Rehash of the Titans
Hello again everyone, and with the fifth anniversary of this column's first appearance soon upon us, not to mention another (hopefully temporary) cessation of service not far behind, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly look at the state of cinemas today. Yes, that's cinemas the buildings, not cinema the art form. I remember the rush of disbelief, verging on awe, when the first multiplex opened in my hometown back in 1989. Ten screens! Ten of them! Five times as many as the existing cinema! Imagine the surprise! Imagine the possibilities! No film would ever struggle to get shown again! In this giant temple to the art of film, there would surely be a place for all styles, all genres - something for everyone! All tastes could be catered to at once!
Well, sort of. Last week my local ten-screen cinema was, on a Saturday afternoon, showing a grand total of four different films. It was just that Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean were each on four screens simultaneously, with Over the Hedge and Just My Luck just about scraping a screen each. It's almost as if the company was putting profit ahead of catering to varied tastes... oh, hush my cynical mouth!
I have actually been to see Superman and Pirates, cos they're both my sort of film. The thing is that there are lots of other things which are my sort of film too, but they're just not profitable enough to warrant multiplex-space these days. Anyway, less whinging and more reviewing: starting with Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. Oddly enough for a man these days best-known for superhero adaptations (this film and the first two X-pictures), Bryan Singer has cheerfully admitted he didn't read comics as a boy and isn't really that familiar with the characters. However he is a big fan of the classic Richard Donner Superman movie. This is very, very obvious to anyone who's seen both Donner's movie and Singer's, because Superman Returns is much more interested in Superman the movie than Superman the character.
The plot is, to put it mildly, straightforward: Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a five-year pilgrimage to the remains of his homeworld Krypton. But things have moved on in his absence. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancée (James Marsden) and a toddler. The world has learned to cope without him. It's enough to give the Man of Steel insecurity issues. But he need not fear, for his baldy nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey enjoying himself) has somewhat implausibly got out of jail and has embarked upon another deranged and cataclysmic real estate scam, which is bound to keep him occupied.
Well, there are many good things that can be said about Superman Returns. It's a classy production which has clearly been a labour of love for many of those involved in its creation. The new Superman is cleverly cast and likeable, the new Luthor gives a witty performance, the special effects are eyecatching and it has a wonderful score. Unfortunately all these things could just as accurately have been said about the 1978 movie (and most of them probably were). It's not just that this film doesn't escape from the shadow of its predecessor, it doesn't even want to.
This is a shame for all sorts of reasons. Brandon Routh does well in a very, very tough job, but any possibility of his performance not being endlessly compared to that of the late Christopher Reeve is removed by a script which even goes so far as to reprise some of the dialogue of the original film. There's barely a gag, a beat or a plot twist that isn't revisited here in some form or other and the tone and style is slavishly reproduced. This is quite a slow film with a lot of special effects sequences but very little action. Back in the 70s, the technology simply wasn't there to put some of Superman's more spectacular opponents up on the screen, but the recent Marvel movies have proven this is no longer the case. Bryan Singer's choice to make this a more mature and stately movie isn't necessarily wrong, but it does drain the film of a lot of the energy and fun of the comic books.
What's actually new about Superman Returns is a bit of a mixed bag. For most of its duration, this is a light and almost whimsical movie, which makes the inclusion of some quite brutal violence all the more jarring. James Marsden gets more to do here as the sidekick of a sidekick than he did as leader of the X-Men in three movies combined (but that's not really much to do with this film). The only central performance that falls down is Kate Bosworth's, who doesn't make much impression at all (Jonathan Ross memorably described an appearance by her on his chat show as being like trying to interview a piece of furniture). There is a major and rather startling plot twist which if nothing else strongly implies that either this movie must be in continuity with Superman II or that the writers haven't read Larry Niven's classic article Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. There's a brief bit near the end that seems inspired by one of the most famous Superman stories of the 1990s, but once again it doesn't really go anywhere.
Superman has lasted nearly 70 years because the character can be reimagined and reinvented by every new generation of writers, artists and fans. Since the first Donner picture the mythos has effectively been reconstituted as a romantic comedy and a teenage rites-of-passage story, and that's just on TV. A new Superman for the 21st century has a lot of potential themes to deal with, especially given the character's status both as global policeman and American icon, and modern effects technology is capable of putting any comic panel up on screen. To make a movie so determinedly backwards-looking strikes me as a massive missed opportunity. This is well-made and entertaining, but it's not a movie in its own right so much as the longest cover version in history.
Moving on, some good news: Captain Jack is back! But that's enough about Torchwood. Sticking with the cinema, the unlikely alliance of Walt Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer brings us the appropriately bizarre spectacle of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, directed by Gore Verbinski. The startlingly humungous box-office this little flick has already racked up makes my opinion of it rather surplus to requirements, but looking back I see that's never stopped me in the past. So...
It must be said this movie presumes heavily upon the viewer either having recently seen the original or possessing a detailed knowledge of it from a large number of not-so-recent viewings (this is a roundabout way of saying there isn't a recap at the start). The titular receptacle is the possession of mollusc-headed sea-demon Davy Jones (no, not the guy from The Monkees), portrayed by Bill Nighy and a bucketload of CGI effects, and the rather complicated plot revolves around everyone wanting to get their hands on it for various reasons. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, giving what we can probably now safely describe as an iconic performance) wants it because he's sort of sold his soul to Davy Jones and needs it to bargain with. Will Turner (Landy Bloom) wants it for reasons involving his undead father, whose fate was never quite explained in the first movie. Disgraced toff Norrington (Jack Davenport) wants it to help him regain his station in life. Keira Knightly wanders about the movie as Elizabeth Swann (presumably so named because she's a bird with a long neck), being almost (but not quite) entirely decorative.
Yeah, I'm not doing a very good job with the synopsis, but then it is terribly complex and takes a long time to get going. (It's nearly two hours into the movie before the three leads meet up.) Do not let this put you off, should you not have seen this movie, because this is a movie that can definitely be described as a rollicking adventure, with copious amounts of entertainment value. As before, its success is due to a combination of outrageous stunts and effects sequences, eye-catching fantasy and horror, and unexpectedly offbeat humour. Johnny Depp acts Bloom and Knightly off the screen as you'd expect - that's if 'acts' is quite the right word for it — but Nighy is also good value, as usual, and the junior members of the cast do justice to the jokes. Practically everyone from the first movie comes back and gets something interesting to do, which is neat trick, while there is good work from newcomers Stellan Skarsgard, Naomie Harris, and Tom Hollander.
The success of the first film seems to have emboldened its creators because this one ups the ante in virtually every department. Bigger fights and effects! More grotesque fantasy-horror! Even zanier jokes! Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this is that the movie has bloated to a frankly unnecessary two-and-a-half hours in length. It's never actually slow or dull throughout that time, but one gets a definite feeling that this is still too much of a good thing. It doesn't help that this film doesn't actually have a proper ending, stopping instead in mid-plot on a cliffhanger (okay, a pretty good one), setting up next year's World's End (which apparently has Chow Yun-Fat in it, Hong Kong fans). Also less than fully satisfying are the writers' attempts to set the heroic trio at odds with each other — while they effectively underline what an unreliably amoral character Sparrow is, the attempt to create some emotional darkness and genuine character conflict feels a bit of an afterthought, surely to be resolved in the next movie. I would also have commented on how, for a franchise called Pirates of the Caribbean, very little in the way of actual piracy goes on — but very wisely, the writers have beaten me to it by putting a complaint to that effect in the mouth of bandana-loving thespian Kevin McNally. Hey ho...
Readers of long standing may recall that I wasn't that impressed by Curse of the Black Pearl and I must confess that I didn't have particularly high hopes for this latest installment. However, despite its faults, I thought this was a hugely entertaining movie, practically perfect popcorn fodder. Its obvious desire to match Lord of the Rings in scale and impact is a bit overambitious, but this is still a remarkably accomplished and witty movie, considering its origins as a theme park ride. I wasn't particularly looking forward to this one, but I am the next.
Well, this week both the man from Krypton and the buccaneers slumped back to a mere three screens apiece, allowing some lesser productions a look-in, and one of these was Geoffrey Sax's Stormbreaker, a jolly romp of a kids' film with an all-star cast of talented and much-loved actors and Jimmy Carr.
If James Bond and Harry Potter got together and had a baby... no, hang on, that's just eurgh. If Ian Fleming and JK Rowling got together and... mmm, that's nearly as bad. I suspect you're getting the drift, anyway. Alex Pettyfer plays Alex Rider, an average London schoolboy (average if you're willing to overlook the fact that he's clearly about three years older than everyone else in his class). As an orphan, he lives with his uncle (Ewan MacGregor, briefly appearing) and au pair-stroke-housekeeper (Alicia Silverstone, not appearing briefly enough), but this fairly happy existence is shattered when his uncle dies. Alex learns the incredible truth - not only was his uncle a top British spy, but all those adventure holidays and other activities they did together were actually his uncle's attempts to train him as his replacement!
(Since seeing this film I have wondered if all the things my uncle encouraged me to do when I was younger might have been for a similar reason. But as they mainly revolved around my drinking vast amounts of falling-down water and then lying to his girlfriend when she asked me where he was, I doubt it, unless he had me in mind for a job in the Royal household.)
This is actually quite good news for Alex, as previously he looked more likely to get an ASBO than a licence to kill. Anyway his new bosses (Sophie Okonedo and Bill Nighy, again) pack him off to Wales for survival training (insert your own joke here) and then send him to poke about in the business dealings of peculiar computer tycoon Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke, who appears to have had himself varnished and actually wears eyeshadow in most of his scenes). Needless to say Sayle is up to no good and intends to commit a ghastly revenge upon the British people for... well, that'd be telling.
I had vague misgivings about Stormbreaker on the way in, as it's based on a book by Anthony Horowitz (the brain behind wretched 90s TV sci-fi cock-up Crime Traveller), directed by Geoffrey Sax (who also helmed the shocking American Doctor Who telemovie) and part-funded by the UK Film Council (responsible for a roll-call of terrible movies too grim and lengthy to recount here). Remarkably, however, the collaboration here is a very fruitful and enjoyable one. Unlike the other two films also covered this week, it doesn't outstay its welcome and zips along very cheerfully with some impressive stunts and action throughout — though while Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen gets a credit as fight choreographer, the actual martial arts stuff isn't particularly special. (Alicia Silverstone gets a hugely entertaining kung fu fight with Missi Pyle though.)
This is quite cleverly pitched so that, while the kids are enjoying all the teenage wish-fulfillment stuff, the adults can play spot the star cameo (choose from the likes of Andy Serkis, Stephen Fry, and Robbie Coltrane) or, more challengingly, spot the rip-off from the Bond franchise. (Some of these are quite obscure.) The adult cast join in with this sort of thing and the British contingent largely give entertainingly tongue-in-cheek performances. Bill Nighy's twitchingly neurotic spymaster is particularly good fun. The Americans, on the other hand, just go roaringly over-the-top at all times. The tone of the film is a bit uneven as a result — at first it looks like this is going to have a bit of emotional darkness and reality to it, but in the end it's not that far removed from a Spy Kids movie. I suppose that's what you get for including a sequence with an animatronic jellyfish...
All in all, though, this is good fun throughout, provided you don't pause to consider how insanely implausible it all is. With the proper Bond franchise apparently making one of its regular detours into more gritty and naturalistic territory, there's a definite gap in the market for this sort of thing and Stormbreaker deserves to find a place amongst the bigger beasts of the summer.