Saturday, May 05, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Several film reviewers have noted how much crying Peter Parker does in Spider-Man 3. For a costumed crime-fighter, he spends an inordinate amount of time blubbering over failed relationships. Sam Raimi's entire franchise up until this point has focused on the soap opera elements of Stan Lee's original Spider-Man narrative - the long-term effect of superhero work on Peter Parker's love-life, his strained, competitive relationship with his best friend, his ceaseless search for a father figure following the loss of his beloved Uncle Ben and so forth.

But somewhere along the way, he's forgotten how to make an entertaining piece of pulp entertainment. There's nothing fun about the New York of Spider-Man any more. Frankly, it's a real bring-down, a city in which remarkable, miraculous feats of wonder happen literally every day but all the citizens still mope around like pathetic, depressed sadsacks because their lives are complicated, unfixable wrecks. Like a "Days of Our Lives" re-run, but with silly outfits.

Like Bryan Singer's dour attempt to revitalize the Superman franchise, Raimi his just totally misjudged the sensibility of his material in this outing. The result is one of the more painful superhero movies I have ever seen, a ponderous, drawn-out tangle of incidents that never even come close to cohering into anything that remotely resembles a story.

I'm totally so not kidding about the soap opera analogies. Now, yes, comic book stories and "romance" stories share many common elements and themes, and they're all designed with longevity in mind. That is, both soap operas and comic books have to start with simple premises that can be spun out over the course of years, or even decades. A certain amount of repetition and overheated theatrics are to be expected.

But Raimi (who wrote the script with his brother Ivan and Alan Sargent) should know better than to push his story in this many crazy directions at once. When we rejoin Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), he's planning to propose to his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). While they're enjoying a romantic evening in the woods, Parker is scoped out by some kind of weird black ooze that comes out of a meteor, which then follows him home. The outer space ooze melds with his Spidey suit, you see, and give him wacky outer space powers (never specified), but also make him ultra-aggressive and emo.

That would probably be enough plot for a decent Spider-Man movie right there. He's got girl trouble, he's enjoying this power suit but soon discovering horrible side effects, and in the end the suit would fall into the hands of someone else who he would then have to fight. Done and done. The premise is simple enough that you coudl take some time to develop actual sequences and characters, rather than hurtling through a half-baked load of nonsense in a vain attempt to link together 12 lame, pointless sub-plots.

But, no, Raimi has to keep piling on more and more and more incidents, long after the point of overkill. Perhaps he had made a bet with David Goyer over who could reference more individual comic book stories in a single script. In addition to the worries with Mary Jane and the Secret of the Ooze (or was that the Ninja Turtles?), an escaped convict (Thomas Haden Church) whose daughter is suffering from an unnamed movie-wasting-away disease falls into a weird particle accelorator or something that turns him into the Sandman. Plus, Peter gets into a stupid competition with a brash photographer (Topher Grace) who wants to take over his job. Oh, yeah, and he starts flirting with a cute girl in his class (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose life he saves during a random crane accident.

And Harry Osbourne (James Franco) still wants to kill Peter because he knows Peter is Spider-Man and Spider-Man killed his dad (Willem Dafoe) in the first movie. But then, in the film's most insultingly stupid sub-plot, Harry gets clunked on the head and develops amnesia (seriously), so he becomes Peter's best friend again. Oh, and Peter finds out that the scumbag who he thought killed his Uncle Ben actually was just there when Uncle Ben was killed, and the real killer is the Sandman.

I hope I didn't forget anything.

Worse yet, the dialogue in all of these different scenes is uniformly corny and entirely too on the nose. Characters tend to just blurt out the purpose of the scene directly, which makes for some incredibly forced, unnatural moments. I don't think Dunst really works in this role, and she has zero chemistry with Tobey Maguire, but this completely bland Mary Jane Watson character isn't really her fault. She is not allowed to have a personality; all her lines are designed solely to move the story forward. Have Peter and Mary Jane ever had a conversation that isn't directly about the state of their relationship? Do they ever, you know, discuss their favorite bands or that new Thai food place near the office that they tried for the first time last Tuesday?

I'm not sure it would even be possible to give the actors interesting or funny lines to say at this point (and wasn't Spider-Man funny in the comics?), because the entire trilogy's narrative has no forward momentum. It's an endless loop. Harry and Peter are still rivals for Mary Jane's affections, as they have been all along. Peter continues to struggle with balancing his superhero alter-ego with his responsibilities as a normal guy. Guilt and anger over his Uncle's death keep right on messing with his psyche and causing him to lash out, as they always have. And these problems, which all stem from years-old incidents, are all any of them can ever talk about! There's something not quite right about that.

These rather obvious, trite conflicts were never that interesting to begin with, but three movies into a franchise, they have become uninteresting on an existential level. Not only do I no longer care if Mary Jane and Peter can work things out...I am beginning to actively dislike them as people. Shit or get off the pot, kids. Life is short.

Even the action scenes feel expected and perfunctory this time around. Women are dropped from great heights, and Spider-Man makes expert use of his webbing to rescue them. Bombs are thrown and deflected, bystanders threatened but gently pushed out of harm's way. The special effects, which had made significant improvements from the first film to the second, have taken a slight step downward. There are still nice-looking moments to be sure - iconic shots of Spider-Man in his newly-dark suit in the rain, say, or Flint Marko's initial realization that his body has turned into sand. But many of the action scenes look blurry and indistinct. During the climax, the Sandman has turned into a large swirling mass of brown material that looked as much like a dookie monster as a man made of sand.

Essentially, there's a lot going on but absolutely nothing to see. Many stories begin, but none of them have any idea how to develop, and they certainly don't seem to end. And the half-narratives we do get are so blindingly obvious and straight-forward, I started to feel like I was watching "Dora the Explorer." We discover quickly that the big theme of the film is free will and the ability to choose our path in life because characters repeat the concept to one another at every opportunity. We know the black ooze is turning Peter evil because he looks vaguely emo! That pouty, adolescent attitude coupled with the unmistakable hint of lightly-applied eye shadow can only mean one thing...The end of Spider-Man as we know him!

One brief example before I stop harping on this too much. The Sandman character opens the film escaping from the police. He visits with his wife (improbably played by Theresa Russell) and movie-sick daughter briefly, they share terse words, and then he falls into the pit that turns him into the Sandman.

That is all the information we are given about Marko until the climax of the film. What was that thing that turned him into the Sandman? Does he feel pain? What does he hope to do in order to help his daughter? Steal money? Then why waste his time hunting down Spider-Man? When he's offered a deal at the end of the film to team up with another baddie to kill Spider-Man, why accept? What does he have to gain? If his only priority is to save his daughter (related in mawkish, obvious fashion by having him constantly stare at a locket containing her picture), who gives a shit about Spider-Man? There's so much going on, Raimi doesn't have time to worry about these details, so instead we get a muscly guy in a green and black top running around town aimlessly, occasionally stopping to turn into a sand cloud and knock some cars over. Yippee.

Look, I was not the biggest fan of Raimi's first Spider-Man film, but I never expected him to turn out an entry this limp or inane. This franchise needs to end now before something career-endingly tragic happens.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Can we all finally agree that the anti-immigration efforts in this country are largely fueled by an irrational hatred for Mexicans? Okay, Latinos in general, but directed specifically towards Mexicans? I mean, it's always been pretty much out there in the open. The repeated insistence that all forms and public documents appear only in English, a symbolic gesture that serves exclusively to prevent Spanish-speaking people, here legally and illegally, from taking advantage of social services and exercising their rights. The sudden furor over Mexican citizens displaying their American patriotism, waving both their native and adopted flags and singing their new national anthem in the language of their birth, pretty much makes my case for me.

We're talking about a country in which armed men stalk the border by night, hoping for a chance to shoot - or at the very least, frighten and dehumanize - one of our neighbors to the South, based on the unproven, fairly illogical suggestion that their presence is an unmanageable burden on our local economies. (Not that a money crunch should prevent us from giving Bush Eleventy-Billion dollars to kill Iraqis. What are you, a cowardly traitor?)

Constant cries for deportation and blood vendettas against anyone who mentions the word "amnesty" speak, to me, of a deep-seated, primitive, xenophobic hatred, the kind of thing Tony Snow promised us no longer exists in this country. The front page of Michael Savage's site today (no link for Dr. Weiner, cause fuck him) reads:

Immigrants declare war on US: Deport them before deport us!

Think the grammatical error (I'm assuming it was to be a "they") was intentional, to better relate to his semi-literate yokel readership? Underneath that, Mike has a photo of some Arab May Day protesters carrying a banner supporting the immigrant's cause. His caption reads: "Middle-East Terrorists Also Want Legalization!"

I mean, the entire notion is so obviously based on a flagrant, hyperventilating hatred of both Arabs and Latinos...I bet other idiotic racists are embarrassed. "Dude, is that what I sound like when I'm vomiting bile at darkies? I've got to get a life!"

Weiner doesn't even believe this bullshit. He used to skinny dip with Allen Ginsberg, he's just in it for the money. But it's not just him - this entire cause to which he's manacled himself is populated by nothing but racist, xenophobic paranoid losers. Remember how they swallowed that claptrap about reconquista, how Mexicans were secretly plotting to take back the land we rightfully stole from them? Their standard-bearer of the moment, Michelle Malkin, wrote an entire book about how Japanese Internment was justified. They just don't like members of other races and religions for some reason, possibly relating to a poor self-image and/or a frustration at their inability to realize personal goals. A frustration so intense, it must be projected outward at a vague, existentially-threatening Other. Also, some of them are just total dicks.

Which is fine, I guess. I've grown quite used to the fact that some people are just total dicks. It's a fact of life. I just wish we had reached a point of maturity in our national discourse in which we could call people out in this way. "Wait, Stu, you want to build a big electrified fence on the border? Really? Hey, that's weird, I totally didn't realize that you were a racist! And how long have we been working together? You cover it up good, buddy. High five!"

I would take advantage of this all the time were it socially acceptable.

Anyway, perhaps you think I'm overstating the case here. Maybe the anti-immigration protesters have some kind of rational, salient point to make about a pressing social issue?

Yes, that's right, the cameraman who was filming their protest for NBC (intending to put them on television and give voice to their cause, mind you) had a small Mexican flag atop his camera. The horror! Why, it almost implied that there was nothing shameful or disgusting about the idea of Mexico!

This clip makes no sense to me. Why does the presence of a Mexican flag upset them so? The cameraman's not waving it in their faces or behaving in a hostile manner. I suppose the presence of the flag on his camera could be indicating the man's solidarity with the immigrant cause, but he's not exaclty the one doing the reporting. He's just capturing footage. What, is it going to be overly Mexican footage? Perhaps they're afraid El Chapulin Colorado will appear mid-broadcast and start horsing around, thus ruining the moment?

Tbogg links to the right-wing reaction so I don't have to:

I was video taping with my anti-illegal alien group at a protest on Saturday. Our Houston NBC affiliate was at the protest to do a story. The following picture [above] is a screen grab from the event. The NBC cameraman had a Mexican flag attached to his camera! This is making headlines on some forums here in Houston, and was talked about quite a bit this morning on both Houston and Dallas talk radio channels. Fair and balanced, unbiased and non partisan, right? Ha!

They really internalized that "fair and balanced" line of Rupert Murdoch's. You've got to give it to him and Ailes for that one. A marketing triumph. It's now the stated right-wing expectation for all news. Both sides must be presented equally, even if one of them is based on nothing but deception and outright dishonesty. This week, Bill Maher had on one of the fired U.S. Attorneys, David Iglesias, as well as right-wing hack Lisa Schiffrin.

(She wrote Dan Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech, which people as old as me or older will recall as being really stupid. Remember? Murphy Brown was a bad example because she was a single mom? Can you believe there was ever a time when Americans had the rare privilege to argue about that stupid bullshit instead of whether or not we were going to stop the brutally insane dictator from tackling a third simultaneous failed war?)

In this clip, you'll note that Schiffrin persists in relating blatantly un-American and, frankly, illogical right-wing talking points even after Bill Maher has already refuted them, while she's sitting directly across from one of the very few Americans who actually knows the whole story. It's pretty awesome.

That's fair and balanced. Here's some guy telling the truth, and here's the other side's Bizarro-universe Wackyland pathetic excuse for spin. Goodnight, America!

These anti-illegal immigrant (they call them illegal aliens, another flagrant attempt to dehumanize them as Others) protesters are just pure, unadulterated rage. They're not paid shills, and this is not a real political movement. A real political movement has what they believe to be an answer to what they see to be a social problem. The Christian Coalition saw wanton immorality all around them, and felt that school prayer would help, so they advanced that agenda. I think they're wrong, but it's a political discussion. This is just misplaced anger.

What's the problem that these people are protesting? They'd say, like, "flagrant abuse of the law" or "they're a threat to national security" or some such nonsense, but I think we all know the real cause they're trying to fight. "There are too many Mexicans around and we should get rid of them."

And it's their right as Americans to say that. But it's not a discussion I feel like having with them. In my UCLA days, I wasn't one of those people that wanted to go up to the "God hates fags" guys and try to reason with him. I just put on my Discman loud (no mp3 players then) and kept my head down...

Here's more venom, even after an American flag is set atop the camera to join its Mexican cousin.

I'm sorry, but how could anyone want to be on the same team as these people? This is the voice of the anti-immigration argument, it's these protesters and Pat Buchanan and Tom Tancredo. If you think all of those people sound reasonable, you've got bigger problems than Latin neighbors, pal.