I Love L.A. (Escape From L.A., 1996)

Escape-From-LA-posterJohn Carpenter’s first sequel.  Escape From L.A. brings back Snake Plissken.  The setup here is that in the late 20th century, a Presidential predicts a major earthquake will hit California and Las Vegas because of their sinful ways.  Unlike Pat Robertson, his prediction comes true.  American makes the now island of Los Angeles a one way prison.  The president was elected to a lifetime appointment.  They instituted a theocracy.  If you were to sinful you were sent to L.A. (but you get the option to repent of your sin and be immediately electrocuted).

In the future of 2013, the President’s daughter (oddly named Utopia, because a hyper-religious parent would name their kid Utopia?  Or is the implication that he used to be a hippie?)  has stolen an important prototype and run off to L.A.  Like before, the government calls in Snake Plissken and forces hm to make a deal to go into L.A. and get the prototype back so a potential invasion of America can be averted.

Plissken runs into all sorts of Oddballs, such as evil plastic surgeons and a surfer gang.  He gets help from the morally ambiguous Map to the Stars Eddie and the sexy Taslima.  He takes on Cuervo Jones in an attempt to get the prototype.

Like most sequels, Escape From L.A. mimics Escape from New York a lot.  There is even a scene where he walks into a club and finds a dead Rescue Team member he was tracking.  On the other hand, the film really amps up the action.

The film has stuff that does not really make sense.  The Evangelical President outlawed eating of red meat?  I mean, it might make more sense if the laws were based in Old Testament.  The effects are not..well…effective.  Many scenes are clearly green screened.  The basketball sequence just does not compare to the gladiatorial combat of the first film.

This is not to say the film is terrible.  The cast, including Steve Buscemi, Valeria Golina, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach and Cliff Robertson are all good.  And Russell slips right back into the skin of Snake Plissken with ease.  One of the most entertaining moments is when Snake is captured by the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Played by Bruce Campbell).  He leads a group of surgically enhanced misfits…they need to keep replenishing their body parts and look like the surgical disasters of nightmare on E! Television.

Escape From L.A. is fun, but comes no where near the classic status of Escape from New York.

 

 

Stretching the Web (Spider-Man 3, 2007)

Spider-man_3_PosterThe Spider-Man franchise is one of the first super-hero films to feature it’s entire series with the singular vision of a specific director.  Raimi did a good job with the first one and a spectacular job with the second film.  It still stands as a high watermark for the superhero film genre.  Three is a bit more…complicated.  There is a Spider-Man comic for Marvel to publish.  The Complicated Spider-Man.

We open with Peter telling us just how awesome his life is.  He has a hot girlfriend who is successfully performing plays, school is going excellently, he has money.  It is here where we get our introduction to Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is apparently doing pretty well in school herself.  Peter runs into Harry at MJ’s play.  Peter is contemplating proposal, especially after a night of star watching with MJ.  It is a fun use of powers in the scene as they lie next to each other in a giant web.  Unknown to Peter, a meteor crashes near by and a black goo crawls out…it appears to have some sentience, as it leaps onto Peter’s scooter.

We get introduced to Flint Marko, played by the talented Thomas Haden Church.  He has escaped prison and snuck into his home.  In a nice bit of back-story, he has a daughter whom he loves very much, and the crimes he committed were to try and help her.  Raimi was very good at finding human connections for the villains in all three films.  You could sympathize with their motivations.  On the other hand, There is Harry Osbourne…who is becoming a cartoonish revenged obsessed guy.  I get that they want us to see him as a tragic figure…becoming his father, whom he always wanted to please.  But it seems he is suddenly a technology genius he never was in the previous films.

Meanwhile, Peter declares his intentions to propose to Aunt May.  As usual, Rosemary Harris hits it out of the park, reminiscing about when Uncle Ben proposed to her.  Peter leaves feeling hopeful-only to be hit by a flying snow border.  Yes.  You heard me.  Just like the terrible Green Goblin costume, the the Hobgoblin costume is terrible, only worse.  This is rather stunning to me, because for all the efforts to visual fidelity by Raimi?  Both Goblins look as distant from the comics as you can get.   Great actor choices (both Defoe and Franco) and terrible outfits.  They have a elaborate fight, that actually looks pretty good, and shows Peter has become quite skilled in his role.  He manages to take down Harry-but almost kills him in the process.  When he wakes up in the hospital, he has no memory of anything…that Peter is Spider-Man, how his father died, or that he was angry with Peter.

Meanwhile, Marko is on the run from the cops.   He slips into a field used by a testing facility and falls into a pit.  Suddenly, he hears something starting up.  We then meet the worst scientists in the world.  They notice a change in the mass, but shrug it off as a bird who will fly away.  So, then they just continue the experiment.  Marko is horrified as he seems to dissolve into dust, when the cops reach the pit, there is nothing there.  This results in him coming back to life as living sand.

And so on and so on.  The film goes through great effort to introduce character after character.

Peter is struggling to keep his relationship with MJ afloat, while getting a swelled head from all the love the public is giving him.  Not to mention her concern that he never mentioned lab partner Gwen Stacy.

The film does the comic book trope of Retconning.  This is where a story introduces some knew historical fact that we never knew about.  Here it turns out that Flint Marko was the actual killer of Uncle Ben.  This fills Peter with anger and thanks to the alien symbiote that has attached itself to him.

In a great moment, Peter thinks he has killed Marko and visits his Aunt May to tell her Marko is dead.  But her reaction is confusing for Peter.  She is not happy.  And when he tells her that Spider-Man did it, she is confounded…because she knows Spider-Man is no killer.  She was not seeking revenge, it is a dangerous path.

Peter becomes more and more selfish, mocking his friends, using other people.  And in showing this, we are witness to one of the worst sequences of the entire franchise.  Peter walks down the street, chest puffed out.  Women are looking at him with desire.    He then sees pics of Spider-Man robbing a bank.  Peter goes to the Bugle.  He shows proof that Brock doctored the photo.  He get’s Brock fired.  Peter is unmerciful, telling Brock if he wants forgiveness?  “Go get religion.”  This is last part actually a good moment…but it is surrounded by Peter acting cocky to seventies funk music.  He buys a slick new suit, steps into the street with pelvic thrusts.

Now, it is meant to show us that the suit is changing Peter…making him more confident and aggressive.  An alpha predator.  But instead, most of it is totally goofy.  We even get an embarrassing dance sequence.  In the end, Peter realizes the suit is causing him to change and decides it is time to be free of it.  Once he does, the symbiote finds the already angry Eddie Brock…the end result is Venom.  This film has three villains, between Hobgoblin, Sandman and Venom.  While Peter takes Harry out mid way through the film, it is to late to avoid the bloat.

The first thing that stands out to me in this film?  It is pretty obvious that Venom was forced on Raimi.   Venom is shoehorned in at the end, almost as if it was an obligation and frankly in a pretty clunky fashion at that.  In the comics, Eddie was Peter’s opposite.  He was a massive musclebound guy.  The film opted more for a funhouse mirror image approach.  Topher Grace is small and skinny, not unlike Peter.  He is really Parker without the ethics.  It works pretty well, for all it’s briefness, Grace makes Brock come off as the guy continuously reaping what he sows-but seeing himself as a victim of life.  It is all about how other people ruined his life.  Topher plays Brock as pretty creepy by the end…at one point, he is holding onto MJ, and says to Peter, “My Spider Sense is tingling…if you know what I mean.” and is motioning towards his crotch.  Grace works with what he has.

As the Sandman?  Church is perfectly cast.  He looks like he walked off the page.  He really is the Sandman, and is pretty sympathetic, while being a credible threat.  And the Sandman effects are terrific.  It is clear Raimi really wanted to use the Sandman, and his love of the character is obvious.  They really show off the possibilities of such a power.  The effects in general are great.  Lots of fun Spider-Action.

The supporting cast is solid as usual.  The regulars, such as J.K Simmons, Bill Nunn, Elizabeth Banks and Dylan Baker are there.  We also have James Cromwell and Bryce Dallas Howard.   As usual?  Simmons hits it out of the park and gives some of the film’s funniest moments.

As for the Stacys, Cromwell gets almost no time, so there is no real sense of what Stacy is about.  We know he is Gwen’s father, but he has almost no relationship to Peter or Spider-Man.  Gwen is used in a criminal fashion.  While Gwen moons over Peter Parker, she lacks a solid identity.  The writers use her as a mere plot point to interfere in Peter and MJ’s relationship.  I am a little surprised Raimi went along with this, but it really is disappointing.  Bryce Dallas Howard looks terrific as Gwen, but she is barely a character.  And she just disappears from the film.

Also disappointing?  The black suit is just the Spider-Man costume painted black.  It would have been nice to have at least seen the big white spider on the chest.

But what really hurts this film?  It is just ridiculously over populated.  We have three villains, separate motives and stories.  You practically have two or three films worth of stuff.  Really, it would have been better to give the the symbiote the story of Spider-Man 3 and make Venom the villain in number four.  And it is unfortunate that they tried to cram in so much that no story point really gets to be dealt with in a satisfying way.  It is so much, every story gets cheated.

Raimi ends his trilogy with a “Meh” instead of a “Hooray”…and that is unfortunate.  After the heights of number 2, this film just feels so…messy and the result is it feels a bit mediocre.  Oh, it has it’s moments, but nothing ever comes together.

On a Swing And a Prayer (Spider-Man 2, 2004)

spider-man-2-posterSeriously…not the Amazing Spider-Man?  Not Spectacular Spider-Man?!  Despite the blandly titled Spider-Man 2…I sensed a trend for Marvel Movies.

The nice thing for the creative team was that they were not saddled with telling the origin story.  Instead, they were free to jump right in to start a new story.  And jump in they do-to Peter struggling to make ends meet with a job delivering pizzas by scooter.  Realizing he is running out of time for the delivery, he switches into his spider-duds and swings through the city.  He still fails to make the delivery on time…resulting in a chewing out from his boss.  We find out that while he still pines for MJ, she is engaged to J. Jonah Jameson’s son (an Astronaut).  Aunt May has fallen on hard times.  Peter and Harry’s friendship is strained, as Harry has become a vocal anti-Spider-Man type after seeing Spider-Man deliver his dead father to their penthouse.  His friendship with Mary Jane is stretched because he seems unreliable and unsupportive of her dreams.

On the other hand, Peter is thrilled when he is sent to take pictures at a press event for scientific hero of Parker’s- Dr. Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina).  He is showing his new potential energy source.  He also is showing off his “assistants”-a set of mechanical arms.  The experiment goes awry (as scientific experiments are want to do) and Spider-Man jumps into the fray.  Unfortunately, Otto is hospitalized and his wife killed in the turmoil.

The doctors find the arms fused to the Doctor’s body.  The arms wake up and attack the hospital staff and taking the Doctor with them.  Meanwhile, Peter is starting to have trouble with his powers, and is wanting to be done with Spider-Man.  Understandably, he is tired about how much that aspect of his life interferes with the rest of his life.  The arms apparently are driving Doc Ock a bit…crazy…he becomes obsessed with perfecting his experiment-not understanding that it is actually a destructive force.

The plot takes twists and turns, with Harry Osborne seeking Doctor Octopus’ help in catching Spider-Man, so he can take his revenge for his father’s death.Peter’s attempts at a regular life when his spider powers seem to be failing is handled nicely.

Sam Raimi really hit it out of the park here.  Spider-Man 2 has everything a good comic book movie requires.  It is exciting, funny, dramatic…when they announced the villain was Doctor Octopus, fans worried.  I am unsure why.  Spider-Man has a solid rogues gallery, second to Batman.  And Doctor Octopus is a classic villain.  And Spider-Man 2 beat all complaints into the ground.  The casting of Alfred Molina was perfect.  He manages to capture a wide range of character traits.  In the beginning he is a funny, genial.  Yet He becomes ominous and frightening.

Raimi reaches into his horror routes-especially in the hospital scene where Doc Ock’s arms violently come to life.  It is intense and pretty scary sequence that definitely sets a tone for the film for the danger Spider-Man will face.

Maguire turns in a pretty nice performance as Parker again.  And Kirsten Dunst does okay…but still lacks the real fire and spunk of the MJ in the comics.  MJ is to depressed and beaten down by life to feel like the character comics fans know.  Rosemary Harris’s performance as Aunt May is wonderful.  The costuming department deserves credit for making sure actors looked like they sprung from the pages.  Franco turns in a nice dark performance as Harry.

The writing for this film is much stronger than it’s predecessor.  There is a “New Yorkers Unite” moment that is so very well done.  After Spider-Man narrowly saves a train, the passengers save him.

Clearly, Raimi has a true love of the early Spider-Man books, and he shines with his choices in this installment.  He modernizes the characters without sacrificing why they work.  I was so pleased with this one that I could not wait for the third film.   If you are doing a second installment of a super-hero franchise?  You should watch this and X2.  If you just like super-heroes?  You should watch this and X2.

Of course, the most important aspect of the film is the presence of Community’s Joel McHale as “Bank Guy”.

Look Out! Here Comes… (Spider-Man (2002)

Spider-Man_PosterThe anticipation for a James Cameron Spider-Man went from drool to ridicule after Titanic.  Some were fearful he would use Leonardo DiCaprio (and while he is a pretty guy, I think he would have found a way to be a convincing Peter Parker-the guy can act).  But ultimately, the idea of a Cameron Spider-Film faded away.

There was some surprise when it was announced that Spider-Man was in the hands of Sam Raimi (at the time he was still getting recognition for critical fave a Simple Plan).  Raimi, unlike Singer with the X-Men, was a fan of Spider-Man, especially the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era.  Raimi held promise, based on his genre fueled past, and his films, such as the two Evil Dead sequels suggested he would be a good choice for making sure Spidey kept his wise-cracking ways.

The reaction to Tobey Maguire seemed mixed.  Many thought he was an effective choice for nerdy Peter Parker, but I recall some people complaining-ironically enough-that he was too uh…dweebish.  Kirsten Dunst of course caused nerd panic because Mary Jane Watson has red hair.  Because you cannot change hair color with dye or anything.

The film itself is in the same trap as many that came before it-including X-Men.  The first film is all about the beginning.  It is more set up.  Which is a shame, because right out of the gate, they go for Spidey’s most famous nemesis, the Green Goblin.

Spider-Man begins with a visual trick (the same trick we saw in Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed. Yeah, I saw it.  SHUT UP!!!!) where we are on a bus and Peter suggests that you might not notice him…and then you see Maguire chasing the bus.  We get it established pretty quick that Peter is a science nerd, with no real friends outside of Harry Osbourne (James Franco).  Harry is handsome and looks like the kind of guy Peter would like to be.  But Harry’s frustration is that his father, Norman Osbourne (Willem Defoe) seems prouder of Peter Parker than his own son.  He thinks Peter is a gifted young scientist and wishes Harry were more like him.  Peter has a huge crush on Mary Jane Watson, the girl next door.  His parents are dead, so he lives with his Kindly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris).

On a field trip to the labs of Oscorp (Norman Osbourne’s company) Peter gets bitten by a genetically altered spider.  Meanwhile, Norman is trying to keep his military contracts, which are slipping through his fingers.  The generals are unimpressed at the pace of his program for creating elite soldiers and a combat glider.

That night, he decides to test the enhancement gas on himself-the result is super strength and insanity.  The two most useful powers for a super-villain.  Meanwhile, Peter Parker awakens to find himself with a more muscular body and the ability to shoot webs from his wrists.  The source of great controversy, it never bothered me.  For one thing?  It saved us the ten minute sequence of him building web shooters.

The film is full of montages showing Peter experimenting with his powers and such, which shortcuts plenty of potentially long scenes.  The film stays quite true to the Spider-Man origin from the comics, with Peter feeling guilt when Uncle Ben is killed by a robber Peter allowed to go free.

Peter sets out to create a new identity, one where he can use his powers anonymously and live out Uncle Ben’s advice that with great power, comes great responsibility.  The film rushes the timeline, getting Peter out of high school and into college.  He and Harry are roommate in a pretty large apartment (but Harry is a rich kid, so this is not entirely implausible.

Norman, of course, works out that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same person and starts using that against him, endangering those Peter loves.  In a sequence borrowed from the comics, Peter is forced to choose between a trolley car full of kids and MJ.  Unlike the comic, which ends tragically (and with a character other than MJ), Peter successfully saves both. This undermines the lesson of the original story, that Spider-Man cannot save everyone, all the time.   People on the Brooklyn bridge start hurling things at the Goblin, who seems shocked that people are made at him.  But in case you are missing the point, someone yells, “You mess with one New Yorker, you mess with all of us.” (or something like that).  It was that post 9/11 solidarity that just feels…hokey in the film.  It has no context or depth.

In the end, Peter decides he must be alone, to protect those he cares about most.  This is rather tired as a trope, and to make matters worse, it feels like nerd fantasy.  MJ realizes she loves Peter, kisses him passionately and he gets to shoot her down, walking away all self righteous about how he must deny himself the girl.

In a lot of ways, this is a pretty good movie.  They get to the spider bite fairly fast.  It has a terrific cast (J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson looks like he stepped directly out of the comic book-as does Elizabeth Bank’s Betty Brant).  Rosemary Harris makes a great Aunt May, physically frail, yet strong of heart, she is wise, generous and loving.  Willem Defoe is a terrific bad guy, playing a well meaning but flawed science guy who cracks under pressure.  Who loves his kid, but fails to show it, and often impedes it by fawning over Peter.  Mary Jane seems to lack the spark and confidence of the comics.  She is a little to down all the time, and the Mary Jane Watson of the comics is vivacious and full of life.  Mary Jane in the film seems sad and generally miserable.  Maguire is pretty solid as Peter, bringing both heartache and humor to the role (especially his excitement over his new found powers).

The film’s effects range from impressive to really obvious CGI-especially when Spidey is swinging through the city on his webs.  Overall, though, they work well enough to sell the film.

The writing ranges from good…the Uncle Ben sequences are strong…Raimi and the writers really get how important this is to “who Spider-Man is.”  Peter Parker can be a bit of a selfish jerk, and it is that loss that propels him to look beyond himself.  Chris Sims at Comics Alliance addressed this incredibly well in his column on why Spider-Man is the best character ever.

On the other end, the writing can get hokey…see the Brooklyn Bridge scene.

The other thing that just does not work is the Green Goblin costume.  Frankly?  It is terrible.  The character in the comic could look kind of goofy in his purple costume, but he had an expressive face.  You have Willem Defoe-a distinctive face that is full of character…and instead of makeup that would be let us see his eyes and mouth we are given an emotionless, frozen helmet.  Terrible idea.  And speaking of that helmet…this was a military project…why are you offering the military a helmet that says “a super villain might wear this”? That Goblin outfit is just a huge miss, and surprising to boot.  Raimi clearly loves the Ditko era Spider-Man, but his Green Goblin screams 90’s EXTREME COMICS.  The only thing missing is big shoulder pads and 70 pouches.

The story is kind of dull, Green Goblin really has few motives…first revenge and then to hassle Spider-Man…it is not that Spidey is getting in his way…he just wants to hassle Spidey since he is the good guy.  And then, when Spider-Man is gone…he…uh…well…uh…

Like I said, it is decent enough entertainment, with some really strong moments, but overall not terribly great.  It gives us a rough idea of who is who our leads are, but feels more like set up than a story being told for it’s own sake.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑