Film review – The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

10 July 2012
Spider-Man / Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield)

Spider-Man / Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield)

The charismatic teenage superhero from Marvel Comics has returned to the big screen once more. Like most superheros, the Spider-Man character and mythology has gone through several incarnations within comics and other media, most notably Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film trilogy from 2002 to 2007. The Amazing Spider-Man, helmed by (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb, feels similar to the Christopher Nolan Batman films in the way the psychology of the character is at the forefront. Just as the Nolan and the Tim Burton Batman films can co-exist as variations on the same character, this new version of Spider-Man flourishes on its own strengths without undermining or being held back by Raimi’s vision.

The focus in Webb’s film is on Peter Parker as a teenage boy, impressively played by Andrew Garfield, whose transformation into Spider-Man is his coming-of-age. While the film possesses a high level of scientific detail to explain Peter’s physical transformation, the film is more interested in his moral and emotional development. Early scenes reveal Peter being picked on at school, yet brave enough to still stand up for himself and others even though doing so rarely seems to end favourably for him. He is a good son to his surrogate parents Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), although still troubled by the loss of his birth parents. He has an artistic eye with a love of photography and he is highly academic, especially in mathematics and science.  He’s an extremely likeable protagonist and unlike Batman who is driven by trauma, Peter’s struggle is not to allow his judgement to be influenced by the pain in his past.

Early scenes of Peter discovering his powers are feverish and confused as he comes to grips with what is happening to him. Throughout the film there are very faint echoes of David Cronenberg’s 1970s and 1980s films, especially The Fly (1986), where the ability for humans to use science to bypass evolution is seen as a positive thing until hubris, obsession and possessiveness takes over and the monstrosities occur. Peter’s struggle to choose the right path for himself mirrors Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who makes different choices resulting in very different outcomes. Peter is initially torn between personal fulfilment and social responsibility. A scene where he humiliates a bully out of revenge is portrayed as having a snowball effect that results in tragedy. Acting selfishly is a character trait that result in disaster in The Amazing Spider-Man. Skipping reasonably quickly over the details of how he learned to use his powers, create his webshooters and develop his suit, the film is more interested in how Peter comes to realise his responsibilities towards helping others rather than just himself. Spider-Man therefore becomes a hero of the people, where he is also reliant on the help of others, which is demonstrated in a key scene leading up to the film’s finale.

A crucial part of Peter’s maturing/coming-of-age is reconciling his identity with that of not just his father, but all the father figures in the film. There is his absent birth father; a man devoted to his work who left behind mysteries and a major gap in Peter’s life. Then there is Uncle Ben who provides moral guidance, Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) who is the authoritive father that stands in the way of Spider-Man’s crime fighting and Peter’s love for his daughter Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and finally Dr Connors. Connors is an amalgamation of the other paternal figures as he is connected to Peter’s father, occupies a similar position of authority over both Peter and Gwen, and has to make significant ethical decision. Peter’s challenge in the film in terms of establishing his own identity, which is expressed through the film’s action narrative, is to decide to what extent will he submit to or defy these various figures. The resulting tensions and inevitable showdown offers a very sophisticated allegory for an adolescent becoming their own person and emerging from the shadow of their parents. And ultimately it is Aunt May who guides Peter down the path of righteousness in terms of doing what’s right for both the community and himself. The traditional rule of the father is undermined while the nurturing side of fatherhood, which makes way for the next generation, triumphs.

The strong cohesive story and representation of adolescent identity give real depth to the action scenes. The first-person effect delivered in many sequences is exhilarating and the space of each scene is established to give the various fights and carnage logic and coherence.  It’s not on the same scale as The Avengers, but it displays a similar consideration for how the audience needs to feel invested in moments they can grasp onto rather than be forced to experience sensory overload that only gives the illusion of excitement. And while the film is a lot darker than Raimi’s film, it doesn’t abandon the lightness at the heart of the character, so there are plenty of fun quips from Spider-Man, plus a wonderful sound and site gag in the middle of a major action sequence. Deft touches like this by Webb and the other filmmakers, not to mention extremely strong performances by Garfield and Stone, is what makes The Amazing Spider-Man a cut above other comic book adaptations, nicely situated between the glossy spectacle of The Avengers and the dark brooding of Nolan’s Batman films.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Never Let Me Go (2010)

21 March 2011
Never Let Me Go: Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Early in Never Let Me Go, the seemingly privileged English boarding school children learn what it is that makes them different. It’s not a moment that is presented as a dramatic twist but as a matter-of-fact delivery of information. The children in the film learn about who they are in the same way that the audience and the readers of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel learn; through the non-sensationalised confirmation of a suspicion that we all strongly harboured but had hoped would not be true. The approach and early reveal of the concept that makes Never Let Me Go a sort of alternative-history film is one of the indications that it is not a science-fiction film but a deeply beautiful and melancholic drama. The concept is not even really used to facilitate the exploration of ‘what if?’ type issues that characterise more philosophical science-fiction texts. Instead, Never Let Me Go is about the sad love triangle between Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), three of the children who must face life from a very different perspective to the rest of us.

Ishiguro’s novel was told entirely from Kathy’s point-of-view and the prose reflected the fact that the events she was describing came from her memories. The film maintains this reflective approach but naturally some narrative details are omitted, others are condensed and others are made more explicit. With so much consideration for the way film functions as a visual art form that is distinctively different from literature, Never Let Me Go is an extremely impressive exercise in the adaptation of a novel that if merely reduced to its plot points would have not been terribly interesting cinema. Instead, the audience is left feeling the same sensations that were created by the novel and this makes the film an extremely successful adaptation. The atmosphere, tone and overall meaning of the novel are preserved through the film’s performances and visual style.

Never Let Me Go: Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) helms the film and with the aid of writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later…) fleshes out Kathy, Tommy and Ruth on screen. In the novel Ishiguro beautifully captured the idea that the trio never truly emotionally developed as adults and that their limited world-view forever possessed a childlike quality. The film’s strategic use of dialogue and its strategic omission of dialogue maintains this childlike quality with the actors then also bringing so much poignancy to their roles. As the less sympathetic character Ruth, Knightley gets less opportunity to shine but certainly holds her own. However, Mulligan and Garfield are astonishingly good and provide several heart shattering moments in just a glance. The combination of childlike wonder, hopeful curiosity and sad realisations that the pair bring to Never Let Me Go is incredibly moving.

However, what truly makes Never Let Me Go such a wonderful adaptation and film in its own right, is the glorious visual style that captures the mood of gentle melancholy. Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is an extraordinary accomplishment with its shots of the mist filled English landscape drenched in radiant light. In fact, the lighting and camera positioning throughout Never Let Me Go is close to perfect with its balance of warm light and foggy landscapes capturing the characters’ spark of life that bursts through the gloom of prewritten destiny. Rachel Portman’s score further emphasises the tender sorrow underpinning the film.

Never Let Me Go: Tommy (Andrew Garfield)

Tommy (Andrew Garfield)

Never Let Me Go is a remarkable film that may frustrate audiences expecting a science-fiction story or some book lovers who like their adaptations direct and literal. However, its potentially niche appeal will likely only enhance the love that its admirers have for it because of the special and almost fragile quality that it possesses. Far from being a grand morality tale, Never Let Me Go is an impressionist work that takes its grim scenario to facilitate a beautiful and satisfyingly melancholic story of mortality, destiny, love and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Social Network (2010)

27 October 2010
The Social Network: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)

Early in David Fincher’s The Social Network there is a brilliant crosscutting sequence where Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg and his Fackbook co-founders are working away on their computers creating the Facebook prototype while a wild party is taking place at one of the exclusive college clubs that Zuckerberg desperately wants to be a part of. As the film cuts back and forth between the computer science students in their room and the college students partying, the juxtaposition seems to invite a scornful comment on the geeks with their computers versus the beautiful young things at play. However, as the sequence progresses and the significance of what is happening sinks in, it suddenly becomes clear that what is really being depicted is a future entrepreneur and billionaire hard at work making history while the born-to-rule kids are stuffing around.

The film that unfolds is a fascinating representation of how Facebook began as a contemptible page called FaceMash, where the attractiveness of female undergraduates was rated, to the revolutionary internet phenomenon that currently boasts it has over 500 million active users. Most of the story is told in flashback with the film set during the time that Zuckerberg was involved in two lawsuits; one with the founders of ConnectU, who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea, and one with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

The Social Network: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)

Zuckerberg is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg who up until now has been somewhat typecast in films such as The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland and Zombieland as the awkward-yet-endearing-slightly-nerdy-but-kind-of-cool guy that filmmakers turn to when they don’t want Michael Cera. Eisenberg certainly gives Zuckerberg the necessary computer-geek persona but he also goes far deeper than that to present him as a paranoid, defensive and obsessive monster who seems incapable of empathy and will do what it takes to get his way. His obsessive and at times ruthless behaviour makes him not too dissimilar from the obsessive serial killers in Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac. He is also not too far from the characters in Fight Club as he is likewise an angry young man with a misguided sense of entitlement. As he is told at the beginning of The Social Network, he is not going to be disliked for being a nerd but for being an asshole.

Yet, Zuckerberg is not completely contemptible and there are certainly scenes in The Social Network where his defiance of authority and his ability to stand up to the members of the privileged class makes him bizarrely heroic. Also, unlike most of the other characters in the film, he is not motivated by money but simply does what he does to make his mark on the world. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as an almost blank slate whose limited facial expressions suggest that his inability to express empathy, despite some scenes where he seems to be able to want to, is something more pathological.

The Social Network: Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)

Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)

The real heart of the film comes from the breakdown of Zuckerberg’s personal and business relationship with Eduardo Saverin, which led to the lawsuit. Played beautifully by emerging actor Andrew Garfield (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) Saverin is by far the most sympathetic character in a film containing mostly very dislikeable characters. Watching him and Zuckerberg drift apart is genuinely sad and made all the worse when Napster founder Sean Parker (played by pop singer Justin Timberlake in a nice bit of ironic casting) enters the scene as a rival for Zuckerberg’s affections.

The Social Network could have been a deathly dull film but Fincher’s impeccable direction and the smart and surprisingly funny script by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin make it utterly engaging. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame also supplies an extremely impressive score that channels his trademark industrial beats and nihilist angst into several pieces of music that distinctively accompany what is happening on screen without ever becoming overbearing. The combined result is a film of our times that captures the spirit of a generation that isn’t prepared to wait their turn or pay their dues and instead will make the opportunities for themselves or tear it away from the less ambitious. It’s like a gangster film where the young hoods prove themselves to the older wiseguys by doing something audacious despite breaking all sorts of codes of honour. It’s both admirable and threatening, exhilarating and terrifying. However, in this case, the antiheros aren’t left in jail or dead but are left to endlessly refresh a browser to see if an ex-girlfriend has accepted their friend request.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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