Review: London Film Festival 2017 – Breathe
The Pitch: Choose life.
The Review: If you’re looking for a film to open Britain’s leading film festival then as soon as someone offers you more British acting talent than a bonnet full of Jane Austen adaptations, most of them with finely honed RP accents and with an opening scene culminating in a cricket ball smashing a tea cup, then you’d probably bite their hand off. You’d probably also expect that a hard-working British film would be stiff upper lips, struggles against adversity and as grim as Ken Loach’s kitchen sink. Breathe serves up two out of three in a reasonable debut for Andy Serkis, but suffers from never quite being sure what it wants to be.
With a list of British talent longer than your arm, some in blink-and-miss roles (Diana Rigg’s screen credit may get more time than she does), Serkis has certainly assembled a talented acting roster, but the only two who really have the opportunity to do more than reading their lines are Andrew Garfield as polio patient Robin Cavendish and Claire Foy as his supportive wife Diana. When stricken with the illness at a young age, Robin can’t face living a life staring at the hospital ceiling, but Diana takes on the medical profession and enlists the help of a creative friend or two to give Robin a new lease of life.
There’s plenty that works here, with Garfield and Foy putting in strong performances. The script also brings out British qualities you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such a film, with stoicism and determination supplemented by inventiveness and eccentricity. For large parts this is less a grim slogfest, more a vibrant celebration of life and its possibilities, with a handful of satisfyingly off-kilter moments thrown in. While Robin gradually escapes the confines of his hospital bed, the depictions of those less fortunate give the opportunity for some bizarre, discomfiting images, particularly at a clinical hospital that thinks it’s cutting edge.
Serkis has worked on this in down time of his Jungle Book adaptation, and his direction style could be damned with faint praise as fine. He does get chance for a little special effects wizardry with Tom Hollander portraying both of Diana’s twin brothers, but other than that he’s content never to stray from the confines of a chocolate box lid picture, and the film is sometimes as sweet when it desperately needs more courage in its convictions. Society still hasn’t found equality for disabled people in many areas and films highlighting this struggle are as important as those exploring divides of gender, race and orientation but Breathe calls attention to human frailty and meaningful questions of existence without ever suggesting it truly wants to engage with them.
This is particularly noticeable in the final stretch, when questions of Robin’s right to life become flipped on their heads. The last act aims to engage the heart and squeeze the tear ducts when a more confident director would have tapped at your mind and soul as well. It’s a shame, for while Breathe should play well to anyone in the the middle-aged art house crowd who prefers their films with the rough edges sanded off, the material had the potential for a truly great British film and the aftertaste here is one of squandered opportunity. Hopefully as Serkis hones his craft, he’ll be willing to encourage a degree more boldness in his screenwriting collaborators.
Why see it in the cinema: Enjoy the view, from sweeping Kenyan vistas to the rolling English countryside, and see if you can hold back the tears at the end when your neighbour is struggling.
What about the rating? This one’s a 12A for infrequent bloody images, mainly when Robin is struggling in later life (although the old age make up Garfield’s sporting is perhaps more horrific).
My cinema experience: After two weeks of pre-festival screenings at the well-appointed BFI Southbank, this was the first trip the Odeon Leicester Square (and my first visit there since seeing Armageddon over twenty years ago). The uncomfortable leopard print seats and terrible viewing angle from the stalls didn’t convince me I’d missed much. That was all forgiven when director Serkis appeared to give the film a five minute intro.
The Score: 7/10
Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Pitch: Oh what a tangled web(b) we weave…
The Review: There was no question for me who the coolest superhero was when I was a child. (Not least because I was only aware of three.) For while Superman could turn back time and Batman had a sidekick and a utility belt, Spider-Man could climb up walls and spin webs from his hands! Not only that, but in one telling cliffhanger of his TV series he fell off a building, but saved himself by spinning a web to catch himself as he fell! And he got the coolest lines of any of them. These are the kind of things that unnecessarily excite a six year old child, but we now live in a world where every superhero is restricted to an audience no younger than 12 unless they have their parents in tow. Now on our fifth Spider-Man film – the last two, as was the TV series, called Amazing – what does the latest incarnation offer us now it’s got its origin story out of the way?
Nothing particularly amazing is the perhaps unsurprising answer. Marc Webb demonstrates again that his version does have an edge or two over Sam Raimi’s original, firstly in the key personnel. Andrew Garfield is a more satisfying Peter Parker / Spidey than Tobey Maguire ever was, for all the strengths of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, and his chemistry with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey keeps the film afloat during some of the quieter periods. Sally Field also continues to charm despite being noticeably younger than her comic-book counterpart. The web-swinging and slinging continues to be refined on a film by film basis, and the action scenes make the most of the athletic, gymnastic lead, so there’s certainly a decent amount to satisfy your Spider senses.
The problems start with the villains. We have three, but none are as effective as they might be. Jamie Foxx feels miscast as the pre-transformation Electro, and his character is completely mislaid for large stretches in the middle of the film. He still fares better than Paul Giamatti, whose appearances bookend the film and you might just have worked out who he is by the end of the second of them. Dane DeHaan is an improvement over James Franco’s rather static Harry Osborn, but his relationship with Peter has a hollow, unconvincing feel to it and his transformation into the latest incarnation of a familiar villain is based on some dodgy fudging of the mythology. There’s also a certain amount of franchise sowing going on, from Felicity Jones’ extended cameo to the costumes of future bad guys in the background; the main problem is you can’t help feeling you’d have preferred those costumes to be the ones being worn this time out.
While Webb marshals the action scenes clinically, he’s less successful at wrangling the script from Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner. Kurtzman and Orci recently announced they would go their separate ways as a writing duo, and on the evidence of this (and Cowboys & Aliens, two Transformers movies and their dreadful effort for Star Trek Into Darkness) it can’t come soon enough. Even three minds aren’t enough to deliver a script that rises above the generic and predictable, spending so much time on the origins of its new characters that it never surprises with the older ones. If you, like me, can’t remember much of what happened in the original of this sequence, you’ll appreciate the extensive catch-ups woven in – which in turn drag the running time out to a testing two hours and twenty – but none of that can help overcome the plodding predictability or prepare you for the slightly sickening crassness of the way in which the climactic twist is staged. When the Marvel properties at Disney are learning and developing, Sony’s Spider-Man just feels like it’s retreading the same mistakes. With two more films and spin-offs already in the early stages of production, they’re going to have to learn the lessons quickly to return Spider-Man to the place of my favourite.
Why see it at the cinema: The web-work is undoubtedly the most impressive yet in the series, and although I saw it in 2D, everything suggested those elements would work well with an extra dimension if you’re so inclined. The action scenes can get a bit busy, so seeing them in a cinema will help work out who’s hitting who with what at key moments.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. The BBFC descriptions become ever more dramatic, including on this occasion the line, “Human characters transform into scary looking super-villains, with close-ups on their creepy looking eyes and skin.” Find me an eleven year old who’s creeped out by this lot.
My cinema experience: A Friday late night showing at the Cineworld in Cambridge. The staff kindly – and firmly – pointed out upon my arrival around 11:20 p.m. that there was nothing at the end of the credits. Not only a generous public service but also undoubtedly a group of people who would be kept working an extra seven minutes at 1:30 a.m. by a bunch of nerds waiting for a clip that never comes. I stayed for the bizarre mid-credits X-Men advert (designed to fulfil a contractual obligation of Marc Webb’s) and then made my excuses.
The Score: 6/10
Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 3D
The Review: When they come to write the history books, they’ll hopefully note the key cultural touchstones of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The impact of 9/11. An actual Big Brother. Krispy Kremes hitting the UK (and shortly after, my waistline). But one which has as good a chance as any as standing the test of time is the comic book movie adaptation. It’s a genre that first took root in the late seventies with Superman: The Movie and has seen some iconic names captured on celluloid, and many now more than once. For any children of the Seventies or Eighties, there are probably three comic book heroes that stand out, that endure the test of time and that seemingly now need to be reinvented for cinema every ten years or so. While this year sees the end of another Batman cycle, it also sees the start of the third, and most relatable – unless you happen to be a billionaire or an alien, anyway – spandex-clad hero on another round of adventures, and this time Spider-Man is back and making claims to be Amazing. It’s a bold statement, especially when two-thirds of Sam Raimi’s web-slinging saga are still so fondly remembered.
Part of the reason – but by no means whole story – of why Nolan’s Bat-saga has succeeded less than a generation after Burton and Schumaker has their stab at interpreting the mythology is down to how much Nolan and co managed to differentiate their version in both style and substance. It’s not just a case of a different story; other than a man who dresses like a bat and a lunatic in clown make-up, the two approaches have little in common and are all the better for it. So it’s easy to criticise The Amazing Spider-Man for its lack of differentiation, but for all the attempts to bring in additions such as the parents’ back story, there’s an awful lot here that feels an awful lot like Raimi’s Spider-Man. Substitute a lizard for a guy in green on a flying skateboard and you’re practically into remake territory. For those questioning whether it was worth going back to the web quite so soon, the answer is far from a definitive yes.
Raimi’s original Spider-Man wasn’t perfect by any means, and Webb’s version gets as much wrong – especially the odd design of the main antagonist – but it also gets a fair amount right. First and foremost is the casting, which nails its Spidey in the form of Andrew Garfield, all teenage irritability and learning hard lessons as he tries to become a hero, more fuelled by vengeance than altruism in this take and willing to risk making himself genuinely unlikeable for long stretches. By way of contrast, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey doesn’t look much like a teenager but does have more charm and charisma than either Kirsten Dunst or Bryce Dallas Howard managed. Martin Sheen makes a memorable Uncle Ben and Dennis Leary a suitably stern authority figure. The let-downs are Rhys Ifans, never quite able to exude the level of menace required and a rather wet and unsympathetic turn from Sally Field as Aunt May.
It’s fair to say that balance of good and bad is also about what The Amazing Spider-Man manages as a whole. Taken on its own terms, there’s a lot to like, with a couple of satisfying action set pieces and a slightly darker tone than you might expect. This does mean that the Spidey wisecracking gets limited to the odd scene or two, and while the romance is good and the web swinging looks authentic, what’s really missing is just a little more fun. It’s a shame as we know director Mark Webb can certainly deliver that, based on his previous effort, (500) Days of Summer, but it’s just about enjoyable enough on its own terms. But there’s an elephant-sized spider in the room; Raimi’s original casts such a cloud that you can almost feel the gears straining as TASM attempts to avoid covering the same ground, and there would have been no shame in wheeling out the same catchphrase about power and responsibility, with this film coming off slightly worse for it. In terms of those cultural touchstones, one looms larger than any other, and the Spider-man series we’ve just had felt like a better reaction to the the mood of the times, as did Nolan’s Dark Knight (but for completely different reasons). When the most that TASM feels like a reaction to is the Twilight movies, you can’t help but feel that this is a reboot too far, too soon.
Why see it at the cinema: Spider geeks will find plenty to enjoy, and the web-slinging action is as crisp and as wide scale as it’s ever been.
Why see it in 3D: I nearly didn’t put 3D on this review, so anonymous is the extra dimension. While there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s absolutely not essential unless you’re a 3D obsessive.
The Score: 7/10 (if you ignore the 2002 Spider-Man, knock at least a point off if you don’t)
Review: The Social Network
The Pitch: A Few Good Rasho-men.
The Review: Every generation has one or more events that shape and define it, transforming the lives of those living through it and allowing those who look back on it in later years to understand it better. In the twentieth century we had two world wars, jazz and rock and roll transformed music, television and the cinema transformed the visual arts, and in the twenty-first century? We have a thing on your computer or your phone which allows you to play farm or jewel games, to stalk people you used to go to school with and to tell all your friends when you’ve had a bowel movement. It’s easy to be sniffy about Facebook (really, it is – I just did it, try it if you don’t believe me), but social media, of which Facebook is the pre-eminent form, have transformed the way that we interact with each other. My online friends range from their early teens to their late eighties and every demographic in between; but how do you capture such an abstract concept on screen?
First, you hire Aaron Sorkin, responsible for one of the foremost small screen achievements (The West Wing) of the last ten years. Sorkin also scripted A Few Good Men, famous for its Cruise / Nicholson courtroom confrontations, which is handy, as this is where The Social Network spends most of its running time, for of course the more interesting story is not about Facebook itself, but about the men (or should that be boys?) who created it. Sorkin is a past master at getting the most out of static situations, because he knows how to write cracking dialogue, but he also knows how to structure a story, and so when the prospect of sitting through a succession of depositions where the finer details of the story of Facebook’s creation gradually unfold feel too dry, Sorkin’s solution is to interleave the court actions with the rest of the narrative, admitting a Rashomon influence in terms of the use of differing viewpoints, and we are actually left to work out for ourselves initially what’s happening and when, as the timeline skips back and forth from past to present.
Then, you hire David Fincher. When he realises that Sorkin’s script is fantastic, but is coming in at over two and a half hours, his simple solution is to crank up the pace of the dialogue. Relentless, straight from the off we’re thrust into a scene with Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Erica who isn’t real but just a construct of Sorkin’s to engage us in the narrative but she and Mark rattle through their conversation and in eight minutes they flirt with each other’s attention and they talk and they fight and they grandstand and Erica tells Mark what she really thinks of him and she walks out and Mark’s off and he’s inspired and he makes Facemash and his friends get involved and his ideas get bigger and he’s growing out and outgrowing them and we see where he was and where he is and how it comes together and how it moves so fast and never stops and you have to keep up but soon you adjust to the pace and the speeches burst out like a Marx brother on speed but it’s exhilarating and it whips by so quick that by the time you realise Mark’s out of his depth… The Social Network has you in its grip.
None of this would be possible without the quality of the cast that Fincher’s then assembled. Jesse Eisenberg falls into that genre of young actors that causes regular comparisons to Michael Cera, but like the curly-haired Scott Pilgrim star, Eisenberg brings great subtlety and variety to the roles he plays, and his Mark Zuckerberg is multi-faceted, at once compelling but dislikeable, pathetic but powerful, driven by his ego and a walking contradiction in terms. Andrew Garfield has the less showy role as his closest, possibly only friend, Eduardo Saverin, who mirrors Mark in key ways and then proves the diametric opposite in others. Rounding out the headlining trio is the character of Sean Parker, who is probably the closest to a rock star that the internet generation’s had; so who better to play him than Justin Timberlake, in a sort of life-imitates-art kind of way? Well, that would be fine if Timberlake could act, of course, but instead it’s remarkable, Timberlake is a revelation and serves to add further momentum when he’s introduced just when you thought that wasn’t possible.
Everyone else is fantastic, including Arnie Hammer as the Winkevoss twins, which also serves to underline the depth of technical flair going on that you may not even notice. But crucially, the movie manages to stay impartial, using the varied viewpoints to explain actions without at any point sitting in judgement, although there are various inferences to Mark’s similarity to a certain bolidy orifice but the overall attitude is more of pity than disdain towards him. Somehow, the talent assembled have taken what could have been a simple story of a trivial software development and made very much an epoch-defining movie which effectively explains Facebook’s relevance to the social strata of today at the same time that it spins its classic tale of men seeking power and clashing egos. Fincher is now developing a long list of masterpieces and remains one of the most remarkable directing talents of the last twenty years; The Social Network sits very well in that company.
Why see it at the cinema: Because Fincher and Sorkin are masters of the art form, and this really does justify the praise and awards talk being heaped on it.
The Score: 10/10