erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2000s posts

Monday September 10, 2012

Movie Review: Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (2004)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Daniel Anker’s “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” is essentially split into two parts: how Nazi Germany was presented on Hollywood screens before the war (barely), and how the Holocaust was depicted on Hollywood screens after the war (ditto). But the question that haunts the documentary is this: to what extent can the Holocaust be recreated or depicted at all? Yes, one must never forget. Yes, one must bear witness. poster for Daniel Anker’s “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” But how do you turn the great tragedy of the 20th century into entertainment?

The first example of how badly this can go was an episode of the television show, “This is Your Life,” from May 1953. The guest was the first Holocaust survivor to be interviewed on national television: Hanna Bloch Kohner. Why was she chosen? The documentary doesn’t say, but this article by Kohner’s daughter, Julie, makes it clear: Hanna’s husband was the agent for Ralph Edwards, the host of “This Is Your Life”; and once he heard Hanna’s story, and no doubt saw how pretty she was, the show found a way, as narrator Gene Hackman tells us, “to package the Holocaust for mass consumption.”

Here’s what Edwards says in his smooth, pleased-with-itself, radio announcer’s voice:

Looking at you, it’s hard to believe, that during seven short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror, and tragedy. You look like a young American girl out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.

Special guests/reunions include a fellow concentration camp inmate:

It was your friend and companion from four concentration camps. Now fate was kind to her, too, for she lives here in Hollywood: Eva Hertzberg, now Mrs. Warner Forsheim!

Worst of all? This conversation:

Edwards: You were each given a case of soap and a towel, weren’t you, Hanna?
Hanna [laughs slightly]: I don’t remember the soap.
Edwards: Well, you were sent to the so-called showers. [Hanna bows head.] Even this was a doubtful procedure because some showers had regular water, others had liquid gas. And you never knew which one you were being sent to. You and Eva were fortunate, others were not so fortunate, including your father and mother, and your husband, Carl Benjamin. They all lost their lives at Auschwitz.

It’s not just the words but the voice. He could be selling cars or hot dogs between innings of a baseball game. Instead he’s telling us of a tragedy so great, of cruelty so institutionalized and mechanized, that it obliterates the possibility of God. Tone is so at odds with subject matter as to seem the work of a madman.

Hanna Bloch Kohner on "This is Your Life!" in 1953

Hanna Bloch Kohner on "This is Your Life!" in 1953

“You were sent to the so-called showers...”

American moviegoers got their first sense of the Holocaust in May 1945, when the newsreels showed graphic footage of the concentration and extermination camps, including, as historian Michael Berenbaum says here, “the bulldozers of Bergen-Belsen shoveling the bodies into mass graves.” Such footage also appeared in Orson Welles’ “The Stranger,” from 1946, about a Nazi war criminal living in Connecticut, but Anker ignores the film. Instead we get the two 1947 films on anti-Semitism, “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” along with a clip of “The Search” (1948), starring Montgomery Clift as an American GI trying to unite two Auschwitz survivors. We get “Singing in the Dark” (1956), starring Moishe Oysher as a Holocaust survivor with amnesia, but not “The Juggler” (1953), starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor in Israel. “Exodus,” the big-budget, All-Star cast film from 1960, goes unmentioned, too.

Generally, in the first few decades after the war, Hollywood dealt with the Holocaust only when its hand was forced by other media. The popularity of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as both book and Broadway play, led to the scrubbed1950s movie version, starring model, and WASP, Millie Perkins. Television showed us “Judgment at Nuremberg” before Stanley Kramer directed his Oscar-nominated version.

Then came “Holocaust,” the nine-hour miniseries from 1978 that followed in the wake of “Roots,” and to which, we’re told, “One in every two Americans tuned in.” It went abroad, to West Germany, where it was shocking news to a younger generation, and where it led the German government to extend statute of limitations on Nazi war criminals. “In Germany they told a joke,” Berenbaum says, “about the docudrama ‘Holocaust.’ They said it had more impact than the original.”

Objections came. “TV and Theresienstadt are not compatible,” wrote Elie Wiesel in The New York Times. He called the project morally objectionable and indecent. Others complained about the soap-opera nature of the storyline, and to the fact that there were any commercials at all. “It’s not that it was bad,” says Rabbi Wolfe Kelman in a clip from an NBC Special Report, “Holocaust: a Postscript.” “It’s that it wasn’t good enough.”

But it led to the documentary “Kitty: Return to Auschwitz” (1979) and the feature film Sophie’s Choice” (1983) and to yet another mini-series, “Winds of War” (1988). And all the while, questions. Can you bear proper witness without being graphic? Can you be graphic without being exploitative? Steven Spielberg argues for “graphic” (during histrionic scenes of “Winds of War”) even as film critic Neal Gabler praises Spielberg for his restraint in “Schindler’s List.”

The debate in “Imaginary Witness,” unfortunately, isn’t at a high level. “Schindler’s List” is treated as the pinnacle in Holocaust depiction—the acclaimed, Oscar-winning film from Hollywood’s most popular director—but the doc never delves into its controversy. David Mamet, for one, in his essay, “The Jew for Export,” called it melodrama. He said it was destructive and its lesson a lie:

Members of the audience learn nothing save the emotional lesson of all melodrama, that they are better than the villain.

Gabler talks up “the casualness of the violence” in “Schindler’s List,” a rework of “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s phrase from the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1963. But, to me, “The Pianist” (2002), directed by Roman Polanski, a survivor, gets at this much better than Spielberg, a suburban kid from Arizona, ever did.

“The Pianist,” unfortunately, is a blip here, in part because it’s not a true Hollywood production, and the doc, per its title, focuses on Hollywood. I wanted to go beyond Hollywood. I wanted to see what other countries were doing. I wanted clips from “Ostatni etap,” a 1948 black-and-white Polish drama about a woman sent to Auschwitz, and “Nuit et brouillard” (1955), the powerful, half-hour documentary from Alain Resnais and poet Jean Cayrol, which was the only Holocaust documentary produced anywhere in the world during the 1950s. “Shoah” (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s 9 1/2 hour documentary-to-end-all-documentaries, goes unmentioned as well.

According to Wikipedia, 174 narrative films worldwide have been made about the Holocaust in some form—focusing on survivors, a search for Nazi war criminals, or recreating the camps themselves—and I could’ve done with a five-minute survey of some of these, and less talk from, say, Prof. Annette Insdorf, who always sounds excruciatingly helpful in explaining the most obvious thoughts.

“Imaginary Witness” is a good beginner’s guide to its subject. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s that it’s not good enough.

Newsreel footage of the Holocaust (NAZI ATROCITIES!) first showed in American theaters in May 1945

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Posted at 06:12 AM on Sep 10, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday August 20, 2012

Movie Review: Hancock (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s the stupidity, stupid.

“Hancock” has a great premise. What if a superhero isn’t a super guy? What if he’s a bit of a drunk and a jerk? What if he causes as much damage as he tries to prevent?

It’s got a great star in Will Smith. You can almost see him turning down, or off, his usual cinematic charm. His Hancock stumbles around in perpetual hangover. He can barely keep his eyes open. What for? What does the world have to offer? What does he have to offer the world? More trouble. Better to shut it out with sleep or drink.

But the movie still fails because everyone in it is stupid. I mean everyone.

Poster for "Hancock" (2008), starring Will SmithPresumably all of Los Angeles knows who Hancock is. He seems to be the only superhero in this universe. Yet everyone in the city acts as if they don’t know what this means. Gangbangers shoot him in the back of their car, prisoners surround him thinking 30-to-1 odds are in their favor, and civilians keep calling him an asshole even though they know this is his trigger word. That’s most of the movie, really: other characters acting surprised when the superhero turns out to be super.

Our main secondary character, Ray (Jason Bateman), is stupid. Sure, he decides to pay back Hancock, who saved his life with the stunt on the railroad tracks, by using his public-relations expertise, such as it is, to help Hancock’s image problem. And it works, more or less. He brings the two groups, Hancock and his public, closer together in mutual admiration. At the same time, he’s pitching an idea to corporations, that All-Heart thingy, that’s slightly insane. He’s offering corporations nothing for something: an unknown do-gooder symbol in exchange for profits. Somehow he gets into boardrooms to make this pitch. Given human nature, let alone corporate nature, there’s more Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasy in his pitch than in any superhero movie ever made.

Mary (Charlize Theron), Ray’s wife, is stupid. She doesn’t want Ray to find out that she too is super, and thousands of years old, and Hancock’s former wife/lover/whatever; so when Hancock, suffering amnesia but inevitably drawn to her, gets too close, she blasts him through the wall of their house. “If Ray finds out about me,” she tells him, “you’re dead.” Then she blames the subsequent gaping hole on Hancock’s sneeze. Subtle. Not to mention another white woman blaming a black man for something she did.

Hey, should we go there? Talk about the missing racial element? Talk about the stories we don’t tell when we whitewash our history?

For most of the movie, Hancock doesn’t know who he is. All he knows is he woke up in a hospital in Miami with tickets to see “Frankenstein,” starring Boris Karloff, in his pocket. He had a concussion. There was no one there to claim him. This is supposedly why he acts the way he does—drinking and all. “What kind of bastard must I have been,” he says at one point, “that nobody was there to claim me?” He’s a super man feeling super sorry for himself.

Then Mary reveals herself and tells him who he is; who they are. “Gods, angels,” she says. “Different cultures call us by different names. Now all of a sudden it’s a ‘superhero.’” Which explains nothing, of course. Do they come from this planet or another? If this one, how are they the way they are? Hancock doesn’t ask. Instead, lonely, he asks, “Are there more of us?” “There used to be, “ she says.

You see, each god/angel/superhero has a partner, and he and Mary were partners. They were inevitably drawn to each other through millennia. But the more time you spend with your partner, the more mortal you become. It’s their kryptonite: togetherness.

At one point, she details the scars on his body. That one came in like 32 B.C., the other when they were attacked in 1850, and finally the blow-to-the-head as they were on their way to see “Frankenstein” in 1932. There, in the hospital, she decided he was better off not knowing, and without her, which is why she abandoned him there. At the same time, it hardly explains her anger now. “I have put up with your bullshit for the last 3,000 years!” she says. What bullshit? Weren’t they in love? Did they fight? Was he a drunk even then? We never find out.

More to the point: Were the two most recent scars the result of racially motivated attacks? How could they not be? An interracial couple in America in 1850? Going on a date in 1932? In Florida? Did they not know where they were and surrounded by whom? But the movie doesn’t raise the issue of race. Racism isn’t escapism. Our racial history is the nightmare from which we are trying to awake ... by going back to sleep.

Even more to the point: The filmmakers missed it: the real story.

The real story isn’t a broken-down Hancock in 2008 “finding himself.” The real story is Hancock, a black man in the American South in the 1930s, waking up in a hospital and wandering off to who knows what. Let’s say his powers return. Let’s say he’s attacked by a group of white men who don’t want this nigger on their streets. Does he kill them? Does word get out, in whispers, in the black community and the white community? When does he begin to identify as black? When white people keep calling him that? When they try to lynch him and castrate him? When black people take him in and feed him? Does he try to stop the lynchings? Does he take on Jim Crow? The Ku Klux Klan? Hitler? Does he know about Emmett Till or the Montgomery bus boycotts or the Nashville sit-ins or the Freedom Rides? Hollywood in 2008 wants to believe you can make any character black, yellow, red or white, and you can, but not if you’re getting deep into American history. That changes everything.

Instead, they ignore the history. Instead, they give us more stupidity. Three prisoners who have already had decisive run-ins with Hancock decide they weren’t decisive enough. They think they can still beat him. “He took your power,” Red (Eddie Marsan) tells the other two, “and now you’ve got to get your power back.” Guess what? They do this just as Hancock is losing his power. Great timing. And it leads to our final, decisive battle, in a hospital, where Hancock, superpowerless, fights back with the help of Mary (ditto), and Ray. The sprinkler system comes on, and we get slow-mo, and operatic music that suggests an ultimate sacrifice is being made.

It isn’t. Hancock isn’t a character but a property, and the people in charge need him alive for potential sequels. So in the end it’s suggested he winds up in New York, a continent away from Mary, who stays with Ray in Los Angeles. Hancock becomes the true superhero we need, or want, or think we want. Again and again and again and again. As if we were running from something.

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Posted at 08:13 AM on Aug 20, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Wednesday August 15, 2012

Movie Review: The Spirit (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Pardon me, but is there a point to this? I’m getting old just listening to you.”

That’s the riposte, and one of the wittier ones, of The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) to his arch-nemesis, The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who, at this point, is in his underground lair dressed up like a Nazi and expounding on how death defines everything we are, and how he, and only he, has developed a serum that can cheat death. He’s already given this serum to beat cop Denny Cole, lying in the morgue, who becomes the Spirit. Now he’s given it to himself. He and the Spirit are “two of a kind,” as he likes to say throughout the movie, but soon there will only be him. Because he plans to chop up the Spirit, dispense his body parts globally so they cannot reform, and then drink the blood of Heracles, the greatest of the demi-gods, to become a god himself and rule the world. Mwa-ha-ha-ha!

It’s also what I thought throughout the movie: Pardon me, but is there a point to this?

poster for Frank Miller's "The Spirit" (2008)Writer-director Frank Miller employs the slick, comic booky/digital background technology he and Robert Rodriguez used in “Sin City,” along with a vibe that’s both cartoony and unfunny, in order to showcase ... nothing. No wit, no humanity, not even a good story. Just a dead, stupid hero who doesn’t know why he is, and who, in numerous voiceovers, offers Mickey Spillaneish valentines to a city, Central City, that, because of the digital background technology, we never really see:

My city, I can not deny her. My city screams. She is my mother. She is my lover, and I ... am her Spirit.

Your mother and your lover? Dude.

Does anyone else get claustrophobic in these digital-background movies? “Sin City,” “300,” this? The world isn’t the world. It’s reduced to this small, awful space where these small, awful things happen, which the filmmakers pump full of their hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual hyper-meaning. The men beat each other to pulps, the women, smart and sexy, watch and calculate, and everyone thinks themselves the center of the world. Because they are. Because the world has been reduced to this.

That’s the awfulness, isn’t it? Frank Miller doesn’t let us outside of his imagination and his imagination is small and dirty. It’s appropriate that our first set piece is the swampland outside Central City, because that’s what Miller’s imagination feels like to me. There, The Octopus clangs a toilet over The Spirit’s head and laughs, and when The Spirit doesn’t join in, when none of us join in, declares, in full Sam Jackson bore, “Come on! Toilets are always funny!”

Pardon me, but is there a point to this?

The Octopus has an egg phobia. He references it several times, and shoots one of his minions, the odd, bald creatures he and his partner, Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), have created, because he talks himself into a situation in which he winds up with egg on his face, and—full Sam Jackson bore again—“I don't like egg on my face!”

Because I’m getting old just watching you.

“The Spirit” is a movie made by, and for, people who suffer a kind of cultural analgesia; who feel nothing. All the characters are that way: The Spirit, The Octopus, Silken Floss, Sand Serif (Eva Mendes). Many beautiful women fall in love for one beautiful man, the Spirit, but no one else feels anything. When The Spirit falls off a skyscraper but is saved when his coat catches on a gargoyle four stories up, a crowd gathers. They point out that he looks ridiculous. Then they mock and insult him. Then they encourage him to jump. They shout: “Jump! Jump! Jump!” Is this what human beings are like in Frank Miller’s mind? That even passersby are assholes wishing death upon strangers? Maybe that’s why you fall in love with cities rather than people. You can anthropomorphize the city into anything you want.

Throughout the movie, Denny is pursued by Death, whom he sees, in his mind or soul, as a beautiful woman (Jamie King) who longs to enfold him in her arms, a la “All That Jazz.” The story—cop returned from the dead, more powerful than ever—has strong elements of “Robocop,” while the plot hinges upon the oldest ruse in the book: switched packages. “Hey, I didn’t want this blood of Heracles!” “Hey, I didn’t want Jason’s Argonaut armor!” In this way the movie is derivative but apparently not of its source material. I never read Will Eisner’s “The Spirit,” either the Golden-Age version or the Harvey Comics 1960s update, but apparently it had some soul and wit. It had spirit. Miller’s movie doesn’t. Early on, the Octopus decapitates a cop and throws his head at the Spirit. Is this supposed to be funny? Like the toilet? Like the Nazi outfits? Like Sand Serif photocopying her ass as she’s blackmailing a man to kill himself? Which he does?

Pardon me, but is there a point to this?

I’ve felt that way about everything Frank Miller has done: the graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One; the movies Sin City and 300. Miller worships at the twin altars of cool and cruel. His cool heroes are cruel to the ones who are cruel to the weak, which means his heroes, and by extension his readers or viewers, get to be cruel and moral. That’s the point to him: revenge as moral imperative. “The Spirit” is the Harvey Comics version of this rain-splattered, blood-splattered ethos, which is why it rings particularly off-tune. But even in-tune I find this ethos reprehensible. I get old just thinking about it.

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Posted at 07:34 AM on Aug 15, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday July 02, 2012

Movie Review: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

WARNING: UNFORGIVING SPOILERS

Has any final installment of a trilogy sucked as badly as this one? Has any third movie betrayed the legacy of its first two movies the way this one does?

Hell, forget the first two movies; how about the source material? Spider-Man is Spider-Man because of one horrible moment: His Uncle Ben is killed by a petty thief that Peter Parker, with all his powers, couldn’t be bothered to stop. It’s one of the great psychological motivations in superherodom. Spider-Man fights crime not because it’s right, like Superman, and not for revenge, like Batman, but from guilt. Because he didn’t bother to stop the guy who later killed Uncle Ben.

poster for Spider-Man 3“Spider-Man 3” undoes all of this. It pins Uncle Ben’s murder on the petty thief’s partner, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who later becomes the Sandman.

Did anyone on the set question this? Did anyone say, “Uh, dudes, if another guy is responsible for the death of Uncle Ben, what does this do to Spider-Man’s origin? His guilt? His raison d’etre?”

Undoing Spider-Man’s origin absolves Peter Parker of his original sin, the sin of doing nothing; of thinking that with great power comes a lot of kick-ass fun, bro. It turns him into someone else.

So, five years later, I went looking for a culprit for “Spider-Man 3”; and possibly, hopefully, a mea culpa.

Whodunit?
There are entire threads out there in which geeks and outsiders hash it out and bash each other’s theories about what went wrong with “Spider-Man 3.” Some blame producer Avi Arad for insisting that Venom be added to a storyline already weighed down with the New Green Goblin and Sandman and evil Spider-Man. Some blame fanboys who whined about wanting to see Venom in the first place. Some blame the actors for going through the motions. Some blame director Sam Raimi.

Me, I searched for cast/crew differences in the “Spider-Man” movies. Who worked on the third movie, which sucked, who didn’t work on the first two, which were great?

Director?

  • 1: Directed by Sam Raimi
  • 2: Directed by Sam Raimi
  • 3: Directed by Sam Raimi

Nope. Editor?

  • 1: Film Editing by Arthur Coburn and Bob Murawski
  • 2: Film Editing by Bob Murawski
  • 3: Film Editing by Bob Murawski

No. Writer?

  • 1: Screenplay: David Koepp
  • 2: Screenplay: Alvin Sargent. Story: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon
  • 3: Screenplay: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent. Story: Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi

Wait. Ivan Raimi?

Yes, Sam’s older brother. He’s an emergency room doctor with many screen credits ... on his younger brother’s movies. According to IMDb.com, he helped develop the stories for the first two “Spider-Man” movies, too.

But those are your culprits. Sam and Ivan. We know because they’ve already confessed. They confessed in the form of bragging.

Whydunit?
This is a part of an interview Sam Raimi did with Wizard Entertainment Group in 2007:

We felt that the most important thing Peter has to learn right now is that this whole concept of him as the avenger, or him as the hero… He wears this red and blue outfit. With each criminal he brings to justice, he’s trying to pay down his debt of guilt he feels about the death of Uncle Ben. And he considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains that he nabs. So we felt it would be a great thing for him to learn the less black-and-white view of life, and that he’s not above these people, that he’s not just a hero and they’re not just the villains. That we’re all human beings and we all have, that he himself might have, some sin within him, and that other human beings, the ones he calls the criminals, have humanity within them. And that the best we can do within this world is to not strive for vengeance but for forgiveness.

Look at the quote again. These words: “He considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains that he nabs.”

The whole point of Peter Parker is that he knows he’s sinned. He knows the fault lies within himself as with others. By making someone other than Spider-Man's origin in Amazing Fantasy #15: "All my fault!"the Burglar the killer of Uncle Ben, you actually remove his original sin, which is the greatest original sin in comic book history.

In other words, Sam and Ivan removed Spider-Man’s original sin in order to deliver the lesson that none of us are without sin.

Then there’s this line: “The best we can do within this world is to not strive for vengeance but for forgiveness.”

Vengeance? When does Spider-Man ever strive for revenge? In the first two movies, which Sam Raimi supposedly directed, when does he ever seethe with revenge?

Just one moment. It’s in the first movie, when he’s going after the petty thief who killed Uncle Ben. At this point, he’s this close to becoming Batman. But that’s before the realization that he could’ve prevented it all, the realization that makes him Spider-Man.

So why did Sam and Ivan insist Peter (Tobey Maguire) learn a lesson he’s already learned? More to the point, how do they do it? How do they make a character who isn’t naturally vengeful, vengeful?

Two ways. First, they undo the moment that makes him Spider-Man, by placing the blame for Uncle Ben’s death on Flint Marko. Then they infect him with symbiotic black space goo. It lands in Central Park from outer space (I know), adheres to Spider-Man’s uniform, and turns it, and his soul, black.

This goo makes him do crazy things. He styles his hair like a little Hitler, struts down the street like an ass, and takes advantage of his landlord’s daughter, Ursula (Mageina Tovah), by allowing her to bake cookies for him. That’s not a metaphor, by the way. She’s literally baking cookies for him. And he has the nerve to eat them in the hallway of his rundown building. With milk.

The goo also makes him web-sling after Flint Marko/Sandman with a vengeance. And he gets his revenge. He kills him, or thinks he kills him, and sneers this final bon mot: “Good riddance.”

Later in the movie, Aunt May will tell Peter that revenge is like a poison. “It can take you over,” she says. “Before you know it, it can turn us into something ugly.” That’s the grand lesson the Raimi brothers wish to impart. Unfortunately, it’s not the grand lesson the movie imparts. Because her words describe revenge less than the symbiotic black space goo. It has taken him over. It has turned him ugly. It has made him eat the cookies that Ursula baked for him. Peter Parker? He’s still a nice guy. So what’s the real grand lesson here? Don’t get infected with symbiotic black space goo?

Shedunit
Should I even get into the whole Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) subplot?

Peter and MJ come together at the end of “2” but at the beginning of “3” they already looked bored with it. Or she does anyway. Hanging in that web hammock in Central Park and looking at the stars? Again? How about we have sex for a change? Or once? How about I bake you some cookies?

Pete and MJ aren’t helped by the fact that he’s oblivious and she’s a bit of a bitch. He’s superhappy and the superhappy are always tough to hang around. He’s so superhappy he kisses Gwen Stacey in front of MJ and doesn’t think it’ll bother MJ.

But by this point her life has begun to turn. She’s on Broadway in a musical, “Manhattan Melodies,” singing some 1940s-era song while descending a long staircase in a long gown. (Wait, what year is it again?) The critics are merciless. Fro the first time in history, the producers listen to the critics and fire her. When she emerges from the theater in the middle of the day, it’s to applause, and for a second, being her, she actually thinks it’s for her—the third-billed, recently fired star of a tired musical. Her face darkens when she sees the applause is actually for Spider-Man, that lout of a boyfriend, who just, what, saves people’s lives? As if.

So she holds back. She’s actually in the process of leaving Peter, as she left Flash Thompson, and Harry Osborne, and as she left John Jameson standing at the altar like a schmuck. This is what she does. She runs away from one man and into the arms of another.

This time the arms belong to Harry (James Franco), who, because he bonks his head and develops amnesia like a character in a soap opera, doesn’t remember that his father was the Green Goblin, that his best friend is Spider-Man, and that he thinks his best friend killed his father. Instead he’s happy-go-lucky, and he and MJ make omelettes while listening to Chubby Checker and dancing the Twist. (Wait, what year is it again?) Then they kiss. She: “I didn’t mean to do that!” Me: Yes, you did.

Up to this point, the relationship of Pete and MJ is falling apart on its own. But for the rest of the movie, external forces will act upon them to break them up completely.

First, her kiss, like a reverse Prince Charming’s, awakens Harry’s memory, his inner Goblin, who counsels, vis a vis Peter, “Make him suffer. ... First, we attack his heart!” Which he does. Not by wooing MJ—that would be too simple—but by threatening her. We never find out what this threat is. Break up with Peter or I’ll kill you? Break up with Peter or I’ll kill Peter? How come she doesn’t say, “Dude, my boyfriend’s Spider-Man. Screw you and your sad-ass air-board. What, was Rocket Racer having a sale?”

Instead, threatened, she breaks up with Peter, who is already coming under the influence of the black space goo. So he shows up at MJ’s singing waitress gig and steals the show as a 1940s-era jive-talking asshole. (Wait, what year is it again?) Then he decks a bouncer. Then he decks her. Much later, per usual, she’s the bait in the final epic battle above Manhattan; and at the very end, with Harry dead and the black space goo gone, Peter and MJ get together for a final slow, sad dance. Are they a couple again? Are they saying good-bye? Who knows? Who knows if they’re even right for each other. They didn’t seem right for each other at the beginning, and so much has happened since then.

All of this is part of another grand lesson the Raimi brothers wish to impart: a man puts his woman before himself. The conflict they wanted was there, too, if they’d just looked hard enough. Every person, every situation, contains a paradox, and Peter’s is in the contradictory sayings of Uncle Ben. On the one hand: With great power comes great responsibility. On the other: A husband puts his wife before himself. So to whom is Peter ultimately responsible? I’d go with the woman in the burning building over MJ reading a scathing review, but that’s just me. But at least you have something for Peter to work through. At least you don’t have to turn Peter into what he is not in order to show us he should be what he is.

That final, sad, slow dance? It’s the last time we see these characters in this incarnation. I’d say “Good riddance” but that would be too vengeful.

Theydunit
I went looking for the culprits for “Spider-Man 3” and found them. I also went looking for a mea culpa. I found it, too. Kind of.

Here’s Sam Raimi in 2009, when it seemed he still might make “Spider-Man 4”:

I think having so many villains detracted from the experience. I would agree with the criticism… I think I’ve learned about the importance of getting to the point and the importance of having limitations, and I’m hoping to take that into a production where I’m actually allowed to explore with more of the tools to pull it off with a little more splendor.

Everyone thinks that’s the problem with “Spider-Man 3”: too many supervillains. But that’s not the real problem. You could actually do something cool with too many supervillains. I bet there’s a writer-director right now, maybe Joss Whedon, who is thinking of ways to turn this collective wisdom (too many supervillains ruin a movie) on its head.

No, the real problem is that Sam and Ivan had reductive lessons to impart and they imparted them in spite of their characters, not because of them. They imposed them from above. Their characters were A, and they changed them to F or Q, in order to show us that we should all be A.

To do this, they tore apart what is organic and meaningful in Spider-Man’s story (the Burglar; with great power comes great responsibility), then stuck it back together through artificial constructs and reductive lessons (space goo; forgiveness > vengeance). They’re like children who, having removed the wings of an insect, construct papier-mâché versions and stick them on and expect the poor thing to fly. It doesn’t. It fucking falls.

Here’s the final fall. It’s the big moment of forgiveness. Harry’s dead, Eddie Brock is gone with the space goo, and Spider-Man and Sandman square off. With words. Words written by Sam Raimi and his brother, Dr. Ivan Raimi:

Sandman: I didn't want this. But I had no choice.
Spider-Man: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you killed my uncle.
Sandman: My daughter was dying. I needed money.

[Flashback: Flint knocks on Uncle Ben’s car window with a gun]

Sandman: I was scared. I told your uncle all I wanted was the car. He said to me, “Why don't you just put down the gun and go home?” I realize now he was just trying to help me. Then I saw my partner running over with the cash... and the gun was in my hand...

[Flashback: the Burglar shakes Flint’s arm, causing him to shoot Uncle Ben.]

Sandman: I did a terrible thing to you. I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back. I'm not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand.
Spider-Man: I've done terrible things too.
Sandman: I didn't choose to be this. The only thing left of me now... is my daughter.

[There’s a pause. A long, long pause.]

Spider-Man: I forgive you.

My edit:

Sam Raimi: I didn't want this. But I had no choice.
Me: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you made Flint Marko responsible for the death of Uncle Ben.
Sam: I thought I was teaching a lesson about sin, and revenge, and forgiveness.
Me: Revenge? You think you’re telling Batman’s story here? Do you even know which character you’ve spent a decade filming?
Sam: I was scared. Then I saw my agent running over with the cash... and the pen was in my hand...

[Flashback: Sam and Ivan talk about the story while Ivan performs surgery.]

Sam: I did a terrible thing to you all. I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back.

[Flashback to the “Spider-Man 3” premiere and the horrified faces in the audience.]

Sam: I'm not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand.
Me: I've written terrible things, too...

[There’s a pause. A very short pause.]

Me: ...but not this terrible. Fucker.

Horizontal poster for Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Oh no! I'm about to turn into what I'm not so I can learn I should be what I am!

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Posted at 07:31 AM on Jul 02, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Thursday May 10, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight (2008)

WARNING: WHY SO SPOILEROUS?

I only saw “The Dark Knight” once in theaters, at a preview screening a few days before its July 2008 opening. Afterwards I wrote an MSN piece about it, “The Smart Knight,” which included the following lines:

There are better superhero movies out there... But “The Dark Knight,” directed by Christopher Nolan, is the smartest superhero movie ever made.

My point: Once Batman stops being a vigilante and becomes a glorified cop he becomes absurd—a cop in a bat suit—and descends into camp. “The The Dark Knight (2008)Dark Knight” ensured this wouldn’t happen by reinforcing his vigilante status and taking an axe to the bat signal. Even so, fanboys jumped on me for implying that other superhero films might be better than “The Dark Knight.”

Now that I’ve actually seen the movie a second time, four years later on DVD, I’d like to apologize to those fanboys. I was wrong in the above quote. “The Dark Knight” isn’t the smartest superhero movie ever made. In fact, it’s pretty stupid.

Battle for the soul of Gotham
The battle between the Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Gotham City. Batman wants order, the Joker chaos. “Some men aren't looking for anything logical,” says Alfred (Michael Caine), in one of the movie’s most famous lines. “Some men only want to watch the world burn.”

How does the Joker do this? He commit acts of terrorism. He tries to get the citizens of Gotham to reveal that they’re as ugly inside as he is.

First, he announces he’ll kill one person every day until the Batman takes off his mask and turns himself in. What happens? When Gotham’s district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) holds a press conference saying we don’t give in to terrorist demands, the people lash back:

Reporter: You’d rather protect this outlaw vigilante than the lives of citizens?
Man 1: Things are worse than ever!
Cop: No more dead cops! [Other cops applaud.]
Man 2: He should turn himself in!

The Joker wins.

Then when a Wayne Enterprises employee, Reese (Josh Harto), is about to reveal Batman’s true identity on television, the Joker decides Batman’s too much fun. So he demands the death of Reese in an hour or he’ll blow up a hospital. What happens? All over Gotham, people start taking potshots at Reese. It’s up to the Batman, disguised as Bruce Wayne, to save him.

The Joker wins.

Finally, in the film’s climax, the Joker loads hundreds of barrels of explosives onto two ferry boats—one filled with criminals, one filled with civilians—and gives each boat the other’s detonator. At midnight, he says, he’ll blow up both ferries. If one boat blows up the other first, however, that one will be allowed to continue safely on its way. What happens? The ferry full of citizens votes to blow up the ferry full of criminals but no one can push the button. Meanwhile, one of the criminals (former wrestler Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister), 6’ 5” and glowering, demands the detonator, and tells the ship’s captain: “I’ll do what you shoulda did 10 minutes ago.” Then he tosses it overboard. Midnight passes, by which time the Joker’s been defeated, and everyone’s safe. Our best side has been revealed.

Batman wins.

In other words, threatened indirectly in examples 1 and 2, everyone caved. Threatened directly, in example 3, and people behaved nobly.

“Give up the Batman or there’s a one-in-10-million chance you’ll die.” Let’s give up the Batman! “Kill Reese or I’ll blow up one of dozens of hospitals in Gotham.” Let’s kill Reese! “Kill those murderers and rapists or YOU will be killed!” Uh... let’s take a vote.

Worse, despite his experiences with examples 1 and 2, not to mention his whole raison d’etre, Batman, in example 3, is convinced that both the citizens and criminals of Gotham will do the right thing. At one point, he and Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) have this conversation:

Gordon: Every second we don’t [take down the Joker], those people on the ferry get closer to blowing each other—
Batman (low growl): That won’t happen.

As Batman wrestles with the Joker, we get this exchange:

Joker: I’ll miss the fireworks. [One of the boats blowing up.]
Batman (low growl): There won’t be any fireworks!

How does he know? Because he’s the hero? Because it’s the end of the movie? Because it’s time for him to win? The whole thing feels monumentally false.

Yes, you can drill down and say that in example No. 1 the people were asked to give up nothing of their own, just the Batman, so it was easier to cave. Yes, you can say that in example No. 2, the pool of potential assassins was larger than on the ferry boat, so you’re that much more likely to find one, two, or a dozen, willing to kill for a false sense of security. Yes, on the ferry boat they’re fighting for a real sense of security, a do-or-die situation,  but it’s still a tough thing to press a button and extinguish hundreds of souls. Most of us don’t have it in us. But what about the other boat? Could no criminal, who might’ve already killed dozens, push that button?

Bottom line. Threatened indirectly, the people of Gotham got scared and flailed. Threatened directly, the people of Gotham got scared and sat calmly. Maybe that’s what happens when you and your children are threatened directly. But I doubt it.

The Museum of the Hard-to-Believe
There’s so much I don’t believe about this film.

I don’t believe the Joker is able to redirect or misdirect Harvey Dent’s anger. Dent has a gun to the forehead of the Joker—the man responsible for both the awful last minutes of Rachel Dawes’ life and Dent losing half his face—and he doesn’t pull the trigger? Instead he goes after the cops who betrayed him to the Joker. He goes after the family of Jim Gordon, the uncorrupt boss of those corrupt cops. He flails.

And what’s up with that whole ‘White Knight’ crap? If Dent is revealed as less than pure, the good citizens of Gotham—if there are any—would give up hope? How many even know who Harvey Dent is?

Don’t get me started on all the traps the Joker springs in this thing.

Oops. Too late.

Here are the various traps the Joker springs on the people and authorities of Gotham:

    1. He kidnaps and kills one of Gotham’s many Batman copycats, then he hangs the fat corpse outside the Mayor’s high-rise office so it bumps up against the window just as the Mayor is looking out. Nice timing.
    2. He sends a video of the killing to the TV networks, who broadcast it, along with his demand that Batman turn himself in.
    3. He gets the DNA of three prominent Gothamites (Judge, Commissioner, Harvey Dent) on a Joker card, kills two of them (bomb, poison), and goes after Dent personally at Bruce Wayne’s high-rise.
    4. When Dent, pretending to be Batman, is transported across town in a police van, Joker redirects the motorcade into an underpass and attacks it.
    5. After Batman stops the Joker by upending his truck, a stunt which should’ve killed him but merely left him a tad groggy, the Joker has his men kidnap both Dent and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and tie them to chairs next to explosives in secure locations equidistant from the Gotham jail. (Thank you, Google maps.)
    6. At the same time, or a previous time, he plants a man with a bomb in his stomach in the Gotham jail. Is this Plan B? For when the underpass thing didn’t work? Or was Gordon right and the Joker wanted to be captured? Gotta say, for someone who wanted to be captured, he was making a convincing case otherwise in that underpass.
    7. Plan B works perfectly, though. The jail bomb goes off, killing many but leaving the Joker unharmed, Rachel Dawes blows up, and, best of all, and completely unplanned, Dent loses half his face in the blast that nearly takes his life.

Whew. Breather? No, this is Chris Nolan. Onward.

  1. The Joker gets on a local news show and tells everyone to kill Reese or he’ll blow up a hospital. For some reason, not many policemen guard the hospital where Dent is recuperating. Apparently everyone’s forgotten that the Joker has tried to kill him three times now.
  2. After turning Harvey Dent into a bad guy, the Joker blows up the hospital.
  3. Immediately after, he begins his ferry boat threat. When did he load the  explosives onto the ferries? Just how many men does he have? And does no one ever see him doing these things?
  4. And while all of that is going on, he holes up in a construction site, where he’s being watched by police who have been alerted to his location by Batman’s extra-legal surveillance. Except his men in clown masks? They’re really hostages! The hostages? They’re really his men! It’s another trap! Because he knew they’d be able to find him? Why would he think that? Batman had to break the law to find him. Just how many steps ahead is the Joker?

For a madman, the Joker has to be the greatest organizational planner ever. Even while messing with you in Plan B, he’s apparently thinking ahead to Plan Z. The intricacy of his plans make D-Day seem like a sailboat ride on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s tough out there for a Batman
This is a tough movie to be Batman. In the first, “Batman Begins,” he’s proactive, stalking crooks in the night. Here, he’s back on his heels. He’s reacting more than acting. He’s taking punches.

After Rachel is killed by the Joker, Alfred tells Batman, “You spat in the faces of Gotham's worst criminals. Didn’t you think there might be some casualties?” Thanks for the buck-up, bro.Is he slower in this one? He was such a ninja in the first movie that both criminals and moviegoers could barely see him. Maybe fanboys complained. That last fight with Ra’s al Ghul on the train was like a battle of shadows, but, ninja-wise, it made sense. Here, Batman’s not only not a ninja, he’s as stolid as Rocky Balboa in the 11th round.

Thank god he’s got so many good people around him. Alfred, for example. After Batman’s first encounter with the Joker, when Bruce Wayne says, “They crossed a line,” Alfred immediately responds, “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation.” After Batman saves Harvey Dent but loses Rachel and sits despondent over his role in all of this—in inspiring not good but madness—Alfred tells him, “You spat in the faces of Gotham's worst criminals. Didn’t you think there might be some casualties?” Spat in the faces...? Thanks for the buck-up, bro.

Well, at least Bruce has Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who, when shown Batman’s Patriot-Act-like surveillance methods, says, “This is too much power for one man to have,” and “Spying on 30 million people isn't part of my job description.” OK, so no Lucius. But at least Rachel loves him. Oh right, the letter.

Poor dude can’t have a conversation with anyone without it turning into some part of the film’s philosophical treatise. I love me some Michael Caine but almost everything Alfred says is in this vein. Harvey Dent, too. “You either die a hero,” he says during a casual dinner, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” When I first heard it, before I knew that Harvey would die a hero and Batman would endure as a villain, it felt false to me. It rang loudly and off key. It announced itself.

Movies are only as good as directors allow them to be
I like some of what Nolan does. I like the idea that Batman inspires people in unintended, dangerous ways. I like that someone nefarious rises to reach Batman’s level of madness. I like the idea of blackmailing Batman to give himself up. That’s smart. But it’s lost in the relentlessness of Nolan’s direction and the Joker’s innumerable plans and schemes.

Yes, Heath Ledger is brilliant. And, yes, this is great dialogue:

Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak. Like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t they’ll cast you out like a leper. You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

Ahead of the curve. Great line.

This sets up our ferry-boat ending that depicts how some people don’t drop their moral code at the first sign of trouble. The problem? The Joker’s actually right. Or he’s half right. Moral codes aren’t necessarily dropped at the first sign of trouble, but, generally, we are only as good as the world allows us to be. Batman knows that, too. He should’ve picked up on it. He should’ve said:

Of course people are only as good as the world allows them to be. That’s why I’m here. I’m allowing them that chance.  

He should’ve mocked the Joker:

You think you’re telling us something we don’t know? You think you’re bringing us news?

And:

It’s easy to bring the world low. It’s hard to lift it up. Why did you choose the easy way?

But all of that would’ve required a Batman who wasn’t on his heels. It would’ve required a Batman unafraid to take the spotlight from the Joker. And it would’ve required a different ending than our ferry boat/fairy tale ending.

But it would’ve made for a better movie. “Sometimes truth isn't good enough,” Batman says at the end of the movie. And most of the time it is.

Audience identification
Listen, I know I’m talking in the wind here. I know “The Dark Knight” grossed the money it grossed, and has the fans it has, and no argument will sway them from their point-of-view.

So feel free to say it’s just a movie, and fun, and you’re not supposed to think about it too much. I’ll understand. Because I know most people don’t go to the movies looking for anything logical. Most people go just to watch the world burn.

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Posted at 07:43 PM on May 10, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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