent generations who are less distracted by flashy and actually rather OK, all things considered, filmmaking as the basis of an entire class in film school on what not to do.  I’m just getting in on the ground floor.

First, let’s talk about the Tragic Villain plotline.  This is something that both this film and the original use as the basis for their villains, in an attempt to give them depth and something to do besides instructing the audience to comically boo their every appearance like we’re at a panto.  I am all for this, it adds a nice measure of moral ambiguity to proceedings and a level of depth and maturity to the superhero medium in general; not every villain is evil for the sake of being evil, after all.  The problem is not the fact that the franchise has used this idea for every single one of its villains so far and, in ASM2’s case, twice in one movie with Max Dillon a.k.a. Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan).  You can find enough spins on that formula.  The problem is that the films never ever follow through with it.

The reason why The Dark Knight gets this right whilst The Amazing Spider-Man series doesn’t boils down simply to the fact that the former commits to the tragedy inherent to the plotline.  In fact, sod it, this paragraph is going to spoil The Dark Knight.  So, if you haven’t seen it and still want to, just jump on down to the next paragraph, you shouldn’t be missing too much if you do so (and if I’m doing my job right).  See, Harvey Dent’s slide into the man known as Two-Face works because his motives remain understandable and relatable.  He still has the same goal, to clean up the streets of Gotham and wipe out corruption in the GCPD, but his methods are now harsher.  The point is that he has snapped mentally and now no longer cares about working within the law to get his goals.  He’s not evil for the sake of evil, he’s just had his hope crushed and now he’s willing to do anything to reach his otherwise noble end goals and it’s the way the film commits to that falling that the plotline works.

Contrast this with Max Dillon.  When he starts the film, he is a weak loner.  He has an important job at Oscorp but he is constantly pushed around and harassed and put-upon by the world because he basically lets it.  He has no backbone, no social skills and no life outside of his work and this makes him miserable, even emotionally disturbed.  He just wants someone to notice him.  Then, out of the blue, Spider-Man saves him from an oncoming truck and gives him the usual Spider-Man speech of “you are a somebody because you’re somebody to me”.  This gives Max a reason to live and a reason for us to care about him, even if he becomes hopelessly obsessed with the man.  It’s what’s supposed to make his fall into the electro-chamber sad and painful because it’s the world’s fault, not his.  It’s why the public triggering of his powers is supposed to carry real emotional resonance as he finally gets the attention he craves from the public at large and his obsession, Spider-Man.

Pity the film is only an hour in by this point.  So, because the film is only an hour in, the emotional arc of Max is very quickly wrapped up and the tragic side of his schtick is almost immediately dropped in favour of “I will do evil things because I am evil”.  This would have been majorly disappointing… had the film actually handled any of this well to begin with, because they play pre-accident Max for laughs.  Jamie Foxx pitches his pre-accident performance to absurd wet-doormat extremes and his every scene is backed by bouncy silly music so you know that you’re supposed to find events on screen funny instead of saddening.  It undercuts the emotional groundwork and comes off as mean-spirited, overall.

In fact, before I move on, I want the name of whoever decided on the music that should back Electro’s action sequences and I want to make sure they never work in this field again.  Why?  Because his theme is dubstep.  Nearly every shot of electricity is accompanied by dubstep wubs that are severely out of place with the rest of the film’s score.  But that’s not why I am calling attention to this.  No, there’s also the fact that his music contains whispers buried in the background.  Whispers that go something like “Hate… destruction… kill… I hate him…. I hate him…”  This kind of crap might have been cool to a teenager in 2001, but to me in 2014 it’s the equivalent of backing his action scenes with “Batman’s Untitled Self Portrait” from The Lego Movie.  It’s embarrassing is what it is.

Harry Osborn gets a better treatment on the whole Tragic Villain angle but the film falls down by again just not committing to keeping his goals sympathetic and relatable to the end.  Him and Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, still deserving of so much better) used to be childhood friends (because everybody is connected to everyone for cheap and easy drama in amateurishly written scripts).  He’s dying of the same disease that’s killing his father and, therefore, desperate for a cure.  His cure may involve Spider-Man and, when things don’t go his way, he goes a bit off the deep end.  That last part would be fine… except that it involves him turning straight crazy evil so that we can have a two-part action finale.

The failure of the Tragic Villain plotlines, the same reason it failed in the first film with Curt Connors and his sudden obsession with creating an army of lizard men, is twofold.  The first is the lack of faith from the screenplay that the audience will be completely behind and invested in the proceedings if they don’t know who to cheer and root for.  And since Peter is still kind of a huge boring dick in this one (more on that in a bit), the film cops out on its moral ambiguity and emotionally heavy stakes by reverting to “these bad guys are evil because they’re eeevilll!!” which squanders the depth previously built up and the groundwork laid beforehand.  The second is the fact that this is just a bad screenplay, in general, with both villains’ switches to straight-up evil-doing boiling down to the switch on the back of a Krusty doll.  I guess you could salvage such a behavioural switch but it requires far better writing and handling than what’s on display here.  It’s amateur work.

Now let’s move onto the issue of serialisation.  Do you want to know why the Marvel Cinematic Universe get away with doing things the way they do?  It’s because when their films end, they feel like they’ve ended.  They’ve told a complete story, all of the plot threads are wrapped up and the character arcs are completed.  They may leave an uncertain future or a sequel tease but they can do that because it doesn’t feel like story is being held back for future instalments.  I could hop off after pretty much any of MCU entries with the sense of completion.  That is why Iron Man is allowed to end the way it did, that is why The Avengers was allowed to end the way it did, that is why Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are allowed to end the way they do.  Some had some plot threads hanging, others blatant sequel teases but all felt complete because everything important is wrapped up and all character arcs have concluded.

Much like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does not do that.  In fact, despite running over two hours and even having a clear stopping point ten minutes before the end (even if, yes, it still would have failed to wrap up several big plot threads and character arcs so I would still be having this rant anyway), it actually has the gall to not have an ending.  The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stops.  It just stops.  At roughly two hours and nine minutes it goes “OK, that’s all the time we have!  Come on back in two years and we’ll pick this up again!”  So, no, the conspiracy stuff with Peter’s dad Richard Parker (Campbell Scott who plays the role like a gruff William Shatner and is awful here) again does not get a payoff, Peter still doesn’t seem to learn anything from the events of the film (and the incredibly rushed final five minutes do not serve to fix this problem) and Harry Osborn remains a threat who even starts up his latest scheme as the film wraps up (and, no, not in the sense of “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!”).

There’s no resolution here.  I don’t feel like I’ve been told a full story.  I feel like I’ve been told half of a story, at best.  There’s no payoff.  Just a whole bunch of clumsily handled foreshadowing and set-up work for the endless sequel parade to possibly payoff down the line in the future maybe who knows?  The Man In The Shadows from the mid-credits stinger of the first film makes a reappearance at the end because reasons, Harry’s assistant is called Felicia (as in Felicia Hardy because that’s just how subtle this film is in regards to going “THIS CHARACTER WILL DO SOMETHING IN A FUTURE INSTALMENT”) but she doesn’t do anything and, surprise sur-f*cking-prise, there’s a conspiracy at Oscorp that is left totally unresolved at the end because of-f*cking-course it is.  The point of a film ending is that it is supposed to have told all of the story it needed and wanted to tell but such a thing is clearly not the case for ASM2.

Speaking of, Peter Parker is a boring dick.  Andrew Garfield is trying so very, very hard to make this character work (he has a lot of natural, easy-going charisma and he is great at the better parts of Spidey’s mid-combat snark) but his character spends most of the film in the background and, when he does actually get to wrestle control of his own film back to him, he’s actively dislikeable.  He’s a dick to everybody almost all the time, primarily because his character arc is almost permanently stuck on the cusp of the transitional period from “dickwad hero” to “noble figure for hope and justice” and he doesn’t actually start that transitional phase and learning lessons until ten minutes before the end of the GODS.  DAMN.  MOVIE.

And the stuff with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone, deserves better).  Oh, Maker, how I hate all of the material with him and Gwen Stacey.  It’s predicated around the fact that Peter loves Gwen but the promise he made to her dying father to stay away from her is causing him to feel guilty about that love.  Good, fine, you can do stuff with this.  You can do good, non-crappy stuff with this.  Except this manifests as Peter being a dick to her at all times but his love for her leads to him stalking her (again), putting her in danger (again) and begging her to give up her own wants so that they can be together happily (again).  Hell, a better movie would make parallels between his obsession with Gwen and Electro’s with Spider-Man, but that movie wouldn’t allow a big loud action sequence with a hint of tragedy, apparently, so it’s nowhere to be found and their romance is played as true love that’s futile to deny.  Credit to Stone and Garfield, they have excellent chemistry, but the material is awful.

Those are just a few of the major problems with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were also present in the original (well, admittedly, the original at least had the decency to attempt to come up with an ending).  I’d go on for more, but I’m running out of time here and I need to wrap up.  This a bad film.  It is a bad, bad film.  But it is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars and we are going to be up to our eyeballs in sequels for however long the shared-universe superhero bubble manages to avoid bursting.  And it will do so because it is not a badly made film.  The surface level sheen is great.  The performances are mostly great (Dane DeHaan still makes time to put in excellent work even as he seems to be voluntarily flushing his career down the toilet between this and Metallica: Through The Never), the film is nice and pacey which at least didn’t make me feel like I had been dragged through a sloggy bog watching the damn thing (*coughcoughDivergentcough*), the effects are great and the fluidity of them fits the hyper-reality of the film’s universe, and action scenes are shot like every action scene in every Western action movie ever (shakily, busily, nearly incoherently at points) but may at least seem exciting to less jaded viewers.

More importantly, there is still the spark of a great movie and a great franchise in here.  No matter how badly the series so far has tried to snuff them out, there are still nuggets of potential littering The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  This could be a fantastic superhero movie in a fantastic superhero franchise but it, like its predecessor, keeps making all the wrong moves at the worst times and in the crappiest possible manner whilst, all the while, never openly sucking.  This is not an outwardly and plainly bad movie; its badness simmers underneath beneath a protective sheen of great performances and well-made filmmaking, but still ruining everything.  It’s why I cannot tear this film to shreds.  I should do, it is terrible, but that potential is still there and I am adamant that if people who actually knew what they were doing were given creative control, this series would learn from its mistakes and subsequently realise that potential.

Consider this a staying of execution, then.  I am prepared to give The Amazing Spider-Man franchise one more chance to realise that potential and learn from its mistakes.  If I come back here in two years’ time to find a sequel that again wastes that potential and makes the same mistakes, I will consider this series officially devoid of all hope and the resulting review will be merciless.  In the meantime and nevertheless, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a bad film.  You should not go and see it.

Callum Petch run on the track like Jesse Owens, broke the record flowing without any knowing.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad Emma Stone Ryan GoslingYou wanna know how to make The Untouchables for the so-called MTV Generation? They cast double Oscar-winner Robert De Niro as the bad guy; you cast double Oscar-winner Sean Penn. They have a dreamy Latino marksmen in the shape of Andy Garcia; you cast Michael Peña as a dreamy Latino marksman. And fuck it; get Ryan Gosling in as well. That’s the Hollywood way!

Back in our 2013 preview I asked if Gangster Squad was going to be “this generation’s The Untouchables or Dick Tracy”. Well, I didn’t expect them to answer so literally in the former. This film is essentially a remake in all but name. The city may be different, and under threat from a different historically-inspired gangster, but the main elements are all here.

Sean Penn stars as Robert De Nero Mickey Cohen, a ruthless mob boss determined to run Los Angeles as his own private empire. The film opens on him torturing one gangster, and ordering another to tell Chicago what happened. It’s almost as if director Ruben Fleischer is flicking two-fingers at Chicago-based The Untouchables. This film is going to be bigger, better, and down-right nastier he seems to say. And it’s a bold statement.

Josh Brolin is Kevin Costner AND Sean Connery Sgt. John O’Mara, one of the few good cops in the city, and the man chosen by Nick Nolte’s police chief to bring down Cohen’s Empire. Luckily at this point the film does strike out on its own a little. As O’Mara puts his team together, and they embark on their mission, this does appear to be a slightly different gangster movie to those that have gone before. O’Mara’s Gangster Squad don’t carry badges, and they don’t make arrests. This is guerrilla warfare played out on the streets of LA. And it’s actually a lot of fun.

A major element that sets Gangster Squad apart from its predecessors is its use of humour. The film has very funny moments, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise considering Fleischer’s previous work (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less). The comic relief does help to break up some pretty brutal scenes of violence, and stops it being as unremittingly bleak as Lawless was last year. Sadly though, the plot is inevitably drawn back to its inspirations, and far too often I watched events on screen thinking “oh, that’s just like in The Untouchables”.

One thing The Untouchables didn’t have though is Ryan Gosling. Once you get past his character’s name (Jerry Wooters) he is everything that is good about this movie. He oozes charm, and has great comic timing. His transformation from laid-back, ‘looking after number one’ cop to avenging angel may be a little unbelievable plot-wise, but he sells the hell out of it up there. His love interest is played by the always delightful Emma Stone; who, like Gosling, is yet to put a foot wrong in her Hollywood career. The film genuinely lights up when these two are on screen.

Fleischer has made an enjoyable and stylish film. It may lack the gravitas and emotional punch of L.A. Confidential, and is a little too derivative of previous portrayals of this fascinating era at times, but there’s enough humour and great set-pieces to make it worthwhile.

Gangster Squad is released on 10 January.

Whine On You Crazy Diamond: The Electric Cinema

Firstly, I want to apologise for this week’s blog being a few days late. Well, a week and a few days late. I know it’s an absolute no-no to blog about how you’ve been too busy in your ‘real life’ to blog, but that’s probably on the same list of rules that include “don’t name a column after a weak pun about an album that’s older than most of your readers” so I’m clearly a serial rule-breaker.

So yeah, I’ve been busy. Thankfully, I’ve also had time to watch some films and write up some reviews for the site, which along with some brilliant pieces from some of my favourite contributors has led to the most successful week in the site’s very short history. So thanks!

This week’s blog is a nice and easy one to write. It’s a simple recommendation based on the most delightful experience I had at the cinema yesterday. Sadly the film I watched was very disappointing, and if I had seen it in a bog-standard multiplex, or even the lovely, but familiar surroundings of my local arts centre I would have written an even angrier review. Luckily for my sanity I had chosen to watch it at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham, the UK’s oldest working cinema.

The Electric is located just a couple of minutes’ walk from New Street, and houses two screens (with the largest of the two accessible to wheelchair users). The old-school ticket booth on your right as you enter took me back to a time I probably never really experienced. I wasn’t visiting a cinema from my youth; I was visiting a cinema that I had seen on-screen in my youth. Even my ticket was one of those tiny little stubs that sadly these days are reserved for booths exchanging them for tacky gifts on a seaside pier.

My standard seating ticket was a reasonable £7, although I was very tempted by the fantastic-looking sofa seating with waiter service for £12.80. If I hadn’t been on my own, I’m sure I would have splashed out. Concessions are priced at a budget £4.80 (including evenings and weekends), and in a nice touch the unwaged are also eligible for this price. The person who served me was friendly, polite, and seemed to genuinely care that I enjoyed the film. Good customer service costs nothing, and can make such a difference.

One inside the screen, and after being allowed to take my gin and tonic (Bombay Sapphire at just £2.50 a measure!) in a real glass with me, I settled in to a slightly rickety chair, with worn armrests, and not too much in the way of legroom. And I didn’t care – in fact loved it. It just felt like a cinema should. The projection was also perfectly handled. In short, I wish I could watch every film for the rest of my life here.

I’m even tempted to make the one hour journey from Leicester for one of their special events in the future. For example, earlier this month they hosted an evening of wine and film with a showing of Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, and hosted by The Wine Tasting Company – who paused the film “at opportune moments to take audience members through six excellent red and white wines from different regions of Italy”. Now that is the kind of interruption and consumption of drinks I can get on board with.

If you’re ever stuck for a few hours in Birmingham with time to kill, I cannot recommend visiting this cinema highly enough. Even if you see a poor film, you’l still have a great time.

Please note – I was not asked to write about The Electric Cinema, and I paid for my ticket and refreshments.

www.theelectric.co.uk

This week’s viewing:

DVD – There’s a number of big releases out on DVD this week, but the best of them in my humble opinion is Brave – Pixar’s first ever film with a female lead. It’s not as out-and-out funny as some of the studio’s other releases, but it is the perfect marriage of Pixar’s wonderful visuals and a classic Disney fairytale-style narrative.

TV – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Sunday 2nd Dec, 3.05pm, Film4. The perfect film to have on as you dig out old decorations, untangle what feels like three miles of fairy lights, and deck your halls with bowls of holly etc. A retelling of Dickens’ classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) and his bah humbug approach to the festive season. May contain loveable puppets.

Lovefilm Instant  – Easy A (2010). Brand new to Lovefilm Instant, Emma Stone stars as a high school girl who sees her life echoing Hester Prynne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and decides to manipulate the school’s rumour mill to improve her lot in life. Clever teen comedy also starring Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kurow, and Malcolm McDowell.

Netflix UK – 21 Jump Street (2012). One of the biggest surprises this year was not how genuinely funny this reboot of a long-forgotten 80s TV show was (it really is), but that Channing Tatum had a performance like this in him – out-funnying Jonah Hill no less.

Failed Critics: Episode 12 – The Amazing Spider-Man

In honour The Amazing Spiderman – this week’s Failed Critics has been rebooted for a modern audience. We are going to give you the origin story of how James, Steve, Gerry and Owen first met. Starring Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, and Vincent Cassell.

Or we could just review The Amazing Spiderman and tell you how we would remake/reboot movies we think need a makeover.

James also reviews the worst film he has seen so far this year, Steve turns into a later-day Bob Holness (he’s too young to get the reference), and Gerry sounds like he’s on the same continent as us and NOT being attacked by an angry wasp. Owen just did well not to get confused with Gerry if we’re honest.

This week’s running time is a frankly epic two hours and five minutes. We won’t apologise, but we are taking steps to try and keep all future podcasts under 90 minutes.

We hope you enjoy this extended episode though!

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