Bee Movie (2007) – Review

Jerry Seinfeld managed to make a hit television show “about nothing,” but making a movie proves to be a bit trickier. Technically, his feature film debut may not be “about nothing,” but it is not about much more than the puny pun in the title. However, BEE MOVIE is no B-movie; rather, it’s a typically over-indulgent computer-animated comedy, in which no expense has been spared to create long-winded and pointless action sequences that jolt the lethargic narrative but deliver few if any laughs. The handful of good jokes are about enough to fill a  five-minute SATURDAY NIGHT LIGHT sketch, and one can only conclude that this is an example of a successful talent being allowed to pad out a small idea because no one was willing or able to say, “This really isn’t enough for a movie.”

Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld) breaks a bee rule by speaking to a human florist (Renee Zellweger).

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Sweeney Todd – Preview

Got a sneak peak at SWEENEY TODD on Tuesday, and it is absolutely fantastic – one of the best things Tim Burton has ever directed! The film was not finished (the closingcredits were missing, and the sound mix will be tweaked over the next five weeks), but barring ratings problems, this appears to be the final cut in all its gory glory. The movie is pretty much your dream of what it would be, when you first heard that Burton and Johnny Depp would be turning the Stephen Sondheim musical into a movie: it’s a dark, brooding horror-musical-comedy that hits all the right notes.
Depp casts aside the over-the-top antics of Jack Sparrow for a much more self-contained performance as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which the emotions (primarily a lust for revenge) ooze up to the surface in controlled bursts; without ever blunting the character’s razor-sharp edge, the actor demands that we sympathize and root for Sweeney as he slashes his way through half the throats in London. Alan Rickman is wonderful as the hypocritical Judge Turpin, whose machinations drove Sweeney to madness. Sacha Baron Cohen shines in a small role – you don’t have to be a  Borat fan to enjoy his work here. A special mention must go out for Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford, Turpin’s right-hand man – a perfectly wrought performance of a  slimy character who mistakenly believes himself to be slick and smart. Hopefully, the Oscar academy will not overlook him next year even though his role is not of the showy, melodramatic kind that usually draws attention.


If there is a flaw in the movie, it is that the cinematic storytelling occasionally short circuits the musical nature of the source material. The acting performances, through close-up camera angles and cutting, convey the point of some scenes long before the songs wrap up, as when Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) first lays eyes on and falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), who is kept a virtual prisoner in Turpin’s mansion. Judging from the reaction and comments after the screening, fans of the musical will be pleased that the film is faithful to Sondheim, but SWEENEY TODD might have been even better if it had jettisoned more of the stage version, which on a few occasions feels like dead weight slowing the movie down.
The screening was followed by a session in which the marketing people asked for audience reactions. It was clear that the small audience (a bit over forty, mostly of fans of Burton and/or Johnny Depp) loved the film: over thirty called it great; eight called it very good; two said it was merely good; and no one admitted that he/she actively disliked it.
UPDATE: One of the two viewers who ranked the film as only “good” complained that the story offered “no closure,” but he did not get a chance to explain what he meant by that. (The film ties up all the plot threads; it may or may not show you exactly what happens to everybody, but it gives you enough information to figure it out satisfactorily.) This audience member also complained about Depp’s performance, saying that he had seen the actor in similar roles too often before; he called Sweeney “Edward Scissorhandspossessed by Jack Sparrow.” (“Scissorhands possessed by Jack the Ripper” would be more accurate; Sweeney has little if anything in common with the woozy pirate from CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, whose head seems soft from too much time in the sun.) Funnily enough, even though the “Scissorhands-Sparrow” remark had been intended as a criticism, the marketing people actually liked  it, saying they would like to put the comment in their promotional campaign.
UPDATE: One of the first questions that came up was regarding the singing voices, of the cast in general and of Johnny Depp in particular. According to a show of hands, a near unanimous majority of the audience thought Depp and his co-stars passed the test. Personally, I thought it was clear that neither Depp nor Rickman is a trained Broadway singer, but it doesn’t matter because they put so much acting into the songs that the lyrics become sung dialogue. I’m not saying their voices were off-key or flat, just that you could tell they were not going to throw back their heads and belt out notes that would shatter a champagne glass. The strength of their singing lay more in acting skill than in virtuoso vocal stylings, and the result is fully satisfying in the movie. 
Several viewers raised their hands when the moderator asked whether any of the women thought there was too much blood; interestingly, none of them said this ruined the movie for them or would prevent them from recommending it to friends. A few pointed out that the highly stylized nature of the film – most of the colors are muted and almost monochromatic, like Halloween Town in NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS – rendered the bright-red bloodshed in a highly artificial way that muted the impact, making it more palatable, even for non-gore hounds.
UPDATE: Some people in the screening compared the violence to KILL BILL. Personally, I found it closer to one of KILL BILL’s inspirations, the “Lone Wolf” samurai movies made in Japan in the 1970s. Like those ultra-violent extravaganzas, SWEENEY TODD features blood the flows in watery geysers – the effect is so over-the-top that it becomes almost cartoony. Still, the sight of razor slicing flesh does have an impact, especially during the montage of Sweeney carving his way through at least half a dozen victims during a song.
To be clear, the session was not about gathering audience reactions in order to re-cut the film to make it safer for a general audience; the goal was trying to gauge the film’s appeal. From the various questions and statements uttered over the course of half-an-hour, it appears that the marketing people believe the film will appeal to three or four non-intersecting groups:

  1. Teenage girls who like Depp
  2. Tim Burton fans
  3. Fans of the musical
  4. The “Adult Alternative” audience, who want to see something other than NATIONAL TREASURE 2

For some reason, there was some doubt that SWEENEY TODD would appeal to horror fans, even though it clearly is a horror movie, the songs notwithstanding. There seemed to be a misapprehension that “horror” equated with SAW, and that fans of that franchise and others of its ilk would not enjoy the Burton film.
Personally, I think nothing could be further from the truth. The blood explodes in only a few scenes of SWEENEY, but when it rains, it pours – in unbelievably graphic gouts of gushing red. I can’t remember when or if I ever saw this much red splashed across the screen in a mainstream studio movie. More important, the Sweeney character fits the classic movie monster mold: he does horrible things, but the audience identifies with and even roots for him to dispatch his victims, who more often than not deserve what they get.
It’s a mistake to think that torture-porn and/or high-octane violence are synonymous with horror. There are a few loud voices at horror movie blogs insisting that HOSTEL PART II, GRINDHOUSE, and 28 WEEKS LATER are what horror is all about, but these films can barely find an audience, if at all. Much bigger audiences will clearly turn out for scary movies – even ones with violence and blood-letting, like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS  – as long as they are done with some style and class. Certainly, SWEENEY TODD could draw in the same kind of viewers who turned SLEEPY HOLLOW into a blockbuster.
One other incident from the session deserves mention. One recurring question was whether the musical nature of SWEENEY TODD would turn off some young male viewers who might otherwise be interested in another Depp-Burton collaboration. In answer to this, an audience member recounted the following incident: after seeing a trailer for TODD before a screening of THE HEARTBREAK KID, two young men in the row in front of her turned to each other and enthusiastically cried out, ‘Fuck yeah!”
That’s not the kind of comment likely to find its way into the marketing report, so we preserve it here for historical purposes.
UPDATED AGAIN: I forgot to mention this previously, but one thought that went through my mind during the screening was that SWEENEY TODD reminds me of THE BLACK CAT, the classic 1934 horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The story has Lugosi as a man who returns for revenge after fifteen years in a Russian gulag (same amount of time Sweeney has been away). Meahwhile, Karloff’s character has married both Lugosi’s wife and – after the wife dies – Lugosi’s daughter (more or less what the Rickman character attempts to do in SWEENEY). In the end, Lugosi flays Karloff alive with a scalpel (sound familiar?). As in SWEENEY TODD, the audience is invited to identify with a demented character driven by revenge, even though his actions are almost as monstrous as those of the man he is targeting – perhaps even more so.
UPDATED AGAIN AGAIN: Some message boards linking to this report have complained that I neglected to mention Helana Bonham-Carter. I simply did not find her performance particularly remarkable. That does not mean it was bad or that I did not like her, only that I did not feel compelled to lavish suprlatives on her. For some reason, I was not concerned about her singing voice, so it was no surprise to hear her do well in that regard.  She certainly looked fantastic in the part: her lovely features covered in pale makeup that made her resemble the living dead, she was the perfect compliment to Depp’s Sweeney. Also, her name barely came up in the session after the screening, so it’s not as if I was reminded that this was a hot topic.
LATE UPDATE: Someone at the New York Post links to my article here. The brief post ends with this sentence:

Mr. Biodrowski doesn’t say if he signed the nondisclosure agreement that is standard before such screenings

No one asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nor was anyone else asked, apparently; long before I wrote my piece, the message boards at IMDB had lit up with responses from other people at the screening.
Also, I wanted to clarify a couple of points made in my original article:

  1. When I wrote the “teenage girls” were one of the target audiences for the film, I may have been over-interpreting what was being said. The actual age range mentioned was something like 17-30. “Teenage” stuck in my mind because some of the questions concerned whether parents would take their children- who dig Jack Sparrow – to see the bloody R-rated film. Women over 17 don’t need their parents to buy them a ticket, so the implication seemed to be that the film might lose the 13-16 year-old girls.
  2. Some of the message boards linking to this post have expressed disdain for the marketing people and their attempt to “sell” this movie. I think it was pretty clear that the people marketing this film believe they have something good, with built-in appeal to certain segments of the audience. I suspect the real concern is crafting a promotional campaign that will appeal to each of these groups while not alienating the others. I also suspect this is the reason why “horror fans” are not listed among the groups being targeted: the marketers probably fear they have much to lose and little to gain, that selling to the horror crowd will alienate other viewers and still not bring in the gore-hounds. I am just interpreting based on the questions asked last night; I could be wrong, of course.

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Dragon Wars: D-War (2007) – Fantasy Film Review

A movie does not have to be good to be entertaining. If there were any doubt about the truth of this axiom, along comes DRAGON WARS (subtitled D-WAR on screen), offering up conclusive proof. By no reasonable reckoning can the film be considered a competent piece of cinematic storytelling, yet somehow the movie transcends its silly screenplay with over-the-top action and visually imaginative battles that are good enough to qualify as mindless fun. The result is not high camp in the so-bad-it’s-funny mold of MIGHTY PEKING MAN; this is really more an example of a low-ambition popcorn movie with enough good sequences to compensate for the unintentional laughter.

DRAGON WARS quick-starts with a nice aerial view of a devastated area – the first evidence of dragon activity in a modern day metropolis. The sight of a large reptilian scale leads our hero Ethan (Jason Behr) into an abrupt childhood flashback, when an antique dealer named Jack (Robert Forster) conveniently told him (and by extension the audience) everything necessary to make sense of the plot. This clunky exposition feels like receiving a condensed crash course in Eastern mythology, and you will quickly lose track of the various oddly named entities, whose cosmology seems at least as complex as the choirs of angels in Zoroastrianism (let’s see: cherubim, seraphim, etc.).


Although the young Ethan is clearly perplexed by this deluge of information, Jack never bothers to render it in terms that might be understandable to a boy born in the 20th Century. What it boils down to is this: There is a magical power that will turn a great and worthy serpent into a heavenly dragon, but there is an evil serpent that wants to steal this power. Heaven has hidden this power in a human woman and sent two guardians to protect her (Jack and Ethan), but there is also a marauding army in the service of the evil serpent.
Ethan’s childhood flashback flashes back a further five hundred years to show all of this back story played out in Korea. This sequence captures a beautiful sense of colorful Fant-Asia sword-and-sorcery, a la A CHINESE GHOST STORY, and for awhile it seems as if DRAGON WARS may actually turn out to be good. But then the evil army attacks the peaceful village, and the first major stupid plot points emerges: the two good guys have had twenty years to prepare for this, but when the crisis hits, they seem to be out to lunch, offering little defense until after the village has been thoroughly ravaged. (Why the forces of Good have only two heroes, while the Evil side can muster an entire army, is a question that goes unanswered throughout.)

The evil serpent attacks a Korean village in a flashback set 500 years ago.

Five hundred years later, the events play out again, with the three principal characters having been reincarnated in Los Angeles. Strangely, the two guardians have not learned the lesson of the past; even after five centuries, they are still no better prepared for the attack they know is coming. There seems to be no plan, and the action consists mostly of trying to outrun the threat.
Unfortunately, this approach leads DRAGON WARS straight into one of the worst cliches of cinema: we’re supposed to identify with the lead characters and care what happens to them, but everybody else can just fend for themselves. After Ethan tracks down Sarah (Amanda Brooks), the two of them lead the evil serpent on a merry chase through the streets of Los Angeles, stopping at various houses, restaurants, and office buildings, all of which are promptly destroyed. Yet the couple never for a moment shows any sense of guilt or regret about exposing untold innocent by-standers to the danger that is following them.
We in the audience are not supposed to care about this; we are supposed to sit back and simply enjoy the ride. The movie itself feels little concern about barreling ahead at full-speed regardless of logic. This has some benefits. There is an obligatory scene of a zookeeper put in a straitjacket after describing a giant serpent eating the elephants (you would think the zoo could at lest confirm that the elephants were missing), but the authorities quickly – if not very convincingly – realize the truth of the situation, sparing us the usual “there must be some other explanation” dialogue. Unfortunately, the gambit goes too far, with Anglo FBI officers suddenly up to speed on ancient Korean mythology – there must be a folder on it buried in the X-Files somewhere.
Movies can overcome credibility problems if they offer their audience some sort of emotional bond that will convince them to overlook leaps in logic, but even in that regard DRAGON WARS falls short. Actors Behr and Brooks are given absolutely zero to work with in terms of characterization: there is not a single distinguishing trait between the two of them; they play archetypal romantic leads, who fall in love because the script tells them to, not because there is any chemistry between them. On top of this, Behr’s Nathan is exceedingly lacking as a hero. He does little useful, nothing clever; his one achievement (taking a bullet aimed at Sarah) is undermined when – laughably – he simply stands up immediately afterward and says he’s okay, then resumes the action as if nothing had happened.
In the Merlin role, Forster comes across like a more tangible version of the ghostly Ob-Wan Kenobi. After the early flashback, he pops up at convenient moments to lend assistance, but it is never clear why he does not stick around instead of disappearing like the Lone Ranger without waiting for a thank you (a tactic that elicits laughter in at least one case, when he lurches abruptly off-camera after beating up three guys who were harassing Sarah). There is just barely a hint that the leader of the evil army may have killed Jack, which would explain why he appears and disappears like a ghost; perhaps this is one of the seventeen minutes of footage that was deleted since the 107-minute version screened at the American Film Market last November.
With all this against it, what does DRAGON WARS have to offer? It allows Korean writer-director Hyung-rae Shim to take on Los Angeles like a kid trampling a toy train set. The perennial popularity of disaster flicks and giant monster movies suggests there is a vicarious joy in depicting large-scale destruction on screen, and DRAGON WARS delivers the goods. Regardless of the story deficiencies, the film works on a visual level, thanks to the startling sight of ancient, mythical monsters let loose upon a modern metropolis.

An ancient evil serpent plows through downtown Los Angeles.

All of the genuine imagination went into this aspect of  DRAGON WARS, resulting in some memorable set pieces, such as the serpent’s attack on the U.S. Bank Building – the tallest structure in downtown L.A. Not only does the creature pull a civilian helicopter out of the sky (during a lift-off from the landing pad atop the building); the beast also ends up in the target sights of half a dozen military copters – an expertly choreographed sequence that ranks with the best monster movie action ever filmed. Impressively, the scene never degenerates into a circular firing squad; the choppers believably target the moving serpent while avoiding each other, and the computer-effects footage is brilliantly punctuated with live-action shots of Behr and Brooks huddling beneath the rain of spent shells tumbling down from the sky all around them.
This sequence is just a prologue for the epic battle that follows on the streets of the city below, featuring high-tech modern military equipment clashing with an ancient army of armored warriors mounted on reptilian monsters. The special effects may not be totally convincing, but the juxtaposition of anachronistic imagery sells the sequence spectacularly. And in all fairness, the CGI is no more cartoony-looking than that in most American blockbusters, and the action is at least as well staged as anything in this summer’s TRANSFORMERS.
A sequence like this is hard to top, but DRAGON WARS manages the feat. With the connivance of the useless Ethan (who gets knocked unconscious while trying to drive Sarah to safety), the screenplay gets our heroes into the villains’ lair for the climax, a scene that seems equal parts KING KONG and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Sarah is tied to an altar, to be sacrificed to the serpent god, but a magic amulet finally sparks to life and zaps a bunch of the bad guys. Finally, the Good Serpent (about whom we have heard so much) makes a belated entry to battle his dark counterpart, and the film leaps to a whole new level of outrageous action when the creature absorbs the magic power that transmogrifies it into a Heavenly Dragon. The snake-like, animalistic appearance is replaced by horns and whiskers suggesting ancient Asian dragons, and the body movement takes on an entirely different characteristic: no longer a belly-crawling serpent, this dragon floats majestically on air.
Of course, the outcome of the confrontation is a foregone conclusion, but these clever visual touches make the scene enchanting as well as thrilling, and there is even a touch of pathos at the end. Against all odds, Behr’s final close-up manages to generate a genuine, emotional response; for at least a moment, you will forget the incredible story and buy into the character. This is as close as the human element ever comes to matching the special effects; it is not enough to redeem the shabby dramaturgy of the rest of the film, but it does send the audience away on a good note. In the end, you must be willing to forgive many egregious flaws in order to enjoy DRAGON WARS, but for sci-fi fans who make the sacrifice, the rewards are worth it.

Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks flee the rampaging serpent
Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks flee the rampaging serpent

TRIVIA

Although a South Korean production, D-WAR (as it was known in its native land) was shot largely in Los Angeles with an American cast. The budge is rumored to be in excess of $75-million, which includes money spent on developing the facilities necessary to produce the elaborate, computer-generated effects in Korea.
Although many reptilian beasts appear in the film, one could argue that only one qualifies as a true dragon – the one that undergoes the metamorphosis at the end.
DRAGON WARS: D-WAR (a.k.a. “D-War,” 2007). Written and directed by Hung-rae Shim. Cast: Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Robert Forster, Aimee Garcia, Craig Robinson, Chris Mulkey, John Ales, Elizabeth Pena, Billy Gardell, Holmes Osborne

Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski

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Dragon Wars – Hollywood Premiere

An evil serpent destroys the U.S. Bank building - the tallest in Los Angeles

Thanks to the American Cinematheque and Freestyle releasing, Hollywood horror fans got a sneak peak at DRAGON WARS, the Korean produced fantasy film opening Friday. A premiere was held at the venerable Egyptian Theatre, home of the Cinematheque, with many of the cast and crew in attendance: writer-director Hyung-rae Shim and actors Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, and Robert Forster.
Outside the theatre, the courtyard was filled with paparazzi snapping photos and shooting video of the celebrities, posed in front of a wall of poster art from the Korean-produced film. The usual casual attire seen at Cinematheque screenings was replaced by sleek, black suits and swanky dresses, creating the aura of a genuine event – the people behind this film really seem to think it will do some business.
Inside, Keith Aiken (of scifijapan.com) briefly introduced the film. Two representatives from Freestyle Releasing, the film’s American distributor, made some comments, filling in details about how D-WAR (as it’s known in its native land) managed to earn a wide release stateside. The gist of the tale is that, after the release of THE HOST (which did okay on the art house circuit but did not break out to wide circulation), someone brought a DVD of D-WAR to Freestyle, hoping for a 1,000-theatre opening. Initial skepticism on the part of Freestyle gave way after viewing a sample of the spectacular effects scenes, but what really sold the company was when D-WAR’s debut in Korea earned $20.5-million worth of tickets in its first five days, going on to tally over eight million tickets sold – enough to indicate that the film had the makings of a blockbuster. Consequently, the proposed 1,000 theatre release was expanded to over 2,000.
After the prefatory remarks, DRAGON WARS unspooled for the enthusiastic audience. Without getting into a full-length review here, it became apparent all too soon that the most compelling story about DRAGON WARS is the behind-the-scenes tale of how the Korean film managed to secure a wide release in the U.S. It’s unusual for a foreign production to receive this treatment, but DRAGON WARS is not your typical art house effort. Shot largely in Los Angeles, with English-speaking actors, the film seems deliberately designed to avoid the fate of most foreign hits (e.g., RING, JU-ON): that is, having the remake rights sold while the original is shunted off to video. DRAGON WARS is obviously intended as an American-style blockbuster; unfortunately, the film suffers from the flaws that mar American spectacles: the story is weak when it’s not outright silly; there is little if any attention lavished on the characters and performances; and all the real imagination seems to have been devoted to the special effects.



The good news is that, despite the dramatic weaknesses and gaping plot holes (no doubt due to removing fifteen minutes to speed up the pace of the U.S. cut), DRAGON WARS works because it delivers spectacular monster action. The special effects set pieces are brilliantly conceived and executed; it not utterly convincing, they are less cartoony than similar footage in many American films, and there is an impressive attempt at using light and shadow to make the beast seem truly like a part of the environment.
The audience ate it up, delivering ringing rounds of applause, and actor Robert Forster, who was sitting across the aisle from me, expressed his enthusiastic endorsement. (Despite his short screen-time and a conflict with a current acting gig, he had made a special effort to attend the screening.)
At the reception afterwards, most of the comments were positive, although the flaws did not go unnoticed. The general consensus was that DRAGON WARS is front-loaded with complex exposition that might not be clear to American viewers, and some of the big dramatic moments might have more resonance with Korean viewers (as when a mystical talisman, at a crucial moment, comes to life with a powerful, glowing burst of energy that saves the hero). I eagerly championed this theory, based on the evidence of two Korean gentlemen who had been sitting beside me during the screening: they had gasped in awe-struck simultaneous whispers recognition at each such juncture as we were describing: “OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” I remembered feeling vaguely jealous that they were obviously getting more of the film than I was.
Of course, premiere audience reactions, with the filmmakers – and their friends and family – in attendance, can be misleading. It will be interesting to see how DRAGON WARS goes down with a general audience, but it does have the potential to be a sleeper hit with audiences eager for more TRANSFORMERS-type battle action in the streets of a major city. And we all know that the rest of the country – jealous of Los Angeles because we have the film industry, good weather, beaches filled with beautiful women – are probably eager to see the town destroyed by rampaging reptiles.
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Halloween (2007)

It was with a certain trepidation that I attended an advance screening of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN in Hollywood last night (“advance” being a relative term – the film opened in the theatre at midnight). The charm of John Carpenter’s original 1978 film mostly eludes me, and there is little about Zombie’s career that would have led me to think he could do anything interesting with the subject. Still, hope springs eternal, so I went to check it out.
To pump up the already eager fans in the audience, Tyler Mane – the new Michael Myers – put in a pre-show appearance, autographing posters from the film. Then radio DJ Leon Quinones (who hosts something called “The Film Freak Show” on 97.1 FM) took the microphone and conducted a brief interview, during which we learned.

  • No one from the original HALLOWEEN was involved with the remake.
  • The film would be filled with “buckets of blood.”
  • Tyler Mane’s children would not be allowed to see the film “for a very long time.”
  •  Mane is getting married this weekend (“although I don’t know who the hell would want to marry Michael Myers!”).

Throughout this exchange, Quinones indulged in a stream of rabble rousing, dropping names (“Rob Zombie personally told me…”), promising that the film would terrify viewers (even though he had not seen it yet), and announcing several times, “Fuck the critics – this is for fans!” He exhorted the crowd to text message all their friends immediately after the film, recommending that they see it. By the time the lights finally went down, one couldn’t help wondering why everyone was so desperate to drum up excitement – where they afraid the film itself couldn’t do it on its own?
Once the film started, it immediately became apparent why there might be concern. For reasons best known to himself, Zombie opted to turn the first part of his remake into “The Origin of Michael Myers” – an unnecessarily lengthy section that takes the brief prologue from the original and expands it into an entire first act. Rather like Peter Jackson when remaking KING KONG, Zombie seems to have thought long and hard about everything he did not see in 1978, and he seems determined to put all those thoughts up on the screen, regardless of how tedious.



Zombie loves to wallow in white trash tawdriness, as if that will somehow explain why Michael Myers became the fearsome serial killer icon. We learn that his step-father was a drunken bum; his sister was a slut; kids beat him up at school; and his mother was a stripper (although, ironically, Sheri Moon Zombie, who plays the part, is one of the few actresses who does not have to expose her nipples – it pays to be close to the director). Later, Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) will declare to a lecture audience that this background was the psychological equivalent of a “perfect storm” that led to homicidal madness, but what we see is more annoying than horrifying, and we suspect the most dire result would probably be growing up to become Marilyn Manson, not a monster.
When Michael finally blows his stack, the effect is less horror than relief – at last the movie is going to stop treading water and get moving. As if to pay back the audience for the lengthy build-up, Zombie stages what amounts to a massacre, but the effect is somewhat undermined by the fact that Daeg Faerch (who plays Michael as a ten-year-old) looks too small and weak to be an effective killing machine (and his blank-faced non-expression, meant to convey psychopathic evil, is simply a blank-faced non-expression).  By the time the whole thing is over, you’re starting to feel as if you have sat through an entire movie, and you’re wondering what’s left to fill up the rest of the running time. The answer: not much.
We get to see Michael in therapy with Dr. Loomis,  receiving weekly visits from his mom, who eventually blows her brains out after seeing her son stab a nurse to death. (This is one of those dim-bulb movies where mental health care professionals are naive morons treating the mass-murdering Michael as if he were merely a mildly troubled youth. In what is clearly a sop to the hardcore horror hounds in the audience, the nurse turns her back on Michael for no other reason than to give him an opportunity to kill her.)
Flashing forward to Halloween night fifteen years later, Michael escapes from the mental asylum in a none-too-convincingly staged scene. (Zombie relies on shakey camera angles and jagged editing to hide the fact that he cannot come up with a credible way for Michael to overpower his guards.) After killing a trucker in a restroom (DAWN OF THE DEAD’s Ken Foree), Michael steals his clothes and heads back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, and Zombie finally – finally – catches up with Carpenter, who covered the same territory in a few minutes.
From this point on, the remake more or less parallels the original (in highly condensed form), and the familiar situations do generate a reasonable amount of suspense, but the effect is muted by our over-familiarity with the masked killer. The weakness of Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN was that Michael was supposed to be an incarnation of evil – literally the Boogeyman – but we knew he was just a crazy guy in a William Shatner mask. The film might have been better off if we had not known Michael at all, but at least he was mysterious enough so that viewers could set aside their awareness of him as a person and accept him as the unkillable “Shape” (as he was listed in the credits). Zombie has compounded the problem, turning Michael pretty much into a pathetic freak who would probably spend his days locked in his room (or his cell), jerking off to splatter movies; we never believe this pudgy kid could grow up to become Tyler Mane, let alone a near-supernatural force (who is likened at one point to the Anti-Christ).
Michael Myers, up to the same old tricksUnable (or unwilling) to imbue a sense of the uncanny into Michael, Zombie opts for portraying him as a human tank who can easily smash through doors and walls. He comes across less like the Boogeyman and more like a brutal killing machine; in effect, he is much closer to Jason Voorhees than the old Michael Myers, and the overall aesthetic of this HALLOWEEN is a new-millennium update of FRIDAY THE 13TH splatter-horror.
The result is monotonous and repetitious. The first act is almost an overture that establishes the themes and motifs, but Zombie hasn’t the skill to develop them; he just repeats them with a bigger, older Michael. Perhaps this is meant to convey a ritualistic aspect to Michael, who apparently likes his victims to die painfully slow deaths, but it comes across like a lack of directorial imagination, with the same kind of action shown over and over again. (On at least three separate occasions, Michael stabs/bludgeons/beats a victim, who is then allowed to crawl slowly away while bleeding all over the floor – before Michael bothers to catch up and deliver the coup de grace.)
And boy, those death blows are a long time coming.  Like his on-screen serial killer, Zombie doesn’t want the violence to end too soon. He refuses to build a scene to a climax and move on; over and over again, long after he has reached a point where he can hit the audience with a shock and then cut away, Zombie extends the death scenes with extra blows, extra stabbings, extra everything. In a demented way, HALLOWEEN starts to feel like a musical, wherein the story stops at regular intervals for another song-and-dance routine; unfortunately, the choreogrpahy here is too limited to justify the copious screentime. Editing in five more whacks with a blunt instrument does not make the scene scarier; it simply dulls the shock past the point where it ceases to be scary.
Fortunately, there is a break in the monotony when Michael finally sets his sights on Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton). We don’t particularly care what happens to her or really identify with her as the film’s protagonist, because, in truth, Michael is the film’s real protagonist – the evil anti-hero whose antics are the sole draw. No, the only thing Laurie has going for her is that, because she is the “final girl,” Michael cannot simply kill her and move on; there has to be an extended cat-and-mouse game, which adds a badly needed change of pace to the movie’s otherwise mechanical rhythms.
To justify Michael’s focus on Laurie, the script utilizes an element that was introduced not in HALLOWEEN but in the first sequel HALLOWEEN II: Laurie is Michael’s baby sister. We’re not supposed to wonder how he recognizes her as a young adult or tracks her down since she has been adopted, under a new family name. We’re also not supposed to ask why, if she is his real target, he wastes time killing so many others, instead of going after her directly. (There is just a trace of a hint that Michael uses the wounded Annie Brackett [Danielle Harris] as bait to lure Laurie to him, but such a subtle tactic seems out of character for someone whose standard operating procedure is to jump up out of nowhere and start stabbing.)
Rather like the ending of HALLOWEEN H20, the film has a brief moment of Michael trying to generate a little family feeling with his sibling, but the effort goes again unrewarded. This time, Laurie merely stabs him instead of cutting off his head, thus allowing the confrontation to go on for another ten or fifteen minutes. By the time the film does finally wind down, it has pretty much run out of climaxes; rather than a triumphant crescendo, it fades out, with the heroine’s final screams covering the lack of any screaming from the audience.
Giving the devil his due, Zombie does manage to make HALLOWEEN grimly effective at times. Tyler Mane cuts an imposing figure as Michael Myers, and we do live in dread of the next time he will pop up and slice another victim. Zombie’s constant use of long lenses, close-ups, and rapid-fire editing are crude attempts to jack up action that is not staged particularly well, but combination of bloody violence and trashy sex (with lots of T&A) captures the old grindhouse vibe much more than GRINDHOUSE (to which Zombie contributed a faux trailer, WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE S.S.).
This approach to horror is too blunt to warrant much attention, but there are moments when it strikes a nerve, even if accidentally. Probably the film’s most disturbing sequence involves the brutalization of Danielle Harris’ character, but the effect has little to do with the on-screen drama. Rather, it’s strange to contemplate that the cute little girl from HALLOWEEN 4 and 5 is now old enough to be treated like typical fodder for a slasher film, stripped to the waist and beaten bloody so that we can see lovely rivers of blood coursing between her naked breasts. Yeah, you’ve come a long way, baby!
Occasionally, something like an idea floats briefly across the screen even if they are not developed (during a lecture, Dr. Loomis raves on about the eyes of evil – meaning Michael – while the camera focuses on Loomis’ eyes, implying that his words are more self-revalatory than he realizes, but it’s a one-shot moment, introduced and then dropped). There is also an occasional flash of humor (among the films the characters watch on television, is WHITE ZOMBIE with Bela Lugosi, which inspired the name for Zombie’s old rock group).
The new cast is a mixed bag. The high school girls are generic, and Compton’s characterization seems almost deliberately crafted to be bland without turning her into the archetype that Jamie Lee Curtis became in the original. It’s fun to see familiar genre faces like Richard Lynch, Udo Kier, Brad Dourif, Dee Wallace, and many others walking on screen for a few moments (although all of them deserve better). Best of all is Danny Trejo, who inspired the best line heard in the theatre last night – unfortunately, not on the soundtrack: When he meets his fate at the hands of Michael, someone in the audience shouted, “You can’t kill Machete!” (a reference to Trejo’s appearance as the titular character in the faux trailer at the beginning of GRINDHOUSE).
Malcolm McDowell as Dr. LoomisMalcolm McDowell almost makes something out of the Loomis character (who was more or less just a mouthpiece in the original, raving unconvincingly about “evil”). In a nice touch, Loomis actually looks better after fifteen years have passed, having abandoned his long hair and casual attire (which suggested a man trying – and failing – to look young) for a more dignified, scholarly demeanor. Unlike Donald Pleasence, McDowell conveys a continued concern for Michael and a sense of regret at having failed him (although it’s hard to imagine any sense in which Loomis “failed”). In a film that has little higher aspiration beyond providing a body count, he almost becomes a tragic character, and his fate is treated in an atypically discrete manner, suggesting that someone, somewhere realized it might not be too much fun watching something horrible happen to someone you like.
Even more than the 1978 version (which was conceived under the title “The Baby Sitter Murders” and tossed in Halloween as an afterthought), Zombie’s remake fails to live up to its title. The holiday barely registers: it provides little in the way of spooky atmosphere, and it does not seem particularly crucial to the Michael psychology (he likes wearing masks all year round anyway). By focusing on Michael – in effect, making the film his life story – Zombie strays even further away from the Halloween ambience, and one suspects he would have been more happy had the film been titled “Michael Myers – The Devil’s Ultimate Reject.”
In any case, the primed and eager Hollywood audience sat through the film mostly in silence, seldom screaming – although there were occasional whispers of “Nice!’ over particularly brutal moments. At the end, they awarded the film with a big round of applause, and several were eager to wax enthusiastically for the guy taking a survey in the lobby. What – if any – lesson to draw from this, I’m not sure. The new HALLOWEEN has little to recommend it on its own terms. It’s a bit like hearing a recording artist cover a familiar tune; it doesn’t replace the original, but you’re curious to hear what the new guy did with the standard classic. In this case, the reinterpretation consists mostly of pumping up the volume of the percussion as loud as possible in order to cover the off-key singing. Little or nothing has been done to reach the ears of an audience not pre-disposed to like the film. The theory here seems to be that success as an artist is not a matter of honing your craft or having something new and interesting to say; it’s just a matter of finding an audience that wants to listen to you, no matter what. Personally, I think it’s a bloody shame that this film is getting national distribution, while Adam Green’s far superior, far scarier HATCHET is doomed to a limited platform release on its way to home video.
HALLOWEEN (Dimension, 2007). Written and directed by Rob Zombie, based on the film written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, Tyler Mane, Daeg Faerch, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Richard Lynch, Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Danny Trejo, Bill Moseley, Scout Taylor-Compton, Danielle Harris, Kristina Klebe, Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, Sybil Danning. Mickey Dolenz, Sid Haig.

Stardust – Fantasy Film Review

This genre film is not very generic, which is to say it has a distinctive personality that sets it apart from run-of-the-mill fairy tale films. The personality happens to be British (despite the American stars), but that’s all to the better: the ghosts, witchcraft, flying pirates, and other fantastic imagery filling the film are treated with a distinctive touch of deadpan black humor that prevents STARDUST from lapsing into formulaic family fantasy film-making. It’s not Monty Python or HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, but if you have a taste for either of those, you should be on the correct wavelength to receive transmissions from this particular star.
The story follows young Tristran (Charlie Cox), whose father crossed the wall that separates an English village of Wall from an enchanted land, where a dalliance with a Princess in servitude to a witch resulted in the conception of our hero. In order to gain the love of the lovely Victoria (Sienna Miller), Tristran follows in his father’s footsteps, crossing the wall to retrieve a fallen star. The star, however, turns out to be in the lovely human form of Yvaine (Claire Danes). For reasons of their own, Yvaine is also being sought by the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) and by the surviving heir to the magical kingdom (who has killed off his brethren to insure in ascension to the throne).
The coming attractions trailer does a poor job of representing the film, suggesting an insipid, almost childish comic fantasy. STARDUST contains humor to be sure, but it tends to be of the quirky, English variety, and the tone is distinctly adult, although children should be pleasantly amused. Contrasting with the whimsical charm and romantic adventure, we see witches divining the future by carving up the entrails of harmless animals; there is a wonderful running gag about the growing ranks of dead heirs to the throne, who must remain on Earth as ghosts until a new king is finally selected; and to top it all off, the film serves up a decapitation when Lamia grows tired of a rival witch. Not your typical Disney film by a long-shot.
One of the many droll highlights is Robert DeNiro’s turn as a pirate (who literally captures lightening in a bottle) named Captain Shakespeare. Although he poses before his crew as a threatening, murderous rogue, the captain has a softer, effeminate side that he reveals to Tristran and Yvaine in private. In plot terms this explains why he aids the besieged couple (who certainly could use some aid, considering that they are pursed by multiple villains), but the true value lies in the bizarre delights of seeing Travis Bickle turned into a transvestite. (The trailer’s brief glimpse of DeNiro is unimpressive; the revelation that he is hiding a personal secret makes sense of his off-kilter performance.)
Danes is lovely and convincing as Yvaine, a role that could have been a non-descript love interest. Being non-human, she has none of the personality quirks that distinguish the other characters; her only distinctive characteristic is her disparaging, almost but not quite modern “attitude” toward the naive Tristran. As the male lead, Cox initially seems too boyishly bland, but that is merely part of the film’s strategy, which charts his change into a dashing romantic hero. (If he can do it, there is hope for us all!) If one were forced to make comparisons, it would be to Orlando Bloom As Will Turner, but frankly, Cox has more genuine panache, and the romantic triangle in STARDUST is handled far more deftly than the belabored soap opera theatrics in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia
Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia

Peter O’Toole shows up for a few moments of fun as the dying king, who is amazed to see that he still have four out of seven sons living (he had killed his brothers long before his own father’s death). Rupert Everett generates laughs as the first royal heir we see tossed to his death by a rival brother. However, the real scene-stealer is Pfeiffer, who has not had this much fun on screen since playing CATWOMAN in 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS. As the evil Lamia, she makes Glenn Close’s Cruella DeVille in 1010 DALMATIANS look like a mildly annoying spoiled brat in comparison.
The only area where STARDUST sometimes falls to Earth is in the special effects department. The early attempts to wow the audience with visual pyrotechnics feel like a desperate attention-grabbing device, as if fearful that bored viewers will walk out if there is nothing spectacular in the first five minutes. The computer-generated imagery is distinctly lacking in magic and often ill-conceived; for example, the falling star is astronomical in approach, suggesting science-fiction rather than fantasy. Fortunately, at some point the filmmakers seem to realize that the effects work best when they are punctuating magical moments in the story; from then on, they augment the fairy-tale feeling of the film.
A bit like SHREK, STARDUST puts a spin on familiar fairy tales; this is, thankfully, not a made-to-order fantasy flick. The oddball elements may surprise viewers expecting something a bit more ordinary in approach, but the surprise should be a pleasant one, even for those without a predilection for quirky British humor. The nice thing about STARDUST is that, for all the knowing winks at the audience, it never undermines the magic and romance at the heart of the story, which works just as well as – in fact much better than – more earnest endeavors. It just goes to show that you can have your cake and eat it too, even with your tongue pressed in your cheek.

Fallen star Yvaine (Clare Danes) astride a unicorn.

STARDUST (2007). Directed by Matthew Vaugn. Screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, from the novel by Neil Gaiman. Cast: Clare Daines, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Strong, Jason Fleming, Sienna Miller, Robert DeNiro, Peter O’Toole, Rupert Everett
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Underdog (2007) – Fantasy Film Review

There's no need to fear - Underdog is here!Timmy, the imaginary five-year-old nephew I took with me to see this movie, opines:

I liked this movie lots and lots. The best parts were the parts I already seen, where they show you the parts of the movie before the movie comes out, but there was some other good parts too like the part where Underdog buries the bomb underground and the part where he flies in outer space. There was a part where a man dressed in a dress like a girl and that was pretty funny. I didn’t like the part too much where they put Underdog in the cage where the bad guy had his lab but that part didn’t last too long so it wasn’t too bad and it ended when Underdog got his Underdog powers and got out and the lab caught on fire but I couldn’t help wondering what happened to the other animals in the cages, I hoep they got out okay too.
The bad guy was little he was barely bigger than me but he could do lots of stuff and mayb if the mayor had listend to him none of this would have happened but big people never listen to little people cause they think we’re all stupid kids so they don’t listen and I just wish they had but they didn’t so the bad guy made Underdog by accident and then he made more super dogs and tried to blow up the city which was bad and it was kind of scary and the bad guy was kinda scary but I kinda liked him too cause he was little like me.
I didn’t like the part where Underdog was with Polly, that was mushy stuff like girls like but I’m not a girl so I don’t like it too much. I didnt understand why uncle Steve was laughing when Underdog and Polly were flying over the city, but he told me at least Polly doesnt talk bad poetry like Lois Lane. And I didnt get why uncle Steve was laughing too when Underdog and Polly were pushing a meatball with their noses and he said what’s the matter you stupid kid havent you ever seen lady and the tramp and I asked him what that was and he told me it was a cartoon like they used to make before they made computers which was a long time ago before I was born.
That reminds me i didnt understand the first part of the movie where it was like a cartoon, only like an old cartoon before they made computers, it looked all flat and funny not like cartoons nowadays look where they make them with computers. They showed underdog in the cartoon but it doesnt look like underdog really looks noawdays either. It was like they were telling me there used to be another underdog a long time ago before I was born but who cares about that anyways, I just like seeing underdog the way he looks nowadays. But I guess in the old days old people like the old underdog a lot and maybe that’s why they made the movie so I guess that’s okay too.

I should perhaps explain that, being imaginary, Timmy is not quite sure whether his intelligence level should conform to that of an actual five-year-old or expand to the level needed to make his current point. I’m sure he’ll work it out. You can read the rest of his comments below the fold. Read More

Transformers blows things up real good – Science Fiction Film Review

Optimus Prime - one of the good autobots. 

This sci-fi action flick featuring Good and Evil robots based on the famous Hasbro toys promises to be another WAR OF THE WORLDS or INDEPENDENCE DAY. Although it strives to appeal to the whole family, it winds up emerging as a kiddie flick on steroids – a big-budget, effects heavy, feature film version of a Saturday morning cartoon. The good news is this means that the film is relatively restrained in its use of graphic carnage. The bad news is that the juvenile tone undercuts the suspense, so the film has to sustain itself on spectacle and bad jokes for its two-and-a-half hour running time.


Things get rolling with an attack on the U.S. military in the Middle East, which seems to set the tone for a more conventional action flick, with the expected levels of destruction and a huge body count. Intercut with this, we see high school nerd Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) acquire his first car, which turns out to be a Transformer (an “Autobot” from outer space) in disguise. Sam uses his new wheels to attract the attention of Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), a hot chick who happens to be an amateur mechanic. Meanwhile, the Secretary of Denfese (Jon Voight) is at the Pentagon, trying to determine what attacked the military base, dragging in a bunch of “experts” who look as if they are barely old enough for grad school. More autobots land and reveal themselves to Sam, whose grandfather discovered the evil autobot Megatron in the frozen Arctic wastes decades ago; it turns out that Sam owns an object of his grandfather’s that will reveal the location of a secret cube that could help Megatron’s minions take over the world, and the good autobots want to get to it first. Unfortunately, in-fighting and confusion impedes progress towards solving the problem: an agent of a secret government organization (John Turturro) arrests Sam and his family, but eventually things get sorted out and everyone finally teams up against the common enemy for the big battle at the end.

After the high-octane opening sequence, which gets the ball rolling in a spectacular fashion, the switch to Sam’s story seems like a traditional narrative manuver; you expect to get a multi-viewpoint story with different plot threads tying together as the characters converge and join faces to defeat the threat. However, it soon becomes apparent that Sam is the story, and the movie is in no particular hurry to get to the climactic action, when instead it can waste time trying to milk humor from his predicament.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf) holds the MacGuffin that fules the thin plotAt first this simply amounts to a car with a mind of its own that strands him and Mikaela on an isolated road with a romantic view. Though LaBeouf does his best to play his character’s combination of frustration and embarassment, the comedy hijinx wear out fast, and the scenes wind up more embarrassing than funny.

Things get even worse when the other autobots arrive and follow Sam home, trashing his father’s lovingly tended garden. The scene plays out almost exactly like a similar scene in the animated film THE IRON GIANT, which also had a boy hiding a giant robot from his parent. It was silly then, and with the increased number of robots, it is five times as silly now.

When the film eventually gets tired of its teen love story and turns toward the action the audience paid to see, it delivers a spectacular barrage of computer generated effects that should please indiscriminating viewers, but anyone expecting an awesome epic on the lines of WAR OF THE WORLDS should look elsewhere. The computer-generated imagery has a cartoony look: it’s not technically unconvincing, but the emphasis on speed undermines the impression of size and weight (a similar problem befell the 1998 American version of GODZILLA). Also, quickness of the movements seldom gives viewers a chance to sit back and be totally impressed with what they are seeing; the strategy apparently was to overwhelm the audience by turning everything into a blur of color and motion.

This undermines the impressiveness of the giant-sized autobots. During the early portions of the film, what gets the feeling of seeing an American attempt to craft something along the lines of live-action anime or perhaps GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (Megatron is even kept in an underground lab that looks suspiciously like the one containing Gigan in GFW). But an evil little spy robot soon shows up to provide goofy comic relief, and when the good autobots start talking English – with lame attempts at hip, colloquial dialogue – the whole thing starts to feel like TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.

The final battle is long and loud enough to pass for a suitable climax, but even here director Michael Bay cannot quite pull it off. The action is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, but he only knows how to shoot everything the same old way he always does; he never achieves the over-the-top loopiness of a great Hong Kong action movie, where the sheer kinetic energy of movement forces you to accept the action, however outrageous.

No doubt, Bay assumed that his target audience would accept whatever he served up, and it is easy to imagine that young children who love the toys will embrace the film. The script, with its blunt messages about Good and Evil and about the human capacity to achieve great things, sounds like a bad ’50s sci-fi flick, but why bother with subtlety when making a film based on a toy line? Bay’s approach matches the material perfectly; he’s always been eager to throw in everything plus the kitchen sink in a desperate attempt to jangle the nerves of an audience with a (suspected) short attention span. With TRANSFORMERS, he may finally have found a subject, with a built-in audience, perfectly suited to his particular talents.

 Rollerblading Robots

TRANSFORMERS (2007). Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman. Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Jon Voight, Bernie Mac, Rachel Taylor, Tyrese Gibson, Anthony Anderson, John Turturro, Michael O’Neil, Kevin Dunn, Julie White.

 

Spider-Man 3 spins a convoluted web – Film Review

Spider-Man 3 explores the superhero's dark side.

The third SPIDER-MAN film is a bit like a web that’s been hanging in a dusty corner for years: it’s so weighted down with sticky bits and pieces of past detritus that it’s in danger of being ripped apart by the struggles of the new prey caught in the strands. Fortunately, the franchise strengths remain strong enough to support this wobbly structure: SPIDER-MAN 3 is still about ordinary people whose ordinary problems are complicated by the burderns of superherodom.
The first half is a a slow-moving unruly mess that desperately tries to introduce new characters while simultaneously re-introducing continuing plot threads from the previous two films. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) escapes from prison and turns into Sandman. Harry Osborn (James Franco) adopts the mantle of the New Goblin and tries to avenge himself against Spider-Man for the death of his father in the first film. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) seeks to usurp Peter Parker’s position as photographer at the city newspaper; eventually, so late in the film it almost feels like an afterthought, he turns into Venom, a sort of evil version of Spider-Man.


Meanwhile, what should be the focus of the story appears only in bits and pieces: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) lets being Spider-Man go to his head, first succumbing to the adultation of fans and later succumbing to his dark side when he uses his powers to extract revenge on Marko (who it turns out is the real killer of Parker’s uncle, who died in SPIDER-MAN). This plot thread is pretty thin at first, with Parker evincing disinterest at the plight of his long-time girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) when her Broadway singing career bombs; however, it kicks off to hilarious effect later in the film, giving Maguire a chance to show that, beyond playing a nerdy nice guy, he can really excell at playing a self-absorbed, arrogant dickhead. (The sight of him walking the street – a la John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, dancing to the music in his head and obviously thinking he is the epitome of cool even  while everyone else is rolling their eyes – is a wonder to behold.)

Once the movie finally gets all its ducks lined up in a row, the later half does serve up the requisite action thrills, with Venom and Sandman teaming up against Spidey, who gets some help from an unlikely ally. As in the previous films, there is lots of comic book action rendered courtesy of computer graphics; it’s almost never convincing, and it’s seldom genuinely exciting, but it is colorful, and at times the drama of the situation helps us overlook the technical shortcomings (shortcomings to which the filmmakers themselves seem blissfully indifferent – they serve up webfuls of the CGI, especially of Spidey’s web-swinging among skyscrapers, as if no one’s going to notice how cartoony it looks).

Maguire gets to stretch out this time, thanks to Parker’s flirtation with the dark side. Dunst is lovely, but there is not much she can do with Mary Jane, who is a bit of a self-pitying whiner in this film. Bryce Dallas Howard barely registers as Gwen Stacy, the new woman in Parker’s life, and Topher Grace is a bit too wimpy to make a truly threatening villain, even with the help of the special effects, but Church pulls off Marko with aplomb (he actually sells the character’s last-reel change-of-heart, something the script expects us to accept on faith). And Bruce Campbell, veteran of many early Sam Raimi films, is terrific in a bit as a waiter in a French restaurant where Parker blows his attempt to propose to Mary Jane.

In the end, SPIDER-MAN 3 – at least in its later portions – stands alongside its predecessors reasonably well, evincing many of the same strengths and weaknesses. What lifts the franchise above most comic book fare is the wonderful way it focuses on Parker as a nerdy do-gooder, uncomfortable with his powers and how they impact his personal life. This creates an instant identifiability that makes the movies engaging – they have a ring of recognizable truth about them, even though they are about a guy who dresses up in a costume to fight crime. On the other hand, when Parker dons the Spider-suit and the special effects take over, the SPIDER-MAN films have yet to deliver a truly out-standing display of virtuoso superhero theatrics. Sure, there has been some fun stuff, but they have yet to deliver a scene as breath-taking as the jet plane rescue in SUPERMAN RETURNS.

Venom and Spider-man fight to the death.
TRIVIA

The conclusion of SPIDER-MAN 3 features a confrontation between the hero and the villains in the skeleton of a building under construction. A similar setting was used for the conclusion of DARKMAN, director Sam Raimi’s attempt to create an original comic book-type anti-hero for film.
SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007). Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent; screen story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Riami, based on the comic book character by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, James Cromwell, Theresa Russell, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn, Bruce Campbell, Elizabeth Banks, Ted Raimi Perla Haney-Hardine, Willem Dafoe, Cliff Robertson.