Saturday, June 30, 2007

Recent Movie Roundup 4

The summer of three plus one.
  1. Spider-Man 3 (2007) - I appear to be one of the few people on the planet to have liked the second Spider-Man film, mainly because, rather than reiterating its character's core concept as so many other superhero films do (Batman: the fine line between fighting evil and becoming it; X-Men: being different is something to be celebrated, not feared, or lorded over others) it expands upon it, using it as jumping-off point for character development. The first (and, I've always thought, severely over-praised) Spider-Man film got the 'great power = great responsibility' formula out of the way, and while the second film plays around in the same neighborhood it ultimately uses the Spider-Man framework to expand on the theme of heroism, ultimately bringing Peter to the realization that his doesn't originate in his superpowers, and that even ordinary people can be heroic from time to time. The third film takes the same premise and uses it to discuss the journey to adulthood, and the necessity of casting away the simple, one word definitions that told us who we were in high school and accepting that adult life is more complicated, and rarely black and white. Unfortunately, the film itself isn't very good (although the dialogue is about ten times better than the overblown, cringeworthy stuff Spider-Man 2 delivered). Its plotting is predictable, none of the leads appear to be working very hard, Bryce Dallas Howard is wasted, and Topher Grace walks away with the whole film, his witty performance putting Maguire's to shame (actually, that's not entirely true. Maguire's best scenes are the ones he shares with Grace). I think the Spider-Man films may be unique among the recent spate of superhero films in that they actually try to replicate the comic's extraordinarily detailed, densely populated universe, and in trying to tell more than one kind of story about their character, but their ambition repeatedly outstrips their capabilities.

  2. Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End (2007) - better than the second film (hardly a great achievement), but not nearly as much fun, or as funny, as the first. The problem is first that the film isn't trying to be fun, but instead shoots for a muddled convolutedness that neither the characters nor their universe are complex enough to support. A bigger problem, however, is that some characters just work better as supporting characters than as leads, and Captain Jack Sparrow is one of them (the same holds, by the way, for the other Captain Jack). Orlando Bloom catches a lot of flak for his blank performances in all three films, and there's no question that he isn't delivering on the same level as any of the other leads. That said, Bloom has the unenviable task of playing straight man to an overacting Johnny Depp, a slightly-less overacting Geoffrey Rush, and a love interest who seems to have become an emo cross between Dark Phoenix and Xena. It's no wonder he gets lost in the shuffle, but in the one or two scenes in which he comes to the fore, he presents an interesting combination of intelligence and naiveté, and we get a glimpse of the far more compelling film (not films, as there is really not enough story here to justify two 2+ hour movies) that might have been made with Will in the central role and Jack as the chaotic neutral. Apart from that, there are a few fun and energetic scenes (the shipboard wedding was particularly enjoyable) and I still care enough about the characters to be slightly miffed at the raw deal that Will and Elizabeth get at the end of the story (I also join in the chorus of complaints at Elizabeth's apparently domestic role in the ten years between the end of the story and the post-credits coda. Making her a superhero pirate is absurd, but if you're going to do it, don't back down), but Jack Davenport is criminally underused and, after successfully skirting the issue for two movies, Elizabeth's 'they may take our lives, but they will never take our ability to rape, pillage and murder indiscriminately' speech tossed me right out of the story.

  3. Zodiac (2007) - I knew, going into David Fincher's latest film, that unless he was planning to play very fast and loose with the facts of history, he was not going to reveal the identity of the Zodiac killer, who attacked at least nine people (killing seven of them) in various parts of California in the late 60s and early 70s, and was never caught or definitively identified. Going into the film, however, I trusted that Fincher would be able to make something other than a mystery out of the story. He doesn't seem to have done this, or at least, he doesn't seem to have done enough to justify nearly three hours of story. The film's main point seems to be an examination of the ways in which the Zodiac investigation consumes three men--a San Francisco police detective who barely manages to walk away from the investigation with his career intact (Mark Ruffalo, in a solid but perpetually overshadowed performance); a crime reporter for a San Francisco newspaper who descends into alcoholism and becomes a ranting recluse (Robert Downey Jr., giving as good a performance as ever, but the character is not sufficiently explored, and it is at any rate perhaps time to admit that Downey doesn't so much portray characters as give the same, delightful, performance in every film he's in); and a cartoonist for the same newspaper, who allows his career and family life to gutter as he pursues the killer for reasons that not even he fully understands (an excellent Jake Gyllenhaal, although the adjective is somewhat redundant). Unfortunately, this is a fairly flimsy hook on which to hang an entire story. Once the point is made, all that's left are Fincher's excellent historic recreations. I was particularly impressed with his depictions of the murders, which manage to strike just the right midpoint between accuracy and sensationalism (it's hard to believe that this is the same man who made Se7en, which evinced a nearly pornographic fascination with violence). At times, one gets the impression that Fincher is less interested in telling his own story than he is in reporting a real one, and although the result is impressive, it is also mostly hollow.

  4. Ocean's Thirteen (2007) - as with Pirates, better than the second film (and again, this can't have been hard) but not as good as the first. What's missing in this case is a sense that anyone--the writer, the characters, the audience--cares about the plot. We are talking, after all, about a heist film. Plot should be key, with complications, fakeouts, and hairpin turns keeping the audience at the edge of their seats. There's a desultory attempt to deliver all of these elements, but the film doesn't even pretend to be nervous about, or even particularly interested in, the outcome of all these efforts. What's important, it repeatedly tells us, are the characters (mainly Clooney, Pitt and Damon, and my use of the actors' names rather than the characters' is entirely deliberate), or rather their unflappable coolness. So intense is the focus on this antarctic coolness that many scenes in the film consist mainly of the character quipping, for the most part rather obliquely, at each other, and just wowing us all with how cool they are. One gets the sense that Soderbergh is trying to recall the original Ocean's Eleven, which was less of a heist film than a chance for the Rat Pack to cut loose and show off how, yes, cool they were. Like the original film, Ocean's Thirteen is a love song to Las Vegas (probably one of the reasons that Thirteen works better than Twelve is that it moves the action back to that city), with the characters waxing nostalgic about the city that used to belong to Sinatra and his cohorts and lamenting its loss. The only problem with this approach is that the Disney-fication of Las Vegas happened a long time ago. The battle was fought and lost, and it is quite strange for Soderbergh to set his story on the Strip--the rotting carcass of Sinatra's Vegas--and pretend that it is still ongoing.

  5. Shrek the Third (2007) - this film is not better than the second in the series. Neither is it worse. It is precisely as good, precisely as inoffensive, precisely as unworthy of the original Shrek, and has almost precisely the same plot. Like Shrek 2, it diligently works to reassemble many of the original Shrek's signature elements--pop songs on the soundtrack, humor that references contemporary culture, cultural satire, particularly when it comes to Disney films. The problem, of course, is that in the six years since Shrek wowed us all by eschewing the Disney mentality, these elements have become de rigeur in any animated film. Even Disney is using them these days. Meanwhile, the less revolutionary, but ultimately more important, elements of the original film are nowhere to be found. Shrek the Third is neither clever, nor genuinely funny (except in a few spots involving, you guessed it, Puss in Boots, and in an absolutely uproarious scene in which Shrek pretends to be a spoiled diva), nor emotionally interesting. Like the original Shrek, it has a predictable (Disney-ish) emotional arc--in this case, Shrek panicking about his impending fatherhood and then learning that he has what it takes to be a father by mentoring the heir to the Far Far Away throne--but unlike its predecessor, it doesn't work very hard to sell it, relying on the character's popularity and the story's familiarity to do the writers' work for them. In other words, the Shrek franchise has become just as lazy and soulless as the Disney films it once lambasted, and whereas Disney took decades to get to that point, the folks behind Shrek turn out to have had only one good film in them. Oh well, at least we still have Pixar--bring on Ratatouille!


Fred said...

I appear to be one of the few people on the planet to have liked the second Spider-Man film.


Abigail Nussbaum said...

God, that's amazing. I don't think I've heard a single better-than-lukewarm reaction to the film since it came out, and all of the people I saw it with thought it was horrible. I guess I don't hang out in the right corners of the internet.

Eli said...

Loved your reviews ... found Pirates particularly spot on. Given the incidents at the beginning and the climax of the film, and how Chow Yun Fat's character is treated, I kept on thinking, "wow ... this isn't the universe I signed up for when I saw the first film." After all, this wasn't supposed to be a film about pirates ... it's a film based on a theme ride about pirates, for goodness sake.

BTW, it's David Fincher who directed Zodiac, Se7en and Alien3 ... oh, yeah and Fight Club.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Whoops. Corrected.

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