Thursday, July 28, 2011

With Spider-man 3, Sam Raimi Gets Strike 3 - He's Out!

The Good: Thomas Hayden Church/Flint Marko, James Franco/Harry Osborn
The Bad: The Sandman, Most of the other characters, acting and plot, Special effects
The Basics: Outside a few moments where James Franco and Thomas Hayden Church are given the screen and enough script to work with, Spider-Man 3 is a dud.

Before I give my bottomline on Spider-man 3, let me tell you how much I was looking forward to it. I didn't get into the whole cinematic Spider-man phenomenon the last few years as the film franchise began. I relented the last day Spider-man (reviewed here!) was at my local theater, just to see what all the fuss was about. Then, nothing. When buzz about Spider-Man 3 began, I saw an image of Thomas Hayden Church and I said to myself, "he looks just like the Sandman!" See, the weird thing is, I don't remember ever seeing an episode of anything with Sandman in it, but I saw the striped shirt and I knew who he was supposed to me. Time passed. It leaked that Venom was going to be in the film, my interest was piqued. Topher Grace was announced as Eddie Brock, Jr. (who transforms into Venom) and my thought was "That's brilliant casting!" Brock has to have the same gravitas as Peter Parker, they are foil characters and Topher Grace struck me as an ideal foil to the bland, wholesome Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. So, I began to get excited. I saw the first trailer and I was excited up until the moment I saw the first images of the Sandman and my heart fell. Nevertheless, I knew I was going to be one of the geeks out for the midnight showing, so I decided to let my love of actor Alfred Molina take over and I recently watched Spider-man 2 (reviewed here!). Having just now returned from the midnight showing of Spider-man 3, I'm prepared to render my bottomline verdict right here at the top: if you haven't purchased your tickets yet, don't bother.

This is, at best, matinee material. Had I known it would be as bad as it was, I would have waited until it came to my local library on DVD and watched it for free. Seriously. And I was generally looking forward to this installment! Come with me, I'll show you where it all goes wrong.

Following quite immediately on the heels of its predecessor, Peter Parker is very much in love with Mary Jane Watson and after a visit with her to her Broadway opening and a night in the park, Peter tracks some alien goo home. Because it's good, sedate goo, it waits for Peter to be attacked by Harry Osborn, who knows he is Spider-man. Incapacitating his former best friend, Peter wounds Harry and Osborn loses his memory. While Harry recovers, Peter neglects Mary Jane Watson some and finds himself in a competition at his job with a new photographer named Eddie Brock. When Spider-man is attacked while getting the key to the city - for saving the police commissioner's daughter from a random crane - by a sentient pile of sand, Peter becomes lost to his inner demons.

Returning home, Peter falls victim to a very real demon, the patient black goo, which causes him to become more aggressive by picking a fight with the Sandman, who he has learned is Flint Marko, the thief who killed his uncle. Defeating the Sandman with a train and water, the transformed Spider-man/Peter Parker begins to become more aggressive, picking fights with Eddie Brock, pushing away Mary Jane, strutting pointlessly around New York City, and ultimately engaging in a big dance number with Gwen Stacy (I wish I were joking, people). Following this incident, which culminates in even more violence, Parker rejects the black goo, Brock gets slimed by it and everything comes together in a big, ridiculous hostage situation/battle that is as silly and frenetic as it is predictable.

Let's start with what is done well, because there is so little here. First, Thomas Hayden Church does well as Flint Marko. I'm making a point to delineate here. Flint Marko, sympathetic cat burglar who is after a whole lot of cash for his ailing daughter is lightyears ahead of most villains in this type of movie. Marko has a purpose and he generally goes after that purpose. Thomas Hayden Church is remarkably well cast and he has good gravitas in the role. Indeed, when he delivers his classic line "I'm not a bad man, I've just had bad luck," it could have come out sounding canned, dull and cliche, but he sells it. While Church is Marko, the character works. That means in the beginning and the end. When Church is playing the Sandman . . . we'll get to that in a moment.

The other bright spot is James Franco as Harry Osborn. Franco is an acting heavy and here he comes into his own like I've known he eventually would. Franco held the screen with Robert De Niro in City By The Sea and here he shows the same level of acting ability in playing the tortured and tormenting Osborn. When he's angry, we believe him, when he's calculating, we buy it. When he's hurt, he makes us feel like he is diminished. He is the one to watch this film.

I wish I could say the same for Topher Grace. Grace was well cast to be a foil to Tobey Maguire. The problem is Eddie Brock is so poorly written that Grace has virtually nothing to work with. Brock is an accessory to the Parker storyline and he is added in at such judicious intervals that the viewer sits and wonders why they bothered. If they were going to plague us with a Spider-man 4, he ought to have been saved for that. As it is, Brock appears in only one scene without Parker and Venom comes into the film so ridiculously late as to belay sensibility.

The other draw is Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy. I don't begrudge her from taking airtime from Kirsten Dunst, but the part is a pretty weak one. Despite the fact that Gwen Stacy has one of the few genuine moments of character in the entire movie - when she realizes that the possessed Peter Parker is using her in the big dance number solely to hurt Mary Jane, Stacy apologizes to her - most of the time Howard's role is to play Gwen Stacy as a damsel in distress and a toy to be tossed between Brock and Parker and then away.

To finish off the subject of the acting, both Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst continue to underwhelm as Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. Maguire is bland and dull and when he is supposedly having his character conflicts, he plays Parker as bland, with a strut. There's no energy, there's no aggression, there's no hurt or determination. He's just dull. Similarly, Dunst failed to impress me in a single scene she was in. As Mary Jane Watson, she does not appear stung when hit, seduced when kissing, even angry when spited. Worst of all when Watson, damsel in distress that she is, is literally hanging for her life, Dunst does not play her with any realistic amount of fear.

But, of course, what does it matter? She's a woman after all. Women in Spider-Man 3 are either helpless damsels in distress (Watson and Stacy), objects to be leered at (the many women of Parker's strutting sequence) or crones who pop up with wisdom after everything has already been made clear (Aunt May). And the less said about the women in the background of crowd scenes the better. When Spider-man is announced as he comes to get the key to the city, some of the supernumeraries in the background are hamming it up something fierce with their "I see the Rapture" performances.

The only thing worse than the bulk of the acting and the utter lack of genuine character (outside Flint Marko and Harry Osborn) are the special effects. Special effects ought to be . . . wait for it . . . special. They can enhance great acting, they can make the impossible real and they can create realities that simply would be otherwise difficult or expensive to make. But most of all, the key to visual effects is something simple:

You have to be able to see it.

Any truly great special effect stands up because it can be seen. The best effects integrate with reality and meld with actual live human footage seamlessly. The result is the creation of a new reality on screen that makes the impossible real and the best effects make that clear. In The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Gollum becomes believable because he is lit perfectly, he moves like a human and because the audience can see him and evaluate him as a part of the reality on the screen.

The first battle of the movie, wherein Harry Osborn as a New Goblin gets into a big, aerial fight with Peter Parker, the special effects are anything but special. Everything happens with such dizzying speed that nothing is comprehensible. Nothing in the scene is real because it happens on a giant screen at a speed that is so fast that nothing sinks in. To wit, Harry whips out something green and starts beating Peter with it. Is it a lightsaber? Is it a baton? It is a letter opener? It is an inanimate carbon rod? Who knows? It's not shown clearly until far, far later in the movie. In order for special effects to work, they have to be real and the speed here cheats reality in such a way that the scene becomes a big, blurry mess.

Moreover, the use of CG characters for Peter/Spider-man, Harry/Goblin and later Venom and the Sandman are almost all universally sloppy. They look animated most of the time and it's unfortunate because robbing the scenes of their reality pulls the viewer out of the experience in a very horrible way.

Which brings me to the Sandman. The Sandman is presented essentially two different ways. At times, he is in the very human form of Flint Marko. Those scenes are great because it's mostly Thomas Hayden Church in a striped shirt. Sometimes, the Sandman is just a big hunk of . . . you guessed it, sand. The formation of the Sandman wherein the sand first tries desperately to coalesce into the man works well, especially considering much of it is done without the ability to emote through the eyes. That works.

What did not work was virtually every other scene where the Sandman appeared as sand. Leaping out of a full truck of sand, appearing as an apparent mountain of sand and even the final disappearance of the Sandman featuring a wind that only blows sand (not anyone nearby's hair . . .). The whole Sandman portion of the film suffers from the "Hellboy Villain Problem." In the cinematic version of Hellboy the movie suffers because the villain simply continues to get bigger and bigger (physically). Flint Marko works, initial Sandman works, Big Fist Sandman is an embarrassment and by the time we get to Skyscraper-sized Sandman (seen in many of the trailers!), the effect is so far out of reality that the movie is long dead. The effects buried it.

Of course, the poor effects might have been the final nail in the coffin of a movie that lopped off a leg with a lack of character, took the other leg off with bland acting, and tied both hands behind the back of the film with a crummy script. Spider-Man 3 was bound and gagged by extended self-referential bits. I like the Marvel movie's "Where's Stan Lee?" bits. They can make even the worst Marvel outings have two seconds of pleasure. In Spider-man 3, that moment is longer. So, too, is the "cameo" by Bruce Campbell. Don't get me wrong; I like Bruce Campbell, but his extended appearance in this movie as the maitre d' is just an homage to Campbell and it pulls the viewer out of the narrative. I will not even write about the supposed comic relief involving J. Jonah Jameson. This sort of self-congratulatory, acknowledging the film series as a film series just stuffs a big, sweaty sock in the mouth of our already wounded movie.

But what shot this poor, dumb movie in the skull between the eyes? The big dance number. You've no idea how much I wish I were making up the idea that after strutting around a la Saturday Night Fever, Peter Parker shames Mary Jane Watson by dancing manically. And as I watched this scene, I became more and more sick to my stomach. I realized why with surprising speed; the scene was familiar to me. I had seen this type of ridiculous, exaggerated dancing before. Where? The Mask. You know, the Jim Carrey movie? Peter Parker with black goo becomes Jim Carrey in a zoot suit.

The film does not come back from that. It doesn't matter how arguably cool looking Venom is when he finally emerges. It doesn't matter how debilitatingly predictable the movie becomes in relation to Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, the movie is dead the moment Tobey Maguire is seen at the piano. It's dead. Period.

My final post mortum is this: the writers of this movie insulted me time and time again and one of the most blatant insults was the idea that no one working on this film seems to know what short term memory is. When Peter and Harry engage in their time-lapse opening battle, Harry - the viewer is told - loses his short term memory. This includes him not knowing Peter Parker is Spider-man and how his father died, an event that occurred two years prior. Two years ago puts the damage in long term memory. Short term memory is like a flash drive, maybe fifteen minutes worth of information before it is archived into long term memory. Damage to short term memory is debilitating for forming new memories, as portrayed in the fabulous film Memento. My point here is that this is information that is widely known, a mistake like this up front is just insulting. It was bad enough my senses were assaulted, I didn't need my intelligence insulted as well.

If you feel like you must see Spider-man 3, heed my advice (well, my strongest recommendation would be "don't, until you can do it for free!") and wait for a matinee or for it to come to the dollar theater on its way out of town. Between trying to cram too much in, underdeveloping what is there, suffering through performances by the same bland actors and special effects that are more cartoon-like than reality, Spider-Man 3 is a bust.

For other movies based upon the Marvel comic books, please check out my reviews of:
Captain America: The First Avenger
X-Men: First Class
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Blade: Trinity


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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