Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Schumachering of Sam Raimi continues: "Spider-Man 3"

A little harsh, perhaps. But sadly, the franchise is going more this direction than the way of such excellent fare as "Batman Begins."

I went to the third installment of the webslinger chronicles with mixed emotions. Even before the mediocre reviews, I was having a hard time believing "3" could live up to the hype and build on a solid first two movies. Tobey and Kirsten getting older, that guy from "Freaks and Geeks" still hanging around and more villains than I can count ... it sounded like a lot of stuff to manage, and I wasn't sure our man Sam could pull it off.

Our story opens with Spidey (Maguire) as the toast of New York. Everyone loves the guy, including his best girl, Mary Jane Watson (Dunst). Things couldn't be better for Peter Parker, and he's even going to ask MJ to marry him! Yay! Oh, wait ... I'm sick of this storyline. Never mind.

Meanwhile, nefarious things are afoot. A guy named Flint Marko has broken out of jail, and it turns out he was the guy who killed Uncle Ben and stole his rice ... er, car. Before the cops can get him, though, Marko falls into some scientific thingamajig and becomes a creature made of sand. I hate it when that happens.

Meanwhile -- yes, another meanwhile -- a meteor has crashed to the earth, bringing with it some strange alien goo. Whose moped should the goo attach itself to but that of one Peter Parker. What a coincidence.

As all this is happening -- that's another way of saying "meanwhile" -- Mary Jane is having a hard time on Broadway, which is making things hard between her and Peter. So is his flirtation with Gwen Stacy, the comely student in his science class who unfortunately has some wide calves. Oh, and I forgot to mention that their pal Harry Osborn (James Franco) is still around, first trying to kill Spider-Man -- he thinks the webhead killed his dad, the Green Goblin, remember -- then being his best bud after some short-term amnesia.

Still with me? Yeah, it's a lot to keep track of. And that's a problem. Not a big one, but a problem all the same, and it had me thinking of the last two Batman movies -- with all the villains, sidekicks and general chaos -- more than once.

There are some things to like, of course. The effects are solid, maybe the best ever. Some great action, too, from start to finish. I lost count, but there are enough fun-filled scenes to keep things from dragging too much. I also actually thought Franco was the best he's been in the series, given the chance to play multiple personalities and pulling them off reasonably well. He's also prominent in a twist that works well enough.

As for other players, Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman is solid, and Topher Grace is fun as Eddie Brock, the photographer who usurps poor Peter at the Daily Bugle. The always entertaining J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson and the legendary Bruce Campbell as the maitre'd at a French restaurant make the most of their short screen time.

Now, the not-so-good stuff.

Let's start with all the crap crammed into this movie. Really, it was just too much, and Raimi and Co. might have wanted to save one of the villains for another movie, and maybe cut the romance stuff a bit. I know, I know ... doing that might have made it seem unrealistic. But hey, this is based on a comic book, and like I said, I'm tired of this business. But again, there's just too much. Check out the various plot summaries if you don't believe me. (The last one kills me -- look at how long it is! -- but don't read if you don't want to see any spoilers.)

In addition, the Sandman is too sympathetic. Nice to give him some depth, but it makes it hard to root against him when Spidey wants him dead. Lastly, there's a decent chunk of the movie devoted to how the alien goo brings out the nasty side of Peter Parker's personality, and it largely fails. I mean, even if played for laughs, it's hard to watch Peter playing the cool dude. A badass as Spidey, sure. A punk as Peter? Um, no. Doesn't help that Maguire looks more miniature than ever while prancing around in street clothes.

So yeah, it all might have been just too much for me, and a little more quality than quantity could have made this as strong an entry as the first two. Then again, even a lacking "Spider-Man" movie is better than most of the superhero junk out there. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Fantastic Four.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Maybe not a total wuss, but still British: "Get Carter"

You know how some people will describe a movie by saying your patience will be rewarded? And how that usually sounds like -- and is -- a bunch of crap? I'm not saying "Get Carter" backs that claim up for once, but it comes pretty close.

I don't know about you, but I had never heard of this movie until the mostly-panned remake starring Sly Stallone came out a few years back. (Sample line from our favorite master thespian: "My name is Jack Carter, and you don't want to know me.") Turns out the original, made way back in 1971, is well-respected and notable for making the likable Mr. Michael Caine something of a hard case. I almost said "bad ass," but let's not get carried away.

Our story has Caine as some kind of mob guy -- an enforcer, perhaps -- in London who goes back to his hometown when his brother dies. Word is that the guy got drunk and offed himself, but our man Carter thinks different. So he starts asking questions, much to the chagrin of the local organized crime element, as well as his masters back in London town.

I could rattle off some of the other players here, but the only name of note is the fetching Britt Ekland, who engages in a naughty bit of phone play with our antihero. Otherwise, it's a bunch o' other Brits, with King Caine lording above them. And for those of you expecting the dignified butler from "Batman Begins," think again.

Of course, it takes a while to realize this. Curious pacing in "Get Carter." Maybe it's the English thing, but things definitely take some time to get going, so much that I considered cashing out within the first 30 minutes. But then we get that phone thing with Britt, and Carter starts making waves a little more vigorously in his little burg. Before long, things get downright nasty -- especially when Carter pieces everything together. At that point, neither men nor women escape his wrath.

In the end, it's actually a pretty decent story. Reminded me a bit of "Payback/Point Blank," with the whole singleminded pursuit of justice. It also helps that the very proper Caine pulls off the coldhearted thing rather well. Consider this line: "You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pi$$holes in the snow." Um, "pi$$holes in the snow?" Damn.

Yeah, I have to say I'm glad I stuck with this, if only to see Nigel Powers toss someone off a building, rip open his landlady's blouse and icily inject someone with poison. And you'd think he had gotten over skipping the Oscars to film "Jaws: The Revenge."

Monday, May 21, 2007

OK, so I missed the inside jokes: "The Hudsucker Proxy"

If I hadn't, maybe I wouldn't have thought this movie was merely OK.

Faithful readers know that I'm down with the Coen brothers. No need to recap their triumphs here, but suffice it to say "Raising Arizona" is one of my all-time faves, "Fargo" is pretty damn good, and "The Big Lebowski" has grown on me with each viewing (and I've seen it only a few times).

Even lesser-heralded fare such as "Miller's Crossing" and "Blood Simple" -- their debut -- are solid. The more recent stuff, such as "Intolerable Cruelty," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a little more uneven but still worthwhile viewing. In short, if I were the Coens, I'd put my track record up against anybody's. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Scorsese.

After all this time and all these movies, though, I had never seen "The Hudsucker Proxy." That oversight, my friends, finally has been rectified. (Heh, heh ... "rectified." What, Beavis and Butt-head aren't cool anymore?)

Our story has country-mouse-in-the-city Tim Robbins, hired in the mailroom of giant manufacturer Hudsucker Industries, drafted to be the company's president. Why, you ask? Because the last president -- and founder -- took a header from the top of a skyscraper, and the company's board wants to drive the stock price down they they can buy up all the shares. How better to do that than to bring an imbecile on board?

A game Paul Newman is the mastermind behind the scam, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is an ace newspaper reporter sniffing out the truth by going undercover at Hudsucker. Of course, she and our hero fall in love, but our gal Jennifer apparently forgot the clause in her contract that requires the boob shot. Yeah, she keeps her clothes on. I was as shocked as anybody.

Even worse, Leigh is kind of annoying. Strike that ... really annoying. I understand that she's doing the whole "His Girl Friday" thing; this takes place in the '50s, after all. Still, it was quite grating, and it got to the point where I grimaced every time she showed up.

Robbins was more tolerable, embracing the doofus-actually-onto-something role. While it took a while to get to this point, the build-up to his big idea -- "You know, for the kids" -- was all right in the end. Newman also was fun to watch, even if I could have done without the shirtless scene. Um, Paul, we're a long way from working the chain gang with the guy pushing Breath Assure.

Like the title of this post says, there apparently were a few Coen brothers inside jokes in "Hudsucker," from the company's name (taken from where H.I. McDunnough briefly worked in "Arizona") to John Goodman's cameo as a guy with the same name as his "Barton Fink" character. (One of the few other Coen films I haven't seen.) Now that I think about it, those probably wouldn't have changed my mind about this movie. It was entertaining enough, but in the bottom half of Coen films. Of course, if Glen from "Arizona" had been given a role, that would have changed everything. I'm crappin' you negative!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

More like intentional foul: "Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny"

No need to spend too much time on this, since it -- as our pal JB said early in "High Fidelity" -- sucks a$$.

Too bad, since I actually like Jack Black. Funny sidekick in "The Cable Guy," goofball supreme in the aforementioned "Fidelity," nutty astronaut in "Heat Vision and Jack," and, of course, wannabe teacher in "School of Rock." Hell, I even thought "Shallow Hal" wasn't bad, which definitely puts me in the minority. So yeah, I'm down with Jack, from lead roles to his "That's how I roll" turn in "Anchorman."

Alas, then he tried to do semi-serious in "King Kong." Now all bets are off.

The sad thing about "Tenacious D" is that it came, oh, seven years too late. If it had come out after two or three years of underground buzz, way back in 1999-2000, then it would have only helped Black's rep as a kooky guy who can actually sing and riff and all that. Heck, it may have given Kyle Gass -- the other part of this duo -- a little work, too.

Instead, this movie finally came out well after Black was a star. Doesn't work so well when he's supposed to be struggling along with his bud to make it big as a rock star, especially given the lame script and overall malaise. Yeah, I guess you can say I was disappointed. And that's even when I didn't expect much.

Our story has Black, fleeing home to make it big as a singer, stumbling across Gass, a street guitarist. Eventually they decide to join forces, and the key to their success shall be a magical pick that many successful hard rockers before them have used. Now if they can only steal it from a rock and roll museum ...

I'll admit there are a few funny numbers here, with the best maybe the dream sequence where our heroes are rocking at an open mike night. I guess the gig simulator was OK, too. But overall, I was left waiting for laughs, and no amount of Black's spastic behavior compensated for that.

Even worse, the apparent stunt casting failed on a monumental level. First, I didn't recognize Meat Loaf as young JB's dad. Second, Ronnie James Dio looked pretty damn old to be a metal rocker who inspires Black. Third, Dave Grohl as Satan was unrecognizable. Fourth, Ben Stiller is nothing special as a cameo these days. Fifth, Tim Robbins ... ditto. Too bad, too, since Robbins can be a Capital-A Actor. Too often in the last 10 years, though, he seems content to walk onto a set and ham it up for the kids. Ooooh, funny funny!

So yeah, this didn't do much for me. True, I expected little, summoning it from Netflix while My True Radiance was away. Still, Black should be good for more than this. I just read one dipsh!t comment that put this in the league of "This is Spinal Tap." Um, no. Not even close. Nowhere near 11.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

All these details, yet still no idea how "Catwoman" got released: "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"

I vaguely recall this independent -- and you'll see why it was independent -- film being in theaters last year. While the reviews were good, there was no "Fahrenheit 9/11"-level buzz that sent me rushing to the movie house. Too bad, since this is an entertaining little documentary, even if -- like Moore, Spurlock, et al -- there's a clear agenda at play.

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" aspires to be an ex-pose-say on the movie rating system and people who control it at the Motion Picture Association of America, led for eons by Jack Valenti. The filmmaker, Kirby Dick -- apparently his real name -- is sick and tired of the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the ratings board, so he sets out to unmask the people on the board and give voice to directors and actors who think the system is all a bunch of crap.

As with almost any group of smart people who are angry, the interviews are pretty good. Let's see ... Matt Stone of "South Park" fame, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Atom Egoyan, the "Requiem for a Dream" director, the "Boys Don't Cry" director, the "American Psycho" director. All in all, a fun crew. Strangely, no Michael Bay, James Cameron or Martin Scorsese.

Why? Maybe because the ratings board could care less about violence or even a certain degree of straight sex, but anything a little more steamy or -- gasp! -- gay is a big no-no, aka a sure NC-17 rating, the kiss of death at the box office. We see and hear all sorts of examples of violence vs. sex and straight sex vs. gay sex. This comes after some general talk about the nuances of sex scenes and where exactly the line between R and NC-17 lies.

Where "Rated" really starts to have fun, though, is when the director hires private detectives to identify the super-secret ratings board members. Here we are in the 21st century, and Dick's private dick -- who, ironically, is a woman, although she's lesbian so ... well, I don't know what that means -- uses such methods as watching people through binoculars, eavesdropping in restaurants and going through people's trash. I'm not kidding, and it's pretty funny.

At 90 minutes, the film moves along quickly, and Dick surprisingly accomplishes much of what he set out to do. Even better, get a load of this from IMDB: "The MPAA announced that starting in March of 2007, it will change their policy and allow filmmakers to cite other film's ratings as comparison. The MPAA will also provide information about the demographics of its board."

Compared with Spurlock and McDonald's, Greenwald and Fox News or Wal-Mart, and Moore and any of his subjects, "Rated" actually may force some changes. True, it's not exactly reversing the war in Iraq or solving the nation's obesity crisis. But if it leads to fewer sucking chest wounds and more female full-frontals in R-rated movies, I'm all for it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Westward slow!: "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"

In case you're wondering what a "Deadwood" movie would be without all the swearing ...

(Or "swearin'," I guess.)

I tried to watch this early '70s Western once before but kept falling asleep. Probably didn't help that I kept coming back to it late at night. As you'll soon see, there ain't much action in this film, and the late hours combined with the deliberate pacing was enough to put me under before the half-hour mark.

I remained intrigued, however, mainly for three reasons: (1) Warren Beatty as the lead, cutting a pretty cool figure in his Western garb. (2) Director Robert Altman, often worth the price of admission himself. (3) Music by Leonard Cohen, including the mournful opening track, which has been hard to get out of my head.

So it was that I watched "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" again recently, and even finishing it this time. (Yay, me!) And you know what? This isn't too bad. Definitely patience-trying in some parts and positively glacial in a couple of others. But overall it's certainly unique in its moodiness and lack of the usual bang-bang you expect from Westerns.

Our story has McCabe, a gamber/businessman, showing up in a mining town to start a whorehouse/tavern/what-have-you. Before long, a professional madam -- Mrs. Miller -- comes calling, and she and McCabe strike up a partnership and maybe even have feelings for each other. But look out! The mining town's success brings big business, and McCabe's reluctance to sell could spell doom for our intrepid hero.

All this plays out rather slowly, allowing us time to watch and appreciate Beatty (McCabe) and Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller) work with their roles. There are a few other familiar faces -- Clayton from "Benson" as a bar owner, Olive Oyl/Mrs. Jack Torrance as a mail-order bride-turned-whore, Keith Carradine as a young cowpoke. But really it's a character study of two messed-up people whose lives become intertwined in the hard country.

It's also a pretty good looking movie. Not the people, mind you. We definitely get a stark picture -- a la the later HBO series "Deadwood" -- or how life in the West wasn't all that clean. But the camera work ... well, it's pretty good. From McCabe arriving in town via a rope bridge to the overall capturing of winter in the West, there are all sorts of scenes that, to me, gave a good picture of what it must have been like to make a life way back when.

Even the ultimate Western scene -- the final shootout -- is broken down to what I bet was a more common situation. Really, why would you be so stupid to meet a guy at high noon on Main Street when you could just try to get the drop on him? Hey, I'm a gentleman and all, but when it comes to matters of life and death, courtesy and pride take a back seat to self-preservation. Come to think of it, there might not even be a back seat in that particular wagon.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A few guys with some self-esteem issues, to say the least

I finally managed to knock out a few movies over the last week or so, and let's get right into a round-up of some of the lesser lights.

As if I needed a lower opinion of the French: "The Nutty Professor"

Although I had seen the Eddie Murphy version of this tale of a dorky professor turned smooth operator, the original eluded me ... until now. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I had seen any of the old Jerry Lewis movies where he's a bumbling idiot. That's good and bad, I guess. Well, maybe just bad.

Our story, as it were, has Lewis as a bucktoothed, bespectacled college professor who drinks a formula and transforms into a suave egomaniac. The same comely coed who flustered him now is putty in his hands, as long as he can keep from reverting to his real persona. Oh, the hilarity!

Actually, Lewis as the ladies man is fun for a while. I can't remember if he was channeling Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra, but either way it's clear he's having fun. Alas, the rest of the movie -- Lewis' alter ego, the whole perfecting the formula stuff -- is pretty blah, making me think this would have been a much better short film. Then again, that might have meant less of Stella Stevens. Not as hot here as in "The Poseidon Adventure," but still not bad, not bad at all.

What really happened to that Jared guy: "Thinner"

This was just a case of timing. Bad, in retrospect.

While visiting family recently, I snagged a paperback copy of "Thinner" to kill time. Wouldn't you know it? As soon as I finish one of Stephen King's weaker novels, HBO shows one of the weaker film adaptions. It's like a perfect storm of crap.

After a lawyer runs over an old gypsy woman, her really old dad curses him, leading to results that Jenny Craig would kill for. That sets off a race against time: Can the lawyer find the gypsy man and lift the curse before he wastes away? More importantly, will the hot young gypsy woman raise her skirt again after teasing us in the first few minutes? Yowza.

It's all pretty stupid, notable only -- and this is a maybe -- for Joe Mantegna hamming it up as a mob guy. Otherwise, you're in for truly awful makeup and dialogue that doesn't depart much from King's book, which, as I said, isn't any great shakes. But if you've ever wondered what Mr. Kruger from "Seinfeld" looks like with a bunch of zits ...

You know, I think I'll walk: "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift"

If you thought fessing up to "Thinner" was bad ...

Not sure what I was thinking when I watched this. Oh, not because it's low-grade junk. Because I hadn't seen "The Fast and the Furious" or "2 Fast 2 Furious." I mean, I could have been lost, man.

As it turns out, the first two movies aren't required viewing, although there's a pathetic cameo at the end to make the connection. In this tale, a redneck with a leadfoot gets shipped off to Japan, where he falls in with kids who do a whole different kind of racing. That would be "drifting," which apparently involves a lot sliding back and forth instead of trying to corner curves. Kind of cool at first. Kind of old after five minutes.

While some of the racing stuff is nifty and Tokyo sure is bright and sparkly, this movie really distinguishes itself by answering two questions: (1) What happens when a French woman and an Argentine man have a kid? (She turns out to be really hot.) (2) Whatever happened to that kid from "Sling Blade?" (He's now playing a grown-up cracker, including the lead role here. And I don't like the way he talks, I reckon. Hmmmm.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Coming next ... "More Reservoir Dogs: Guys Named After Shapes": "Clerks II"

Flash back to when the trailer for this movie was out last year. I knew then it would bite, and even though the reviews were surprisingly kind -- pegging the film as merely mediocre -- I still abstained from seeing it on the big screen. I would have avoided it on the small one, too, but I kept hearing about this funny "Star Wars"-"Lord of the Rings" debate, and I remembered Jay doing his "Silence of the Lambs" dance from the trailer. So I had those two things going for me when watching this while my wife was out of town.

Sadly, those are pretty much the high points of the movie. Well, and Rosario Dawson dancing. And that's about it.

I can't say I'm disappointed because I didn't expect much, cringing at this idea of this movie more than the (actually funny) "Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back." Our story has the guys from "Clerks," thanks to a fire at the Quick Stop, working at a fictional fast-food restaurant called Mooby's. Dante, the uptight one, is about to quit and move to Florida with his fiancee, whose dad has a job for him. Randal, the irresponsible one, is ... well, irresponsible, content to simply go to his dead-end job and do little else. Meanwhile, Jay and Silent Bob hang out behind the restaurant, and a cast of zany supporting characters and cameos complete the scene.

Let's get one thing out the way: There's a reason the guys who play Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) haven't been in many other movies since "Clerks" came out way back in 1994. Take away the movies by Kevin Smith, director of "Clerks" and its offspring, and these guys have been in almost as many movies in the last 13 years as I have. Why? They can't act.

Oh, they mean well. They really do. But neither has any range at all, which doesn't help Smith's attempts to give "Clerks II" some depth. As a result, these characters are so one-note -- and in Dante's case, haven't aged well -- that it's much more painful to watch than in "Clerks." Back then, it was OK to be a bad actor and follow a simple script because the movie cost less than $30,000 to make. Now that Smith has some cash, we expect more. Or at least I do.

Dawson helps a little, even if there's no way I believe her character would go for Dante. And sure, there are some funny scenes. Randal's general torment of his innocent, young co-worker, Elias, is amusing, as are his riffs on racism and a certain orifice-to-orifice practice. The "Silence of the Lambs" bit is as good as promised, even if that's more Jay than I need to see. The "Star Wars"-"Lord of the Rings" scene? Eh, OK. Could have been better.

Some people -- namely Kool-Aid-drinking Kevin Smith fans -- might praise other parts, like the whole donkey show episode. But it didn't do much for me, and the more mature content -- the lovey-dovey, not the sex talk -- really fell flat. I also didn't go for the final scene, which tries to bring this whole 12-year odyssey through Smith's world full circle. Can we just go back to 1994, when Silent Bob didn't have any cash? Now that was a good movie. Almost as good as "Best of Both Worlds." (Hey, I like to expand my horizons.)