Monday, April 21, 2014
"SPIDER-MAN 3" (2007) Review”
Over the years I have learned not to anticipate or make assumptions about new movies. About two weeks before the debut of the 2007 SPIDER-MAN movie, "SPIDER-MAN 3", I had read mixed reviews of it. Although there were a few positive opinions, most of them seemed to be negative. After reading this, my anticipation of the movie had receded a bit. But I still maintained a "wait-and-see" attitude. When I finally saw "SPIDER-MAN 3", I was happy to discover that that my fears had become meaningless. Although not as well-crafted as "SPIDER-MAN 2", the third film in Sam Rami's SPIDER-MANtrilogy still managed to thrill me.
Before I can wax lyrical over the movie, I must address the movie’s flaws. And it had a few. One, I felt a sense of disappointment over some of the movie’s action sequences that featured Spider-Man’s web swinging around New York. They seemed to lack the crisp and detailed style shown in the two previous films and almost struck me as confusing and overblown. Two, I had a problem or two with the Gwen Stacy character. I realize that there are differences between the movie versions and the comic book versions of the Spider-Man universe. In the comic books, the blond-haired Gwen happened to be Peter Parker’s first true love. Her death at the hands of the Green Goblin (aka Norman Osborn) eventually paved the way for Peter’s romance with and marriage to Mary Jane Watson. It is quite obvious in "SPIDER-MAN 3" that although classmates at Columbia University, Peter and Gwen were not in love. Just friends. I had no problems with this. Nor did I have any problems with a symbiote-possessed Peter using her to make Mary Jane jealous. But I did have problems with the fact that the story never followed up on the mess that Peter had created between Gwen and Mary Jane. The story never allowed us to learn whether Peter had apologized to Gwen for using her . . . or if she had forgiven him. And what was she doing at Harry’s funeral? I do not recall them being acquainted in the movieverse. In the comics, Gwen and Harry were old high school chums that dated briefly in college.
My last problem with "SPIDER-MAN 3" involved the triangle between Peter, Mary Jane and Harry Osborn (aka Green Goblin 2). Near the beginning of the story, Harry had decided to take the opportunity to get his revenge upon Peter for his father’s death in "SPIDER-MAN". The opportunity resulted in a brutal fight and Harry seriously injured in the hospital. Harry woke up as a partial amnesiac – forgetting the reason behind his animosity toward Peter. And the two managed to resume their friendship, until an evening spent with Mary Jane (who was trying to forget her present unhappiness with Peter) resurrected Harry’s memories. In the end, Harry managed to coerce Mary Jane into breaking up with Peter permanently. Unfortunately, the writers never revealed what argument that Harry had used to coerce Mary Jane. Instead, they left the audience in the dark.
But what did I like about "SPIDER-MAN 3"? For one . . . the story. It was easy for me to see that the story’s main theme seemed to be about vengeance and how – as Aunt May had put it to Peter – it can spread poison within a person until it completely consumes that person. Of all the major characters aside from Aunt May, only two were not touched or consumed by a desire for revenge – Gwen Stacy and Flint Marko. Marko’s actions stemmed from his desperate desire to acquire money to aid his ailing daughter. And poor Gwen became a victim of Peter’s desire for revenge against Mary Jane. But for the rest of the characters, revenge seemed to be the order of the day:
-Peter Parker aka Spider-Man: the Webslinger becomes consumed with revenge when he learns that his Uncle Ben’s true killer – namely Flint Marko – had escaped from prison. He later seeks revenge against Mary Jane for breaking up with him, with Harry for the latter’s earlier vengeful attack against him and for initiating the break-up with Mary Jane; and against Eddie Brock for the libelous photo of Spider-Man and winning the position of staff photographer at the DAILY BUGLE. He certainly was a busy boy.
-Harry Osborn aka New Goblin: Peter’s best friend has desired revenge against Peter (as Spider-Man) for killing his father in the first movie. He also has revenge against Mary Jane because she used him to forget her troubles with Peter.
-Mary Jane Watson: a part of me is not sure whether to include her on this list. But I could not help but wonder if her bitchiness toward Peter was a result of her own professional failure on Broadway, combined with her growing distaste toward Peter’s pride over his popularity as Spider-Man. And when Peter shares a publicized kiss with Gwen Stacy that is reminiscent of that famous kiss from the first movie, Mary Jane’s jealousy eventually overwhelms her . . . and she turns to Harry for comfort. I would not be surprised if her action came from a small desire to get back at Peter.
-Eddie Brock Jr. aka Venom: Even before the alien symbiote had taken over him, Eddie seemed like an unpleasant piece of goods. And when Peter rather maliciously exposed his chicanery over a faked Spider-Man photograph, it did not take Eddie long to rush to the nearest church and ask God . . . to kill Peter Parker. Like I had said, he was an unpleasant person. Eventually, Eddie’s desire for revenge would soon present itself.
-Flint Marko aka Sandman: Although I had earlier stated that Marko had no desire for revenge in the movie. I now realize that I may have been mistaken. After two frustrating encounters with Spider-Man, Marko finally gave in to a desire for revenge when he allowed Venom to manipulate him into using Mary Jane to lure and kill Peter.
The one theme that had dominated the Spider-Man saga in both the comics and the movies seemed to be: "With great power comes great responsibility." I do not know if I fully agree with that motto. I really cannot see how Peter Parker mustbecome a costumed crime fighter, because he accidentally got bitten by a radioactive spider. On the other hand, I do believe that one should face the responsibilities and consequences for the deliberate choices you make in life. And this, along with facing demons that include a desire for vengeance, seemed to be the drive behind the movie’s plot.
Each major character ended up facing his or her own personal demons – Peter’s pride as Spider-Man becomes a forerunner of the exposure of his own darker nature that includes a cruel desire for revenge; Mary Jane’s insecurity about her self-worth; Harry’s desire to revenge the death of his father to fulfill his own lack of self-worth; Marko’s desperation to do anything for his ill daughter; and Eddie’s own shallowness and deceptive nature. What made "SPIDER-MAN 3"’s plot so interesting is that the characters’ flaws and decisions served as different points that converged in the emotional final sequence at the construction site in Manhattan. There, the characters make final choices in how to deal with their demons and only one emerged as the true loser - Eddie Brock.
As in the previous two movies, the third one boasted some fine performances by the cast. J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson managed to be his usual funny self. I especially enjoyed his interaction with Elizabeth Banks – secretary Betty Brandt – in a duel of nerves in which Betty seemed determined to annoy Jonah every second with some crazy alarm. If someone knows what it was, please tell me. Although in a smaller role than the previous two movies, Rosemary Harris returned to give a warm performance as Peter’s aging Aunt May. In a marvelous scene in which Peter informs his aunt of Flint Marko’s "death" at Spider-Man’s hands, Harris’ May delivered the movie’s theme in a foreboding line about the true nature of vengeance. Last, but not least there was Bryce Dallas Howard, who portrayed Peter’s beautiful blond classmate, Gwen Stacy. Granted, her role was not as large as it was in the comics, Howard gave a fine performance as the warm and friendly Gwen. Some critic had complained that the movie turned Gwen from Peter’s true love to some kind of temptress. I found this criticism rather ridiculous for two reasons – a) Mary Jane had been established as Peter’s true love since the first movie; and b) Gwen was not portrayed as some temptress, but a nice girl who became a victim of Peter’s vengeance against Mary Jane.
Thomas Haden Church’s portrayal of Marko Flint aka Sandman seemed like a far cry from his past performances that I have seen in which he portrayed more extroverted characters. His Marko/Sandman must be one of the most introverted villains I have ever seen on the movie screens. In fact, his character reminded me of some melancholy circus clown with a black cloud of tragedy hovering about him. Considering the circumstances of Marko’s life – a failed criminal career, a failed marriage, ill child and imprisoned for a crime that was merely an accident – it was not hard for me to imagine this. In the end, I was very impressed by Church’s subtle performance. And I was also impressed by Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, Jr. aka Venom, as well. Originally, he was not suppose to be part of the movie’s cast of characters. But former CEO Ari Arvad convinced director Sam Rami to include the character. And I am glad. Brock turned out to be a very interesting character. When first introduced, he seemed like an affable and gregarious young man, who also worked as freelance photographer for ”THE DAILY BUGLE”. With great skill and subtlety, Grace allowed the audience to gradually see the character’s dark emptiness, underneath the charm. Two scenes seemed to reflect this – the one that featured Gwen Stacy dangling from a Manhattan high-rise and Brock’s visit to a church after losing his job. In the first scene, I found it interesting that although Brock seemed mildly concerned over Gwen’s near death situation, he seemed more interested in taking photos of her and Spider-Man’s rescue . . . than doing everything in his power to ensure that she would be rescued. After losing his staff photographer job at THE BUGLE, Brock ended up at a church, where I thought he would confess to a priest or express remorse over his past behavior. Instead, he prayed to God . . . for the death of the man who caused his unemployment, Peter Parker. This is the second time I have seen Grace skillfully portray a character with one trait hidden underneath another one.
When Spidey fans last saw Harry Osborn in "SPIDER-MAN 2", he had learned two disquieting facts – the man he held responsible for his father’s death (namely Spider-Man), turned out to be his best friend, Peter Parker; and his father, Norman Osborn, had been the infamous Green Goblin who terrorized Manhattan in the first movie. Three years later, Harry still wants revenge for Norman’s death and he finally decided to take action as the New Goblin A failed attack upon Peter resulted in a serious injury for Harry and a temporary amnesia. The audience got to see what Harry would be without his insecurity and the ghost of his father haunting him. And he seemed like a pretty nice . . . and well-balanced young man. I tried to find something wrong with James Franco’s performance, but . . . I could not find a thing. Honestly. Franco managed to perfectly capture Harry’s emotional journey from the vengeful son to the sweet-tempered amnesiac to the cruel manipulator who broke up Peter and MJ’s relationship, to the loyal and brave man who sacrificed himself to save his friends. Franco covered it all.
I have always liked Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson in the first two movies. But I found her a lot more interesting in"SPIDER-MAN 3". Beneath the sweet and cheerful persona, Dunst revealed a Mary Jane still racked by an inferiority complex stemmed from her bad relationship with her verbally abusive father. This lack of self-esteem came from Mary Jane losing her job as leading lady of a Broadway musical. Even worse, Peter’s own success as Spider-Man not only fueled Mary Jane’s insecurity, but fueled her envy as well. Matters did not help when Peter/Spidey had agreed to exchange a public kiss with Gwen Stacy, re-creating Mary Jane’s first kiss with him in the first movie. What I liked about Dunst’s performance is that she allowed all of these negative aspects of Mary Jane’s personality to manifest without resorting to over-the-top theatrics. I have come to the conclusion that very few screen actors and actresses seem capable of avoiding scene chewing. Especially those of Dunst’s generation. Fortunately, she did just that – avoid any hammy acting, while projecting Mary Jane’s darker impulses. As for her singing voice, I got the impression that it had been dubbed during MJ’s Broadway performance. But I could detect Dunst’s voice, when Mary Jane sang at a jazz club during the movie’s final scene. She had a nice, but slightly nasal voice.
As for the man himself – Tobey Maguire – I must say that Sam Rami had not been joking when he called Maguire one of the best actors of his generation. I felt more than impressed by his performance in "SPIDER-MAN 3". Although Maguire was able to briefly tap into Peter Parker aka Spider-Man’s dark psyche in the first movie (when he allowed a thief to get away with money stolen from a wrestling match), he was truly allowed to explore Peter’s darker nature in this film. There are two particular scenes that verified Maguire’s extraordinary skills as an actor:
*Peter’s misguided belief in his "cool" image, while walking the streets of Manhattan. Even evil (thanks to the symbiote suit), Peter could not help being a nerd. Watching Peter wallow in the illusion of his "coolness", while oblivious of passing females’ contempt made this sequence one of the funniest in the movie. It also showcased Maguire’s comedic skills.
*Peter’s second confrontation with Harry, inside the Osborn manor, revealed the depths of how monstrous he could be. He seemed truly dark in this scene. Maguire even managed to allow the contempt and hatred reflected in his eyes, when Peter ridiculed Harry for attempting to follow in Norman Osborn’s footsteps. In all, it was a very excellent performance on Maguire’s part.
From what I have read, "SPIDER-MAN 3" has received mixed reviews. Hmmm. Well, I certainly cannot influence the opinions of others. I can only express my own views. Personally, I enjoyed the movie very much. It possessed an emotional depth that went even further than first two movies. When I first heard that Spider-Man would be facing three villains – the New Goblin (Harry), the Sandman (Flint Marko) and Venom (Eddie Brock, Jr.) – I had my doubts about the movie’s success. It seemed like one or two villains too many. Oddly enough, after seeing the movie, it now seemed to work within its plot for me – despite the number of villains. Now that I think about it, the one true villain of the story – aside from the major characters’ inner darkness – seemed to be Venom. Unlike Peter or Harry, Eddie Brock never could break away from his darker impulses . . . even when Peter managed to force him away from the symbiote. And unlike Marko, Eddie never felt any remorse for his actions . . . right to the end.
To my amazement, I realized that my view of Rami's "SPIDER-MAN" trilogy seemed to match my view of the first three X-MEN movies. For me, the first movie of both trilogies struck me as very entertaining, but slightly mediocre ("SPIDER-MAN" is “almost” mediocre). The second movie for each trilogy was superb. Period. And the third movies for the two trilogies were excellent, but flawed. Five years after this movie, Marvel and Sony Pictures initiated a new SPIDER-MAN movie trilogy, starring Andrew Garfield as the web slinger. The first movie struck me as pretty good. But I do hope that it will evolve into a first-rate trilogy like the ones directed by Sam Rami.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
"CHINA SEAS" (1935) Review
For years, film critics and moviegoers have claimed that either Steven Spielberg's 1975 movie, "JAWS" or George Lucas' 1977 movie, "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE" ushered in or created the summer box office film. I had believed this for years, until I saw Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1935 film, "CHINA SEAS".
To understand how "CHINA SEAS" came about, one would have to look into the career of MGM producer, Irving Thalberg. For several years, he served as the studio's Production Chief, supervising the output of movies being released by MGM. After suffering a heart attack around Christmas Eve 1932, he was ordered by his doctor to take a long rest. Thalberg and his wife, Norma Shearer, spent several months traveling in Europe. When they finally returned during the summer of 1933, Thalberg discovered that studio chief Louis B. Mayer and the CEO of parent company Loew's, had changed the studio's managerial structure. The position of Production Chief had been eliminated and Thalberg became one of many producers on the lot with their own production unit. Thalberg struggled for two years to personally produce a major hit. He scored a few hits. But he did not really hit it big, until this 1935 movie that starred Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery.
Based on the 1931 novel written by Crosbie Garstin, "CHINA SEAS" is an ocean going adventure film about a merchant ship carrying both passengers and important cargo from Hong Kong to Shanghai. British sea captain Alan Gaskell is recruited by his company's owner to transport a secret shipment of gold in order to fool high seas pirates into believing that the gold is being transported by another ship. Naturally, the plan fails due to an old friend named Jamesy McArdle's discovering the plot. The latter recruits Malay pirates to board the ship as passengers and crewman so that the gold can be hijacked during the voyager. Also along for the ride are two of Captain Gaskell's former paramours - a brassy prostitute, dance hall girl or mistress (hell, I have no idea which one) named Dolly Portland and Sybil Barclay, the elegant widow of an old friend; an alcoholic American named Charlie McCaleb; a disgraced ship's officer formerly accused of cowardice named Tom David; an elegant Chinese lady named Soo Young; and Dolly's extroverted maid, Isabel McCarthy . . . among others. Not only does Gaskell and his crew have to deal with marauding pirates, but also a typhoon.
Undoubtedly, "CHINA SEAS" is an entertaining movie. It possesses one of the elements that make certain movies particularly enjoyable for me - namely a story featuring long distance travel. In fact, watching "CHINA SEAS" strongly reminded me of a film released by Paramount Pictures over three years ago - 1932's "SHANGHAI EXPRESS". Both movies were set in or around Asia. Both movies featured long distance traveling with Shanghai as the final destination . Both movies featured a leading male character who is British, a leading female character in a sexual profession, and a Chinese woman as a supporting character. Both movies featured the violent takeover by non-Western men - Chinese troops in "SHANGHAI EXPRESS" and Malay pirates in "CHINA SEAS". And both movies featured Jules Furthman as screenwriter. The similarities between the two movies are so strong that their differences almost seem irrelevant to me. If it were not for the fact that "CHINA SEAS" was an adaptation of Garstin's novel, I would have accused Thalberg and MGM of plagarism.
The reason I brought up the topic of summer blockbusters when I first began this review is that "CHINA SEAS" seemed like a prime example of one. Think about it. "CHINA SEAS" possessed a cast of major stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. Rosalind Russell was not quite a star when she co-starred in this film. The movie was given a large budget for its production - at least one million dollars. A good deal of that budget was spent on visual effects. The movie featured heavy action and over-the-top melodrama. And even more ironic, "CHINA SEAS" was released during the summer of 1935, made tons of money and put Irving Thalberg back on top, professionally. If the movie had been made today, Roland Emmerich probably would have directed it. After watching "CHINA SEAS", I could not help but wonder why film critics and historians failed to remember this film, when citing the origins of the summer blockbuster movie.
Mind you, "CHINA SEAS" is not a terrible film. I would rank it between very good and mediocre. But for some reason, I hardly found it appealing. The problem is that it did not strike me as particularly original. The movie's portrayal of its non-white characters struck me as wince-inducing. One aspect of the movie that really annoyed me was how the movie portrayed the Malay pirates a lot worse than Jamesy McArdle, despite the fact that the ship's hijacking was his plan. However, Hattie McDaniel managed to overcome this racial limitation with a very entertaining performance and warm chemistry with leading lady Jean Harlow. And like 1937's "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA", most of the action in "CHINA SEAS" is set during its second half. The violence, by the way, struck me pretty harsh for a mid-1930s film - especially the tortures of Clark Gable and Lewis Stone's characters.
Most of the characters struck me as cardboard archetypes, even the more amusing ones portrayed by McDaniel, Bencheley, Edward Brophy and Akim Tamiroff. Lewis Stone's character, the doomed Tom Davids, came close to being an interesting and complex character. But when all said and done, even the "coward who redeems himself" aspect of his character proved to be a cliche. I love Jean Harlow. And I found her Dolly Portland a lively addition to the cast. And the insecurities that plagued her character proved to be very interesting. But in the end, her performance came off as a bit too shrill for my tastes. I have to give kudos to Rosalind Russell for giving a credible portrayal of an upper-class Englishwoman . . . even if the Sybil Barclay character struck me as one-dimensional. Only Wallace Beery's Jamesy McArdle managed to avoid any one-dimensional or cliched characterization. His Jamesy proved to be the most complex and ambiguous character in the movie. This would explain why despite his villainy, his character was portrayed with a good deal of sympathy.
From a casting point of view, the biggest problem for me proved to be Clark Gable as Captain Alan Gaskell. Gable was not the first American actor to portray a British character . . . even during that period in Hollywood. Gary Cooper did it. So did Robert Taylor. But they got away with it, due to their ability to project the image of a European (especially British) male without losing their American accent. Through body language and attitude, certain American actors like Cooper and Taylor knew how to get away with portraying British men. They knew how to sell it. Gable, on the other hand, did not. Mind you, as a Midwesterner from Ohio, he did a damn good job in portraying an aristocratic Southerner in 1939's "GONE WITH THE WIND". But he was still portraying an American. When Gable's Captain Gaskell started spouting sentiments about the glories of England, I swear I was simply to astounded to break into laughter. During my second viewing of "CHINA SEAS", I laughed. I am sorry. Gable was a first-rate actor. The torture sequence obviously proved this. But he lacked . . . something that prevented him from portraying an Englishman with an American accent with any plausibility.
From the numerous reviews I have read, many seemed to view "CHINA SEAS" as an example of the best that Old Hollywood had to offer. Look, the movie is filled with a good deal of action and melodrama that prevents it from being boring. And one can thank director Tay Garnett for keeping it lively. But for me, it is basically a 1930s version of a summer blockbuster movie - one that did not particularly knock my socks off. I do not hate the movie, but I certainly do not view it as among the best that Old Hollywood had offered.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Below are images from "X-MEN", the 2000 adaptation of the Marvel comic book series. Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie starred Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen and Anna Paquin:
"X-MEN" (2000) Photo Gallery