Sunday, July 31, 2016

Spiderblight: Mining Joy from SPIDER-MAN 3

Because I am a marketing genius, I'm off-setting my reviews of movies few people have any interest in with a defense of movies people actively hate.  I can just feel the thousands of page hits rolling in!  Inspired by San Diego Comic-Con, which is happening now, without me, I thought I would start off this project with a film comic fans almost universally think is terrible, Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007).

The Capsule:
Things are going pretty well for Peter P. Spiderman (Tobey Maguire).  He has been enjoying the admiration and appreciation of the people of New York City ever since developing super powers due to a bite from a genetically modified and/or radioactive spider.  Mary Jane (Kristen Dunst), his beautiful singer/actress girlfriend has the starring role in a Broadway play.  Things are perfect.  Except that weasely new photographer, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), is after Peter’s job at the Daily Bugle.   And his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), wants to kill him because he thinks Peter killed his father.  And Flint Marco (Thomas Haden Church), the guy who killed his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), has become a super science sand monster.  And an alien glob (CGI) has latched onto him, making him an emo jerk who suddenly knows how to play the piano.  All of these things, and somehow more, converge into one huge, confusing headache for our friendly neighborhood webslinger.

Back in 2007, when I my first son was 2 years old, and my second was still in the oven, I didn’t have much time to go to the movies.  I got to see maybe two or three films in the theater all year.  SPIDER-MAN 3 was not one of them.  This is mostly because I heard really, really bad things about it.  At the time, I was just developing my taste for underappreciated (aka: bad) movies, so that wasn’t the endorsement that it would be today.   I only got around to watching it a couple of years ago when it came bundled in a cheap SPIDER-MAN blu-ray set.  And guess what, it’s a total mess.  But I kinda loved it.  

The obvious problem is that the movie is enormously overstuffed.  The villain in the first movie was Green Goblin, in the second it was Doctor Octopus.  In this one, it’s Sandman, pre-Venom Symbiont, Venom, and Harry Osborn’s Greener Goblin.  It also throws in Gwen Stacy, Captain Stacy, and the not yet lizardy Dr. Curt Conners.  It’s like the reverse of LORD OF THE RINGS; they tried to stuff a trilogy into one movie. 

For my money ($6.49), though, the real problem is that it isn’t stuffed enough.  For a movie with so many competing plotlines, it is dragged down by a ton of filler.  That filler is called Poor Peter’s Sad Love Life.  Alternate title:  Idiot Peter is a Bad Boyfriend (seriously, what kind of knucklehead stages a kiss for the cameras with a beautiful blonde when he knows his girlfriend is in the crowd?).  I know that’s a theme in all of Raimi’s Spider-Movies, but it drags everything down.  Granted, this was before the Marvel Cinematic Universe pepped up the pace of super hero movies (except for THE INCREDIBLE HULK, or as my youngest son calls it, THE INCREDIBLY BORING HULK).  Add that to the dated CG fights and okay, Community At Large, I get it.  It’s not a great movie.  It’s not a total loss, either.  There is some high grade Sam Raimi madness in there, too.

Start with the legitimately good casting of Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman.  Physically, he’s a perfect fit in his trademark green striped shirt.  He’s a bit of a sad sack, which is fairly appropriate for the good man on a bad path ethos of the character (Raimi is a sucker for that kind of guy).  It’s laid on a little thick with his “doing it for his sick daughter” routine, but Church sells it.  I never noticed how piercing his eyes are, probably because I’m used to him playing a total dickhole (see: DEMON KNIGHT).  What I really love, though, is the absurd way he becomes Sandman.  On the run from the cops, Flint Marco falls into one of those open air atomic demolecularization tests they are always having in Manhattan.  He disintegrates in a fancy flash of science, only to rebuild himself later out of the sand that was in the bottom of the pit.  I love that there is absolutely no explanation of what the fuck a “demolecularization” test is, why they were doing in on a pile of sand, and how it allows a dude to reconstitute flesh, hair, and clothing from sand.  There is also zero public speculation on where this miraculous creature came from.  He’s just, you know, a magic sand monster.  Robs banks and stuff.  What’s the big deal?

It’s also great that they retcon Marco to be Uncle Ben’s real killer in an altered flashback.  “Hey Cliff Robertson, could you come in for an afternoon?  We want to kill you again.  You and Willem Dafoe can have coffee.”

A more baffling casting choice was giving the role of the muscle bound Eddie Brock to a man even smaller than Tobey Maguire.  Topher Grace is so tiny he can’t even carry a full first name.  He does play a great weasel, though, and an even better disgraced weasel psycho.  I love his scene in the church where he prays for Jesus to kill Peter.  After Peter rejects the alien symbiont, it seems fitting these two pathetic losers would find each other.  The symbiont clearly has a better relationship with Brock than Peter.  In addition to giving him scary shark teeth, it pulls up Brock’s eyebrow to make him look more arch, like a mom smoothing down her kid’s hair before a picture.  It’s proud of him.  

James Franco’s Harry Osborn is another absurd highlight.  In the beginning, he uses his dad’s super green soldier mist treatment to become new Green Goblin and tries to kill Peter.  At the end of the fight, Harry gets conked on the head and wakes up with amnesia, conveniently forgetting that he wants to kill Peter, and also somehow forgetting the Green Goblin juice make you psychotic.  No worries, they are best buds again!  A little bit later, his memories return and it’s back to wanting to destroy Peter.  But friendship eventually wins out.  They reconcile when Mary Jane is kidnapped by Venom and Sandman.   Best buds again!  Harry even overlooks the fact that symbiont fueled jerk Peter blew half his face off in their last fight.  Bygones.  It’s so ridiculous, but I love Franco’s performance.  He ping pongs between evil genius and stoner moron through the whole movie.  It’s a Gollum/Smeagol type deal.  Tricksy spider.

Speaking of LORD OF THE RINGS, this movie is the RETURN OF THE KING of touching death soliloquies.  Just when I thought it was done, bam, there’s another one.  No one can kick it without a speech.  Don’t want to drop any [spoilers], but the Osborn family should really lay off the bladed gliders from now on.

My favorite part of the movie is, unsurprisingly, everyone else’s least favorite: the dance sequence.  Actually, the whole Jerk Peter section is fantastic.  After bad again Harry forces (?) Mary Jane to break up with Peter (not that she needed the excuse), he drowns his broken heart in the oily seductive embrace of the symbiont suit.  The alien boosts his confidence and lowers his self-awareness, turning him into the worst thing of all: a hipster.  He struts down the sidewalk to a funk soundtrack, snap pointing at all the ladies, totally oblivious as they roll their eyes.  He somehow manages to get a date with Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, who, it turns out, is not Jessica Chastain).  She also went out with Brock, so she’s clearly into jerks.  Peter takes her to the jazz club where Mary Jane is working as a singer/waitress.  Just before Mary Jane is about to sing, Peter upstages her by playing an impromptu ditty on the piano.  Then he launches into this elaborately flashy and acrobatic dance number, ending with him giving Stacy a sexy dip right in front of MJ.  It is at once stunningly goofy and horribly vicious.  In a weird way, it shows how nice a guy Peter really is.  The alien suit didn’t make him evil, it just made him a schmuck.  He even feels bad about it when he sees how badly he’s hurt both the women.

That scene was totally Rami.  It could have come right out of CRIMEWAVE.  We also get to see Raimi’s love of old-timey madcap comedies in the fantastic  Daily Bugle scene with J.J. Jameson (J.K. Simmons, in the role he was born to play) and Ted Raimi (Ted Raimi is always Ted Raimi).  It could seriously be a Marx Brothers routine.  I would love to see a Daily Bugle movie focused entirely on those guys.  And it can’t be a Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN without a Bruce Campbell cameo.  It’s the best (and longest) one yet, perfectly casting him as a snooty and impatient French maître d'. Again, I could watch a whole movie just about him trying to salvage disastrous romantic dinners.

This is one of those movies that I love more in pieces than as a whole.  Those pieces are pretty great, though.  So I tip my hat to Sam Raimi.  It might not be Spider-Man’s finest outing, but there are worse ways to spend two hours.  Watching THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, for instance.

C Chaka

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Video Nasties: Part 1

I just got back from a two week camping road trip (I did not follow the warnings).  Since it left little time for movie watching or writing, I figured this would be a good time to start a little series I’ve been planning for a while but never got around to writing.  So sit back and enjoy (?) the first plunge into the world of The Video Nasties.  

For those who don’t know, Video Nasties is a term coined by the British media in the early ‘80’s.  Specifically, the term refers to a list of 72 (mostly) horror movies that were banned by the British government for being "obscene".  More generally, it refers to the entire misguided moral crusade to save England’s children (and adults) from the damaging and dehumanizing effects of horror movies.  The movement is roughly equivalent to the PMRC’s fight against rap music and obscene lyrics in the States. In other words, it was a witch hunt designed to give the appearance that the government was looking after the public without actually having to help in any way.  It all began with the rise of the VCR and the sudden availability of gritty, post-Vietnam era horror movies like DRILLER KILLER and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.  Stuffy, old, moral conservatives like Mary Whitehouse heard about these films(she certainly didn’t watch any of them) and started a movement that led some equally conservative (and opportunistic) members of Parliament to create a list of movies deemed so obscene that retailers could be prosecuted for selling them.  All of their research was unscientific and biased.  For instance, they would poll a small group of kids on the playground and ask them if they had seen any of these horrible, forbidden movies.  Of course they are going to say they have seen them.  They want to sound cool and brave in front of their friends.  The researcher might have well asked if they were scaredy pants little babies who do everything their parents tell them.  No matter that the kids couldn’t recount the details of the movies or even get the names right.  They were clearly being corrupted by works of fiction.

As with most moral crusades like this, the Video Nasties scare just sort of petered out after a while as society’s values and priorities changed.  Most movies on the list are now available in the UK completely uncut.  About the only thing it succeeded in was to leave a sense of mystique and social disobedience surrounding the original 72 films on the list.  In many cases it’s way more than the movies deserved, but there is something undeniably cool and transgressive about being singled out by an ultra-conservative government as being bad for society.  They were like Pokémon for the serious British horror movie fan in the ‘80’s, you had to collect them all.

Being an American kid, I missed out on all of this first hand.  I only became aware of the phenomenon in the late ‘80’s after watching an episode of The Yong Ones (kind of a small screen UK version of ANIMAL HOUSE) in which the lads rented a VCR and planned to spend the night watching an orgy of sex and violence.  They never got the chance to watch any movies, and the only one they mentioned by name was fake, but it was enough to make me curious.  I was just getting into horror at that point, and the idea that there were movies that the government (or a government) didn’t want me to watch was irresistibly intriguing.  This was pre-Internet days, so for the longest time, I had no idea what films were on the Video Nasties list.  That just made the mystery sweeter.  It was probably for the best.  I was a lightweight back then, and watching something like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST would have left me rocking in a corner.  Not that I would have been able to find it even if I knew what to look for.  Living in a small Southern town with only a couple of video stores, the best I could get was the censored Blockbuster version of EVIL DEAD (unbeknownst to me; I did a legitimate spit take when I saw the full strength vine scene years later).  

Even now, it’s relatively hard to find all the movies on the list.  Thanks to niche market distributors like Shout Factory, Synapse, Arrow, and Code Red, a lot of the films have fancy Blu Ray releases, but there are still a few that aren’t readily available in any format.  I haven’t even seen all of them.  I thought I had, but it turns out what I assumed was Jess Franco’s WOMEN BEHIND BARS was in fact, Jess Franco’s BARB WIRE DOLLS, which he made at the same time with the same people, pretty much about the same thing.  Jess Franco did that a lot.  

These movies may be a kind of cinematic Holy Grail for me, but even I have to admit, some of them are garbage.  I’m not talking about the entertaining kind of garbage, either.  I think that’s why I’ve seen so many people start a Video Nasties review project only to let it go to seed five or six films in.  There are a lot of total bummers on the list.  Worse yet, there are a bunch that are straight up boring.  Taken as a whole, the Video Nasties list is a fascinating subject.  Movie by movie, it can be a slog.  That’s why I’m breaking them into easily digestible chunks.  Actually, a few of these chunks I wouldn’t recommend digesting at all.  Maybe just give them a sniff and slide them directly into the trash.  

It’s not all bad, though.  Not even mostly bad, really.  There are more than a few legit masterpieces on the list.  I already mentioned Sam Rami’s debut film, EVIL DEAD.   Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION is a Cannes Film Festival award winner.  Believe it or not, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is actually a very well made movie.  It’s really hard to make jokes about it, though, so I’m not about to write a whole piece on it.  The crazy, unusual, or fun films will get their own posts eventually.  Several already have (CANNIBAL TERROR, DON’TGO IN THE WOODS, INFERNO).  The rest will get a sentence or two in this series.  That is at least one sentence more generous than some deserve.  

Let’s get the worst offenders out of the way first: Naziploitation.  I have a question, History of Cinema:  What the fuck, dude?  Can there possibly be a more unseemly subject?  Naziploitation films are essentially Women in Prison films, but with even less dignity.  They are all about Nazis doing terrible things to almost exclusively women concentration camp prisoners.  Movies about talking anal warts would be more wholesome than these.  The sub-genre has it's roots in the much more artsy and narratively complex Nazi movies like THE DAMNED, THE NIGHT PORTER, and the utterly revolting SALO.  The success of those movies led to cheap knock-off versions which ditched the pretense of art and just went for the subterranean sleaze.  Four of them made it to the Video Nasties list: SS EXPERIMENT CAMP, GESTAPO’S LAST ORGY, LOVE CAMP 7, and (shudder) BEAST IN HEATThe titles alone are enough to make you feel unclean.  The only redeeming factor is that they are so incompetently made that they are not the slightest bit realistic.  Prisoners are tortured by rats which are clearly guinea pigs painted black.  German Shepherds look more eager to play fetch with inmates than terrorize them.  Peter Seller’s Nazi scientist from DR. STRANGELOVE comes off as nuanced and understated compared to the overacting nitwit villains in these movies.  The bad guys always get their gruesome and well deserved comeuppance in the end, but it’s not worth having to suffer through the first hour to get there.  Unless you are a completest, and a seriously dedicated one at that, there is no reason to ever subject yourself to these movies.  This comes from a person who owns CANNIBAL TERROR on Blu Ray.  If I’m saying don’t bother.  Trust.

On the bright side, that is the bottom of the barrel.  Everything else on the list is a cake walk.  I’m not guaranteeing the quality of the cake, but at least it is not covered in filth and rats.  Or guinea pigs.

That’s four scratched off, three previously reviewed, and sixty-five left to go.  Tune in for Part 2, whenever I get around to it.

C Chaka

Friday, July 15, 2016

Monster Block Party: ATTACK THE BLOCK

Science fiction has always been the medium of metaphor.  During periods of social and political restrictions, sci-fi was a way to mask a writer or director’s social views behind facade of the fantastic.  Writers could talk about touchy subjects like race, gender, and sexuality without getting people into a huff.  No, no, these are transsexual aliens that the humans have to learn to coexist with and respect.  No connection with anything in the real world (wink, wink).  What?  I just have something in my eye, that’s all (wink, wink, wink).  The interesting thing is, for the Western world at least, we can now pretty much just say whatever we want.  We don’t get arrested or blackballed anymore, just flamed on the internet.  We’ve reached the point where we can drop the metaphor and say “this is a movie about racial and socioeconomic disparity, the glamour of crime, and the nebulous nature of family.  Plus, there are aliens.”  Take ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011), for instance.

The Capsule:
A wannabe gangsta crew of South London youths picks a fight with a recently crashed alien monster.  That first one was not so tough, but they get more than they bargained for when its much nastier mates show up looking for it.  On top of that, they also have to deal with the police who think they are responsible for all the chaos, and a proper gangsta who wants them dead for bringing the cops into his territory.  Cool headed Moses (John Boyega) must lead his people, now including the nurse his crew mugged earlier (Jodie Whittaker), through a locked down high-rise without being shot, arrested, or eaten.  The boys (and girls) of South London are going to show the aliens that they attacked the wrong block. 

Director Joe Cornish starts his modestly budgeted sci-fi story off with a cute trick.  Moses and his crew of block boys are first shown as a menacing gang of criminals.  Their hoods are up, their faces are masked, and their eyes are cold and intense.  They confront a single white lady, threaten her with a knife, and take her most meaningful possessions.  After she runs off, they joke around with each other about the crime.  It’s a bold way to introduce the heroes of your movie.  Sure, we find out later that they are just a bunch of kids who were just as scared about robbing someone as Sam was to be robbed (debatable, since she seems much more shaken, while they laugh it off).  Later, they even apologize to Sam, saying they would never have done it if they knew she lived on the same block.  They turn out to be basically good kids, but they make a threatening first impression.

Now, that’s a clever narrative, granted, but that’s not the trick.  The trick is why they are so threatening.  They are threatening because they are urban youths.   On the one hand, duh, that’s the whole point of the movie.  When I really thought about it, though, I realized how insidiously effective it was.  It got me, and usually I see through that shit.  I didn’t realize how much it got me until the second watch.  When I saw Moses’ crew all lined up with bandanas covering their faces, I thought they almost looked like outlaws in a western.  Then it struck me.  Almost every spaghetti western starts with the (anti) hero doing something disreputable.  It adds a layer of complexity and transgression to the character.  As long as they don’t do anything too despicable, I have no problem getting behind them.  A simple robbery where no one was hurt wouldn’t even have fazed me.  It just shows that the main character is a bit of a scoundrel.  No big deal, scoundrels are cool.  Spaghetti westerns happen on the dusty streets of the Old West, though.  I don’t hang out much in the Old West.  Sam’s mugging happened on a dark street in the city.  Scoundrels lurking in places you may actually go are suddenly a much bigger deal.  Thanks to the media, I subconsciously equate hoodies and puffy jackets and masks with danger.  So without realizing, I took a mental step back.  These guys are serious.  

Except that they are just a bunch of kids who like to read Naruto comics.  It was a total manipulation, and I fell for it.  I feel even worse because without their scary masks and hoodies, the kids are adorable.  They talk about video games.  They tease the local girls (who give it back to them just as hard).  They call their mums to check in and lie about what they were doing.   Most importantly, they look out for each other.  Someone is always calling the other cuz, or fam, which the urban dictionary tells me is what you say when you consider someone family.  It’s a tight group, and everyone obviously cares about each other.  They just have really bad role models, like Hi-Hatz, the block’s resident drug kingpin.  He gets to boss people around, always has money, and even records his own rap songs.  The boys are so enamored—and scared—of him, they just want to impress him.  The mugging was just their attempt to follow in Hi-Hatz’ gangsta footsteps.  There are even a couple of younger, even more adorable kids that follow Moses’ crew around.  Wannabe wannabe gangstas. 

All the kids are great, but Moses is the stand out performance.  Going back to the western thing, John Boyega does a great Clint Eastwood.   He has an amazing physical presence, silent and commanding, but compassionate as well.  His deep, soulful eyes convey the uncertainty he won’t allow himself speak aloud.   He is the most mature and serious of all the block boys, forced to be old beyond his years.  When Sam sees the Spider-Man sleeping bag in Moses' apartment and realizes how young he is, it's heartbreaking.  It’s very fitting that Boyega was the breakout star of the movie, landing a lead role in another moderately budgeted sci-fi epic.  I believe it was about an awakening of some kind.  Anyway, I predict a bright future for the lad.

Jodie Whittaker also does a fantastic job as Sam, the put-upon nurse who gets pulled into this mess.  She plays a good mix of terror at the situation and lingering anger at being victimized.  When the boys come bursting into her apartment while fleeing the aliens, she does not hold back in telling them off, even as she helps them.  It gives weight to the bond she develops with Moses.  Their relationship evolves from fear, to resentment, to begrudging cooperation, to eventual understanding and admiration.  By the end, when she’s sticking up for him to the cops, it feels earned.  

All the boys except Moses have parents, but they barely appear in the movie.  There are only quick shots of them as the boys excitedly rush to get weapons to fight off the alien invasion (before realizing how much nastier the males are).  Dennis’ dad makes him take the dog with him.  That wasn’t a great idea.  Aside from Sam, the only bonafide adult to get a decent sized role is Ron, played by Nick Frost.  He is nice to the kids and gives them a safe place to hold up, but he’s basically useless.  Slightly less useless is Brewis (Luke Treadaway), the hopelessly square suburbanite who uses the word “shizzle” about a decade too late while attempting a fist bump.  At least he doesn’t use the word “square”.   He’s older than the block boys, but isn’t what I would call an adult.  When he complains to Ron about being busted for drugs once, he’s talking about by his parents, not the police.  

The aliens are basically wild animals.  They reach Earth by chance, not as part of an organized invasion.  They have light absorbing fur, no eyes, and a giant mouth full of iridescent lamprey like fangs.  Like a fuzzy shadow with glowing teeth.  Gorilla wolf motherfuckers, the boys call them.  Brewis creates a speculative backstory about them, but the movie never goes into detail about the species other than they like to chow down on people and there dozens of males and only one female (sort of the reverse evolutionary flaw of the dragons from REIGN OF FIRE).  It’s the female’s scent that is motivating the rest of the GWMFs.  Another interesting thing I realized on my second watching was that the boys basically saved the world right in the beginning when they kill the female.  Without her, the species can’t reproduce.  There are only a couple of dozen males running around the block to worry about.  Those cause a lot of problems, but nothing compared to what would happen if they got busy making baby mouth monsters.  

The one rough thing about having a great cast is that it makes the deaths hurt all the more.  No one has a problem when an annoying bunch of assholes get killed in a movie.  You might even look forward to it (Hi-Hatz, for instance, or to a lesser degree, his puppet enthusiast henchman, Tonks).  It’s a totally different dynamic when sympathetic characters eat it.  [Spoilers coming] Even though Dennis was the hardest and most sneering member of Moses’ crew, his death was hard to take.  He played tough to the end, facing down the monsters to protect his mates.  When the end came, though, his façade dropped and he was just a scared kid.  The worst was Jerome.  He was the smartest and most sensitive one of the group.  I immediately latched on to him as my surrogate into the film (though in reality, I am  closer to Brewis).  He’s the person I least wanted to die, so of course he’s a goner.  His death scene was terrifying.  The gang is fleeing through a smoke filled hallway when Jerome gets separated.  He hears the GWMFs around him and gets more and more desperate.  Just as he reconnects with one of his mates, the aliens pounce and pull him back into the smoke, screaming.  That scene is like a knife in the stomach to me.  It works wonders for the continued tension, though.  If they can kill off the most sympathetic character, then no one is safe.  

The ending is ludicrous, but it affords Moses a defining moment on the road to being a true hero.  He takes responsibility for his actions and is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure his family and friends (and Brewis) make it out.  Ultimately, he becomes a legend on the block, a role model for the kids worth looking up to.

ATTACK THE BLOCK was Joe Cornish’s first and—criminally—only film so far.  He did a pass on the ANT-MAN screenplay, which retains a lot of his DNA (criminal becomes hero theme, sly humor, heart).  He was considered to direct one of the HUNGER GAMES movies, A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (oh, if only), and the speculative GAMBIT movie, but didn’t get any of them.  Come on, Hollywood people, throw this guy a bone.  He clearly has the chops.  Maybe one of those Star Warses you’re always making these days.   I’m sure John Boyega would put in a good word.  I’ll bet he could even do metaphors, in a pinch.

C Chaka