Volume 4, Number 18
This Week's Reviews: Spider-Man, Hollywood Ending, Trouble Every Day, Life or Something Like It.
This Week's Omissions: Deuces Wild, Race to Space.
of the Game
BY: DAVID PERRY
Samuel L. Jackson stated one of cinema's most anguishing lines in recent years at the end of Unbreakable: "you don't know what it's like to not know you're purpose in life. Now I know: I am Mr. Glass." Written by a comic book fan for a comic book fan character, the milieu present in M. Night Shyamalan's existentially sad dichotomy of the superhero and the supervillain has been, for lack of a better word, cartoonishly flipped for the new ultra-budgeted blockbuster Spider-Man.
Sam Raimi's first entry into what is sure to be one of the most profitable franchises for the new decade does try -- almost strains -- to capture some of the Shyamalan quandary. However, Spider-Man has been made for the masses, chipped and molded into a form that will produce the most revenue -- one of the reasons Unbreakable ultimately disappointed many The Sixth Sense fans was its unwillingness to pander to the common wants of the American movie-going public.
That said, its hard to dislike the amiable Raimi production, which corners much of the director's over-the-top personality in an amalgam of special effects and forlorn misery that seems to understand what people want to see to have fun even if not really taking into account the emotional impact that can be imposed. Sure, the film's pitch-perfect finale achieves this, but looking at the previous two hours of the films bears little relationship to the despondency Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp throw in for the ending. But, have no fear, the audience is left for one last egregious collection of CGI-flips through the New York skyline: even if it has to be in the final frames, Raimi et al. include as many Griffin Mills standards of film production as he can muster.
I digress: Spider-Man is an easily consumable work from Hollywood -- it may not know much about conservatism, but at least it does include enough of those occasional fine moments to convince the audience that we are not about to walk into another Batman franchise (note to Columbia: keep Joel Schumacher far away from the sequels). This is the type of movie made to sell tickets that actually leaves people feeling their money was well spent by the end -- if Episode I is any indication, one-time wonder boy George Lucas should pick up some tips from Raimi before he gets into Episode III (we shall see if he has learned anything since the 1999 debacle when Episode II comes out in a few weeks).
The story for Spider-Man is almost 40 years old and, yet, still seems to have a gleaning amount of interest today. Much to the credit of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, this movie comes to the screen with little need for revisions -- only a couple changes were made to take it from a dated Cold War initiative into a fast-paced tech-age blockbuster (the spider that bites Peter Parker is no longer radioactive but instead genetically-enhanced). However, there is one thing that needs some work: that horrendous dialogue. Comic book fans would have been up in arms had Koepp excised the stilted discourse found in the comics, but that appreciation is rather closed to that subgroup; anyone unacquainted with the source material outside of the television show, myself included, will be aching for a rewrite after some of the one-liners come from the characters. But, hey, considering last year's Academy Awards, this is enough to get Koepp an Oscar.
The real pleasures involved in the new qualities for Spider-Man is in the director and the cavalcade of actors he has assembled. Sam Raimi has made a career out of cheeky, self-reflexive exercises in camp. I like the way his films feel like they are the efforts of someone having as much fun playing with the camera as telling the story. The Evil Dead trilogy and Darkman were both enjoyable thanks to the way they experiment with every guerilla tactic that a man can muster, even when on the steam of a major studio. His out-of-the-genre films, often show a similar versatility with a devotion to the genre coming to life, admittedly, though, sometimes to the disservice of the film (i.e. The Quick and the Dead). His best film, A Simple Plan, remains a testament of why Sam Raimi has a cult following that goes far beyond horror fans -- his credits are of a camp auteur far beyond the textual obsessions of Roger Corman and John Waters.
Raimi is willing to craft Spider-Man into a watchable effort in the superhero genre, though his lack of experience in the field makes for some dismissible but inspired choices with the camera. This is especially true in working with the heavy use of CGI (none of which, to tell the truth, looks that spectacular) to create Spider-Man swinging through the city en route to some damsel in distress.
The hiring of Tobey Maguire to play Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker left many fans of the character unhappy; but Maguire does the character far more service than early considerations Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Leonardo DiCaprio would have done. He captures the starry-eyed wonderment of nerd empowerment unlike anyone else; the sense of stern responsibility that controls the film's second half is believable because of the tinges of Philip Roth's Portnoy that Maguire successfully exemplifies in the first half.
Willem Dafoe also delivers a great performance, though his is far more grandiose than Maguire's work. Playing Spider-Man's enemy the Green Goblin and his genius scientist/corporate honcho alter ego Norman Osborn, Dafoe generates the same slimy wickedness that has kept him in movies even after trying to play naïve in Mississippi Burning.
James Franco struggles with the divisions between friend, lover, and son as Harry Osborn, though his work here is more impressive than the overrated performance as James Dean he tried to pull off last year. Kirsten Dunst, a highly effective actress, is never given anything to do in the film and is, therefore, wasted in a collection of scenes meant merely as hints at the relationship budding between Peter Parker and Dunst's scarlet-haired Mary Jane Watson.
Following on the heels of Blade and X-Men,
Spider-Man serves as merely the third entry in a new wave of comic book
adaptations following the collection of disappointments from the 1990s. Stephen
Norrington's Ghost Rider, Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil, and Ang Lee's The
Hulk are all currently at work, with many more (including Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy
and Peyton Reed's Fantastic Four) are in pre-production. Though some of these
directors have the prowess to give their films the zing found in Unbreakable, a
completely original concept for a comic book styled film, I doubt any of them will. Sam
Raimi, like all the others, understands that to keep this film wave running, absolute
quality comes after ensuring the film surpasses its high production expenses. Don't hold
your breath for the grimness of Tim Burton's Batman, bright colors reign supreme
in a world where America needs its heroes in tights with awful quips ready to unfurl and
the flag waving behind. "With great power comes great responsibility" has become
"with great budgets comes great complacency."
Curse of the Jade Scorpion
BY: DAVID PERRY
Woody Allen has famously made movies about himself. However, the new film Hollywood Ending is only the second time he has dwelled upon his work as a film director (though, he has tackled writers on many occasions) and once again brings to mind the filmic masturbatory satisfaction he used to make Stardust Memories in 1980.
But now he is far more cynical about the world he works in -- ask Allen his profession and he'll probably name screenwriter and clarinet player before touching on his directorial achievements -- Hollywood Ending has the same vitriol aimed at Hollywood that David Lynch used for Mulholland Dr. Lynch's surrealist dwarf running the town has been divided into a smug executive and his tanned lackey. The post-The Player independent filmmaker's disdain towards the Hollywood establishment has become old news by now, especially after Henry Jaglom exhaustingly hit-and-miss Festival in Cannes, the only originality of which was that it gave Hollywood the finger a hemisphere away.
The director is Val Waxman (Allen), a two-time Oscar winner who has spent the last few years watching his career spiral down to commercials. After being fired from his latest thirty-second spot, Val and his agent Al (Rydell) are surprised to find an offer from Galaxie Studios to make a $60 million period piece. Normally studio exec Hal (Williams) and his right-hand man Ed (Hamilton; who else could play a tanned lackey?) would never think about hiring Val, a director known for being hard to work with, to make such a high-budget movie, but Val is somewhat known for making movies in and about New York City -- his hiring is highly lobbied for by his ex-wife Ellie (Leoni).
Val begins to work on the film in pre-production, hiring a collection of actors and artists that show both the pretentiousness and the nepotism found in his decisions, much to the chagrin of all his Hollywood employers. From the foreign cinematographer Val must have (an in-joke to Allen's own career: in 33 films, he has worked with only 10 cinematographers including Italian Carlo Di Palma, German Wedigo von Schultzendorff, Belgian Ghislain Cloquet, Chinaman Zhao Fei, and Swede Sven Nykvist) to the addition of girlfriend Lori (Messing) to the supporting cast, Val pushes the limits of Hal, Ed, and Ellie, all of whom begin to wonder if they made a mistake in hiring the neurotic auteur.
But all of this seems like minor quibbles when the film actually begins shooting and Val wakes to find that he is blind. His physician tells him that he is suffering from a psychosomatic condition stemmed from some unknown anxiety (there are so many problems leaving Val anxious that finding the single trouble causing this is like finding a needle in a haystack). Al, fearing that he'll never get another job for Val if this Galaxie finds out about this, has Val act as if everything is fine. Using the cinematographer's translator (Cheng) as a guide, he stumbles around the set telling people that what they are doing looks right, effectively producing what would surely be the most garish, ill-conceived, unintelligible film since Armageddon.
Throughout the film Allen struggles as a screenwriter, as a director, and as an actor. He is not at the top of his form (though he has not been there since 1992's Husbands and Wives) as the audience becomes further disappointed that the director who brought them masterpieces like Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters has withered into a director more intent on boosting his May-December relationship confidence than with the actual quality of the films.
Hollywood Ending is not a waste by any means, but it is just not Woody Allen quality and this reviewer, for one, has become rather disturbed that Allen has been in a rut for so long. The last decade has certainly created some good films but nothing along the lines of his 1970's filmography has appeared. The annual entry from Allen used to be something to rally your effete friends together and laugh at the man's malapropos malaise; now it feels like he has become so burdened by his old iconic status that high-quality movie making seems too taxing and unworthy of the time it will take to make something along the lines of Crimes and Misdemeanors.
One reason that this is happening may very well be the fact that the Woody Allen persona is getting tired. Notice that the his two most enjoyable recent films, Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown, were both efforts in which he decided to give the starring role to someone else. It's rare to find actors who can easily throw out the Allen one-liners (as is seen in this film by comparing the fine work of Rydell to the horrid work of Messing), and Allen has certainly become accustomed to the firing of the words; nevertheless, the impish and almost dull way Allen tackles the dialogue becomes more and more unsettling to the normal briskness of his movies (Hollywood Ending not only lasts longer at 114 minutes but also feels longer than most Woody Allen films).
This is not to say that Hollywood Ending is a bad
film -- in fact it does deliver some decidedly funny moments involving both the terrific
translator and a likable finale -- but it lacks the pep that makes most of Allen's films
so memorable. Many people will not be able to remember much about Hollywood Ending
in a couple months, though they'll still be able to tell you everything that happens in Annie
of the Damned
Wisdom of Crocodiles
|Trouble Every Day
BY: DAVID PERRY
Everyone in the art film crowd has some director whose acclaim is competely lost on them. I hear some comment on Resnais, Godard, and Bergman; I have my own: Claire Denis. Simply, I do not understand why some critics and art film denizens praise Claire Denis like they do. She is a good director of mood and sedentary objects, but her ability to tell stories and correctly portray actors becomes more and more questionable with each new film.
A couple years ago, I had my first attack on Claire Denis with a negative review for her acclaimed Beau Travail and soon the letters arrived. I was accused of being everything from a disciple of Hollywood to a homophobe (neither claim really can be seen in the review, from my point of view) -- people who evidently got more than I did from the film were happy to challenge any opposing view I might have. After seeing her next film, Trouble Every Day, I am already preparing for a deluge of hate mail.
Trouble Every Day is a film built around a singular premise: Claire Denis wants to disturb the audience with the most beautiful visuals she can muster. In the same mode as The Hunger, style seems to be far more important than substance. Oh, and Claire Denis' film also shares another trait with the Tony Scott film: they are both about modern-day vampires.
For Trouble Every Day, there are once again two vampires who are driven by their sexual urges, though at no point does the female vampire have sex with a young Susan Sarandon. They do have a sexual fetish in their bloodsucking, though; at the moment of climax, they begin to need more satisfaction by biting and nibbling on their mate until they are writhing in pain. It is sadism to the next degree -- the Marquis de Sade would approve.
In the beginning, the audience is introduced to Coré (Dalle), the wife of Paris physician Léo (Descas). He locks her in their home everyday to keep her from killing people on the outside. However, her urges to get her fix, as well as human nature's need to acquire something out of their reach, means that Coré still seems to get a chance to feed everyday.
Also on the loose is American tourist Shane (Gallo), who tries constantly to withhold his urges to kill his mate. This is especially problematic since Shane is in Paris for his honeymoon with June (Vessey), meaning that he cannot consummate his marriage without preying on his new wife. This honeymoon is more a façade for the real reason Shane has come to town: he thinks that Léo can somehow instruct him how to quench his need for blood since his affliction has come from some testing done by Léo's peers.
When tackling the carnal desires of these characters, Denis and master cinematographer Agnès Godard are up to the task. Human skin has rarely looked so delectable, nor has it ever been more ambiguously captured -- at some moments, the camera runs over a body leaving the audience wondering which part they are looking at. As long as they are not trying to work with the screenplay by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, Trouble Every Day is actually a commanding movie to look at.
Not since Quills has a film seemed so devoted to
pain and anguish for positive cinematic effect. Po-Chih Leong's analogous The Wisdom
of Crocodiles (video title: Immortality) was more morose and far earthier,
and ultimately worked thanks to an engaging story to deal with all the pomp and
circumstance involved. For that reason, Trouble Every Day never seems to have a
point; it is almost two hours of engaging (albeit unsettling) visuals without any story to
connect them. Jonathan Rosenbaum commented in his Quills review that the French
are open to disturbing films thanks to a disinterest in dividing art and entertainment --
for them, it is all a 'pleasure.' Watching some of Trouble Every Day, it becomes
hard to question whether it is art, but it is definitely never entertaining or, in the
|Life or Something Like It
BY: DAVID PERRY
The old dictum in the male-dominated film world is that a career gal without a family must be unhappy. The recent independent film The Business of Strangers was more than willing to turn this colloquialism on its head; now, here comes Life or Something Like It to bring that moral of the story back.
Lanie Kerigan (Jolie) is an upwardly mobile TV news reporter who gallivants about Seattle in Dolce & Gabbana suits, a big and bright blonde coiffeur, and a perky disposition. As we learn in the film's opening shots, Lanie never felt she was loved as a child: her father could not come to terms with his daughters after their mother died, her sister always gave her a hard time for looks, and none of the cute boys would even look at her. Ever since then, she has worked for acceptance -- her high-style living is part of a façade she has created that will convince people that she is happy. She's even got a baseball star fiancé (Kane).
And then, as the Laws of Hollywood Convention say, she learns that there's so much more in life. When the national network of her station has an interest in hiring her for their Good Morning, America-style show, her producer sticks Lanie with his best cameraman Pete (Burns). Pete, of course, is the antithesis of Lanie -- unshaven, slovenly making the most out of each day -- and they, of course, have a history. She begrudgingly accepts his presence at her shoots, even when he messes with them to make her seem like an idiot.
At one shoot, he takes her to a Prophet Jack (Shalhoub), a shoe-box clairvoyant who tells her tonight's football score, tomorrow's weather, and her mortality: when the Seattle football team wins by six and hail falls upon the city, Lanie begins to worry that her death sentence next Thursday may come true.
Thank heavens Pete is around, he can throw out the proverbs: "Live every day as if it will be your last." And she does change her disposition by not showering, drinking in public, listening to 80's heavy metal, and joining protestors to sing the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (hey, at least Jolie has Mick Jagger's lips).
There are complications abound in Life or Something Like It, which is built around an interesting idea but is lost in the parade of contrivances To Die For was smart enough to not use. Lanie Kerigan may be the reincarnated Suzanne Stone, but none of her sex appeal or actual business adeptness seems to have come along, just the hair. Director Stephen Herek plops down as many ill-composed scenes as he used for his most recent atrocities Holy Man and Rock Star. His normal disdain towards fame, as seen in those other two films, is completely at work again here. If he keeps on making crap like this, he has nothing to worry about joining the famous people he satirizes.
When working with middle-class confinement -- whether occupational (Mr. Holland's Opus) or temporal (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) -- Herek can show some promise as a filmmaker, however Life or Something Like It feels far more opportunistic than any of his previous films, with characters playing clichés for the sake of making the film simple and easy to comprehend, not to make jest of the clichés.
Most of the actors seem uninterested in what they are doing, somewhat acknowledging the disposability of this film. Jolie is the only actor in the midst who seems interested in making the most of her characters (and to a point she succeeds), but Burns and Shalhoub seem to be working for the paycheck, not the professional satisfaction.
Life or Something Like It shares much of this
maltreatment from nearly everyone in the production. Barely anyone on the set seems
interested in making the most out of this movie, probably because the screenplay has
already made the worst of it. Only the quaint shots of Seattle give any weight to the
proceedings, though their impact is dulled by that giant B-52's hairdo walking through it.