Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Director: Marc Webb

**

Posters for The Amazing Spider-Man have advertised it as ‘the untold story’. There’s only one problem: that’s flagrant false advertising. Sam Raimi ushered Spider-Man to the big screen in 2002 after numerous aborted attempts (most notably by James Cameron), and, while far from perfect, is an adequate origin story. Did we really need to be told all this again? No, but having poisoned Spider-Man with deadly Venom, Sony have to get their most profitable franchise rolling again, and thus we arrive at Spidey Mk. II.

Right from the offset, there’s no sign that the filmmakers are trying to overcome the familiarity of Peter Parker’s story. An opening scene sees a young Peter being left in the care of his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and aunt May (Sally Field) whilst his scientist parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) go off on secret business into the night, never to come back. This’d be eerie, except subsequent revelations suggest that there’s nothing sinister in this beyond coincidence. Actually, coincidences crop up all over TASM’s plot. For the second time of note, Andrew Garfield plays a guy with a knack for algorithims. Parker’s a slightly savvier nerd than the first time around. He’s handy around the house,  he skateboards, and is willing to get in a fight even without his superpowers. The coincidences kick in when he seeks answers to his parents’ deaths. He goes to the headquarters of Oscorp, their former employers. Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), Peter’s crush, just happens to be working there as an intern. She also just happens to be an assistant to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a former work colleague and friend to Peter’s parents. Wow, what are the odds?!

Having sneaked into Oscorp, Peter stumbles across a lab developing extra-strength wire from genetically modified spider webs. One genetically modified spider bite later, and the revenge of the nerd begins in earnest. Parallel to Peter’s story, Connors’ experiments with reptilian limb regeneration take a turn for the worst as his desire to regrow his severed arm get the better of him. There’s a sense of tragedy to Connor’s story, and it’s effectively brought out by Ifans. The only problem is when he actually undergoes his transformation into Spidey’s arch-enemy the Lizard that problems arise. The uninspired CG design for the Lizard makes him look more like the offspring of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla than a genuine figure of menace.

Kudos to the script: it actually tries to flesh out the characters and relationships. Sheen is as dignified and inspiring as the kindly uncle and Field, though a little underused, is wonderfully maternal. Garfield makes for a very likeable Parker, and he strikes real sparks with Stone, who’s just adorable. Unfortunately, once we’ve settled in with these characters and have listened to them argue/banter, the blockbuster requisites demand action set-pieces and web-slinging aplenty. Director Marc Webb (who previously made the enjoyable (500) Days of Summer) gets the character beats right, but his action scenes are unremarkable. The Lizard’s plan for a biological attack is rushed through, and the CG-heavy set-pieces are unremarkable. There’s more tension in a dinner discussion between Parker and Gwen’s father (Denis Leary, repeat scene-stealer) than in any of Spidey’s and the Lizard’s routs. By the way, Mr. Stacey also happens to be the chief of police and is leading the hunt for Spider-Man. Another coincidence!

For a film trying to step out of Sam Raimi’s shadow, TASM can’t escape the basic story nor the sense of humour that stood out in the first three films. In the comics, Spider-Man makes wisecracks whilst taking down bad guys; despite the humour in Raimi’s films, TASM wants to cling closer to the comics and thus has no choice but to keep the cheesy lines (They also make Spider-Man’s web slingers mechanical rather than genetic, as per the comics). The cheesiness also extends to a scene in which the citizens of New York have to help our resident arachnophile in his crime-fighting activites. There was a similar scene in the first Spider-Man, but it was just post-9/11 and seemed forgivable. Here, however, it’s just another element in the clean and marketable image being presented here, with action and baddies for the boys and shirtless Garfield and more romance for the girls (At least, that’s probably how the reboot was pitched). Therein lies the problem: this is an all-too human hero, with far too much emotionality to be taken seriously as a superhero. He’s so human he just can’t resist taking off his mask and showing his face to people! Not clever, but then Peter’s search engine of choice is Bing!, so common sense is clearly lacking. By the time James Horner’s intrusive score has burst your eardrums (Note to brass section: SHUT UP!), you’ll realize that there’s little here that wasn’t covered the first time around. It’s diverting enough, but chances are no-one will miss the Spider when he’s crushed at the box office by the Bat.

A few thoughts: The Evil Dead trilogy (1981-1992)

Special effects maestro Tom Savini recalls coming out of a movie theatre in the early 1980s and being approached by two young men in suits. The asked Savini to come see a rough edit of a horror film they were making. Savini was blown away as he watched a cadaver implode in a horrific pile of blood and claymation hideousness. He asked the young men what they called it. “The Evil Dead” came the reply from Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert. The rest isn’t so much history as infamy.

When talking about the Evil Dead trilogy, it is difficult to get beyond the controversy that follows it like a demon raised by the Necronomicon. The ridiculous levels of gore and blood that feature in the first film have earned the entire series a notoriety of which most marketing bods can only dream. The original cut of the film was banned in several countries, most notably in Britain as a result of the Video Recordings Act (1984), whereafter it became known as one of the ‘video nasties’. Raimi and his UK distributors, Palace Pictures, had to defend Evil Dead in front of a court in Leeds, and got the ban lifted, although the film was only passed with an ‘X’ rating after about a minute worth of cuts in 1982 . However, the passage of time has allowed The Evil Dead and its sequels to be rereleased (It was finally released uncut in the UK in 2001) and reassessed, and behind the furore lies a trio of well-natured, confident and competent films that make virtues of any perceived flaws and readily play with the rules.

The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead seems to have been not just a labour of love, but also one borne out of desperation. Producer Robert Tapert and director Sam Raimi were studying at Michigan State University in 1979 (Respectively, they studied economics and literature). Their friend Bruce Campbell, meanwhile, was a dropout making ends meet driving a taxi. According to Campbell, Tapert and Raimi dreaded being stuck in humdrum lines of work and saw filmmaking as their way out. Their short, Within The Woods, was made in spring 1979 for about $1,600. Raimi’s script, about four friends who unwittingly unleash a band of demons, was influenced in no small part by the Necronomicon stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Using Within The Woods as a calling card, Raimi and Tapert used it to pitch their idea of a full-length version of the short to potential investors.

Eventually securing a budget of $375,000, Raimi and his crew shot the now-titled The Evil Dead in and around a log cabin in Morristown, Tennessee. The cast consisted mostly of friends of the filmmakers, and the lead was played by Campbell, a friend of Raimi’s since childhood. What Raimi and co. set out to do was to make something to appeal to the drive-in crowd, whose primary interest was X-rated horror. Raimi’s first two shorts, It’s Murder (1977) and Clockwork (1978) convinced him that he could make a horror; his first inclination was comedy, but that clearly wasn’t abandoned entirely.

When watching The Evil Dead, there is never a moment when it feels either amateurish in its filmmaking or limited in its ambition. It is one of the most confident feature debuts ever made. Neither the (relatively) slim budget not time constraints stopped Raimi from committing his vision of giddy gore to celluloid. Shooting on 16mm, there’s a grit and earthiness in The Evil Dead’s look that makes you feel on edge right from the off. Campbell’s Ash drives his Oldsmobile (Sam Raimi’s own car) to the cabin with his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), college roommate Scotty (Richard DeManicor) and his girlfriend Shelly (Theresa Tilly). A fun weekend is planned, but the discovery of the Necronomicon and the resulting rousing of demonic spirits from the surrounding woods puts paid to those plans. This classic ‘teenagers in the woods’ setup is taken to its most extreme limits. Raimi puts onscreen images that you’d never seen before, and haven’t seen since. A prime example would be the scene in which Cheryl is pinned down and raped by a possessed tree. Even reading that sentence elicits pause for thought/shudders. Once she escapes, we get a POV of an unseen force chasing her down. The camerawork is angry and energetic, and the viewer is never given a chance to relax. It’s not long before the demons have possesses Cheryl, and she begins taunting her companions, throwing them about the room and stabbing them with pencils in the Achilles tendon.

Ash (Bruce Campbell)

One by one, the others become possessed by the demons. Eyes are gouged, boyfriends dismember girlfriends and general bloody mayhem ensues until Ash is the last one left. He has little with which to defeat them beyond a few bullets, his resourcefulness and an apparently high pain threshold. The Evil Dead could have been an exercise for Raimi to see how much he could make Campbell suffer. If he’s not been thrown, beaten or terrorized, he’s being drenched in blood. All the actors suffered for their art (Glass contact lenses worn by the possessed were akin to shoving Tupperware in your eye, says Campbell), but Campbell undoubtedly came out with the most scars. Most days would see him return home from set in the back of a pick-up truck covered in fake blood. Meanwhile, stop-motion animation combined with buckets of gunge and gore for a final bloody blow-out of a finale as the demons are defeated and their bodies collapse.

When censors finally deigned to allow audiences to see The Evil Dead, they were destined and doomed to remember it. Critics were mixed in their reviews. Leonard Maltin thought it was one of the most disgusting films he’d ever seen, whilst Stephen King praised it for its ferocious originality. The film premiered in October 1981, but did not manage to secure distribution and release until April 1983. Theatrically, it did well on limited release in the US, but it wasn’t until it was released on VHS that its popularity soared. The irony is that all the bans and controversy made it all the more popular. The Evil Dead was the best-selling video in Britain in 1983, and survived cuts, bans and the passage of time to be readily available on shiny BluRay today. That blood now runs in ruby red rivers.

The possessed Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss)

After the tough shoot, the distribution, the bans and the cult classic status, what is it that makes The Evil Dead endure over three decades later? To refer back to Stephen King, it is the ferocity and originality of it. The blood seems to flow by the gallon. The POV shots of the demons move at horrific speed. Despite some glimmers of humour, there is practically no respite from the tension, and the ending is open to interpretation. Does Ash survive? Well, we did get Evil Dead II, but the ending still comes at you (and Ash) with a bang! The rough-and-ready nature of the shoot lends a grim atmosphere to the film. With its themes of demonic possession, it plays like a primal and more badly-behaved version of The Exorcist. It is simply a wild and bloody ride that has an impressive ability to shock viewers to this day. Next to the stately stillness of something like The Shining, The Evil Dead is angry, unrelenting and unforgiving.

The Film Cynic’s rating: *****

 

Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)

Given the controversy that surrounded The Evil Dead on release, the idea of a sequel must have sounded an unlikely prospect, but Raimi had the basic kernels of a script in his head before The Evil Dead even began shooting. Raimi’s idead would eventually become Army of Darkness, but Raimi and Tapert were more concerned with their next film, the crime drama Crimewave, which Raimi co-wrote with Joel and Ethan Coen. Publicist Irvin Shapiro was the initial driving force behind another Evil Dead film, but it wasn’t until Crimewave went unnoticed at the box office that Raimi, Tapert and Bruce Campbell decided to head back into the woods.

Funding came from Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, but only after Stephen King backed Raimi and Tapert (De Laurentiis was producing a series of King adaptations at the time, the first being Maximum Overdrive, directed by King himself). With $3.6 million instead of the desired $4 million, Raimi scrapped his original idea of sending Ash back in time, and bashed out the idea for a sequel that stayed in the cabin from the original. Raimi and childhood friend Scott Spiegel wrote the script during and after production on Crimewave. The film was shot in mid-1986 near De Laurentiis’ offices in Wadesboro, North Carolina. The shoot was noticeably less chaotic than that of the first film. By now, Raimi and his crew had plenty of film experience behind them, as well as a confidence in their product buoyed by its relative success in the face of controversy.

Someone give that man a hand.

The initial setup is nearly identical to the first film. Ash (Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) arrive at a cabin in the woods for a romantic evening. Stumbling on a recording of a demonic text, Ash unwittingly unleashes demonic forces from the woods, which possess Linda, whom Ash is forced to kill, before the spirits attack him and make him suffer. All this occurs in the first eight minutes of the film. From this point Ash, with no means of escape, must battle the demons coming from outside, the demonic old lady in the basement and his own hand, which becomes possessed and which Ash must sever with his trusty chainsaw. Meanwhile, others are on the way to the cabin. Annie (Sarah Berry) is on her way to the cabin to meet her archaeologist father (the voice on the tape Ash played to unleash the demons) and her mother (the possessed woman in the basement). Along with Annie are her boyfriend Ed (Richard Domeier) and two local pieces of white trash, Jake (Danny Hicks) and Bobby Jo (Kassie Wesley). Though arguably just fodder for the demons, they do allow Ash a little respite from being bashed over the head and being flipped right over by his rebellious limb.

In terms of gore and viscera, though still bloody, Evil Dead II is not as intense as its predecessor. There is a major shift away from straight horror, fuelled by Raimi’s love of slapstick comedy and by a desire not to court controversy. Evil Dead II is intended as black comedy, informed by (to differing extents) hamburger commercials, Popeye and the films of the Three Stooges. For example, in one scene the basement demon is trying to attack the group in the cabin, but Ash closes the basement trapdoor on its head, causing its eye to pop out and fly into Bobby Jo’s mouth. The scene is lifted straight from a Three Stooges routine. The giddiness extends to all aspects of the production; witness the scene in which table lamps, a bookcase and the mounted head of a stag all laugh at Ash. All Ash can do is laugh along maniacally. Evil Dead II just gets so utterly loopy that the audience can do little but join in with the guffaws.

Despite the heightened production values, there’s still a low-rent sensibility to Evil Dead II, like these guys are still working on a shoestring. The raw energy that defined The Evil Dead is still present in the rapid camerawork and copious bloodshed (The stuff gushes like fountains). This is also something of a friendly, almost family affair (Raimi’s brother Ted and a horrific rubber suit and make-up are Henrietta, the basement demon). Raimi and Tapert usher their baby with a capable-yet-light-hearted hand. Campbell, meanwhile, became a cult hero almost overnight, with his acres of chin and insistence on doing his own stunts. If The Evil Dead set Ash up as the final word in final survivors, Evil Dead II turned him into the ultimate badass. Only Campbell could have declared “Who’s laughing now?!” with such relish before sawing off his own hand in a gush of grue.

Ash and Annie (Sarah Barry)

The cleaner look and tongue-in-cheek tone arguably dull Dead By Dawn’s impact compared to the original, but then so few films match the original’s intensity that it’s hardly a fault. Even if the supporting characters aren’t quite as memorable as the ones from the original either, it hardly matters when all manner of horrible latex demons, ghostly faces and airborne eyeballs are flying at our none-more-likeable hero Ash. He’s a great guide through an acid nightmare, and plonked in an ending that’s so downbeat, yet makes for one heck of a setup for Part Three…

The Film Cynic’s rating: ****

 

Army Of Darkness (1992)

After the relative box office success of Dead By Dawn, De Laurentiis was willing to fund a second sequel. Raimi finally saw the opportunity to make The Medieval Dead. Sadly, this working title would not be used on release.

Army Of Darkness was co-written by Raimi and his brother Ivan (Spiegel couldn’t write it as he was committed to rewrites on Clint Eastwood picture The Rookie). They wrote the script throughout the production of Raimi’s superhero film Darkman. A $12 million dollar budget, split between De Laurentiis’ company and Universal, gave Raimi (almost) enough scope to bring his Middle Ages jaunt to the screen (He and Tapert had to give up $1 million of their salaries to reshoot the ending, though). Shooting took place in mid-1991 in the Mojave desert and in the countryside around Los Angeles. Campbell, returning as Ash, put in another gruelling shoot, with choreographed fight scenes and effects shots making sure he drew the short straw yet again.

At the end of Evil Dead II, a portal opened to destroy the Kantharian demons, but it also sucked Ash in and deposited him in the year 1300. He is caught in a fight between two warring lords, both of whom are fascinated by this fast-talking futuristic new arrival. One of the lord’s Wiseman (the late Ian Abercrombie, a.k.a Seinfeld’s Mr. Pitt) tells Ash he must find the Necronomicon to transport him home. Find it he does, but a misreading of the book’s passages causes Ash to summon the skeletal Army of Darkness.  Despite the awe of the locals and a worthy wench (Embeth Davidtz) for him to romance, Ash just doesn’t seem to get a break. He must rally the troops and help them defeat the Army he inadvertently raised. Cue sword-wielding, rib-ticking, quote-worthy mayhem!

“This… is my BOOMSTICK!”

The first two films were Raimi’s visions through and through, but Army Of Darkness suffered a tortured post-production. Universal were initially unhappy with Raimi’s demands of $3 million for reshoots, and were even more peeved by his original cut, boasting a depressing ending and threatened by an NC-17 from the MPAA. With a reshot happier ending, the studio cut the film by six-odd minutes, securing an R-rating. Various versions with either ending are available, but does this scattershot production process show itself up in the final product?

It’s clear that Raimi is enjoying the liberties of bigger-budget filmmaking, with entertaining set-ups and giddy battle scenes in which shaky skeletons get the crap blown out of them (Ray Harryhausen would laugh). Yet there’s a shakiness to the plotting that can’t be glossed over. There’s a lot of padding here; a scene where Ash fight miniature versions of him sees Raimi at his slapstick best, but it’s narratively unnecessary. The emphasis on the laughs and slapstick means Army Of Darkness doesn’t have the ferocious staying power of its predecessors. In every aspect, the film is either well made or done with tongue buried firmly in cheek. The special effects, whether the skeleton army or the chroma-keyed backgrounds, are entertainingly cheesy.

American Apparel’s latest model

The problem is there’s nothing much here that’s new. The unelaborate Medieval design recalls Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whilst the skeletons (both puppets and claymation) are pure Jason and the Argonauts. It is this tongue-in-cheekiness that perhaps neuters Army of Darkness’ impact, but it also makes it very, very funny. The dialogue is often hilarious, with Campbell spouting an array of one-liners that have become synonymous with him. With “Yo, She-Bitch, let’s go!” and “This… is my BOOMSTICK!”, Campbell became a cult icon. His cult status is probably Army Of Darkness’ enduring legacy. The matter of the endings is still a matter of debate between fans (Without spoiling anything, for this critic the studio’s preferred ‘happy’ ending keeps with the pervading cheesiness of the film and is just too funny), but that’s about the only real kink in the film’s iron after the studio debacle. As amusing as it is, Raimi’s indulgence of his own sense of humour is what keeps Army Of Darkness from being the equal of its older siblings. Still, that sense of humour also makes it the most accessible and purely entertaining of the trilogy so, without delivering a killer blow, Army of Darknessstill packs a slapstick punch. Gimme some sugar, baby.

The Film Cynic’s rating: ***

Since Army Of Darkness’ release, rumours have abounded about another sequel, and goodness knows Raimi and Campbell would (and should) be the ones to make it, with the klout and admiration behind them to get it made. Sadly, before that arrives (if ever), a remake of The Evil Dead is scheduled for a 2013 release, with Ash becoming Ashley, a girl. Say hello to the 21st century! Despite reaching for the proto-feminist audience, there is absolutely no need for this film. The original film still holds up today, and its sequels are masterful entertainments. They remain an affectionate and well-intentioned trio of nightmares. Hail to the king, baby!

Review: Killer Joe (2011)

Director: William Friedkin

****

There’s only so many times Matthew McConaughey could make lobotomized rom-coms with Kate Hudson before thinking, “I’m better than this.” A violent crime thriller sounds like a jump into the deep end, but if Hudson can prove herself in Michael Winterbottom’s unflinchingly nasty The Killer Inside Me, what’s to stop McConaughey’s move to the dark side?

William Friedkin is now in his late ‘70s, but his longevity has not blunted the raw edge he showed in the likes of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Boasting the trashiest of white-trash characters and a penchant for gallows humour that barely offsets the violence (both physical and mental) inflicted on that white trash, Killer Joe would probably make directors half Friedkin’s age flinch. McConaughey is the eponymous Joe Cooper, a Texas police detective with a neat sideline in contract killings. When Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in danger over a drug debt, he and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) decide to hire Joe to kill Ansel’s ex-wife (and Chris’ mother) to collect on her life insurance. In theory, this sounds foolproof, but Chris and Ansel are fools and the plan isn’t so proven in practice. Joe wants his payment in advance, but decides to take Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a bizarre form of retainer. Dottie is adorably simple; if she were any smarter she would have thought twice about blindly going along with her father and brother’s rather optimistic plan. However, her obedience probably spares some premature bloodshed; ignorance sometimes can be bliss.

Tracey Letts (who also wrote Friedkin’s underrated Bug) adapts his stageplay for the screen, and it’s a story that translates well. The violent nature of the story already renders it very cinematic. There’s plenty of dialogue to chew over, but the violence (or even the persistent possibility of violence) and Friedkin’s nimble direction keep the energy flowing. The atmosphere is thick with heat and threat, and neither the bloodshed nor the none-more-dark laughs (mostly at Ansel’s expense) provide catharsis or closure. The cast are excellent, but McConaughey (the chiseled rom-com star turned ac-tor) and Temple (the new indie girl on the block) have the most to prove, and they absolutely shine. His coiled, barely-veiled menace and her melancholy naïveté drive the action and ground Killer Joe, even when the bloodshed comes back to haunt the family. An encounter between Joe, Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and a chicken drumstick would make even Colonel Sanders think twice about ordering KFC.

There’s little that’s nice about Killer Joe, especially not the characters nor their actions, but niceness isn’t Friedkin’s oeuvre. The evil in Killer Joe isn’t Pazuzu; it’s more banal and efficient. If you’re prepared for a little Southern-Fried murder (with extra blood, natch), Killer Joe might float your boat. You won’t like Joe Cooper, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

Review: The Five-Year Engagement (2012)

Director: Nicholas Stoller

***

The Five-Year Engagement is a Judd Apatow production. Having said that sentence, the plot beats should spell themselves out before you even see the film. As we know, in an Apatow World, there’s a mismatched central couple (average Joe and ridiculously attractive girlfriend) who, through thick and thin, end up living happily ever after. Dare the writers (who are also the director and male lead) deviate from this tried and tested formula?

Jason Segel and director Nicholas Stoller are firmly in the same territory they mined when they made Forgetting Sarah Marshall. This time around, Segel’s lovable schlub is named Tom and he’s a chef in San Francisco. The lovely Emily Blunt plays his girlfriend, psychology researcher Violet. The film opens with Tom proposing to Violet. She agrees, but the actual nuptials run into hiccups in the planning, not least the couple having to move to Michigan for Emily to take up a postdoc research post. It’s unlikely this film would be made if this couple were more blue collar. As with all Apatow films, it’s relatively comfortable people suddenly dealing with the first bit of awkwardness in their perfectly ordered lives. Despite the challenges, it’s all too similar to Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall to matter, so why do we care? The answer is simple: Segel and Blunt.

It might be the porcelain face, the high cheekbones or the utterly seductive smile, but Emily Blunt has an innate ability to strike sparks with her co-stars. She and Matt Damon made the undercooked The Adjustment Bureau tolerable, and now her chemistry with Segel elevate The Five-Year Engagement beyond the pratfalls. The move to Michigan leaves Tom frustrated at his curtailed cooking ability, as he’s reduced to working in a niche sandwich joint. Meanwhile, a romantic rival emerges in the form of Violet’s supervisor (Rhys Ifans). With a one-night stand and a baby forcing his best friend (Chris Pratt, scene-stealing jerk) and her sister (Alison Brie, scene-stealing ditz) to wed, and with grandparents threatening to expire, the pressures mount on Tom and Violet to decide whether or not to marry.

What makes this work is Segel and Blunt’s ability to make idiots of themselves. Watching the porky Segel fall over is fun, but watching an English rose like Blunt get hit in the face with a car door is even funnier. What’s more, as a couple they’re simply lovely. Forced plotlines like Tom’s “hunter-gatherer” phase (I’m not making this up) may not get laughs, but they’re held together by the two leads clear chemistry. Laughs are frequent, and often quite big, though not all the gags hit their mark. That said, The Five-Year Engagement does highlight some relationship pitfalls with warmth and candour. Indecision around a wedding is visibly grating, but even when the film favours a flat gag over honesty, Blunt and Segel make it work. If you’re getting stressed about your impending nuptials, The Five-Year Engagement might be worth a look, if only to remind yourself it could be worse. For everyone else, it’s an Apatow World; take it or leave it.

Review: Rock Of Ages (2012)

Director: Adam Shankman

*

Ah, ‘80s rock. Remember that? Whether you do or not, the target audience for Rock Of Ages probably doesn’t, so it doesn’t really matter what vision of glam rock is presented here. What we do get, then, is a horrific cheesefest, at once sanitized and messy. There must be something wrong when something so hideous can actually make the likes of David Lee Roth or Gary Cherone look butch. If, like yours truly, you want to rip your ears off every time a DJ plays Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”, Rock Of Ages will be to you what Jar Jar was to Star Wars geeks. Based on Chris D’Arienzo’s successful Broadway musical, Rock Of Ages is boisterous, high-pitched and utterly devoid of irony. Its sincerity may play well with the ‘Glee’ crowd, but the fans of the original songs and bands will wonder who put Foreigner’s collective testicles in a vice.

Julianne Hough, an apparent go-to-gal for musicals with Burlesque and Footloose under her slim belt, plays Sherie, the small town girl livin’ in a lonely world. She takes the midnight train bus from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to find fame and fortune. As soon as she arrives she’s mugged, but is helped by Drew (Diego Boneta), a barman at the Bourbon Room, a club owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and managed by his assistant Lonny (Russell Brand). Baldwin and Brand are here to have a good time, and their antics can’t but upstage Hough and Boneta, whose bland pretty faces combine with utterly uninteresting characters to form two grey walking blobs of ‘meh’. Admittedly, these blobs can sing, but Paul Giamatti’s dreadful ponytail is far more fascinating to watch.

Giamatti plays Paul Gill, manager of Stacee Jaxx, the aging rocker whose group Arsenal are having their last concert at the Bourbon Room before Jaxx goes solo. Jaxx is a washed-up drunken rambling mess played by Tom Cruise, throwing a few neat little nods of acknowledgement at his own public meltdowns. He’s not bad, and his singing is adequate, but there’s more views of his tongue ad upper thighs here than could ever be deemed necessary. Indeed, Rock Of Ages flashes as much flesh as it can within the confines of its 12A/PG-13 rating. Cruise is perma-shirtless, whilst a truly bizarre sequence sees him and Malin Akerman’s Rolling Stone journo strip each other whilst warbling ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’. If the kitschy tunes don’t leave you rolling your eyeballs, the borderline rumpy-pumpy should leave the teens who might have come along with their parents squirming.

Director Adam Shankman had more success with the retro musical in his adaptation of Hairspray; at the very least, that film had interesting characters and a bright, energetic look. Rock Of Ages is all dank clubs, back alleys and gaudy strip joints. Sherie gets a job in the strip club owned by Justice (Mary J. Blige) after her and Drew’s improbably hasty romance breaks down. Meanwhile, the mayor’s Thatcherite wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is campaigning for the Bourbon Room to close, Gill is trying to convert Drew to rap and the tunes continue to be belted out like billy-o. This cast can sing (Zeta-Jones does a mean cover of Pat Benatar’s ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’), but Hough and Boneta do most of it, and their high-pitched Disney-friendly voices are too clear for these songs. ‘Sister Christian’ and ‘More Than Words’ are meant for mournful male vocals, not ditzy Barbie dolls!

Rock Of Ages boasts cardboard cutout characters, a drab look, hyperactive editing, awkward attempts at sexiness and a runtime of over two hours to test your patience. A few game performances (Baldwin, Brand, Cruise) save it from fiasco status, but Rock Of Ages only manages to last ages and doesn’t really rock.

Review: Casa De Mi Padre (2012)

Director: Matt Piedmont

**

Some of Will Ferrell’s best work has been in films that tread the line between comedy and drama (Melinda and Melinda, Stranger Than Fiction). With that in mind, it should be no surprise that his sincere and upright turn in Casa De Mi Padre is admirable, as is his command of Spanish. It’s a pity, then, that Casa De Mi Padreis being marketed as a comedy because, despite some laughs, the whole thing seems surprisingly po-faced.

Anyone who’s ever seen a Mexican telenova will know that they’re phenomenon ripe for parody, with melodrama oozing out of every orifice and the only visible restraints being on the budget. In a telenova-style plotFerrell plays Armando Alvarez, a (very) simple ranchero who works his father’s farm whilst his favoured brother Raul (Diego Luna) rakes in cash with his business. Family’s an old theme in the telenovas, but the interactions between Armando and his family do highlight the main shortcoming in Casa De Mi Padre. Armando can converse with his father (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) or Raul for minutes without so much as a hint of comedy. As time passes, it feels like writer Andrew Steele wrote a straight melodrama, realized he forgot the jokes, and randomly inserted the odd silly line or scene to cover himself.

The crux of the plot is Raul’s dangerous rivalry with fellow drug baron La Onza, who’s played by Gael Garcia Bernal. Both Bernal and Luna are up for some stupid gags at their expense, and they get some laughs between them. However, on the whole Casa De Mi Padre is lacking in the laughter department. Ferrell and his fellow Saturday Night Live alumni Steele and director Matt Piedmont (making his feature debut) have about enough material for one of their Funny Or Die sketches, and then it peters out. Their basic schtick seems to revolve around the fact that having Ferrell speak a different language is funny. It’s not, and actually makes Ferrell look like a decent dramatic lead. It’s a most unusual backfire, but Ferrell is clearly a man with talent, however unexpected.

Despite the scarcity of laughs, when they do come along, they hit the target (An encounter with a white panther is a ridiculous highlight). The ending is a bullet-strewn blowout, and Ferrell has a certain chemistry with his leading lady, the game and stunningly beautiful Genesis Rodriguez (as Raul’s wife Sonia). However, Casa De Mi Padre’s satire is a little too on-the-nose, lapsing into the melodrama it mocks when straight laughs dry up. Es extraño y loco, pero no es muy bueno.

Review: Prometheus (2012)

Director: Ridley Scott

***

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the man who stole the gift of fire from the gods in an attempt to bring man closer to their level. Zeus then punished him horribly for his treachery. By attempting to shed some light on the backstory of the Alien franchise, Ridley Scott is potentially playing with fire. He could get away with it, or he could incur the wrath of something more judgmental than the Greek gods: the fans. Not even The Dark Knight Rises has had as much hype about it as Prometheus. It is blessed and/or cursed by its association to Alien, a highpoint to which so few films manage to compare. Before it starts, Prometheus appears to be embarking on a fool’s errand.

Two big questions surround Prometheus. Firstly, is it really a prequel to Alien? Well, there is a definite connection. The story being told here revolves around the ‘Space Jockey’, the scaled elephantine creature first glimpsed by John Hurt on an extraterrestrial ship before he gets the universe’s worst bout of indigestion. Before we get to him/it, we join a mission to a distant planet funded by Weyland Industries, second only to Cyberdyne Systems in their scientific ambition and trustworthiness. On board the spacecraft Prometheus are a team investigating a possible link to early human civilization and this planet, headed by Doctors Shaw (Noomi Rapace and a cute accent) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). Also on board are captain Janek (Idris Elba), company rep Vickers (Charlize Theron), android assistant David (Michael Fassbener) and an array of crew members all primed for shredding at the hands/mandibles of whatever they encounter. Once they arrive at their destination, it’s not long before things take a turn for the gooey, and we’re treated to scenes that ape clips from the original without making much of an impression on their own terms.

So, here’s question two: is it a story worth telling? Reflecting on both Alien and Aliens,  one of the most striking things about both films is the simplicity of their stories. They can basically be summed up as “Thing attacks people in space”, followed by “Lots of things attack people in space”. Prometheus starts at philosophical meanderings on the origins of humankind, and only gets more complicated until things start attacking and all pretense goes out the airlock. Screenwriters Damon Lindelof (the poorly conceived Cowboys and Aliens) and Jon Spaihts (the abysmal The Darkest Hour) tack on way too much to this story. There’s enough going on here for two scripts, and squashing it all into just over two hours means the story feels rushed and unwieldy, with not a whole lot of scares on offer. It starts off with noble ambitions and just gets sillier as it goes on. Granted, not even Joss Whedon (He wrote Alien: Resurrection) could hack this franchise, but the lesson here is: less is more. There’s simply too much going on here and, come the end, fans may well be yearning for Sigourney Weaver to show up in the powerloader from Aliens and blast it into space. It doesn’t inflict anything like Resurrection’s newborn upon you (Well, not quite), but when one of only two developed characters is a robot, there’s clearly a problem.

All this said, for a poor story, it’s very well told. Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi for the first time in 30 years (Blade Runner being his last foray into the genre) to create an undeniably breathtaking visual treat. Darius Wolski’s cinematography is stunning, and the landscapes, both real and CGI look astounding. The Giger-informed sets are perfection, and Marc Streitenfeld’s score is appropriately triumphant. Meanwhile, the cast do their best with the slim characterizations the script gives them. Like in X-Men: First Class, Fassbender’s potentially duplicitous character steal the show with an eerie ease, looking and sounding like a cross between Peter O’Toole and Bowie pre-Ziggy Stardust. However, it’s not hard to steal a film when, once you get beyond the visuals, there’s not a whole lot left to steal.

Once the initial bluster and the slick trappings give way, Prometheus is not a very good film, pure and simple. It’s not for want of trying, though, and Scott and his cast exonerate themselves in fine style. They’re just let down by a portentous, silly script and some poor dialogue. Scott maintained he’d only return to the Alien franchise with the right script. Surely he can’t have meant this one.