Wednesday, May 16, 2007

5 Things Spider-Man 3 Got Pretty RIGHT / 5 Things It Got Drastically WRONG

So yeah, I saw Sam Raimi's big new superhero sequel SPIDER-MAN 3, which opened last weekend. It's been getting tremendous amount of backlash - for example, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it "aesthetically and conceptually wrung out." Many others have lamented that the fun has gone out of the series, and while I wouldn't exactly say that, I do agree that it is a very mixed bag. Here's how mixed:

5 Things SPIDER-MAN 3 Got Pretty RIGHT: 

1. Much better special effects: In the first two installments, Spider-man (Tobey Maquire) web-slinging his way from building to building looked video gamey, and at times borderline absurd, but now has a fluid graceful believability. 

Nice to see that the reportedely most expensive movie ever has its money up there on the screen.

2. The Sandman: 

Thomas Haden Church is perfectly cast as escaped felon Flint Marco who accidentally fell into an experimental particle physics site that molecularly binds him with sand, so he gets fantastical shape-shifting powers. Like all the villains in the franchise he's really not evil deep down in his heart - he's just computer generated that way.

3. The Black Suit: Yep, shiny goth Spidey looks pretty cool. That was evident in the trailers from a year ago though. But no - I'm not gonna copy 'n paste that same ole brooding dark SPIDERMAN in "the thinker" pose promo photo and post it here.

4. Venom: Though only named in the credits - a satisfyingly scary villain (especially when he grits his teeth) albeit in a movie with one villain too many - damn I said I'd save the cons and there I went again. Anyway since the other half of this element is covered in the cons I'll just say this - Venom has bite. 

5. The obligatory yet hugely satisfying Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell cameos: Appropriately cheesy Spider-man creator Stan Lee's quick pep-talk appearance to a battered soul-fried Parker hits the spot - "You know, I guess one person really can make a difference...". You tell him Marvel Man! And wouldn't we all feel cheated if we didn't get Bruce Campbell for the third time to cameo? His pretentious French Maitre d' may not have anything on John Cleese in MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE but in this film it's one of the only bits of comedy that worked - "I love romance. I am French."

Now to let the disses truly fly: 

5 things SPIDERMAN 3 got drastically WRONG:

1. J.K. Simmons: As newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson Simmons was dead on in the first 2 installments but here his fast talking manipulative shtick is tired, unfunny and only annoys the audience every time he appears. 

Maybe it was Simmons' Simpsons appearance from last season that fully wore down the character - "stop the presses, send my wife some flowers, get me an Advil - what do you mean you don't work for me? You're hired! Now that you're hired you're fired. Now that you don't work here we can be friends - now that we're friends how come you don't call? Some friend you are!" I guess once the Simpsons has got you down your gig is up.

2. The Harry Osbourn (James Franco) amnesia subplot: As a writer I always dislike the "he lost his memory" plot-line that has been a longtime cheat of sitcoms, - Hell it made me swear off the show 24 forever. Despite that Franco sells it to the best of his ability, It's such lazy screenwriting to have Harry conveniently have his recent revenge fueled memory erased after such an unimpressive alleyway tussle with our hero.

3. Kirsten Dunst sings 2 songs: Yes, I know it's from the original comic that Mary Jane Watson is an aspiring actress, a wannabe Broadway singing star, but nobody, and I mean nobody, was buying a ticket to see her warble through two complete numbers. Show stoppers in the worst way.

4. The extended black gunk from outer space that turns Peter Parker into an asshole sequence: Yes, the black suit looks cool, as I noted above, but the gunk, an alien symbiote (some sort of parasite) coming from a small meteorite that attaches itself to Spidey's suit brings out the jerk in Parker in a painful sequence. Looking like strands of Twistler's candy dipped in tar - the ooze infiltrates Peter's nice guy mentality and promptly makes him strut around Manhattan with an entitled attitude, which makes him come on like Jim Carrey in BRUCE ALMIGHTY. This whole bit should have been a deleted scene. 

5. Topher Grace/ The Overall Bloat : I loop these together because as scary cool as Venom was and maybe that was because it's the only less-is-more element here - the entire Topher Grace origins of the character are lame, it comes in way too late in the story to have proper impact. Grace's overall smarminess is pretty hard to stomach too. 

The two and a half hour flick is crammed with too many incidental characters and go nowhere plot threads. Also, do we seriously need a scene of Franco and Dunst making an omelet? Repeated appearances by Peter's landlord and daughter Ursula? Really?! And did I mention Kirsten Dunst sings two full songs?!!? Okay, well at least I got that all out of my system.

More later...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

BLACK BOOK: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art house possibly somewhere near you:

BLACK BOOK (Dir. Paul Verheoven, 2007)

Paul Verhoven's first movie in sic years is a far cry from the glib futuristic satire of ROBOCOP (1987) and definitely more than just time-zones away from the glib psycho sexual trash thriller BASIC INSTINCT (1992).

Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten) hides from Nazi's in 1944 Netherlands hiding her Jewish-ness under a blond curly dye-job and behind her charm which is the sole saving grace of this tedious over-stated film. Van Houten is a former singer (and she does sing beautifully in the only scenes that register emotion) who becomes embroiled in a plot by the resistance to infiltrate the SD (Sicherheitsdienst-Security Service) office run by officer Ludwig Mntze (Sebastian Koch). 

Koch is apparently a lovable Nazi (one that the movie stresses isn't as bad as the other cold blooded less attractive Nazis) therefore she falls for him. The plot thickens when members of the resistance may be as untrustworthy as their enemy.

After one wades through all the supposedly purposeful unpleasantness symbolized by the bucket of shit (yes I do mean an actual bucket of shit) that's poured on top of Stein and all the close calls and near-scrapes with Nazis it's hard to care who double crossed who and for what purpose. With an almost complete lack of directorial style and affecting acting edge, to steal a line from “Catch-22” (the novel, that is), it's impressive how unimpressive BLACK BOOK is.

More later...

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Movie & TV Mind Teasers - A Film Babble Pop Quiz

It's film babble blog's 80th post! So I thought instead of the regular movie review babble I'd indulge in a sideline love of mine: MOVIE & TV MIND TEASERS! Here's the major unanswered questions in the realm of modern pop-culture in a quick 'n easy pop-quiz format:

1. What was in the briefcase in PULP FICTION?

2. What was in the package that Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) leaves in the care of Barton (John Turturro) in BARTON FINK

3. What state is Springfield in on The Simpsons


4. Why (or how) is Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) able to walk on water at the end of BEING THERE

5. How (or why) did Groundhog Day keep repeating to Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in GROUNDHOG DAY

6. What is the one thing that 13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING is about? 

7. Did Mookie (Spike Lee) do the right thing in DO THE RIGHT THING?

8. When the Fonz (Henry Winkler) moved in over the Cunningham's garage on Happy Days, did he actually pay rent? 

9. How on bloody Earth did those images get on that damn videotape in any version of THE RING?

10. Who killed chauffeur Owen Taylor (Dan Wallace) in THE BIG SLEEP? (Man, if you can answer this...)

EXTRA CREDIT: Who put the monolith on earth during the apes BC segment and on the moon in 2001 in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY? God or Aliens? - Discuss. 

EXTRA EXTRA CREDIT: Why in Christ's name did Rose (Gloria Stuart) throw the extremely valuable necklace with the diamond into the ocean in TITANIC?!!? I mean it could have helped out her struggling artist daughter and funded further research on the damn boat sinking bullshit - for Christ's sake! Someone please explain it to me!!!! 

Send your answers to: 

More later...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Dogs, DREAM GIRLS On DVD, And A Doc Full Of Diatribes

"Take myself and subtract movies and the remainder is zero." - Akira Kurosawa 

My sentiments exactly Mr. Kurosawa. More movies to cover so let's get to 'em. The first one I saw at my local home town theater a few days back and there was only one other person in attendance. Pretty fitting as my review makes plain: 

YEAR OF THE DOG (Dir. Mike White, 2007)

Likable Mike White's (screenwriter of CHUCK & BUCK, THE GOOD GIRL, SCHOOL OF ROCK) directorial debut features the very likable Molly Shannon in her first starring role since the SNL derived, and much derided, SUPERSTAR as a lonely woman who just got lonelier because of the death of her beloved beagle named Pencil. 

Encouraged by friends (mostly Regina King) she tries to use the incident to jump-start her love life but with such unlikely mates as gruff nextdoor neighbour John C. Reilly or touchy feely animal caretaker Peter Sarsgaard that doesn't look very likely.

The first half of this "situation tragedy" (as White calls it) is pretty breezy, quirky and mildly amusing. The second half in which Shannon sabotages her job and family ties while trying to rescue every dog at the pound takes a nose dive into tedious cringe-inducing and worse - predictable pathos. YOTD is lamentable - it's a movie with a very likable cast but not one likable character. Hell, even the dogs aren't very likable in this movie. 

More 2006 flicks that I didn't make it to in the theaters but now can catch up with on DVD. I'll start with with the big-ass mock Motown musical: 

DREAMGIRLS (Dir. Bill Condon, 2006)

"Maybe I should go see it with my lawyer." - Diana Ross on Letterman 1/07  
So, the rise and rise of the Supremes-styled girl group The Dreams was the central premise of the popular early 80's award-winning Broadway show that also tied together other R&B also-rans into a tight show-piece spectacular. For the movie version the Motown connection is enhanced - first by changing the locale directly from Chicago to Detroit, second by making slick but slimey Jamie Foxx's Berry Gordy-esque payola scandal into a pivitol plotpoint, and third by having the wardrobe mesmerizingly mirror every album-cover fashion trend in the African American community from '62-'79. 

Beyonce Knowles plays Deena - the Diana Ross of this piece with fellow Dreamettes Anika Noni Rose as wide-eyed innocent Lorrell (who doens't have much of a part) and most gloriously former American Idol loser Jennifer Hudson as Effie who steals the show and the movie from everybody and righteously got an Oscar for it. Eddie Murphy who didn't take home the gold still puts in his best acting in years as James "Early" Thunder who comes on like James Brown by way of Jackie Wilson in his 60's incarnation, then an almost complete transformation into message-music era Marvin Gaye right down to his Denign jacket and rainbow-knit hat. 

Director Condon's movies (KINSEY, GODS AND MONSTERS) are glitzy and glossy yet fairly conventional but that approach appears to work here. The songs as overwrought as the are at times are pretty convincing as pastiche homages and a few are catchy too. Not a miscasted role in sight - Danny Glover, Keith Robinson, John Lithgow, and Jaheel White (Urkel!) among others all play the right notes. Far from perfect DREAMGIRLS is pretty Effing good nonetheless. 

(Dirs. Nick Doob/Chris Hegedus, 2006) 

Very Loosely structured around the launching of liberal radio Air America, the ongoing spats with Right-wing rabble rousers Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter, the 2004 election and on the cuff of a possible senate campaign, this ramshackle documentary about comedy writer/performer turned politcal pundit Al Franken misses the mark.

Footage and commentary that should serve the tension is chopped into forgetful sound-bites while the perspective that a more thorough career evaluation could provide is severely lacking.

There's some tasty tidbits - Franken doing his Henry Kissinger impression right to Kissinger's face at a Newsweek party, angry tongue lashings of Michael Medved and Sean Hannity, and Franken's Republican party convention coverage all amuse but the random clips of SNL sketches and brief visit to the house of his childhood upbringing imply a bigger better story that just isn't being told.

There is no mention of Franken's long-time writing and performing partner Tom Davis or references to the shaky nature of Franken's years at SNL which included a notorious Weekend Update baiting of then NBC president Fred Silverman.

Former fellow writer Michael O'Donoghue (1940-1994) would joke that Franken's sole ambition when getting the SNL gig was the be the first person to say "fart" on TV. Katherine Lanpher, Franken's co-host on his Air America program jokes in this film that he just wants to say "pecker" on national radio.

Looks like the only thing I can gather as insight from GOD SPOKE is that Al Franken cares more about getting a cheap laugh than anything else - I know that's not the full picture but it's the only one on display here.

Finally, another end-of-post tribute to another recently deceased Film Babble Blog favorite - TOM POSTON (1921-2007) - Despite appearances in a number of films, it's his TV work that'll be his legacy. From The Steve Allen Show to What's My Line then onto Get Smart, Alice, CHiPS, Mork & Mindy, The Love Boat, Murphy Brown, The Simpsons, That 70's Show and just about every other show that ever existed, Poston was a solid steady presence in television from the beginning of that cathode-ray tube forum. 

His role as handyman George Utley in one of my all-time favorite shows Newhart gets to me the most. Check out this scene from one of the classic episodes - "A Midseason's Night Dream." It's how I want to remember the man.

More later...