Saturday, May 12, 2007

Spiderman 3 review

People seem really divided about this film and either love it or hate it, saying it's fun or awful. I think that as a fan of Spiderman comics who owns issues 1-137 in reprint I'd have to say that we be honest about the source material, there's stuff that's patently cheesy and stuff that is, believe it or not, touching. Ever since the first Spiderman movie came out there have been people like Josh Feitt or other authors at The Stranger who seem to forget the patent goofiness and unreality of the basic conceit of Spiderman and would have preferred something grounded in "reality". Well, we have Kieslowski films for that, don't we?

I think this third installment of the franchise is easily the weakest so far because it wasn't written with non-fans in mind. I also have this hunch that Sam Raimi wanted to make one movie and Sony and Avi Arad wanted to make sure he made this other movie, too, and Raimi was, for the first time in the franchise, left trying to split the different. The result is a hybrid of what to me are two movies that don't quite gel but which tends to reflect both the strengths and flaws of the source material and even improving on it in some ways while detracting from it in others.

The movie opens up with Parker waxing rhapsodic about how everything in his life works now. Peoplpe like him as Spiderman, and he's got the girl of his dreams, and everyone gets along with him. Not everyone gets along with him for those who have seen the first two movies so in the first few goofy minutes we're clued in that Peter is self-deluded. We didn't even need to see Spiderman 2 (the most fun of the three by quite a stretch) to grasp this if we just remember how the first Spiderman movie ended.

Spiderman comics and Sam Raimi are not generally subtle so we know that because everything is hunky dory for Peter Parker something bad is going to happen and that something bad turns out to be, unsurprisingly, Peter Parker. I know that by now anyone knows the evil black goo from outer space shows up via meteor and just happens to land near Peter Parker. Why, where, and how this evil meteorite shows up is never explained it's a kind of diabolos ex machina, if you will. It's one of the central problems of plausibility and continuity in the story but I go with it.

Why? Because Venom is, in every variation, basically a form of sentient evil that is thrown in as a plot device. The original story line is something on the order of Peter Parker going to the wrong intergalactic vending machine and getting a brand new black suit that happens to be a nasty sentient symbiotic space goo that brings out his bad side.

Okay, think about that for a moment, the bad side of Peter Parker? At Parker's worst he's whiny, self-absorbed, unable to understand other people's problems because he's tied up in himself and his own situation. The worst in Parker is, admittedly, never Darth Vader levels of evil, let alone (thank God) the absurdly cackling Palpatine. I've read George Lucas' comments that Spiderman 3 is a silly movie with not a lot of story there but I chalk this up to Lucas harping on the one film Industrial Light and Magic didn't do all the special effects for. Sorry, George, but soul-bereft special effects marathons with patched-together plots are no longer strictly your domain. Spiderman 3 has its flaws but it's nowhere near the collosal failure of pop cultural imagination that were the unwarranted episodes 1 through 3.

Still, this third Spiderman film reflects more than the others the flaws inherent to the source material. I think Raimi must have started the film with the plan to have Sandman and Harry Osbourn's role as the new Goblin as front and center and that Sony and Arad wanted him to put Eddie Brock in to make sure that if this was really going to be Raimi's last Spiderman film they'd throw in a ton of fan service by including Gwen Stacy and her dad, Captain Stacy, as well as the Venom story line.

This overstuffed quality shows, but it's not as bad as the overstuffed nature of issues from the comics. No one who has a working brain, even a Spiderman fan, really wants Sony to put out a live-action Spiderman film with the Sinister Six. The budget just to get those villains working would preclude having any story.

I'd say my brother put it well when he described this new Spiderman film as the return of the Jedi of the franchise. I've seen it twice and enjoyed it both times. I think that since the main story is about Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson Raimi sticks with what is central to the three movies. In the first film the relationship was only recognized as a possibility and Peter withdraws from the opportunity to have that relationship out of fear. In the second film he begins to see what the consequences of that decision, which he thought was taking the responsible path, led to. By the end of the second film it's been revealed that MJ has a big "kidnap me" sign on her back so that any Spiderman foes kidnap her anyway there's a moment where Peter and MJ decide they can be together.

Which, naturally, becomes the problem the two have through the third film. Just agreeing to go steady doesn't mean either character is up for the task. Parker believes he's ready to propose to Mary Jane and when MJ gets skewered in the press for her turn as a singer in a musical she vents her frustration to Peter who tells her to just shrug it off. It's not like Peter ever shrugged off self doubt and frustration in the previous two movies so we're given a very obvious set-up where Peter's over-confidence and buck-up advice alienate his girlfriend. Parker's a bad listener and a great talker in much of this film.

In a way this shows that what many call "emo Parker" isn't really emo at all in a way. And what transpires through the film between Peter and Mary Jane are an alternating series of break-up gestures (intentional or unintentional, coerced or voluntary). The biggest gaffes the characters take come in the form of Peter kissing a woman while suspended upside down at a Spiderman appreciation day parade, in sight of MJ. This is a small gesture in terms of actions but a big one in terms of the history Peter and MJ have together. Since I've been a fan for years of the idea that evil at its heart is banal as well as radical I think this works. Peter isn't just less scary than he thinks he is, he's worse than he thinks he is but in ways he doesn't consider. He doesn't kill people like the Green Goblin did, or put the lives of the whole city at risk the way Doctor Octopus did, but he's willing to ignore how his girlfriend is feeling by offering advice based not on listening to where she's at but by beginning from where he's at.

In a sense when comics fans and film critics have commented about the banality of the relationship I agree, and I also think that to some degree just how callous Peter and MJ are to each other in the film in their respective self-absorbed states may indicate how great an influence the romantic comedy has had in shaping our cultural imagination. That's something I enjoyed about this movie. Peter and MJ do and say things to each other that appear in romantic comedies, and even within that other genre we aren't exactly "told" by the narrative that these things are good to do to each other. The difference here, as I perceive the film, is that in romantic comedies lies and selfishness are often presented as proof of true love in Spiderman 3 Raimi presents these kinds of things as evidence of the corruption of true love. We've had these characters in two previous movies, enough time to show them in the third movie at their worst and best.

I think that for non-comics fans the complaints about coincidence make sense. For Venom fans they need to look in the mirror! He who smelt it thine own self dealt it, as Zorac put it. There were too many villains but too many coincidences and any variation of the origin of Venom? Well, that's just the flaws of the source material.

I never have understood why Venom (the evil black sentient suit) is impervious to all kinds of injury and stronger than Spiderman but somehow vulnerable to "sonics" and "fire". Is that why Venom fans complain about the symbiote arriving in the form of a meteor? Wouldn't such a symbiote incinerate before hitting the ground? As for sonics ... what for? More than one critic thought the idea of Spiderman beating Venom with a tuning fork seemed stupid. Well, yeah, because it is but that's a problem with the very nature of Venom as far as I'm concerned. If sound was really the cause of the symbiote's demise you'd think that the symbiote would shriek up a storm at the jazz club before Parker decides he has to take off the suit. I think it makes more sense to treat the black suit as a metaphor for Parker choosing to indulge in his worst character traits and desires rather than as some kind of actual character.

There's a sense in which Raimi dropped the ball by trying to give fans what they wanted rather than going for what he wanted in the earlier two films. This should be a warning to other film-makers ... or possibly to studios that once you let a director have a three-picture deal you should let that director do whatever he or she wants. Yes, I'm thinking about Christopher Nolan's pending trio. The guy got me to like Ra's al Ghul and the Scarecrow. I suspect he'll be okay handling the Joker and Two-Face.

Overall the themes of the futility of revenge, bitterness, and how we destroy the relationships we care about most through refusing to acknowledge our own weakness, envy, and resentment seemed a good match for the material. The Sunda-school moralism people have complained about in this new Spidey movie, well, it's in the comics. I'm a fan of the comics so I came away pretty happy with the film both times, even though I know the film is a mess. The jazz club scene that a lot of people can't stand I actually like not because it isn't dumb but because it's here that Parker discovers how selfish and self-absorbed he can be and just how little trust and consideration he has had for Mary Jane. Going to the place where she works because she got sacked from a theater production and humiliating her by upstaging her at her own workplace and showing up with the girl she was jealous of earlier in the movie, that's bad.

The Peter and Harry arc was the most fun and could have had a little more development. Sandman felt a bit out of place, like he had more story than there was any chance to use. Yet paradoxically it seems Raimi didn't have a whole lot he could do with the character, which is why it turns out Sandman killed Uncle Ben, as it turns out, and that by accident. The running motiff through the film is, to put it in starkly religious terms, everyone is tained by their own sin, even the heroes, and that the heroes who fail to recognize their culpability for the sins they committed threatens to destroy them as heroes.

It's telling in the flashback scenes of Parker confronting the man he thought killed Ben that he's not wearing a mask even though in the original film he was wearing a mask and a make-shift spider outfit. This is a nice device in story-telling, the distorted flashback where we get not what really happened but a presentation of how the character felt about what happened. Parker can't admit to himself that he feels guilty of having murdered someone as far back as the first movie. He knows it about himself and he's obviously shared enough with Mary Jane that SHE can see that he feels guilty about that but he can't even admit it to himself. This provides a context for why what Peter does to MJ is so bad, despite complaints from some viewers that MJ seems too bitchy and not worth the trouble. Neither character is necessarily deserving of each other throughout the movies because there are some glaring character flaws in both of them all the way through. It's actually in the third film that they are forced to confront their own failings and not just the real or perceived failings of the other.

Ditto for Harry, which is one of the reasons i really enjoyed the film. I could have done without the deus ex machina of the butler explaining things at the last minute but as the extended cut of Spidey 2.1 shows, Harry's story arc got short shrift in the second film even by cutting out a few brief moments that really humanize him. Of all the characters in the three films he's probably the only one who may even have a sense of how double minded he really is.

This was a movie that tried to do a little too much. I still enjoyed it, though, and even saw it twice. It's not even close to the joy ride that Hot Fuzz was, though, which so far is the most fun I've had seeing a movie this year. There's absolutely no chance the next Pirates of the Carribean movie is going to be even half as much fun as Hot Fuzz was. In fact if Sony relaunches the Spiderman franchise later on they could get Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg to script future Spiderman movies. These guys are funny enough and have enough knowledge of genre film and fiction. Not that it'll ever happen, of course, but the guys who made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz could make a pretty kick-ass Spiderman movie. Spiderman doing a running kick to the Vulture's face isn't that different from something that happened in Hot Fuzz.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

mood music

Listening to Vespertine by Bjork. The first half of this album is pure genius. The second half, well, I don't recall so clearly but I've been listening to it lately so I get to find out soon, don't I?

I have to confess that by and large I have had no real interst in what most would call pop music. I got American V and plan to get American IV by Johnny Cash and I got the Green album by Weezer. I got some Jeff Buckley but Vespertine is the most recent pop album I now own. After surveying about a thousand years of Western music it's just hard to find a reason to pay attention to pop music unless a friend or family member mentions something to me. Coldplay is okay, not so awesome I would be sure of owning one of their albums but maybe that'll change.

Bjork sort of reminds me of Peter Gabriel in a way because her lyrics seem completely secondary to musical ambience.

Also revisiting the Blanton-Webster band of Ellington. Warm Valley is one of the greatest jazz ballads ever written.

Well, I get to do travelling this week and if the training is as problematic as I fear it might be I'll bring some big long book I need to read along the way. I've been reading, slowly I'm afraid, Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone's book on Messiaen. And eventually plowing through the unabridged City of God is on the to-do list.