Friday, 30 May 2014

Thoughts on The "Stargate" and "Cliffhanger" Reboots

Yesterday it was announced that director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) and former producing partner Dean Devlin were set to make a new Stargate film for MGM, based on the 1994 film of the same name that Emmerich and Devlin co-wrote, and which Emmerich directed. The film is said to be the first film in a proposed new trilogy. The original Stargate starred Kurt Russell and James Spader. In the film a interstellar teleportation device is found in Egypt and opens a portal between Earth and an alien planet. The film also spawned several spinoff TV shows. It's still not certain whether Russell or Spader will reprise their roles or if this new film will ignore the continuity of the TV shows.

Also announced yesterday was a remake of Cliffhanger, a 1993 Sylvester Stallone film in which he played Gabe Walker, a mountain climber/rescue ranger who, a year later after a personal tragedy, finds himself in the Rocky Mountains, embroiled in a failed heist involving John Lithgow's Eric Qualen. Studio Canal and producer Neil Moritz had been planning a remake for several years and it's now moving forward. The screenwriter is Joe Gazzam, who reportedly impressed studio execs with his ideas for a remake.

News that both the Stargate franchise and Cliffhanger were getting re-launches in the same day brings up the familiar questions and concerns about Hollywood's lack of originality and its obsession with remaking, rebooting or reimagining any property with some kind of name recognition. I'm not vehemently against the idea of remakes. Originality can come from anywhere, even if it stems from an existing property. It can also be exciting to see a new interpretation of a franchise or film. But it's hard not feel burned out on the whole notion of remakes. For every John Carpenter's The Thing or David Cronenberg's The Fly, there's recent remakes like Kimberly Pierce's Carrie and Spike Lee's Oldboy. Though both remakes did have some new wrinkles, they felt mostly visionless despite the talent involved . 

Stargate feels like a more traditional franchise re-launch. The Cliffhanger remake has a bigger question mark looming over it. Some films feel more suited to being remade due to being classics but Cliffhanger isn't a film that has much iconography to it. Among Stallone's filmography it's not Rambo: First Blood or Rocky. It's plot is very basic and it mostly relies on Stallone's star power to carry the story.

Cliffhanger also feels very much like a product of its time. It's a very 90s film and was essentially part of the "Die Hard on a...." subgenre that sprang from Die Hard's success, with Cliffhanger being Die Hard on a mountain. While I'm all for throwbacks to 70s/80s/90s style action films, thematically Cliffhanger doesn't feel like it has much relevance to our time. Though that's what makes the idea of remaking the film intriguing. How do you make a Cliffhanger that means something to the modern world? I'm interested to find out.

Regarding these two revivals, we also have to consider the nostalgia factor. Hollywood is banking on people's fondness for these properties. This makes sense because I don't believe either Stargate or Cliffhanger are regarded as stone-cold classics. I've never seen Stargate or its TV spinoffs so I don't have any personal connection to the franchise. I do remember watching Cliffhanger when I was younger (probably too young to be watching it). It's telling that both Stargate and Cliffhanger are 90s properties. We've no gotten to the point where stuff from 90s carries nostalgic weight for my generation. Relying too much on nostalgia, however, is a risky gamble for both projects, especially with MGM already thinking "trilogy" for Stargate.  Even with Stargate already have been an ongoing franchise there's no guarantee the film will be a hit. Cliffhanger may be a one-off but the studio is likely hoping there's potential for a franchise. But despite having a recognizable title due to Stallone, Cliffhanger isn't one of his classic films and it's not the first in an iconic franchise.

As always there's potential for both these projects. The question is if either will be worth the money and time spent on them. A new Stargate could reignite the franchise like JJ Abrams' Star Trek did with that franchise. And the Cliffhanger remake could be a solid and exciting action picture. The complaints of too many remakes and reboots will remain but ideally these two ventures will be counted among the more successful of its kind.    

Sunday, 25 May 2014

We Need You To Hope Again: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Henceforth known as DOFP) always sounded like one of the most ambitious superhero films in some time. Bryan Singer- who helmed the first two X-Men films- would be directing and via two time periods- and a time travel plot- unite cast members from both the original trilogy and cast members from X-Men: First Class (Henceforth known as FC). The film was also said to be correcting the continuity errors that have plagued the franchise, and many thought the much derided X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine would be retconned out of continuity.

What's most surprising about the DOFP- now that it's been released- is how straight forward and small scaled it is, relatively speaking. While it has several standout set pieces DOFP is more of a character drama than an epic action blockbuster. This is somewhat disappointing since I was hoping for a film that felt bigger in scale. However, taken just as a story DOFP feels like both an organic expansion to the original trilogy and sequel to FC 

The film opens in the dystopian future of 2023. Mutant hunting robots called Sentinels have killed many mutants and the humans who have helped them.  A band of mutant survivors led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) devise a plan to send Logan/Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), once Xavier's surrogate sister Raven, from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Trask had suggested the idea of Sentinels to the US army but they rejected the idea. When Mystique killed Trask this prompted the US to move forward with the Sentinel program. Mystique was captured after Trask’s assassination and her DNA was used to upgrade the Sentinels so they could adapt to any mutant power.

Wolverine's consciousness gets sent back to 1973. There, he has to convince the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) to help stop Mystique. Wolverine’s mission is complicated due to Xavier being a broken man, both in spirit and body. Xavier was paralysed at the end of FC, lost his friend Erik Lehnsherr, (Michael Fassbender), now going by Magneto, and Mystique. Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters was shut down due to the Vietnam War draft. Hank McCoy (Nicolas Hoult) has created a serum that allows Xavier to walk but eliminates his telepathic powers. Hank takes a similar serum to control his “Beast” form. Hank is like Bruce Banner/the Hulk in this film. The Beast only comes out when he gets angry.

The concept of Xavier choosing to walk over being able to use his powers intrigued me. It also provides a firm character arc for Xavier throughout the course of his film. He eventually has to accept the chair and embrace his gifts so he can change history.  I also think it’s neat how Hank has a somewhat similar character arc to Xavier. Hank, like Xavier, is keeping something about himself locked away. As the film progresses he has to embrace the Beast inside him. The whole concept of Xavier and Hank essentially being recluses in a rundown mansion is also tragic and a tad amusing. I wouldn’t mind eventually getting a short film about these two guys’ lives. I really liked Hoult in FC so I’m glad he's a big part of the film.

I was surprised when McAvoy was first cast in FC. He didn’t strike me as the Professor X type. But seeing him in FC and now DOFP he’s become one of my favourite cast members in this franchise. He’s not trying to be Patrick Stewart but you accept him as a younger, more “rough around the edges” version of the man from the original trilogy. In this film McAvoy pulls off both the broken man and the man who finds his purpose again- going down the path to become the Xavier of later years.  There’s a touching scene where Xavier, via reading Wolverine’s mind, communicates with his older self. The older Xavier tells him he needs “to hope again.” It’s a fascinating conceit, the older Xavier essentially helping his younger self become the man he’s going to be. And I think the film pulls it off beautifully, giving the scene real emotional pathos.

Fassbender continues to be a powerful presence as Magneto. We learn he's been locked in a concrete prison (Magneto can control metal) for killing President John F. Kennedy. The film jokes that Magneto being the assassin is the only way the trajectory of the bullet that killed Kennedy makes sense. What Magneto reveals about his role on that day in Dallas is also a nice little joke that I won’t spoil.

To break Magneto out of prison, Xavier, Hank and Wolverine need the help of Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who has the gift of super speed. There were many who hated the look of Quicksilver in this film but he turns out to be the highlight of the film. Peters has a great oddball comedic sensibility. The sequence where we view an event from Quicksilver’s point of view- as time slows downs while he speeds up- is both visually wonderful and charming. The song choice for the sequence- Jim Croce’s “Song in a bottle” is perfect. Fans know Quicksilver is Magneto’s son in the comics and there's a sly reference made by Quicksilver that Magneto is his dad. I wish that Quicksilver was in the film more. I think the filmmakers didn’t want the film to be too comedic. Or, like Shakespeare with Mercutio from Romeo & Juliet, they didn’t want Quicksilver to run away with the entire film.

I’m a little mixed on Lawrence’s performance. She’s a good actress but I don’t feel she fits the femme fatale role. However, she handles the emotional beats of the character. Her performance is consistent with the character from FC and her Mystique mostly works as the middle grown for the character between FC and the original trilogy.  

I know many don’t like how Wolverine centric these films have been. I agree with this criticism but I do think Jackman owns the role and it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else playing the part after Jackman retires. And while Wolverine is an important character in the film his presence doesn't takes away from Xavier.

Character-wise, Xavier and Magneto needed more screen time together in both the 70s and future scenes. In the 70s we see that Xavier is angry at Magneto for corrupting Mystique but we know there’s more to their conflict than Mystique. Putting too much focus on her as the root of Xavier’s hostility somewhat trivializes the relationship between him and Magneto. Their different philosophies are what caused their separation. That needed to come to the forefront. Old Magneto gets a great moment later in the film when he implies to old Xavier that he regrets all the years they’ve spent fighting. It would've been great to learn more of how this war has affected their complex relationship. 

As to be expected in this franchise, several characters do get shafted, particularly the characters in the future scenes. The newly introduced mutants such as Bishop (Omar Sy) and Blink (Bingbing Fan) hardly get any dialogue or development as characters. I do like Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, even though she may be a little too Ellen Pagey. Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), who was established in FC, appears briefly but his role feels superfluous, almost as if he’s just there to let the audience know where he was and then move on.

For me, the film would’ve been stronger if the future scenes were as fleshed out as the 70s scenes. Even though the opening of the films vividly shows us what the this world is like for mutants I feel there should’ve been a more active story happening in the future, with more time dedicated to seeing how the mutants operate in this future. It’s also somewhat disappointing that the future scenes taking almost entirely in one location.

From a cinematography standpoint the look of the future is gorgeous (Newton Thomas Sigel, who did the cinematography for X1 and 2 returned to the franchise for this film). I know that's an odd way of describing a post apocalyptic future but I really loved the atmosphere of those scenes. When we’re in the 70s the film does give off an authentic 70s vibe. The use of camera footage of events made to look like footage from that time period is a fine touch.

I’m going to get a little spoilery in discussing this film’s approach towards the franchise's continuity. We live in an age where franchises like Spider-Man, Batman- and next year’s Fantastic Four- just start over with a blank slate. On the flip side DOFP reboots the X-Men franchise within its own continuity. The outcome of DOFP's plot is similar to J.J Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. In both cases time travel is used as a device to create an alternate time line where new stories can take place and pre-established events can occur differently. It’s a risky but arguably more intriguing way to approach the whole idea of a “reboot.” However, I think there are still some continuity hiccups. And the biggest drawback of the film may be that it’s partly a long form version of fan service. Nevertheless, I think the film still works as a cohesive and meaningful story on its own terms.

I know many feel Singer’s directorial approach to the X-Men franchise doesn’t have a place in today’s landscape of superhero films. I understand this point of view. Singer’s X-Men films- including DOFP- aren’t as “comic book on screen” as a film like The Avengers. But what I admire about Singer as a director of superhero films- both X-Men and the heavily criticized Superman Returns- is he always puts a heavy focus on the humanity behind the super powers. All four of his superhero films have real weight and emotion to them. While the climax of DOFP is a set piece the story resolves itself with Xavier trying to convince Mystique, with whom he grew up, to make the right choice. Near the ending Hank mentions the immutable theory of time. This theory states that you can never truly change the future. The timeline will always correct itself. The film sides with the opposite idea, that the future can be changed- and even the past.

Whether or not you enjoy DOFP will depend on how you feel about this franchise- and Singer’s X-Men films in particular. If you’re tired of this continuity then this film may just be a chore. If you love this franchise with all its ups and downs- and if you’re like me, grew up with the first two X-Men films- then DOFP has the potential to touch you deeply. There'll be an undeniable nostalgia factor to the film for many. DOFP is a loving tribute to the X-Men franchise but it’s also a bittersweet goodbye- and an exciting new start.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Series Retrospective on the X-Men Film Franchise: X2: X-Men United (2003)

 X2: X-Men United (henceforth known as X2) was the first major superhero sequel of the last decade, coming out one year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Similar to Spider-Man 2, X2 takes the best elements of its predecessor and refines them, crafting something more complex and polished cinematically. In my retrospective on 2000’s X-Men I said that film felt like director Bryan Singer figuring out a style and tone for the series. With X2 Singer, now with a bigger budget, balanced huge set pieces with intelligent social commentary and human drama, crafting a complex and entertaining blockbuster for the thinking movie goer. X2 ranks, along with Spider-Man 2, among the best superhero sequels- and is a very fine film in general.  

 X2 picks up not too long after the events of X-Men. Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is searching for clues to his past. We discover, as the film moves along, that Logan’s search for answers will tie in to the larger plot of the film. The United States President is almost assassinated by a mutant named Kurt Wagner, also known as Nightcrawler. He’s a teleporter who’s been brainwashed by Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox). Stryker uses the assassination attempt to convince the President to allow him to invade Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) mansion. Stryker kidnaps Xavier and Cyclops/Scott Summers (James Marsden) when Xavier comes to visit Magneto (Ian McKellen) in prison. Earlier Stryker had interrogated Magneto to gain information on Cerebro, the machine which Xavier uses to find other mutants. Stryker has built another Cerebro and plans to use Xavier to kill all mutants. Stryker blames Xavier for not “curing” his son Jason of his mutant abilities.  After returning from Xavier's school Jason projected images in to Stryker and his wife’s mind, resulting in Stryker’s wife committing suicide. Stryker lobotomized Jason and will use Jason’s abilities to manipulate Xavier in to using Cerebro.   

Stryker is one of the most underrated villains in a superhero film. Even if we don’t like him, his motivations are clear and despite his cruelty we can understand and partly sympathize with his hatred for mutants. Casting Cox was a wise decision on Singer’s part. Cox brings texture and nuances to the character, making Stryker a commanding and menacing presence in the film.

I wish Xavier had more to do in the film than just be kidnapped. However, I love that via Stryker the film emphasizes that despite the admiration Xavier has gained throughout the years he’s had horrible failures in his past. For all the mutants he’s set down the right path, there are those like Jason and Magneto who went down a darker path.

X2 is one of the best examples of having two villains in a superhero film and making it work. A big reason why it works is that Stryker and Magneto represent what each hates the most and what they see as the worst of each other’s kind. They both have understandable and sympathetic reasons for the way they are and both are unshakable in their views. Magneto has to team up with the X-Men to stop Stryker’s plan- but then uses Xavier and Cerebro to eliminate humans. The trade off from Stryker being the enemy to Magneto turning Stryker's plan against him is organic to the narrative of the film and doesn’t feel contrived.

Singer does a fabulous job of balancing the film’s multiple plot lines. He brings these threads all together organically as the film progresses and climaxes them at Alkali Lake, where we see Logan at the beginning of the film. It’s a clever bit of screenwriting to have the film begin where it eventually concludes. Logan doesn’t realize what he was searching for was underneath him right from the start. It can be a little contrived to have the hero and villain’s back stories linked together but X2 is able to make the connection between Logan and Stryker work. Logan’s character arc through the first film was about him becoming part of something bigger than himself and growing to care about others. But at the end of the film he was still haunted by his past. This film concludes Logan’s arc from the first film by having him turn his back on the past, accepting the present and finally taking a firm place amongst the X-Men.

While the action was fine in X-Men, Singer takes it up several levels for X2. From the beginning of the film, with Nightcrawler teleporting around the white house and taking down secret service, we can tell that the action in this film is going to be much more spectacular than in the previous film. I love the Logan/Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) fight as well and the mansion invasion captures the fear and confusion when a place of safety is violated.

 It does feel like the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with Cyclops other than have him brainwashed and appear at the climax of the film as a threat. This plot line doesn’t really go anywhere and ultimately robs Cyclops of a larger role in the story. And I don’t think these films ever made sense of why Logan was so infatuated with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). I do like the subplot regarding John/Pyro (Aaron Stanford), one of Xavier’s students who can manipulate fire and eventually joins with Magneto. The scenes between Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore)- with the two attempting to have a physical relationship despite Rogue's inability to touch anyone without taking their powers and nearly killing them- are also nice.

X-Men feels more like an art film compared to X2 but X2 never betrays the more character driven and socially conscious aims of the first film. Rather, it keeps itself rooted in a real world aesthetic while feeling more properly scaled for an X-Men film. It allows itself to be entertaining while still attempting to explore themes of genocide, the demons of the past, the acceptance of the present- and also, choice. Jean makes a drastic choice at the end of the film, one that’s heroic and tragic. The third film in the franchise would not fulfill the promise of this film but on its own terms X2 is still a high point of the superhero film boom that help defined a decade.   

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Series Retrospective on the X-Men Film Franchise: X-Men (2000)

I remember what a big deal it was when X-Men premiered in the summer of 2000. There had been superhero films before but X-Men was the first major Marvel property (Blade starring Wesley Snipes came out in 1998 but he was a lower tier character in comparison) to get the proper Hollywood treatment.  This was before superhero films were the big thing in Hollywood. There was still a sense of wonder in seeing superheroes brought to the big screen fully realized. And being an eleven year old at the time there was something almost overwhelming about this kind of film.

 What’s most striking about X-Men, particularly now, is how aesthetically dark and stripped down it is. It’s only a little over a 90 minutes long and the climax only features four X-Men walking through a museum. I believe this sparse aesthetic is partly due to director Bryan Singer not being interested in fashioning a straight up comic-book movie with bright colours and sprawling action. I feel he was more fascinated with the social commentary that’s always been a part of the X-Men mythology. Being a gay man, Singer no doubt identified with the themes of prejudice, fear, as well as acceptance, which inform the comics.

I think the other major reason for why X-Men feels so small scale has to do with budget restrictions. Moreover, this was Singer’s biggest film to date. This film, in several ways, feels like Singer is feeling his way around how to do this kind of film- as well as finding what tone and style he wants for the series going forward. This results in X-Men being a solid and enjoyable film- but one that’s not a fully realized vision.

Singer sets the tone for the film from the first scene, which takes place in 1944 Poland. We see a young boy named Erik Lehnsherr separated from his parents by the Nazis. It’s at this time that Erik’s mutant powers first reveal themselves. Erik can control metal and he bends a gate just before being knocked out by a guard. This opening scene establishes that the film won’t be a romp. Rather it tells us this is going to be a more serious character drama that tackles dark themes. And by opening the film during the Holocaust years, Singer provides a relatable entry point for the audience. The Holocaust reminds us of the evil mankind can inflict on itself and the basic idea of X-Men concerns humanity being afraid of and violent others just because they are different- Many people are unable to realize mutants are still people despite their extraordinary abilities.

After this prologue we flash forward to the “not too distant future” where teenager Marie (Anna Paquin) nearly kills her boyfriend by kissing him. When she touches people Marie absorbs their life force. This causes her to run away and on the road she meets another mutant named Logan, who goes by the name “Wolverine” (Hugh Jackman). Logan has metal claws and super-human healing abilities. They’re attacked by a mutant named Sabretooth (Tyler Mane). Logan and Rogue are saved by two mutants, Cyclops/Scott Summers and Storm/Ororo Munroe  (James Marsden and Halle Berry), who take them to Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school for gifted youngsters, where mutants learn to control their abilities and are able to live among their own kind.

Xavier informs Logan that Sabretooth was working for Erik (Ian McKellen), now calling himself Magneto. Xavier and Magneto worked together for years before going their separate ways. We learn that Magneto plans to turn the world leaders in to mutants, which I think is one of the best super villain plans we’ve seen in one of these films. Xavier and Magneto represent the two separate ideologies at the core of the X-Men mythos. Xavier is more hopeful about human and mutant kind living together in peace; Magneto is more cynical and believes the world is on the verge of war between humans and mutants. The fact Xavier and Magneto are friends makes this dynamic all the more complex. They’re not merely enemies. Their  history together will always affect the way they view another.  The film already takes these characters seriously but Stewart and McKellen add a lot of weight to their scenes together. They make us believe that these two men have been friends forever, how committed they are to their ideologies, and that they have a mutual respect for one another.

 While this relationship provides the backbone for the film and the entire franchise the most prominent character arc belongs to Logan. One of the main criticisms fans have about the X-Men film franchise is how Wolverine centric the films are, with other characters getting sidelined. It’s an understandable criticism and it’s true that X-Men feels like a Wolverine film with the X-Men as supporting characters.  However, the film does make its Wolverine focus work. He’s provides the outsider perspective for the audience. Despite being a mutant the world of the X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants is as alien to him as it would be to those not versed in X-Men lore. When we first meet Logan he has no personal attachments and fights for no one but himself. He also has no memory of his past or why he has adamantium (a fictional metal in the Marvel universe) over his skeleton. Logan’s arc throughout the film shows him finding a purpose in the present, despite no memory of his past. He forms a surrogate family with the X-Men and becomes part of bigger cause then himself.  I love how he starts out mocking the characters’ nicknames but by the end uses the name “Cyclops” with complete earnestness.

This was a star making performance for Jackman. While he would age in to the role even more over time, right from the start he’s an ideal Wolverine. Jackman is able to portray the violent animal, the wise-ass and the humane soul underneath all very well. His relationship with Rogue is also quite touching. Regarding the other X-Men, I do wish Cyclops had more time to shine, since he’s the leader of the team. Marsden is pretty well cast in the role, playing Cyclops as the boy scout who can be just as much a wise-ass as Logan.

 I know many don’t like Singer’s aesthetic choices, particularly the X-Men wearing black leather instead of their more colorful comic book costumes.  I would argue that due to the tone of the film and what Singer was shooting for, the costumes needed to be toned down.  I do like that Singer had a particular vision for what he wanted to do with this universe. It’s not what everyone wanted but I think his “real world but with fantastical elements” works very well and allows its serious themes to take center stage. But despite dealing with heavy issues, the film is not humourless.  It’s actually quite funny. The only bits of humour that I don’t think work deal with Toad (Ray Park) near the end. We’re supposed to find his physical humour funny but these moments don’t click with me. And then there’s the infamous “What happens when a toad is struck by lightning?” joke.

 Some other things I enjoy:

- Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson), an anti-mutant politician who gets turned in to a mutant by Magneto to test his machine. Except that the mutation kills Kelly. This has always been the most unsettling parts of the film for me. There’s also a cruel irony to it as Kelly becomes what he hates. And the odd thing is we can actually sympathize with him despite his bigotry.
-  Rebecca Romijn as Mystique- a very spooky presence.
-  “What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”

X-Men was more of a testing ground for X2: X-Men United then a fully realized vision but it still works a compact interpretation of a dense and complex mythology. The performances are mostly strong and the film deals with its heavy themes earnestly.  Also, along with Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film two years later, this help kick-start the modern age of superhero films. Nothing would be the same again.  

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Clock Is Ticking...Again: Some Thoughts on the Premiere of "24: Live Another Day"

I have a nostalgic attachment to the series 24. It premiered when I was just entering Junior High and ended- after 8 seasons- when I was in University. 4 years later 24 returns with a limited series event called Live Another Day. I’m 25 years old now so 24 has been around for about half my life. 24 hit airwaves in November of 2001, only months after the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11. And in that first ground-breaking season- and even more so in later seasons- 24 became the show that defined the post 9/11 years- a series that tapped in to the fear and uncertainty which arose from that day almost 13 years ago.

And Jack Bauer-played by Kiefer Sutherland- became the hero for the post 9/11 world, a guy we all wanted on our sides and knew we could trust. We may not have agreed with Jack’s methods- the show received heavy criticism for being arguably pro-torture- but I think secretly, whatever our moral views, we sided with Jack. Moreover, I don’t think Jack was ever a representation of any one political ideology. In fact, Jack didn’t appear to have much use for politics or bureaucracy. His “by any means necessary” approach always had to do with his psychology- he was a man who was constantly put in situations where there were no easy options.

The problem with the end of Season 8 was it felt more like a season finale than a series finale. I think this was due to Season 8 not being designed as the final Jack Bauer adventure. Rather, it was the final season due to being cancelled.  The creative team also didn’t want to completely end the series. Instead they wanted to leave things open for a possible resurrection. For several years there had been talk of a feature film. But it appears that plans for a film fell through, with compensation to fans being the return of 24 to TV.    

The best thing about 24: Live Another Day is it feels like 24, with all the good and bad that implies. Another important thing about Live Another Day is it’s definitely not for new viewers. If you haven’t watched most of the previous seasons you’re not going to be lost. And even as a long-time fan of the show I’ve also forgotten certain events of Season 8. And to be fair, with such a dense mythology I think it’d be hard to have an accessible entry point for new viewers.  

It’s been 4 years since the events of Day 8 and former CTU agent Jack Bauer has been labelled a terrorist. He shows up in London and is apprehended by CIA agents based in the city. But it appears that Jack has allowed himself to get caught so he can rescue former colleague Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), now a free information “hackivist” and looking like Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The only one who suspects Jack allowed the CIA to catch him is field agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski). Her husband was another CIA agent who sold secrets to China and then committed suicide when he was found out. Kate’s boss Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt) believes that because she didn’t know her husband was a traitor she’s overcompensating by thinking Jack has an ulterior motive.  Her colleague Erik Ritter (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is set to take over Kate’s position at the end of the week and believes Kate knew about her husband’s treachery. Erik is a one note character so far- a “jerk” character that 24 likes to have on board. Ideally Erik will gain a little more depth as the series progresses.  

We eventually learn that the reason Jack is breaking Chloe out of the CIA has to do with Jack needing information on a former fellow hacker of Chloe’s, Derek Yates, who is part of a plot to kill American President James Heller (William Devane), whose daughter Audrey (Kim Raver) once had a romantic relationship. Heller is in London to negotiate the lease of a military base in London which deploys drones. He’s set to meet with the British Prime Minister Alastair Davies (Stephen Fry).

One criticism I have so far in regards to the first 2 episodes is that Jack takes a backseat to several of the other characters. Jack actually doesn’t speak for most of the first episode. It’s a risky move but they mostly pull it off.  The 24 universe is also so fully realized that even without a heavy Jack presence I enjoyed being back in this world.

However, I still hope Jack becomes more of a central figure in the story rather than just a supporting player. One thing’s for certain, Sutherland slips back in to the Bauer role effortlessly. Sutherland was a well known actor before 24 but the role of Jack Bauer was a career redefining role for him- and Jack has become Sutherland’s signature role. Sutherland carries the weight of all Jack’s adventures and the tragedies he’s witnessed with conviction. It’s been thrilling to see the transformation of this character over the years. The Jack/Chloe relationship is still the most surprising one that evolved out of this show. The Q to Jack’s James Bond, Chloe had as fascinating a character transformation as any in the show’s history. I do like that Jack and Chloe are now at odds, regarding Chloe’s hacker activities- but since they’re both criminals Jack still has to rely on her. I’m really intrigued to see where Jack and Chloe end up at the end of the series.    

The first two episodes introduce several intriguing plot lines, including the framing of drone pilot Chris Tanner (Attack The Block’s John Boyega), whose drone is taken over by Yates and kills servicemen in Afghanistan. Heller is showing signs of dementia, which adds tension to his visit in London. I’m also interested to see what comes of the marriage between Audrey and Heller’s Chief of Staff Mark Boudreau (Tate Donovan) - Boudreau doesn’t want Audrey to know that Jack’s in London but I think Audrey is definitely going to discover that Jack's back. There’s also the appearance of Michelle Fairley from Game of Thrones as a mysterious villain- and I’m excited for her and Jack to meet face to face.

24 has returned and it continues to be the oddest form of comfort food TV that the medium has ever seen. The show hasn’t changed that much- even with a four year hiatus- but I’m okay with that. There’s a certain comfort we take from familiarity in regards to TV shows, and 24: Live Another Day seems poised to give us that sense of comfort.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

You Are My Path: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The decision to reboot the Spider-Man film franchise has always been a controversial one- even four years after the reboot was officially announced in January 2010. For everyone happy about the re-launch of the series- 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb (henceforth known as TASM)- and considers it superior to Sam Raimi’s trilogy, there are still many detractors. I’ve had complicated feelings towards that film for some time. The backlash against the Raimi films has definitely soured me towards this new series, despite feeling there are things in that TASM which are stronger than the Raimi films.

Now, almost two years later, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (henceforth known TASM 2)- which sees Webb returning to the director's chair- is here and I have a similar reaction to the one I had in the days after seeing TASM for the first time- that of disappointment and depression. As with TASM there’s a potentially great film nestled deeply in TASM 2 but it suffers from the same problems of TASM. Namely, this series is more concerned with constructing a franchise and an expansive universe then just telling a solid story that can stand on its own terms. The main difference between the two films is TASM scenes cut out that would have made the film more cohesive a compelling, whereas TASM 2 has too much stuff to juggle, resulting in a unfocused film that never decides what story it wants to tell.

One of the main criticisms I and others had about TASM was its lack of exploration concerning the disappearance of Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) parents and his father’s connection to the spider that gave Peter his extraordinary powers. In that this plot line was dropped mid way through and didn’t have a strong enough through line in the film. Many said it would be picked up in the sequel but that mentality towards the film was a huge problem. People were too willing to forgive the film's dependence on getting a sequel in order to tell its story. Again, franchise building took precedence over clean story-telling, both for the filmmakers and certain audience members.

Thankfully, the story about Peter’s parents does get some resolution in this film. The film opens with Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) recording a video message explaining his disappearance. We get a shortened reprise of TASM’s opening scene, with Richard and Mary Parker (Embeth Davidtz) leaving the young Peter in the care of his aunt and uncle, May and Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen). We cut to Richard and Mary on board a private jet with Richard uploading files from his laptop. An assassin is on board attempt to kill them. Mary is shot but Richard is eventually able to blow out the windows of the plane, sending the assassin to his demise- but also sealing Richard and Mary’s fates. It’s a solid sequence with a touching ending. Nevertheless, I feel Webb wanted to craft a James Bond/Christopher Nolan style prologue but I don’t feel it reaches those heights.

After this sequence we essentially get another prologue with Spider-Man stopping the a Russian gangster (Paul Giamatti) from stealing Oscorp’s plutonium shipment. This sequence feels the most Spider-Man-y of any in a Spider-Man film thus far. The jokey Spider-Man stuff works better here than in TASM and Garfield feels pretty much like Spider-Man, even if I still can’t fully embrace the performance. On a side note: this is the best looking live action Spider-Man suit we've gotten so far. Peter makes his high school graduation just in time but his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) becomes strained. Peter is having visions of Gwen’s deceased father Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), who was killed by the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) at the end of TASM and made Peter promise to leave Gwen alone, lest Peter’s crime fighting life put her in danger.  

The ending of TASM was very controversial since Peter, after keeping away from Gwen, decides to continue his relationship with Gwen. Many took the ending as Peter being too flippant about keeping a promise to a dying man. I wasn’t too up in arms about the broken promise but I did feel Peter's decision negated much of his character arc and made unclear what transformation he was supposed go through. I admire that this film confronts that criticism pretty head on by showing us Peter’s conflicting emotions over desiring to be with Gwen but wanting to protect her. They essentially break up but they still try to be together in some capacity.   

During the plutonium heist Spider-Man save Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an Oscorp employee who becomes obsessed with Spider-Man. In typical superhero movie fashion Max, after attempting some maintenance work, falls in to a batch of electric eels, turning him in to Electro, who's essentially able to control electricity. Around the same time Peter’s childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns after many years absent. He takes over Oscorp after the death of his father Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper). We learn that Harry has the same disease which killed Norman. If you remember, Norman dying was established in TASM. In an odd twist of fate, Spider-Man’s blood may be the only thing that can save Harry.

Explaining the plot of this movie is pretty exhausting.  And as I mentioned earlier, there’s too much going on. I'm of two minds considering Electro's place in the film. Visually he looks great and the fight sequences between him and Spider-Man are miraculous. At the same time the film feels like it needed to focus on Harry's story and his eventual transformation in to the Green Goblin and having Electro gets in the way of this story. Electro’s subplot doesn’t have a strong enough thematic connection to Harry's story. It could be argued that the connection between the two is they both feel betrayed by Spider-Man. Spider-Man doesn’t want to give Harry his blood- afraid that it could harm him rather than heal him. And after confronting Spider-Man in Times Square Electro believes Spider-Man never cared about him. His delusion about them being friends is essentially shattered.

But the film doesn’t have enough of a thematic focus for the parallel between Harry and Electro to be sufficiently developed. Despite being built up as the lead villain, It feels like Electro is more of a plot device than a fully formed character, essentially here just so he's established for the eventual Sinister Six team up. I’m not certain anyone was truly committed to exploring his character or crafting a story around him. I wish Electro's shift from loving to hating Spider-Man was explored in more depth as well. I get that the character is delusional but his change of heart happen too quick.

If the film did focus on just Harry, the film could've paralleled Peter and Harry-both are orphans, both abandoned by their fathers. There's also the whole sins of the father theme that exists between them. Norman wanted to use RIchard's research for militarized weapons and Richard, who says in his video message that "People will call me a monster for what I've done," attempts to redeem himself before his death.   

As with the first film, Garfield and Stone have a strong onscreen rapport which adds weight to conceptually tedious material. There’s an improvisational quality to some of their scenes that makes one wonder if everything they say is scripted or if Webb allowed them to riff together. I can’t say I enjoyed watching their scenes- probably because Garfield and Stone’s deep connection on and off-screen makes me depressed about myself. But that's neither here nor there.  

Foxx is a good actor but his performance gets lost under a lot of CGI, though I really liked the scene where he takes on the name Electro. DeHaan is quite good as Harry. He has a slightly unhinged quality that emphasizes his troubled past and eventual evil transformation. The scene between him and Cooper, shot in a darkened room with Norman on his deathbed, is a great example of one scene being able to tell us a lot about the relationship between two people. It is surprising that we’re told Norman Osborn has died but it’s strange to think Norman is gone for good. He’s too important a part of the Spider-Man and Marvel mythos to be relegated to a cameo. At the same time, considering the route this film goes down with Harry suggests that maybe Norman may not come back. I’m still convinced that Norman is coming back, especially since there was a deleted post-credits scene with Norman's head in a jar, Futurama style.   

I’m not a purist but there are certain twists to the mythology that I’m not sure I like. For one, I feel Uncle Ben’s influence on Peter’s life has been somewhat marginalized. Ben had more of a presence in TASM than in Raimi’s original film but the film implied it was Stacy’s lecture about vigilantism that spurred Peter to use his powers to help others- whereas in the traditional origin story it’s Peter’s guilt over not stopping the man who would eventually kill Ben which makes him realize that “with great power must come great responsibility.”  And in TASM 2 its Stacy’s ghost that Peter sees throughout the film but Ben’s presence is hardly felt.

I’m also not fully onboard with Richard having a connection to his son’s eventual transformation in to Spider-Man. I understand the desire to deepen a superhero character’s origin story. But most of the time with these characters, the appeal of their origin stories are their simplicity. Peter Parker was a just an ordinary kid (aside from being a genius), an outcast who was bitten by a radioactive spider and inherited super powers. He made a mistake that got his uncle killed and now uses his powers to fight evil. That’s pretty much it.

What TASM suggested and the filmmakers confirm here is Peter was essentially the only one who could become Spider-Man, and that undermines Peter’s relatability as a character. Moreover, Peter is supposed to be a character with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a guy who has a lot of bad luck and who has difficultly balancing being a superhero and living an ordinary life-because essentially he can’t. This was the central dilemma of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and crafting a film around Spider-Man's existential crisis is why I feel it’s still the best Spider-Man film. And I know I’m not the only one who’s disappointed that J. Jonah Jameson is never seen in this film.

I don’t want to say that the filmmakers don’t understand Spider-Man at all since I’m not an expert either. And there are many moments that are very much Spider-Man. The ending, which I’ll get to later, also says something incredibly meaningful about superheroes and this character in particular.

Now, I want to get to the big part of this film, which may not be a complete surprise, especially to comic book readers. So, spoiler warning........


The death of Gwen Stacy is something many fans have wanted to see on screen. And ever since Gwen Stacy was known to be in this new franchise there was constant discussion about when and if she would die in the series. For a while it appeared she wouldn’t die in TASM 2 since Electro and Rhino were the only confirmed villains- that is, until Green Goblin was revealed to be in the film. The sequence in which she dies is not exactly like the comic story but it's still incredibly powerful. Garfield’s reaction to Gwen’s lifeless body is beautiful and has the potential to break the most hardened heart.

However, her death does seem redundant after the deaths in TASM, which occurred so Peter could learn about responsibility and the tragedy that's part of life he’s been thrust in to. I also feel, as I mentioned earlier, Harry’s transformation in to the Green Goblin needed more breathing room. For being involved in such a significant moment as Gwen’s death, Green Goblin is essentially a cameo. There’s also the whole issue of Gwen feeling like she was just in this franchise to die. I do like the cemetery montage, which shows us, without words, Peter’s grief over Gwen’s death and his numbness to anything else. It’s a haunting piece of filmmaking by Webb that shows how talented he can be.   

Coming back to the final scene, where Spider-Man returns after a significant absence to battle the Rhino,  now in a mechanized suit created by Oscorp.  What I like about this ending is shows that despite all the tragedy in his life Peter will still push forward and reminds us that “with great power...” The sequence states what’s beautiful about these heroes: they use the tragedy in their lives to do good for others.

Spoilers for ending over

I wrote an article some time ago concerning my mixed feelings about Marc Webb and this franchise: I still stand my feelings but I’m not mad at Marc Webb. He does have talent. I’m more upset with Sony and how they didn’t allow this film to breathe and be a story. TASM 2 isn’t a soulless film. It has some incredibly soulful and beautiful human moments, Webb crafts some magnificent visual effects sequence and its climax is pretty much perfect. It’s just that Sony has suffocated this franchise with world building and wanting to catch up with Marvel Studios.  Ultimately, TASM 2 is too problematic in regards to its story and character development to be a completely satisfying.