Movie Reviews - 2000s posts

Friday September 20, 2013

Movie Review: Michael Clayton (2007)

WARNING: SPOILERS

What’s nice about the title is that it makes us ask the question almost everyone in the movie asks: Who is Michael Clayton?

Chronologically:

  • 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.
Me: Right.

Michael Clayton: The Truth Can Be AdjustedMost 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.

Posted at 06:38 AM on Friday September 20, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

Thursday September 05, 2013

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.

Chronicles of Riddick starring Vin Diesel

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.

Posted at 07:13 AM on Thursday September 05, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 14, 2013

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.

Spider-Man (2002)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.

Bad bad guy schemes
What follows is something Joss Whedon, director of “The Avengers,” said about “The Dark Knight”:

“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.

The tombstone of Ben Parker

Posted at 06:16 AM on Wednesday August 14, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 07, 2013

Movie Review: The Specials (2000)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I threw up in the early morning hours after watching “The Specials.” Unrelated, I’m sure.

Who was it that told me this movie was good? Any of you? This is me shaking my fist at whoever that was.

I’m not much of a fan of one-joke movies, and I’m not much of a fan of movies in which the chief metaphor is Hollywood-related, and “The Specials” is both. It’s about a team of low-budget, B-list superheroes played by a group of B-list actors and actresses and filmed in a low-budget manner. It’s written by James Gunn, who would go on to write the two “Scooby Doo” movies, and directed by first-time director Craig Mazin, who would go on to direct “Superhero Movie,” and it has a tinny, flimsy quality. It feels like something filmed in rooms with wood paneling. There’s no comedic rhythm and less comedy. The heroes’ super-powers are never on display. It’s anti-special.

One of the leads is Jamie Kennedy, a kind of break-out star amid the young and loutish in the late 1990s, who has never said one thing that made me laugh. The Specials posterHe keeps his string alive here. He plays Amok, blue-skinned and dickish. His bit is to say rude, unfunny things, particularly about women. It’s how we imagine Jamie Kennedy is.

Another of the leads is Rob Lowe, fresh from “West Wing,” who plays a good-looking, two-timing superhero named The Weevil. It’s how we imagine Rob Lowe is.

And so on. Fresh-faced Jordan Ladd, daughter of Cheryl, plays fresh-faced new member Nightbird, with bird-like superpowers (including laying eggs), who has admired the Specials ever since she was a kid. Thomas Haden Church is The Strobe, the nominal leader, who takes seriously the role-model aspect of superherodom, while Paget Brewster plays his wife, Ms. Indestructible, who is growing weary of her husband’s blowhardness, and is thus having an affair with The Weevil in the backseats of cars.

Kelly Coffield of “Mad TV” plays Power Chick, who is raising Alien Orphan (Sean Gunn), who is bald and green and bendable. The bit goes nowhere. Judy Greer is one of the few bright spots as the super-cynical Deadly Girl, who is offered a gig with The Femme Five by Sunlight Grrrll (guest star Melissa Joan Hart), whose ‘90s-feminist name she dismisses with a deadly reaction shot. The movie’s screenwriter, James Gunn, gives himself one of the best bits, playing Minute Man, who is forever correcting folks that his name is pronounced my-NOOT (as in small) rather than MIN-it (as in time). Oh right, there’s U.S. Bill, too. Mike Schwartz. He says nothing funny and does nothing memorable.

I liked the notion of the Specials as “the 6th or 7th greatest superhero team in the world,” and I liked the line about “a holocaust of stretchy people” and the commercial for the Specials’ action figures actually made me laugh out loud. This is the plot point for the first half of the movie: the idea that the Specials don’t get Oscars, they get action figures. But then the commercial is unveiled, and Minute Man’s action figure is black (minority representation was needed), and one hero has Richard Dawson’s head (the company had leftovers from “Hogan’s Heroes”), and Ms. Indestructible’s doll has enormous boobs, and  ... etc. It’s a disaster and pretty funny.

The rest of the movie—in which The Strobe finds out about his wife’s infidelity, disbands the group, then gets them together to battle giant ants who have taken over the Pentagon (which we never see, of course)—contains jokes like this:

Deadly Girl: Has anyone noticed that Mr. Smart has an enormous package?
Mr. Smart: My father, too, had a large penis.

According to IMDb, “The Specials” was filmed in 18 days. It shows. According to IMDb, it’s also only 83 minutes long. Mercifully.

Posted at 05:55 AM on Wednesday August 07, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

Sunday July 21, 2013

Movie Review: Superhero Movie (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Surprise! There are actually a few funny moments in “Superhero Movie.”

At one point, for example, after he’s bitten by a genetically created dragonfly that gives him the proportionate strength of a dragonfly (although such nerdlinger lines are sadly never tossed around), Rick Riker, this movie’s Peter Parker (Drake Bell), has a nail from a nailgun accidently fired at him by his Uncle Albert (Leslie Nielsen). He catches it. “How did you do that?” Uncle Albert asks. Trying to maintain his secret identity, Rick says, “It’s … easier than it looks.” At which point, Uncle Albert shoots a nail at the leg of Rick’s friend, Trey (Kevin Hart), who screams in pain and crumples to the ground. “No, I don’t think so,” Albert says.

Mostly, though, “Superhero Movie” is filled with jokes about farts, humping animals, pubic hair, blow jobs, and whatever stupid people were glomming onto in 2008: MySpace, Tom Cruise’s YouTube rants, etc.

Shame. Is there a movie genre begging to be spoofed more than the superhero movie? poster for Superhero MovieThe western got “Blazing Saddles,” the disaster pic “Airplane!” and the cop drama “The Naked Gun.” Mike Myers spoofed ‘60s spy thrillers with “Austin Powers” and “Star Trek” was sent up with “Galaxy Quest.”

But the superhero genre that’s been dominating the box office for most of the 21st century? Crap. Not even “Not Brand Ecch!”

The timing of “Superhero Movie” was off, too. It was released in March 2008, when 2002’s “Spider-Man” was the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time, and so, with brief forays into “Batman Begins” (to explain Rick’s orphaned status) and the X-Men series (a Prof. X figure nonsensically tries to recruit Rick), it mostly just spoofs “Spider-Man.” Nerdy kid gets stung by dragonfly, develops super strength. There’s a Flash Thompson character, Lance Landers (Ryan Hansen), a Norman Osborne character, Lou Landers (Christopher McDonald), who becomes the villainous Hourglass, who often uses time-related puns in his threats to the city. Instead of M.J. next door, it’s J.J., Jill Johnson (Sara Paxton), who wants to be a dancer instead of an actress. Uncle Albert gets shot by a crook; Aunt Lucille (Marion Ross) is there with ponderous advice; and with great power comes  …

Rick: Great responsibility?
Albert: I was gonna say bitches, but if you want to be a virgin all your life.

The movie is best when it’s spoofing the tropes of the genre. Dragonfly and the Hourglass get dizzy midfight when the camera keeps spinning around them. Rick, in love, watches J.J. in slow-motion … until Lance pushes him: “Watch where you’re going in slow-mo, dipshit!” All of the names are alliterative in the Mighty Marvel Manner, while the Dragonfly gets into a shoving match with a Human Torch figure over who gets to stare broodingly over the city from a specific gargoyle perch. But that’s more Batman/Daredevil. That’s Frank Miller stuff. Should’ve been raining, too.

Leslie Nielsen, two years before his death, still has that great deadpan delivery. Brent Spiner helps as Dr. Landers’ craven assistant.

But most of the humor is lowest-common denominator stuff. Dr. Stephen Hawking (Robert Joy) complains about his lack of sex, makes an “ass…stronomy” joke, and gets pushed into a hive of bees. Aunt Lucille makes jokes about pubic hair and blowjobs, then becomes the butt of the longest fart joke I’ve seen on film. The longest. Apparently they were going for the record. Even the Farrelly Brothers were grossed out. They said, “Take it down a notch already.”

“Superhero Movie” was written and directed by Craig Mazin, who previously wrote “Scary Movie 3” and “4,” and went on to write “The Hangover II” and “III,” as well as the abysmal “Identity Thief.” One gets the feeling this is his A game.

On the plus side? The great modern superhero movie parody is still waiting to be made. Opportunity, kids.

Posted at 03:22 PM on Sunday July 21, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

Monday June 24, 2013

Movie Review: Hollywoodland (2006)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Hollywoodland” begins with a point-of-view shot of soaring through clouds, a la Superman, then quickly plummets to Earth and Hollywood, Calif., on June 16, 1959, the day George Reeves, TV’s most famous Superman, was found with a bullet in his head. Did he kill himself? Was he murdered? Was it an accident?

The movie suggests all three. It’s less detective story than character study. It’s the story of two men, neither of whom is super. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a marginal private investigator scraping by in Los Angeles in 1959, and George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is a marginal actor scraping by in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Neither is happy where they are. Both insinuate themselves into situations where they’re not wanted: Simo into the Reeves investigation, Reeves into the tabloid photos of more famous stars. Both men rely on the pocketbooks of older women. For Simo, it’s Reeves’ mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), who refuses to believe the official police report that her son killed himself. For Reeves, it’s Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), with whom he has an affair throughout the ’50s.

Both men are looking for an opportunity, too: their chance, their shot. Only Reeves really gets it. He just doesn’t recognize it.

A never-ending battle
From 1939 to 1950, George Reeves appeared in more than 50 films, ranging from Pool Player #1 in a sex hygiene short to the male lead in the World War II-era “So Proudly We Hail!” Hollywoodland posterHe also had a bit part in the biggest movie of all time, “Gone with the Wind,” playing Brent Tarleton, one of Scarlett’s early suitors. It was all so close. But by 1950 he was 36, and grasping at what he could. One offer was a dual role in a TV show about a comic-book superhero in cape and tights. He went with it, assuming it wouldn’t be picked up. It was.

He found the “Adventures of Superman” ridiculous. Basically he got trapped by circumstances into playing a character he didn’t like and then got trapped by that character since no one could see him as anything else. There’s a great scene where he’s with friends at an early screening of “From Here to Eternity,” in which he has a supporting role. But this is a year into the six-year run of “Adventures of Superman,” and as soon as he appears onscreen, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jawing with Burt Lancaster, the crowd buzzes, then titters, then various wags shout out Superman-related lines: “Faster than a speeding bullet!” etc. It breaks the mood, and Fred Zinnemann, the director, turns toward the projection booth and makes a scissors motion. Most of Reeves’ work winds up on the cutting-room floor.

You’re this, the world was telling Reeves, and only this. And then he wasn’t even that. The show wasn’t picked up for a seventh season, a directing deal fell through, and Reeves was left to scramble. Would he take a role in professional wrestling? We watch 8mm footage of him trying out moves but betrayed by body and age. He leaves Toni for a younger woman, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney)—who, ironically, has the same “L.L.” initials as all of Superman’s girlfriends—and suffers recriminations from both women. Leonore thought he was a star but he’s fallen. Toni stomps on him there.

“Have you seen yourself, George?” Toni says to him. “Your face is going. Here. Your eyes, your hair, your stomach. You think no one notices?”

Then she gets mean:

Toni: You want publicity? You’ll get it. I’ll say you’re a red. And a faggot. A lush. Nobody can call that a lie.

Reeves (angry): You know what? You never helped me. You never helped me. You could’ve talked to Eddie. You could’ve gotten me something but you didn’t! Because you liked me where I was in a fucking red suit! You liked that! Well, that’s not who I am, you understand? Goddamn you.

Toni (sweetly): But George, that’s all you were good for. 10 year-olds and shut-ins. That was the best you were ever going to be. I knew that. Why didn’t you?

Sure, Diane Lane is stellar, but has Ben Affleck ever been this good? At this post-Bennifer point in his career he was coming off a string of laughable movies, including “Gigli,” “Surviving Christmas,” and his own turn as a superhero, “Daredevil.” He was trapped, all of which was good prep for playing Reeves, and he brings a matter-of-fact pathos to the character. The irony of Reeves’ existence weighs upon his mighty shoulders. Reeves plays the world’s most powerful man even though he has no power. The final irony, about the speeding bullet, comes too late.

If Superman is wish fulfillment for kids then George Reeves is identification for adults. Most of us never wind up where we want to be. Most of us assume roles (pharmacist, plumber, real estate agent) that define us and trap us. Then even that role, through age, circumstance, and technological advances, is taken away from us, too.

Not truth, not justice
The Reeves half of “Hollywoodland” is powerful and reverberates long after the movie is over. The other half, the fictional half, is boilerplate. Simo is not a nice man, but through his research into Reeves’ life and death he comes to an epiphany. He takes the lesson of Reeves’ life and applies it to his own. But what’s the lesson? Be happy where you are? Don’t lie so much? Don’t string your clients along? Don’t show up drunk at your kid’s school?

That’s part of the problem with the movie. Sure, Simo scrambles after his next best chance. But he scrambles because he has to make a living. So where does the epiphany leave him? Not scrambling? Going into a different line of work?

“Hollywoodland,” written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, was going to be called “Truth, Justice and the American Way” until Warner Bros., putting out their own Superman movie that year, intervened. But elements of the original title are still in the movie. To corral Reeves’ mother as a client, Simo taps the lurid headline about her son’s suicide and says, “You need a headline this big … only with the truth.” Except he doesn’t believe it’s the truth. When another client, who has long suspected his wife of adultery, kills her with three bullets to the head, heart and groin, he tells Simo, “I hope you’ve learned the meaning of justice.” Except it’s not justice.

So not truth and not justice. Just the American way.

Adventures of Superman open: American flag

Posted at 06:31 AM on Monday June 24, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

Monday June 10, 2013

Movie Review: Superman Returns (2006)

WARNING: SPOILERS

This is one ballsy movie. No pun intended.

In 2006, Bryan Singer, with nothing but success behind him (“The Usual Suspects,” the “X-Men” movies), directed the Superman movie he always wanted to see: a continuation of the Christopher Reeve version that jettisons the awful ’83 Richard Pryor vehicle and the ’87 Golan and Globus abomination, and adds intrigue and depth to where we left off in ’81.

He picks up on the storyline. In “Superman II,” Superman beds Lois. Now, six or so years later, she has a child. Hey, could it…? It could.

Superman Returns posterHe returns Jor-El (Marlon Brando) to us. The Salkinds taketh, Singer giveth back.

He picks up on the Jesus metaphor. Superman dies, is reborn, and ascends. Well, he flies anyway. “I am with you always,” Jesus said at the end. “I’m always around,” Superman says at the end.

We get some of the great lines from the first movie—“Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel”—as well as the resounding John Williams score in all its iterations. For a moment, as Superman and Lois flew around town, I thought, “OK, so everything but ‘Can You Read My Mind.’” But then they pass Lois’ house, and the camera focuses on their hands, holding in flight, and we get a strain, a suggestion; then suddenly the whole thing wells up again as her love for him wells up again. Because you don’t get the love theme until you get the love.

All of this is ballsy for obvious reasons. We live in a throwaway culture and Singer was involved in the greatest recycling project in movie history. Hollywood gears its product toward 12-to-14-year-olds and Singer was determined to make a sequel to a movie released 25 years earlier. He ignored the original’s third and fourth iterations as if he could rewrite movie history. “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick told Gatsby, to which Gatsby responded “Why, of course you can!” Singer is Gatsby in this regard.

And, like Gatsby, his project was doomed.

Kids
Start with the casting. Brandon Routh makes a good Clark Kent/Superman but he has the misfortune of following the greatest superhero casting ever. Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when Reeve was cast as the Man of Steel, but he looks younger. Except it’s supposed to be six years later. Is Superman aging backwards? Like Benjamin Button?

The casting of Lois Lane is worse. Kate Bosworth was 22 when they filmed this. And she has a 5-year-old? From a consummation six years earlier? That’s some awkward math. She should’ve been in high school instead of, you know, reporting for The Daily Planet and shacking up with Supes in the Fortress of Solitude. We have laws, dude.

Kidder and Reeve were adults in a gritty adult world—New York in the 1970s—but these two look like kids and act like kids. Why the world doesn’t need Superman? Really, Lois? She can’t even let go of her anger to be the star reporter she is. The biggest scoop of the year—Superman returns—shows up on the Daily Planet rooftop and she frowns her way through the interview. Her first question is about where he’s been all this time. He says there was a chance Krypton was still there. “I had to see for myself,” he says.

Imagine you’re a reporter. What’s your follow-up?

  • “So was it still there?”
  • “What about kryptonite? Were you in danger?”
  • “Why didn’t you tell anyone you were leaving?”

This is Lois’ follow-up: “Well, you’re back. And everyone seems to be pretty happy about it.”

That’s not even a question. Then we get this awful dialogue:

Superman: I read the article, Lois.
Lois: So did a lot of people.
Superman: Why did you write it?
Lois [upset]: How could you leave us like that? [Throws up hands.] I moved on. So did the rest of us. That’s why I wrote it. The world doesn’t need a savior. And neither do I.

I’m not sure who’s being more childish here. Lois assumes her pain is the world’s, her resentments ours. And him. He can’t get past the fact that she wrote the article? That she was angry that he left for five years without a word? What is he—a Vulcan?

It gets worse when they’re about to fly together:

Lois: You know my… Richard. He’s a pilot. He takes me up all the time.
Superman: Not like this.

Who knew Superman was so insecure? You can feel his insecurity throughout the movie. He basks in the applause from the baseball crowd and listens to news reports about himself with a smile. He’s the mightiest being on the planet, the savior of the world, and he’s checking press clippings. Does he Google himself? Read the comments below YouTube clips? “SuperDORK more like! Go back to Krypton, Creepton. LOL.”

He spends so much time worrying about what Lois is thinking and feeling, and with whom she’s thinking and feeling it, he doesn’t put together the fairly obvious pieces of the plot. Let’s see…

  • Lex Luthor is out of jail.
  • Kryptonian crystals from the Fortress of Solitude are missing.
  • The east coast has suffered a massive blackout that includes cellphones.

It’s even Clark’s job to be covering the blackout story. It’s the story Lois wants, it’s the one Clark gets, but it’s still Lois who uncovers it. She finds its epicenter, finds the boat, “The Gertrude,” anchored there, slips aboard with her son, then comes across Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) brushing his teeth. “Lois Lane?” he says with a mouthful of toothpaste. It’s one of the few times Luthor makes us laugh in the movie.

Superman as Jesus in "Superman Returns" (2006)

No obvious metaphor here. Keep moving.

 

Hearing everything
I hate carping like this. I actually think “Superman Returns” is one of the better cinematic incarnations of the Man of Steel, so I want to say the positive. But I keep returning to the things that bug me.

I love it when Lois tells Superman “I forgot how warm you are.” That’s so evocative. This notion that the Man of Steel, instead of being cold like steel, is warmer than us. As if he absorbs more of the sun than we do. Then this:

Superman: What do you hear?
Lois: Nothing.
Superman: I hear everything.

You’re immediately struck by the burden of that. But it backfires. You think: Wait. If he can hear everything, why spend so much time being Clark Kent? Why is he hanging at a bar with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Bo the Bartender (Jack Larson, the Jimmy Olsen of the 1950s)? Why isn’t he out saving all of the people he can hear being beaten, murdered, and raped? Why save some dingbat in a car or bother to stop that bank robber—a guy so stupid he: 1) robs a bank; 2) in Metropolis; 3) the day after Superman returns? And if you’re going to stop the dude, why walk up to him and allow him to keep firing? Bryan Singer wants to show us that even Superman’s eyes are invulnerable but he could’ve done it without making Superman seem like an ass.

There’s a nice scene when Supes lands with a sonic boom—boom!—on the new Krypton continent in the Atlantic Ocean, and fissures develop. And yet …  I mean, if he can hear everything, surely he knows where Luthor and his men are. He can hear them breathing. They’re there, there and there. Pick them off. Instead he lands dramatically, with the fissures, and lets his enemies gather.

And how does he not feel all of his powers draining away? If I landed somewhere, and lost 99% of my power in two steps, I think I’d know it. Don’t even get me started on the horror of watching Superman get his ass kicked. There are a lot of painful moments in these movies—the post-reveal dialogue with Lois in “II,” being upstaged by an unfunny Richard Pryor in “III,” all of “IV”—but, for me, the beating of Superman in “Superman Returns” might be the most painful. It’s so brutal, I wouldn’t be surprised if it killed the movie at the box office. Who wants to re-watch a helpless Superman getting his ass kicked by Luthor and his men? Nobody. Superman returned but we didn’t.

OK, then how about the airplane rescue scene? Wow, right? And an homage to the helicopter scene in “I.” Yet why does the original work and the homage not? Is it that the helicopter scene is about revelation (the first appearance of Superman) while this is about return? Is the original rooted in the everyday, the gritty, while this feels like so much CGI? And did the landing have to be in the middle of a baseball stadium? The length of the scene doesn’t help. In “Superman,” from the moment he turns into Superman to “Statistically speaking… ” takes about one and a half minutes of screentime. In “Superman Returns,” it takes five and a half minutes of screentime. It just keeps going.

Superman basking in applause in "Superman Returns" (2006)

Basking.

Second-to-last son of Krypton
I like him lifting the kryptonite-laden continent on his shoulders, like Atlas, pushing it into space, then falling back to Earth. The scenes at the hospital are good, too. But it still takes Lois forever to tell him Jason is his son. She should’ve told him as soon as she entered the room. Hell, she should’ve told him as soon as he returned from Krypton. Seriously, what kind of woman withholds that information? From both men? And that’s your heroine? It’s not a bad idea, certainly, having Lois marry Richard White (James Marsden), but it ruins the greatest love triangle in superherodom. Lois loves Superman and ignores Clark because she doesn’t see what’s super in him. It’s the story every man tells himself about every unrequited love. It’s poignant in that way. Here, Lois kinda loves, or certainly appreciates, Richard White, to whom she’s married, but really loves Superman, who’s always around. Sometimes he’s just outside their house, listening in. Right. That’s a little less poignant.

So let me end with two scenes I appreciate without qualification.

The first is the scene outside the hospital, where Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) stands with the crowd, unable to visit her dying son because no one knows he’s her son. That’s heartbreaking. It’s also reminiscent of what gay men went through in the age of AIDS. No way Bryan Singer didn’t make that connection.

The second is the moment Superman tells a sleeping Jason something Jor-El told him as a baby—as Kal-El slept on Krypton for the last time:

You will be different. Sometimes you'll feel like an outcast. But you'll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father the son.

It brings cohesion to the whole Donner/Singer enterprise, and to this movie in particular. Superman traveled to Krypton to discover he was its last son. Then he traveled back to Earth to find out he wasn’t. He went searching for Krypton but found it in his own backyard.

The second-to-last-son of Krypton in "Superman Returns"

The son becomes the father.

Posted at 07:17 AM on Monday June 10, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

Thursday January 31, 2013

Movie Review: The Hunting of the President (2004)

The extent to which Eric Alterman’s famous rejoinder “What Liberal Media?” is correct is indicated by how many leftists are flocking to the documentary form to get their message across. In the last few months we’ve seen leftist critiques of corporate pathology (“The Corporation”), McDonald’s (“Super Size Me”), the Bush Administration (“Fahrenheit 911”), and the Iraq War and the mainstream media (“Control Room”). Waiting in the wings are docs about FOX News (“Outfoxed”) and senior Bush advisor Karl Rove (“Bush’s Brain”). if the mainstream media were truly liberal, wouldn't folks just turn on their TV sets for this? Wouldn't we just wait for Katie Couric to report?

Now there’s “The Hunting of the President,” a documentary about what Hilary Clinton famously called “the vast right-wing conspiracy” against President Clinton. It was written and directed by Nickolas Perry, who helped edit several Clinton promo films (“A Place Called America”), and Harry Thomason, a Clinton confidante who directed several Clinton promo films (“Legacy”; “Hilary 2000”). Objectivity is no"The Hunting of the President" postert expected.

Were Clinton’s enemies at best unethical and at worst illegal? The film starts in Arkansas, where Larry Case and Larry Nichols were freelance operatives who provided lurid details to visiting big-city journalists. About L.A. Times reporter Bill Rempel, who helped break the “Troopergate” story, Case brags: “I pulled him in like a trophy trout.” The troopers themselves, according to the doc, had suspect motivations, ranging from money to revenge, while their unofficial stage-manager, Cliff Jackson, was an Arkansas lawyer and former Clinton classmate, who was supposedly motivated by envy.

In D.C., meanwhile, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded “American Spectator” magazine and The Arkansas Project, both of which fanned the flames of rumor and innuendo long enough to attract the interest of the mainstream media. In this way, Troopergate led to Paula Jones. Then Vincent Foster died and a scandal was born. Then there was the whole Whitewater wrangle, which never went away despite the fact that journalists complained to their editors, “There’s no there there.”

It was Whitewater that caused Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint Special Counsel Robert Fiske, a moderate Republican lawyer, to investigate the matter. When Congress reauthorized the Independent Counsel Act six months later, Fiske was pushed out, replaced by Ken Starr, who was less moderate.

Indeed, in the doc, Starr’s team comes across as bullies, threatening and urging people to lie under oath.

Unfortunately, most of “Hunting” still amounts to “he said-she said.” What’s new here? Mea culpas from the press, and commentary from former “Spectator” star David Brock (“Blinded By the Right”), who gives insight into the inner-workings of Clinton’s enemies.

The last third of the film is devoted to its most important issue: How this right-wing mudslinging came to dominate the post-Watergate, post-cable TV media. The most damning talking head may be Dan Moldea, author of several books debunking conspiracy theories of both the left and  right, who calls the press coverage of the Vincent Foster case, “The most corrupt act of journalism I have ever seen.”

Poet W.H. Auden once referred to the 1930s as “a low dishonest decade,” and it’s not a bad epitaph for the nineties either. We were not a serious people. President Clinton had personal failings, many of his opponents were noisy buffoons, and the press listened to them and we all tuned in. Meanwhile, enemies gathered elsewhere.

-- Originally published in The Seattle Times, 2004.

Posted at 06:19 PM on Thursday January 31, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

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

Posted at 06:12 AM on Monday September 10, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

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.

Posted at 08:13 AM on Monday August 20, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

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.

Posted at 07:34 AM on Wednesday August 15, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

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 dude is responsible for the death of Uncle Ben, what's Spider-Man’s reason for doing all this?

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!

Posted at 07:31 AM on Monday July 02, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

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.

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

Wednesday April 25, 2012

Movie Review: Batman Begins (2005)

BAT WARNING: SPOILERS

Bruce Wayne should’ve truly hated Gotham City. As a young man returning from Princeton, he should’ve voiced his hatred for the city that took away his parents, calling it a cesspool, a place of hopeless corruption. He should’ve flown his Travis Bickle flag and talked about a real rain coming and washing away all the scum off the streets.

If he did, Ra’s al Ghul’s offer to destroy Gotham would’ve had weight. Ghul (Liam Neeson) would’ve handed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) what Poster for "Batman Begins" (2005)he’d wanted since he was a boy, since he saw his parents murdered before his eyes; and in that moment, Bruce would’ve discovered that what he’d always wanted wasn’t what he wanted:

Ra’s al Ghul: You know Gotham is dying. It’s dying from the inside. It’s a cancer. It’s time to put it out of its misery so more good people like your parents won’t die. Are you strong enough for the task?
Bruce Wayne: I... My hatred of Gotham came from the weakest part of me. I see that now. But I’m stronger now. Thanks to you.

Thus Ra’s al Ghul would’ve trained a man to do a task for which the very training made him ill-suited. The filmmakers could’ve worked this into a major theme: that the desire for destruction is borne of weakness, the desire to save comes from strength. And Bruce Wayne was strong now. He was Batman.

Instead we have what we have. Bruce Wayne carries a hatred for Joe Chill, the two-bit mugger who killed his parents, but not for Gotham, the city that created Joe Chill. Ra’s al Ghul’s offer is the offer of a madman. It’s treated as such. None of it resonates.

Carmine Falcone, we hardly knew ye
The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, in 1997, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, erect nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a caped crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s Batman modeled on Frank Miller’s dystopian vision rather than William Dozier’s camp vision. It’s dark and moody and realistic.

So why is it curiously unsatisfying?

I blame the relentless direction of Christopher Nolan, who pushes the story along with the same speed and tone throughout. Every scene has the same weight, the same growling intensity: dining, talking, fighting, falling, fighting again. There are no peaks and valleys. It’s a flat-lined film.

There’s also a problem with the villains.

We don’t see Batman until an hour into the movie. The first hour is all about training to become Batman so Bruce can take on the Carmine Falcones of the world. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the Gotham underworld, is a nasty piece of work. He’s the one who has Joe Chill killed; and he’s the one who sends Bruce on his mission. He tells him:

You think because your mommy and your daddy got shot you know about the ugly side of life, but you don't. You've never tasted desperate. You're Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham. You'd have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn't know your name. So don't come down here with your anger, trying to prove something to yourself. This is a world you'll never understand. And you always fear what you don't understand. 

That’s good. And it’s why Bruce goes on his seven-year trek: to find those who don’t know him; to understand the underworld; to face his fears. He does all of this. And he brings it all back to Gotham to face Carmine Falcone ... who is dispatched in like two minutes of screentime.

Really? That’s it?

Turns out Falcone, for whom we’ve waited an hour, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), AKA the Scarecrow, who, with his magic powder and scary mask, makes Falcone mad.

But Crane, too, is a pawn. The greater power lies with ... wait for it ... Ra’s al Ghul, the man who trained Bruce Wayne in the first place. The man who made him Batman.

Batman is thus a product of criminals. Joe Chill gives him the thirst for revenge, Carmine Falcone sends him on his mission, and Ra’s al Ghul trains him to be Batman.

But that’s not the problem with the villains. The problem with the villains is that we wait an hour for an encounter with Carmine Falcone, and, poof, he’s gone. Falcone is more interesting than Ra’s al Ghul, too. That speech above is brilliant. It’s savvy. Ghul? He spews vaguely eastern nonsense.

  • “The training is nothing!” he tells Bruce Wayne ... as he trains him.
  • “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power.”

Can I answer that one? I’m not sure about Bruce, but the last thing I fear is my own power. Probably the last thing you fear, too.

Guhl’s logic, as the head of the League of Shadows, is bizarre stuff. Cities are dying so let’s kill them off. He mentions three: Rome, London, Gotham. He says:

The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.

But Rome survived. So did London. So will Gotham. Shouldn’t someone have mentioned this? “Restore what balance, you self-important twit?”

Got guilt?
Most classic superheroes were created by young men in the 1940s, or by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s, which means there’s always room for improving their origins. Modern movies usually oblige. That’s not an “S” on his chest but a Kryptonian family crest (“Superman: The Movie”). “A weak man knows the value of strength” (“Captain America: The First Avenger”). “I missed the part where that’s my problem” (“Spider-Man”).

Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer introduce two improvements, or complications, to the classic origin of Batman. Back in 1939, Bruce chose a bat as his symbol because “criminals are a cowardly lot”; Nolan’s Bruce chooses a bat because he is a The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, in 1997, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, erect nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a caped crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s Batman modeled on Frank Miller’s dystopian vision rather than William Dozier’s camp vision. So why is it curiously unsatisfying? cowardly lot. As a boy he fell down an abandoned shaft and startled the bats in the caverns under Wayne Manor. It led to a lifelong phobia. As an adult we see him overcome this phobia, standing tall as CGI bats flit all around him. It’s a cool scene but... Doesn’t it recall, a bit much, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy? It’s bats instead of rats, but both phobias are overcome with willpower. Bruce Wayne just doesn’t grill and eat his.

The second complication borrows from Spider-Man’s origin, which—alley oop—borrowed from Batman’s.

Batman was the first costumed hero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime. He saw his parents killed before his eyes and is out for revenge. He wants to get the bastards. Twenty years later, Spider-Man was the second superhero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime, but Stan Lee added a twist. When Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is killed by a burglar, Spider-Man, seeking revenge, gets the bastard, then realizes the killer is a petty crook he had the opportunity to stop days earlier. So Spider-Man fights crime less for revenge than from guilt. He’s trying to cleanse himself as much as society.

Nolan borrows this idea for “Batman Begins.” The Waynes leave an opera early because young Bruce is afraid of the bat-like characters on stage, and they wind up in a nasty back alleyway where the mugging/killing occurs. If Bruce hadn’t been afraid, he realizes, they wouldn’t have left early. If they hadn’t left early, his parents would still be alive.

Except Nolan doesn’t do much with this. Alfred (Michael Caine) soothes young Bruce’s guilt; and as a young man, training in the ninja arts in the Himalayas, Bruce tells Ghul, “My anger outweighs my guilt.” That’s about the only time the word “guilt” or “guilty” is even spoken in the movie.

Batman is a character obviously associated with anger rather than guilt so I’m not sure why Nolan even introduces the concept. Besides, Nolan’s notion of guilt is Catholic rather than Jewish. He thinks it can be cleansed. Stan Lee (né Stanley Lieber) knew better.

The ghost of William Dozier
So Bruce Wayne spends seven years abroad learning about the underworld and ninja arts, returns to Gotham as an avenger, creates a bat persona, and slowly, with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the weapons developer for Wayne Enterprises, arms himself. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker (Jack Nicholson) asked in the 1989 version. That Batman created his own. Nolan’s outsources.

Some traditions are kept: Bruce still slides down the batpole to the batcave, where the batmobile still resides. The batmobile is now like a tank with big wheels, and after one of the best scenes in the movie—Batman’s descent through the bats at Arkham Asylum—we get one of the worst: an extensive chase scene around Gotham. It’s the kind of car chase, common to Hollywood, where the chased performs impossible stunts (literally driving over church rooftops; literally chewing the scenery) only to find several police cars right on his tail. If Gotham cops were really that good, Batman wouldn’t be needed in the first place.

The entrance to the batcave is improved upon. It’s now hidden by a waterfall and a chasm, which requires jet propulsion to leap over, all of which beats the flopping vehicle barrier of the ’66 TV show. But surely any interested party could follow the tire tracks? Hey, they lead here. Hey, it’s under Wayne Manor. Hey, maybe Batman is Bruce Wayne. No matter how gritty and realistic they try to make these guys, there’s always some absurdity sticking out. The biggest absurdity being, of course, a man who wears a bat costume to fight crime.

Second-half plot? In his effort to “restore the balance,” Ra’s al Ghul imports Dr. Crane’s crazy powder to Gotham, where minions pour it into the water supply. The plan is to use a microwave emitter, stolen from Wayne Enterprises, to evaporate the water and cause everyone to go nuts and tear each other apart. Dark and gritty but ... a bit of a William Dozier vibe, no? I can see the ‘60s version of the microwave emitter: silver, with knobs and an antennae, wheeled in by a middle-aged, hipster-dressed minion, while Ra’s al Ghul (Roger C. Carmel) rubs his hands together and whoops it up. There’s also the problem of Ghul reappearing and burning down Wayne Manor. It’s poetic justice, yes, since Bruce burned down Ghul’s Himalayan hideout, but Ghul handles Bruce so easily here it feels a trifle convenient. I get another Dozier vibe. Will Wayne Manor burn to the ground? Can Alfred return from his mission in time to get Bruce out from under the heavy log beam?

There’s a girl. I haven’t mentioned her yet. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce’s childhood playmate, who grows into a tall, girlishly attractive, forever threatened assistant D.A. She’s disappointed in young Bruce (slaps him when he talks about killing Joe Chill); she’s disappointed in playboy Bruce (“It’s not who you are underneath,” she tells him, in the movie’s most famous line, “it's what you do that defines you”); but after Batman saves her  from Dr. Crane, and after he reveals his true identity to her, she shows up in the ashes of Wayne Manor and says she’s never stopped thinking of him. Then she kisses him. Yay! But no. We get this exchange:

Rachel: Then I found out about your mask.
Bruce: Batman's just a symbol, Rachel.
Rachel [touches Bruce's face]: No, this is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved—the man who vanished—he never came back at all. But maybe he's still out there, somewhere. Maybe some day, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I'll see him again.

What the hell? Throughout the movie she’s been bitching that Bruce doesn’t care about Gotham the way she cares about Gotham. Now she finds out he cares more, now she finds out that the man she loves is the true avenger of the city she loves, and she still blows him off? And I thought I had problems with women.

The above dialogue might’ve resonated if Bale, as Bruce, had seemed hard, cold and distant around Rachel, but his face and voice actually soften when she’s around. He’s constantly revealing his true face to her. She just doesn’t see it. Neither does Nolan.

British invasion
Good cast, though. Bale is tall, dark, good-looking, and plays intense and off-kilter well—probably because he’s intense and off-kilter. Still, he’s a straight man here, so, as with 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” and 1989’s “Batman,” you surround him with talent: Freeman and Caine and Wilkinson and Murphy and Gary Oldman, wonderfully plain as Jim Gordon. That’s a lot of Brits. Too many? Who isn’t British in this thing? Batman is. So is Alfred, Ducard, Gordon, Crane, Falcone, Finch, Loeb, Joe Chill, Judge Faden, and Thomas and Martha Wayne. Americans are allowed Fox, Dawes, and Flass (Mark Boone Junior), this movie’s Lt. Eckhardt. “Hey, we need a fat, scummy cop.” “What do we have in Yanks?”

“Batman Begins” is acclaimed among fanboys, and currently has an 8.3 rating on IMDb, but to me it’s mid-range stuff. We push aside interesting villains for dull ones, twiddle our thumbs during car chases, and wait for a girl who isn’t worth it. Nolan misses opportunities even as he maintains a pace that’s overly relentless. It beats erect nipples but it hardly makes my nipples erect.

Still, the Joker card at the end set up the sequel well. Wonder how that went?

Posted at 06:35 AM on Wednesday April 25, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  

Monday April 16, 2012

Movie Review: Iron Man (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “Iron Man,” we learn that one man can make a difference.

No, not Iron Man. I’m talking Robert Downey, Jr., who turns one of the most boring Marvel superheroes into one of its most engaging. That frenetic, super-intelligent quality Downey had way back in 1987’s “The Pick-Up Artist”—mouth unable to keep up with mind—has, by this film, been disciplined and tempered. He’s less wild-eyed. There’s a stillness to him as he talks to and over people. His lines are free of bullshit and niceties. They’re lean and clever. “Give me a scotch,” he tells a bartender, “I’m starving.”

Here he is in Afghanistan before the shit goes down:

Soldier: Is it cool if I take a picture with you?
Stark: Yes, it's very cool.
[Soldier poses with a peace sign]
Stark: I don't want to see this on your MySpace page. Please no gang signs.
[Soldier lowers hand]
Stark: No, throw it up. I'm kidding. Yeah, peace. I love peace. I'd be out of a job for peace.

poster for "Iron Man" (2008)The soldier says the first line, Stark the next three. It’s monologue as dialogue. Iron Man flies rings around people but it’s not nearly as fun as watching Tony Stark talk rings around people. “Iron Man” is a superhero movie, and thus wish fulfillment, but, for me, the wish fulfillment is less the power of Iron Man than the quick wit of Tony Stark. What I wouldn’t give.

Is he too engaging? He makes a great change in this movie—from weapons manufacturer to weapon; from worry-free, playboy billionaire to worried, playboy billionaire—and we like him on either side of this chasm. Worry-free, he tells a Vanity Fair reporter, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” and it makes sense. There’s something horribly cynical in Stark Industry’s “Freedom Line” of missiles but it barely registers against Downey’s great line readings:

Stark: That's how Dad did it. That's how America does it. And it's worked out pretty well so far.

Until it doesn’t.

His most indelible partner
In Afghanistan, Stark’s humvee caravan is attacked and he’s taken hostage. The scenes are chilling and familiar: the captured, helpless westerner; the gun held to his head; the shouted demands.

Stark loses consciousness clutching at his chest, against which a pool of blood is slowly spreading, and he wakes up in a cave with wires coming out of his chest and hooked up to a car battery. Nearby, a tall, thin Afghani calmly washes his hands. “What have you done to me?” Stark demands in a kind of “Kings Row” moment. Saved you, it turns out. The shrapnel is inching toward Stark’s heart. The battery keeps the shrapnel in place and Stark alive.

Throughout the movie, Downey plays well with others—Rhodey (Terrence Howard), his military buddy, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gal Friday, and even Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), his household-wide computer system—but his most indelible partner is really this tall, thin Afghani. Yinsen (Shaun Toeb), another captive, not only saves him physically but spiritually. The lines he says to him are lean and existential.

First, he gets him going again:

Stark: Why should I do anything? They're going to kill me, you, either way. And if they don't, I'll probably be dead in a week.
Yinsen: Well then, this is a very important week for you, isn't it?

Then, as they work on what’s supposed to be the new “Jericho Missile” for the terrorists, but is really the Iron Man suit to combat the terrorists, Yinsen makes him realize the emptiness of his life:

Stark: You got a family?
Yinsen: Yes. And I will see them when I leave here. And you, Stark?
Stark: [quiet] No.
Yinsen: So you're a man who has everything, and nothing.

Finally, Yinsen sacrifices himself so that Stark, and Iron Man, may live. Stark creates a powerful arc reactor for his chest, which keeps his heart going and powers the Iron Man suit. But the bad guys are closing in, the progress bar is taking its own sweet time (as progress bars in movies do), so Yinsen creates a diversion that lets Tony suit up. Of course Yinsen’s shot. Of course he dies. Dying words in movies are usually lame, but Yinsen’s are poignant:

Stark: Come on, you're going to go see your family. Get up.
Yinsen: My family is dead, Stark... and I'm going to see them now.

Then he gives Tony his raison d’etre: “Don’t waste it.” Afer that, Iron Man, in that clunky original outfit, goes out and wastes him some terrorists.

The incredible shrinking brain of Pepper Potts
A Yinsenian question: Does the movie waste its stellar beginning? “Iron Man” is one of the great superhero movies as of this writing (Spring 2012), but it’s not without its problems. And its two biggest problems are both from the second half.

Here’s the first: Pepper Potts gets stupid.

The line is a sly, winking homage to all the ink-stained writers and artists who created the superheroes and then saw the companies they worked for make billions while their creations were taken from them.What happens? She’s so smart initially. “Taking out the trash.” “I hate job hunting.” Then, in the last half hour, she begins to act all flustered and female and running-around-on-high-heels dumb.

After captivity, Tony returns demanding a cheeseburger and a press conference, and while eating the former at the latter he tells the assembled that Stark Industries isn’t making weapons anymore. He’s got his new raison d’etre from Yinsen, he’s seen American soldiers killed with his weapons, and he wants no part of it anymore. Others, notably Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), attempt to wrest control of the company from him, but Tony, even as he creates a newer, better IM suit, stays the course. At one point, suiting up, he tells Pepper, who already knows he’s Iron Man, “I’m going to find all my weapons and destroy them.” She says, “Well, then I quit.”

Really? Does she like Stark Industries as is? Does she like making her living off of weapons that kill millions of people?

But that’s not her rationale. She says, with a loud, tremulous voice, “You’re going to kill yourself, Tony. I’m not going to be a part of it!”

She cares. About him. The millions who die because of his weapons? Whatever.

Don’t even get me started on the push-the-damn-button-already finale:

Iron Man: [under fire] Time to hit the button!
Pepper: You told me not to...
Iron Man: JUST DO IT!
Pepper: YOU'LL DIE!
Iron Man: PUSH IT!

Seriously, you think with his money he could get better help.

The sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane
That’s the first big problem of the second-half of the movie. Here’s the second: the sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane.

He’s a background figure for most of “Iron Man” ... until it’s revealed that he’s its main villain. The attack on Tony by the terrorists? He orchestrated it. He wanted Tony gone. He didn’t like being in the shadow of this 40-year-old wunderkind who created all the weapons that made him rich and famous. He tries to kill his golden goose. We’ll leave that one alone.

But not this one. Suddenly he’s everywhere. Here’s what he does:

  • He goes to Afghanistan, stuns the Ten Rings terrorist leader, and orders him and his men killed and their camp destroyed.
  • Then he shows up in LA, where Pepper is downloading his secret “ghost” computer files that reveal all. (Cue progress bar again.) By the time he goes after her, she’s already hooked onto Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg, in a great, recurring role), and that’s that.
  • Instead he goes to the lab and berates his scientists for not coming up with the necessary components to make his own iron suit. A great line-reading here from Bridges: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!”
  • At which point we cut to Tony Stark’s place, where someone is coming up  behind him. We assume it’s Pepper with a warning. But it’s Obadiah with the paralyzing doohickey. After which he takes the arc reactor from his chest, taunts him a bit, and leaves him to die.

You’re free to ask, as I did, where the hell Pepper Potts and Agent Coulson are during all of this. Writing reports? In a debriefing? I assumed when they left Obadiah’s that they were going to secure Tony’s place. Instead, they’re driving around town, on what errand, and send Rhodey to meet up with Tony. Rhodey shows up late. Tony, heartless, saves himself.

Basically Pepper and Coulson leave the Stark Industries building only to return to the Stark Industries building, by which point Obadiah has managed to, 1) berate his scientists, 2) get the arc reactor from Tony’s chest, and 3) make the Iron Monger suit operational. Basically Pepper and Coulson do what adults do when racing children: they take baby steps. Otherwise the story wouldn’t have its slam-bang finale.

The CGI battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger goes on too long for me, but I know I’m in the minority. I would’ve ended the fight with “How’d you solve the icing problem?” It’s Tony winning through smarts. Instead he wins with luck.

But the movie ends on a high note: “I am Iron Man.” Can’t get much better than that.

Homage to Stan and Jack and Don and Jerry and Joe and...
Overall, “Iron Man” works as well as it does because it’s got something for everyone. It’s got explosions and CGI fights for those folks, and it’s got wit and energy for me folks. It’s got three gigajoules worth of energy.

But let’s talk smart for a moment. One of my favorite lines is during the scene when Obadiah paralyzes Tony and takes his arc reactor and leaves him to die. Here’s what he says as Tony lies paralyzed:

Obadiah: You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?

It’s my assumption that one of the screenwriters, Mark Fergus or Hawk Ostby or Art Marcum or Matt Holloway, and/or director Jon Favreau, meant this as an homage to Don Heck, who helped create Iron Man back in 1963, and to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who created almost every decent superhero in the Marvel universe in the early 1960s, and to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who started the whole thing with Superman in the 1930s, all of whom never owned their own characters. They had ideas that never belonged to them. The line is a sly, winking homage to all of those salaried, ink-stained writers and artists, wretches all, who did the work and created the heroes and then saw the companies they worked for make millions and billions off of these ideas while their creations were taken away from them; while they were given take-it-or-leave-it offers; while they were pushed aside.

“You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?” If intentional, that’s one of the great smuggling jobs in movies; if not, it’s still wonderfully resonant. The villain says it to the hero as he’s taking life from the hero, but he’s just restating the bottom line of corporations like Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Paramount Pictures, all of those logos you see before the movie starts. In this context, these entities are the villains. We know who the heroes are.

Posted at 06:45 AM on Monday April 16, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  
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