Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2013)

14. Oz the Great and Powerful

After making a fairly triumphant return to lower stake horror with “Drag Me to Hell,” there was this perhaps naive hope that Raimi was done with massive blockbuster entertainment. Once you have a success like the “Spider-Man” trilogy to your name, I guess big budget studio movie making will inevitably come calling again. After the inexplicable success of Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland,” Disney started searching around for other, similar properties to exploit. (They had yet to touch upon the idea of just doing shot-for-shot remakes of their cartoons.) They soon realized “Wizard of Oz,” that other public domain classic of children's fantasy literature, about an outsider adventuring through a marvelous world, was the next natural choice. Combining the idea with another then-hot trend – origin stories! – resulted in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a prequel to Frank L. Baum's beloved classic.

In the early 1900s, Oscar Diggs travels the American Midwest as part of a carnival sideshow. He works as a magician, trying to impress largely apathetic crowds with mediocre parlor tricks. Mostly, he passes the time seducing farm girls. That gets him in trouble and he's forced to flee the carnival in a hot air balloon, just as a tornado blows into Kansas. He is transported to the magical land of Oz, where prophecies speak of a wizard coming from the skies and saving their world. Oscar is certain this isn't him but is quickly wrapped up in a quest to save the Emerald City, led by the seemingly friendly Evanora and Theodora, from the Wicked Witch of the West. But all is not what it seems...

On the surface, “The Wizard of Oz” doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would interest Sam Raimi. Supposedly, the director has been a long-time fan of MGM's iconic 1939 film version, which would certainly explain his interest in wicked witches. However, Raimi fans can't help but notice something about “Oz the Great and Powerful:” It has a lot in common with “Army of Darkness.” Both films are about a caddish guy getting tossed into another world. The locals believe he's a hero but he dismisses their claims, only desiring to go back home. Despite that, he's encouraged to rouse the locals into fighting back against a villainous force. He uses his modern engineering abilities to build machines to help win that battle. He seduces a local woman who is then transformed into an adversary. It's not a perfect 1-to-1 match. There are no skeletons in the Wonderful World of Oz, for one. But the similarities are such that it seems unlikely they were unintentional.

Aside from directly referencing one of his previous cult classics, Sam Raimi brings other elements of his style to the table. Once or twice, the camera goes askew and crash-zooms into people's faces, when people hear someone ominous arriving or a witch reveals herself to the camera. There is, naturally, a montage full of colorful cross-cutting and images overlapping, when Oz is designing his various tricks and tools. The director of “The Evil Dead” working for the House of Mouse is such an unlikely situation but you can see a little bit of that ambiance here. A shot of Glinda walking through a foggy, spooky forest with a big rusty gate or some of the film's wackier monsters – flying baboons or aquatic fairies with big fangs – brings some horror movie flavor to this PG family flick.

Still, “Oz the Great and Powerful” does play into some of Raimi's worst instincts as a filmmaker. As the “Spider-Man” trilogy progressed, you could see the director getting more and more fascinated with CGI trickery, sometimes to the detriment of the story and characters. This unfortunate tendency continues here. The film was obviously shot with a 3-D release in mind. Countless times, objects, characters, and creatures are thrown towards the camera, flying over the audience's head. Moreover, there are multiple moments when the film just stops so the cast can ooh-and-aw over CGI imagery. (Admittedly, some of this stuff, like blossoming flowers made of jewels, is pretty neat.) Both of these problems rear their head during a sequence where Oz and Glinda float around in giant bubbles. By the time CGI scarecrows are rolling out of a forest on unicycles, I had officially had my fill of this.

Something I really disliked about Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland,” a movie I really disliked in general, was how it squeezed Lewis Caroll's work of absurdist literature into a typical sci-fantasy, “chosen one” action/adventure narrative. “Oz the Great and Powerful” does something similar, which is, admittedly, another thing this film has in common with “Army of Darkness.” Apparently, Oscar's arrival in Oz was foreshadowed by an extremely specific prophecy, that a wizard bearing the land's name would arrive to save it. Where this prophecy comes from is never expounded on. Oz's journey from selfish cad to hero is a totally expected one that leaves little room for surprise or variation.

Considering most of Disney's attempts to replicate “Alice in Wonderland's” success would draw upon their own library of titles, it's interesting that this was the second of the fairy tale adventures they chose. Walt Disney always wanted to adapt Baum's books as an animated feature but lost out on the film rights. (This interest would eventually culminate in “Return to Oz,” a future cult classic but then-flop.) With no Disney “Oz” to draw on, Raimi's film is obviously beholden to MGM's classic. Though legally forbidden from using any icongraphy unique to that film, such as the ruby slippers, Raimi still clearly calls upon its legacy. Appearances from a lion or scarecrows are meaningless unless you know where this is all headed.

But one way this film interacts with the 1939 one is kind of interesting. No doubt in an attempt to piggyback off the popularity of “Wicked,” “Oz the Great and Powerful” focuses extensively on the Wicked Witch of the West. Theodora has a somewhat tense relationship with her sister, Evanora. The older witch seems to boss the younger one around, often being annoyed with her more naive sensibilities. Of course, this is all foreshadowing for the obvious reveal that Evanora is actually the story's villain. This continues a theme of sibling rivalry that has floated through Raimi's work since at least “A Simple Plan.” Even more interesting is how Theo begins her march towards villainy. She is totally justified in her resentment towards the Wizard, as he clearly did emotionally manipulate her. (They have a romantic fireside dance, the PG version of a sex scene.) The film could've leaned more into this tragedy, how a good woman is turned into a green skinned villain to protect a wounded heart, but then Disney might as well have just made a “Wicked” movie.

As much as I want to hate “Oz the Great and Powerful” on principal, as another soulless corporate product from Disney and true proof of Sam Raimi selling out, it's not a bad movie. In fact, it's a perfectly serviceable popcorn muncher for the majority of its run time. The opening sequence, in another deliberate homage to the 1939 film, is shot in black-and-white. Raimi has a clear affection for the circus setting, the eccentrics on stage and the country bumpkins in the audience. The image is cramped into Academy ratio so that, when Oscar arrives in Oz and the screen opens up, it makes more of an impact. The gadgets Oz cooks up to help save the Emerald City, involving a home-made movie projector and smoke bombs, are similarly inventive and clever in a way that seems distinctly Raimi-esque.

The setting of Oz presents enough creative opportunities, enough neat ideas, to keep audiences hooked. Turning the flying monkeys in big, snarling baboons was a clever idea. Throughout his adventure, Oz journeys through a village made entirely of china, populated solely by sentient china dolls. There he meets one of several sidekicks he acquires throughout the film. The little china doll, voiced by a more-than-capable Joey King, is adorably spunky, especially during the cute scene where Oz asks her to leave. Zach Braff plays a flying monkey named Finley, acting as the conscious to the frequently amoral Oz. Munkins shows up eventually, as you'd expect, being introduced through a gleefully silly musical number. Tony Cox plays an especially grumpy munkin, which is right in the actor's wheelhouse. This stuff is all pretty fun, as is the inevitable cameo of Bruce Campbell as a winkie guard.

For all its likable elements, there's a primary reason why the audience finds Oz's redemptive arc so unbelievable. By the end of the film, Oz has gone from a con artist and a womanizer to a real wizard who has a genuine romance with Glinda the Good Witch. What makes this hard to swallow is that he's played by James Franco, real life manipulator and womanizer. Franco is exactly as smarmy in this part as you'd expect, wearing a shit-eating grin for roughly 70% of his screen time. Yeah, Franco is really well cast as a bullshit artist. He's even visibly having fun when playing tricks on his opponents. It's only when he's asked to behave like a normal human, who's in love and believes in things, that it start to feel funny. That's another weird side effect of the star/director of “Interior. Leather Bar” headlining a Disney movie.

Luckily, the rest of the supporting cast picks up the slack for Franco's weaknesses. Mila Kunis is inspired casting as Theodora, a beauty who projects a child-like naivety. Once she begins her transformation into the green-skinned Wicked Witch – she's not any less sexy even then, by the way – Kunis is equally good at displaying a fiery, feminine rage. Rachel Weisz is another solid choice as Evanora. Weisz has to act benevolent while projecting a sinister undertone, a challenge she's more than up too. Michelle Williams, an excellent actress, plays the Glinda the Good Witch. The part doesn't ask much more of her than to be a smiling, graceful angel. But, hey, Williams can obviously pull that off.

Disney pretty clearly expected “Oz” to launch a franchise. It ends with Oscar established as the Wizard of Oz, ready to go on further adventures. While the film ditches the “It was all a dream” ending of the thirties classic, it does create real world equivalents to most of the people we meet in Oz, suggesting some sort of connection. The film probably made enough to justify a sequel too, though it was far from a hit on the level of “Alice in Wonderland.” However, Raimi had zero interest in returning for a follow-up. And Disney has clearly focused on other endeavors, so it seems unlikely we'll ever return to this particular iteration of Oz. Unlikely to be remembered among Raimi's best films but far from terrible either, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a 200 million footnote that entertains without sticking in the brain. [Grade: B-]

It's been six years since Sam Raimi has directed a movie and I'm increasingly wondering if he has another one in him. Oh, Raimi has stayed busy as a producer, having a hand in creating successful horror flicks like "Don't Breath" or "Crawl." Yet he's gotten into the bad habit of being attached to projects that ultimately never come to fruition. Like epic fantasy adaptation "Kingkiller Chronicles," a remake of French crime drama "A Prophet," a tornado heist thriller called "Stormfront," or an adaptation of the novel "Love May Fall." More recently, he's been attached to a fun-sounding Bermuda Triangle movie with Ryan Reynolds and has even started talking about doing more "Evil Dead" stuff. (Though I'm doubtful he'd direct that, if anything comes of it.)

It's hard to say why Raimi is having such trouble returning to directing. Maybe he's gotten too big for his britches. Maybe he truly is focused on producing. Or maybe never getting to make his "Spider-Man 4" broke him. Either way, I suppose we'll probably see him back in the director's chair eventually but I also suspect his hiatus will last a while longer. Don't know why, just a feeling I have.

Thank you for reading this Director Report Card. I'll be throwing in a few more reviews for Raimi adjacent projects next, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2009)

13. Drag Me to Hell

It happens almost every time. Whenever a cult/horror director breaks through into the mainstream, die hard fans quickly begin to wonder when he'll return to his original genre. People are still waiting for Peter Jackson to return to “Bad Taste” territory. Nerds hopelessly pined for David Cronenberg to get back to body horror. With Sam Raimi, fans wondered for years when he'd stopped messing around with highfalutin' thrillers and spider men and create more gory mayhem. Since I'm use to directors leaving their genre roots behind and never looking back, I was genuinely surprised when Raimi announced a return to horror in 2008. While “Drag Me to Hell” wasn't quite the “Evil Dead 4” we had been anticipating for years, it would become pretty damn beloved in its own right.

Christine Brown thinks she has her life in order. She’s rising through the ranks at her job as a bank loan officer. She has recently become engaged to boyfriend Clay, even if his rich snob parents don’t approve. That is when she denies a loan to Mrs. Ganush, an elderly Roma woman. In retaliation, Ganush violently attacks Christine and tears a button from her coat. She places a curse on the girl. For three days, she will be tormented by visions of Ganush and a demonic entity called Lamia. At the end of the three days, Lamia will personally drag Christine to Hell. Christine pursues increasingly desperate means to save herself.

Much like “The Evil Dead” pulling from a number of classic horror tropes, “Drag Me to Hell” sees Raimi combining his influences once more. The film is blatantly in the mold of EC Comics, of someone morally in the wrong getting their comeuppance, of increasingly ghastly ghouls and revenge from beyond the grave. Mrs. Ganush is a culmination of Raimi’s career-long obsession with creepy witch villains. The plot — a curse that’s passed via object, that climaxes with a demon appearing after several days — is obviously reminiscent of “Curse of the Demon.” The film is also an example of the “gypsy’s curse” premise, a totally racist concept that Raimi makes no attempt to subvert or criticize.

However, that aspect is softened a little if Mrs. Ganush’s vengeance is totally justified. Supposedly, Sam and Ivan Raimi first conceived of “Drag Me to Hell” ten years before it entered production, before Sam got distracted making “Spider-Man” movies. That’s surprising, considering this is a horror story perfectly suited to the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s. Mrs. Ganush is asking for an extension on her loan because she’s about to loose the home she’s had most of her life. Christine, up for a promotion, puts her job above basic human decency. Though still sympathetic, Christine's selfish behavior is ultimately an extension of the same predatory banking behavior that screwed over countless normal people and destroyed the economy. So “Drag Me to Hell” emerges as another socially conscious horror film, taking the anxieties of the time it was made and turning it into a cathartic experience.

When the film was announced to have a PG-13 rating, I was skeptical. How would Sam Raimi make a true return to the genre without “Evil Dead”-style gore? The film found a novel solution by utilizing a number of other gross bodily fluids. Upon being introduced, Mrs. Ganush coughs up a brown loogie into a napkin. During a nightmare scene, she vomits worms and bugs into Christine's face. Splattered eyeballs and brains are later similarly splattered. Flies buzz in and out of her mouth. A gooey eyeball glares from a slice of cake. Ganush attempts to bite her with slimy gums. A regular nose bleed for Christine evolves into a geyser of blood, which is somehow nastier than the typical blood spray you expect from a Raimi film. If Raimi couldn't make a super bloody horror film, he seemed to determined to make the grossest horror film he could. The film successfully makes the audience gag several times.

I was also concerned that, after making the CGI-filled “Spider-Man” films, Raimi would load his return to horror with too much computer generated flashiness. “Drag Me to Hell” does feature its share of modern effects. Ganush appears as a hanky and tries to fly down her Christine's throat, as an example of the visual trickery on screen. However, Raimi smartly utilizes CGI to enhance the film's thrills, not distract from them. When the Lamia spirit first appears in Christine's house, we get some pretty cool shots of shadows stretching under doors and across rooms. As the effects get crazier, with bloody smoke pluming out of mouths or the ground opening up, the film reaches an atmosphere of exciting, fun house-style thrills were just about anything can happen.

“Drag Me to Hell” also features plenty of Raimi's trademark dynamic visual energy. The film seems to especially delight in launching things at the viewer. Mr. Ganush shoots a ruler out of her mouth before her dentures fly towards us in slow-motion. Frenzied editing makes this scene even more furious and intense. Sudden crash zooms on people's faces and various objects they are reaching for put in appearances. There's even a P.O.V. shot of an ominous force, as a gust of wind sneaks up behind Christine early on. More of that classic “Evil Dead” atmosphere appears thanks to the ominous sound design, further helping to create a creepy tone. While not as visceral or intense as the original “Evil Dead,” “Drag Me to Hell” certainly still feels like it belongs to Raimi.

Another thing that made “Drag Me to Hell” unexpected in 2009 is that horror/comedies were hardly mainstream at the time. The film was sold as a regular shock-heavy horror flick, akin to “The Grudge” movies Raimi produced. Yet “Drag Me to Hell” has its own delightfully wacky sense of humor. It starts early on. There's a deliberate ridiculousness to an old woman, even a witch-like one, tackling a younger person so viciously. Especially when she starts getting staples fired into her face. There is, admittedly, a feeling of cartoony ludicrousness to many of the attack scenes. Mrs. Ganush even has an anvil dropped on her head in one scene! During the climatic exorcist sequence, the film goes delightfully nuts. We have a demonically possessed goat rasping in a baa-ing voice, a demon gleefully dancing through the ear (which so much feels like something out of “Evil Dead 2”), and the phrase “Pork queen!” being used as an insult. It's so much fun.

And yet there does seem to be another meaning to the wacky, gruesome events that play out. Christine is trying to escape her past, hoping to become more sophisticated than the country bumpkin she grew up as. Most prominently, Christine was a fat kid. The demon seems to delight in reminding her of this embarrassing past she hopes to bury. Subsequently, most of the abuse seen throughout the film is delivered to the mouth. A number of objects are ejected from or into someone's throat. At one point, the ghost of Ganush shoves her entire arm down Christine's throat. Another important moment has Christine about to eat a slice of sugary, delicious cake before it becomes a monstrous, disgusting sight. Which raises an interesting question: Is “Drag Me to Hell” about eating disorders? Does Ganush and the Lamia become representations of a condition Christine feels shame over, something so secret the film doesn't even bring it up directly? While I have no idea if this was intentional – it doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the movie's idea – but too many of these choices seem deliberate for me not to wonder.

Originally, “Drag Me to Hell” was going to star Ellen Page which I would have, of course, absolutely loved. Instead, the part went to another movie star crush of mine, Alison Lohman.  Lohman has basically retired from acting now and it's clearly a loss. Lohman begins the film as a sunny, smiling figure, the ideal of a totally likable and relatable every-woman. However, as more crazy abuse is piled on her, she becomes an appealingly physical performer. Lohman gets tossed around, slammed into things, dangled upside down, splattered with any number of fluids, and buried up to her head in muddy water. Lohman is game throughout it all. As she takes the fight against the spirit, Lohman emerges as the totally unexpected heir to Bruce Campbell's quib-snipping, survivor bad-ass character type. Even if Christine is in the wrong morally, you definitely want to see her fight and survive.

Despite that, a movie entitled “Drag Me to Hell” does create certain expectations in its viewer. It's an awesome title, a ballsy in-your-face exploitation movie title that came during a time when the horror genre seemed ashamed to do something like that. (You can easily imagine the movie being entitled “Accursed” or “Damned” or something boring like that.) Raimi clearly understands this as well. Christine seems to triumph over her demonic persecution, seemingly reversing the curse and defeating Ganush and Lamia... Before an ironic twist shows a simple mistake undid her plan. In the film's final minutes, she does indeed get dragged down to Hell. It might've come off as mean-spirited if the film hadn't so perfectly captured that EC Comics feeling, were cosmic justice must be dealt out. And also because, if you call your movie “Drag Me to Hell,” you better damn well see someone dragged to hell.

Supporting Lohman throughout the film is a similarly solid supporting cast. Justin Long plays her boyfriend in a way that is so subtly good, I wonder if he did it on purpose. See, in modern terms, we'd probably call Clay a “fuckboy.” He's super smug and overly invested in his own intelligence. More than once, he dismisses his girlfriend's concerns in a rather callous way, coming awfully close to gaslighting her. This is so on-type for the roles Long normally plays that I wonder if it was an intentional subversion or not. Lorna Raver leaps into the role of Mrs. Ganush with a full-hearted ferocity, snarling, spitting, and acting out with every ounce of her being. She's the perfect performer for this kind of part. Dileep Rao and Adriana Barraza, as the mystics that attempt to help Christine, are also well cast, both adding a layer of respectable importance to their roles.

For a long time, when it seems like we were never going to get more “Evil Dead” content, I was more than happy to declare “Drag Me to Hell” as the spiritual fourth entry in the series. It's another story of a protagonist that keeps fighting and refuses to give up, going against an escalating series of outrageous supernatural threats, ending with the hero tossed into an even worst situation than the one they just got out of. There's action, comedy, and impressive gross-out horror sequences. It's not quite the same thing but it definitely scratches a similar itch. More than any of that, the film proved Raimi could still make an amusingly wild horror picture that makes you both shiver and laugh even after directing massive blockbusters. [Grade: B+]

Monday, July 29, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2007)

12. Spider-Man 3

While the behind-the-scenes mechanics of mid-2000s superhero movies must seem quint compared to the vast cinematic universes that get planned out years in advance now, Sony clearly still saw “Spider-Man” as a franchise that could run for years. Before “Spider-Man 2” even came out, the studio had set a May 2007 release date for a third installment. Running high on parts one and two's blockbuster success, Sam Raimi would remain in the director's chair. However, the executes would begin to meddle. Marvel would insist Raimi insert the hugely popular black suit storyline into the film, despite the director being disinterested in it. The sequel's enormous scope would briefly make it the most expensive movie ever made, with similarly massive box office also following. Despite that success, “Spider-Man 3” would derail the franchise in such a way that it would take years (and two separate reboots) for it to truly recover.

Peter Parker is feeling uncharacteristically good about himself. Spider-Man has made the city safer and he's considering proposing to Mary Jane. That's when all the shit hits all the fan at once. Harry Osborn finally follows in his father's footsteps and becomes the new Green Goblin, seeking revenge on Peter. He's forced to fight his friend, temporarily giving him amnesia. It is revealed that Uncle Ben's killer is actually a man name Flint Marko. Marko has recently escaped from prison and, after stumbling into an experimental science project, gained the ability to shift his body into sand. Meanwhile, a strange black sludge attaches itself to Peter's body and begins to affect his personality. M.J. is driven off by his new attitude. He even looses his job at the Daily Bugle, to cocky start-up Eddie Brock. Spider-Man is surely going to face his greatest challenge yet.

Superhero movie sequels have a bad habit of shoving too much stuff in as the series progresses. It's an understandable impulse, as the comics provide an enormous amount of lore and filmmakers must be eager to get to it all. “Spider-Man 3” obviously falls victim to this superhero sequel bloat. The trilogy capper finally wraps up the Harry Osborn story line that had been brewing since the original. It introduces Sandman for Peter to tangle with. A greatly abbreviated version of the Black Suit Sage, with Peter wearing the alien symbiote suit that then spawns Venom, is also included. We aren't even done yet, as the sequel also introduces Gwen Stacy as a rival love interest to M.J. Worst yet, the film makes almost no attempt to integrate these divergent storylines. The Sandman plot will be temporarily resolved, so the Harry plot can take precedence. This is then paused, so the Eddie Brock/Venom plot can moved to the front. Things come together eventually but plot points are still forgotten for long stretches. It's truly feels like three story ideas smashed together in the most awkward fashion possible.

With so much happening, you'd think “Spider-Man 3” wouldn't mind building organic ways for all these story lines to connect to Peter and his friends. Instead, the script falls back on a series of hideously dumb retcons. The worst of which is the sudden revelation that Uncle Ben wasn't killed by the Burglar in the first movie but by the Sandman. It's a desperate attempt to connect Peter to a villain that has otherwise nothing to do with him. It also manages to fuck up a portion of the original, suddenly changing the impact of those early scenes in “Spider-Man 1.” If less blasphemous but equally stupid is the way, near the end, that minor characters are suddenly revealing vastly important information. The Osborn family butler, previously the most minor of minor characters, tells Harry plot-breaking information that he should've mentioned two movies ago. The final battle is so convoluted that it falls on news reporters to summarize its events. Sloppy, sloppy stuff...

Of the tangled mess of subplots that is “Spider-Man 3's” story, it's evident the symbiote story line is the one Sam Raimi is the least interested in. Peter gaining a spiffy new suit that makes him more powerful but slowly compromises his morals is a classic Spidey story... That hit comic shops two decades after Sam Raimi stopped reading. It's clear Raimi's idea of “Peter with compromised ethics” is very different from anyone else's. Instead of slowly pushing his crime-fighting tactics too far, this symbiote just makes Peter into a big goofy asshole. He becomes a cocky shithead. He openly flirts with the landlord's daughter and Betty Brant, while still ostensibly dating M.J. He struts like a douche everywhere he goes. In the film's most rightfully mocked moment, he performs an impromptu dance number while on a date with Gwen Stacy. Not only is it obvious that Raimi wasn't interested in, didn't understand, this story... He was actively making fun of it. Which is pretty disappointing for comic readers who are fans of this particular plot.

If you look at Raimi's film as a trilogy, the main plot of this third installment obviously should've been Harry Osborn's evolution into a proper super villain and finally coming to blows with Spider-Man. He's the first adversary to appear in the film and the only one whose emotional arc truly ties in with Peter's. Yet the script even handles that in a really goofy way. Harry is given amnesia early on, so the movie can go and focus on its myriad other conflicts. Yes, a major motion picture was using the ol' “bumped-on-the-head, loose your memory” plot device in 2007. The possibility that Harry is faking the whole thing as part of a villainous scheme is teased but his condition is quickly confirmed to be the real deal. As dumb as this plot point is, it's still one of the more entertaining parts of the film. Watching James Franco ham it up as a more lovable version of this character is amusing. Honestly, seeing Peter get his carefree best friend back is rewarding and a nice change of pace in an otherwise maudlin film.

It doesn't last long though, as Harry soon gets his memory back and returns to his quest of vengeance against Pete. The first thing he does is make Mary Jane break up with Peter, forcing her to lie and say she's dating him instead. Sadly, that level of overheated romantic melodrama is present all throughout “Spider-Man 3.” Remember how cute and charming Peter and Mary Jane's relationship was in the first movie? Even though Peter is acting like a selfish prick in the film's early scene, having Mary Jane only react to her boyfriend with scorn and annoyance does not endear her to the audience. Kristen Dunst's performance seems to float around that same level of perpetual irritation. Naturally, the movie turns the character into a damsel-in-distress yet again before having the two work out their differences and get back together. Even without the alien goo corrupting his mind, you really get the impression Peter and M.J. should split up anyway. Bitterness and resentment has already taken root in this once delightfully playful romance.

The action was the highlight of “Spider-Man 2” so, surely, there's at least some neat fight scenes in the third film, right? Yes and no. Many of the fight scenes are nicely acrobatic. The first scuffle between Peter and Harry features the two swinging around each other and dodging in and out of tight alleyways... It also features some shocking janky green-screen effects, as Maguire and Franco grimace at each other while being awkwardly placed in an artificial, CGI environment. It's that way for most of the film. For every scene that utilizes the characters' superpowers in neat way – Spidey literally cloths-lining a foe with some webbing, the Goblin projecting flames from his hover board – there's another where our heroes and villains stand in place and trade computer-generated blows with each other. The action highlights of the film are probably Spider-Man's daring rescue of Gwen Stacy from a crane accident, which features similar thrills to nice sequences from the last two movies, and the fight with Sandman in the subway.

In fact, I suspect the main reason Raimi chose the Sandman as the third film's primary antagonist is because of the special effects opportunities. A villain that can transform into a limitless amount of shifting sand lends itself very well to cool visuals. HeSuch as the first sequence where Sandman pulls himself back together. Or a daring daytime bank robbery, where he creates a massive sandstorm in the streets of New York. Raimi essentially gets to insert a giant monster movie scene into the middle of the film with that one. Since he's made of sand, Spider-Man can punch straight through him or grind his face against a moving train and not threaten the movie's PG-13 rating.

Yet, for all the neat moments he produces, Sandman is the film's least interesting villain. He's given a sappy backstory, stealing money in order to take care of a sick daughter. Sandman frequently had sympathetic aspects in the comics, so that's not too far of a change. However, the sickly little girl stuff is so maudlin in execution, even if it only ends up occupying a few underwritten scenes. (That was clearly a subplot that largely ended up on the cutting room floor.) Thomas Haden Church, a wonderful performer who probably would've been delightful hamming it up as a comic book villain, gives a largely flat and emotionally constipated performance. He's still not the weakest new addition to the cast. Bryce Dallas Howard, another very talented actor, is totally wasted as Gwen Stacy, an iconic comic character shoved into this plot just for the sake of a cheap and underwritten love triangle.

Which brings us to Eddie Brock and Venom. Being but one of the film's many subplots, Eddie Brock's own journey is greatly abbreviated. The bond he shares with the discarded symbiote suit, the two beings united by their hatred of Peter Parker, isn't given much room for expansion. (Raimi barely treats the symbiote like a character, contributing to the problem.) The personal grudge he has against Spider-Man and the unique threat he poses, such as immunity to Peter's spider sense, is ignored due to the character being shoved into the back of the film. Mostly, this version of Eddie doesn't resemble the comic book original much. No matter how much muscle he packed on, Topher Grace doesn't resemble the hulking illustrated Brock. A complicated man who hid his self-hatred and cancer diagnosis through bodybuilding, Grace mostly plays Brock as a petulant and pathetic wannabe. The character is reduced to his least interesting elements: An evil copy of Spider-Man with pointy teeth and a long tongue.

Truthfully, Venom should've been saved for a fourth “Spider-Man” movie, perhaps after being introduced in this installment. In fact, Sandman probably shouldn't have been in this movie either,  operating largely as just another physical threat to Spider-Man. Honestly, the entire movie should've been devoted to Harry Osborn taking up his father's Goblin-y mantle and finally seeking revenge on Spider-Man. (The film attempts to connect the two villains with a theme of forgiveness, which could not be more ham-fisted.) By forcing this plot to share room with so many others, it's left underwritten too. And it certainly doesn't help that the so-called New Goblin design is so uninspired. Harry looks, not like a goblin, but a snowboarder. There's not much intimidating about that. If not letting the younger Osborn become the Hobgoblin or another related character, he should've at least gotten a cooler costume.

While Raimi's first two “Spider-Man” movies remain generally beloved among superhero cinema fanatics, consensus on the third film is far less unanimous. Critical reception was divided, with most agreeing the movie was an overstuffed mess. Fan reaction was outright hostile in some parts of the net. Over the years, there have been some attempts to reclaim “Spider-Man 3” as a misunderstood gem. Raimi himself wouldn't buy that. During a 2018 podcast interview, he himself referred to the film as “awful.” While I don't hate “Spider-Man 3,” it undoubtedly exacerbates many of the issues I had with the second film while shoving in enough plot for two or three films. [Grade: C]

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2004)

11. Spider-Man 2

Film studios worked for years to make “Spider-Man” precisely because they knew it would launch a franchise. After Sam Raimi's initial “Spider-Man” became the third highest grossing film of the year, the director immediately went to work on a sequel. Once it was determined that Jake Gyllenhaal wouldn't be replacing Tobey, the next installment moved forward under the title of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” (Which causes me to imagine further films entitled after the various other Spidey series.) Though the script went through several incarnations, it was decided early on that Doctor Octopus – widely regarded as Spider-Man's other archenemy – would be the bad guy this time. Predictably, “Spider-Man 2” would be another massive success. More surprising, the film also received enthusiastic reviews, with many at the time calling it the best superhero movie ever made. Incoming hot take: I think “Spider-Man 2” has got some problems.

Is it possible to be both Peter Parker and Spider-Man? Peter's crime-fighting activities are cutting into his normal life. He can't hold down a steady job, which means he can't pay his rent and is always on the verge of being kicked out. (This affects Aunt May too, who is being threatened with foreclosure.) His school work is suffering. Peter's friendship with Harry, increasingly obsessed with taking revenge on Spider-Man, is strained. Mary Jane, realizing Peter can't commit to her, is marrying an astronaut. And now his spider abilities are mysteriously starting to fade. Meanwhile, brilliant scientist Otto Octavius' attempt to create a miniature sun goes horribly wrong, fusing his mechanical arms to him and making him determined to achieve his goals, no matter what. Now, Spider-Man must balance his personal happiness with his responsibility as a hero.

I don't know if Sam just mellowed with age or if he was intentionally downplaying his frenetic visuals in hopes of appearing more commercial, but Raimi's movies clearly weren't as wild looking in the late nineties and onward. If that's the case, the blockbuster status of “Spider-Man” – the first truly massive hit of the director's career – made Sam realize he could cut loose. “Spider-Man 2” is awash in Raimi's dynamic visual quirks. Doc Ock's arrival is proceeded by partial zooms on Peter and M.J.'s faces. There's an utterly beautiful shot from Spidey's point-of-view as he swings up into the city. The highly animated montages dissolve into Spider-Man's symbol or has him swinging through a newspaper headline.

Raimi's inventive visual approach is most apparent in the action scenes. They are so fucking good, you guys. A moment that might as well be porn for Raimi fanboys is when Doc Ock becomes a villain. As his tentacles tear apart the operating room, we are suddenly back in “Evil Dead” country. There's P.O.V. shots a plenty, crash-zooms, bodies tossed through glass, demonic red eyes, even a chainsaw! It's fantastic. This energy carries on into the movie's other action scenes. You feel the power of Doc Ock's blows during a bank robbery, as Spider-Man is tossed across the building. A battle on a clock tower has an incredible sense of speed and motion, Spidey and his opponent sling-shot back and forth. This continue to a fight on a moving subway, which is even faster and has more tentacles tearing through windows and walls. It's awesome and it certainly a huge improvement over the somewhat stiff action of the original.

As utterly spellbinding as the film's action and direction is, “Spider-Man 2” has a serious problem. While the first one was driven by a powerful sense of optimism, the sequel is loaded down with a crushing dollop of maudlin emotion. Peter Parker has graduated from lovable dork to intolerable weenie. This is a Peter self-obsessed with his own misery, anxiously fixating on his problems so much that he actually looses his powers. Seriously, how is that a plot point that cleared the first draft? A superhero forced to fight a foe without his trademark powers is a classic story. Surely, there was a better way to get to that plot point that didn't resolve with the power of positive thinking.

The worst thing about this melodramatic streak is how it utterly derails the movie's pacing. There are far too many long scenes of Peter contemplating his lot in life. One especially mawkish sequence has him imagining what Uncle Ben would say in this situation. I didn't know memories could provide new life advice! We get a scene where Pete tells Aunt May how he feels personally responsible for Ben's death, which concludes with an obnoxiously long shot of Parker sitting at a table. The movie's pace-murdering schmaltzy streak climaxes right after one of the film's highlights, that amazing fight on the train. After saving everyone on the train, he's carried over the passengers head in a Christ-pose. Everyone promises to keep the unmasked Peter's secret. New Yorkers coming together to distract the Green Goblin in the first movie was fine. But this pushes the city's love of its trademark hero too far, stretching audience's disbelief pass the breaking point. There's no way no one on the train wouldn't brag that they knew who Spider-Man really was.

If Peter Parker turns into a whiny baby in “Spider-Man 2,” his immediate supporting cast suffers similarly. Everyone is reduced to one defining characteristic, sacrificing all other personality traits. Harry Osborn is now solely defined by his hatred of Spider-Man, his desire to get revenge on the superhero he believes killed his father. It's straining his friendship with Pete, who never takes the time to consider telling him the truth. Almost all the girl-next-door charm that distinguished Mary Jane last time is now gone. She's now an almost capricious love interest, who tosses Peter away for petty reasons and trades guys however it suits her. (And, once again, becomes a damsel-in-distress in the last act.) Now, Aunt May does nothing but grieve Uncle Ben's death and offer sage advice. It's disappointing to see this happen to the first film's richly developed cast.

The actors are clearly disappointed in it too. Tobey Maguire is not capable of elevating the material he's given. Why we still get peeks at the gee-shucks optimism that made him so endearing in the first film, “Spider-Man 2” makes it largely clear that Maguire is frequently uncomfortable when playing an action hero. Kristen Dunst, a ball of lovable energy in the first one, parades through nearly this entire movie with eyes half-opened, looking bored out of her mind. James Franco has one mode in this movie and it's Wounded Rich Boy, grimacing solemnly for most of the run time.

And what does that leave us with? If the original “Spider-Man” nailed everything about the Green Goblin except the costume, the sequel's treatment of its villain is the opposite. Visually, Doc Ock looks amazing. The special effects in this film hold up better than the first. An impressive mixture of computer generated and practical effects makes Doc Ock's tentacles look fairly realistic most of the time. I love the detail in their design, the interlocking panels, claws, and secret compartments that make them such functional tools. The glasses and green trench coat are also solid choices. Alfred Molina, when allowed to play a proper villain, is amusingly wicked in the part. He even gets some decent one-liners. In many ways, Doc Ock is a fantastic villain.

And yet the needless rejiggering of Doctor Octopus' origin annoys the piss out of me. He's given a sympathetic backstory, with a dead wife and ultimately noble goals. This is in contrast to his comic counterpart, who is a more classical mad scientist. The movie overthinks how Doc Ock's tentacles work, granting an insidious artificial intelligence to the devices that threaten to overtake Octavius' own mind. That's exactly what happens, pushing him towards villainy. So now he's a tragic figure, forced into evil acts by outside influences. Which is probably more narratively rich but also has nothing to do with what's traditionally fun or interesting about Doc Ock. Molina is excellent but the script betrays the character's roots.

Even with all the flaws I see in “Spider-Man 2,” J.K. Simmons will always be the perfect J. Jonah Jameson. In fact, the scenes in the Daily Bugle are among my favorite in the movie. Watching Jameson reluctantly agree that Spider-Man is a hero, only for him to immediately change his mind once Spidey swings back onto the scene, is a masterclass in comedic timing. Raimi smartly expands on the parts for Ted Raimi and Elizabeth Banks as Betty Brant, making the newspaper office seem like a really hospitable location. In a strange coincidence, Raimi also fills many of the film's bit parts with actors that would soon become more famous for roles on television. So Hal Sparks appears as a deadpan guy riding the elevator with Spider-Man, Emily Deschanel shows up as a sarcastic hotel clerk, and Joel McHale appears as a bank clerk. That was probably a coincidence but it's an interesting one.

The film's sense of humor sometimes seems out of place. An extremely minor subplot about Peter having to avoid his landlord, whose daughter clearly has a crush on him, adds absolutely nothing to the story and probably has no business being in an already long film. But it sure is cute. The same can be said about a sequence where Peter just misses delivering a pizza on time because he's shoving mops and brooms back into the cleaning supplies closet. The film's wacky comedic streak runs hottest in two moments. During Bruce Campbell's delightfully hammy cameo and during an inspired use of “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head.” That moment really surprised me in theaters.

At the time, the tidal wave of positive notices that rained down on “Spider-Man 2” made me feel numb. Compared to an original that was the obvious peak of the still young superhero genre, I found myself deeply disappointed in the overly sappy sequel. Critics and fans, meanwhile, were enamored. Roger Ebert called it the first great superhero movie. That reputation grew for a while, only making me feel more bitter about disliking the film. Now, in our post-MCU world, fans are more divided on the Raimi trilogy. So I'll say this: “Spider-Man 2” absolutely has its merits, the fantastic direction, action sequences, and special effects being the primary ones. I just can't stand many of the decisions made on a scripting and tonal level, meaning this will never be my favorite of the trilogy. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2002)

10. Spider-Man

A movie based off of Marvel Comics' most popular and beloved character had been in one stage of development or another since 1985. Names like Roger Corman, Tobe Hooper, and Joseph Zito had come and gone. James Cameron came the closest to making a “Spider-Man” movie in the mid-nineties. Misguided scripts and legal litigation would end that project and Spider-Man wouldn't truly swing onto the big screen until 2002. Sam Raimi, who had been trying to make a proper comic book superhero movie for years, would beat out hotter candidates – David Fincher, Chris Columbus, Jan de Bont – with his sheer enthusiasm for the character. Raimi's “Spider-Man” would, of course, be a record-shattering success and truly signify that the Age of the Superhero Movie had begun. Now, seventeen years later, some folks like to claim Raimi's “Spider-Man” movie actually isn't good. I'll be the judge of that.

Everyone knows the story of Peter Parker: Spider-Man. Impressively, Raimi's film – directing a script that four or five different people worked on, though sole credit went to David Koepp – boils forty years of comic history down to its most essential elements. We see nerdy Peter Parker fall in love with girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, struggle with sad little rich boy best friend Harry Osborn, and get bitten by a special spider. Initially using his newfound powers for financial gain, he learns the hard way that great power comes with great responsibility when his beloved Uncle Ben is killed by a thief he let get away. Becoming Spider-Man, he soon comes into conflict with mad, technology-driven villain the Green Goblin... Who is actually Norman Osborn, Harry's millionaire super-scientist dad. The script is almost impressively episodic, in the way it tracks from iconic comic book moment to the next.

The main criticism people have against Raimi's first “Spider-Man” movie is that it's corny. This is undeniably true. Its themes, of a wholesome hero, the girl next door, a villain driven mad, are simple and broad. Spider-Man rescues a baby, a floundering military contractor puts on a parade, and The dialogue is often histrionic, as if it all could be delivered inside comic book thought bubbles. The bad guy does stuff like track down the hero's aunt just to menace her melodramatically, not actually kill her. Just as the story is starting to sag a bit, the Goblin shows up and almost destroys the Daily Bugle office. He hisses the word “Sleeeep!” just as he's spraying Spider-Man with sleeping gas. The film is seemingly of an older time in other ways too. The school bully is a stereotypical jock and it’s heroic when Peter beats the shit out of him. The movie does not blink at Peter insulting a pro-wrestler by suggesting he’s gay. Sure, there's stuff about “Spider-Man” that hasn't aged the best.

Chief among the film's more antiquated features is its special effects. Despite many attempts to do so, a “Spider-Man” movie probably wasn’t possible before the advent of CGI. And Raimi uses a lot of it. When Peter is first testing out his powers, leaping across rooftops, he turns into a clearly artificial computer-generated puppet. A later scene shoves the CGI right in our face as Parker, seeking revenge on Uncle Ben’s killer, crawls up walls and swings across town. These are only the most obvious examples. Sure, the seams show, even then and more-so after nearly two decades of advancements. Yet Raimi and his team used this tool to bring iconic, dynamic comic book-style poses to life, which makes up for a lot. If something is meant to look stylized, it’s hard to complain about it looking fake.

In fact, I would argue that the movie’s campy streak is totally intentional and even a benefit. Raimi isn’t adapting the modern day “Spider-Man” stories. His plot is based off a story line from the mid-sixties. Accordingly, “Spider-Man” is driven by a sense of gee-whiz, Silver Age optimism. Even though Spider-Man is technically a vigilante, and the Daily Bugle attempts to villainize him, most New Yorkers love the guy. In one scene, a cop threatens to arrest him but changes his mind so Spidey can rescue that baby. Even though Peter is haunted by the death of his uncle, as Spider-Man, he frequently seems upbeat. He whoops with joy when swinging through the air, cracks cheesy quips, and leaves notes after tying up bad guys. He is truly a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. So even if there’s death and murder in the story, and Mary Jane is clearly threatened with rape by a gang of guys, “Spider-Man” is usually characterized by a sense of warm nostalgia. Much like Richard Donner’s “Superman,” it seemingly takes place in a simpler past that never truly existed.

The film glows with that warmth, most scenes utilizing a sunny color palette of bronze and sandy Earth-tones. (With the darker scenes using a cooler, comic book-y jet black.) New York has never looked cleaner or more inviting on-screen. And there’s good reason for that. “Spider-Man” was made during that brief period of post-9/11 patriotism, when Americans united to support each other, when the President decried Islamophobia. Before that president launched us into a nakedly imperialistic war, before the right-wing media weaponized that sense of community. The shadow of 9/11 lingered over “Spider-Man’s” production, forcing last minute recalls of teaser trailers and posters. The film resolved this by depicting New York as America’s City, a love for the architecture and people who live there apparent in every minute. A key moment has New Yorkers coming together to help Spidey stop the Green Goblin’s latest plan. In 2002, it took me out of the film. In 2019, it’s another element of the film’s optimistic world-view. Manhattanites never loved each other this way, not even after 9/11. But “Spider-Man” takes place in a less cynical fantasy world. That upbeat attitude was a healing balm the country desperately needed after September 11th and, I’d argue, a big reason why the film became such a hit.

Sam Raimi’s visual style was a little more muted by 2001. Yet he certainly brings some of that “Darkman” energy to “Spider-Man.” The Raimian hyper-kinetic montages are present and accounted for. Mostly during scenes when Peter is lost in thought, images of M.J. and cars filtering through his head as the creative process behind designing his costume takes place right before our eyes. This same fast-paced dynamism characterizes montage of Spider-Man swinging around the city, fighting crime, and appearing on newspaper covers. While these montages are the main example of Raimi’s style, there are certainly other whipping camera movements. Peter’s Spider Sense isolating every movement in a room, or Spider-Man leaping around flying blades, struck me in 2002 as more post-“Matrix” bullet time gimmickry. Now, I clearly see it as a manifestation of Raimi’s P.O.V. shot obsession. It’s not as wacky or wild as “Evil Dead” but it’s still pretty cool.

In many ways, it must seem like Sam Raimi had been making comic book movies his entire life. That visual language has always informed his style. While the camera certainly swings through the air with Spider-Man on more than one occasion, the film seems disappointingly flat in some regards. The action scenes are often a bit awkward. Sure, we get cool shots of the Green Goblin’s fists or knees lashing into the camera. Yet, too often, the film just has its costumed characters fly vertically through the air, knocked back by one blow or another. Spider-Man’s leaping and punching comes off as embarrassingly acrobatic at times. “The Matrix” definitely did influence the film’s action beats, as this movie was made during that period when all Hollywood action movies had to awkwardly ape Hong Kong action films in the most listless way possible. Apparently Norman Osborn also became a high-kicking martial artist when he became the Green Goblin. The action scenes are so choppy at times that, during the climatic battle, the Goblin pulls a high-tech spear seemingly out of nowhere. Is this Raimi’s fault or had Hollywood just not figured out how to shoot superhero fight scenes yet? It’s hard to say, though I’m betting on the latter, as the first “X-Men” movie had a similar problem.

A big thrill of these early superhero movies was just seeing these iconic characters brought to life on-screen. While other, and arguably better Spider-Man suits, have appeared in movies since, I still think this film did an excellent job designing Spidey. The raised, metallic webbing gives it a sharp, modern look. More importantly, it looks like Spider-Man, adapting the general design and colors of its comic book counterpart, something Hollywood was still struggling with at the time. The general consensus is that the movie did a good job with Spider-Man. But what about the Green Goblin? A more comic accurate Goblin design was considered early in development but ultimately discarded for what fans derisively call the Power Rangers helmet. Sure, it could’ve been better. Going with a solely green and amber look, with none of the character’s traditional purple highlights, was an odd choice. But I kind of like the Green Goblin helmet, which matches the comic’s silhouette and is permanently fixed in a demonic snarl. The decision to let Willem DaFoe’s eyes and mouth be partially visible wasn’t a bad one either, allowing for some expressiveness. If nothing else, the Goblin Glider and Pumpkin Bombs look fantastic.

As with any film that recounts Spider-Man’s origin, Uncle Ben’s iconic line about great power and great responsibility is trotted out here. Thematically, the film does touch on this, contrasting Peter’s responsible use of his power with Norman Osborn using his ability for tyrannical, petty needs. However, that’s really not what “Spider-Man” is about. This is a film about fathers and sons. Peter is an orphan but Uncle Ben is still his father figure, wise and self-sacrificing. Peter wanting to live up to that example is what drives him. Yet Norman Osborn is eager to spiritually adopt the boy. He sees himself in the bright, inventive Peter... And not so much in Harry, his actual son, who has always struggled in his dad’s shadow. This extends to their superhero lives, when the Green Goblin offers to take Spider-Man under his (glider) wing. He becomes a perverse opposite of Uncle Ben, offering an abuse of power. When that fails, he instead seeks to teach Peter/Spider-Man a “lesson” about heroics. He feels personally slighted when he discovers Peter is Spider-Man, feeling betrayed by a boy he thought was like him. Never mind that his actual son is going through a crisis... Peter and Harry are inevitably sent on a collision course in the final scene, mirroring themes of brotherly rivalry seen in Raimi’s “A Simple Plan.”

Now that we know about his days in the Pussy Posse or his underground poker games, it’s harder to buy Tobey Maguire as a wholesome leading man. Yet, in every other way, Maguire was the perfect Peter Parker for this “Spider-Man.” Bright-eyed and baby-faced, Maguire’s Peter responses to almost everything with hopefulness. He makes the corny one-liners — they are so corny — sound totally natural. Of course, that’s what a dork like Peter Parker, who loves his aunt and has been smitten with the literal girl next door his whole life, thinks bad-ass battle banter sounds like. That complete sincerity imbues Maguire’s heroic moments, like his final confrontation with the Goblin, with an effective power. If Raimi’s “Spider-Man” is an distillation of Silver Age Marvel adventures, Maguire makes every correct decision.

As with any time an iconic supervillain is cast in these movies, a number of high-profile stars were considered to play the Green Goblin. When John Malkovich and Nicolas Cage — can you imagine how demented that would’ve been? — passed, Willem DaFoe won the part. The split personality of the character allows DaFoe to access two styles of acting. As the paternal if calculating Norman, he balances a determination to perfect his work with occasional glimpses of warmth in Peter’s direction. As the Green Goblin, he cackles wildly, clearly enjoying every over-the-top act of villainy he performs. DaFoe is certainly talented at twisting his face into disturbingly vivid goblin scowls. I do wish the moments when these two aspects intersected, when Osborn is confronted by the Goblin persona, were a little less melodramatic.

The film opens with some narration from Peter, assuring us that this is a story that begins with a girl... And though Spider-Man has had a succession of notable love interests over the years, the film went with his most iconic, Mary Jane Watson. The romance honestly works so much better than these subplots usually do in superhero flicks. Though Mary Jane seems mostly oblivious to Peter in early scenes, at the science lab for example, the two slowly open up to each other over the course of the film. Such as a touching scene outside their houses, a flirty meet-cute on the streets of New York, and a touching moment where he reveals how much she meets to him, in a round about way. Kristen Dunst perfectly captures the girl-next-door, a stunning beauty that seems flighty and superficial at times but hides a pained heart, an aching vulnerability. Her charm and beauty alone is what makes that notorious kiss scene genuinely sexy, despite it being super weird and uncomfortable on the surface.

In fact, “Spider-Man's” entire cast is pretty much perfect. J.K. Simmons, reuniting with Raimi for the third time, is probably among the most pitch perfect casting in any comic book movie. Simmons plays J. Jonah Jameson exactly as he exists on the page: Extremely loud and opinionated, weirdly prejudiced against Spider-Man, yet totally endearing due to his outrageously dry sense of humor and unshakable principals. Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris are also the platonic ideals of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, as they existed in the silver age Spidey comics. Robertson is totally believable as a wholesome figure of lived-in knowledge while Harris has a similarly wise and perceptive attitude as the guiding light in Peter's life. And, yes, even James Franco is fantastically cast as Harry Osborn, certainly believable as a popular rich boy but deeply wounded by the way his father has treated. (And hats off to Bruce Campbell, returning to a Raimi movie for the first time in a while, amusingly smarmy as the wrestler ring announcer.)

There's not much about 2002's “Spider-Man” I don't find endearing in some way but one moment really bugs me... And it's practically the end of the film. After the climatic battle between hero and villain, when Norman Osborn seals his own fate, Spider-Man carries his corpse to his home. (Imagine that comic panel, Spider-Man swinging a half-naked dead body across New York City.) Instead of discreetly leaving the body or explaining to Harry what's happened, he leaves suddenly and gives Harry Osborn a vendetta against him for the rest of his life. At Norman's funeral, M.J. confesses her feelings for Peter. And instead of letting her down easy, he basically leaves her in a lurch. Both of these moments are awkward set-ups for a sequel that inject an unsightly dose of contrived melodrama into a superhero story that previously flowed in the smoothest, most satisfying way.

Ultimately, there's not much to complain about. When I saw “Spider-Man” in theaters as a 14 year old kid – twice! – it filled me with an effervescent kind of joy. Nearly two decades later, it somehow still makes me feel that. The film has unquestionably aged, made less sophisticated by the seventeen years of superhero cinema that has followed. (And the less said about that Nickelback theme song, the better...) Yet the film is still breathlessly entertaining with so many elements about it that work seamlessly. It's entirely possible that nostalgia plays a part in me loving this movie so much. So be it. “Spider-Man” is a movie awash in nostalgia anyway, so it's only fair. Sam Raimi's transformation into a blockbuster maker couldn't have gone smoother and summer movie season would never be the same again. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (2000)

9. The Gift

Following the utter failure of “For Love of the Game,” I suspect Sam Raimi was looking to bounce back. I suspect he hoped to re-create his last critical success by re-teaming with one of his “A Simple Plan” collaborators. Aside from being a critically acclaimed actor, Billy Bob Thornton is also an Academy Award winning screenwriter. He would write “The Gift” based on the experiences of his own mother, who claimed to be a psychic, and growing up in the American south. Clearly, Thornton enjoyed working with Raimi on “A Simple Plan,” as he would hand the script over to the director. While “The Gift” wasn't much of a box office hit, it did see Raimi recovering a bit from his baseball flop.

Widower Annie Wilson lives in the steamy, swamp lands of Brixton, Georgia. Annie is gifted with the powers of psychic visions, sometimes seeing the past or the future in her mind. She works as the town fortune teller to support her three sons. She encounters different people from around town. Like Valerie Barksdale, whose abusive husband believes Annie is a witch and threatens her with violence. Or Buddy Cole, a mentally ill man badly traumatized from being sexually abused by his father as a boy. When Jessica King, daughter of a local wealthy man, disappears, everyone assumes the worst. Annie receives visions of Jessica's corpse and ends up fingering Donnie Barksdale for the murder. But the whole truth has yet to reveal itself...

Billy Bob Thornton hasn't just played a number of country bumpkins and rednecks. He frequently writes about them too. “Sling Blade” is only the most obvious example, as “A Family Thing,” “Jayne Manfield's Car,” and “Daddy and Them” deal with similar subjects. It's an aesthetic that can similarly be described as Southern Gothic or Southern-fried noir. Luckily, either title blends nicely with Raimi's established style. “The Cure” begins with a moody shot of the Georgia bayou, fog billowing over the water. This is before the night sky is broken by a lightning bolt. From there, a tale of twisting alliances, supernatural visions, murder,  and mental issues among backwoods folks spins out. It's almost as if Thornton wrote the film specifically for Raimi, the two line up so well.

After being gone for what seemed like a while, “The Cure” also represents Sam Raimi returning to his horror roots. The film is not a full-blown horror picture, probably being better described as a thriller. (And best described as supernatural noir.) However, Raimi directs it like horror. Annie's visions involve the monstrous sight of bloated corpses leaping from a bathtub or a dead girl floating in the air. Dynamic shots of fists swinging into the camera or unnerving nightmare sequences drive the best moments. An especially effective shots has a man's threatening shadow cast on the wall, while Annie tensely explores a house she's worried is no longer safe. He even includes some of his trademark whip-pans and crash-zooms, which sometimes almost becomes distracting. Yet it's certainly great to see Raimi finding his groove again, after all but abandoning it with “For Love of the Game.”

This isn't exactly “The Evil Dead” though. With “The Cure,” the director is applying his more mature approach to the pulpy material. Raimi's earlier movies almost gleefully killed off their characters, enjoying tormenting them before offing them in spectacularly grisly ways. Now, the director is grappling more seriously with the concept of death. Annie and her sons are still grappling with the death of her husband. She predicted his fiery death in a factory explosion but was unable to stop it. Since then, she can even bring herself to visit his grave, much to her oldest boy's chagrin. The psychic reality of her gruesome visions haunt her. Death weighs heavily on the minds of “The Gift's” characters.

Another idea, which is maybe more Thornton than Raimi, is also floating around inside “The Gift.” Both of Annie's most regular costumers have suffered at the hands of men. Buddy Cole has been left utterly traumatized by the abuse his father inflicted on him, barely able to function in everyday life without suffering breakdowns. Eventually, he attempts to burn his father alive. Valerie Barksdale is beaten black and blue by her utterly toxic husband, a sociopathic Christian who uses his faith to persecute Annie but has no problem threatening children or screwing around on his wife. This stands in contrast to Annie's husband, who was seemingly idyllic, and her relationship with her own kids, which is never less than totally patient and protective. Yet it also speaks more to the film's thematic concerns, of a world ravaged by hateful, abusive men.

Speaking to this, “The Gift” works best when about a single mother under threat. This is most apparent in the movie's fantastic first act. From the moment Valerie walks into Annie's house, her face black and blue with bruises, a quiet tension floats over the film. It's not long before Donnie is storming into the house, knocking over paint and dragging Valerie away. He feels so threatened by a woman with power, supernatural or otherwise, that he tries to intimate her sons and breaks into the house and leaves shitty messages. In these moments, “The Gift” becomes a fantastically effective thriller about a woman who has to protect everything she has left against a raging gonad of an abuser.

Unfortunately, a lot of that tension deflates in the second half. After those wonderfully spooky visions, Annie leads the police to Jessica's corpse, floating in Donnie Barksdale's lake. He's arrested and suddenly the movie changes direction. “The Gift” becomes a murder/mystery, Annie functioning as a detective, teaming up with Jessica's fiance to uncover the truth – Donnie is a scumbag but he didn't kill her – and put things to right. This is set up early enough, Annie stumbling upon one of many potential suspects during a visit to a restaurant. However, this is ultimately not as interesting a story. Once Donnie is in prison, and the immediate threat to Jessica's life is removed, a lot of tenseness goes out of the film.

The conclusion to that murder mystery is especially underwhelming. The courtroom scenes are a bit ham-fisted, the characters sometimes flinging some on-the-nose dialogue around. The investigation kicks into gear afterwards. But there's a problem. The audience figures out who killed Jessica fairly early, narrowing down the lists of suspects quickly enough. Even more disappointingly, the film then has the killer reveal himself in a fairly non-dramatic way, flat-out telling the audience and Annie what he did. The day is then saved by a ghost, which borders on a deus ex machina. It's a bit of a bummer that, after being fairly proactive for most of the film, Jessica doesn't even get to uncover the killer's identity and save herself.

Even if the script sometimes fails her, the actress playing Jessica never does. Cate Blanchett has been so good, for so long, one can't help but take her for granted. Affecting a Southern accent with no problem, Blanchett creates an utterly compelling protagonist. She is vulnerable, when need be, still clearly stinging over her husband's death. She is terrified, of both her visions and the threat floating over her family's head. Yet, despite being scared, she marches ahead anyway, doing what she knows to be right. Blanchett beautifully, naturally enacts all these feelings and emotions. “The Gift” may occupy a difficult world but its protagonist, and the actress playing her, is always sturdy.

Watching “The Gift” in 2019 is especially interesting for another reason the filmmakers never could've guessed at the time. In the burnt-out hellscape of our modern age, the youth are hungry for sincerity and wholesomeness. Weirdly, Keanu Reeves is currently the internet's symbol of those feelings. So it's sort of funny to watch him so perfectly play a real piece of shit here. Reeves plays Donnie Barksdale as a disgusting creep, who beats his wife brutally just for the hell of it, who isn't above striking a little kid. When in court, he begrudgingly admits to this, not exactly seeming proud but not exactly being ashamed of himself either. Keanu is surprisingly good at it. Watching Reeves cut loose during several scenes of sinister menace or angry outbursts are a lot of fun too.

There is a solid supporting cast here too. Giovanni Ribisi discards any actorly pride to play Buddy Cole as a truly pathetic person, controlled by out-of-balance emotions he has no reign over. It's a shockingly sad and accurate portrayal of someone barely functioning under the strain of PTSD. Hilary Swank's Southern accent isn't as good as Blanchett's but she does give a decent performance as a woman pulled in different directions by multiple feelings. I've always found there to be something greasy and unlikable about Greg Kinnear, hiding under a mask of insincere glad-handing, which ends up making him perfect for his role here. Katie Holmes, sadly, is a bit underserved in the role of Jessica, which the script seems fine with reducing to the concept of the town slut. Truthfully, it's the Raimi Regulars that shine. J.K. Simmons has a hilarious role as the skeptical sheriff. Gary Cole is nicely smarmy as the town attorney, who is hiding secrets of his own. Rosemary Harris' sole scene as Annie's grandmother is a stand-out, framed as an eerie daydream but center by Harris' warm grace.

During post-production, Raimi would get his next job, the film that would truly change his career forever. "The Gift" barely outgrossed its budget at the box office and wouldn't make much of an impression with critics or audiences. (Though those critics that did like it were enthusiastic.) It's almost as if “The Gift” was destined to be overlooked. However, the film represents an important course correction for Raimi, showing he can still generate down-home tension and atmosphere with electrifying direction like nobody else. A top-notch cast further helps create a memorable film. The script eventually peters out, which is a bummer because “The Gift” was working fantastically up to that point. [Grade: B]