Movie Reviews - 2000s postsFriday March 14, 2014
Movie Review: 300 (2007)
I’m sorry, but what kind of asshole likes a movie like “300”? What kind of asshole creates a movie like “300”? How weak do you have to feel inside to want to imagine a world like this? Or be in it.
Comic-book writer/illustrator Frank Miller creates worlds so cruel, so full of the awful dog-eat-dog laws of nature, that his protagonists are allowed to be both cruel and seething with moral righteousness. Which we, sitting in the dark, get to experience, too.
There’s an early scene in which a 7-year-old boy slams another 7-year-old boy to the ground. He pins his shoulders down with his knees while he wails at the other kid’s face with punches. The boy on the ground is helpless but the boy on top keeps punching until with one final punch, delivered in thrilling, cinematic slow-mo, the blood—as Monty Python said of Sam Peckinpah’s scenes—goes pssssss.
The boy on top is our hero. He will grow up to be King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler). And what he’s doing here, pounding the other boy into submission, is, by the story’s logic, necessary. He’s learning to be a man.
“Fascistic” is an overused word but I’d use it here. There is, at the least, a whiff of eugenics in the film. Defective babies in Sparta are discarded, dashed against the rocks, but one, a grotesque hunchback, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), survives, and grows, and tries to join Leonidas’ men, the 300, in their stand against the Persian army in 480 B.C. Unfortunately, Ephialtes can’t physically do what needs to be done to be a soldier. He would be a weak link among the 300. So he becomes a weak link outside the 300. He is tempted by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the giant, androgynous King of Persia, with moaning women and soldier’s armor; and Ephialtes betrays Leonidas and the 300, leading to their downfall. In this manner, the cruelty of the world shows us we should be cruel first. The betrayal of Ephialtes, the hunchback who should’ve been killed at birth, reveals the wisdom of Sparta’s eugenics policy.
“Hitler” is an overused comparison, but .... OK, not Hitler. Nothing compares.
Except what was Hitler but a failed artist who created an ideal the opposite of himself? A small, dark, weak man, he extolled the tall, blonde and strong: the ubermensch. And what is Frank Miller but a successful artist who has created an ideal the opposite of himself? A thin, frail, ugly man, he extolls the thick, powerful, and beautiful: the superman. Yes, I know: Most comic book creators are similar (the weak creating the strong), but with this difference: They tend to create worlds and situations in which mercy is a necessary quality. With great power comes great responsibility, etc. Frank Miller creates worlds and situations in which cruelty is a necessary quality. With great power comes the greater responsibility to crush the life out of people.
Some Spillane-ing to do
When we first see Leonidas as man and king, he’s roughhousing with his son and teaching him generic lessons about respect and honor, while his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones”), watches with a benevolent smile. Then a messenger arrives from Persia, the strongest city-state in the world, asking for a token gesture that Sparta will submit to the will of Xerxes. Gathering all the wisdom and diplomacy he’s learned through all of his years of soldier training, Leonidas shouts “This! Is! Sparta!” before kicking the messenger (a Negro) and his men (wearing kufiyas) into a giant pit. Thus war is declared.
Except, whoops, Leonidas doesn’t have the authority to declare war. Democracy and all. He needs to ask the Ephors, leprosy-ridden, lust-ridden priests who live high atop a wind-swept mountain, to recommend to the Spartan council, vacillating old men, that war be declared. But the Ephors have been bought by Persian coin, as has Theron (Dominic West of “The Wire”), who runs the Spartan council. So what’s a soldier to do? Leonidas listens to his wife, who says, “Ask yourself, ‘What should a free man do?’” Then they have slow-motion sex. Then he gathers his 300 men for an epic battle at the Hot Gates.
Who’s memorable among the 300 besides Leonidas? There’s the Captain (Vincent Regan), who brings along his full-grown son, Astinos (Tom Wisdom), who is given shit by Stelios (Michael Fassbender). That’s about it. Oh, and Dilios (David Wenham). He’s our narrator. He will be the one-eyed survivor who tells the tale, sings the song, of the 300. And what distinguishes the only distinguishable characters from one other? Not much.
Has there been worse dialogue in a movie? At one point, the Queen gives us this Bush-era bumper-sticker slogan:
Freedom isn’t free at all. It comes with the highest of costs. The cost of blood.
After Astinos is beheaded in battle, we get this exchange:
Captain: Heart? I have filled my heart with hate!
Leonidas (nodding sagely): Good.
Meanwhile, Dilios goes for the noirish sentence fragments that Frank Miller loves:
There’s no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans. Only the hard. Only the strong.
Even Mickey Spillane rolls his eyes.
So the Persians need to enter Sparta through a small strip of land, the Hot Gates, where their numbers are meaningless. That’s where Leonidas makes his stand. And he does, and they do, and the dead pile up. We get a lot of slow-mo battles, a lot of slow-mo blood splurging, a lot of hoo-ahs. The Persians send slaves, then their warrior class, then rhinos, elephants, and misshapen creatures. Nothing works. Until Ephialtes shows Xerxes the hidden path, and the 300 are traduced and outflanked. But their name lives on. Or at least their CGI-created abs.
The many against the few
Living on is a big part of it. Even as they battle, they fight over the meaning of the battle. They fight over the spin:
Xerxes: The world will never know you.
Leonidas: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant. That few stood against many. And before this battle was over, even a god-king can bleed.
Which he totally does.
So that’s the meaning of the 300: the few standing against the many. But what’s the meaning of “300”?
It’s the many (moronic moviegoers) standing against the few (anyone with a brain). Thing made a mint: $210 million in the U.S., $456 million worldwide. It remade the month of March as potential blockbuster territory. And it’s still popular! Its current IMDb rating is 7.8. Compare this with “West Side Story” at 7.7, “The Hurt Locker” at 7.6, “An American in Paris” at 7.3.
It helped make a B-picture star out of Butler, and launched Zack Snyder’s directorial career. Without it, would we have gotten two of the worst movies ever made—Miller’s “The Spirit” and Snyder’s “Sucker Punch”?
It’s huge in the gay community, too. Do the chest thumpers know that? It’s basically gay porn. It’s beautiful, nearly naked men in high-camp situations.
But its larger meaning is the stuff at the beginning of this review. It’s the fascistic tendencies, the love of blood and cruelty, the easy soldierly morality. “300” took the usual action-movie wish-fulfillment fantasies and turned them up to 11, as in 9/11, as buff British actors played the brave western heroes and haughty minority actors played the bribing, thieving, butchering Ay-rabs. Sure, the 300 lost. But their sacrifice spurred the reluctant majority to final victory. In this regard, it’s like “The Alamo,” but with John Wayne and Richard Widmark clad in undies and capes and shouting “Hoo-ah!” in the rain. It’s a great cultural artifact of a warped society: ours.
Movie Review: No End in Sight (2007)
Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight” is the doc Fox News doesn’t want you to watch. It’s the era Fox News doesn’t want you to remember. It’s a time of massive, chest-thumping hubris, swagger, and general loutishness, and it’s all reflected here. I’ve watched it three or four times now. I’d make every American watch it if I could. This is our story. We made it happen.
Ferguson begins his doc near the end and ends it near the beginning, and both scenes, both quotes, are devastating.
The first is from Nov. 8, 2006, the day after the 2006 midterm elections, when Donald Rumsfeld finally stepped down as U.S. Secretary of Defense. His joie de vivre gone but his hubris undiminished, Rumsfeld said the following:
The great respect that I have for your leadership, Mr. President, in this little-understood, unfamiliar war, the first war of the 21st century. It is not well-known, it was not well-understood; it is complex for people to comprehend. And I know with certainty that, over time, the contributions you've made will be recorded by history.
Rumsfeld was right. The war was complex and little-understood; but it was little understood by him, and by Bush and Cheney and Wolfowitz and Bremer. They simplified it. They Hollywoodized it. They thought they were in one movie (John Wayne, WWII) when they were in another (“The Battle of Algiers”).
He was also right in this way: the contributions he and Bush and the others made have been recorded by history.
What’s always surprising about “No End” is how little it deals with the lead-up to the war: the bogus reasons we attacked in the first place: WMD, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” the conflation of al Qaeda and Iraq. This is awful stuff, criminal stuff, but Ferguson gives it maybe two minutes of screentime. Because worse stuff came later.
First, we didn’t have a plan for post-war Iraq. Not really. We didn’t prep for it. We didn’t study.
But at least the State Department crammed and came up with recommendations: “The Future of Iraq Project.” Unfortunately, under NSPD-24, control for post-war Iraq was given to the Defense Dept., and Donald Rumsfeld, who promptly ignored State’s hard work.
Rumsfeld also ignored the recommendations of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who, before the U.S. Armed Services Committee, suggested we would need several hundred thousand soldiers to keep the peace in occupied Iran, rather than the 100K or so Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz recommended as part of their newer, sleeker military. Criticized by Bush loyalists, Shinseki was immediately proven right.
The war proper began on March 20, 2003, and was effectively over by early April when Baghdad fell. But then the looting began.
Rumsfeld joked about it. “Stuff happens.” “Henny Penny, the sky is falling.” The “vases” thing. But it was real and it was—this word again—devastating. Iraq’s national museum wasn’t protected. Its national library and national archives were burned to the ground. Imagine if a country invaded the U.S. to save us from our own dictator and then stood around while our national archives and museums were looted? There goes the Spirit of St. Louis. There goes the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Americans might get pissed off. They might begin to wonder about their liberators.
“We’re Marines,” says Lt. Seth Moulton, one of the doc’s many effective talking heads. “We can certainly stop looting if that’s our assigned task.” But it wasn’t. It was the opposite of their assigned task.
Then came general lawlessness: kidnappings, rape, murder.
But at least we had a good team going in: ORHA, the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, led by former Gen. Jay Garner, and including Col. Paul Hughes and Ambassador Barbara Bodine. Sure, when they arrived, the buildings had been stripped bare. “We had no phone lists,” Bodine says here, adding, “But we had no phones for a while, so ...” But at least they were smart and dedictated and knew something about the country they were in.
Except ORHA was then replaced by the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and Garner was replaced by L. Paul Bremer, who, like most everyone else suddenly in charge, had never been to Iraq, had no postwar reconstruction experience, and had never served in the military. Of course he spoke no Arabic.
As head of the CPA he made various disastrous decisions, such as granting foreign contractors immunity from Iraqi law (consider that for a moment), but Ferguson doesn’t even get to this stuff. That happened later. The more disastrous moves occurred within a month of his appointment. Before he even set foot in Iraq, he issued the following orders:
- He stopped the formation of an interim Iraqi government
- He created a policy of De-Ba’athification
- He disbanded the Iraqi military
The first edict meant the country remained occupied while its own people had no voice. So it was somewhat humiliating.
The second meant permament unemployment for 50,000 people—the very people who knew how to make bureaucracy and government work. So it made everything more inefficient at a time of great inefficiency. It also humiliated the people involved.
The third edict, disbanding the military, was, according to Ferguson’s doc, the worst of these decisions. In a time of anarchy and general lawlessness, the Iraqi military was one of the few organizations that could uphold the law and stem the chaos. Instead, we scattered them. We put 300,000 soldiers out of work. It humiliated the people involved.
And they had guns.
It’s horrific to watch. We get one bad decision after another. Our postwar Iraq experience is almost a test case in what not to do. It should be studied in this manner.
Maybe there was some rationale for these decisions, but the main architects of the war, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bremer, et al., refused to be interviewed for this doc. Only Walter Slocombe, Bremer’s right-hand man, officially the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, bothered to show up. I’m sure he regrets it. He comes off horribly. Initially he’s smirking. Then he’s defending his awful, awful decisions. His eyes get shifty. By the end, he seems a hollow man.
So do I, to be honest. You know how devastated Father Vogler looks at the end of “Amadeus” after hearing Antonio Salieri’s long condemnation of God and man? That’s how I always feel at the end of “No End in Sight.” The doc is a testament to the dangers of hubris, of ignoring evidence, of having already made up your mind. Again, it should be required viewing. Because we may have moved on from Iraq, but a great portion of the country, a powerful portion, haven’t moved on from this mindset.
They were, in fact, bragging about this mindset even as people were dying. In 2004, an unnamed Bush aide, later identified as Karl Rove, told Ron Suskind the following in The New York Times Magazine:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
“No End in Sight” is, I suppose, a judicious study of the actors of the Iraq War, and the new reality that the Bush adminstration tried to create there. It failed miserably, obviously, and that failure had consequences, massive consquences, for millions of lives, even as Rove and others have gone on to create “their own reality” elsewhere. Even as Rove’s 2004 taunt has become the central precept of the GOP and Fox News.
Ferguson ends “No End in Sight” with Pres. Bush’s words in his 2003 State of the Union address, in which he said the following about the impending war:
We will bring to the Iraqi people ... food ... and medicines ... and supplies ... and freedom.
Our representatives applaud.
Movie Review: Michael Clayton (2007)
What’s nice about the title is that it makes us ask the question almost everyone in the movie asks: Who is Michael Clayton?
- Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton): Who’s this guy they’re sending here? Clayton? I never heard of him. ... Who is this guy?
- Michael (George Clooney): I’m not the enemy. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson): Then who are you?
- Don Jeffries (Ken Howard): What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael’s brother, Gene (Sean Cullen), a cop, has a spin on this question that echoes Arthur’s spin:
You got all these cops thinking you’re a lawyer. And you got all these lawyers thinking you’re some kinda cop. You got everybody fooled, don’t you? Everybody but you. You know exactly what you are.
He does. He says it early in the movie but near the end chronologically:
I’m a janitor. ... The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.
“Michael Clayton” is about a big mess.
Good at work, bad at life
First, let me say what a pleasure it is to watch a movie as smart as this one. I had to work to keep up. I missed some of the shorthand.
Me: Wait, what’s he saying?
Patricia: That it’s a bribe; that he’s taking the money to keep quiet about Arthur and U North.
Most of the characters use shorthand: Michael, Arthur, certainly Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the head of the prestigious New York law firm, Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen. (“This is news? ... Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?”) It’s not a Michael Mann style shorthand, which tends toward the working class and criminal class. It’s a white-collar shorthand. It’s for movers and shakers who can’t be bothered with extra words or with people who don’t know how the world works. It’s for a different kind of criminal class.
Unraveled, the story is pretty simple. Michael, the fixer for his firm, attempts to clean up a mess caused by Arthur Edens, the firm’s star litigator, who, in the midst of a 12-year, $3 billion class-action lawsuit—in which he and the firm have represented U North, an agrochemical firm—goes bonkers. He goes off his meds (literally) and strips down (literally) in the middle of a deposition while declaring his love for one of the plaintiffs, Anna (Merritt Wever). He becomes professionally muddled as he develops moral clarity.
That’s what Michael is trying to fix. Oddly, we don’t hear from the plaintiff’s attorneys. The folks at Kenner, Bach are mostly worried about their client, U North, run by CEO Don Jeffries and GC Karen Crowder. They’re worried about professional liability. They’re also worried that the stink from this incident will warn off a big London firm with whom they’re trying to merge. (Sidenote: According to DVD commentary from writer-director Tony Gilroy, a few scenes were filmed at the New York offices of Dewey Ballantine, which, that year, merged with LeBoeuf, Lamb to become the megafirm Dewey & LeBoeuf, which, five years later, went bankrupt. They got too big during a global recession. All mergers aren’t necessarily good ones.)
That’s what Michael is working on professionally. He’s also got his hands full personally:
- He and his younger brother, Timmy (David Lansbury), an alcoholic, have lost their restaurant/bar, which is being auctioned off.
- His owes $75K to people who aren’t a bank, and they want it now.
- He’s divorced, with a kid, and he has a gambling problem.
Basically Michael is good at his job but bad at his life. He’s good at fixing other people’s problems but not his own. He enjoys gambling with everything but his career, where he’s risk-averse. Way back when, he took the easy route. He gave up litigation for fixing. He’s morally compromised, financially bankrupt, and 45. On the plus side, he looks like George Clooney.
Is it too much, by the way? An alcohol addiction and a gambling addiction? Bankruptcy and the mob? Mergers and murder? Not murder from the mob, either, but from the agrochemical company. The moneylenders are sweethearts in comparison.
Anna or the memo?
So why did Arthur begin to lose it? Two reasons. There’s Anna, whom he loves, or professes to love; and there’s a smoking gun, United Northfield Culcitate Internal Research Memorandum #229, in which an in-house scientist basically owns up to everything the plaintiffs are alleging. Their product kills.
Curious about a couple of things:
- How did Arthur get this memo?
- How did the plaintiff’s attorneys not find it after 12 years of discovery?
- What did Arthur do once he found it?
Because, I assume, if you’re the defense lawyer in this situation, you bring the memo to your client. You tell them, “Look at this.” You tell them, “We’d better settle, fast.” Did he do any of this? Or was he already losing it?
More: Which came first, Anna or the memo? Anna obviously represents something clean to Arthur, just as the memo represents the dirty, dirty aspects of his job. That’s why he’s reaching out to her. He’s desperate to be clean again. I assume his need for Anna is a consequence of the awfulness of the memo but I could be wrong. Maybe he was infatuated with her first. You never know.
A bit of applause, by the way, for Tom Wilkinson. This movie was released in 2007, two years into my job as editor of a legal trade publication, and I remember thinking, “This guy is the senior litigator of a New York law firm? Please.” All of that vulnerability in his eyes? No.
Then you get the scene in the alleyway and this dialogue:
Michael, I have great affection for you and you live a rich and interesting life, but you’re a bag man, not an attorney. If your intention was to have me committed you should have kept me in Wisconsin, where the arrest report, the videotape, eyewitness reports of my inappropriate behavior, would have had jurisdictional relevance. I have no criminal record in the state of New York, and the single determining criterion for involuntary commitment is danger. “Is the defendant a danger to himself or to others?” You think you got the horses for that? Well, good luck and God bless, but I’ll tell you this: The last place you want to see me is in court.
For the last lines you see steel in his eyes. And I thought, “There’s my super lawyer.”
Anna is to Arthur as X is to Michael
Questions remain. Two anyway.
This is a movie about moving pieces in which our protagonist is mostly playing catch up. Arthur is on the move and Michael is trying to catch up to him. U North already has, in the guise of its own fixers, who aren’t as nice as ours. They murder Arthur and make it look like a suicide. Afterwards, Michael commiserates with Marty Bach at a high-end bar. He wonders if he’s partly responsible. Did he push Arthur too far? Bach goes bah, more or less. He assumes it was all an accident. He wants to say something else, something horrible, but can’t quite do it. So Michael does it for him. “We caught a lucky break,” he says.
Is that what drives Michael for the rest of the movie? That thought? Marty Bach is an interesting character, and Sidney Pollack, who may have missed his calling by becoming a director, plays the crap out of him, but he has a failing. He’s had the answers for so long he assumes he has the answers. He doesn’t. He’s distant from the Arthur situation and incurious. Michael, our protagonist, can’t let it go. Arthur’s death is too convenient for everybody. Maybe, as a fixer, he can spot a dirty fix when he sees one.
So is this why he calls Anna? It’s the phone call that sets the third act in motion but he doesn’t have much of a reason to make it, does he? He’s never met Anna, he doesn’t know what she thinks of Arthur, and he’s certainly got enough troubles of his own. It’s kind of a logical glitch in the plot. This, and stopping by the field at dawn to commune with the horses. You can make arguments why he does both things, but both are more necessary to the plot than to Michael. They’re convenient.
But let’s go with it. Let’s say he makes the phone call because he can’t let go of the nagging thing inside him and he stops in the field because it’s there, it’s beautiful, it’s dawn, and there are horses. The horses are themselves. They are pure in this way that humans are not. We take on roles. As Arthur had Anna, Michael has the horses.
These two actions, which kinda sorta make sense, are related. The first sets U North’s fixers on him. (They figure out he’s figuring out Arthur didn’t kill himself.) The second rescues him from U North’s fixers. (Although as careful as they are with Arthur, they’re just as sloppy with Michael.)
But I guess I do have another question. It has to do with the $80K.
1970s movie, happy ending
Michael figures out Arthur was killed, he figures out why—all those copies of Memorandum #229—but at the office he gets the $80K from Kenner, Bach, “a bonus” it’s called, while objecting to the notion, floated by Marty Bach’s right-hand man, Barry (Michael O’Keefe), that it’s shakedown money. Yet he certainly acts as if it is, doesn’t he? He’s investigating Arthur’s death, gets the answer, then he gets the check and lets Arthur go.
He admits as much at the end, setting up Karen Crowder:
I’m not the guy you kill, I’m the guy you buy. Are you so fucking blind that you don’t even see what I am? I sold out Arthur for 80 grand. I’m your easiest problem and you’re gonna kill me?
He seems to believe this. But does he believe that Mary Bach believes this? That Marty Bach knew U North killed Arthur, Michael figured it out, so the money is keeping Michael quiet? That interpretation seems off. Or am I being naïve?
Either way, great ending. Happy ending. “Michael Clayton” strives to be a ’70s movie but it still gives us a happy ending. In the beginning Michael was morally compromised and financially bankrupt. By the end he’s financially solvent and morally assuaged. Nice trick. Plus he still looks like George Clooney. Once more around the block, cabbie, with feeling.
Movie Review: Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
“Riddick,” starring Vin Diesel, the third in the “Riddick” series, and the first since “Chronicles of Riddick” in 2004, opens tomorrow. Here's a look back at my 2004 Seattle Times review of “Chronicles.” At the time, Vin Diesel seemed to be the new Rock, or Hunk, or Lump; but the movie grossed only $57 million and Diesel went on to other things, including, sadly, serious drama. In 2009, mostly forgotten, he returned to the “Fast and Furious” franchise, which is all he's done since. Until this most unnecessary of sequels.
Don’t think you have to see “Pitch Black” in order to understand its sequel, the sci-fi/action film “The Chronicles of Riddick.” I saw “Pitch Black” two weeks ago and I still didn’t get “Riddick.” The terms come at you—excuse me, Vin—fast and furious. Necromongers. Furyans. The Purifier. The Underverse. Crematoria. Of course these terms could’ve originated in one of Riddick’s other showcases: a 2000 TV production; a 30-minute animated feature being released this month; or the “Riddick” video game. It’s a whole other universe out there. Let’s not go.
Is it Gene Roddenberry’s universe? “Pitch Black” borrowed heavily from “Alien,” and now “Riddick” is boldly going where Capt. Picard has gone before. Basically Riddick is fighting a race similar to the Borg of “Star Trek The Next Generation": aliens that destroy planets and assimilate survivors. The Borg were more mechanized, though, so scarier. The Necromongers (awful name) have a quasi-religious bent. “Convert now or fall forever,” they say. Not exactly “Resistance is futile.” Necromonger iconography is dark Egyptian, although some wear chain-mail like medieval knights, while others borrow the long leather coats of Nazi S.S. officers. Apparently planets are being assimilated into a very large wardrobe department.
It’s five years after “Pitch Black” and Riddick (Vin Diesel), who just wants to be left alone, is being pursued by mercenaries, or mercs, and suspects his old pal, Imam (Keith David), of fronting the money. He confronts him (with a blade) and learns that Imam’s planet is about to be taken over by Necromongers. Will he help? “Not my fight,” he responds. Then it becomes his fight. In the ensuing onslaught he’s captured and the Necromongers are curious about him, particularly the Lord Marshall (Colm Feore). Riddick’s a Furyan, see, and it’s been prophesied that a Furyan will overthrow the empire.
Before the audience can blink, though, or distinguish among the various Necromongers, Riddick escapes and is then recaptured by the mercs, who take him to Crematoria, a subterranean prison planet. There he becomes reacquainted with “Jack,” who, in “Pitch Black,” was a 12 year-old tomboy. In the intervening years she’s blossomed into a tall, ass-kicking French model (Alexa Davalos). We should all have such puberties.
“Riddick” wants to be epic but feels stunted, as if hemmed in by an adolescent boy’s imagination. It introduces too many characters, including Thandie Newton as an over-the-top, Lady Macbeth schemer, and Dame Judi Dench, of all Dames, as an ambassador from a ghost-like race. The villains, meanwhile, have a huge, absurd Achilles heel. Resistance is recommended.
Movie Review: Spider-Man (2002)
WARNING: RADIOACTIVE SPOILERS
Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” which, in 2002, became the first film to break the $100-million opening-weekend barrier, and thus ushered in the frantic age of superhero moviemaking we’re all stuck in, owes a lot to a movie that set an earlier opening-weekend record ($40 million) back in June 1989: Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
Just as Burton filmed a scene in which the hero is viewed as a figure of horror (the opening rooftop scene), so does Raimi (the warehouse/burglar scene). In “Batman,” a city-wide celebration with parade balloons and the popular R&B singer of the day (Prince), is ruined by an attack from the hero’s grinning, insane arch-nemesis (the Joker); same with “Spider-Man” (Macy Gray; the Green Goblin). Raimi uses the same composer, Danny Elfman, who scores the movie in a similarly ominous manner. “What are you?” the petty crook asks in the beginning of “Batman.” “I’m Batman,” Batman replies. “Who am I?” Peter Parker asks us at the end of “Spider-Man.” “I’m Spider-Man,” he answers.
Both superheroes also fit our dictionary definition of a superhero: They: 1) have a secret identity, 2) prowl the night in search of crime, in order to 3) cleanse themselves of a past tragedy.
The similarities end there. Spider-Man fights out of guilt, Batman out of revenge. Spider-Man is colorful and glib, Batman dark, silent and brooding. Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider, Batman … um … knows martial arts and stuff. Peter Parker is poor and struggling to survive; Bruce Wayne is rich and struggling to remember where things are in his house.
I’ll take both Spider-Man and “Spider-Man.” But I’ve always been a Marvel guy.
Improving the origin
This is a fairly faithful adaptation of the comic book. It’s bright, colorful, quick. It has a Stan Lee ethos as opposed to a Frank Miller ethos. It doesn’t lose its sense of humor.
Tobey Maguire is your Steve Ditko-era Peter Parker, though a little sweeter, a little less mopey, and with the ability to shoot webs out of his wrists rather than out of web shooters attached to his wrists. He webslings through the high-rises of Manhattan and trash-talks the crooks and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) calls Peter “Tiger” even though it’s 2002 and not 1966. In MJ’s fall from the Queensboro Bridge we get echoes of Gwen Stacey’s fall in Spider-Man #121, and in the Green Goblin’s death by glider we get echoes of Gobby’s death by glider in Spider-Man #122. Spidey calls him Gobby. Our hero is happy as Spider-Man and unhappy as Peter Parker, and he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and that’s pretty much how it works.
Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp even improve upon the origin. In Amazing Fantasy #15, when the petty thief (forever known as “The Burglar”) runs past Spider-Man, we recognize that Spider-Man’s refusal to help is the act of a selfish jerk. “From now on I just look out for number one—that means—me,” he tells the cop, then swaggers away. Peter’s not us here; he’s other. In the movie, the petty thief rips off the wrestling promoter who has just ripped off Peter Parker. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” the promoter tells Peter when Peter complains. This allows Peter, 30 seconds later, to throw the words back at him. “You coulda stopped that guy easy,” the promoter complains. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” Peter tells him.
Here’s how brilliant that is. When I saw “Spider-Man” in a crowded movie theater in 2002, moviegoers, who obviously didn’t know where the story was going, who didn’t know this was going to be the saddest moment of Peter Parker’s life, actually laughed. They’d been trained to expect put-down quips from their action heroes, and this was a better quip than most. Haw! Told him! The laughter was indicative. We identify with Peter here. He’s not other; he’s us. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a lesson our popular culture doesn’t deliver much.
All of that said ...
Testing around the fix
OK, here’s the difficulty in improving upon stories, and allow me a quick metaphor. For a number of years I was a software test engineer at Microsoft’s Xbox Studio, and whenever we, in Test, filed a bug, and the developers fixed it, we had to test around the fix. Because whenever anything is fixed in computer coding, something else can easily get broken. I would argue that this is true in storytelling, too. It’s certainly true in telling Spider-Man’s origin. Koepp and Raimi fixed one problem, the problem of “otherness,” but in the process what gets broken? The street smarts of everyone around Peter Parker.
This guy is ripping off a wrestling promoter and his escape route relies upon … an elevator? Really? And what to make of the promoter? He has a fan-favorite wrestler, Bonesaw (Randy Savage), and this little pipsqueak with the arachnid fixation defeats him. Pipsqueak not only stays in the ring with Bonesaw, he beats him. He knocks him out. What a godsend! If you’re a wrestling promoter, this is the guy you’ve been waiting for all your life. And what does our guy do? Find out who he is? Sign him to a contract? No. He cheats him. He relies upon a technicality to save himself $2900. He makes an enemy out of the kid who could be his goldmine.
And, hey, just how long is Bonesaw in that ring anyway? There’s a line of guys waiting to fight him. That doesn’t seem fair. And if the point is to stay in the ring with Bonesaw (to earn the $3,000), and it’s thus in the promoter’s interest to have Bonesaw throw combatants out of the ring (so they don’t pay the $3,000), what’s the point of a cage match? You can’t throw anyone out of the ring in a cage match. And when Peter shows up, and is introduced as “the terrifying ... the deadly ... the amazing Spider Man!” why do boos rain down on him? He’s this scrawny thing in a silly mask. Shouldn’t everyone laugh? Wouldn’t that have made for a better scene? He shows up, they laugh, and he beats Bonesaw quickly in a non-cage match. Wouldn’t that have been a better way to handle it?
And when Spider-Man later appears as a crime fighter, doesn’t the promoter, who saw Peter’s face, connect the dots? Doesn’t he track him down? And do the kids at Midvale do the same? Hey, remember how Parker beat Flash that one day? Doing flips and shit? Then punching Flash like right across the hallway? Like with one punch? And, hey, didn’t that happen right after we went to the science museum and saw all those freaky spiders? And ... right! ... wasn’t one of them like totally missing? Like tour-chick said there were 15 and MJ goes, dude, 14, and tour-chick goes like whatever? I bet something freaky happened with that spider and Parker is totally Spider-Man!
All in all, there’s entirely too much shrugging going on in the movie. “Here are 15 genetically designed superspiders.” Nope, 14. “Huh. I guess the researchers are working on that one.” Then Peter wakes up with perfect eyesight and simply goes: “Weird.” He wakes up totally buff and just flexes in the mirror. Then checks out his package? Where’d that come from? Who thought that was a good idea? And when this heretofor nerdy kid beats up the toughest bully in school with moves that Jackie Chan couldn’t make in his dreams, how do the other kids react? “Jesus, Parker, you are a freak.” Or go this route: Imagine you’re an 18-year old kid who gets bit by a spider and wakes up the next day superstrong and superagile And you look down at your hands and see black things, like tiny black razors, coming out of your skin; and you flex your wrists and out comes superstrong web filaments, meaning these things are being produced inside your body. At what point do you begin to freak out? At what point isn’t your reaction simply “Wahoooooo!”
For my final problem with “Spider-Man,” I have to return to Batman for a second.
“The Dark Knight,” for me, has the same problem that every other “Batman” movie has. It’s not about Batman. I think Heath Ledger is just phenomenal and the character of the Joker is beautifully written. He has a particular philosophy that he carries throughout the movie. He has one of the best bad guy schemes. Bad guy schemes are actually very hard to come up with. I love his movie, but I always feel like Batman gets short shrift. In “Batman Begins,” the pathological, unbalanced, needy, scary person in the movie is Batman. That’s what every “Batman” movie should be.
I add this not only because I’m not a huge fan of “The Dark Knight,” but because bad guy schemes are something most moviegoers don’t look at. The villain leads us all on a chase, and it’s fun, but most moviegoers don’t stop to ask: Wait, what was the point of the chase? Why is he doing this? What does the guy want?
What does Norman Osborne, a.ka., the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) want? He starts out just wanting to save his company, Oscorp, from losing a big military contract. General Slocum (Stanley Anderson), who apparently can speak for the entire Pentagon, acts as if creating a genetically superior man is like inventing a better brand of pistol and is ready to pull funding. He acts, to be honest, like a studio exec ready to mothball his predecessor’s projects. “I never supported your program,” he tells Norman. “We have my predecessor to thank for that.”
So Norman does what he does and becomes the Green Goblin. Then he kills Slocum and the competition. As a result, at the next board meeting, he announces, “Costs are down, revenues are up, and our stock has never been higher.” The board’s reaction? “We’re selling the company ... The board expects your resignation in 30 days.” Instead they get theirs at World Unity Day.
Now up to this point the Green Goblin’s schemes have been pretty straightforward. He even annunciates what they are to his more timid alter ego: “To say what you won’t. To do what you can’t. To remove those in your way.” So why go after Spider-Man? Sure, he encounters him at World Unity Day, and Spider-Man is trouble for him—rescuing that doofy kid from the balloon, as well as MJ from the balcony—but he hardly keeps him from his goal. Gobby still kills the members of the board who would sell Oscorp. Yet for the rest of the movie, the Goblin’s bad guy scheme involves Spider-Man. This is how he puts it:
There’s only one who can stop us. Or—imagine if he joined us.
So for the rest of the movie he offers a hand to Spider-Man; and when it’s rejected, he tries to kill him. He tries to kill those Peter loves. What remains unanswered in the above quote is this: Stop us from what? Join us TO what? The Goblin has no goal, no scheme, other than to recruit and/or kill Spider-Man. But that is supposedly a means to an end. We just don’t know what the end is.
Here’s a question: If the Pentagon had a more far-sighted general, or if Oscorp had a less greedy board of directors, would the Green Goblin have even been necessary?
Guilt > Revenge
There are other problems. Even when I was 12, the J.Jonah Jameson/Peter Parker dynamic never made much sense to me. Peter has something everyone wants (photos of Spider-Man), but he sells them for a pittance to J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who uses them to turn the city against Spider-Man. What the hell, dude? C’mon, Brainiac, act like a Brainiac.
And do we need some explanation for why our guy is quiet/polite as Peter and glib/bratty as Spider-Man? Or do we just make the assumption that the mask allows him to finally let out what he’s held back all these years?
But for all that, “Spider-Man” still works. For starters, it’s expertly cast by Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler. A few years ago, shilling for MSNBC, I wrote a top 5 list of the best superhero casting and put Maguire second, after Christopher Reeve and before Hugh Jackman. I mean, casting handsome leading men to play heroes is a no-brainer. But casting a nerd to play a nerd? That’s refreshing. Dafoe is a bit undone by the “Alien”-like Goblin mask but Franco makes a good, believable son for him. And Dunst? Cliff Robertson? Rosemarie Harris? J.K. Simmons? Perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect. Simmons provides levity and Robertson provides heart and pathos. He provides the lesson. Or The Lesson.
A year before that top 5 list, I did another list, the 10 great superhero scenes (circa 2007), and the death of Uncle Ben was no. 8 on my list. I wrote this:
Outside there’s a crowd and flashing lights. Then something pulls Peter toward the crowd and he sees what everyone is rubber-necking: Uncle Ben lying bleeding to death. In the comic book, Peter is simply told his Uncle Ben is dead. Here he gets to speak to him. At first this worried me. “Oh crap,” I thought, “He’s gonna blah blah blah and then die. It’s gonna stink.” But Cliff Robertson delivers. Peter’s voice seems to call him from a faraway place and he looks confused and scared to be where he is, then grateful, grateful to see the face of his nephew. He says his name once, twice, a gurgle in his voice. Then he slips away.
At that point, as the cops talk up the carjacker/Burglar, Peter’s eyes fill with rage and he’s this close to becoming Batman. But then he tracks the guy, captures him, holds him high; and in the spotlight he sees the dude’s doofy hair and stupid face, and his eyes fill with something besides revenge. He knows now. He knows he’s partly to blame. He was given this gift, this power, and it allowed him to act less than noble—less noble than his Uncle Ben would have wanted; and in the act of squandering this gift, his Uncle Ben died, and he’ll carry that knowledge and that guilt with him for the rest of his life.
This is why Spider-Man resonates more than Batman. Revenge is a loutish emotion, a wish-fulfillment fantasy emotion, which is why it’s so popular at the movies and in the comic books. Revenge suggests that there’s something wrong with the world but not with us, but Peter Parker, all of 17, knows better. Guilt is not only more complex, it’s more universal. Few of us walk around every day with revenge in our hearts; but all of us are guilty.