Tag Archives: comics

My first review ever: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2

The thing about spiders is: We don’t like them. Either creepily hairy or disconcertingly spindly, they refuse us even the common decency of being stealthy, commonly wallowing in out discomfort as they slothfully crawl in and out of sight. Their web spinning abilities, while nothing short of awesomely miraculous, strike us, at best, as icky. A testament to their unpopularity can be seen even the popularist Disney universe — where unsavory creatures are given the chance to blossom into heroes, arachnids are singled out as mustachioed villains. The magnificent, unparalleled symmetry of the web is unfairly, undeniably, shadowed by the perception of the spider as icky.

Herein lies Peter Parker’s essential dilemma. Straddling dual lives, each of which is a full, hectic battle in itself: the conflicting, constant, workaday life of the average superhero; and the more demanding, exhausting life of a young student working to put himself through college while trying to deal with love. The latter is a life we’ve all been familiar with, and the former is essentially what we go through in terms of mental battles, nightmares and trauma poured into lycra and sporting ridiculous monikers. As he swings from the Empire State Building and scoops up almost-alight kiddies to safety, the public still isn’t sure whether to actually like him: he’s a spider, darn it.

spidey2Spiderman Two opens with possibly the most brilliant recap of events in recent popcorn history: Danni Elfman’s striking score, cobwebs set against blood red, framing stunning Alex Ross illustrations of events gone by in the first film. By the time the credits end, we are reacquainted with a story we have not forgotten, and thirsty to see more. And Sam Raimi delivers. From the first shot, the film lays on Peter’s life being an actual embodiment of Murphy’s Law: Everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

After a breathtaking opening with Spiderman flying across madly to deliver Pizza in time, swinging in surreal CGI arcs with fabulous élan, there is a shot of Peter Parker struggling to exit the broom closet — brooms falling sequentially like persistent dominoes as he merely, clutzily attempts to just push them together long enough to squeeze himself out of there. This shot, of a superhero fast enough to dodge bullets and fists with unreal panache, being just a geeky little nervous kid, is worthy of standing applause and sets the tone for the film. Despite genetically arachnid superpowers and a rocking costume, Spiderman is well and truly human.

Cinematically, this is truly a commendable effort. New York is highly stylized, very affectionately — a visual ode to a beautiful city, loyal enough to evoke memories of the great Allen himself. Often, celluloid hats are tipped to masters of cinema obviously inspirational to Raimi, an eclectic selection of influences from the aforementioned Woody (I swear I could see a couple of Manhattan-style framings in there) to Martin Scorsese (as Spidey swings over the Goodfellas boroughs). The screenplay, contributed to by novelist and comic-book lover Michael Chabon, with dialogues crafted superbly by the award-winning Alvin Sargent, is outstanding, and forms a terrific core for Raimi to work around, but that shouldn’t take anything at all away from the director — this is totally Sam’s film.

When Peter Parker manages to get to the theatre on time, despite all odds, he is foiled by a snooty usher, played to utter, frustrating perfection by Bruce Campbell, reprising his cameo status in the franchise [he played the cocky wrestling announcer in the first part, plucking ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ name out of thin air and throwing it around Pete’s neck] — a time when Raimi fans will nudge each other excitedly and yelp, ‘The Chin! The Chin!,’ referring to the nickname for the actor from the cult Evil Dead series. Sam Raimi, one of those Tarantinoesque movie geeks with a love for self-indulgent referencing, gives movie buffs enough to obsess about for months: a particularly obvious place to start would be to be the operating room scene with the dismembered arm and the chainsaw, a direct doff to Evil Dead II.

Tobey Maguire has done for superheroes what Tom Cruise did for fighter airplanes a couple of decades ago: given them life. A wonderfully talented young actor, Tobey breathes – awkwardness, humour, charisma – lovingly into Peter Parker, making him as real a protagonist as any. A couple of years ago, there were doubts as to whether his shoulders were strong enough to carry the Spiderman legacy — now he has made the role his own. There was injury-led speculation that he might not have done the sequel, but he did, and we are blessed. Kudos, Mr. Maguire, thanks for coming back.

The cast is deliciously accurate: JK Simmons brings J Jonah Jameson right out of the pages of the comic, and steals the show whenever he appears with consummate ease and great one-liners; the fantastic Alfred Molina makes a splendid Doc Ock, balancing unerringly the diverse requirements of focused professor, warm mentor, and mad scientist; James Franco, while not in a stellar role as Harry Osborne, does what is needed for his character to come away more positively this time around; and Rosemary Harris tackles the role of Aunt May so well that the only trite bits of speech in the script, destined to otherwise appear jaded, take on the mantle of sincerity, and she wields a feisty umbrella.

Spiderman Two is a really good movie. Not just a good superhero movie, for it is the best by far in the genre, but simply a wonderful bit of Hollywood summer cinema, a classically entertaining film setting Raimi on par with the Messiahs of Mainstream, Spielberg and Lucas — storytellers pouring forth action/emotion on the screen, using CGI demons as metaphor and giving us glorious moments of celluloid joy. The synthesis between the animated Spiderman and Tobey is indeed excellent, but the highlights are Doc Ock’s arms, which slither into a menacing life of their own.

Comic-book lovers will freak over this movie, for it is the parting of the red sea and the dawn of hope —  A delectable smorgasbord of references, allusions, and the finest written dialogue ever in the genre, hosting hundreds of tiny in-jokes fans will spend ages dissecting gleefully. But even for one who has never read a comic book, this is a truly enjoyable experience, a tremendous popcorn flick with heaps of humour, action, romance, SFX and eye-candy, and the one thing that sets a good film apart, leotards or not: a story that is really good. I simply feel sorry for those who do not like this film, for they have become too cynical to appreciate a story with heart.

There are parts in this film where Sam Raimi outdoes himself so completely we are awed into disbelief. There is a sublime, delightfully mature shot where Peter is offered romance, cloaked in chocolate cake and milk, and a moment where he almost says yes to the pretty, nervous landlord’s daughter, Ursula Ditkovich [a not-so subtle salute to Spidey co-creator Steve Ditko]. There is a touching, excellent montage where ‘Raindrops are falling on my head’ is re-contextualised with unbelievable panache, appropriately on the freshest-faced young talent since Butch Cassidy himself. There is more, but one could go on forever. Watch it.

But the true applause — one would say standing ovation but Mr. Raimi has ensured knees buckling — must be saved for the surprises. Weaned on massive hype, teasers, trailers, and reports of varying accuracy, I was confident this film had nothing that would shock me. I have never been so wrong, and fell conveniently for Raimi’s ingenious red herrings. After momentarily reeling with massive plot twist after other, I began to glimpse into the larger picture. Like the Wilde play Mary Jane acts in, The Importance Of Being Earnest, Raimi too is scripting a story in three acts — the groundbreaking revelations and the shattering veneer at the end of Act Two [while bringing up questions galore for Three], therefore, integral to the scheme of things. Can’t believe we have to wait three years.

spidey2bThe best part about having a director with a sense of humour is letting his audience get sucked into traps. During a fight between Spidey and Doc Ock, Aunt May is tossed up the side of a building, and she sticks her brolly out and hooks a ledge. This is such a painful cliché that we groan and are almost annoyed at how obvious this is, and just when we begin to get jaded with the predictability of the movie, Aunt May slips off.

And lands on a ledge, one foot below her, safe as ever. The umbrella tenterhook turns out to be suspense that never was, the theatre of the anticlimactic. Brilliant.

The build-up of the film, like the thundering claw-beats of Doctor Octopus, thuds into the heart harder and incessantly faster throughout the two hours. I have never been entirely supportive of Kirsten Dunst as Ms Watson, always advocating a vivacious, drop-dead gorgeous, Heather Graham-type instead, but she carries off her glorified damsel-in-distress role well in this film, and screams magnificently, justifying Raimi’s love for her. And, when at the end of the movie, she says the words — and these are words my Spidey-worshipping heart is mouthing incredulously, lines before she actually says them — “Go get ‘em, Tiger!”, my brain has an orgasm, the theatre explodes with ecstasy, and Spiderman Two climaxes into greatness.

~

 

First published Rediff, July 27, 2004

1 Comment

Filed under Review

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Marvel Comics is known as The House Of Ideas. Many a memorable character lives at Marvel, and scores of writers and artists — of unquestioned eagerness but varying degrees of talent — are given cracks at bat with the company’s caped mascots, taking their stories further and carving new thrills while not ruffling the status quo too much. Naturally, this results in a wonderful unpredictability, with sub-par superheroes often lucking out and finding truly ingenious writers, and massively iconic heroes skulking around in poorly written and drawn panels. (For example, while there isn’t a single solid current comic featuring fan-favourite Wolverine, the adventures of the least interesting Avenger Hawkeye are top drawer right now.)

asm2And thus, for over 50 years of issues, we true Spider-Man believers have ridden the roulette wheel, knowing that for every fine writer and great story arc we’re also going to get some hacks who throw up clones and Faustian deals and the occasional illegitimate lovechild. We’re used to it, and like Peter Parker, that greatest of comic-book heroes, we take the rough with the smooth. And right this minute, while the Spidey comics are enjoying a significantly smashing streak, it is clear the Spider-Man movies have fallen into the wrong hands.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a drag. It pains me to say this, but Marc Webb’s film is a total downer, a film lacking in smarts, ambition or spirit. I began my career as a film critic ten years ago with this review of Spider-Man 2 — Sam Raimi’s excellent film that remains the gold standard for the superhero genre — and it hurts to cap a decade with a complaint about a sub-par reboot instead of a celebration of the spider.

This is an unforgivably boring film, and while it may not seem as instantly objectionable as Sam Raimi’s monstrous Spider-Man 3, it must be marked that at least the older film failed because of ambition, because of trying to do too much. Webb’s new film, on the other hand, is inexplicably slow and torpid, a haphazard and amateurish affair where the seams show all too glaringly. Save for a couple of relatively funny lines — and the devastating climax — there is nothing worth remembering in this painfully generic film.

I didn’t expect to be saying this, but a big part of the problem is Andrew Garfield. He’s a bright, gifted actor who certainly possesses a distinctive edgy charm, but for some reason he continues to play Peter Parker as elusive and sullen. There’s an angsty cockiness to him better suited to a tween vampire film, and while Garfield is disarmingly natural, he falls a far way from actually being likeable. It’s hard to relate to — not to mention root for — a Peter Parker so brusque, so easily irked by those he loves, and harder still not to yearn for his predecessor Tobey Maguire, who made Peter’s all-important earnestness come alive. Spidey’s a quip-flinging whippersnapper, sure, but that’s because Peter’s a good kid who pulls on an overcompensatory flamboyant persona along with that mask. In the (much better) first Garfield film, a lot could be chalked to the character’s confusion, but here Peter seems like a jerk all his own.

Things are worsened by the filmmaker’s constant indecision. Aided by a bombastic soundtrack — 80s TV cop-show style blare for the opening chase with Rhino, synth-heavy chanting for Electro later on — the film looks to be put together by a committee, eager to throw in something for every focus group. This means lots of heavy-handed flashbacks, constantly unclear motivations for the characters, action sequences that refuse to do anything cool, ghosts from the old films (literal spectres appearing now to confuse Parker, as well as feeble echoes of action setpieces from Raimi’s Spider-films) and an awful lot of melodramatic hokum.

Much time is spent, for example, on the villain’s origins, but they are handled so unimaginatively that we’d be (much) better off with a voiceover saying “Oh, that guy’s Electro. He can control electricity.” What we’re given are backstories from the mid-90s, say Batman Forever style… and if we’re invoking Joel Schumacher to describe a Spider-Man film — at a time when even Captain America can have a seriously good movie — then it’s clear that both power and responsibility have begun to grate.

asm2gWhat does work is the girl. Emma Stone is sensational as Gwen Stacy, seemingly as baffled as we are re: the ill-humoured Mr Parker. She’s smart, snappy,  knocks every line straight out of the park, and conjures up quite the chemistry, enough even to make up for her too-slack hero. In a deft touch, she invariably seems to sense Peter’s presence nearby — her own SpiderSense, if you will — and we can’t blame Parker for asking her to keep that irresistible laugh “off the table.”

Readers of the comic are well aware that this film features a crucial scene with Gwen, and while Stone makes it pop, Webb and gang stretch it out way too much, and then proceeding to chicken out and completely reduce the stakes. Sheesh. (Not to spoil anything here, but if you’d really like to get a feel of Gwen and Peter, I suggest hunting up Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s lovely “Spider-Man: Blue” and imagining what Stone could have done with that as a script.) Aargh. The scene itself might be half-decent in isolation, and its chilling to see Stone mirror precisely what Stacy wore in the books, but a film this mediocre simply doesn’t earn such a landmark moment from the Spidey mythos. (It seems to know it, too, which is why it tries to move past it very clumsily.)

This is malarkey, malarkey that bores for eighty minutes before coming to life somewhat during the last hour. There’s some very conveniently resolved nuttiness regarding Parker’s parents, Dane DeHaan — a dead ringer for a slimy Gilbert Grape — showboats hammily as Harry Osborn, and there are more than a few unsubtle teases regarding upcoming villains. (Meeting a woman called Felicia or seeing schematics of The Vulture’s wings leading up to the next installment would normally be a mouthwatering prospect, but right now they seem threats filled with more exhausting backstory.)

One kid holds out hope, though.

One adorable little runt with thin-framed glasses and a science project looks at Spider-Man as his hero and doesn’t care what people say about him; he knows he’ll be back and he knows he’ll be better than ever. And therein lies the lesson for us as summer cinegoers: it’s okay to prefer Tony Stark or Black Widow right now — till Spidey falls into the right hands, that is. For now we can go home, turn up the real Spider-Man 2 and watch Peter Parker try to deliver pizza.

Rating: 2 stars

~

First published Rediff, May 1, 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under Review

The director you need to know

A brief introduction to the director of The Avengers. (And Firefly.)

 

Back in the winter of 2007 and stretching right into early 2008, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, crippling both Hollywood and American television. Films were halted mid-schedule, award shows were boycotted, and even the most successful TV shows were forced into a hiatus. It was at this time that writer and director Joss Whedon took a bunch of already successful television faces — Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother, Nathan Fillion from Castle (and Whedon’s own Firefly), Internet sensation Felicia Day, and Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory — and threw them into a bewilderingly bizarre musical cauldron called Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, an irresistible web series you should watch immediately if you haven’t yet.

This Friday, Whedon does almost exactly the same thing, save for a few vital differences: instead of a dinky web series he’s delivering a $200 million behemoth; each primary character in the film has had their own massive summer hits made largely only to make the existence of this mega-movie a possibility; oh, and his all-star lineup comprises of Earth’s mightiest superheroes. (Also, one doubts that The Hulk or Black Widow will break into song. But hey, it’s Whedon.)

Right now, with The Avengers due to release this week and Whedon’s indie feature Cabin In The Woods — hailed as a postmodern (and yet scary) love-letter to the horror film — having hit theatres just over a fortnight ago, the 47-year-old director could be excused for putting his feet up. Instead, we’ll soon see his deliciously cast version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, something he filmed in twelve days, mostly between breaks of Avengers filming. If the cult of Whedon grows and grows at this rate, we might even (cross your fingers as you read the next four words) see Firefly brought back.

It *still* hurts, you see. Along with Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development, Whedon’s Firefly was one of the smartest shows on television, and the cancellation of these two remarkable shows alone is basis for the compelling argument against this being America’s golden age of TV. A savagely sharp and immensely witty science-fiction ‘Western’, Firefly was snatched away from us after only 11 episodes. We got some closure with its movie spinoff Serenity, just as well-crafted, but the fanboy forearm calls for a more regular jab.

Son and grandson to screenwriting men, Whedon kicked things off with the highly blonde (entertaining but daft) Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a movie that went nowhere until he changed its spirit and made it into a highly successful television show with a fanatical following. And then he wrote comic books.

But not just any comic books. Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men showed magnificient narrative dexterity, and his later work on The Runaways was just as incisive. We comic fans often dream of a great comic writer being given a comic book movie — someone let Jeph Loeb write Batman, or just look at Frank Miller co-creating the Sin City film — but Marvel was the first to generate a fanboy hallelujah just by announcing that Whedon will hold the reins.

I haven’t seen the film yet — a statement that will be untrue by the time you read this column — but I don’t need to read rapturous reviews to know that Whedon will deliver something special. Go this weekend.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, April 25, 2012

4 Comments

Filed under Column

Will Priyanka be the next Batgirl?

And are comic books turning too sexy for their own good?

 

The first two panels of Catwoman #1.

The latest issue of Catwoman takes a while to show us her face. First we meet her breasts, nearly tumbling out of a lacy scarlet bra as she yanks on her tight leather suit. As she dons said costume, she’s in no rush to zip up the front. A trio of thugs breaks into her home and as she fights back, we see her butt, in painted-on leather. It’s not until page three of DC Comics’ new Catwoman #1 that we actually see her face, smirking upside down as she flings herself through a high window. The catsuit is inexplicably still unzipped, half her bosom braving cold Gotham air and bullets.

That issue — which ends in a startlingly explicit spread featuring comic-book sex at its most gratuitous and tasteless — is one of several new DC Comics releases sparking off impassioned debate about the hypersexualisation of mainstream comic-books, superhero comics ostensibly written for all-ages. The Internet is abuzz — as those of you going to Mumbai’s upcoming comic-convention are surely well aware — with comics writers explaining how characters need to be written gender-neutrally, how it’s embarrassing when a character is made to ‘pose’ for the seduction of the reader rather then for her fellow page-inmates, how some female characters are meant to be overt in their sexuality and some aren’t — except everyone looks Power-Girl pneumatic nowadays — and how far too many female characters are being turned into mere totty.

(Sigh. My kingdom for the strikingly cool girl: like Neil Gaiman’s Death. Or Ramona Flowers.)

And while I agree with most of the points being made, here’s what I think: women in comics are being turned cartoonishly sexy simply because a lot of mainstream comic characters are now being written with big-screen feasibility in mind.

And if the character is caricaturedly sexy to begin with, as part of the source material, then Hollywood is not whipped by the fanboys when they cast some massively bosomed bimbette in a fishnet costume looking like her primary superpower is Mega Cleavage, because all they’re doing is staying l-o-y-a-l: to comics that start out wanting to be movies.

I’m a hardcore fanboy, and I love superhero movies, but comics being written a certain way merely so they’ll make for more commercially bankable movies? Man, that sounds positively LexLuthorian in both cunning and shamelessness.

And it isn’t just the girls. Nick Fury, leader of superhero-employing world-saving organisation SHIELD (so Caucasian he was once played laughably by David Hasselhoff) started looking exactly like Samuel L Jackson when Marvel rebooted him in its Ultimates line, and who plays him in the movies these days? Voila, that man with the expletives on his wallet.

The new Barbara Gordon looks very, very familiar

The other way you can tell comics are being written keeping the screen in mind is in the overt need for diverse ethnicities. The overcompensation is the kind we see in revolving-ensemble TV shows like Law & Order and CSI. Everyone’s in the audience, and they all need to be represented. So we have Bruce Wayne hit on by some girl whose mother was a Bollywood actress, a half-Black half-Hispanic teenager getting spider-powers, and, in the panel above, the new Barbara Gordon looking quite uncannily like Priyanka Chopra, which could bode quite well for the actress’s future if the look catches on.

Piggy Chops as Batgirl? Way to make Ra One jealous, babe.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, October 19, 2011

4 Comments

Filed under Column