ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Ben Affleck

Oscar Winners in Review – Argo

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Right,

This is somewhat potentially embarrassing for me – as someone who has always considered himself a film buff I always used to be on top of awards season. Before the ceremonies I would have always seen the nominated films, talked them over and made my picks. This year though a multitude of things got in the way and when the Oscar ceremony rolled around I realised that I had seen hardly any of the big films that had picked up all the nominations. So, over the next few weeks I’m going to try to remedy this, by retrospectively looking over all the critical beloved movies of 2012 and seeing what all the fuss was about. I figured I may as well start with the big winner this year, Ben Affleck’s third film, Argo. Whilst it may not have won as many awards as some films in years past this film has been the concluding part of Affleck’s career second act as he makes the transition from fairly flaky actor to one of the leading directors of popular cinema in America. With an Oscar win for best picture (and a historic snub for best director) under his belt the critics are rubbing their hands with glee at where Affleck will go next. But how does this film match up? Does it really deserve the hype and has Affleck managed to escape things like this?

In short the answer is…yes. Following a little explored angle of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 the film follows six Americans who escape and are taken in by the Canadian ambassador. Whilst the country outside becomes ever more fervent in the quest for American “spies” the 6 low-level diplomats are left cowering in the crawl space. At the same time the CIA are desperately trying to find out some way of extracting them and from every side threats to the six become more and more extreme. The film follows the CIA’s top exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, as he comes up with the ‘best worst idea’ they have. Fly in Iran as a Canadian producer; recruit the six to act as the crew on a location scout and then all fly out together.

Did I mention this is based on a true story?

Well…it is.

One of the most impressive things about this film is that it genuinely captures the not only the mood of tension but the look and the feel of the late seventies. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks, all the time and the fashion and design is accurate down to the last detail. In a way the film feels like it came from another age of action movies too – no dumb explosions or unnecessary action but rather a story that expertly ratchets up the tension at every single opportunity. That isn’t to say that there are not cool action sequences, far from it. The opening sequence that details the fall of the embassy is done with a terrifying realism and the action emerges organically from the quality of the story. It’s the quality of the story that makes this too, as instead of wasting time of showy explosions the story is given urgency and the characters depth so that watching them drive through Tehran becomes edge of your seat excitement. Technically the film is great too; the editing and direction from Affleck are simply superb and the skills that Affleck showcased with Gone Baby Gone and the fantastic The Town have been honed and refined to a really high level. There isn’t an unnecessary moment, or pause to the film’s narrative and the editing just wrings every single drop of tension from every single sequence.

The film is also quite darkly comic too –mainly thanks to the fantastic performances from John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the Hollywood insiders who help Tony Mendez set up the legitimate production company to make his cover stand up. Arkin especially gets ALL the best lines, especially his fantastically rude response for why the fake film is called what it is. It’s the Hollywood scenes that probably help explain why the film was so beloved by organisations like the Academy, as it indulges the idea of a film about the power of cinema. Fans of film will have fun spotting the references and the little glimpses of insight into how the movie business worked back in the day. It feels like Affleck enjoyed directing these scenes too, allowing him to get in a few subtle digs at how the film industry and Hollywood works. The only moments where the pace slips a little are the scenes with the six people trapped in a house – as the story can’t allow anything to happen before the rescue the time is used as a chance for characterisation but the film picks up when the story can move forward again.

As I said, Affleck has proven that he is a director and an actor with the chops to handle material that results in high quality and intelligent entertainment, and the details of just how much was based on the historical record only increases my admiration for the film. Whether or not it deserves to have the title of best film of 2012 is a little difficult to judge right now, but if you’re looking for something smart, nail-bitingly exciting and expertly done it looks like the former Mr Jennifer Lopez is now the man to go to.

Kudos Ben. You’ve earned it.

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Awards Season – 2012

Right,

Firstly, let’s deal with that whole Mayan thing shall we? To quote Morpheus from the Matrix films ‘WE ARE STILL HERE’ and another apocalypse has been and gone without really throwing this little planet into non-existence. So suck it ancient civilization that hasn’t existed for hundreds and hundreds of years!

That said, there are a few traditions expected around this time of year aside from the omni-present threat of global catastrophe, such as eating so much your stomach resembles a beach ball and for internet critics like me, the end of year round up. So without further ado I present ThePageBoy’s end of year awards for 2012 – light, easily digestible reading suitable for gazing at whilst summoning the will to devour yet another mince pie. ThePageBoy will be back soon, new and improved, so may your Christmas be happy and your new year, however you celebrate it, apocalypse free.

The Minor Awards For Irritation in Cinema:

Franchise that has long overstayed it’s welcome:

The Winner – The Expendables 2

There comes a time when you reach the age that taking part in explosions and acts of daring do start to look a little ridiculous. When, even for the notoriously camp genre that is action movies, you start looking slightly undignified. Now, to most sane people that age would be your late 60’s but that doesn’t stop The Expendables 2 does it!? Neither does horrible acting and dialogue (written by Sylvester Stallone is the very definition of damning by faint praise) and a shameless pandering to the nostalgia dollar that makes everyone involved look cheap. Still will that stop them making a third one? No. Although for the sake of the rapidly diminishing dignity of all concerned I hope they see sense and just…stop.

Worst Re-boot

The Winner – Total Recall

A re-boot is a chance for a fresh new creative team to put their own stamp on product, exploring a new angle or building on the world created in the original. Sadly, when Len Wiseman is involved that doesn’t seem to be an option. An unmitigated flop, the film quickly sank without trace. For those of you who didn’t see it and are wondering what you missed, the answer is nothing. Go watch the original in all of its trashy cinematic charm and remember that Arne is now in danger of losing the credibility films like THAT won for him.

Biggest Career Switch

The Winner – Robert Pattinson

From Twilight. To Cosmopolis. He went from Twilight to working with David Lynch and making films about the dark side of capitalism. In the stroke of a single movie he managed to alienate the Twi-hards and prove that he was capable of turning in a decent performance going beyond his range of looking broody. Sadly, he followed it up with the uniformly awful Bel-Ami, so one can only hope that the next choice he makes is slightly better, though I am not holding out much hope – it might be that brooding whilst covered in glitter is the only think he can do.

Best Career Turn Around

The Winner – Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck is, without a shadow of a doubt, a terrible actor when left to his own devices. Fortunately he’s proven to be a really talented director and writer, even capable of turning in a decent performance when he’s in control of the material question. In the space of a few years he went from Daredevil to Argo. Now THAT is impressive. Gone Baby Gone, The Town and his latest film have put him in line for Oscar nominations .If this keeps up 2013 will be a very very good year for the former Mr Jennifer Lopez.

Most Interesting Ideas

The Cabin In The Woods

I’ve always been a fan of horror, but in recent years it has been nothing short of depressing. Thankfully Joss Whedon came along and managed to revitalize the horror genre with a dash of meta knowledge, a sense of humor and crucially, some fresh ideas. One of the best horror films in years and one of the best films of 2012 hands down.

Most Interesting Mess

The Winner – Holy Motors

Erm…Yeah…

Worst Adaptation

The Winner – What to Expect When Your Expecting

Based on the pregnancy guide of the same name! If this doesn’t tell you just how bad this film is, I’m not sure you read or understood the previous sentence.

Best Adaptation that not enough people saw:

The Winner – We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Based on the stunning novel of the same name I had always thought that this had the potential to be a great film. But I never thought that the job they would do would be this good. It took five years of delicate development and finance negotiations brought this film to the big screen and it was so so worth the wait. Directed by the bright new talent of Lynne Ramsey and starring the indomitable Tilda Swinton it is one of the finest British made films of the last few years, beautiful, well made and horrifying in equal measure. Go see it – and go read the book.

Best Film and Best Adaptation that Everyone saw

Here it is – the big one, the best film of 2012 and it just so happened to be an adaptation making this year a very good one indeed for ThePageBoy. So here it – THE AVENGERS! Both the best action movie and the best adaptation of the entire year the Avengers was an absolute joy to sit through from beginning to end. What was the most fun was watching Joss Whedon and the rest of the Marvel team mange to complete the mad-cap idea of putting comic style continuity into big blockbusters. It was amazing to watch a film with smart ideas, intelligence and a sense of humor pull of a slice of audacious movie making. Roll on the sequel! (And how often do I get to say that!?)

Well that’s the big awards out the way…What did you think of 2012’s cinema?

ThePageBoy

Will Smith is better than this, or, I am not that stupid am I?

Ri –

I can’t do it. I just can’t do it this time. I can’t dance around the issue and have an opening paragraph that leads into the issue. I just can’t do it. Because this week we’re talking about something that is bad. Really bad. Now, after doing this for a little while – swimming around in the shallow end of internet criticism- you sort of notice a pattern of the different kinds of ‘bad’ and all different kinds of ‘awful.’ There is the soul-less, terrible ‘bad’ that only exists to make some money off people impressed by the cool product placement and explosions, there is the ‘bad’ that isn’t really all that terrible and then there is the bad that makes me hate the person who put it into the world as it misses the mark so badly. I’ve dealt with all shapes and sizes of terrible thus far but this week’s column is quite special because it deals with a very special variety of bad film – the movie that was very nearly good.

In a way this flavour of terrible is by far the most frustrating, as it introduces a particularly bitter undertone – hope. Watching the film you begin to let down your critical guard, start enjoying the plot, the action and you start to become emotionally invested in the characters and then at the last minute the film whips it all away from you with a cynical and evil laugh as it shoves you face first into the garbage it was waiting to fling in your face.

It could have been great. It could have been something bold and original in a genre that badly needed an injection of creativity and originality. Instead, it ended up as the 7th highest grossing movie of 2007, ‘I Am Legend.’ Yes, this one features Will Smith too – I get the feeling that he may be in danger of turning into my new Ben Affleck…

Okay, roll up your sleeves and follow me – a quick recap of the film first of all, because to explain the problem with this adaptation you need to know about the book and the movie. Will Smith plays the military scientist Robert Neville, the last man in a post-apocalyptic New York. The human race has been 90% wiped out by a mutated virus with survivors turned into creatures that seem broadly similar to vampires. Robert Neville spends his days wandering the ruins of the city looking for supplies, tortured by the loss of his family and the lack of companionship in his search for a cure.  The plot moves on when an immune woman and her son arrive on the scene and tell him about a camp of survivors that God told them about. In the course of the experiments Neville takes an infected woman and as the infected hoards attack his house he realises he has found the cure in the infected woman’s blood. As the masses swarm him, he kills himself to protect his cure and the woman and her son. The film ends with the two entering the survivor camp and handing over the cure.

Right, so, there is the basic outline and it seems only fair to give credit where it is due. Will Smith is very, very good in this – really good. He’s pretty much the only thing on screen for much of the film’s opening and he commands the attention of the watcher – especially when we see him chat with his dog and the shop dummies he sets up to stop himself from going completely crazy. These scenes are incredibly affecting and prove conclusively that Smith has some serious talent as an actor. He convinces as an action star too, able to kick ass but remain human, so that, unlike Arnie say, you actually feel the threat that makes the action scenes involving and viscerally exciting.

Now, onto the bad – first the CGI baddies have not aged well. Even at the time the effects were not great and showed the effects of re-shooting. The story falls apart by the third act when it decided to abandon the creepy build-up of tension and well developed character moments and instead turn the film into a survival horror film. The obvious downside being, that monsters are scary the less you see of them – and with dodgy CGI these monsters are not scary and we see far too much of them. They aren’t laughable monsters, just generic and slightly dull and the tension dissipates into action in the rush to get to the conclusion. Now, this by itself doesn’t sound awful right? And it isn’t. But there is one major problem that I’m getting to, that will require a slight detour.

Ready? Here we go – the film is based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson and is widely believed to be one of the formative influences on the idea of zombie being part of literature. The plot follows Robert Neville, who goes through bouts of depression and alcoholism and in the course of his research manages to figure out how the virus is spread, (one of the things I really like about the film is how it updates these character traits to the modern setting and uses them to make Will Smith’s character more interesting). He comes across an apparently uninfected woman in the sunlight and takes a blood sample. Here is where the film and the book majorly divulge. It turns out the infected have started to beat the disease and are trying to rebuild society. Robert Neville is captured and sentenced to death as the meaning of the title becomes chillingly clear. Neville is the legend of these infected people, the monster that stalks them and kills them. The book ends with Neville accepting the need for his own death and a plea for the new society to be a just one.

Now, re-read my recap of the film plot. NOTICE ANYTHING!?

The thing that really ramps up the frustration is that I think the film was going to try to attempt the same thing. Maybe not as boldly but for what is basically a zombie movie it would have been a gutsy move. The infected show signs of intelligence, even outwitting Smith at one point and they share an emotional connection to one another. Seen in this way the final act of the film becomes even worse. Far from being an attack, the creatures are trying to rescue one of their own stolen kidnapped by a monster. And yet, the movie ends with Will Smith killing himself, and these potentially fascinating creatures reduced the dumb role of movie monster there to be killed by the morally good hero.  From doing a bit of research I found that the makers of the film originally ended the film with Will Smith and the leader of the infected recognising the intelligence in their opposite number – a similar switch that happens in the book – and it would finish with Smith escaping New York to the survivor camp as well, after he returns the infected woman to her own kind.

But they re-shot the ending. Because it was too dark. Too downbeat. Audiences wouldn’t like it.

The only response I can give to this level of intellectual patronizing is this. It can’t be just me that is tired of being spoon fed a product that has been watered down, and made less challenging because the people who hold the purse strings are terrified that someone somewhere might not like it. Frankly, that’s insulting. To artists, to writers, to actors and to the people who make movies but more importantly, it is insulting to the people who go and see movies.  Let me be clear – I have no problem with a zombie action film. But this film, until the conclusion, is not that. When you look at the film through the lens of the book you see just how odd and out of place the ending is. It is shamelessly pandering to the bottom line at the expense of the film’s own narrative coherence. It denigrates the intellectual appetite of the viewer and tries to replace the interesting premise and set-up with explosions and a cheap, exploitative death.

The film disrespects the source material, and disrespects the act of re-telling it. Enough. Just enough.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS Wow…bit rant heavy wasn’t it?

PPS The bit where the dog dies, (spoiler) does make me tear up a little…

Marvel Month V – ‘This will be a long one,’ or ‘Damn you Hugh Jackman.’

Right,

So here it is – a little later than planned thanks to things like laptops crashing and my dissertation needing to be written, but together we’ve made it to the end of Marvel Month. It’s been a long road and sometimes a painful journey, (yes I am looking at you again Ben Affleck) but this month is nearly done. So where to finish? Which franchise best sums up the Marvel universe and has been turned into a franchise that everyone would know? Only one place to go people! A school. Full of gifted youngsters. That’s right. It’s X-Men time.

Once again it seems that this is yet another cultural juggernaunt that simply wouldn’t be around were it not for the considerable talents of Messers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, (Whatever it was they were doing in the 1960’s to give these guys those ideas, I think it’s a shame the creative industry stopped doing it. They were golden days, clearly) when in 1963 the X-Men debuted in X-Men #1.

From then and until now the X-men have gone from one of the lowest selling titles to one of the most enduringly popular, so when superhero movies took off it was only a matter of time untill the studio came looking for some mutants. The development process for X-Men was much longer than for some hero films, stretching as far back as the late 1980’s when James Cameron was rumoured to be involved. 20th Century Fox picked up the script in the late 1990’s and finally, after treatment after treatment, (including one by a certain Mr Joss Whedon) in 2000 the first X-Men movie was released, directed by Bryan Singer.

As this franchise is one of the more successful actions film series I’m not going to spend much time going over the elements of the plot. Suffice to say, this is a really well designed and interesting action film. The design and aesthetics of the film is clearly influenced by the comics but moves the style on from some of the more cartoonish elements – no yellow spandex being the most immediate example. Also serving as one of the few times I can think of that a film has influenced the medium that influenced itself. Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men which started soon after the first film does bear some striking similarities.

The cast function well as an ensemble, particular highlights for me are Patrick Stewart in a wheelchair and Gandalf in a cape. The two are by far the best actors in the film and whilst this kind of film doesn’t necessarily require top-notch acting as opposed to people who can give you good reactions on green screen. That it isn’t to say the rest of the cast are bad, I am just trying to keep some perspective. Having done some googling of different reviews the best way I found of summing up the first film is  a nice quote from James Berardelli who said”the film is effectively paced with a good balance of exposition, character development, and special effects-enhanced action. Neither the plot nor the character relationships are difficult to follow, and the movie avoids the trap of spending too much time explaining things that don’t need to be explained.”

The quality of the film is just that, setting everything up for the sequel – after the first one took nearly $300 million, the sequel came out 3 years later in 2003 as X2. Or X-Men 2 here in the UK. The film again is a very well put together action film, based on Chris Claremont’s graphic novel from 1982, God Loves, Man Kills. The cast is bolstered in the acting talent  department with Brian Cox playing a villan and Alan Cummings having a small part too. This film was a bigger success than the first, so the third film swiftly hoved into view.

The third film was by far the most troubled with Bryan Singer departing and being replaced by Brett Ratner and whilst the film was by far the most successful of the franchise it is by far the weakest. The subtle issues that X-Men have always dealt with (regardless of form)  was sacrificed for explosions, explosions and more explosions. Whilst  the film had been trying to lead up to a climatic struggle the whole thing felt stale and soulless – typified by the choice of Vinnie Jones as the Juggernaut. loud, annoying and lacking in any kind of nuance.

Then, the low point, X-Men origins Wolverine. I won’t waste much time on this turkey suffice for a few points. The film is entirely pointless from a dramatic or character point of view. Everything we, as people completely unfamiliar with the X-Men history needed to know about Wolverine,  was explained ALREADY! In two flash backs during the second film. Yes, you can fill in all the details but why would you? Regardless of who the character is give your audience a little credit, let there be some room for imagination, or ambiguity. This film didn’t add anything new to Wolverine and, if anything, made me think less of the character. We didn’t need to know anything about his past because he was cooler without it! Next, Deadpool. For those not used to the world of comics, Deadpool is a brilliant and completely insane character prone to over the top explosions and awesome fourth wall breaking jokes. Ryan Reynolds was a great casting choice. SO WHY STITCH HIS MOUTH SHUT!?!? There is no clearer example of completely missing the point of what that character is for! The relationship between the two brothers, that should really form the emotional core of the film is underdone as instead of coming off like a struggle Hugh Jackman and Liev Schrieber both seem to dislike each other.

The film also proves to have one of the best examples of one of my personal bugbears with action films. The idea of getting the audience to emotionally connect with someone we do not know. so Logan ends up in Canada after leaving his secret army unit and falls in love with a wonderful woman called……er…….. She is on-screen for about 6 minutes and is then killed off to give Logan the reason he needs to start kicking ass again. Fine. What really annoys me is the films insistence of playing this for emotional pathos. WE DO NOT KNOW HER! So, why should we care? Well, I didn’t.

Thankfully though, for the next film we got something much MUCH better; last year’s X-Men First Class. A little clichéd, but this really felt like a return to form for the franchise. The two leads of James Mcavoy and Michael Fassbender were both amazing, the set pieces were done well, slick action and a fantastic bad guy. Crucially, the film was paced well, building up the drama untill the climax actually felt like it had dramatic weight as things hadn’t been exploding from minute one. Yes, I could pick holes in it, but here’s the important thing. I don’t want to. I’m aware it isn’t perfect but this film actually feels like it was made with care, and attention to the enjoyment of fans rather than with an eye to huge profits. Soul, in short, matters as without it, you end up with Hugh Jackman being angst-ridden. With it, you get one of my best films of 2011

So, how does this compare then to the X-Men comics? Well, here’s where it all got a little difficult. Asking around and doing my own reasearch I found that the best run on X-Men was widely considered to be by a writer called Chris Claremont. Seeking out his work I realised that he wrote X-Men for sixteen years. Sixteen YEARS! SIXTEEN years! So obviously reading that whole run would be impossible, (this column is already late as it is) I decided instead to focus on one single story from that run and see how it matches up.

The story is the classic Dark Phoenix Saga, written by Chris Claremont, with art from Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. The reason this was chosen was for the allusions made to  in X2 and the similarities between this and The Last Stand make it probably the best one to do. Perhaps the most striking thing about the run is that it really made me feel out of my depth. This isn’t a criticism, but is worth noting – the X-Men universe is big. Really big..(I’ll stop before this turns into a HitchHiker quote) and as someone unfamiliar with the world and the backstory it does mean that there are elements here given more room, time and space that any of the movies could or should have done.

The plot is galaxy spanning and feels in a way much bigger than the earth bound stories of the films – though this has been something of a repeating theme in Marvel Month as writers have space and fewer limitations than a film crew. The look of the comics is very different too, the art feels other-wordly and keeps the reader on edge. so how does it compare as an adapative source for the films? Well…

Well….

Well…it is good.

But not great. The problem is that the films depend on the most visually recognizable members of the X-Men canon, Xavier, Magneto Wolverine and so on and when the films attempted to deal with the psychological elements of the story that make up Dark Phoenix it doesn’t feel right, coming off as staged and overly loud. That said, the comics would be impossible to adapt completely – the X-men have become a vast sprawling bloc in the Marvel universe and I really shouldn’t be too harsh on it as an adaptation because of poor choices one director made.  The things that work from the comics are kept in the films; the dealing with questions that still ring true today, the sense of comradeship and the struggle of the few to do the right thing in the face of opposition are all things that the films do pick up on. At it’s best (cough, First Class, cough) the franchise grounds itself in reality well too, enabling us as viewers to relate to this world as believable whilst still being excited about the possibility of having the ‘X-Gene.’

So, there we are. A mixed bag to be sure, but the lessons are still here to be learnt. Find the soul of something and do the best you can, with the medium at your disposal. That’s how you make a good X-Men movie.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS. Can we all agree that Storm is by far the most annoying one out of all the X-Men? Seriously…

PPS. And in the Deadpool movie HE HAD BETTER TALK!!

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