Blog Archives

Spider-Man (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 3, 2002:

Hollywood take note, Spider-Man is the prototype for a summer popcorn movie. It has all the necessary elements. It has exciting action, great effects used effectively, characters an audience can care for, a well toned story that gives shades of humanity to those onscreen, fine acting and proper and expert direction. I recommend movie execs take several note pads and go see Spider-Man (if they can get in one of the many sold out shows). What summer needs are more movies in the same vein as Spider-Man, and less Tomb Raider’s and Planet of the Apes.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a dweebish photographer for his school yearbook clinging to the lowest rung of the popularity ladder. He lives with his loving Aunt and Uncle who treat him like a son. Peter has been smitten with girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) ever since he can remember, but he’s been too timid to say anything.

At a field trip to the genetically altered spider place (there’s one in every town) Peter is snapping pictures when he is bitten by one of the eight-legged creatures. He thinks nothing of it and awakes the next day to a startling change. He has no need for his rimmed glasses anymore and has a physique that diet ads would kill for. He also discovers he can cling to surfaces, jump tall building in a single bound and shoot a sticky rope-like substance from his wrists. Hairs on his palms and shooting a sticky substance from his body? Hello puberty allusion! Peter tries to use his new abilities to win the girl and when that doesn’t work out he turns to profiting from them. He enters a wrestling contest in a homemade costume and proceeds to whup Randy Savage. Following the fight Peter’s Uncle Ben is dying after being involved in a car jacking Peter inadvertently let happen. Haunted by grief Peter becomes Spider-Man and swings from building to building as an amazing arachnid crime stopper.

But every hero needs a villain, and that is personified in the Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), scientist and businessman. Osborn is experimenting with an aerial rocket glider and a dangerous growth serum. When the military threatens to cut his funding and shop elsewhere Osborn haphazardly undergoes the serum himself. What it creates is a duality of personalities; one is Norman, the other is a sinister and pragmatic one. The evil alter ego dons the glider and an exoskeleton suit and calls himself the Green Goblin. The Goblin destroys all that are in his way, and has his yellow eyes set on the pesky Spider-Man.

The casting of mopey-eyed indie actor Tobey Maguire over more commercial names like a DiCaprio or a Prinze Jr. (I shudder to think of a Freddie Prinze Jr. Spider-Man) left some people scratching their heads. Of course the casting of Mr. Mom to portray the Dark Knight likely got the same reaction in the 80s. Maguire plays the nerdish and nervous Peter Parker to a perfected awkwardness with his sensitive passivity. When he explores his new powers with exuberant abandon then begins crime fighting, we as an audience are with him every step of the way pulling for Peter.

Kirsten Dunst was also a surprising casting choice but works out very well. She allows the audience to fall for her along with Peter. Her chemistry with Maguire is great and could be a major reason why rumors have surfaced about the two leads taking the onscreen romance off screen.

Willem Dafoe is one of the creepiest actors in the business (though he made an effective creepy-free Jesus) and delves deliciously headfirst into the cackling menace of Spider-Man’s nemesis. Dafoe, with a face that looks like hardened silly putty and jutting rows of teeth, relishes every maniacal glare and endless evil grin. But instead of being one-note he adds certain amounts of sympathy and understanding as Norman Obsorn. No one could have done this role better than Dafoe.

Director Sam Raimi was most known for his cult splatter house Evil Dead series, but he’s got a new resume topper now. Raimi was chosen over a field of directors because of his passion for the character and story. Raimi brings along integrity but with a joyous gluttony of spectacular action sequences. He expertly handles the action and daring-do all the while smoothly transitioning to the sweet love story. He has created the movie Spidey fans have been dreaming of for 40 years.

Spider-Man swings because of the respect the source material has been given, much like 2000’s X-Men. The story follows the exploits of the comic fairly well but has some stable legs of its own. The multitudes of characters are filled with life and roundness to them, as well as definite elements of humanity. You can feel the sweet romance budding between the two young stars, the tension and affection between Osborn and son, but also the struggle with Norman and his new sinister alter ego.We all know villains are the coolest part anyway. Isn’t that the only reason the last two Batman films were made?

There’s the occasional cheesy dialogue piece but there is that one standard groaner line. In X-Men it was Halle Berry’s query about what happens when lightening hits a toad. In Spider-Manit was the response to the Green Goblin’s offer to join him, to which he asked “Are you in or are you out?” (Obviously channeling George Clooney). The dreaded response: “You’re the one who’s out Goblin. Out of his mind!” Sigh. Maybe a well placed “freaking” before “mind” would have made the line better.

Spider-Man is the best kind of popcorn film: one that leaves me anxiously anticipating the sequel (which will come out two years to the day the first one was released).

Nate’s Grade: A-

——————————————————

WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Twenty years ago, 2002’s Spider-Man changed the landscape of studio blockbusters. Since swinging into theaters twenty years ago, we’ve gone through three different actors playing three different Spider-Men in three different franchises, plus an Oscar-winning animated movie, and oodles of toys. If X-Men’s success in 2000 made Spider-Man possible, then Spider-Man’s record-breaking success, the first film to earn more than $100 million in a weekend, made the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the defining chain of blockbusters for our age, possible. X-Men provided a template and Spider-Man was the confirmation for those curious bean counters in studio offices. From there, it was a gold rush to secure their own superhero franchise. Universal launched Hulk. Fox launched Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. Warner Brothers started trying to reboot Batman and Superman again. It was an IP scramble and not every property proved worthy (see: 2004’s Catwoman, or better yet don’t see it). For better or worse, 2002’s Spider-Man ushered in the modern era of superhero mega blockbusters. Now with twenty years of hindsight and influence, it’s interesting to go back to the OG Spider-Man, especially after the nostalgic revisit with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, and see why this movie was so successful. 

Created in 1962 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man took a circuitous path toward big screen stardom. He had a popular cartoon in the 1970s, a cheesy U.S. tv show, and Lee even licensed the character into a 1978 television series in Japan that is well and truly insane. The main character is a racer injected with alien blood, from planet Spider no less, who leaps into a giant robot to fight giant monsters (it’s basically Power Rangers before Power Rangers). Legendary genre house Cannon Films bought the film rights and then sold them to Carolco, the studio killed by Cutthroat Island’s bombing in 1995. Carolco reached out to reported king of the (blockbuster) world James Cameron to rewrite an existing draft with Peter in college. He envisioned Edward Furlong as Perter Parker and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. Later, his new Spider-Man script was reset in high school, brought back in a previously absent Mary Jane, and involved Electro and Sandman as the primary villains, and apparently was going for an R-rating with language and an intended sex scene between Peter and Mary Jane on the Brooklyn Bridge, which brings into further question his organic web-shooting inclusion.

It all fell apart when it was revealed Carolco didn’t actually own the full rights to Spider-Man. After Carolco’s bankruptcy and the ensuing legal wrangling, Sony eventually ended up with the rights for a deal that is absolutely brutal in retrospect: a mere $7 million plus five percent of film grosses and half of merchandising. That’s it. For a character that earns over a literal billion dollars a year in merchandise even when there are no movies being released. As of this writing, No Way Home has made almost two billion dollars world-wide at the box-office.

Sam Raimi was picked as director because he was so passionate for the project, owning over 20,000 comic books and knowing the character and his universe inside and out. It’s not like Raimi was some schlub that Sony just drafted from the street in a contest either. The man was a genre visionary from the beginning with the chaotically kinetic Evil Dead movies. When the studios were unsure about tapping him for comic book movies, Raimi decided to make his own with 1991’s Darkman, a gloriously fun, weird, and gory Phantom of the Opera-esque action movie with Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. After that, Raimi expanded his style by directing four very different movies in different genres (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, The Gift), and by that time the studios had come around to embracing Raimi as their trusted shepherd of coveted comic book IP. Director Chris Columbus also turned down the job first, instead opting for the Harry Potter cinematic universe. I don’t know if Spider-Man would have been as successful with anyone else at the helm. Let’s not pretend that the movie would have been a commercial failure with some other director attached (I’m sure, prior to Cutthroat Island, there was a very real chance of “Renny Harlan’s Spider-Man” – that’s right, the hits just keep on coming, Cutthroat Island). But Sam Raimi perfectly encapsulates the combination that has worked so well for other later superhero directors: passion and peculiarity. 

Raimi is a first-rate visual stylist with the comedy of The Three Stooges, and I don’t mean this as a negative. He has a rare, instinctive sense, much like Cameron and Steven Spielberg, about what will play best on the big screen with a packed crowd, those kinds of blockbuster moments. The one thing you can say about any Raimi feature is that they are exploding with verve and energy. The man nailed a camera to a plank of wood and chased after Bruce Campbell in 1980, and he’s been running wild ever since. That gleeful, childlike sense of entertainment exists in a Raimi picture. His horror instincts and influences are readily apparent in his editing, tone, and setup, across all pictures and genres. Horror is such a precise genre, and Raimi knows the ins and outs of developing scares, tension, and payoffs, and he also knows that editing can make everything sing. A Raimi film might be more self-conscious with its antic camera angles, movements, and editing, but this man is a natural conductor of the chaos of moviemaking. He is a natural for big stages and has only made one movie for less than a hundred million in the last twenty years (2009’s throwback, Drag Me to Hell). It’s also a little disappointing that Raimi has only directed one movie in the last 13 years (2013’s failed franchise-starter, Oz: The Great and Powerful).

Raimi’s movies also have a deep sense of humor, twisted and loony, not afraid to get gross or goofy. When I watched Drag Me to Hell, his first film after leaving Peter Parker’s orbit, I was busting a gut as often as my stomach was churning. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 sequence where Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) awakens and his cybernetic arms slaughter the doctors has been repeatedly re-evaluated in social media circles as a nigh perfect sequence. Raimi isn’t afraid to veer to the edges of what is considered conventional; he’s not afraid to be goofy just as he’s not afraid to be sincere. This is a director who embraces his peculiarities but also has a reverence for visual storytelling and blockbusters. With the exception of Oz, I cannot recall a Raimi film that just felt like a slapdash work-for-hire job. The man has a signature style. It was what Marvel insisted they wanted when they hired him to direct the Doctor Strange sequel (now in theaters!). Finding auteurs with peculiar sensibilities, zany humor, and new ideas for studio projects is what has allowed directors such as Joss Whedon (Avengers), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), and Jon Watts (the Tom Holland Spidey films) to flourish. 

Revisiting OG Spider-Man, we have two more versions of this universe to compare with, three if you count the animated escapades of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, so some things just seem a little more quaint, like an old story from your childhood. Part of this is because the character and his lore have become as familiar in popular culture as Batman or Superman. That’s why the Holland version skipped the origin part of how Peter Parker got his super powers and lost his dear old dead Uncle Ben (just like we don’t need to ever see Batman’s parents die onscreen again). The first two Spider-Man films still hold up; I re-watched Spider-Man 2 shortly after 2017’s Homecoming to see which was the overall best Spider-Man film, and it was still very good. They’re earnest and cheesy but easily transporting and you feel the passion for those involved. Raimi clearly loves this character and wants you to love him as well, and we do. There are a few moments that just speak to the dated nature of culture from twenty years hence, like Peter Parker cracking an unfortunate homophobic joke about his wrestling opponent. The special effects are still strong throughout and benefit from Spider-Man’s costume lacking exposed skin. The action sequences are a bit tame and especially lacking compared to even later Spider-Man films.

Maguire might even be regarded as the least favorite Spider-Man actor at this time after the successful revamping of Andrew Garfield’s version from No Way Home. He stands out from Garfield and forever boyish Holland. He was 26 when he began playing Peter the high schooler. His prior indie film roles would make him seem more likely to be cast as a moody school shooter than as a clean-cut superhero (I guess it worked for Ezra Miller), and the fact that he pulled it off is a credit to both Maguire and Raimi. Maguire hasn’t been able to escape the long shadow of Spider-Man and he seems to be fine with that, having only appeared in one movie since 2014. The conniving celebrity poker player that Michael Cera played in Molly’s Game is believed to be Maguire in real life. Dunst was maligned throughout the original trilogy and you can clearly see her disinterest in the character. To her credit, this iteration of Mary Jane is fairly one-dimensional. She’s little more than the object of Peter’s desires and a damsel to be saved. Dunst has become a much more interesting actress after shedding the Spider-Man universe with Melancholia, season 2 of Fargo, and The Power of the Dog, earning her first Oscar nomination. 

Dafoe had to beat out many actors for the role that seems perfected by him. Raimi intended for Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) to be his Norman Osbourn but the producers worried Crudup was too young to portray a middle-aged scientist. Dafoe’s normal face already resembles the Goblin mask. He demanded to do as many of his stunts as possible, and apparently he was a natural learner with the Green Goblin’s winged glider. Dafoe loved the part so much he begged Raimi to find ways to include him again even after his character died. I grew to love him even more after No Way Home reminded everyone of the mental anguish of Norman, a man torn apart by his demons. Dafoe is so maniacal and vulnerable and indispensable in this role. It’s no wonder they even bent space and time to have him generously visit us once more. 

I was worried that my older review from 2002 was going to be overly flattering, gushing about what the filmmakers had gotten right and a little too pleased with results that haven’t aged as well with so many others running with what Raimi and company established. It’s still a solidly enjoyable movie that moves along at a steady pace and still finds time to have important character moments so that the quiet still matters paired with the spectacle. We’ve had a generation grow up with the Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and for many of us these early superhero films have a special place in our hearts. There’s a nostalgic factor. The first Spider-Man was more successful in creating an exciting kickoff than X-Men, though that film had bigger hurdles in adaptation, and it still has a lasting appeal at its core because of the skill and passion of the filmmakers involved. I’m very curious about revisiting 2007’s Spider-Man 3, where it all fell apart and seeing if it’s due some begrudging respect, though I doubt it (I know what I’ll be watching in 2027). Spider-Man is a little dated but still swings mighty high. 

Re-View Grade: B+

Wonder Boys (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released February 25, 2000:

A rather warm but ultimately meandering tale of Michael Douglas as a college professor going through one crisis after another, Tobey Maguire as a creepy kid (again?!), and Robert Downey Jr. as an editor who seems to have a taste for transvestites. Though likable, Wonder Boys goes nowhere and nowhere slow. It carries the feel of a novel that was never intended to be brought onto the screen because of what it would lose in transition and it does. Douglas’ performance is sincere and syrupy but Wonder Boys is not a night out on the town.

Nate’s Grade: C+

——————————————————

WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

This was another film that I was curious to revisit because I was wondering whether or not I would find more of value than when I was 17-years-old and seeing Wonder Boys at a rare promotional screening with my good pals Kevin Lowe and Natalia Riviera (I recall none of us being particularly taken with the movie). It’s based upon an acclaimed book by Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), starring the eventual first big screen Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the first Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). It was director Curtis Hanson’s follow-up from his 1997 masterpiece, L.A. Confidential. The screenwriter, Steven Kloves, would go on to adapt every Harry Potter movie minus one. The studio even re-released the movie later in the fall of 2000 under new more ensemble-focused marketing to push for awards consideration (to my surprise, it was nominated for three Oscars: Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and winning Best Song for a craggy Bob Dylan tune). Maybe my indifferent review earlier was just a young man unable to connect with this brand of middle-class ennui. Now two decades later I can finally say… I still don’t connect with this ennui.

Wonder Boys is one of those shaggy dog stories where it’s not so much the destination but the journey, so you better enjoy the characters or else it will feel like a long ride. The problem with this story is that its protagonist feels so self-pitying and yet the universe seems designed to cheer him up. Grady Tripp (Douglas) is a celebrated creative writing professor just going through his days in a pot-fueled haze to dull the pressure of living up to his big breakout novel. It’s been over seven years and his next novel has no end in sight, already clocking over 2000 pages. Grady thinks he’s a has-been but every other character in this tiny bourgeois universe tells him how great he is. His publisher (Downey Jr.) is eager to peek at Grady’s next surefire literary hit. His students adore him and hang on his every word. He has multiple women throwing themselves at him, including McDormand, who wants to have his baby, and Holmes as his infatuated student/boarder. Everyone tells him how great he is as a writer. James Leer (Maguire) confesses that it was Grady’s book that inspired him to even be a writer, and he seems poised to become a great one. It’s exhausting for every other significant character to proclaim repeatedly how great our lead is and to have him repeatedly respond, “Yeah, but I just don’t know, you guys.”

Self-doubt is already relatable enough, on top of imposter syndrome for an artist or even just an adult, so the material is there for an introspective story about the struggles of creativity and responsibility, but that’s not what Wonder Boys presents as a movie. It’s filled with zany mishaps to fill up those meandering two hours. There’s Downey Jr. and his wandering eye, first with a trans women and then with James. There’s a man incorrectly labeled “Vernon” who stalks Grady demanding what he says is his car back. There’s also a dead dog that gets carried around for almost the entire movie, even though the plot covers days and it would seem like a very bad idea to continue hauling a decaying animal in one’s car. There’s no real reason why this dog’s corpse is even held onto. It belongs to Grady’s boss, the chair of the English department, and the husband to his mistress (McDormand). Why not dispose of the evidence especially with the personal connections? It’s yet one of several signs of the movie trying to be quirky and edgy over the consequences of character actions. Much of the plot beats follow retrieving a stolen coat once owned by Marilyn Monroe. Does the coat represent something of time gone by? A promise never fully able to be fulfilled? America’s innocence? Does it even matter? If Wonder Boys was going to explore the inner turpitude of Grady, why does the movie need so many dead ends and loping storylines as a means of distraction?

It’s not a terrible viewing experience but it feels like the movie is definitely missing material that made the book so effective. As I stated in my early and remarkably on-point review in 2000, it feels like a novel that would lose its appeal in translation and it has. The plot is treading water until Grady finally makes a big personal decision at the very end. He even gets a happy ending where his next great book is the recollections of the film’s events. The many supporting characters are not as interesting as the actors might make them appear. Even Maguire’s wonderkid writer, where the title is derived from, is a walking awkward quirk machine, an early representation of an autistic student before many of the characteristics were wider recognized. He provides a detached sense of comedy with his bluntly direct approach, like his encyclopedic knowledge of famous Hollywood suicides (fun fact: the home video versions edited out Alan Ladd’s name at request from his family estate). The problem with James as a character is he’s meant to represent promise to Grady, further compounding his sense of inadequacy. He’s the shiny new up-and-coming talent headed for great headlines, the kind Grady might have enjoyed but might now be too far in the rear view mirror. James has his own mini-arc of “cutting loose” but he wasn’t tightly wound from the start, just antisocial and aloof. He’s a symbol by design and an impenetrable autistic mumbly sidekick for offhand comedy observations, not so much a person.

Curtis Hanson’s direction is fine, the acting is fine, and even when relatively uninspired, the story is fine as it meanders and goes in self-defeating circles. It’s a movie that I think will be more remembered for weird little trivia, like a scene where future Iron Man and Spider-Man are in bed together. I don’t regret re-watching Wonder Boys but I didn’t get much more out of the experience than when I was 17. The main character is hard to fully embrace, especially his self-pitying problems of middle-class privilege, and the story is more a collection of chapter-based anecdotes and hasty character resolutions. Even if the two hours is amiable enough, it’s hard to connect with the characters and their conflicts, and it’s a prime example of an adaptation that can’t replicate its specific authorial charms. If I were 17 again, I’d make a pun on the word “wonder” but I’ll refrain. After all, I’ve grown.

Re-View Grade: C+

Labor Day (2013)

labor-day-poster1Labor Day, based upon the novel by Joyce Maynard, is the kind of sappy material that you never would have expected director Jason Reitman to attach his name to. Reitman has been accumulating an enviable career of top-shelf dark comedies (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult), yet his touch with characters and actors, as well as his delicacy with tone, reminded several of a young Billy Wilder. The stuff of Labor Day felt more like a Lifetime channel original movie. This is just one artistic miscalculation from the start and it doesn’t get better as it goes.

Back over Labor Day weekend in 1987, young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is living with his grieving mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and performing many of the duties of a husband (don’t get gross). It’s been some time since Henry’s parents divorced but Adele has become a shell-shocked recluse who can barely talk or look others in the eye. While visiting a grocery store, Henry runs into a dangerous man named Frank (Josh Brolin). He’s bleeding from the abdomen and intimidates Adele to give him a ride. Frank is an escaped prisoner and he takes to hiding at Adele’s home. After the initial hostage period, Frank allows Henry and Adele to walk around freely, as long as they don’t tell anyone where he is. As the days pass, Frank helps out around the house, helps Adele get out of her funk, and becomes a surrogate father figure for Henry. The unconventional family must evade the police and skeptical townsfolk to make a run for it.

20131103-LYALL-slide-7RAH-articleLargeThe very premise and its tone are just not a good fit for Reitman. First off, the movie plays out far more like a hostage thriller than any sort of romance. If you were to look deep inside, the romance can be explained as one very emotionally needy woman and her child going through Stockholm syndrome. The entire movie takes place over the titular Labor Day holiday, which means that all these changing feelings have to morph over the time period of three days. I don’t know if I’d call that love, even in Movie Land. Hey, Frank didn’t kill everyone and he helps around the house, isn’t he great? These people should be far more afraid for far longer. It is almost comical how saintly Frank becomes and how many surrogate father activities he squeezes into the abbreviated window of time. He performs handyman jobs all around the house, teaches young Henry how to change a tire, tosses a baseball with the kid, teaches everyone the finer points on pie making, and other such helpful activities. I understand that these two lonely people finally see a replacement man; for Henry a father, for Adele a lover. Again, the three-day time window makes everything appear like the manifestation of Stockholm syndrome. How many of those abducted have uttered, “He’s not that bad. You just don’t know him like I do”? Frank’s back-story is tragic but he is a wanted felon and he has no problem threatening both of these people’s lives in the beginning. Yeah he doesn’t resort to violence or yell in their faces, but why would he against an adolescent boy and his easily cajoled mother? No matter how long Reitman spends showing us the softer side of Frank, especially while preparing delectable dishes of food, he’s no more developed than the common Misunderstood Bad Boy.

Then there are the dawdling coming-of-age moments clinging to young Henry, a boy growing up quickly in a tumultuous holiday weekend. It strikes me as tonally odd to already take a tricky balancing act with the film’s plot and then tossing on a coming-of-age addition. The story is told from Henry’s perspective, and that’s a major problem as well. He’s the least interesting person in this dramatic setup. Being confined to his viewpoint often keeps us distant from the deeper drama going on. I’d rather spend time with Adele and Frank bonding so that the romance can find some traction, but no. Al we hear are the thumps from the other side of the wall and the gentle whisperings between them in stolen glances. It’s a frustrating perspective because quite frankly nobody really cares about this kid’s sexual awakening and his daydreams about the cute girl’s bra. His dad (Clark Gregg) wants to talk to him about the birds and the bees. His mom talks about the same. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable position for the audience with both parents wanting to cover the sex talk. There’s a wanted man hiding in his home! Henry’s personal growing up drama has no equivalency to this. Of the three main characters, doesn’t Henry seem like the worst participant to tell the story? It doesn’t help that Tobey Maguire narrates as older Henry. Have we not learned from The Great Gatsby: Maguire’s voice does not suit narration.

It’s the film’s more tense moments where you get glimpses of the real movie here, the thriller that’s been gussied up and disguised as some strange romance. Whenever someone gets close to discovering what’s really going on in that house, the movie picks up and grabs your interest once more, albeit fleeting. The fear of getting caught is potent but it should have been more omnipresent. The film, through Henry’s perspective, is treated like this nostalgic chestnut of that one summer a convicted killer held us hostage. The police are canvassing for an escaped prisoner but the neighborhood doesn’t seem to be that alarmed, still going about their business bringing desserts and fresh produce to one another’s doorstep. Too much of the film implies the threat, like with a short glimpse of a police checkpoint, but places it on the back-burner so that the romance can take shape. Again, this is a byproduct of being stuck in Henry’s perspective whereas the kid might not have the best understanding of how serious everything is (he’s worried his mom will abandon him and run off with Frank). But in those brief moments of dread and tension, this is where Labor Day works, and Reitman does a great job of turning the screws and building that suspense. It makes you wish the whole thing were a thriller.

kate-winslet-in-labor-day-movie-6No one is going to question that Winslet (Divergent) and Brolin (Gangster Squad) are great actors, but boy do these characters underachieve. There is one very effective and moving monologue Winslet has about her pregnancy problems that have turned her away from the world, but it’s not enough. For much of the movie, she plays such an anxious and internalized character, so it’s hard to really follow her emotional development. That monologue does the most heavy lifting but it’s pretty wan before and after. Winslet is too good an actress to play essentially a catatonic woman that’s fairly mute. Brolin can play a soulful brute in his sleep. There’s so little to challenge him and so he seems on autopilot. It also hurts that both Frank and Adele have very limited conversations. It’s a romance told in gestures and handclasps (and the rhythmic thumping of walls at night). It’s not their fault that their characters are underwritten and unsatisfying. Griffith (Green Lantern) is a nice young actor but he too is forced to communicate much with little and comes up short. James Van Der Beek (TV’s Dawson’s Creek) is a local cop who appears for one scene, and afterwards you wish he would stick around longer. Look for Reitman good luck charm J.K. Simmons (Dark Skies) as a helpful neighbor.

Reitman is such a talented director that he can almost pull off sequences in Labor Day despite all of its inherent structural, tonal, and perspective flaws. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a gauzy, amber-accented tale with plenty of strong alluring visuals to set you at ease. There are these trembling moments where you almost see what attracted Reitman to the film, but the finished product is just a mushy misfire. It’s earnest without having earned our emotions, and the thriller elements and the romance elements are in constant conflict. We all remember our grandparents telling us that magical moment they knew they had met the one when he tied her up and held her hostage. Much of the drama that comes from the premise is handicapped from the mistake of having Henry as the chief storyteller and point of view. His limited involvement means we’re kept at the peripheral for too many important moments. I have no doubt Reitman will rebound and quickly (he’s already filming his next movie and has optioned a book for his next next movie). Get ready to have Labor Day play every subsequent Labor Day weekend on the Lifetime channel, its true home.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Great Gatsby (2013)

the-great-gatsby-poster1It seemed like some sort of educational mandate that every child in the United States was forced to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, when they were in high school. In my highly unscientific number crunching, it appears that those who actually enjoyed the book are in the minority. I recall loathing it, but then again, when you’re fifteen, you sort of loath everything. Enter Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the showman who exploded the screen in razzle-dazzle run amok with Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge!. Not exactly the kind of filmmaker one would fathom helming an adaptation of a classic of American literature, but the man’s style of excess seems like a suitable match for Fitzgerald’s tale of high-class overindulgence.

In 1922, young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to the hustle and bustle of New York City, living close to his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He’s also the neighbor to the mysterious and newly rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a reclusive man who opens his mansion up to prolific bacchanals. Rumors persist in who he is and how he accrued his enormous fortune. He’s an old flame of Daisy’s and is secretly hoping she’ll attend one of his raucous soirees. He enlists Nick to help arrange a reunion for them, and soon enough Gatsby is already planning their happy future together again. Trouble is, Tom isn’t willing to lose his wife without a fight.

101900_galLuhrmann’s helming of The Great Gatsby gave me exactly what I desired and expected. The movie is convulsing with energy and the first hour just moves; be it the camerawork or people onscreen, for long stretches there always seems to be some degree of onscreen movement. Luhrmann’s signature theatrical visual atmosphere is vibrant, joyous, and a perfect translator of the lavish lifestyles of the noveau rich in the Roaring ‘20s. The man brings to startling life the sensations of being young, privileged, and carefree, and the use of anachronistic music, while not nearly as textured and thematically relevant as Moulin Rouge!, adds to the fun. I quite enjoyed a low-key, jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Luhrmann’s style treks in excess but it’s a much more pleasant, dreamy, and altogether beguiling form of artistic indulgence than, say, Michael Bay or Tony Scott and their respective macho visual fetishes. Luhrmann’s campy sense of style doesn’t come across as overly suffocating or distracting, at least to my eyes, and instead the man injects his movies with tremendous energy, immersing you into a new world of old and modern. This is what Luhrmann was meant for. While other canonical classics of American literature may not survive a glitzy Lurhmann treatment, it’s a good match for the extravagant excess of Fitzgerald’s setting. Lurhmann’s visuals are glorious, and the 1920s era is brought to glamorous life. You get the sense it was one giant party without any lasting consequences (if you were rich enough).

The second half of the movie slows down considerably after the amped-up introduction. We’re caught up in the characters at this point, as we should be, and the Gatsby/Daisy reunion dominates the plot. I suppose there are only so many Busby Berkeley numbers and confetti explosions one can encounter before the plot has to set in. Lurhmann and company stick pretty faithfully to Fitzgerald’s plot (rest easy, lazy high school students of today and tomorrow). Interestingly, they are far more explicit about Gatsby’s securities fraud, knowingly making a fortune off junk bonds, all in the name to impress Daisy. There’s a genuine sense of respect for the source material even with Luhrmann’s visual flourishes; at several points, Fitzgerald’s text floats onscreen. The problem is that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is almost entirely focused on the romantic coupling of its title figure and Daisy. Gone is the class criticism, the indictment of the follies of the rich, the examination of the dark side of the American Dream, and the subtext. You’ll get plenty of shots of that famous green light, 20th century literature’s most famous and unsophisticated symbol (pay attention kids: green means go), but there’s little time for complexity. It’s not a screen romance worth this much attention, which is kind of the point, but when the movie clocks at over 2 hours and 20 minutes, drawing out a lackluster romance can become rather grating.

101940_galIf I were top cite one major fault in Luhrmann’s incarnation, it’s that it adopts Nick’s fawning perspective and treats Gatsby as this tragic romantic figure. I acknowledge with every adaption there is a degree of interpretation, and romantic hero is certainly one facet of Gatsby, certainly how he sees himself, but by the end of Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby is really more a naïve man who really only sees Daisy as trophy, a prize for his reinvention and jumping up to the storied moneyed class. Daisy herself is certainly weak-willed but her emptiness (she says there’s nothing better than for a girl to be a “beautiful, young fool”) is part of the appeal to Gatsby because he can remake her however he wants. He’s not interested insomuch as her as a person. I don’t think that the Gatsby/Daisy escapades fall into the ranks of Great Tragic Couples of Literature, but that’s how Luhrmann interprets the novel, transforming Gatsby into a revered, honorable, and heartbreaking romantic we’re meant to shed a tear for. I suppose since we’re reliving the story through Nick’s perspective that events could be colored differently. Beyond just a simplistic analysis, it also misses the greater and more futile tragedy of a man trying to escape his past by obsessively recreating it.

The acting is fairly good all around, though the standout is certainly not whom you’d expect. DiCaprio (Django Unchained) is a good fit for the handsome social-climber, but the movie only asks him to play a limited range of emotions, rarely breaking free to show glimpses of the darker, less polished side of Gatsby’s carefully crafted image. He doesn’t exactly exude the charisma you would think necessary for the man, plus his use of “old sport” is so overly abundant it approaches farce. Maguire (Brothers) is a bit too earnest even for his role. It becomes readily clear within minutes that Maguire does not possess a voice for narration. The man is also a bit too old, at 37, to play the naïve, stars-in-his-eyes Nick Carraway. Mulligan (Shame) is given the least to work with since Daisy is meant to be rather opaque but she brings an extra amount of sympathy for a character trapped by her indecision and the demands of men. Easily the best actor in the bunch is Edgerton (Warrior). It would be easy for the guy to simply be the brutish heavy, the angry husband and easy to hate antagonist. Edgerton showcases a surprising depth, and you may find yourself feeling some smidge of sympathy for the lout.

Much like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, it’s an easy prediction that his Great Gatsby will be equally divisive. There will probably be as many critics decrying Luhrmann’s blitzkrieg of confetti and style as a campy cannibalization of an American classic as there will be celebrating the mad energy and obsequious reverence exhibited in a handsomely mounted, big-budget adaptation. The movie is even being presented in 3D, and did you ever think you’d hear the phrase “The Great Gatsby in 3D” in your life? I enjoyed Luhrmann’s gaudiness and indulgences, painting the screen with his vivid imagination. The impressive production design, costumes, visual effects, and overall visual aesthetic of the movie are a feast for the eyes. Now there are plenty of indulgences and excesses in the movie, particularly the emphasis on grand romance, but Gatsby entertains with few lags. Having read the book once and disliked it heartily in my youth, I can readily say that here is an example of where the movie is better than the book. Now if someone could go about making an improved version of The Lord of the Flies and A Tale of Two Cities, whatever you have to do, my teenage self will thank you kindly.

Nate’s Grade: B

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Ben Stiller has been kicking around the idea for Tropic Thunder for nearly 20 years. It took a lot of time to get the script in fighting shape, but the time was well worth it. Tropic Thunder is tasteless and occasionally appalling but it is also wickedly, deliriously funny.

Set inside modern-day Vietnam, Hollywood is filming another epic war movie but this one’s in trouble. It’s over budget, behind schedule, and the first-time director (Steve Coogan) can’t control his actors. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is a fading action star looking for another hit. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a crass comedian who’s after some real acting credibility. He’s also addicted to heroin and worries that people will only ever see him as a funny man who farts. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Oscar-winning actor who, thanks to makeup and a lot of hubris, is playing the film’s African-American sergeant. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rapper breaking into acting and is steamed that the Hollywood producers gave the sizeable black role to a white guy.

The director is at his wit’s end and being bullied by producers back in America. He is advised by “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), the Vietnam vet whose story the film is based upon. Tayback says to get real emotion and real fear that the actors should be stranded in the jungle without their precious handlers and demands. So the director takes Speedman, Portnoy, Lazarus, Alpa, and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) in a helicopter and out into the wild. Trouble is, the actors have been left in the middle of an actual drug war, except they think it’s all apart of the script.

Tropic Thunder is all things to all comedies. It could be tagged as being a bit incoherent but that’s because the movie has so much going on. It’s a sharp satire of Hollywood moviemaking and the raging egos of actors, it’s a send-up of Vietnam war movies and their bloody clichés, it’s a fairly worthwhile action film, and it’s a stupendously politically incorrect comedy with plenty of crude humor mixed side-by-side with genuine wit. It’s a comedy that has the potential to leave you aching from slapstick humor one second and biting satire the next. This feels like a complete comedy and not merely a series of sketches. Every character has an arc, some great moments, and each actor brings something different and something wonderful to the fray. This is clearly Stiller’s greatest achievement as a director.

The focus of Tropic Thunder is all over the place, and no one is safe from Stiller and his co-writers Etan Cohen and actor Justin Theroux. This is a brutal insider satire that plays it broad and loud. There are great jokes that ridicule the pomposity of the entire movie industry and the pitfalls of celebrity as a whole. I loved the jabs at celebrities going overseas and adopting children like they’re souvenirs. The movie has caught flak from disability groups that are mad about the movie’s liberal use of the term “retard.” I don’t want to say these people are missing the point of satire, or the fact that an R-rated comedy should offend on some level, but the joke is clearly on Hollywood and how movies exploit those with mental handicaps under the guise of telling their harrowing and inspiring stories. Movies have long been chronicling the adventurous lives of those with disabilities, which also has the side effect of making these people seem less like, well, just people. In the film, Speedman stared in a movie called “Simple Jack” about a mentally challenged boy who thinks he can talk with animals. Then the character has to pop up later in the film, complete with hysterical dialogue that blows apart just how exploitative these movies are (“I’ll see you in my head movies, but this is one head movie that makes my eyes rain”). It’s performed in just the right tone to make you laugh at the industry and the individual and not because of any disability.

The way the film establishes character back-story is genius. Tropic Thunder introduces all four major characters through fake commercials and trailers, like Grindhouse. The trailers are hilarious and a great way to kick off the movie. Stiller stars in a sinking action franchise where the world keeps being overtaken by fire (“Now, the one man who saved the world five straight times — will have to do it again”). The action franchise’s idea is to just reverse the scenario and, as sequels do, make everything bigger. Black’s trailer revolves around an obese family of super flatulent idiots all played by Black. The sequence is constant farting but it’s so over-the-top and pumped with contempt for lame-brained Hollywood comedies. The best trailer is the one that gives us Downey Jr.’s character, the esteemed Kirk Lazarus. Set in an Augustine monastery around the Middle Ages, Downey plays a monk who finds that he must conceal his inflamed passions for another man of the cloth (a figure I won’t spoil). Think of it as a 12th century Brokeback Mountain, and Stiller and company know exactly where to hammer Hollywood: the go-go eye stares, the hesitant naughtiness, and the ridiculous marketing angles – the title is inexplicably Satan’s Alley. The opening collection of fake trailers serves as perfect comedy bon mots for the feast that is to follow. They whet your appetite and may be the greatest opening 10 minutes of any comedy in memory.

Downey Jr. gives an unforgettable performance comprised of sheer brilliant comedic bliss. I loved every second he was onscreen and I fully expect the man to get an Oscar nomination for his work here. Now, the role of a Method actor playing a black actor naturally presents a tightrope that needs to be walked just the right manner to maintain a satiric tone that doesn’t turn ugly. Let me state clearly that blackface is never funny. It is repugnant and Hollywood has a rather depressing history with the unsavory practice (Gene Kelly and even Bing Crosby sadly did it). Tropic Thunder is not a Stepin Fetchit-style minstrel show where Downey makes eye-rolling racist stereotypes. The joke is not that Downey is playing a black man, the joke is that he is such an arrogant and egotistical actor that he thinks he can play anyone. Besides, Jackson chides him throughout the film for his unorthodox portrayal, which tells you where the filmmakers stand. Downey elevates every scene he steps into and gives a performance, like the film, that is densely layered with comedy. He never breaks character even when the cameras aren’t filming and even when he’s alone. He’s two steps removed; channeling a performance as a heralded Australian actor playing his idea of a 1970s black male. When Alpa derogatorily drops the N-word, Lazarus slaps him and then begins a speech with, “For over 400 years they have been using that word to keep us down,” and ends it reciting the lyrics to the theme song from The Jefferson’s. In that span of time, Downey takes you along on every stop in the dense, hilarious mind of Lazarus.

While the rest of the actors don’t ascend to Downey’s heights (years ago this would have doubled as a drug reference), the ensemble of Tropic Thunder works together smoothly and they help make the film so much more enjoyable. Black is great when he’s trying to be seen as a “serious” actor when they are filming. I love his rushed and hushed line deliveries. But he’s even funnier after going through the wringer of heroin withdrawal. A sight gag involving Black digging through his speedo had me in stitches. Stiller is playing his usual dimwitted blowhard but propels the plot forward. He knows exactly how to oversell for laughs, like when he’s being riddled with bullets in dramatic slow-mo or when he’s playing Simple Jack. Baruchel is a nice counter foil to the uncheck bravado and craziness of the other actors. Jackson has fun voicing his mounting vexation with Lazarus. Coogan and Nolte provide good small moments, and Danny McBride steals his scenes as a pyrotechnic special effects expert that wants to “make Mother Nature piss her pants.”

By now you’ve likely heard all about Tom Cruise’s small role in the movie as an irate, bald, fat, extremely hairy studio executive. It’s nice and amusing but I could have done with something different. Downey is unrecognizable in both physical appearance and through his speech; he fully inhabits a character that fully inhabits characters. Cruise, on the other hand, is instantly recognizable even with glasses, a paunch, and a shiny dome. It’s Tom Cruise playing a profane asshole but the joke wears thin. Cruise either needed to do something different or just be seen less, including his hip hop dance moves. And yet, Tropic Thunder has a running joke about Hollywood taking its beautiful A-listers and thinking that, through the power of makeup and superficial physicality, they can play any role. We’ve had a streak of Best Actress Oscar winners that have won accolades by stripping away their beauty and packing on the pounds (check out Charlize Theron in Monster). It seems like even the pretty girls are getting the ugly girl roles now; what’s a homely actress to do nowadays? So, in a way, Tropic Thunder is making fun of this line of thinking, that fat suits and some makeup are the great equalizer, but then it has Tom Cruise more or less falling into the same trap. He puts on a fat suit, a bald cap, but it’s still him and you hear Tom Cruise in every utterance. Maybe it would have been funnier if Cruise were playing a parody of himself since he is a studio executive at United Artists.

Tropic Thunder is a wildly funny movie that takes no prisoners when it comes to its sprawling satire. Stiller and company cut down the self-absorbed lifestyle and mentality inside the film industry and insecure actors. The film really shares the spotlight and each actor provides something different and welcome, and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Downey Jr. gives a brilliant comedic performance that will be long remembered. The movie is rude, crude, stupid, smart, and all over the place thanks to such a broad comic canvass. It took many years for Stiller to finally get Tropic Thunder off the ground but the wait was worth it. This is a rare comedy that eels loose, hits hard, and may warrant multiple viewings just to catch all the jokes-within-jokes. This is a movie with plenty on its mind, perhaps too much, but I wish more comedies were as well executed and skillful in their gags about gas passing.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Good German (2006)

Steven Soderbergh has always seemed uncomfortable with his success and thus tried to stretch his creative wings with experimental gambles. They’re certainly ambitious but many times Soderbergh seems to be giving himself busy work. Did anyone see Bubble? I didn’t think so. The Good German is a film that wants to be seen as a forgotten relic from the 1940s, and Soderbergh went so far for period accuracy that he filmed with equipment from the same bygone era. That kind of artistic integrity is great, but what does it do to make the movie any better? The Good German aspires to be a cinematic cousin to Casablanca, even aping the iconic ending to that famous film. You’ll also get Chinatown déjà vu, especially when characters say, “Hey Jake, it’s Berlin.” The plot hinges on a murder around the Berlin conference with the Allied powers that will decide the fate of Europe and reshape the map. The story is too muddled and confusing and seems to amount to little to nothing after flirting with intrigue. The actors give hammy performances that may be true to the stagy, well-articulated acting styles of old Hollywood, but it does little in the realm of being enjoyable. Cate Blanchett is intended to be Marlena Dietrich, and George Clooney is intended to be Cary Grant, but neither manages to escape being a second-rate impression of their film noir forbears. There’s an interesting post-war story buried under all this period homage and Method-style artifice, but Soderbergh only seems interested in pleasing himself with these experimental errands, and this is coming from someone that loved Schitzopolis.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Who the hell are you Spider-Man 3 and what have you done with the franchise I loved? After the massive commercial success of first two Spider-Man chapters, my expectations had been raised fairly high. The more time that passes the more I reflect on how disappointing Spider-Man 3 sadly is. Part of my dashed hopes are because the 2004 Spider-Man sequel was a wonderful follow-up to a pretty swell introduction, and I placed that movie in my Top Ten list for the year and consider it one of the best comic book movies of all time. There’s some great popcorn entertainment to be had with Spider-Man 3, but man is this film just beside itself in wasted potential, a lack of focus, and some really poor choices.

Things are going pretty well for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). He plans on asking Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to marry him and New York City is planning a parade out of appreciation for Spider-Man. But the good times can’t last long. Harry Osborn (James Franco) has accepted his fate and become a second generation Green Goblin villain, out to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Spider-Man. But Peter also has to be on the lookout for his job at the newspaper. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is an unscrupulous photographer out to replace Parker and nab a picture of Spider-Man caught in a bad light. An alien substance has also hitched a ride to Earth via meteorite and sought out Peter Parker. The black goo attaches itself to Peter and forms a black Spidey suit, one that gives him intoxicating power and a slimy menace. The new Peter cavalierly flirts with bouncy lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), hurts his friends, and loses his do-gooder ways.

Meanwhile Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison. It seems the police got it wrong and now inform Peter that Marko confessed to being the one who killed Peter’s uncle. While on the run Marko happens to tumble into an open pit that is a science experiment and becomes fused at a molecular level with sand. He uses this new power to rob banks in order to save his sick daughter at home. Peter, with the power of the alien suit, hunts the Sandman to get his own slice of sticky vengeance.

The film has way too much on its plate. There are too many characters, too many undeveloped storylines, too many coincidences, too many contrivances (Amnesia? Really? Really?), and too many aborted moments of drama. Spider-Man 3 is an undisciplined mess. The film practically stumbles from one scene to the next and lacks the coherency and intelligence of the earlier entries in the series. The third film tries to do too much and please too many interests, and as a result it may end up pleasing few fans. I had some trepidation when I learned that there was going to be upwards of three villains for this movie, but I swore that it could work since Batman Begins confidently worked around a trio of big bads. Three villains do not work in Spider-Man 3. Let me dissect this rogue’s gallery and where they fall short.

1) The Sandman is kind of a lame idea from the start. His power seems to limit his available locations, and I’m surprised that he wouldn’t stick to beach areas as a means of playing to his sandy strengths. Regardless, the character plays no part in almost anything that happens, and the Sandman is given one note to play. He’s got a sick daughter and he robs to try and pay for her medicine. That’s great on paper but it never really seems to give the character any sense of urgency or frustration. If he got special sand powers why not sneak into banks through cracks in walls instead of forming as a giant sand monster? Church attempts to imbue the character with a sad soul but he just comes across as being wooden. If he was really on the hunt for money to save his daughter then why does he just slouch around all the time? Wouldn’t it be easier to rob a city not patrolled by a web slinging super hero? How can he say he’s a misunderstood victim of luck just minutes after he tried killing Peter? He seems like a dull lunkhead. The Sandman is given a tiny wisp of character detail (sick kid!) and that’s it. He doesn’t get any other characterization and is kept on the run and pops up whenever the film needs him. He becomes a token character until the very end where Church is given 2 minutes to pour his heart out to Peter. Two minutes of character at the start, two minutes at the end, and a gaping center. The Sandman isn’t so much a character as the ideal of some issue that the filmmakers want to have Peter work through.

And what is that issue? Why vengeance and forgiveness. You see, Spider-Man 3 foolishly rewrites its own history and now it was the Sandman hat killed Peter’s Uncle Ben. This revision does not work at all and actually legitimately damages Spider-Man. Just like Bruce Wayne is tackling crime to alleviate his guilt, so too is Spider-Man, who can never shake the fact that he could have prevented his uncle’s death had he done the right thing moments before. By introducing a new killer it means that Peter has no responsibility for his uncle’s death. This completely strips away the character’s guilt and rationale for what compels him to swing from building to building to fight crime.

2) Eddie Brock/Venom is wasted as well. Director Sam Raimi has said before he’s not a fan of Venom and doesn’t get the character, and I feel that his contempt carried over into the film. Venom and the black alien goo are given about the same abysmal care as other half-baked plot points. Eddie Brock has about three total scenes before he gets to transform into Venom thanks to the alien substance, and none of these scenes fully flesh out who the character is or justify his relationship with Peter Parker. When we do see Venom in the finale its all too rushed and hokey. The effects make him look less like alien and more like a wax figurine (I suppose there could be intelligent wax life amongst the stars). For whatever dumb reason the alien suit has to retreat so we can see Grace’s face while he taunts and mocks with bad vampire teeth that are meant to inspire what exactly? The character is rushed and underdeveloped and should have been saved for the next sequel instead of being given lip service in this one. Venom is supposed to be the evil doppelganger to Spider-Man, not some smart-alleck with frosted hair that gets about 15 minutes of screen time. I like Grace, I really like him a lot and envision him as his generation’s Tom Hanks, but he does not work in this movie. He could, but I get the sneaking suspicion that Raimi sabotaged the Venom role on purpose or at least subconsciously. The villain goes out with a whimper and it feels like a giant, foolish wasted opportunity that becomes more maddening the more I discuss it. The presence of Venom feels like a shallow attempt to placate a younger generation of comic fans and to sell more action figures.

The alien goo suit is supposed to tempt Peter and bring out his wicked wild side. So what does he do? He acts like he’s auditioning for the lead in The Mask. This embarrassing sequence is painfully goofy and will make you cringe and shield your eyes. Peter flirts with girls and dances at a jazz club, and this is supposed to be the dark side of Spider-Man? What the hell? I acknowledge that Peter has always been an unpopular dork and would be a dork even if he ventured to the dark side, but how does this square with the more serious and edgier tone the film is grasping for? Evil Peter seems more like a broody emo kid, with shocks of black hair in his eyes and traces of eyeliner. The dark side of Spider-Man, much like the rest of the film, is given little time or thought. Peter’s trials with the symbiotic suit last about a reel or two and then it’s abruptly finished.

3) Harry should have been the main focus of this sequel and it?s a shame the filmmakers had to cram so much crap into a story already heavy with plot leftovers. Harry has the most obvious arc through the three movies and deserves better than to be knocked out of commission by amnesia. The conflict between Peter and Harry is where the film finds its emotional core and it would have been wise to expand this section and eliminate one of the other underutilized villains (my vote: both Venom and Sandman). Harry’s vow to avenge his father is far more interesting than what the other two villains have as motivation, and plus Harry requires no extra time-consuming setup to slow the pacing down. I’m glad the final battle encouraged Harry to come out and play; the film finally gives Franco the screen time he deserves, but it should have been more. The worst plot device in the film involves Harry’s all-knowing butler who has some vital information he most certainly should have shared years ago. So much time is spent on storylines that go absolutely nowhere, and the musical chairs of villains, that the film resorts to having a freakin’ butler tap someone on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me sir,” just to tie things up in the most awkwardly shrift way possible. And even if what the man says is true, how does his perspective add any clarity to the situation? Think about it. I have.

The romance between Peter and Mary Jane feels awfully trite and meandering. Spider-Man 3 lacks the tight focus of the second film. It throws contrivances to place a wedge in their relationship, like the fact that Mary Jane is fired from her Broadway gig but doesn’t tell Peter, or the fact that they never seem to answer the phone on time when the other person is apologetic. Gwen Stacy is less a character than simply a dimwitted blond tool to make Mary Jane jealous and sulk. The ups and downs in this relationship feel pretty forced and some moments defy all human understanding. At one point Mary Jane is forced by Harry to break up with Peter to spare both their lives. So she breaks the news in a park, and Peter is devastated, but why in the world does she never say anything again? Why would she not clear things up after time had passed to explain her actions? Spider-Man 2 ended with Peter finally getting the girl but also on a hint of doubt, and it was marvelous. Spider-Man 3 just sort of ends with everyone presumably in the same place they started.

Spider-Man 2 really succeeded on how focused it was and how it related its action with character. Spider-Man 3 has to resort to cheap and lazy devices to cover its storytelling pitfalls. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the film has to resort to a newscaster narrating our final battle where he actually asks, “Is this the end of Spider-Man?” This might be the end of the quality associated with Spider-Man.

After having spent a whole slew of words detailing in length where the film goes wrong, allow me to illustrate some of what the film does right. Whenever it sticks to action, that’s when Spider-Man 3 works, and Raimi has cooked up some wonderful whiplash-inducing action sequences. The first battle between Peter and Harry is intense and sets the film on the right path, but the action as a whole isn’t as closely tied to Peter’s domestic life and emotional troubles as it was in the other films. A high-rise rescue from a crumbling office building will stir some 9/11 memories but it is awesome to behold. The effects have improved and the swinging shots through New York look the best they ever have. The greatest moment in the film is perhaps the birth of the Sandman as he rises grain by grain from a pile of sand and attempts to reform himself. Aided by some lovely music, the moment takes on a beautiful and unexpected poignancy. This is where Raimi and the CGI wizards hit it out of the park. Nothing rivals the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, though.

It might be dangerous to say, but I feel jilted from this film and either new blood needs to be brought in or the filmmakers need more time and control to make a Spider-Man sequel worthy of its name. This is the gold standard for super hero movies and its been tarnished and sullied. Spider-Man 3 has moments to dazzle and excite but it also feels battle fatigued from carrying the dead weight of extraneous characters and half-baked storylines. There are too many balls in the air for Raimi to juggle. This Spidey chapter squeezes too many ideas in too short a space. After obliterating box-office records, Sony has stated that they plan on three more Spider-Man sequels. If this film is the tipping point, then I’m afraid of what will be swinging down the pipe in years to come.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

No other movie had higher expectations than Spider-Man 2 and no other movie met and trounced those expectations than director Sam Raimi’s high-flying webslinging sequel. Spider-Man 2 was that rare sequel that excelled in near every way. The action sequences were lively and highly exciting, but what made Spider-Man 2 so thrilling was its success in building strong emotional characters. After all, how many superhero films are written by the writer of Ordinary People? (One wonders what he would have done with Catwoman) Alfred Molina, as Doc Ock, made for a great formidable foe and brought surprising humanity to the dastardly part. Spider-Man 2 was a momentous crowd-pleaser that also dazzled the hardest critics. It reaffirmed exactly what a summer popcorn film can make us feel.

Nate’s Grade: A

Spider-Man (2002)

Hollywood take note, Spider-Man is the prototype for a summer popcorn movie. It has all the necessary elements. It has exciting action, great effects used effectively, characters an audience can care for, a well toned story that gives shades of humanity to those onscreen, fine acting and proper and expert direction. I recommend movie execs take several note pads and go see Spider-Man (if they can get in one of the many sold out shows). What summer needs are more movies in the same vein as Spider-Man, and less Tomb Raiders and Planet of the Apes.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a dweebish photographer for his school yearbook clinging to the lowest rung of the popularity ladder. He lives with his loving Aunt and Uncle who treat him like a son. Peter has been smitten with girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) ever since he can remember, but he’s been too timid to say anything.

At a field trip to the genetically altered spider place (there’s one in every town) Peter is snapping pictures when he is bitten by one of the eight-legged creatures. He thinks nothing of it and awakes the next day to a startling change. He has no need for his rimmed glasses anymore and has a physique that diet ads would kill for. He also discovers he can cling to surfaces, jump tall building in a single bound and shoot a sticky rope-like substance from his wrists. Hairs on his palms and shooting a sticky substance from his body? Hello puberty allusion! Peter tries to use his new abilities to win the girl and when that doesn’t work out he turns to profiting from them. He enters a wrestling contest in a homemade costume and proceeds to whup Randy Savage. Following the fight Peter’s Uncle Ben is dying after being involved in a car jacking Peter inadvertently let happen. Haunted by grief Peter becomes Spider-Man and swings from building to building as an amazing arachnid crime stopper.

But every hero needs a villain, and that is personified in the Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), scientist and businessman. Osborn is experimenting with an aerial rocket glider and a dangerous growth serum. When the military threatens to cut his funding and shop elsewhere Osborn haphazardly undergoes the serum himself. What it creates is a duality of personalities; one is Norman, the other is a sinister and pragmatic one. The evil alter ego dons the glider and an exoskeleton suit and calls himself the Green Goblin. The Goblin destroys all that are in his way, and has his yellow eyes set on the pesky Spider-Man.

The casting of mopey-eyed indie actor Tobey Maguire over more commercial names like a DiCaprio or a Prinze Jr. (I shudder to think of a Freddie Prinze Jr. Spider-Man) left some people scratching their heads. Of course the casting of Mr. Mom to portray the Dark Knight likely got the same reaction in the 80s. Maguire plays the nerdish and nervous Peter Parker to a perfected awkwardness with his sensitive passivity. When he explores his new powers with exuberant abandon then begins crime fighting, we as an audience are with him every step of the way pulling for Peter.

Kirsten Dunst was also a surprising casting choice but works out very well. She allows the audience to fall for her along with Peter. Her chemistry with Maguire is great and could be a major reason why rumors have surfaced about the two leads taking the onscreen romance off screen.

Willem Dafoe is one of the creepiest actors in the business (though he made an effective creepy-free Jesus) and delves deliciously headfirst into the cackling menace of Spider-Man’s nemesis. Dafoe, with a face that looks like hardened silly putty and jutting rows of teeth, relishes every maniacal glare and endless evil grin. But instead of being one-note he adds certain amounts of sympathy and understanding as Norman Obsorn. No one could have done this role better than Dafoe.

Director Sam Raimi was most known for his cult splatter house Evil Dead series, but he’s got a new resume topper now. Raimi was chosen over a field of directors because of his passion for the character and story. Raimi brings along integrity but with a joyous gluttony of spectacular action sequences. He expertly handles the action and daring-do all the while smoothly transitioning to the sweet love story. He has created the movie Spidey fans have been dreaming of for 40 years.

Spider-Man swings because of the respect the source material has been given, much like 2000’s X-Men. The story follows the exploits of the comic fairly well but has some stable legs of its own. The multitudes of characters are filled with life and roundness to them, as well as definite elements of humanity. You can feel the sweet romance budding between the two young stars, the tension and affection between Osborn and son, but also the struggle with Norman and his new sinister alter ego.We all know villains are the coolest part anyway. Isn’t that the only reason the last two Batman films were made?

There’s the occasional cheesy dialogue piece but there is that one standard groaner line. In X-Men it was Halle Berry’s query about what happens when lightening hits a toad. In Spider-Man it was the response to the Green Goblin’s offer to join him, to which he asked “Are you in or are you out?” (Obviously channeling George Clooney). The dreaded response: “You’re the one who’s out Goblin. Out of his mind!” Sigh. Maybe a well placed “freaking” before “mind” would have made the line better.

Spider-Man is the best kind of popcorn film: one that leaves me anxiously anticipating the sequel (which will come out two years to the day the first one was released).

Nate’s Grade: A-

Wonder Boys (2000)

A rather warm but ultimately meandering tale of Michael Douglas as a college professor going through one crisis after another, Tobey Maguire as a creepy kid (again?!), and Robert Downey Jr. as an editor who seems to have a taste for transvestites. Though likable, Wonder Boys goes nowhere and nowhere slow. It carries the feel of a novel that was never intended to be brought onto the screen because of what it would lose in transition and it does. Douglas’ performance is sincere and syrupy but Wonder Boys is not a night out on the town.

Nate’s Grade: C+

 

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

%d bloggers like this: