Saturday, May 12, 2007

Enhancing Agression

There was something thrilling about the films Sam Raimi made in the late 90s. Yes, he'd made DARKMAN. Yes, he'd co-written THE HUDSUCKER PROXY with the Coens. Yes, he'd made the EVIL DEAD films and yes, EVIL DEAD II is about as close to a perfect film as any ever made. After his 1995 western THE QUICK AND THE DEAD was released, he seemed to retreat into producing the HERCULES AND XENA TV shows and later admitted that he felt he had been going through the motions in directing the ultra-stylish film which starred Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman. Maybe he felt that in falling back on his old tricks he was becoming, in effect, the directorial version of Woody Allen’s dead shark.

His return to the big screen, 1998’s A SIMPLE PLAN (screenplay by Scott Smith, from his novel) was startling not because of its complex plot but because of his own conscious retreat from the camera hijinks he was known for; it was as if he was daring himself to simply plunk the camera down on sticks and let the story unfold. It’s a terrific piece of work. 1999’s FOR LOVE OF THE GAME, generally dismissed as Another Kevin Costner Baseball Movie, feels like an earnest attempt to make a slick, old-school big studio star vehicle. The film has its problems in casting (put directly, Kelly Preston) and I always have the nagging feeling that the script needed another run through the typewriter, but it works pretty well and looks great, being Raimi’s first film shot in ‘Scope. THE GIFT, which I haven’t seen since it was released, feels like another plunk the camera down on sticks effort, but the basic material isn’t as strong as it was in A SIMPLE PLAN. Still, a worthy effort and no real shame in that. What made this one-two-three punch so thrilling was that it felt like we were watching a filmmaker actually trying to get better at his craft. Which made him ready for his next film.

When SPIDER-MAN burst into the world it seemed, at its best, to a combination of what he had spent his career honing: the visual pyrotechnics of the EVIL DEAD films and a certain amount of maturity that he had spent his past several films focusing on. I’ll freely admit that the combination of Raimi with the comic-book character that I liked the best as a kid was just irresistible.

Five years later, SPIDER-MAN 3 has emerged and I wonder if it’s once again time for Raimi to once agan plunk his camera down on a couple of sticks, if not literally then figuratively.

It’s not that I dislike SPIDER-MAN 3, not like a lot of people seem to be saying. After hearing some of the advance word I honestly found myself sitting there at some points, thinking, “I don’t see what the big problem is. This is kinda fun.” But there’s a definite feeling of diminished returns going on here. Usually when a Part 3 follows up a second part there’s a feeling like that Part 2 blew everyone out of the water….now we want more. The list is long…EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, DAWN OF THE DEAD, ROAD WARRIOR, EVIL DEAD II. Then that part 3 comes around. We get RETURN OF THE JEDI, DAY OF THE DEAD, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, ARMY OF DARKNESS…and there’s almost always a feeling that makes us wish they had quit while they were ahead. Yes, I love ARMY OF DARKNESS to death but face it, EVIL DEAD II is a tough act to follow.

There’s lots to like here. Thomas Haden Church is a terrific Flint Marko and the scene where the Sandman first assembles itself to life is a true marvel (no pun intended), a beautiful rebuttal to anyone who complains about too much digital work in these movies (um, that would be me). Bryce Dallas Howard captures the cheerful essence of Gwen Stacey. The Daily Planet scenes are massively enjoyable in their ultra-Hawks/HIS GIRL FRIDAY flavor. Bruce Campbell as the French Maitre'D is hysterical(the scene does, however, feel like it's missing a punchline). No question about it, lots of the movie is very enjoyable.

But it’s too crowded. The thing’s just too dang crowded. Peter Parker, Mary Jane, Peter proposing to Mary Jane, Harry Osbourne, Eddie Brock, Gwen Stacey, Captain Stacey, Aunt May, Sandman, Sandman's daughter, Venom, The Daily Bugle...was somebody getitng paid by the plot point? Much as I like her, there’s no reason to introduce Gwen Stacey at this point, since we’re never going to see her character portrayed correctly. Mary Jane spends a lot of the movie in a bad mood. Sure, plenty of people have stretches where they get fired from Broadway shows and have trouble with their superhero boyfriends, but Kirsten Dunst never manages to convince us that she and Peter Parker belong together. After this movie, I could hardly blame him for wanting to go off with Gwen Stacey. Or Betty Brant. Or Ursula from across the hall, or that matter.

My memories of reading The Amazing Spider-Man while growing up are a little spotty. I was fully into it at the time of the Secret Wars, when the black suit was introduced and leading into Venom. I do remember the feeling that the book was starting to go so Venom crazy that I just thought “Enough with the Venom,” and checked out for a while. The character’s kind of cool, I guess, I just don’t have as strong of an opinion about how he’s portrayed here. He’s kind of this movie’s Darth Maul: much more of him probably wouldn’t be a good thing so naturally everyone complains that we don’t get more of him.

When Peter Parker begins to get slightly evil (or bad, or tough, or cocky or whatever) when he gets infected by the black suit -- which reminds me, why do we actually see it as a tangible black suit? Wasn’t it always a symbiote that would attach itself to Peter in the comic? Couldn’t it have simply been that here to avoid confusion? -- it feels once again like some of Raimi’s stylistic extremes that he has occasionally indulged in during the series, but things don’t feel like they cohere as well this time around. In the way he plays it, I’m not sure Tobey Maguire ever really figured it out either. I’d be all for a jazzy dance number to baffle people but this one just doesn’t work, probably because whatever is happening to Peter is never clearly defined. I’m guessing that the nightclub he takes Gwen Stacey to is bathed in purple light to remind us of the Purple Pit in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, which is fine, but black-suit Peter Parker never becomes the Buddy Love that he really should. Maybe it’s me. But maybe it just comes back to the possibility that Raimi has said all he has to say about Spider-Man by this point.

I really don’t think that Sam Raimi is going to go off and do another small-scale thriller at this point, but I do hope that whatever he does next, it challenges him. He’s done a terrific job with the SPIDER-MAN films, bringing to life something that truly does bring me back to my childhood. But it’s time to move on. He’s the sort of filmmaker who learns from everything he does and even if the world will be disappointed with SPIDER-MAN 3, I can’t help but think, hope, believe, that he’s going to come back with a vengeance very soon. Simply put, he made EVIL DEAD II. He can do anything.

Hail to the King, baby.

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