“Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience and the odds against him.”
The Power of the Dog is a wonderful slow-burn character-driven Western from writer/director Jane Campion. Phil Burbank is an unusual role for Bennedict Cumberbatch, a man seemingly focused more on the corporeal than the intellectual. He is initially introduced as a misogynistic rancher whose acts of dispassionate and deliberate cruelty are unsettling to watch without the need for physical violence, though we discover that he was not always the brutish cowboy and that this is an intentionally cultivated persona. The film’s inciting incident is his brother’s marriage (of which Phil plainly disapproves) but Campion has structured the film obtusely so that, whilst we know some sort of confrontation is inevitable, the narrative direction is never clear to the audience. This proves an effective way to force the viewer simply to appreciate the character development in the moment, rather than pre-empting the arc. There are clear parallels to There Will Be Blood, particularly in the patriarchal friction between powerfully overbearing men who carved out the frontier and subtler educated people who would ultimately succeed them. Campion’s immersive approach is not entirely without fault, with The Power of the Dog oddly sidelining some characters midway through the film, whilst its abrupt conclusion is simultaneously clever and somewhat dissatisfying.
Sofia Coppola’s output is frustrating not because of its decline in quality since her first two films but because there are routinely glimmers of that greatness in her later work. With the arrival of a wounded soldier bringing disruption and jealousy to an isolated girls’ school during the American Civil War, The Beguiled crafts some captivating character moments in its first hour, through a heavily vignetted haze of desaturated colour that often approaches sepia. Oona Laurence stands out as the young girl who initiates the story. I haven’t seen the Clint Eastwood original, but Coppola’s take on the material is ponderous and predictable. The serene pacing works well initially but, once the dominoes topple into pure Southern Gothic, Coppola is evidently out of her depth as I don’t think titter-inducing ridiculous was the intention.
director: Sam Raimi
writer: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi
starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace
running time: 140 mins
Everybody needs help sometimes.
The most worrying thing about the disappointing final instalment of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is the fact that no one seems entirely sure exactly how much was dropped on producing it. It was estimated to be around $100 million over budget bringing the total to nearly $300 million. To put that in perspective it’s the cost of 6,500 Porsche Boxters, 4 million trips to Disney World or 60 million tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
The story regurgitates much of the love triangle we have already seen in the previous film between Peter [Tobey Maguire], Mary Jane [Kirsten Dunst] and Harry [James Franco]. Peter has discovered his uncle’s real killer is escaped convict Flint Marko [Thomas Haden Church] who has become Sandman after fleeing into a research site. Meanwhile Peter must deal with rival photographer Eddie Brock who is after his job. Finally he is also infected by an extra-terrestrial symbiote resulting in a new black suit that strengthens his powers but alters his personality.
Suffice to say there is a lot going on. Batman Begins felt crowded with only two villains and while previous Spider-Man films have intelligently settled for just one, the latest boasts three in the form of Sandman, Venom and Harry kitted out in his father’s Goblin gear. The extraneous melodrama serves little purpose as we have already been through it before. Gwen Stacy’s presence adds the only new ingredient, presumably as a nod to fans of the comics, but her character serves little purpose beyond highlighting just how dull Mary Jane has become. Lacking any sort of flow we have two unnecessary songs from Dunst, Maguire performs a dance routine in a bar (a sequence that, despite its energy, would feel more at home in The Mask), Harry seems drugged and even the cameos feel strained — Stan Lee’s single line is out of place and so hideously cheesy that even those who know it is him will find themselves cringing, while Bruce Campbell seems to be channelling John Cleese in his extended appearance as a French maître d’. Where Spider-Man 2 arguably had too little plot for its running time, here we find enough for at least two films, with the end result being that nothing is sufficiently fleshed out and none of the villains are really given a chance to breathe or shine.
Sandman is an impressive villain brought to life with some of the film’s best CG effects, rising from whirling sandstorms and growing to incredible sizes. In the limited time he has, Church is able to humanise him to a degree. However Venom suffers far more, as it becomes clear Raimi had no interest in the character at all. Despite being a favourite of comicbook fans the Venom on screen is a weak translation that lacks the size, scariness and sheer presence required. The action sequences are largely uninspired with the most satisfying being the fight between unmasked Peter and Harry in the mansion. There is nothing to match the gripping raised train sequence of the last film. The by the numbers final showdown lacks any energy, despite some interesting flourishes like superheating sand into glass or creating a resonance cage. These few moments were hardly enough to save it, evident from the fact it requires a news reporter to tell the audience how to feel, coupled with a cheering crowd and an utterly generic soundtrack that treads roughshod over Elfman’s refrains from the earlier films.
It seems that the Spider-Man trilogy has mirrored the arc of X-Men with a decent introduction to set the stage, a strong second film that really raises expectations, followed by an utterly underwhelming third instalment that makes viewers wish the filmmakers had stopped at two. The biggest insult to fans is the poorly realised Venom who deserved his own film, and the general lack of focus and insipid melodrama leaves little to dull the pain. Perhaps a victim of his own success, in attempting to best his previous outings Raimi has simply taken on too much. The end result is pretty, vacuous and dull.
director: Sam Raimi
starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, James Franco
running time: 125 mins
The original Spider-Man was fun on the surface, but without any depth. Everything it was lacking, its sequel serves up magnificently with a skillful blend of superhero action, romance and soul-searching.
Since the first film, Peter Parker [Tobey Maguire] has been eaten up by the stress of his double life, causing him to lose jobs, fail in classes and miss rent. His not-very-secret romantic interest Mary Jane [Kirsten Dunst] meanwhile, has become a successful actress and model, haunting Peter wherever he goes. This strain is starting to affect his powers, and eventually he throws out his Spandex suit and chooses to shed the responsibility he can no longer bear. But after scientist Otto Octavius’ [Alfred Molina] experiment in fusion, funded by Peter’s best friend Harry Osborne [James Franco], results in a catastrophic accident that fuses four robotic tentacle-arms to him and turning him into psychotic menace Doc Ock, Spider-Man may be the only one who can protect the city.
Spider-Man 2‘s strongest feature is its focus on both sides of our hero’s life, and making each equally compelling. The love story that fizzled in the previous installment sizzles throughout this one. Parker realises that he does have a choice and eventually, realistically, he chooses having a life of his own and a chance with MJ over the responsibilities he has been shouldering. As before, Maguire brings a real depth to the tortured soul of his character and here is matched by Dunst whose MJ feels hopelessly lost as Parker pushes her away despite their obvious chemistry. Her role is far more than merely a damsel-in-distress this time round, and she makes full use of it.
Molina’s performance as Doc Ock is particularly impressive as he manages to bring a tangible sense of emotional turmoil to an essentially psychotic villain. We can see that somewhere deep behind his eyes he realises that he is destroying his life’s work, without making him any less terrifying. Also noteworthy is Rosemary Harris as Aunt May who suffers from some poor dialogue (although generally the scripting is far better this time around) but is able to hint wonderfully at suspicions of Parker’s alter-ego. Only Harry remains blandly one-dimensional, making it is difficult to be sympathetic to his spoilt character, although Franco is able to instill some conflict. Lastly, J.K. Simmons reprises his minor role as the Daily Bugle‘s editor and once again dominates every scene he’s in, perfectly embodying the character with tremendous delivery of his lines.
The distinctly average special effects of its predecessor are washed away here, and the web-slinging aerial scenes are spectacularly rendered with far more realistic weight and movement. The highlight is Doc Ock’s appendages which are not only distinctly creepy (coupled with impressive sound editing as he thunders around) but genuinely seem to take on a life of their own with both personality and reaction to their surroundings.
Similarly the action rises leaps and bounds with some spectacular fights and rescues. The coffeeshop scene as Peter dives on MJ to protect her feels chillingly real. Unsurprisingly for a comicbook film, the most overblown succeeds best in a long battle atop a train (regardless of the fact New York has no elevated trains) which Spiderman eventually has to bring to a grinding halt in order to save the occupants. Yet the action is notably not overdone, and the first half of the film is actually rather lacking in it, since it chooses to focus instead on the human side of its tale.
Raimi’s direction is excellent this time round, keeping everything tight and generally focused, although the middle act is a little too slow and expository at times. He always ensures that the audience feels what is happening to his characters, particularly in one painful scene as Peter hurtles down the full height of a narrow alleyway. Perhaps his greatest skill is in allowing the tone to lighten at certain moments throughout the film along with varioys homages to his own B-movie origins. Particularly notable are the busker playing a (terrible) rendition of the Spider-Man animated series theme, an comically awkward elevator scene, and an amusing Bruce Campbell (the hero of Raimi’s Evil Dead series) cameo as a rude usher. And while not particularly subtle, he does reward those who watch the whole story unfold, such as MJ kissing her astronaut boyfriend upside down as she remembers her kiss with Spider-Man in the original movie, but cleverly without hammering the point home. My only minor gripe is the ending which should surely have ended on the cliffhanger with Harry’s discovery, which would have built up far more anticipation for the inevitable and much deserved third installment.
Adding to the short list of sequels that manage to outdo their predecessors, Spider-Man 2 succeeds through Raimi’s expert blending of big-budget action with a truly engaging character-driven story, aided by wonderfully subtle and compelling performances from his main cast. For comicbook fans, this is the modern classic for which they have been waiting, and for those who may not even know who Stan Lee is, Spider-Man 2 remains a solidly enjoyable movie in its own right.
director: Sam Raimi starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco running time: 111 mins rating: 12A
“Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.”
Spiderman is bright, looks great, and is thoroughly enjoyable. While it lasts. The trouble is that its fast pace and excitement fades all too quickly afterwards, and it’s lack of depth becomes painfully apparent.
The first half of the film is basically a straight retelling of Spiderman’s origins as in the comic. A geeky, unpopular science whiz Peter Parker [Tobey Maguire] is bitten by a genetically modified super-spider, granting him incredible strenth and dexterity as well as the ability to scale walls and shoot webbing from his wrists (a slight, but acceptable, deviation from the source material). Meanwhile his best friend’s father, millionaire Norman Osborne [Willem Dafoe], decides to test his new performance enhancing drugs on himself after the threat of losing his military financing. This results in creeping insanity and the creation of an evil alter-ego, The Green Goblin, who threatens the safety of New York, and those Peter cares about.
Things start off remarkably well, largely due to Maguire’s acting. He seems far more at home as the bullied, bumbling high school nerd, secretly in love with his neighbour Mary Jane Watson [Kirsten Dunst]. Dunst, whose poor role is essentially eye candy with much screaming, actually manages to make something of her character, with a sparkling and sympathetic performance of what little she is given. The audience truly feels for her, seeing her popularity as a way to escape her troubled home life.
Willem Dafoe offers a brilliantly charismatic performance as the villainous Green Goblin, looking the part both in and out of costume (which looks rather like an old Power Rangers prop). He really shines in a split personality argument with himself which few others could have delivered with any credibility. Other smaller roles are equally well played, notably J.K. Simmons as the editor of The Daily Bugle, the paper for which Parker is a photographer.
So with so much fine acting, where could things go wrong? Well, Sam Raimi’s usual creativity is not evident here, pushed aside by commercial concerns. The unremarkable rock soundtrack is clearly more focused on CD-sales than really embellishing the film (Macy Gray’s cameo appearance was utterly unnecessary). Raimi has also directed comicbook adaptations before, of course, Darkman in 1990. While this lacked the big-budget glamour of Spiderman, an interesting an intelligent script made it far more engaging.
The dialogue here is nothing short of awful, even for a comic book movie, often resulting in Maguire sounding slightly embarassed as he intones some of Spiderman’s worst lines. Only when Raimi’s tongue-in-cheek humour is evident does it become bearable, such as The Green Goblin cackling, “We’ll meet again Spiderman”, in an intentionally corny departure. There are similarly amusing moments such as the fast inbterview-sequence where New Yorkers offer their views on the mysterious new superhero, and the Superman homage where we see a running Peter Parker tear open his shirt to reveal a costume logo underneath. After the characters have been competently set up, the plot swiftly degenerates into a hero versus villain bash, with an unforgivably routine ending. A cringeworthy “September 11th” inspired scene shows New Yorkers aiding Spiderman, before he finally confronts The Green Goblin in a horribly bland punch-up. Equally, the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane that began as alluring eventually becomes irritating rather than sad as is intended.
The film is really sold on the special effects and action sequences. Now, while there are many well-shot and nicely choreographed fights, there are also a number of equally unimpressive moments, especially the closing sequence. The computer generated sequences of Spiderman web-slinging and swinging through the streets are utterly breathtaking (describing it as “aerial choreography” in behind-the-scenes programmes is no exaggeration), but at other moments the graphics are well under par, spoiling the overall effect. The final shots of Spiderman of him swinging through the city to a flagpole, show just how much the film relies on this as a selling point, however, and also lends the feeling that no one really knew how to wrap things up.
While the more recent Daredevil will undoubtedly be accused of ripping off Spiderman, it cannot be denied that this is really a cheap day-glo immitation of Tim Burton’s stylish Batman, right down to the giant balloon sequence. And the fact is that although it was shot over a decade earlier, it remains far superior. Spiderman is a highly entertaining romp while it lasts, but wears off very quickly leaving a disappointingly tacky aftertaste.