Saturday, March 12, 2011

A sticky tangle: SPIDER-MAN 3 and beyond...

SPIDER-MAN 3 may well be the weirdest superhero movie ever. Yes, even weirder than Ang Lee’s 2003 misfire, HULK, which was at least interesting because of its bizarre eastern-sensibility meets western pop culture tenor. That Sam Raimi went so far off the deep end with Spider-Man’s third installment (especially after crafting a pitch perfect second film) makes it all the more confusing.

First of all, while there’s a tendency for female leads in superhero films to mistakenly refer to the project (as Kim Basinger did in every interview for BATMAN) by saying, “It’s a love story,” this movie truly is; the hearts of the characters take center stage. Peter and MJ love each other and Harry and Harry loves his father and MJ and ultimately Peter and Aunt May loves everyone and the Sandman loves his daughter and Eddie Brock loves himself and ENOUGH ALREADY!

And then there’s all that crying. I mean, Jesus, EVERY SINGLE MAJOR CHARACTER with the exception of J. Jonah Jameson weeps at least once in this film. Spidey cries (a lot). MJ cries. Aunt May cries. Harry cries. The Sandman cries. Uncle Ben cries in flashback. Even freakin’ Venom cries! Maybe the symbiote suit works better for the web spinner. He wears black on the outside because black is how he feels on the inside!

But if S3 is a romance first, it’s a musical second. From the opening scene, with MJ’s awkward crooning on Broadway, the tone is off. I could practically hear the kids squirming in their seats as they tried to deal with a scene better suited for the Thin Man than Spider-Man. And while I did enjoy Dark Peter’s Maneroesque strutting montage, I wasn’t prepared for his humiliating (in more ways than one) dance routine at “the Jazz Club” (great name).

Believe me, I appreciate that Sam Raimi’s esthetic is different from Michael Bay’s. I like that he’s an old school filmmaker with a quirky style and a weird sense of humor. I appreciate his off beat casting and attention to detail. I like that he brings a retro feel to very modern movies. But he totally lost the balance this time. There’s very little that’s super in this superhero film.

But even the action in this movie is pretty bad. The FX scenes are all so jumbled with hard-to-read, yet obvious CG that they carried no oomph at all. I can barely even remember anything from any of Spidey’s various fights with any of the villains. The only really exciting sequence involves the runaway crane. I jumped in my seat as the various pieces of building and office furniture came crashing onto the streets of Manhattan. So how come when Spidey swoops in, all he does is save Gwen Stacy and then swing away? Is that poor crane operator still stuck up there? It’s such a missed opportunity. Like much of the movie.

SPIDER-MAN 3 ironically falls into the standard superhero movie traps that the first two Spidey films so smartly avoided. The main one being, of course, too many villains. One gets the sense that Raimi only wanted the Sandman and the New Goblin, but the studio got tired of having too few characters to license, so they pushed him to include the fan-favorite Venom.

Now, I’m about the same age as Raimi and it seems as if we had a similar relationship with Spider-Man. I read Spider-Man regularly from approximately 1973 through 83, which means, like Raimi, I was long done by the time Venom was introduced. It’s already been widely reported that Raimi wasn’t interested in including the character, as Venom wasn’t a part of his nostalgia either, and it shows. Even I could tell the character was underdeveloped (and I don’t mean physically).

You could also feel the egos of the leads on display, no longer willing to sublimate their faces to masks. Spider-Man spends more time with his mask off than on (I guess the people who saw his face on the subway, uh, el train he saved in S2 promising to keep his secret identity gave him an exaggerated sense of security) and the new Goblin actually has a mechanism that allows his mug to be on display… to what end? Hey, lookit me! I’m Harry!

I know, I know, Superman puts on glasses and nobody knows he’s Clark Kent, but every movie, especially a genre film has its own internal logic, and suspension of disbelief is a relative thing. So we can buy that a kid bitten by a genetically altered super-spider takes on its powers and abilities. Fine. But Peter Parker’s just a bit to blasé about using his Spidey powers in public (the web in Central Park?). Also, the alien symbiote just happening to crash land near Peter Parker’s moped and Eddie Brock just happening to be in the same church where Spidey’s ripping off the costume in the bell tower are too coincidental to buy.

Anyway. It’s just sad to see a once great franchise fall so far. You know it’s a weird superhero movie when the most memorable part of it is Bruce Campbell’s cameo as the funny French Maitre D’.

I can’t help but compare this film to SUPERMAN RETURNS in how it’s being received by the general public, far more accustomed to slam-bang action in a superhero movie than any kind of emotional heft. The impatience of the audience was palpable at the sold out showing of SPIDER-MAN 3 I saw, to the point where people were leaving after the action ended but before the movie was over. And I get the feeling that, record breaking opening weekend aside, this movie is going to have terrible word of mouth and fade pretty fast.

Still, that crazy money of the opening weekend pretty much guarantees that we’ll see SPIDER-MAN 4, but based on the ennui that the principals have outwardly shown during the press junket for this one, it seems unlikely they’ll be along for the ride. Which means that 4 could well be the BATMAN AND ROBIN of the Spidey franchise (with this film kinda being its SUPERMAN III).

But, assuming there will be another, where does Spider-Man go from here?

First and foremost, who could take over for Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Sam Raimi? While I always thought Maguire was good casting and did a great job, it does feel like someone else could fit under the mask. Jake Gyllenhaal (once rumored to take Maguire’s place when he hurt his back before S2) would actually be okay. What about Justin “I’m a Mac” Long? It’s too bad Daniel Radcliffe isn’t a little older, he’d be perfect (you watch, though, it’s gonna get offered to Shia LaBeouf)... For MJ, I’ve only got one pick: Laura Prepon. And behind the camera… maybe KUNG FU HUSTLE’s Stephen Chow or, call me crazy, but I’d like to see what Richard Linklater would do with a comic book movie, especially one with a geeky outsider as its hero.

Now that the precedent has been set of multiple villains, it seems unlikely they’ll go back. So I again have to suggest aping Bond films and including an all-action pre-credits sequence with a lesser villain who requires no exposition, but allows for the requisite merchandising. Have 4 open with Spidey in an all-out bash with the Rhino or a sparky confrontation with Electro that concludes quickly and doesn’t clog up the main story.

So who could be the next major villain? How about Kraven the Hunter, who comes to Manhattan to stalk the web-slinger and releases a bunch of wild animals from the Central Park Zoo to give Spidey something new to battle? Maybe Clive Owen or LAW & ORDER’s Christopher Meloni? Maybe the Kingpin could be done right, erasing the memory of the abysmal DAREDEVIL (too bad James Gandolfini would never touch it). If Mary Jane’s acting career picks up again, she could get a movie gig and become the object of obsession of a re-worked (and redesigned) Mysterio, a special effects guy turned villain in the comics.

Regardless of Dr. Curt Connors’ appearances in the film (played by Dylan Baker), it seems as if his transformation to The Lizard might be too much of a stretch for a movie. Similarly, while I’ve always liked the character of Morbius the living vampire, he also doesn’t seem like a live translation would work. And despite the fact that at one point, Ben Kingsley was in talks to play the Vulture in S3, trust me, it’s a good thing that didn’t happen.

Maybe it’s time Spidey fought a female villain… of course, his primary female adversaries (at least the ones I know) ended up being more anti-heroes than villains (much along the lines of the Catwoman). Still, it’d be nice to see him tussle with Medusa, the Black Widow or (most likely) the Black Cat (may I suggest Rose McGowan?).

The notion of Spider-Man teaming with a Marvel B-lister could bring something fresh to the franchise. While there aren’t too many of Marvel’s big name superheroes left to be optioned for film or TV, there are a handful of Marvel Universe dwellers that could work. Dr. Strange, the master of the mystic arts, is a good enough of a character to headline his own movie, but he’s also a great foil for ol’ Web Head (my favorite team up of theirs remains the 1973 Buddha Records Rockcomic, “From Beyond the Grave” in which the Kingpin kidnaps Aunt May in order to force photographer Peter Parker to bring him Spider-Man, who teams with Doc, who ends up sending the villain to Hell!). Dr. Strange (a fellow Manhattan dweller) could bring something otherworldly to the series, breaking fresh ground for Spidey (besides, he was also, like Spidey, co-created by artist Steve Ditko). And Hugh Laurie would be perfect.

Spidey and the Human Torch have always had a cantankerous but brotherly relationship in the comics, and the prospect of Chris Evans from the FANTASTIC FOUR movies (the only good casting in those films) trading barbs with Peter Parker is intriguing. But considering that Spidey is produced by Columbia and FF is a 20TH Century Fox franchise, that seems unlikely.

If Sam Raimi is truly done with ol’ web-head, however, it is inevitable that one super villain, first featured in SPIDER-MAN #2 in 1963, will be the one to rear his ugly head: The Terrible Tinkerer. Only he’ll be behind the camera.

The Raimi-less reboot, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is currently filming, and while I shall keep an open mind, my expectations are pretty low; All indications seem to point to this new version being aimed at the TWILIGHT crowd, so we'll see.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Ten Most Nerve-Wracking Pregnancies in Film

Sure, Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan are nervous parents-to-be in “Knocked Up,” but that’s a normal state even when the pregnancy isn’t the result of a drunken one night stand. As far as movies go, there have been far more stressful gestation periods as our list of the top ten most nerve-wracking pregnancies in film shows.

10) The Fly (1986)
A lesson in safe sex if ever there was one. Science reporter Veronica (Geena Davis) gets into a whirlwind relationship with wacky telepod inventor Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and soon finds herself pregnant. The problem is, during a teleportation test, Seth’s DNA merged with that of a housefly, causing him to mutate into an oozing, wall-crawling, vomit-dropping fly-man hybrid. Ronnie’s obviously concerned that the baby will have his father’s eyes (and wings and proboscis), prompting a childbirth nightmare that’s even more disturbing than, well, actual childbirth!

9) The Blue Lagoon (1980)
The third adaptation of the 1908 romance novel finds the sun-toasted Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields as Richard and Emmeline, two young children who become the eventual sole survivors of a shipwreck that puts them on a desert island in the South Pacific in the 1800s. With no internet access, Dr. Phil shows nor even smart apes to raise them properly, they must traverse the murky waters of puberty in ignorance, and, as one thing leads to another, Emmy soon wonders why she’s getting so fat! It only takes her nine months to figure it out.

8) Rabbit Test (1978) / Junior (1994)
It’s not a common movie debate, but we’ll bring it up: which “pregnant man” movie is the worst? In “Rabbit Test,” Billy Crystal plays Lionel Carpenter, a loveless night school teacher whose first sexual encounter leaves him mysteriously with child. This laboriously unfunny misfire should remain out of print forever. Let us all give thanks that this wasn’t only Joan Rivers’ first time as a director, it was also her last. The pregnant papa plot got another go 16 years later in “Junior,” this time with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the miracle man in what the studio thought was surefire comedy gold! Again, not really. An attempt to give a scientific plausibility to the pregnancy is only one of this Ivan Reitman film’s many mistakes. Ah-nuld’s manic mugging has no reins and the only saving grace is that his C-section spares the audience his full-on labor pains. In all fairness, there have been more movies about this subject, including the 1973 French farce, “A Slightly Pregnant Man,” and as far as we can tell, none of them have been funny. Maybe the world’s just not ready yet. But speaking of the governor of California…

7) The Terminator (1984)
Many expectant parents exhibit delusions of grandeur that their nascent child could grow up to save all of humanity. But in James Cameron’s now-classic sci-fi actioner, that’s literally the case. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) can’t figure out why she’s being chased by a gun-toting Schwarzenegger until she meets the mysterious Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). Reese eventually convinces her that the cybernetic Terminator’s been sent from the future to kill her before she gives birth to a son who will lead mankind in a resistance against intelligent machinery that have taken over the world. Reese knows this because he’s also from the future, sent by John Connor to save his mother, and he takes his job seriously enough to be the guy to impregnate Sarah with the heroic seed. Time to stock up on prenatal vitamins!

6) It’s Alive (1974)
In its review, The New York Times warned that this film contains “a scene of childbirth that’s grizzly (sic) enough to put anyone off both motherhood and fatherhood.” They should’ve added “and obstetrics,” as the mutant baby that springs forth from its mama slaughters everyone in the delivery room before setting off on a swaddling killing spree! This is the only film on our list to deal with the anxiety the BABY feels as it leaves the warm, amniotic embrace of the womb for the cold, cruel world in which we enter with a slap and a slice! Brrrr!

5) Alien3 (1992)
After doing battle with the gooey, murderous species in the first two “Alien” films, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) had come to know the skull-splitting creatures intimately. Too much so. In David Fincher’s oft-maligned third entrant in the series, Ripley finds herself the sole survivor of “Aliens,” stranded on an all-male penal planet / mining facility. Distraught over losing the surrogate daughter she gained in “Aliens” to the beasts, Ripley then discovers to her horror that she’s gestating one herself. Not exactly the kind of motherhood she planned on, so she leaps into a river of molten metal at the precise moment of “birth” as the baby alien bursts through her chest.

4) Agnes of God (1985)
In this philosophical / theological mystery movie, a cloistered novice nun, Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) has just killed the baby she claims was divinely conceived. Or was it rape? And if so, how and by whom? And if it WAS an immaculate conception, doesn’t that make Sister Agnes’ crime, um, REALLY bad? Crusty psychologist Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) is brought in to investigate, and ends up clashing with Mother Superior Ruth (Anne Bancroft) over the often-at-odds ideologies of faith and science. But not contraception, that’s not up for debate.

3) Dawn of the Dead (2004)
In Zack Snyder’s remake of George Romero’s classic 1978 zombies-in-a-mall flick, Mekhi Phifer plays Andre, an expectant father whose doting on his baby’s mother, Luda becomes even more frantic when she’s bitten by a zombie. Andre ties Luda down in a baby supply store and tries to keep her alive until she gives birth. Bad news for Andre comes in threes: The other refugees have discovered his secret, Luda dies and becomes a zombie before giving birth and his son takes after Mommy!

2) Children of Men (2006)
After a mysterious virus renders the entire world infertile, one lone pregnant woman represents the only hope for the future. Clive Owen plays Theo, the man given the thankless job of shepherding the pregnant Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) through a war-torn world that’s bleaker than a Radiohead record and into the welcoming arms of “the Human Project.” Let’s just say that it takes the stranger-rubbing-your-pregnant-belly invasion of personal space to a whole new level.

1) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
One of the most agonizing side effects of being pregnant is suffering the interference of everyone who thinks they have wisdom to impart. Never was this more the case than in Roman Polanski’s thriller, in which the expecting young Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is fed herbal tea and snacks by the doting old couple next door. When Rosemary begins to suspect ulterior motives of the Satanic kind, her husband tries to have her committed. The crazy thing is, Rosemary’s RIGHT, but maternal instinct is a powerful thing, and ultimately, she can’t turn her back on the child when it’s born … even if Satan is the baby daddy.

When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that the “miracle of childbirth”… an occurrence so common that it happens worldwide approximately every second, manages to inspire some truly frightening horror films and comedies rooted in fear and ignorance! Who ever came up with this idea, anyway?

Just how special are special editions, really?

This week, new expanded “Special Edition” DVDs of “Porky’s,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin“ and “The Matrix” trilogy hit the shelves, enticing fans to plunk down the bucks for a movie they very possibly already own.

When the DVD format was introduced in 1997, one of its many advantages over videotape was expanded capacity for content. In those primordial days, that usually amounted to little more than the movie’s theatrical trailer and cast and crew bios (remember when “animated menu” was considered a bonus feature?).

In 1999, “The Matrix” DVD contained original documentaries on the complex sci-fi world created by the Wachowski Brothers, and sales flew like Neo on a breezy day. It became apparent that serious movie fans were drooling for worthy goodies, and soon audio commentaries, deleted scenes and “making of” documentaries became commonplace. The extras-packed DVDs did well enough that many movies that were already out on DVD got reissued with the bells and whistles, sometimes less than a year after their initial release. Fans complained, but still ponied up for the new editions.

Then things started to get sinister. Studios realized that if they stretched out the extra material through numerous expanded editions, there were collectors geeky enough to buy a movie two, three, maybe even more times. Today, lots of movies come out on extras-free DVDs initially, with “special editions” already on the marketing plan for the next quarter.

But of all the various “special features,” which are truly special and which are mere filler?

Audio commentaries are a mixed bag. A truly insightful commentary from a filmmaker willing to be honest can bring an entirely new level of enjoyment to a movie you may know by heart. Director William Friedkin’s non-stop, narcissistic commentary on “The Exorcist” is so mesmerizing that even oft-told trivia (Ellen Burstyn really hurt her back) sound fresh. Listening to Joel Schumacher try to defend “Batman and Robin” is more of a hoot than the movie. The cast of “This is Spinal Tap” does its commentary in character, reacting to the mockumentary as if it were a historical document, in essence creating an audio sequel to the legendary comedy.

But there are few more aggravating wastes of time than listening to a bad audio commentary. Director Richard Donner and script doctor Tom Mankiewicz spend most of their time during “Superman: the Movie” trying to remember what was going on. At one point, Donner comments that there are people listening to them who know more about the movie than they do (as one of them, I was disappointed). Mel Brooks’ nigh-senile comments on “Young Frankenstein” mainly consist of him saying how funny the film is, trying to remember the names of the minor actors and talking about how great Gene Wilder’s hair looks. But the worst commentaries are by producers, invariably corporate shills who never stop trying to spin positive word of mouth, even years after a film’s wrap (check out producer Laura Ziskin’s puffy commentary on “Spider-Man”).

“Making of” documentaries are likewise hit or miss. Few studios are willing to allow a true snapshot of the filmmaking experience, warts and all, so any stories of behind the camera strife are likely to be glossed over at best, more likely completely ignored. Otherwise, the widely-seen leaked footage of director David O. Russell‘s screaming rants on the set of “I (heart) Huckabees” would’ve been on that DVD. Usually, “Making of” docs are little more than electronic press kits (sometimes that’s exactly what they are).

There are exceptions of course, but they’re usually for old movies in which the principals are long dead (or at least retired). Universal’s DVDs for their classic monster movies (“Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” et al) are loaded with terrific background features and fascinating commentaries by film historians and surviving participants. The DVD for Orson Welles’ “Director’s Vision” version of “Touch of Evil” details the battles between the director and the studio, even reprinting Welles’ 58-page memo to the studio expressing his displeasure at their monkeying with his film.

Which brings up that most-ignored bonus: text features. Cast and crew bios are one thing, but when sections of screenplays or reviews are reprinted on the screen, only the most ardent cineast is going to bother. It’s not that the material is necessarily boring, there’s just something a bit off-putting about reading your TV (the distinction between that and what you’re doing right now is slight, but definitely present). Text material is what DVD booklets (fast becoming a thing of the past) are for.

But back to the documentaries. The more fantastic a motion picture, the more interesting its production would seem. Stories of how they made the star do battle with a giant monster in an alien setting are far more interesting than listening to Al Pacino blather on about his process. Or at least they used to be.

Digital effects have not only brought about an end to the enticing mystery of movie magic (giving the age old question, “How did they DO that?” the consistent answer, “With computers”), they also killed the FX documentary. Compare the piece on how Willis O’Brien and his groundbreaking stop motion animators made the original 1933 “King Kong” on that DVD with the same subject on Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. While there’s obviously lots more footage of the latter project (enough to warrant an entirely separate release, “Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries”), there’s really not that much that’s interesting (unless, of course, you’re an aspiring filmmaker yourself). In the end, it’s mostly just shots of guys sitting in front of computers. A good rule of thumb: The “making of” doc should not be longer than the actual feature.

Deleted scenes can be nice, especially if they were completed. They bring an added depth to both the film as it stands and what could have been. But storyboards edited together to create a scene that was never shot don’t qualify as “deleted” (and we’d guess only the storyboard artist cares about storyboard-to-film comparisons).

Which brings us to “extended editions,” in which deleted scenes are re-edited into the movie, often under the pretense of being the “director’s cut.” Unless the director truly had a longer story to tell that’s worth the extra time, the longer film is usually just that: merely longer. Mark Steven Johnson’s “Daredevil” really doesn’t get any better with another 30 minutes tacked on, and most fans tend to agree that “Apocalypse Now Redux” is inferior to the shorter original.

It’s always nice to see historical context, whether it’s a factual documentary about a movie’s fictionalized subject (as on the DVDs for “Gangs of New York” and “Reds”) or actual period film such as newsreels or TV footage (“JFK,” “Citizen Kane”) or background on the source material for an adapted project (“Batman Begins,” “Dr. No”).

One of the most fascinating features is the screen test, especially if it includes footage of actors who DIDN’T get the part (check out Martin Sheen auditioning for the part of Michael Corleone on the terrific “Godfather DVD Collection”).

Still galleries of pre-production or promotional artwork can be nice, but often suffer from the low TV resolution creating a lack of detail. As Blu-Ray becomes more commonplace, this is a feature that will benefit greatly.

Gag/Blooper Reels are usually nothing more than a montage of actors laughing and/or swearing because they forgot their lines, with perhaps two genuinely funny moments in the segment. Collections of movies’ advertising (trailers, TV spots, etc.) tend to get monotonous. Music videos almost always consist of shots of the artist singing interspersed with scenes from the film (yawn). And Easter Eggs (those hidden features that you have to search for, often on-set practical jokes or bizarre test footage) are usually fun, but only if you can find them!

There’s one feature that’s never special: advertising. While everyone loves trailers in the theater (although 15 minutes of them is too much), they tend to feel obtrusive on a DVD, especially if they launch the disc without allowing you to access the main menu. Ads for related video games or ancillary projects could be of interest, but does anyone ever click on tie-ins for things like fast food or car rental companies?

While the bonus-feature-viewer remains a niche market-dweller (some studies show that only about half home viewers watch even one), DVD extras have become an inherent part of the filmmaking process, with every step being documented for possible public consumption. And while quantity of bonus features can outweigh quality, when done right (see any movie in the gold-standard Criterion Collection), they’re the biggest argument for buying a DVD. And as movie downloading technology moves towards the mainstream, you can bet studios are going to do everything they can to get fans to plop down money to actually OWN a movie while they can... over and over and over.