Written by Films

Some Summer Films

I’ve not really written a great deal here about the films I’ve seen recently, and as much as anything, I think that’s because I’ve not been to too many films lately. At least in the cinema.
But there are one or two that I’ve caught up with.
I should start with Star Trek Into Darkness which I always knew I had to see in IMAX having watched a six minute preview with the first part of The Hobbit last year. JJ Abrams just jumps you straight into the action with an all action set piece. Star Trek purists complain that his version of the series isn’t what they remember from television. And it isn’t. But it’s close enough. The Kirk/Spock relationship is there, and Zachary Quinto in particular is superb. I like Simon Pegg a lot, but I’m really not sure about his abysmal Scottish accent, even though I know it’s awfulness might be deliberate.
In this film we get a strange villain in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch, and he’s a damn fine villain. He has deep sonorous voice and frames the piece’s terrorist themes very well.
By now the film has pretty much left cinemas but I thought it was worth mentioning.
If there’s one horror film that had a profound impact on me when I was younger, it was The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s telling of Angela Carter’s reworking of folk tales. I can just hear George Fenton’s theme music in my head just thinking about it. While I wasn’t as excited by An Interview with a Vampire as some were, the idea that he might be revisiting some of that earlier territory with Byzantium meant that I had to see it.
Lately Jordan has been busying himself with the slightly overblown Showtime series The Borgias, so it was good to see him back in the horror genre. Byzantium takes place in an unnamed seaside town where Gemma Arterton’s Clara has run away to with her teenage daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They are both vampires, although the “V” word only seems to be used in the title of the play the film is adapted from. Clara became a vampire despite it being a “brotherhood” that only lets in men, and her daughter also became one more than 200 years ago. Now they’re on the run from that brotherhood and have reached a sleepy seaside town with a disused guest house – named Byzantium – owned by Daniel Mays.
The film’s origins in a play are perhaps visible in the scale of the piece. And it’s clear that this film was made to a budget probably similar to one episode of The Borgias. But it’s dark, and smart. And I really rather liked it. Sam Riley is great as the hunter, and Johnny Lee Miller has a rip-roaring cameo as a navy man who wrongs Clara.
It’s not perfect, but it’s vastly superior to much of the “horror” we get these days.
Of the two films opening this weekend that I’ve seen, I can comfortably say that Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is the better piece. As he’s explained a lot in interviews (and again in a packed Q&A session after the film at the BFI on Wednesday), he made the film in the downtime between completing principal photography on Avengers [Assemble] and beginning post production on that film.
It seems that for years he’s been having actors who are part of his “gang” come around and perform Shakespeare for fun. And for this film, he gathered a load of them and made it, in his own home, in about 12 days.
And you know what? It’s really very good. Now I can’t claim to be a complete Whedon afficiando as many in the Q&A were. I caught the odd Buffy, and although I tried to get into Angel it wasn’t my thing. I came to Firefly on DVD and loved it however. While Dollhouse I also watched late and thought was rather superior. And Cabin in the Woods was good fun. But what I do like about Whedon is that he runs a little against the Hollywood grain. He’s rails against the lack of female roles – promising that the forthcoming SHIELD TV series will have plenty. And he can clearly write.
But here, the script is already written (although he has tinkered with it, and reordered it a little), so it’s about getting the most out of his actors. The film is set in the current day, but somehow it hangs together anyway, and the language is certainly more accessible than in some of Shakespeare’s plays (I’m seeing The Tempest this weekend).
And it’s also very funny. While the central conceits in Shakespeare’s comedies can sometimes be hard to run with, in Much Ado it’s generally believable. And the characters run true. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof (both longtime Whedon actors) play Beatrice and Benedict, and you completely buy into their characters. Across the board, everyone does a great job, although Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry, played as an inept TV detective, steals every scene that he’s in.
Really funny, and really worth seeing.
I know lots of people were most excited to see Iron Man 3, but despite Robert Downey Jr making Richard Stark a great character, I find myself getting a less excited about the way Hollywood superhero films have been going. You just know that every film is going to end with an “epic” effects-laden fight that’s going to take upwards of the last third of the film to complete. Maybe when I was 12 I would have found this prospect thrilling, although I note that films like Star Wars managed to end with fairly tightly filmed endings. So I didn’t bother with the third film. I’ll probably watch it on TV at some point
Which brings us to the Man of Steel, the Superman “reboot”. When I say that the exception to the rule about recent superhero films, is the Christopher Nolan Batman series, then the fact that he’s producing this film immediately intrigues me. Yes, it’s directed by Zach Snyder who’s problem on Watchmen was that he was simply too faithful to the comics. But it makes the film worth of attention.
It seems that everyone is trying to forget the 2006 film Superman Returns with that guy that nobody can remember but who looked a lot like Christopher Reeve. So it’s back to basics with this film and we get the full origin story with Russell Crowe as his father dispatching the young Kal-El (aka Superman) from an imploding Krypton. General Zod (Michael Shannon) seems to be attempting some kind of coup against this backdrop, but it fails and he and his co-conspirators are dispatched a far flung jail of sorts.
The structure of Man of Steel is interesting because once on earth we skip Clark Kent’s upbringing and immediately see him working on a trawler that’s called to the aid of an exploding oil rig. He performs superhuman feats and then has to disappear, only to repeat such feats later elsewhere. He’s a drifter of sorts. Just when you think you’re not going to get a backstory, we head into a dreamy Kansas world where Kevin Costner is his dad and Diane Lane is his mum. As the film progresses, we get more revealed about his life, as stories of his upbringing reveal Clark’s character traits.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the case, tracking down Clark, having inadvertently stumbled upon a spaceship buried deep in the Canadian ice. But there’s not a great deal about life at the Daily Planet under editor Laurence Fishburne.
Instead Zog arrives back on earth and what then follows is mayhem.
And here’s my problem with the film. It seems every tentpole summer film these days has to somehow out-blow-up all the previous tentpole summer films. First, Smallville is nearly completely destroyed, before the action moves to Metropolis.
By the end of an exhaustive, and at times quite dull, thirty minutes or more of destruction, there must barely be a building left undamaged. Entire sections of the city are flattened. Yet do we mourn the hundreds of thousands who must have died? Of course not. They’re barely considered.
It’s not as though the CGI isn’t excellent. But it’s just that the shock has gone out of it. Oh look, another skyscraper has fallen down. Yawn. I was just bored.
As I said before with Superman Returns seven years ago, the issue is that you just know that Superman is indestructable. In this instance, it’s everything around him that’s not.
While I wouldn’t expect an action blockbuster like this to be character driven, I never really felt any jeopardy. That’s not to say that this is a bad film. But it’s not good either. There’s not enough humour in it as Superman is generally quite po-faced. And the story means that there’s barely time to breathe before some earth-shattering event (quite literally) starts again.
The performances are generally fine. I’ve never really watched The Tudors, so I’m not familiar with Henry Cavill. He’s clearly very square jawed, although at times he felt too clean cut. In Star Trek Into Darkness, there was a much commented on scene where Alice Eve needlessly gets into her underwear. Well I can report that there’s a scene in this where Cavill needlessly walks around bare chested in just some ripped trousers. I don’t think one equalises the other though.
Amy Adams does the best she can, although the film struggles not to have Lois Lane permanently in peril. Otherwise, it’s the effects that shine strongest. It’s just that they’re called upon too often.
And somebody somewhere has been watching way too much Battlestar Galactica. Everything feels completely lifted from the way they did those effects, with non-stop lens flare, and crash zooms from wide to narrower shots in the action scenes. I honestly thought at times that we were going to zoom into a Colonial Viper.
I saw the film in 3D, but it was unimpressive. I’m never going to be completely won over by 3D, but it was a notably poorer experience than Star Trek Into Darkness.
So overall somewhat disappointing. But I fear this is the way too many films are going. We saw a trailer for Pacific Rim at the start of this film, and I get the impression that it too will have blown up half the planet by the end of the film, as big robots fight it out Transformers-style. And that is not a good thing.