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Independent films are an interesting breed. Made outside the mainstream
studio structure, the best ones compensate for their lower production
value with a better story and characters. Every year an indie or two
does captures the collective fascination of critics and the public by
doing so. This year's darling is "Juno", the name of the newly pregnant
teenage girl around whom the simple story revolves.
Like many such films, "Juno's" strengths lie in its unique characters. Foremost among them is the titular one, who has a singular vernacular and attitude that carries the movie. As she decides what to do with the child, she must also deal with the various reactions from her family and friends. But rather than become depressed or reclusive, Juno instead chooses a positive approach, dealing with her issues directly and responsibly. This leads to a relatively sunny take on subjects often approached in a dark or politically charged manner. The movie does tell you what to think about issues; it does not argue strongly either way; it just tells you what characters are doing, and gives a little of their rationale, somewhat like Clint Eastwood's phenomenal "Million Dollar Baby" a few years back.
On one hand, making light of serious situations like abortion and divorce feels wrong. Conversely, the ability and opportunity to laugh at potentially overbearing situations is a relief, and it is part of what makes us human. While such reactions likely would not be appropriate in reality, movies are not reality, but an escape in which a little levity is more than appropriate.
From the guitar-laced harmonic strains of its soundtrack to the aforementioned quirky characters, "Juno" is a quintessential indie flick. Like "Garden State", it has a few transcendent glimpses into the human soul, but they are too few and far between to carry the movie to extreme heights. Like "Little Miss Sunshine", it places quirky characters into unusual and often comic circumstances, but the humorous moments here do not approach the hilarity of "Little Miss Sunshine". Most of the comedy is based upon the unique dialogue or the continual series of culture clashes between Juno and everyone, which are amusing throughout.
Some critics (Roger Ebert) are hailing "Juno" as the year's best film, which is a drastic overstatement. Such grand labels are a joke, and a statement on how monotonous comedies have become. Its ipseity amidst the dramatic leanings of most Oscar contenders makes the movie better and more enjoyable than it actually should be. Juno is a cool breeze drifting through an open window, not an eye-popping blast from the air conditioner. It is enjoyable and well-crafted, not the best film of the year, maybe a fringe contender for the top ten.
Bottom Line: The movie is equivalent to its main character: cute and likable, but lacking in a few areas. Recommended primarily for indie fans. 7 of 10.
"No Country for Old Men" is a not an over-hyped blockbuster movie. If
you have seen the trailer, you probably thought it looked rather
strange. You would be right, but in a wonderful way.
The movie is difficult to pigeonhole, but the story, set in 1980 in rural Texas, is fairly straightforward. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a rugged native who stumbles across a deserted murder scene where he discovers and absconds with a case full of money. From that point on, two men head up two very different methods of pursuit. Tommy Lee Jones is small town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (phenomenal name), who is trying to figure out what happened. Javier Bardem, whom you might recognize from "The Sea Inside" or a small role in "Collateral", is a ferociously single-minded individual who has been hired by less than scrupulous people to track down the missing cash.
The movie is directed by the Coen Brothers, who have put together high quality offbeat films like "O Brother Where Art Thou", "Fargo", and "Blood Simple". In those movies and many of their others, the brothers combine familiar movie elements into a single amalgam that defies being defined as a single genre. With "No Country for Old Men", they have done the same thing, creating a movie that might be best described as a neo-western. Its deliberate pace, scenic framing, and South Texas location call to mind classic westerns. The tagline for the movie is that "There are no clean getaways," which implies that this is a heist movie. There are parts of that genre, and there are major components of a chase picture, all tweaked to fit the technologically crude era of 1980.
Now, that's the setup, but is this offbeat movie any good? The critics sure think so. Plenty of critics societies have already named this the best picture of 2007, including groups from from New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, D.C., and the National Board of Review. It's also probably the current favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar, for praiseworthy reasons that are easy to spot and completely justified.
The three lead performances have grabbed the headlines, and understandably so. Javier Bardem is absolutely terrifying in his atypical villainous role. There is no gimmicky mask or superpower, just pure evil. With merely a look or a stride, he exudes menace, more force of nature than mere bad guy. He is a bad dude, both fantastic and frightening. Because Bardem is so good, he overshadows Josh Brolin, who disappears into his self-confident Texas denizen, playing the chasee with a confidence that makes him an excellent anti-hero. Tommy Lee Jones is stellar as usual. He embodies a world-weary sheriff with one of the best combinations of drawl and lingo that you will ever hear. His drawl is accompanied by a script that is taken in large part directly from the book on which the film is based. The words are rife with a vernacular that could not be more perfect, eliciting grins from the viewer with both their humor and suitability. Even when you don't know what is said, you know precisely what it means. Of these three turns, Bardem has won many awards already, and will almost certainly be nominated for and win an Academy Award. Even though Brolin and Jones have not yet received many accolades, both are worthy of such honors; the problem being that that they are frequently eclipsed by Bardem's chilling portrayal.
Due to the magnetic acting of the leads and the character actors, who are great as they look and sound as though they have spent their entire lives baking in the dry heat near the Mexican border, the movie is extremely compelling despite a deliberate pace and almost no background music during its two-hour running length. Most chase-type movies are fast-paced and action-packed, leaving little time for suspense to grow; this is the opposite. There are no quick-cutting action scenes, but instead heart-pounding scenes that slowly ramp up the tension. Those intense parts are complemented by quieter scenes of conversation or investigation that maintain a foreboding dramatic undertone of upcoming conflict. While the film loses some of its building momentum late in the story, and the denouement does not quite match the brilliance of the preceding hundred minutes, the closing moments remain appropriate for a movie that doesn't offer any easy questions or answers.
All in all, this is a movie that is definitely worthy of the countless honors that it is receiving from critics across the country. Assuming the writer's strike doesn't waylay the Oscars, I suspect that this will be the front-runner for Best Picture, and I'd bet a good chunk of money that Bardem will snag a Best Supporting Actor trophy. His performance and the film on the whole stand out from the year's crowd and are worth seeing, not for the popcorn movie crowd, but for fans of good, well-crafted cinema and story-telling.
Bottom Line: One of the best of the year. 8 of 10.
"I Am Legend" debuted with a monstrous $77 million weekend, but is an
atypical Will Smith blockbuster, largely bereft of the slam-bang action
and/or comedy common to his big movies like "Men in Black" or "Enemy of
As learned from the tagline and excellent first trailer, the premise is simple: Smith is Dr. Robert Neville, the last man left in a desolate New York City, but he is not alone. Someone or something lingers, a mystery that drives the first hour, which is absolutely fantastic. With the exception of a few flashbacks that gradually answer the hows and whys generated by the plot progression, Smith interacts with no one except Sam, his loyal German Shepherd.
In this regard, "I Am Legend" is a cousin to the amazing "Cast Away". While their respective tones are drastically different, both are set on islands void of humanity. Instead of a volleyball, Smith anthropormorphizes a dog. Hanks wrestled with inner demons on his deserted island, Smith confronts outer demons of some sort. The difference in supplies is noteworthy, and the two main characters are driven by widely disparate motivations, but the isolated survival instinct is similar, and watching Smith stretch himself as an actor is extremely enjoyable. Smith's character still possesses elements of the cocky, wise-cracking nature that moviegoers know well, but with merely a glance or a twitch, his confident veneer often cracks to reveal the effects of his time spent alone. Seeing that uncharacteristic vulnerability is initially disorienting, because we're not used to seeing a hero crack like this, but the awkwardness soon yields to awe at the powerhouse solo performance.
Aside from Smith's turn, the highlights of the movie are the breathtaking shots of a desolate New York City. We've seen the empty streets of a booming metropolis before, in movies like "Vanilla Sky" and "28 Days Later", but this is different. Not only is everything deserted, but also overgrown and eroded by nature and time. The minimal music and slow-moving cameras allow for an eerie and appropriate quiet within the movie, creating a game of I Spy in which one's eyes dart about, searching for familiar landmarks like Jumbotrons or Broadway signs.
The only downside to all this quality is that it doesn't last throughout the entire movie. Without giving too much away, I can say that following a key plot development, the third and final act transforms into a more familiar, action-type of movie, leading to a finale that satisfies, but doesn't quite match the preceding hour-plus. This dissonance is very reminiscent of 2004's "Collateral", which similarly enthralled throughout before wimping out at the end, like a color scheme that matches at first glance but clashes upon closer inspection.
If you know what you are in for, you will enjoy the movie more thoroughly. "I Am Legend" is much more "Cast Away" than "Independence Day", more "Signs" than "Bad Boys". In his best performance yet, Will Smith proves that he has the acting chops to match his pretty face and ripped physique, deepening his own cinematic legend as he frequently carries this movie to great heights.
Bottom Line: Two-thirds of a great movie plus one-third of an average movie equals a good movie. 7 of 10.
I haven't read any of Stephen King's books or stories, but I have
learned two things from his movies. He possesses phenomenal insight
into the human mind, and he is a freak. "The Mist" proves both points
fully with a simple story: a mist engulfs a small New England town, and
a few dozen of its denizens are isolated in a grocery store, forced to
deal with enemies both outside and inside the store, both strange and
The best and brilliant parts of "The Mist" are the explorations into the psyche of the various trapped townsfolk. If someone's character is truly exposed when under pressure, then the extreme circumstances of this movie strip souls down to their essences, with frightening results. There are heroes and villains, leaders and followers, stalwarts and cowards. In previous uses of King's source material, writer/director Frank Darabont burrowed into the heart of hope in "The Shawshank Redemption" and delved into faith and the supernatural with "The Green Mile". Both movies placed normal people into extreme circumstances, and did so exceptionally well. In that general thematic regard, Mist is similar to those two excellent films. More specifically though, it varies greatly, stressing the negative aspects of humanity rather than positive traits. Along the way, plenty of complex issues arise, and they are most frequently addressed with a rough, dull blade that gashes boldly through the moral fiber of civilization. The results are rarely pretty, but always compelling.
Lest you think this is a philosophical art house movie, let it be known that as a horror flick, independent of any deeper meaning, "Mist" consistently entertains, with a handful of superb knuckle-whitening scenes enhanced by an excellent cast. But a dark decision in the final act makes it impossible for even the most casual moviegoer to completely ignore the thick subtext of King and Darabont.
What prevents "The Mist" from being a great movie is the frayed nature of that subtext. While the story is rife with interesting points, the commentary fails to coagulate into a comprehensible bigger picture. In a sense though, the fractured themes better befit such a moody picture, one that strikes its audience at many levels, leaving the mind spinning in a mist of its own.
Bottom Line: 7 of 10 for a movie far smarter and deeper than the glut of recent horror releases.
As I am federally mandated to point out, "Gone Baby Gone" is the
directorial debut of Ben Affleck, a fact that is impossible to overlook
while watching the movie. Sometimes I wish I could watch a movie while
completely ignorant of its director, but that's another post. Anyway,
Affleck clearly cares about this crime drama, both in content and
location, and his loving fingerprints mark the film with a unique raw
For a multitude of reasons, "Gone Baby Gone" can succinctly be described as a light version of "Mystic River", which was likewise based on a Dennis Lehane novel. The subject matter is equally heavy and thick, also exploring family dynamics through a painful crime involving a child. Both movies are set in Boston, and the one thing that "Gone" does better, largely due to Affleck's devotion to his hometown, is capture the seedy bizarreness of the local culture. Beyond that, "Gone" trails "River" in every aspect, not to an extent that makes "Gone" a poor film, but merely a decent one that does not remotely reach the great heights Clint Eastwood achieved four years ago.
First, the story itself is weaker and more transparent, due in slight part to a bit of foreshadowing. The moral waters here are equally murky, but shallower once fully explored. Secondly, the cast is weaker; that's not so much a swipe at a solid troupe includes the always good Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, but rather reminds how loaded River was with proved, veteran talent (Penn, Robbins, Bacon, Fishbourne, Linney, Harden). The younger faces here, like Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, and (especially) Amy Ryan, acquit themselves well, but they do not possess the gravitas that can make such a film so much better. They are simply in a different league, the NFC versus "River's" superior AFC. Similarly, Affleck's movie sports an effective rough look and a less effective uneven flow, as opposed to the smooth and polished texture of Eastwood fluid masterpiece. For a first film though, Affleck's end product is impressive and worth watching for fans of the genre.
Bottom Line: Always decent, sometimes quite good, but it's nowhere near "Mystic River". 7 out of 10.
One of better movie series of the last decades possibly concludes with
the release of "The Bourne Ultimatum", the third movie that follows
super-secret spy/assassin Jason Bourne as he attempts to track down his
past against the wishes of the United States government that trained
him. The original, "The Bourne Identity", was one of the best pure
action movie in recent years. The sequel, 2004's "Bourne Supremacy",
was unsure and not quite as polished, but still solid. Now comes the
series third installment, which just about wraps up the summer movie
The storyline follows a natural progression from the previous two movies. Now that Bourne has figured out who he is now and atoned somewhat for his sins, he wants to know who he was. In order to do that, he must race the government to various people who know the secrets behind his black-ops work.
Few cinematic characters are as perfect for action movies as Jason Bourne, from both an action and narrative standpoint. As he learns his past, he takes the audience along for the ride. But that process is not tedious backstory or mediocre character development, as is often the case in such movies. Instead, his quest is the story, which makes for a rapid-fire flick that simultaneously entertains and enlightens. Matt Damon's determined yet understated demeanor is ideal for the role, and the no-frills approach never distracts from a driving story that is filled with plenty of high-tech action.
In a lesser movie, the technological implausibilities might weaken the movie or distract from the storyline. But "Ultimatum" dodged that bullet in two ways. First, the story moves quickly enough that the viewer barely has time to think about what might or might not work before the flick is on to the next frenetic sequence. Secondly, the movie does not use the technology as a dominant point of the movie, like "Enemy of the State". Instead the devices are merely a means to an end.
Also overshadowing the technology is another strong supporting cast. The always-good Joan Allen returns this time, joined by Scott Glenn and David Straithairn, from "Good Night and Good Luck". Strathairn and Allen are compelling in every scene, particularly when they are together. Their exchanges crackle without flying over the top, and their restrained focus is as intense as any shouting match. They add a layer of gravity to the goings-on that separates "Ultimatum" from other summer action like "Live Free or Die Hard".
Other differences between this and "Die Hard" lie in the technical aspects of the film. Director Paul Greengrass also helmed "Supremacy", and he and his crew remedied one of the main problems of the second movie, which was the overly shaky camera work. Most of the shots are still hand-held, but they are more static than before and pulled back a little in the fights. The music is surprisingly good too. As Bourne trots through Europe and Africa, the music travels along, mixing in pulsing strings, African drums, and even going completely silent when appropriate.
"Ultimatum" often echoes "Identity", which is a good thing. Both possess a similar driving intensity interspersed with quiet moments that allow humanity to leak through. This one lacks the originality of "Identity", but replaces it with the satisfying resolution that Bourne is seeking. On the whole, as the summer movie season wraps up, this is the best action film of the last few months. It's better than "Die Hard", although it doesn't provide as much fun. It's a better film; "Die Hard" is a better movie, if that makes sense.
Bottom Line: Better than the second; not quite as good as the original, but still a bang-up way to end the summer movie season. A slightly generous 8 of 10.
"Ratatouille" is the latest computer-animated release from Pixar, the
company that has produced the best animated films over the last decade.
The odd title is the name of vegetable stew and doubles as a pun on the
main character, a rat named Remy.
Remy is no ordinary rat though. He resides in France amidst a colony that lives as rats do, thriving on the garbage and remnants of others, Remy is the exception because he has a finely-honed sense of smell and loves cooking. Through a series of fortunate events, Remy finds himself in Paris at a fine restaurant, where he learns how to interact with a kitchen boy named Linguini to create magnificent meals. Things of course get complicated, as Remy attempts to balance his passion with his family, and Linguini must handle being a celebrity through no talent of his own, while dealing with a sinister restaurant critic.
Like all of Pixar's work, "Ratatouille" looks phenomenal. The rats in particular look good, with fine detail paid to fur in various states. The humans are not the most hyper-realistic creations seen on screen, but neither are they intended to be. This is a cartoon, and the artists seem to know that, because most of the characters border on caricature. The slimy French chef is ridiculously short and sports a pencil-line mustache. The critic has long and angular features that scream evil. Even though the movie is made with the most modern of technology, it is a throwback to the classic days of Disney and Looney Tunes, when merely a glance at a character would explain everything about a character. The bad guys look bad; the good guys are goofy but likable, and the gray characters share attributes of both, leaving the viewer guessing for a while.
One thing that separates "Ratatouille" from most of its Pixar brethren is the pervasive kinetic energy. Plenty of other movies, like Cars and The Incredibles, were drenched with action and movement, but it feels different here because the scope of the movie is centered on a rat. When you watch Remy race through a kitchen or up a building from close-up, it feels much wilder and more dangerous than watching a human make the same thirty-foot trek, which is appropriate since it is more hazardous for a rat to make that trip.
The question about all Pixar movies is twofold: how well does it play with kids, and how well does it play with adults? I suspect that Ratatouille may not be as accessible to kids as most of the rest of the Pixar library, because many of the characters are rats. Rodents are not as marketable or over-the-top memorable as a giant furry blue monster or an innocent little clown fish. Nor is the story quite as simple as some others. But the pace is brisk enough, and the story is understandable enough, thanks in large part to the brilliant animation, that kids should still enjoy the movie. Adults should enjoy it too, with the fine images, clever humor, and various twists and turns of the story. On the whole, "Ratatouille" is not as memorable as "Finding Nemo" or either "Toy Story", but it is good enough to be tucked right behind them with "Monster's Inc." Bottom Line: 7 of 10 for the best family film of the summer. What the heck, call it 8 of 10.
After a summer of movies filled with second, third, and fourth sequels,
the most anticipated follow-up is finally here, and it is a fifth
installment. "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the story
of Year Five at Hogwarts for lead characters Harry, Hermione, and Ron,
although a large portion of the movie occurs outside the grounds of the
teens' school. More than a children's book, this episode builds upon
strong themes of fear and friendship to create a solid piece of cinema.
(Note: I have read only the first five books.) "Order of the Phoenix" ("OOTP") tracks the ongoing saga of the interactions between the dark Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter, who is aided by the titular order, a sort of wizard Joint Chiefs of Staff. Many in the wizarding community doubt Harry's story that Voldemort has returned, and the Ministry of Magic has it in for Dumbledore, all of which means that Harry feels more alone than ever, despite the presence of people and places he loves. As always with a movie adapted from popular literature, two questions must be answered. 1) Was it a good movie, and 2) Was it a good adaptation of the book? Pleasantly, the response to both questions is yes, though each affirmative requires unique qualification.
Having read the book, judging the movie strictly on its own merits is very difficult, because gaps on screen are filled in subconsciously by knowledge of the book. But this movie seems to succeed apart from those pages. Relatively unknown director David Yates keeps the story Harry-centric, giving it a brisk pace and making the main arc easy to follow, although a few other truncated story lines and characters will be enjoyed more by those who know them fully. Expanded motifs of Harry's anger and loneliness are expressed clearly but not heavy-handedly, through both pictures and the words of multiple characters. As was the case with the previous two installments, viewing this movie without first reading the book may result in confusion or at least a lesser understanding of everything, but having seen the first four movies will be plenty to let one comprehend this episode to an enjoyable extent.
The latter question is more complicated. Many people will complain about plot elements that vary from the book. Those objections are true but invalid. Maybe a beloved character was axed, tweaked, or minimized. Perhaps a treasured moment was omitted or included in a disappointingly disparate manner. Make no mistake about it; many things were altered. But when an 870-page tome is being condensed into a two hour and eighteen minute movie, cuts must be made. Much like time constraints demanded that "The Lord of the Rings" focus largely on Frodo at the expense of favorites like Tom Bombadil, this story must focus on Harry Potter. There are reasons that he is the title character. So no one gets to see Firenze teach or Ron and Hermione fight or anything about Quidditch or prefects. Looking objectively at the modifications though, the primary story arc does advance satisfactorily without those missing parts. Perhaps the galloping pace could have slowed to a canter, as the movie was indeed a rarity that could easily have been twenty minutes longer. But the purpose should then have been to expand upon the elements already in place rather than to add missing ones.
The more important goal is that the movie be faithful to the spirit of the book, and on that level, "OOTP" hits its mark. "Prisoner of Azkaban" displayed the world of wizards better than any other Potter movie because of two key inclusions: the little ways magic was used in the background and the fantastic scene-setting shots. Yates nearly recaptures Alfonso Cuaron's brilliance, approaching it with elements like kittens wandering around in pictures and spectacular zooms over Hogwarts. Of equal importance, he also executes small moments even better than the source material, wonderfully depicting simple enjoyments like laughter and friendship are a stark contrast to the lurking complex evil of You Know Who. These small interactions imbue the movie with a soul that adds substance and humanity to an adventurous and magical universe.
"OOTP" suffers slightly from middle-film-in-a-series syndrome, but in a good way. Much like "The Two Towers" or "The Matrix Reloaded", one gets the feeling that it picks up and ends mid-story, with only a necessary modicum of resolution, as though setting the stage for something grand. That promise of something huge just ahead actually enhances the power of the movie. It leaves one desperately awaiting the next chapter more so than any other Potter movie. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", the next in the series, screams to be (re-)read before the seventh and final book is released next Saturday.
Ultimately, viewers who have not read the book should be able to follow along easily, and the movie should quench the appetites of fans with reasonable expectations. The gist of the book is explored in numerous ways, resulting in an experience that will leave one with a few thrills and chills, and a smile on one's face.
Bottom Line: A concise return to the spirit of the book, capturing the world with a proper dose of cinematic license. 7 of 10 for the second best movie in the series.
If you're worn out by the relentless parade of movie heroes sporting
tights or transforming into robots, good news currently awaits you at
the theater: "Live Free or Die Hard", a physical, action-packed
antidote to comic book movies, which is the fourth chapter in the
cinematic adventures of Detective John McClane. Having already survived
Germans at Nakatomi Plaza, revolutionaries at Dulles Airport, and more
Germans in New York City, McClane (Bruce Willis) is once again in the
wrong place at the right time, as his simple task morphs into yet
another odds-defying assignment.
Willis brings back his familiar character with a pitch-perfect blend of world-weariness and cocksure attitude. While he's saving the country, McClane has an innate ability to blend comedy with capability, willingly hurling unsavory nicknames and spewing determined anger rather than blandly yet skillfully executing his mission. Live Free separates itself from traditional action/adventure movies by organically working the humor into the fabric of the movie, rather than lazily relying on comic relief characters or contrived situations. Justin Long, perhaps most recognizable as the Mac guy in Apple's television ads, plays off Willis well as he is sucked into the chaotic events, with a defensive sarcasm and semi-rebellious side that effectively embody his role as a twenty-something computer hacker.
The comedy isn't the selling point of the "Live Free" though. The trailer promised huge effects, and the movie delivers in a BIG way. Over-sized vehicles ranging from semi trucks to fighter jets are involved in adrenaline-pumping confrontations, and of equal importance, they bob and weave in relatively sensible ways. As opposed to the incomprehensible massive chaos of "Transformers", there is an elegance to the action here. It's still over-the-top, but in an linear, choreographed manner that is easily followed and relished. Even though many of the stunts undoubtedly use CGI, the old-school physicality provides a sharp and enjoyable contrast to the digital attack the enemy is unleashing on the United States, as well as the cartoon-ish nature of many comic book movies.
"Live Free" has its share of improbability, as characters survive dangerous falls and endure endless physical abuse, and the technology sometimes seems all too easy. But in a movie like this, such conveniences are accepted if not expected as part of the genre. This isn't a serious Oscar contender with grand themes or undertones; it's summertainment, a popcorn movie designed as a diverting escape. In that regard it succeeds wildly, inducing winces, yells, and cheers from the audience.
One interesting note is that this rendition of Die Hard is rated "only" PG-13, no doubt in an attempt to lure the lucrative teenage demographic. Some will be outraged by this apparent neutering of a franchise that was largely defined through the the R-rating earned by the pervasive vulgarities of the first three installments. Even the signature line (Yippee-ki-yay...) is obscured by sound effects. On one hand it's disappointing that Hollywood acquiesced to the almighty dollar. On the other hand the absence of a constant barrage of language is scarcely missed, as McClane's aggressive attitude is still intact, accompanied by plenty of derogatory terms that are not quite as profane. Maybe he mellowed with age.
Bottom Line: The best action movie so far this year. A rock solid 7 of 10.
Buckle your seat belts. It's time for the summer movie season. Let's
get this out of the way first: this is the summer of the sequel. Of the
ten most hyped movies in the next four months, eight of them are
sequels, and seven of those are at least the third in the series.
Sequels are a tricky business, because there are often massive built-in
expectations and points of reference. They can't be too similar to the
prequels without risking boredom, but if they stray too far from the
tone of the original, they risk alienating their audiences. Like last
year's summer season, this year kicks off with the third movie in a
blockbuster series. In 2006, the first out of the gate was "Mission:
Impossible 3"; in 2007, it is "Spider-Man 3".
When we last left Spidey three years ago, he had rid the world of Doctor Octopus, and had his identity revealed to his two closest friends, his girlfriend Mary Jane and his buddy/enemy Harry Osborn, whose father was the Green Goblin in the original picture. "SM3" picks up not long after, in a New York City where Spider-Man has gone glam, with his name and image plastered all over the media. Peter Parker relishes his newfound fame, so much that it begins to impede his relationship with Mary Jane. As that hits the rocks, he finds himself vulnerable at an inopportune time, which leads to the chaos that forms the crux of the movie.
One strong point of the movie is that is has the same principal cast as first two and also possesses a continuous story arc. Both features (think about it) are actually rarities among superhero trilogies. That definitely helps in the continuity department, because the characters, locations, and relationships are familiar. On the downside, the similarities amplify the fact that little of the movie is original. We've seen Spidey swoop and soar through city canyons, and we've seen him fight nasty villains. With the exception of an early chase scene, nothing is particularly different, either in style or content. That's disappointing, as a Spider-Man movie begs to be exhilarating. Say what you will about the vastly different styles of the three Mission: Impossibles, but each of them had a unique feel that individually defined each movie and made like events more interesting.
While the lack of novelty is disappointing, the most significant attempt at being unique provides the most unusual portion of the movie. As Parker/Spidey undergoes a transformation in the middle act, the movie takes a bizarre turn into romantic comedy. The idea is commendable; too few movies take too few chances. But this one doesn't work. For twenty minutes you understand what is happening, but still can't quite believe it. It would be like if Golden State had gone into a stall offense when they were up 20 against Dallas last night. Sure, it makes sense given the circumstances, but it still feels completely wrong and out of place.
The bigger problem is the end consequence of the emotional speed bump. It's something very rare in superhero movies: Peter Parker is not likable. Granted, that is part of the point, but when one starts disliking the title character, one loses interest in the movie, and that is huge strike against this kind of flick.
Like the later Batman installments, "SM3" also has too many characters and stories for one movie. Instead of completely marginalizing the hero like "Batman & Robin" did, "SM3" races through the stories of the antagonists. Two of the three could easily have filled the requisite two-plus hours in finer fashion. Then the villains' stories could have been fleshed out better to create the rare well-rounded superhero movie. Not only that, but Peter Parker's issues could have been expanded as well, in a manner more like its predecessors. One of the taglines for the movie is The Battle Within, and that promising fight unfortunately is not fully addressed, though in a pleasant surprise, numerous positive themes of responsibility and choice are.
Having said all that, I must provide the disclaimer that Spider-Man just doesn't do it for me. Batman does; Superman does; but Spider-Man doesn't. Maybe it has to do with Tobey Maguire's relatively diminutive stature, that I don't believe he could be a butt-kicking hero. Maybe the face-covering mask dehumanizes Spider-Man for me. Whatever.
People won't care that much; "Spider-Man 3" will still make a webful of money. If you like the other two Spider-Man movies, you'll enjoy this one, which isn't painful to watch. There are plenty of characters and eventually plenty of action. But "Spider-Man 3" matches its predecessors ways it shouldn't and doesn't match them in ways it should.
Bottom Line: 6 of 10 for the first big release of the summer and perhaps the final Spider-Man movie. Not bad, but nothing special.
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