Movie Reviews - 2000s posts
Saturday February 09, 2019
Movie Review: Hero (2002)
I don’t have much to say about Zhang Yimou's “Hero” but wanted to jot down a few notes so I’ll know in five or 10 years that I’ve already seen it. Because I might forget.
It’s kind of forgettable.
It’s beautiful, don't get me wrong. The direction and art direction and cinematography are all stunning. Plus, as in early Hollywood, there’s a cast of literally thousands. Chinese soldiers apparently make for cheap labor. And have we had five bigger stars of Chinese cinema in the same film?
But as a story, it goes nowhere.
It’s ancient times in China, before China was China. At this point it’s six constantly warring states, and the King of the Qin state (Chen Daoming), a murderous, tyrannical SOB, has recently survived an assassination attempt. Into his heavily guarded capital city arrives a man called Nameless (Jet Li), who has apparently killed the three attempted assassins: Sky (Donnie Yen) and the lovers, Broken Sword and Flying Snow (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung). He tells him how he did it. And with each story, he is allowed to move closer to the King.
Quickly we realize he’s probably an assassin himself. Which he is.
Most of the movie is Nameless’ stories about how he killed the others, and most of these stories are lies. They’re all in league with each other. Kinda sorta. The lovers are at odds, and Broken Sword has a disciple, appropriately named Moon (Zhang Ziyi), who is in love with him, and ... Etc. Etc.
We actually get very little of Sky/Donnie Yen. He’s in and out quickly.
The bigger point: We watch a lot of stuff that never happened, all of which leads to the moment when our titular hero doesn’t act. If you boiled it down, the movie is this:
- A guy sits before a king
- He tells a bunch of lies
- He doesn’t do what he came to do
- He’s killed
- The End
If there was a good reason to not kill the king I might’ve liked “Hero” more, but his reasoning is both ridiculously far-sighted and chest-thumpingly patriotic. The murderous king is the man who wants to unite the six warring states into one. Nameless must let him live so China can become China. He becomes the titular hero not by doing great deeds but by sacrificing himself so China may live.
Again, there may not be a more beautiful movie to look at: the colors, the leaves, the water, the soldiers, the actors. But it signifies not much.
Thursday September 06, 2018
Movie Review: The Tao of Steve (2000)
“The Tao of Steve,” a romantic comedy about relationships, sounds great anyway.
Dex (Donal Logue), a part-time kindergarten teacher, has distilled the wisdom of the great philosophers into a sure-fire way to get laid, the essence of which (I‘ll relay for all guys who’ve suddenly pricked up their ears) revolves around the Heideggerian proverb, “We pursue that which retreats from us.”
Fine, right? But how does a guy who doesn't exactly look like Robert Redford get women to pursue him?
Three precepts, according to Dex.
- Be desireless. This is especially effective for guys like Dex who are not Mel Gibson. As a result, women think, “Why isn't he interested in me? I'm such a step up for him.” They become intrigued.
- Be excellent (in her presence). Otherwise you‘re just some desireless schmoe in danger of becoming that modern eunuch, “the friend.”
- Be gone. And let the pursuit begin.
The titular Steve, by the way, is not a character in the film but an ideal. He is the prototypical American male, who, as one of Dex’s poker-playing buddies says, “Never tries to impress women but always gets the girl.” He is embodied in two TV characters, Steve Austin (the bionic one, not the Stone Cold one), and Steve McGarett of “Hawaii Five-0” fame. The ultimate ideal, though, is a movie star: Steve McQueen. Dex and his poker-playing buddies all want to be Steve McQueen.
All of which, as I said, sounds great. What's the problem then?
As unique as this discussion of relationships is, it still takes place within a conventional romantic comedy where, five minutes in, we pretty much know who the Love Interest will be (Syd, played by co-writer Greer Goodman, sister to first-time director Jenniphr Goodman), and how she and Dex will battle one another into a relationship. The bigger problem, though, is Donal Logue's Dex. While the unlikelihood of his success with women is a key component of the film, I never believed in it because he never seemed to let go of his desire. His desire is always there, masked imperfectly into a kind of bad jokiness.
He's like a stand-up comic who's taken Philosophy 101 and preys on weaker minds. His character is actually based on a real person, Duncan North, with whom director Jenniphr Goodman and her husband roomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Goodman, an NYU Film grad, was amazed by North's success with women and became intrigued by his “highly individual ideas about life and dating,” according to the press kit. A possible documentary on North eventually turned into this film, which North helped write, and which was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
There are hip conversations about relationships (Male Insanity Syndrome: the desire to “trade up” or do better than the woman you‘re with) but these come off like luke-warm “Seinfeld” episodes. At one point Syd even gives Dex an Elaine Benes-style “get out of here” push before the two engage in a very Seinfeldian conversation about not being “naked people”: those who enjoy getting naked in front of others.
The movie has its light, sweet moments, and occasional laugh-out-loud moments; and it’s not a bad film to see with a good mixed-gender crowd and then wrangle over the whole man/woman thing at a coffee shop afterwards. Just don't expect anything like enlightenment.
originally published in The Seattle Times, August 11, 2000
Tuesday May 08, 2018
Movie Review: Ip Man (2008)
Donnie Yen as Ip Man, the real-life Wing Chun martial artist who would eventually teach Bruce Lee, embodies the stillness of the master. He is quiet and modest, his movements minimal. At one point, I was reminded of the beginning of the final battle in “Drunken Master 2,” when an angry musclebound man wielding a chain battles Jackie Chan ... who is carrying only a Chinese hand fan. Here, in Ip Man’s second battle, he takes on a bullying northern master who is wielding an axe. Ip Man’s weapon? A feather duster.
The movie is in two parts: before and during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s/40s. We get four main Ip Man battles:
- vs. Master Liu (Chen Zhi-hui), who wants to test his prowess
- vs. Jin (Fan Sui-wong), the bristling northerner intent on embarassing the town of Foshan and all southern kung fu
- vs. 10 Japanese martial artists for 10 bags of rice, which Ip Man refuses
- vs. Gen. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), the movie’s main villain, an honorable autocrat intent on proving Japanese karate better than Chinese kung fu
Production values are high. Characters are stock but not outré. The movie is similar to its main character in that it has little wasted space.
Much of the movie is seeing who will become what under Japanese occupation. The cocky police inspector (Lam Ka Tung) becomes a translator ... and a traitor? No. He has honor. He does what he can to protect Chinese citizens. Ditto the Chinese businessman (Simon Yam). The main disappointment is the northerner, who winds up a thief in the woods robbing the Chinese, who have nothing. Fan Sui-wong has presence, but his character is an idiot; he’s Dennis Moore. Apparently he shows up in the sequels.
Ip Man, meanwhile, loses his estate to the Japanese and winds up shoveling coal. When the northerner begins to bully the factory workers, he relents and teaches them Wing Chun. Why has he resisted educating for so long? Not sure. Because he was wealthy? Because his wife (Lynn Hung) didn’t want him to?
That could’ve improved upon. The wife thing. There’s no more thankless task than to play the wife who tries to keep her husband from the plot. We’re here to see him do X (fight Apollo Creed, investigate the JFK assassination), she doesn’t want him to do X, so we wait. That's the wife here—particularly in the first half. She doesn’t want him to fight anyone, even for the honor of the town. In the second half, with Japanese everywhere, she’s more like Adrian waking from her coma: Win.
There’s not much more to it than that. “Ip Man,” directed by Wilson Yip, with fight choreography from Sammo Hong, reminds me a bit of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It doesn’t try to add to the classic kung fu movie; it reduces it to its essence. It tries to perfect what’s there.
Monday August 14, 2017
Movie Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)
It would be tough to imagine a more light-hearted, lyrical movie about the horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Normally I’d cry bullshit, but writer-director Dai Sijie based the movie on his own novella, which was based on his own experiences being re-educated in rural Sichuan province near the Tibet border from 1971 to 1974. Plus the movie is just lovely. Plus he gives us the lovelier Zhou Xun in the title role. Not Balzac; the other one.
At times I was reminded of the Danish coming-of-age film “Twist and Shout.” In both, two boys, between capers, respond to world events (Cultural Revolution; Beatlemania) and feel the deep ache of first love. In both, there’s an illegal abortion. In both, you can’t help but fall in love with the girl, too.
I was also reminded of “Pygmalion”: men attempting to educate a provincial woman. There are layers upon layers of irony in this. The two boys, Ma (Liu Ye) and Luo (Chen Kun), are sent to Sichuan province to unlearn western values and learn the deep, simple truths of peasants as dictated by Chairman Mao. Instead, they steal western literature, Balzac chiefly, and inculcate the little Chinese seamstress (Zhou) on the very thing they’re supposed to be unlearning: western values. Near the end, they toast each other for doing this well.
How well do they do this? She leaves them.
What Paris is
When they first arrive in the rural, mountainous village, one anticipates the worst. They’re out-of-their-element city boys whose very strength—their smarts—has been deemed a moral weakness, a plague upon the country and culture. A book they bring with them, a book of recipes for God’s sake, is torn up and thrown into the fire by the village leader (Wang Shuangbao) as being too bourgeois. He nearly does the same with Ma’s violin, too, which he thinks is a child’s toy, but Luo saves it. He says that it plays music. He gets Ma to play a Mozart sonata and lies about its provenance. He says it’s a mountain song entitled “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” The violin is saved.
I kept expecting a comeuppance that never came. Yes, their job is to lug vats of liquid shit up the mountains, spilling it over themselves as they go, but soon the capers begin. They sneak to a nearby village to watch its girls bathing beneath a waterfall. One of them is the little Chinese seamstress, who becomes fascinated with the city boys. Soon they’re inseparable, and the boys take it upon themselves to educate her into the world beyond her own. They hear rumors that Four Eyes (Wang Hongwei), the son of an intellectual, apparently taking to reeducation well, has a secret cache of western literature. It’s true, they steal it, and in nearby caves they read her Dostoevsky, Dumas, Flaubert and Balzac. How much doesn’t she know? What Paris is; what France is; where Europe is.
More, because they have a talent for storytelling, they are tasked with going into town, watching North Korean propaganda films at outdoor cinema, then reenacting the story for the villagers. One time, Luo retells them a Balzac story instead. He gets them to shout out the title. It’s amusing. Rather than being re-educated from western influences, he’s educating them in western literature. And it has its effects. The seamstress’ grandfather, the old tailor (Cong Zhijun), creates embroidered garments. We see the seamstress trying on the first bra in the village. The world is opening up.
Both boys fall in love with the little Chinese seamstress, of course, but she begins a relationship with the more handsome of the two, Luo, who, at one point, leaves for two months to attend to his sick father. (There is much more mobility during the Cultural Revolution than I realized.) It’s then that she reveals to Ma that she’s pregnant. We’re walked through a series of Mao-era Catch 22s: Abortions are legal but only with a marriage certificate; but you can only marry after age 25 and our protagonists are just 18. So Ma, the son of a doctor, convinces one of his father’s colleagues to perform the service. For his help, he gives him Balzac.
What changes her
I love the way the movie moves. It ambles like a lazy summer afternoon but the story coheres; in the end, the pathway is distinct. It leads Ma, our narrator, to Paris, where he makes his living as part of a string quartet, and where, one day in the late 1990s, he hears news of the Three Gorges Dam project, which will flood the Sichuan village where he once lived. So he returns, with camera, to film what’s there, and to look for the little Chinese seamstress, with whom he’s still in love. Some of the villagers recall her, or the old tailor, but that’s it. There’s no sign of her. Then Ma flies to Shanghai for a reunion with Luo, who’s a doctor, married, and with a child. Years earlier, in 1982, he too went looking for the Chinese seamstress to no avail. They drink, watch Ma’s video, reminisce.
Then we get a flashback to the day she left. She leaves early and the grandfather wakes the boys, who run in pursuit. They catch her on the stone path between the verdant, vertiginous Chinese mountains, his hair cut short, wearing tennis shoes. Ma hangs back while Luo talks. We get this exchange:
She: I decided I’m leaving.
He: What changed you?
In a way it’s more poignant than “Pygmalion.” Henry Higgins shows Eliza the world and she returns to him; the boys show the seamstress the world and she leaves them for it.
In the last part of the movie, this joint French-Chinese production, we see the video Ma took of the Sichuan village being flooded. The camera—Dai’s, not Ma’s—pans in, and we see the tailor’s old sewing machine, and the bottle of French perfume Ma brought for the little seamstress, being submerged. Underwater, the bottle twirls; it dances. Then, still underwater, we see a door open, and there are our protagonists as they were in the early ’70s: Ma playing violin while Luo reads Balzac to the little Chinese seamstress. The past isn’t buried, it’s submerged. It’s a final image so poignant as to be piercing.
Saturday July 29, 2017
Movie Review: Hollywood Chinese (2007)
It’s a polite documentary. That’s what you take away. It’s a surprisingly polite compendium of a century of racist casting and storytelling in Hollywood.
Only 10 years have passed since “Hollywood Chinese” first aired on PBS’s “American Experience,” but here’s how long ago that was: The talking heads in the doc use the term Yellow Face, rather than the hashtag-ready #whitewashing, to describe white actors playing Asian characters. And here’s how long ago that wasn’t. That shit’s still happening. Hollywood is still casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles. I’m not talking Matt Damon in “The Great Wall”—that character is supposed to be European—but more like Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” and Emma Stone in whatever hell movie that was. How depressing that this still goes on. I get it: studios want a bankable name. I get it: actors want a challenge. But c’mon. Would Tilda Swinton do blackface? History won’t look kind.
In this regard “Hollywood Chinese,” as polite as it is, is a corrective. It’s a history lesson.
The sad earth
Writer-director Arthur Dong takes us all the way back to the beginning of the movies, the early Nickelodeon silents. Historian Stephen Fong mentions that the Chinese were subjects in two kinds of movies: 1) China as the oldest civilization in the world—and least-known to westerners; and 2) the exoticism of Chinatown. For the latter, we get no end of opium movies, including “Broken Blossoms” (based on the short story “The Chink and the Child”), but I don’t recall much for the former. Instead, we see fictionalized newsreel footage of the anarchy during the Boxer Rebellion. Two shorts, both from 1900: “Beheading a Chinese Prisoner,” in which, with stop action, a Chinese man appears to have his head cut off; and “Massacre of the Christians by the Chinese,” in which the Chinese do the same to Christian missionaries, then celebrate holding their heads aloft. It’s a “holy shit” moment. It’s like something ISIS would’ve produced.
The first Chinese-American filmmaker, according to the doc, was Marion Wong, born in California, who wrote and directed “The Curse of Quon Gown (1917), starring her sister-in-law Violet. She went bankrupt. We get the early films of James B. Leong and Esther Eng, and then Fong says this:
What we didn’t see happen is the development of an alternative cinema such as you have with a race film—black film—or with Yiddish film. You had some aspiration for that, but it was not to be.
That’s left hanging. Why didn’t it happen with Chinese filmmakers? Is there a reason? A supposition? A half-assed guess?
When a big Hollywood movie was finally made about China, “The Good Earth,” based on Pearl Buck’s novel, the Chinese leads, of course, went to Caucasians: Luise Rainier and Paul Muni. From there we explore Charlie Chan (played by whites), Fu Manchu (played by whites), Chinese playing Japanese and vice versa; the submissive sexualization of Chinese women (Nancy Kwan, Joan Chen) and the de-sexualization of Chinese men. Each subject could be its own doc. It’s a shame this isn’t a series.
The most poignant, thought-provoking moments for me are near the end. B.D. Wong rides his Tony award for “M. Butterfly” into a supporting role in the Steve Martin comedy “Father of the Bride,” playing the outlandish gay assistant to the more outlandish gay wedding planner played by Martin Short. And he says this about that:
I’m at once feeling like I’ve somehow been invited to a party that I’ve never been invited to—world-class comic film actors, all Caucasian, a character that was not written for an Asian-American character. And I won the role by merit. I was thrilled to have done so. And then I found myself in a kind of bed that I made, which was: You’re cashing in the Asian-American desexualized chip.
I was always aware of this chip being cashed in. And I’m not at all regretful of it. What I’m regretful of is that I even have to have this discussion.
That last part is perfect. Because what’s the difference between what Wong does and Martin Short? Why is one OK and the other not? Because there’s not enough macho Asian roles to counterbalance it? Is Bruce Lee not enough by himself?
I’ve never been a big fan of Justin Lin, but he says two things here that impressed me. The first is about how Chinese-Americans are trapped between two cultures, and they’re “other” in both:
As an Asian-American, I go to Asia and I don’t belong there. They have different rules. They want to see exotic white people in their world. Like, it’s the reverse, you know? So you’re kinda stuck as an Asian-American. You’re like, “Hey, we’re three-dimensional [in my movie]!” And they’re like, “Oh, fuck you, I don’t care. We wanna see white people.”
He also takes down a very white, very privileged notion of “selling out,” and it’s about fucking time:
When you’re in film school everyone talks about, “Oh, I wouldn't make a studio film, that's selling out.” And you’re like, “You know how hard it is to ‘sell out’? To, like, work with a studio? They only hire 12 people a year—in the whole world!”
Walking the earth
Oddly, no “Kung Fu.” I suppose because the focus is on movies rather than TV. But it would’ve been worth it. There’s Yellow Face issues (David Carradine), as well as the second coming of Key Luke and Philip Ahn. Or maybe I wanted this—expected this—because “Kung Fu” is where I first became aware of Chinese culture. And while it was “other” it was positive. It was strong, quiet and peaceful, and posited against dirty American racists. It was cool, too, and later referenced in one of the coolest movies in Hollywood history:
Jules: Basically, I’m gonna walk the earth.
Vincent: What do you mean, “walk the earth”?
Jules: You know, like Caine in “Kung Fu.” Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
We get the example of Wayne Wang, who rode “Chan is Missing” into indie success and middling mainstream success—including Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” We get the blistering embarrassment of Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles.” We get Ang Lee as talking head—more for the prestige value, one imagines, since he’s Taiwanese, not Asian-American.
I didn’t need Luise Rainier justifying her use of Yellow Face in grandiose terms; I didn’t need Christopher Lee talking about “Orientals.” I would’ve liked follow-up on the Chinese/Japanese thing, since, in “The Joy Luck Club,” which is viewed positively here, a Japanese-American actress, Tamlyn Tomita, was cast as one of the Chinese-American daughters, while another daughter, Rosalind Chao, gained fame playing a Japanese character on “Star Trek—The Next Generation.”
An update already feels necessary. I imagine the next one won’t be so polite.
Friday August 19, 2016
Movie Review: Catwoman (2004)
You should never make a superhero out of a domesticated animal. Seriously. There is no Dog Man, no Gerbilboy, no “The Goldfish.” And if maybe you can get away with it, like maybe you can get away with it with Catwoman, you should never have the hero adopt the mannerisms of the domesticated animal.
In “Catwoman,” once Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) dies and is reborn because an Egyptian Mau kitty named Midnight sits on her chest and breathes into her face, we witness her do the following:
- go crazy for catnip
- order cream at a bar and slurp it
- stare at fish in a fish tank with goggle eyes
- gobble sushi/tuna
- run from rain
I’m surprised one of the villains didn’t get out a piece of string.
Quiet or papa spank
Who’s the villain in “Catwoman”? Spider-Man fights the Green Goblin, who wants power; Batman fights the Joker, who wants chaos. Catwoman fights Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), former face of Hedare Beauty Products, who wants to stay younger-looking longer. OK.
Hedare is upset when she’s shunted aside for a younger model by her bitchy CEO husband George (Lambert Wilson). She’s a woman scorned. She’s also a tough executive. Her company is about to introduce a new product, Beau Line, pronounced bee-yew lean, which not only hides the effects of aging but actually removes them. Of course, women who use the cream complain of headaches and nausea, and its chief scientist warns that if someone stops using the product, their face kinda sorta disintegrates. So there are side-effects. For that bit of info, the scientist is killed—his death blamed on Catwoman—and Laurel pushes the product forward. Because they have millions invested in it? Won’t this side-effect be obvious eventually? Isn’t the FDA paying any attention?
Wait, there’s more. Because this is some magical beauty product.
Sure, if you stop using Beau Line your face disintegrates, but if you keep using it your skin turns into living marble. You become virtually invulnerable. And that’s what happens to Laurel, who I guess has been using it longer than anyone. And it finally gives the movie its requisite supervillain. A bit late, sure, about five minutes before the end, but it allows the usual WWE tide-turning in the final battle: 1) hero winning; 2) hero on ropes (clinging to top floor of skyscraper); 3) villain vanquished (falling from skyscraper).
Worse is why Laurel falls. She sees her reflection in the skyscraper’s glass, realizes her face is disintegrating, and can’t live in a world where she's not beautiful. It’s like the Green Goblin losing to Spider-Man because of shrinkage.
“I was everything they wanted me to be,” Laurel tells Catwoman. “I was never more beautiful, never more powerful. And then I turned 40 and they turned me away.” The movie is a metaphor for Sharon Stone’s entire shitty career. It's a metaphor for the shittiness of Hollywood.
It’s also a primer for everything you shouldn’t do in a female superhero movie. Quickly: Don’t have your main character work at a cosmetic company. C’mon. The supervillain should be a man, I feel, but if it is a woman don’t pit youth against age; just leaves a bad taste. (Cf., “Supergirl”) And does any male character become hyper-sexualized when they develop powers? Does their sexuality become part of their power? Feels like the masturbatory dreams of boys who draw women well but interact with the real thing poorly.
There’s a way they might’ve justified Catwoman’s overt sexuality and slinking around. It’s in a line that Midnight’s owner, the crazy cat lady Ophelia (Frances Conroy), tells Patience as she’s explaining the history of her ancient Egyptian powers. “Catwomen are not contained by the rules of society,” she says. “You follow your own desires. This is both a blessing and a curse. ... But you will experience a freedom other women will never know.”
Many women I know are afraid to go out alone at night. They feel circumscribed by the constant, potential violence of men. This should’ve been Patience. Instead of a mousy, overly polite graphic designer who talks into her chest and whom nobody realizes is as beautiful as Halle Berry, she should’ve been someone who had experienced violence, possibly rape, or at least the threat of it. She was afraid to go out at night. Then she developed powers and owned the night. Hell, this could’ve been her raison d’etre. Spider-Man has the great power/responsibility line, Batman has revenge for the death of his parents, Catwoman could've had this.
Instead, she licks Benjamin Bratt’s face, licks her lips after drinking cream, dances seductively at a club with a whip, struts on building parapets like she’s a model on a catwalk. She says meow.
To Wong Foo, thanks for everything
There’s such idiocy here: the sassy friend who becomes sick then gets the doctor of her dreams; the sets (industrial fan, etc.) like out of some shitty 1984 MTV video; the fact that Patience first displays her powers in a one-on-one basketball game.
My favorite idiotic bit may be the rationale for why Patience becomes Catwoman in the first place. Seems Midnight the cat foresaw Patience’s fate, so she decided to see if she was worthy. How? By hanging out on Patience’s window ledge, three stories up, then climbing onto a higher ledge when Patience peeked out. And that’s how Patience proved her worth: by climbing out onto a ledge to save a cat that didn’t need saving. It's like jumping into the air to save a bird.
It didn’t have to be this way. “X-Men” had been released four years earlier, “Spider-Man” two years earlier. People knew how to do it. But Warner Bros. chose a one-named Frenchman, Pitof, who had directed exactly one feature, to helm it; they picked several journeyman screenwriters, John Brancato and Michael Ferris (“The Net”), to pen it; and we got this hot mess.
Hey, Halle Berry, you just became the first African-American actress to win an Oscar for acting in a lead role. What are you going to do now?
I’m gonna play Catwoman!
Thursday June 30, 2016
Movie Review: What Just Happened (2008)
The book was better.
Seriously, how sad is it that Hollywood can’t make a good movie from a juicy, insidery memoir about the absurdity of making movies in Hollywood? Shouldn’t they own that shit?
Art Linson’s book, “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line,” focuses on Linson’s years in the late ’90s producing pictures for Fox Studios, including: “The Edge,” “Great Expectations,” “Pushing Tin,” and “Fight Club.” You look at that list and think, “Well, ‘Fight Club’ anyway.” Except that one was the real disaster. The Fox brass was horrified by the film. Nobody got it. And it led to a shitty marketing campaign that smoothed over the very things—its violent complexity; its take on modern male culture—that might have made it a box office success. “Fight Club” has become part of the cultural vernacular but at the time, to use a Linson phrase, it didn’t keep anyone’s swimming pool heated.
Think of that. The thing that’s dismissed out of hand by the people in power is the thing that means something, the thing that lasts. This dichotomy is indicative of Hollywood but not limited to Hollywood.
Bring me the beard of Alec Baldwin
Linson’s memoir gives you all of this; it’s blunt and funny. The movie, which he wrote, soft-pedals and fictionalizes things. It follows the rules of “Fight Club” by not talking about “Fight Club.”
Instead, we get “Fiercely,” an idiotic-looking (and idiotically titled) action-adventure movie starring Sean Penn; and instead of the stunned horror of Fox execs at the “Fight Club” screening, we get dull art/commerce arguments:
- The rebellious director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) wants to kill his hero in the end—and his little dog, too.
- Preview audiences freak when the dog is shot.
- The studio head (Catherine Keener) makes Brunell change the ending for the Cannes Film Festival so the dog lives.
- Brunell screens the dead-dog version anyway.
- Our hero, Ben (Robert De Niro), the movie’s producer, becomes persona non grata at the studio as a result.
Worse, I actually liked the ending where the dog lives. It’s bittersweet; it resonates. Brunell’s “artistic” ending simply piles on misery. I’ve said it before: Just because studios and test audiences want the happy ending doesn’t mean the grim ending is any good. It’s probably equally reductive.
Oh, the movie screws up the story of Alec Baldwin’s beard, too.
In the mid-1990s, Baldwin, still a leading man, agreed to make a movie called “Bookworm” (eventually: “The Edge”), written by David Mamet, but he showed up to the reading wearing a heavy beard. He was supposed to be the young rival to an older patriarch, played by Anthony Hopkins, but Baldwin looked as old as Hopkins. They needed him to shave, but he refused: temper tantrums, curses, overturning tables, etc. He kept claiming artistic integrity. Finally, days before shooting begins, he shaves. Afterwards, Linson asks an actor friend why Baldwin was so committed to the beard and the friend responds, “Alec probably thought he was a little too heavy and he didn’t like the way his chin looked.”
And in the movie? It’s Bruce Willis rather than Baldwin; and after much ado, including asinine behavior at a funeral, everyone gathers around Bruce’s trailer on the first day of filming to see if he’s shaved. When the door opens, he appears in the doorframe in profile—still bearded. Do you see it coming? A mile away? I did. Bruce turns and the other half of his face is shaved. Then he makes a joke and everyone on screen laughs. They’re friends again!
In the book we got the small, vain, but very human reason inside all that hifalutin artistic/commercial turmoil. In the movie we got ... Got me.
You can’t handle the truth
Linson and director Barry Levinson also add a love story to the movie: Who’s Been Sleeping with My Beautiful Ex-Wife (Robin Wright)? Like we give a fuck.
The book is about how difficult it is to get movies made, and how difficult it is for any movie made to make money. More, it’s about all the forces that prevent Hollywood movies from being good or true. The movie proves the book's point.
Wednesday October 07, 2015
Movie Review: Rocky Balboa (2006)
“Take It Back” plays over the title credits of “Rocky Balboa,” which is appropriate since that’s what Sylvester Stallone does here. He takes us back 30 years to the days of “Rocky.”
We get Spider Rico again, the first boxer we saw Rocky fight, and Little Marie, the “Screw you, creepo!” girl who didn’t listen to his advice when he walked her home that one night. We see two turtles in Rocky’s room, replacements for Cuff and Link, and instead of running through the Italian market to Bill Conti’s ridiculously uplifting score, Rocky (Stallone) buys produce for his restaurant, Adrian’s, where he acts as gregarious host telling old boxing stories to the patrons.
Adrian’s dead now, joining Mickey (“III”) and Apollo (“IV”), which leaves us with Paulie (Burt Young), the one who won't go away. He’s back at the meat plant for most of this movie, and is the complaining chorus as Rocky, on the anniversary of Adrian’s death in 2002 (“woman cancer” Rocky explains to Little Marie), does a nostalgic tour of their old haunts—or at least the ones from the first movie. There’s the pet shop where she used to work; there’s Mighty Mick’s, more rundown than ever. The ice rink where they went on their Thanksgiving date is torn down now, so Rocky stands beside the rubble, reminiscing. He even goes by his old apartment—the 1818 one—the one he couldn’t wait to get away from; the one that STINKS. He’s fond of it now.
Which raises a question: In old age, do we get nostalgic about even the things we hated in our youth? Or is the nostalgia tour more for Stallone? A reminder of better days for him, and for the movies?
A cruise or something
I always felt “Rocky” epitomized the split between good ‘70s films and crap ‘80s flicks. The first half is a ‘70s character study of a down-on-his-luck dude, skirting morality and legality; a man who WASTED his life, in the words of Mickey. The second half is, you know, “Rocky”: an inspirational tale of perseverance and success. When the receipts came in, making “Rocky” the No. 1 box-office hit of 1976, Hollywood began to run with the second half of this equation and hasn’t stopped. We got less and less character study and greater and greater wish-fulfillment fantasy. In the subsequent “Rocky” movies, it wasn’t enough to go the distance; Rocky had to win. Then he had to beat: 1) angry blacks; 2) Russia; 3) punk kids. He got sleeker and smarter and less talky. In the original, he talked forever. Whatever was on his mind. He filled gaps.
We get this Rocky again. He’s not sleek here; he’s a pug. The first half of the movie is a character study of the lion in winter, and it’s not bad. It’s touching when Rocky puts on his glasses in the Italian market to read from his grocery list. There are subplots with his son, Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia from “Heroes”), that aren’t cartoonish. Junior has a corporate job with a douchey boss who belittles him even as he admires Rocky. He’s trying to create space for himself away from his father’s shadow.
I think the relationship between Rocky and Little Marie went on too long and go too creepy (creepo), but I like the dialogue after he first drives her home. It says a lot about our society. Two kids, one black and one white, are hanging near her front stoop. That’s my son, she says.
Rocky: You know he sort of resembles you—he’s got that big Irish hair.
Marie: Yeah, it’s the other one.
Marie: His father was from Jamaica.
Rocky (nodding): Jamaica. European. [Pause] Was you on a cruise or something?
I was hoping it would remain this kind of character study, but it’s a Rocky movie so we have to have a fight. But even here Stallone goes retro.
During the training sequence, Rocky drinks raw eggs and pounds frozen meat, neither of which he’s done since the first film. More importantly, his opponent here, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), isn’t demonized the way Rocky’s post-Apollo opponents were. Clubber Lang was all seething trashtalk, Ivan Drago amoral Teutonic stoicism, Tommy Gunn whiny, spoiled need. They’re cartoons. Dixon is a little more complex. The movie has mixed feelings about him that bend positively. He winds up a good guy. At the same time, he’s kind of a non-entity.
In the sequels, Rocky always won. Here, as in “Rocky,” he goes the distance but loses. But in losing he wins. As does Dixon. It’s win-win.
So “Rocky Balboa” isn't a bad movie. I’d probably say it’s the second- or third-best Rocky movie.
Sunshine and rainbows
Sorry, but it makes no sense that the boxing match is a win for Dixon. The criticism of him in the press is twofold:
- He doesn’t have heart
- He wouldn’t have lasted a round against the superior fighters of the past—like Rocky Balboa.
In the match with Rocky, he shows heart. He breaks his hand and keeps going. He shows people he’s a true champ—that’s what everyone says afterward. But look at that second criticism. He barely wins a split decision against a 60-year-old man. What does that tell you about his place in boxing history? In losing, Rocky wins, but in winning, Dixon loses. He should never have taken the fight. It was lose-lose from the beginning.
We also get a ton of fudged messages to arrive at the feel-good ending. Paulie tells Rocky, “You’re livin’ backwards,” Robert Jr. tells his father he’s having trouble living in his shadow, and everyone objects when Rocky decides to fight again. All of these people are essentially correct but the movie doesn’t recognize that. In the movie, the fight totally makes sense, his son shouldn’t use excuses for why he’s not his own man—that’s what cowards do—and apparently it’s OK to live in the past if it’s with the girl you loved.
There are better lessons the movie could have played up. This, for example, is what Rocky says to his son before telling him that cowards use excuses:
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.
So if nobody hits as hard as life, why isn’t that the story? Why go into the ring for the lesser hits? Why not make the superior hits the story?
I know. Because that’s not what the public wants. Or what studio execs think the public wants. Of course, back in 1975, studio execs didn’t think we wanted a feel-good story about a down-on-his-luck boxer going the distance, either.
Monday September 07, 2015
Movie Review: The Cat's Meow (2001)
Peter Bogdanovich has always been fascinated with early Hollywood (cf., “Nickelodeon”), so the scandal-laden death of film pioneer Thomas Ince while he was aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during a 1924 trip down the coast, which included Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Louella Parson (Jennifer Tilly) and Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), well, that’s the cat’s meow.
The result is a fairly straightforward picture, with touches of melodrama in the end.
I first saw the movie shortly after it was released, but 14 years later had pretty much forgotten whodunit. Didn’t Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros leave Ince’s death up in the air?
No, they didn’t.
Orson Welles, piker
Almost everyone boards Hearst’s Oneida with an agenda that relates to Hearst:
- Ince, credited with creating the “cowboy picture,” but with career floundering, wants to strike a deal with Hearst.
- Chaplin wants to woo Davies away from Hearst.
- Parsons wants greater Hearst distribution for her entertainment column.
The rest, mostly girls, just want to have fun.
So what happens? Ince witnesses Chaplin wooing Davies and uses this intel to get closer to Hearst. He keeps feeding him information (innuendo, love letters) until Hearst’s volcanic, cuckolded anger erupts. Except Hearst mistakes Ince—wearing Charlie’s hat, and talking softly with Marion in a stairwell—for Charlie, and shoots him in the head. Ince, in other words, creates the circumstances for his own death.
In the messy aftermath, the murder is covered up, Chaplin and Davies part company, and Parsons, a witness, lands a lifetime contract with Hearst’s newspapers and becomes one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.
How true is all this? Unknown. It’s gossip and guesswork. Apparently Bogdanovich first heard about it from that great raconteur Orson Welles, and in telling Welles’ tale, Bogdanovich actually gets to outdo his idol. In “Citizen Kane,” Welles suggested Hearst was a megalomaniac, warmonger, tyrant, bad friend, and a poor little boy who just wanted his sled—but he stopped short of murderer.
What I never understood while watching? Why these people were on that boat. Why did Hearst invite Chaplin? To spy on him? If so, why in the early going does he seem oblivious? Why invite Ince if he doesn’t want to do business with him? Or did Marion choose the guest list?
Dunst makes a great, bubbly Marion, and Izzard is a good Chaplin, if a bit thick-limbed and graceless. (Chaplin would’ve been all over that Charleston number.) The standout is Edward Hermann’s Hearst: the giant undone by the Little Tramp, and then, post-tragedy, remade by will, wealth and power.
(I’m curious: Did Hearst’s newspapers hound Chaplin after this? Were they part of the “Get Charlie out of the good ol’ USA” line in the late 1940s? Anyone know?)
Another standout is Joanna Lumley as the cold-eyed romance writer and Valentino screenwriter Elinor Glyn, who I knew nothing about before this movie. (Apparently she popularized the concept of It, as in “The It Girl.”) So much of our history just goes. We need to remind ourselves how our archetypes (cowboys, Valentinos) were created and monetized. In the long run, that’s a more valuable exercise than figuring out who killed Thomas Ince. Ince is long dead, but we still have Valentinos. And men are still being elected president of the United States by pretending to be cowboys.
Tuesday June 16, 2015
Movie Review: Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss (2008)
Here’s a quote from “Cinemas of the World” by James Chapman that I’ve always found helpful in explaining the world:
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
I expected more of that, or at least some of that, from the documentary “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss.” Instead, Felix Moeller’s look at Veit Harlan, the Frank Capra of Nazi filmmakers who directed one of the most notorious anti-Semitic films of the era, a period drama called “Jew Süss” (1940), focuses almost exclusively on how Harlan’s family has dealt with its tarnished legacy.
His son Thomas led a fascinating life, although we get only glimpses of it here. He became a playwright, a poet, a filmmaker. In the 1960s, in Italy, he unearthed thousands of Nazi crimes, which helped with thousands of prosecutions. He became, in effect, a Nazi hunter. He also publicly condemned his father. “Once you’ve seen that the fruit of your work turns into a murder weapon, it is difficult to just say, ‘Well, I’m a filmmaker and I will carry on making films,’” he says. “That was the end for me.”
Another son, Kristian, wearing a trim beard and a severe look, takes the opposite tack. “The image of my father is mine,” he says without heat but with firmness. “And it’s nobody’s business what I think of my father or my mother,”
Caspar calls his father’s work “unforgivable,” while a daughter, Maria Körber, talks about how work-oriented their father was—to the exclusion of all else. She also mentions seeing “Jew Süss” late in life and wondering what the fuss was all about.
So do we, in a sense, since we only get glimpses of the movie here. No one even tells us the plot. We have to look that up for ourselves.
Basically, it’s a Nazi version of “Birth of a Nation.” In the 18th century, a Jewish merchant wiedles his way to power, taxes the people, takes a Christian woman by force, and is eventually executed for the crime. “May the citizens of other states never forget this lesson,” one character intones in the end. It was a huge box office success in both Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Overall, Harlan’s movies were seen by more than 100 million people during the war.
That's why it’s startling when we learn that earlier in life Harlan had married a Jewish woman—a cabaret singer named Dora Gerson, whom he divorced in 1924. (She died at Auschwitz.) The phrase “fellow traveler” comes up often to describe his politics. He wanted to make movies and went along with whatever regime was in power. For most of his career, that was the Nationalist Socialist Party.
The Harlans are spread over Europe now. One grandchild, Alice, is French and beautiful; another, Caspar, is Italian and handsome. Harlan’s niece, Christiane, wound up living in England with her husband Stanley Kubrick (yes, that one), while her brother, Jan, produced Kubrick’s last four films: “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Overall, the doc includes too little history and too much handwringing. It’s video footage of what the Harlans think of Veit Harlan, and of being Harlan. The nature of propaganda is hardly explored.
The most telling moment may be when Maria admits that her father didn’t feel particularly guilty about any of it. “He’d always claimed that he’d been forced,” she says, “and that he’d been under such pressure that he couldn’t refuse.” This is then juxtaposed with the ending of “Jew Süss,” in which the Jewish merchant, on trial, says the same thing:
The charges against me are due to the direct orders I received from my duke. I have the duke’s written orders. You can check. I am merely the faithful servant of my master!
It's not only ironic but unoriginal. It was the most tired defense of the era. Or any era.
Friday December 19, 2014
Movie Review: Please Teach Me English (2003)
Comedies don’t travel well, but since I taught English abroad—Taiwan, late 1980s—I thought Kim Sung-su’s South Korean comedy, “Please Teach Me English,” might work for me. And it does, for the most part, but I doubt I needed the ESL experience to appreciate it.
The comedy is pretty broad. At times it’s really broad. There are bells and whistles: thought balloons popping up on screen, cartoon versions of the lead character, a video game takeoff of ESL. It’s fun. But it goes on about a half hour too long. In the boy-meets-girl playbook, it plays like this:
- Girl meets boy
- Boy is a jerk
- Boy becomes less of a jerk
- Girl becomes more of a jerk
- Girl does something so awful I lost all interest in her
- Boy gets girl
If I were the filmmakers, I might have lost step 5.
A financial Sophie’s Choice
It begins well. Slow-motion panic enuses at a government office in Seoul when an American shows up to complain about his electricity bill. Everyone ducks out of the way, unsure of their English ability, and afterwards at a restaurant/bar they all play spin the bottle to see who in the office will take English lessons to deal with foreigners in the future. The bottle lands on our heroine, Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong), who might be one of the few people in Asia who doesn’t want to learn English.
But off she goes, meets the cute boy, Park Moon-su (Jang Hyuk)—the smooth “playa” in her class whom the cute blonde teacher, Catherine (Angela Kelly), dubs “Elvis” for his sideburns. He eminates nothing but disinterest, not to mention a lazy kind of loutishness, but she’s smitten anyway. She does whatever she can to land him.
Since this is Asian cinema, there’s pathos amid the comedy. Years earlier, Moon-su’s mother faced a kind of financial Sophie’s Choice: She had two children, couldn’t afford both, so she gave up the daughter, Victoria. Now Victoria is a successful attorney in New York and coming to visit for the first time. That’s why Moon-su, a shoe salesman, is taking the ESL course—so they can talk between the tears.
Of course, just when our romantic couple is about to get together (step 3, above), Yeong-ju finds the photo of the pretty Korean girl in his wallet, assumes it’s Moon-su’s girlfriend rather than his long-lost sister, and retreats. He pursues. She retreats again. And again. Then she does step 5. Corralled into translating for mother and daughter, and still assuming Victoria is the girlfriend rather than the sister, Yoeng-ju tells Victoria that the mother and Moon-su both hate her and never want to see her again. It’s a pretty horrible moment. But then she goes the other way—flinging herself in front of Victoria’s cab to tell her the truth—before running away again, pursed by Moon-su, who, in a nice bit, if one that goes on too long, finally corners her on a subway and slips on her feet the red shoes she’s always wanted while professing his love for her. Applause from the people in the subway. Cinderella wins, even though she was a total jerk 10 minutes earlier.
War in somewhere
It’s not bad, not great, but what recommends the movie for me is its take on English and America: from the colorful and confusing corporate logos swirling around Yeong-ju as she rides the bus, to the Hollywood SWAT team that, in Yeong-ju’s nightmare, bursts in on their class and demands they answer a question in English at gunpoint: What is your favorite movie?
But my favorite moment was when Yeong-ju was watching CNN as a way to improve her English. A western correspondent in fatigues was reporting from abroad. The headline? WAR IN SOMEWHERE. Nothing says “America” more than that.
START: What does Na Yeong-ju want? To live in a world where she won''t have to speak English.
The world doesn''t cooperate.
But at least in ESL class she meets a cute boy.
Unfortunately, he''s a jerk.
Fortunately, she's goofy.
But there's all those damn western girls around. (Psst: They put out.)
Meanwhile, ESL is as scary as a video game.
Or a SWAT team nightmare.
But is anything as scary as U.S. foreign policy? *FIN*
Sunday May 04, 2014
Movie Review: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made? I’ve stated so in the past, but we’ll see how I feel at the end of this review.
The movie is based upon one of the classics of the Silver Age of Comics, Spider-Man #50, “Spider-Man No More!,” written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita and published in July 1967, in which our hero, tired of losing as Peter Parker as often as he wins as Spider-Man, dumps the Spidey costume in a back alley and gets on with his life. It’s all going fine until he spies an old security guard being roughed up by hoods and comes to his rescue. Why does he save him? Because the old man reminds him ... of course! … of Uncle Ben! How could he forget? Indeed. How could Peter forget the man who raised him but lost his life because Peter was too busy making money as Spider-Man to stop a simple thief? That’s like Adam and Eve forgetting the snake. And that’s the main problem with Spider-Man #50.
Director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent, working off a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and famed novelist Michael Chabon, go a slightly different route. Just as their first movie, “Spider-Man,” internalized Spidey’s webs, making them part of his physiology rather than a weekend Peter Parker science project (thwip!), so “Spider-Man 2” internalizes the “No more!” part. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gives up being Spider-Man because he actually loses his powers. He never forgets his Uncle Ben.
Forget him? Shit. He’s haunted by him.
Worst. Party. Ever.
This is the superhero movie, by the way, that most reminds me of the period when I was collecting comic books: roughly 1973 to 1977. It’s Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man. No Spider-Mobile, thank god, but Pete’s got the tenement walk-up, the rent is due, and he’s failing his classes. Everything that can go wrong, does. In the movie, he’s fired as a pizza delivery guy, then forced to take J.J.J.’s crap pay so J.J.J. (J.K. Simmons) can turn the city against him. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is losing her house, Harry Osborn (James Franco) is obsessed with revenge, and M.J. (Kirsten Dunst) is dating a handsome astronaut, who just happens to be J.J.J.’s son, John (Daniel Gillies). You wonder when Pete’s going to break.
He does in bits. He’s web-slinging through the city and suddenly ... no web. He looks over a tall building and feels vertigo. But he still turns into Spidey to save: 1) the city from Otto Octavius’ botched fusion reaction experiment; and 2) Aunt May from a bank-robbing Doc Ock. But the third time? Bupkis. No web, no grip, no nothing. “Why is this happening to me?” he says. His doctor, tapping his noggin, tells him the problem is “up here.”
Later, up there, Pete debates a ghostly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson):
Uncle Ben: You’ve been given a gift, Peter. With great power comes great responsibility.
Peter: No, Uncle Ben. I’m just Peter Parker. I’m Spider-Man no more.
Cut to: a goofy montage of everything going Pete’s way, backed by Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
But to get back to his earlier question: Why is this happening to him?
Back in 2004, I assumed it was the weight of all of it: Harry, Aunt May, J.J.J., M.J., Aasif Mandvi. But it’s not. It’s just M.J.
The clue comes early, during a kitchen table conversation with Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). “If you keep something as complicated as love stored up,” Octavius tells him, holding hands with his wife, “it can make you sick.” And so it does.
The final straw is a brutal one. J.J.J. hires Pete to photograph a big event for his son. Harry’s there, drinking, being an asshole, and obsessing over “your friend, the bug.” M.J., now a successful model and actress, is there, too, on the balcony, cold and distant, and Pete, at the 11th hour, and against all logic, tries to save the day with 19th-century British poetry. For some reason it doesn’t work. “I don’t know you,” M.J. says. She tells him that John has seen her play five times, Harry twice, Aunt May once. Him? Never. “After all these years,” she says, “he’s nothing to me but an empty seat.” This is followed by, in short order, 1) a drunk, belligerent Harry accuses Pete of stealing his father’s love and letting him die, then 2) slaps him repeatedly (where are those Spidey reflexes when Pete needs them?), before 3) John Jameson announces his engagement to M.J. as everyone cheers. And even that’s not the low point. The low point is when J.J.J. shouts, “Parker, wake up! Shoot the picture!” and a stunned, heartbroken Peter, with the sting of his best friend’s slaps still on his cheeks, is forced to photograph the engagement announcement of the woman he loves to another man.
After a day like that, you’d lose your powers, too.
Nobel prize, Otto
Even so, how stupid is Peter Parker? He only goes after M.J. once she’s gone. And with poetry? My god, that’s dumb. Pete’s dumb, J.J.J. is oblivious, and everyone else is brutal. Seriously. The problem with Peter Parker isn’t the weight of being Spider-Man; it’s that he chooses lousy friends.
Even as just Peter Parker, life’s still screwed up. When he tells Aunt May he’s the one responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, she simply walks away from him without a word. When he saves a kid from a burning building, a fireman deflects his heroics by saying, “Some poor soul got trapped on the fourth floor.” When the skinny daughter of his Russian landlord brings him milk and cake, their time together is awkward and cringeworthy.
So how does Spidey get his groove back? It begins with Aunt May. She can’t afford the mortgage anymore so she’s moving into an apartment. (BTW: Shouldn’t Uncle Ben have paid off this mortgage, like, years earlier? What was he spending his money on? Booze? Broads? Gambling? Forget Pete’s parents; that’s the retcon story I’d like to see.) As Pete’s helping with the move, or at least standing around like a goober, Aunt May gives this speech about the missing Spider-Man. It’s basically a Gipper speech:
I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride—even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.
Hey! Every emotion Pete’s trying to sort through in this movie! What a coincidence.
By the way: Does Aunt May know? That he’s Spider-Man? You almost get a glimmer of recognition earlier when he yells “Hang on!” as she’s clinging to the side of the building while he’s battling Doc Ock.
More than terrified: A look that says, “Wait a minute, I know that voice ...”
It’s like she recognizes the voice beneath the mask. You get a glimmer during her Gipper speech, too. I mean, why say all this to Peter Parker, mousy NYU science student? Because of his cowardice at the bank? Is she trying to make him a hero? With this speech? “Peter, be a hero because it sucks.” Either she knows he’s Spider-Man or she's kind of an asshole.
Then we get more “I’m ready, you’re not”/ “No, you’re ready and I’m not” from M.J. and Peter. Seriously, these two. Seriously, M.J. It’s not just going hot and cold with Pete. It’s not just calling Peter “a great big jerk” and not inviting him to the wedding. It’s the idiocy with the kiss. In the first movie, Spider-Man kissed M.J. upside-down in the rain (you remember), so M.J. is trying to figure out who Spider-Man is by kissing guys. Or at least two guys. First, it’s John, her fiancé, and that makes tons of sense. He’s only the son of the man who has made a career making a villain out of Spider-Man. Is she even thinking? Then she tries to kiss Peter at the coffeeshop. Because Spidey and Peter are connected by the photographs? Because Peter “changed” just as Spidey “retired”? Who knows? Who knows what goes on inside that woman’s head?
But that’s the moment we begin the rest of the movie: As M.J. is puckering up, the car comes crashing through the coffeeshop window, Doc Ock appears and takes M.J., saying, “I’ll peel the flesh off her bones,” snap snap. Then Pete loses his myopia, turns back into Spidey, battles Doc Ock on an elevated train, battles him by the river, and M.J. sees who Spider-Man really is. Wedding with John? Nope. She’s a runaway bride. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” The End.
Can I complain before we get into the end? How much of an idiot Doc Ock is, too? At the coffeeshop, he needs Peter to contact Spider-Man. Yet if not for Pete’s Spidey powers, which Ock doesn’t know about, he would’ve killed him. Twice. Once when he sent the car through the window and the second time when he slammed him into the wall and it fell on top of him. Smart, Otto. Nobel prize, Otto.
And look, I get Sam Raimi’s background as a horror director, and it led to that great scene in the hospital room where Octavius’ arms take out the surgery team. But, dude, what’s up with all the screaming women? It’s half the movie.
SLIDESHOW: The Terrified Women of Spider-Man 2
Ock's wife is our first terror victim.
Then the nurses at the hospital get into the act.
Ah, the old fingernails stand-by.
Ock terrifies the secretary pool ... or excites them. Is it a supervillain outside or the Beatles?
Hey, this one can act! Hire her.
And what’s with all of the gratuitous shots of pretty women? Who does a girl have to fuck to not be in this movie?
But we still get a great ending.
The great ending
The battle sequences throughout the movie stand up 10 years later. It’s a comic book brought to life.
But the elevated train sequence elevates things a notch.
Spidey keeps getting knocked off the “el” and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds but Spidey saves them. You almost hear Ock’s “Bah!,” his great unspoken “Bah!,” as, fed up with nickel and diming it, he destroys the train’s controls and leaves it shooting like a bullet through Manhattan. Maskless at this point, Spidey can only save the passengers by exhausting himself, at which point we get our greatest version of the superhero pieta: Spidey, supine, passed over the heads of the passengers and into the safety of the train compartment. “He’s ... just a kid,” a man in a Mets cap says, and that says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is just a kid. Back in 2007, when I wrote a “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes” list for MSNBC, that scene landed at No. 3.
But it gets better.
At the river’s edge, Ock is using the tritium he got from Harry to recreate the botched fusion reaction experiment. He thinks it’ll work this time but it doesn’t. Same deal: small sun, huge gravitational pull. What to do? Spider-Man tries to appeal to the humanity inside Doc Ock by revealing his own: He takes off his mask. For a moment, it works. “Peter Parker,” Ock says, smiling. Then he remembers an earlier line and relays it again with amusement: “Brilliant but lazy.”
Can I pause to compliment the casting here? We get the best J.J.J. and the best Aunt May we’ll ever get. Molina is not only our best Spider-Man villain, but, I’d argue, one of the best superhero villains of all time. And that’s tough competition: Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Sam Jackson’s Mr. Glass. But I’d put Molina top 5. He not only terrorizes the city and us, he wins back his humanity. The way he says, “You’re right,” to Peter after Peter repeats Aunt May’s self-sacrificing words to him. It’s lovely to watch an actor think on screen. Molina helps make the movie.
But what really makes the movie is The Shot. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero-making.
From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects the nerdy me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies. And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.
That scene, by the way, was No. 1 on my list of the “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes.”
M.J. in the window
So: Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made?
All superhero movies have faults. They have to. They’re absurd. Spider bites don’t turn us into spider-men, gamma radiation doesn’t turn us into hulks, men from other planets don’t develop god-like powers because of Earth’s sun. Plus the movies make their own mistakes. The Joker’s machinations are impossibly complex, Hulk has daddy issues, Superman joins the anti-nuke movement.
The faults of “Spider-Man 2” are more numerous than I remembered: Peter is stupid with poetry, M.J. and Harry are both bitter, and who doesn’t find out Peter is Spider-Man? Probably just Aasif Mondvi. But everything else works.
We even get an ending as ambiguous as “The Graduate.” Remember it? Yes, M.J. is a runaway bride, and yes, she shows up at Peter’s tenement walk-up, and yes, they finally, finally kiss. Then she lets Spidey be Spidey. He hears a siren, he knows what he has to do, and she says, a la '60s M.J., “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” So off he goes, web-slinging through the canyons of Manhattan. But instead of ending right there, Raimi cuts back to M.J. in the window, worried and filled with doubt. This is the burden she carries now. Because the man she loves risks his life every day.
Or maybe she’s simply anticipating the disaster of “Spider-Man 3.”