Movie Reviews

S3

May 8th, 2007

“Spider-Man 3″ is a sprawling, goofy mix of frenetic CGI and earnest melodrama, more squarely focused on characterization than either of the previous films, pretty much to a fault.

Story development takes a backseat to the emotional problems of Harry, the career (?) setbacks of Mary Jane and Peter’s near descent into dickishness.  This is very much in keeping with the original source material, and Sam Rami’s devotion to the tone of those early comics is the most endearing element of the franchise: he is that “true believer” Stan was always calling out to from his soapbox.  And yes, we are very lucky to have Rami steering the ship, but this approach crowds out too much in this already busy (Sandman, Venom AND Goblin Jr?) narrative.  So, while we get plenty of well realized moments depicting the subtle inner workings of the MJ/Peter relationship, we have to make due with clunky plot devices like Venom falling to earth in a meteor conveinently near where the lovebirds are stargazing.

Even worse is the moment when the bad guys team up, a scene which falls almost immediately after Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock initally becomes the shape-changing Venom.  With a rushed explanation that he knows everything about the Sandman, that he’s been looking for him and that he shares his hatred of Spider-Man, the villians unite.  How he knows anything about the Sandman is not covered, although, in the comics it was always true that Venom, being a symbiotic creature, had total knowledge of Peter and his life, as it was literally a part of him.  It is a systemic problem, this blundering rush to set up the final act; Harry’s blood vendetta with Peter is dismissed after a few kind words from his butler and Peter’s quest to bring his Uncle’s murderer the Sandman (retcon!) to justice is abandoned after a brief conversation with the guy.

Flaws aside, “Spider-Man 3″ is a charming picture, idiosyncratic and full of heart, bursting with action and humor.  And if logic takes a hit because of it?  Well, that’s the way the web tangles.  Tiger.

R(acism)OBOTS in disguise!

July 12th, 2007

God help me, I saw Michael Bay’s “Transformers” on opening weekend.

I don’t know that I have a good excuse, except to mention that my own glorious (and ongoing) adolescence dawned during the golden era of the big, dumb action movie and, because of this now near Pavlovian conditioning, I am maybe weaker than I should be when it comes to summer blockbusters.  I’ve been this unreasonably compelled since “Jaws” (which I didn’t see at the movies) and “Star Wars” (the memory of which often seems like my first) created the link between warm weather and big explosions. School would end, the sun would shine, action would erupt from the big screen and every year it would get bigger and bigger, if not better.  Still, like all good thrills, I chased them, and continue (in my shame) to this very day.

In 1984, I was a year away from graduating high school, and more than a little too old for the original “Transformers” toys, or the subsequent cartoon series.  Of course, I still read comics (still do) so I was well aware of the “robots in disguise,” but they sure didn’t resonate with me.  I thought they were silly.  Robots that turn into cars?  What a demotion!  Sure, they’re hiding out here on earth, but come on, who takes something cool like robots and morphs them into Hondas?

Okay so, let’s get this out of the way quick, the special effects are incredibly detailed and vividly realized, even if the design work is too busy by half.  It isn’t easy to believe that all that elaborate robot gear could squeeze down into those vehicles, and the physics seem wonky as a result.  Of course, this is a Michael Bay movie so more is always more and never enough.  Honestly, “Transformers,” is hardly worth analyzing.  It is a dumb movie, with dumb dialogue, redeemed only by Shia Laboeuf’s game performance and (to a lesser extent) Megan Fox’s shallow beauty and Josh Duhamel’s charisma.

What struck me with the most force was the neo-minstrel act forced on Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson.  Sadly, these are two actors who I’ve grown to respect over the years. Anderson most recently distingushed himself on FX’s “The Shield,” as Antwon Mitchell, the entrepreneurial gang leader who went toe to toe with Michael Chiklis’ ferocious Vic Mackey.  Anderson followed that up with a small role in Martin Scorsese’s  “The Departed,” arguably the very definition of arriving as a serious actor.  Bernie Mac’s self-titled Fox sitcom picked up on the anger and darkness evidenced in his stand up act and developed it into a bona fide work of art. Ironically, a few years earlier Mac bitterly complained, in the concert film, “The Original Kings of Comedy,” that in contrast to the milktoast Steve Harvey and his self-titled sitcom, the powers that be would never let a black man like him (angry? truthful?) have a show.  Because of this attitude “The Bernie Mac Show’s” critical and popular success carried a ring of true artistic vindication.  So when Mac pops up early in “Transformers,” as a shady used car salesman, it is a truly heartbreaking moment.  After chasing off a co-worker, while flying through his obviously dishonest sales pitch, Mac points out his beloved “Mammy” sitting in the yard nearby, claiming he would never lie in front of her.  She flips him off in response and he goes on to sell the main character a car (its a Transformer!) which he doesn’t even own.

Anthony Anderson comes along later, playing a computer whiz, a move I’m sure the producers thought of as casting against type, but he hardly comes across as intelligent.  As comic-relief, Anderson yuks it up as an opportunistic coward.  When he and a female government agent are being held awaiting interrogation, he gravely instructs her to say nothing, extolling the virtues of their unbreakable solidarity. Then the authorities walk in and he instantly cracks, braying that it was all her fault and begging, shamelessly for mercy.

There is one other black character in the movie, a soldier played by Tyrese Gibson, but he is little more than a prop.  The hardass who barks a few times, but doesn’t rate the character detail of a wife and child like Josh Duhamel’s character.

Because “Transformers” is a product pitched at a world audience and black faces are even less common on screens in the far and middle east than they are here, stereotypes tend to rule the day in these huge movies.  They tend to translate (like the braindead dialogue) easier into cultures from India to China, where black people are still considered far less than equal.  It could be argued that women face similar issues, but, aside from rote oversexualizing, American filmmakers do not bow to the majority view when it comes to portrayals of female characters.  Let’s face it, there is a lot more money to be had in catching a glimpse of Megan Fox’s thong than in watching her take a turn in a snazzy new burka.  In fact, America’s reputation as a depraved culture probably grants us quite a bit of leeway around the world when it comes to sexuality.

I guess it all depends on your definition of “depraved.”

Losing It

August 24th, 2007

“Superbad,” the latest release from the hot-streaking camp of producer Judd Apatow (”The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up”), written by Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg and directed by Greg Mottola, is unquestionably hilarious.

We are in the midst of a creative explosion from Apatow, one which recalls the career of Harold Ramis in the eighties.  Ramis was at the heart of an absurd level of quality comedy during those years, everything from “Animal House” to “Meatballs” to “Caddyshack” and “Stripes.”  Often working within low budgets, marked by casual staging and fairly artless cinematography, Ramis often infused these films with a quiet, everyman quality not seen before: the orgin of the schlub hero.  Apatow clearly feels some kinship with him, even replicating a faux low budget look, and it seems no coincidence that he cast Ramis as Seth Rogan’s father in “Knocked Up,” which played almost like a warped remake of “Stripes,” with fatherhood standing in for the United States Army.  Only somehow Bill Murray and Harold Ramis invading East Berlin in an armored RV seems more realistic than Katherine Heigel having sex with Seth Rogan.

In fact, there are often moments of wish fulfillment like this undercutting the more “realistic” tone and questioning Apatow’s role as rightful heir to Ramis, and no I’m not talking about the Age of Aquarius dance number which closes out “The 40 Year Old Virgin.”  In the world of Apatow, “reality” is often overcome by fantasy.

Now comes “Superbad,” the filthy, tender tale of two best friends, Seth & Evan (Jonah Hill & Michael Cera), on the verge of high school graduation, going through separation anxiety and sexual panic over the course of one nutty night.  The main character’s names are obviously not the only autobiographical elements in a film with a decidedly unromantic bent.  Inspired by the looking-to-shed-our-virginity subgenre of teen comedies popularized in the 80’s (”Going All the Way, The Last American Virgin, Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) , “Superbad” opens with a Columbia logo from that era (shades of “Grindhouse”) and promptly sets about deconstructing conventions dating back almost twenty-five years.

You’ll find no Ferris Buellers here, just the kinds of guys usally reduced to sight gags often involving thick glasses, runny noses and pants pulled up way too high.  I’ve read that Rogan & Goldberg began writing this back in high school, fueled by the wide gap between the idealized visions they were seeing on the big screen and the crap they were actually going through between english and gym.  It’s revenge of the nerds.

The two boys at the center of the film are awkward and unpopular and ultimately (spoiler) fail to accomplish what they set out to do, which only serves to highlight their endearing humanity.  We are truly living in the golden age of the geek, where every comic book collector (present company included) is a potential auteur and, onscreen anyway, the lower you rank on the social scale, the more likely you are to be OUR HERO.  This is a reflection of the strong movement towards “realism” in pop culture these days, which is really nothing more than a result of shifting perspectives.  History is written by the winners and right now the winners are the losers.

However, “Superbad” has another storyline, one which directly contrasts “reality.”  Christopher Mintz Plasse plays Fogel, a geek’s geek, who is on first glance even more socially inept than the two main characters.

 He acquires a fake I.D. near the start of the movie and Seth and Evan press him into using it to buy liquor so they can get a couple of girls drunk in the hopes of getting laid.  Fogel’s decision to use the one word moniker “McLovin” on his bogus Hawian driver’s license, a cooler-than-cool persona he aspires to, results in a self fulfilling prophecy.  Caught up in a robbery at the local liquor store, Fogel encounters two cops, one played by co-writer Seth Rogan and the other by Bill Hader, a talented recent addition to the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

 From this point on, Fogel is transformed into “McLovin,” and everything he touches turns to gold in a manner which would turn Ferris green with envy.

And this is where “reality” jumps out the window as we are treated to a succession of increasingly outlandish events with Fogel and the cops get sidetracked.  These are two very unlikely peace officers, the type which do not occur in nature, drunkenly careening from place to place and bending over backwards for Fogel, who they seemingly hold in great esteem, for no real reason.  Subsequently, the film’s understated, realistic tone falters, undercut by what feels like the most clichéd elements of those films which Rogan & Goldberg originally rebelled against.  This is certainly the point, but it deeply undercuts the sweet relatability of the rest of the film.  This element is pushed to a head-scratching extreme which sees the cops setting fire to their own cruiser in order to cover up their night of incompetent debauchery.  Here there is a real sense of trying to wed the fantasy of the 80’s sex comedies with the more mundane tone we’ve associated with Apatow since he emerged fully formed with his portrait of dork life on TV’s “Freaks & Geeks.”  These elements don’t mesh well together, not anymore than Katherine Heigl would mesh with Seth Rogan, as “Knocked Up” would have us believe.  Let’s face it, there is no woman in this universe who aspires to an on-air job with E! and also finds husband material in an unemployed, overweight pothead with a jewfro.  And in “Superbad,” Rogan’s alter ego (Jonah Hill) is PURSUED by Jules (Emma Stone), a girl so out of his league that her attraction to him calls everything into question.  At first, it seems that she is only interested in Seth as a means to aquiring booze, but we find (spoiler) that it is simply a way of getting close to him.  This is the point at which all illusions of realism are shattered.  Luckily, it is also pretty damn close to the conclusion.

I can’t help but catch a whiff of the geek’s unrequited desire to hang with the cool kids in this blatant wish fulfillment.  Come on Apatow, I know you’re married to quite a dish (Leslie Mann, who was hilarious in both “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”) but, no matter what Tom Petty says, the losers hardly ever get lucky.