From the Archive — Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man-3

I thought about dusting this review off a couple months back, during a weekend when a certain feature starring Tom Hardy became an unlikely smash hit. But then I realized the word “Venom” doesn’t appear anywhere in the few hundred words. That was perhaps a kindness to Topher Grace, or maybe just a tacit acknowledgment that director Sam Raimi didn’t really want the bulky marauder in his movie, a problem he recently noted was essentially insurmountable. So, there was really no point using this review to accompany the release of Venom. It was no real hardship. We now live in a universe that delivers a new Spider-Man movie approximately every six months, so I knew there’s be another opportunity. This review was originally written for and posted in my former online home.

For two films, Sam Raimi was a super-hero.

The director who inaugurated the Spider-man film franchise came to it equally accomplished in high art (A Simple Plan) and low genius (Evil Dead 2). Raimi achieved something wonderful that resided squarely in between those two extremes in adapting the amazing fantasy of milquetoast Peter Parker transformed into a web-slinging wisecracker who saves New York City from marauding goblins and metal-armed megalomaniacs. Bustling with energy, color and heart, Raimi’s first two films came closer than any other film to capturing the zippy appeal of four-color adventures of the utterly improbable. It helps that Spider-man is the epitome of the wish-fulfillment that gives super-heroes their resonant subtextual appeal: the bullied weakling who’s secretly a strong and dexterous daredevil, saving the prettiest girl in school. With that rich core, Raimi made a first film of uncommon urgency and a follow-up that maintained the drive while stripped away the shortcomings of its predecessor.

The third time is charmless. It may seem that Raimi has incorporated too many elements with villains old and not-as-old added to the mix (although, that “not-as-old” villain has still been around for about twenty years, a realization that had me reeling a tad) while still making room to have movieland’s Harry Osborn follow in the purple footprints of his printed predecessor. With classic supporting characters Gwen Stacy and her police officer father also debuting, the threat is clearly there for pure overload, but that’s not where the endeavor stumbles. It’s not overly busy, it’s just flat. It’s hard to think of another film with so much plot and yet feels like there’s very little actually going on.

The story itself is full of plot holes and strains credibility with its heavy reliance on coincidence. The attempts to explore Peter Parker’s darker instincts — fueled by municipal adoration and ego, and exacerbated by a sentient alien tar that contributes to a costume change — are marred by poorly crafted comedic digressions and muddled purpose. Raimi’s playing with ideas, but he has no real point to make with this side trip. The danger of the parasitic substance never comes across. Like many of the details, it’s just there. There’s nothing meaningful or memorable; it’s just filling space and killing time.

As opposed to the first two installments, Spider-man 3 suffers from a pronounced lack of humanity. The earlier films had ample FX house eye candy, but they also had the splendid schism of Peter’s joyous freedom and burdensome guilt in his super-hero role. His fearful longing for Mary Jane was as critical as the expertly crafted action sequences. Raimi still knows how to construct airborne battles with ingenuity and audaciousness, but his sure touch for the people populating the adventure is plainly gone. In its place is trumped-up conflict, hackneyed motivation and platitudes masquerading as wisdom (poor Rosemary Harris has to suffer through playing Aunt May as nothing more than a clucking dispenser of arduous advice).

This is hardly the first film franchise to fall apart when it gets to its third outing, but I had been a true believer in Sam Raimi’s eternal ability to shepherd the wall-crawler’s onscreen adventures, which makes it all the harder to see him spin a spectacular failure.

Playing Catch-Up — Diary of a Country Priest; Pacific Rim: Uprising; The Rider

diary

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951). A feat of cinematic austerity, this French drama follows a youthful man of the cloth (Claude Laydu) as he struggles presiding over a rural parish populated by congregants who dismiss him or even treat him with outright hostility. There are no jolts to the film and precious little that can be termed action, even under the most generous dramaturgical interpretation of the word. It is awash in mood and muted emotion, though, and the film insinuates itself with its existential ache. Diary of a Country Priest is constructed with a purposeful distance that prevents it from being fully engaging, but it’s a fascinating artifact of a very different time in global cinema, when visual authors were routinely defining the parameters of the form.

 

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Pacific Rim: Uprising (Steven S. DeKnight, 2018). A retain a significant affection for Guillermo del Toro’s original toy box upending that yielded combative entanglements of giant robots and roaring monsters. Even when I was most in thrall to its bombastic charms, I never really thought that what the universe needed was more Pacific Rim. It’s a stroke of luck to ensnare crackling lighting in glass one time. Trying to set up a bottling line is a fool’s business plan, which Pacific Rim: Uprising soundly proves. The plot particulars are negligible and largely treated as such by first-time director Steven  S. DeKnight, who also worked on the script. John Boyega stars as a reluctant hero who steps into the fray, mentoring a robotics prodigy teenager (Cailee Spaeny). Any human interaction or character development is mere Styrofoam peanuts around the supposed prize of more rock-em-sock-em action sequences. DeKnight lacks del Toro’s combination of effusive spirit and grand visual invention, making the resulting film nothing more than joyless clamor.

 

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The Rider (Chloé Zhao, 2018). Drawn from the biographies of the actors she cast in it, writer-director’s Chloé Zhao’s depiction of life on the fraying social landscape of the American West has a resonant power. At the center is Brady Jandreau (Brady Blackburn), a rodeo rider recovering from a brutal head injury. He’s warned that returning to his former life could exacerbate the damage to his brain, but Brady doesn’t have a great fallback plan. His whole life — his whole identity — is built around a connection to horses. Concentrating on small encounters, Zhao renders the story with sensitivity and a laudable lack of pathos. The film doesn’t press for pity, nor invite judgment. With lovely images and intimate attention to the way emotional devastation can leave deeper scars than physical wounds, Zhao crafts a work of moving truthfulness. The Rider is exquisite.

Now Playing — Burning

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Burning begins as a young man name Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) makes his way through a busy Seoul street. Outside of one of the storefronts, two women are hyping the business to the crowd, and one of them, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), spares Jong-su some flirty glances as she pulls numbers for raffle prizes. Jong-su doesn’t recognize her, but Haemi reveals they were classmates and neighbors when much younger. The two go to dinner and the tentative overtures of romance continue, culminating in a gentle sexual encounter shortly before she departs on a trip to Africa. While she’s gone, Jong-su regularly goes to Haemi’s apartment to feed a pet cat he never sees.

The film is firmly, comfortably in the realm of the sedate and mundane — exquisite art house cinema land — finding restrained drama in the specifics of the character’s personalities, his awkwardness and her cheery invention.A greater disruption arrives when Haemi returns from her vacation. Jongsu expects a continuation of their budding relationship where it was left, but she is closely trailed by a new friend named Ben (Steve Yuen, billed here as Sang-yeop Yuen, the name he was given when he was born in Korea). He has an ease and confidence that is the exact opposite of Jongsu’s personality, and it quickly becomes clear that he has laid claim to Haemi’s affections.

Upon this simple narrative frame director Lee Chang-dong constructs a veritable palace of insight and profundity. There is not a wasted moment or detail across the film. (Based on a story by Haruki Murakami, the screenplay is co-credited to Lee and Oh Jung-mi.) Everything contributes, either to the character development, the understanding of place, the explication of class divisions, or, as Ben’s secrets darken, the mounting sense of danger. Lee renders it all with skill and care, showing special mastery with the delicate emotions of the piece. In that task, Lee has remarkable collaborators in his actors. Yoo rouses instinctual sympathy though the dictates of the character require a considered obliqueness, Yuen hints at the ways privilege can corrode the soul, and Jun is nothing less than vivid in portraying a young woman whose inquisitive positivity just might make a bit of a fabulist.

Many of the images Lee puts on screen are staggering in their beauty, especially an extended sequence that takes place at a remote house in an atmosphere of prolonged gloaming. The film is lovely, but spare. There are sequences of jarring impact, but Lee has no apparent taste for ostentation. Burning is lean. It’s also wise and deeply felt. It represents one of the rare and wondrous instances when a film does everything right.

 

Playing Catch-Up — Z for Zachariah; These Wilder Years; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015). Based on a Robert C. O’Brien science fiction novel published in the nineteen-seventies, Z for Zachariah takes a somber approach to post-apocalyptic storytelling. Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) is living alone on a farm, maintaining the land well enough to eke out an existence. Her solitude is disrupted by the arrival of John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an engineering suffering from a mild case of the radiation poisoning that wiped out the rest of the populace. Ann nurses him back to health and they forge a caring partnership that’s about to take a turn into romance when a third figure, a man named Caleb (Chris Pine), strolls into their lives. Once the triangle is formed, the film becomes overly familiar, proffering a gentler version of expected conflicts of jealousy and suspicion. Before that, its an effective dual character study, as director Craig Zobel affords the performers the space to deeply explore the roles, showing their tentative shifts. Robbie is especially good, finding the dignity in her religiously devoted, wisely cautious character.

 

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These Wilder Years (Roy Rowland, 1956). This drama casts James Cagney as Steve Bradford, a wealthy industrialist who seeks out the son he gave up for adoption twenty years earlier. More accurately, he shunned any responsibility for the boy, forcing the young mother to seek refuge in a orphanage run by Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck). Steve is accustomed to getting whatever he wants, and Ann is firm in her refusal to give up the information he’s after. He charms, he cajoles, he bullies. Still, she won’t budge. Cagney is sharp and engaging in the role, and there’s a nice, typically sly turn by Walter Pidgeon as a lawyer Steve recruits to play a few more angles for him. Roy Rowland’s direction is workmanlike, which actually works for the story. In the best way, the movie feels like a lean stage play that’s been brought to the screen faithfully. If it lacks in cinematic inspiration, These Wilder Years is solid in its fundamental storytelling.

 

scruggs kazan

The Ballad of Buster Scrugss (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2018). The Coen brothers have corrected the record about the widely reported belief that their latest is a repurposed television series, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs still suffers from the common ailment of any film with an anthology format. The quality levels of the individual segments vary widely, and the constant comparison sinks the subpar further in estimation. They disrupt the specialness, setting the whole endeavor askew. When the film is at its best — “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” and “Meal Ticket,” which is maybe as bleak as anything the Coens have ever dreamed up — it is truly grand. The Coens basically acknowledge the film is comprised of story ideas they couldn’t stretch to feature length, and the thinness of the ideas is the main culprit when it falters (“Near Algonodes,” and “All Gold Canyon,” which at least boasts a charming performance by Tom Waits, fulfilling his casting destiny by playing a grizzled prospector). Visually resplendent and peppered with sterling dialogue (much of the best of it gifted to Tim Blake Nelson as the title character), the film on balance succeeds more than it fails, even as it clearly slots into the Coen filmography category reserved for the enjoyable but less consequential.

Now Playing — Creed II

creed ii

There were many reasons to celebrate Creed, led by Michael B. Jordan’s exemplary performance as second generation professional boxer Adonis Johnson, who would eventually overcome emotional-fueled reluctance claim the name of his departed father. The other aspect of the film that most impressed me was the strong sense of how elegies are strengthened when they look to the future, emphasizing continuation of the stories that interlace. Creed gave ample time to another chapter of Sylvester Stallone’s decade-spanning turn as Rocky Balboa, but the stallion was clearly being put out to pasture. In his script and direction, Ryan Coogler stressed continuance over nostalgia, reinvention over repetition. It’s open to debate whether there were more stories worth telling about Adonis, but the Rocky saga felt properly completed. That Stallone and others felt there was more to say about the character he created over forty years ago is an anchor on Creed II.

The sequel didn’t seem inevitable, and yet here it is. As the film opens, Adonis claims the heavyweight title in a fight that flicks by with surprising speed and lack of drama. Narratively, it’s mere prelude to the main plot, which brings forth a notable challenger. Viktor Drago (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) has been building a quiet reputation as a brutal boxer in his Russian homeland, under the tutelage of his father, Ivan (Dolph Lundgren). It was Ivan who killed Adonis’s father, Apollo Creed, in the ring, only to later face defeat at the gloves of Rocky, an outcome that led to personal disgrace, as depicted in Rocky IV. As soon as Adonis has a belt declaring him the champ, Viktor comes a-challenging. It’s a bad idea for Adonis to accept the fight, but history and pride prevail.

It’s not exactly unfinished business from the first film addressed by Creed II, but there’s at least consistency to its considerations of the burden of legacy, the craving for acceptance, the need to establish a worthwhile sense of self in doggedly tough world. Jordan remains fantastic in the role, committing to its complexities when mere charisma would do. And his rapport with Tessa Thompson, playing Adonis’s love, Bianca, has only strengthened. Some of the movie’s best moments come in the little scenes of the two of them tentatively, carefully shaping their future together. The screenplay’s shaky motivations and handy conveniences are given just enough repair by the authenticity of the acting.

Just as Creed brought delayed dignity to Rocky’s greatest opponent, Creed II has the makings of the same rescue for the Drago clan. Although it’s given only a modest amount of screen time, there’s a emotional power — even a poignancy — to the harshness of Ivan’s regret and the combative mentoring he provides his son, partially to the goal of providing the younger man with a better life. Director Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t have the same offhand visual ingenuity and perfectly calibrated pacing as Coogler, but he does demonstrate a keen ability to burrow into the deeper emotion of a scene. That generates a lasting effect for some of film’s smallest details.

The film’s footwork mainly falters in the persistence of Rocky’s presence. Stallone again plays him with with endearing melancholy of diminishing fortitude, but there’s nothing new to add. After ceding the screenplay duties to others on Creed, Stallone once again takes a writing credit (shared with Juel Taylor, while Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker provided the story). If Stallone felt the need to provide his own parting words for the character that changed his life (and there are indications he considers this film to be Rocky’s final round), he has rendered too long and belabored of a goodbye. There little here that wasn’t covered as well or better in Creed, so redundancy sets in. The new movie is solid when it’s actually Creed II. It bogs down in its lingering obligations to be Rocky VIII. There can only be one champ at a time.

From the Archive — Tiny Furniture

tiny furniture

A fantastic article published this week addressed the dilemma that is Lena Dunham. A heralded new voice when her HBO show Girls premiered, Dunham has become one of those creators whose public persona inevitably — and, for many, damagingly — infiltrates the fictions they spin. Much as I try to separate artist and art, I’m not immune to the encroachment of external knowledge. I found Girls to be daring and insightful in its first season, but gradually looking past the external baggage wore me out. Correctly or not, I felt like I kept spotting Dunham’s defensiveness and festering animosities cropping up in the narrative and character choices. I do have some evidence, however, that my misgivings about Dunham’s work predated her more regrettable moments in the limelight. Before Girls (but after announcement of the partnership with Judd Apatow that led to the series), I reviewed Dunham’s debut feature, Tiny Furniture, for Spectrum Culture. Although loads of my writing is still housed there, I can’t find that particular piece. It may have gotten lost in the shuffle when the site changed platforms a few years back. Whatever the reason for its absence, I’ll take that as justification to reclaim it and share it in my own humble digital space.

The time immediately following college holds unique challenges. After the highly regimented structure of an existence spent toiling at academic pursuits falls away, the endless possibilities that remain stare back like a malevolent abyss. Forecasting from childhood, that openness sounds great — astronaut, cowboy, and fireman seem equally viable vocational pursuits, even pursued simultaneously — but in the harsh light of adulthood it’s tougher to choose a grown-up professional pathway. Hell, it’s hard to believe that being a grown-up has happened, or ever will. This purgatory of maturity is where Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture resides.

Dunham plays Aura, a young woman with a crisp new undergraduate degree in film theory. She returns from college in Ohio to move back in with her family in New York City. Her mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), is an accomplished artist, and her younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), is enough of a prodigy that the possibility of Aura matching her accomplishments is dryly acknowledged as unlikely. In this environment, Aura’s sense of uncorrectable drift is only heightened.

As Aura tries to find her footing, she reconnects with her old friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a pointedly disaffected, proudly unmotivated young woman who can barely let a moment pass without dropping a hipper-than-thou reference to Picnic at Hanging Rock or Marianne Faithfull. Charlotte is Aura’s funhouse mirror reflection, just as detached from a socially acceptable personal trajectory, but embracing her meandering path with confidence and self-satisfaction. Aura is checked out because she doesn’t know how to meet the world. Charlotte, on the other hand, has gone that route because she’s already surveyed the world and decided it deserves little more than snotty contempt.

Kirke is terrific in the part, bringing a jagged authority to her scenes. Her performance is one of the movie’s stronger elements, but it also serves to illuminate one of its problems. In addition to casting herself as Aura, Dunham recruited her actual mother and sister to inhabit the corresponding roles on screen. They’re all fine, exhibiting a pleasantly unaccomplished quality suited to the themes and feel of the film. But there’s also a nagging sense that some added depth to the main performances would be beneficial. The procession of flat line deliveries can make it feel more like an early morning table read with especially tired actors instead of a finished movie. When Dunham is sharing a scene with Kirke, or Merritt Wever as her friend from college who’s planning to become her roommate in the big city, the distance between her acting and the performance she could be giving comes into sharp focus.

There’s a similar first draft quality to Dunham’s writing and directing too, although that proves far more winning. Judd Apatow famously courted Dunham to become part of his ramshackle troupe of comic voices after seeing Tiny Furniture, and it’s not hard to figure out what appealed to him. The film has the same sort of soft structure as Apatow’s directorial efforts, a preference for letting the uncomfortable messiness of the brutally real have priority over the construction of a clean, sharp narrative. Aura endures a multitude of humiliations, but they’re not dispensed as mounting farce. They just happen, and, in the moment anyway, getting chewed out for tardiness at a demeaning job doesn’t feel that much worse than having a long flirtation culminate with a quickie in the most demeaning place imaginable. Everything’s bad, and if that’s so, why be hung up on determining which things are worse?

The whole movie is a defeated shrug. Relationships shift like the wind, culture has dissipated so thoroughly that fame can be achieved without any accompanying material success, and epiphanies are as fanciful as the vague promise of living happily ever after. It’s entirely possible that the best anyone can hope for is a few moments of simple satisfaction here and there: a chance to share stories or be reminded that mistakes lose their impact as they fade from memory. Lena Dunham’s film doesn’t romanticize or draw anguish from these observations. Instead it discovers a sort of weary grace, a sense that maybe enduring is its own achievement.

Now Playing — Widows

widows

Arriving five years after director Steve McQueen took 12 Years a Slave to the top prize at the Academy Awards, Widows is a curious follow-up. It’s not simply that it doesn’t have the heft (in its basics, anyway) as the soul-wrenching slave drama that stands as the British filmmaker’s great success. McQueen’s fourth feature overall is a stark outlier. His artistic voice has been one of grim assessments of humankind, cataloging unsparingly the agony of struggling for something better in the face of rigid social impediments. That preoccupation is present in Widows, too, but it’s backgrounded in favor of more conventional crime drama sparkle and pow.

Based on a two-season U.K. television series of the same name, Widows follows the efforts of a small group of women who are desperate enough to briefly turn to illegal activity after their husbands are killed on another job. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) has the plans her husband (Liam Neeson) drew up for a heist that would yield millions, money she needs to pay off local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). She enlists fellow grieving wives Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and they proceed to cobble together the resources needed to complete the robbery. In a nice change from the usual streamlined process of getting the crew together and assembling the pieces, Widows makes it look like challenging, tedious work. There’s no glamour to it. Hands start dirty.

The more McQueen focuses on the simple strain of mounting this unfamiliar criminal endeavor, the stronger the film. But there’s so much more to it. Even as he’s shaking down Veronica for money he’s owed, Jamal is running for an alderman position in Chicago. His opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of Tom Mulligan, who’s vacating the political position up for grabs. The screenplay — co-credited to McQueen and Gillian Flynn — slops around in the mud of Chicago politics, while also affording a sideways glance at the gun violence and police brutality that has bedeviled the city. There is consideration of generational divides and the brutal rigidity of class structures. And all of that is largely separate from the teetering tower of feminist commentary that is an inescapable topic given the basic premise. It’s a lot, probably too much. McQueen can’t quite finesse it all into something consistently cogent. The film is overlong, yet aches for more time to explore every concept shuffled up.

Despite the flaws, there’s an authority to McQueen’s filmmaking that carries Widows. It’s engaging even as it skims across the surface of its insights. And he does fine work with actors, providing the room for the sort of nuance that can deepen the material. Debicki is particularly strong, in part because her undervalued moll takes the longest emotional journey. Widows might not cohere, but there are riches in its messiness.