movie reviews strike again

More movie reviews. Many spoilers, especially for SPIDER-MAN 2.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

The first trailers for TROY came out last December. I remember rolling my eyes and then quipping, “The face that launched a thousand CGI ships.” I then spent the months leading up to the release of it expecting it to be sad and terrible, and intending to ignore it when it came out. Then when it finally did come out, I found myself in the mood to watch something silly (even if unintentionally silly), so I went to see it anyway, not expecting much. I was thoroughly surprised to find, twenty minutes into it, that I was enjoying it. I was even more surprised when I was still enjoying it two hours later when it finally ended. You have to understand that I am not a student of the classics, and I didn't care how much the movie deviated from the epic poem that was its inspiration (the credits do say “inspired by” rather than “based on” The Iliad). I just thought: Okay, filmmakers, show me a movie, tell me a story, and make it fun. It seemed to me that they succeeded.

Most reviews I read (after I saw it) were negative, and sort of confirmed my initial dread, and I guess they make valid points. However, they fail to explain why I liked it. I'm not sure myself, now that it's several months later, but I'm going to try to remember what I liked about it.

The first thing that comes to mind is Eric Bana's performance as Hector. Yet another Australian import, I never heard of him before he appeared as Bruce Banner in HULK last year, giving a pretty good performance. In TROY, he again gives a good performance, and I actually found the role to be well written. Hector had the unusual trait of always talking sense in every scene, in a movie full of characters acting on stupid impulse and superstitious faith. It's a sad story full of good guys getting killed, and if anyone had bothered to listen to Hector at any stage, things would probably have gone a bit better. They don't listen, and events pile up, and eventually Hector is forced into the position of dueling Achilles, the greatest warrior ever, in hand to hand combat, something nobody usually survives for more than five seconds. Even knowing that he tried to stop things from coming to this point, honorable Hector bravely girds himself and tromps out to face his doom eye to eye. The whole movie is simplistic in a comic book way, but I don't mind that. (It's a bit weird to say that TROY is a comic book version of The Iliad when there is now a graphic novel adaptation of The Iliad that is full of richness and depth, but maybe the point still makes sense.)

So then we have Brad Pitt, who buffed himself up to the right proportions to portray a demigod killing machine, and plays the part with an affected accent and a straight face. It's a performance that works, even though I giggled a bit when he would occasionally stare meaningfully at the horizon, contemplating Fate and Destiny. Achilles functions as a force of nature. Once he's set in motion, you've got to brace yourself for the consequences, because reasoning with him isn't going to make any difference. In the opening scenes of the movie, Achilles is trotted to show just what a badass he is, with his flying jump-and-skewer move, which looks a lot like the kind of super attack move you can get out of a Mortal Combat character by hitting the right buttons. When he eventually battles Hector, he refrains from using this move until he finally gets frustrated with Hector's ability to avoid dying. Then he uses his super flying skewer attack, and Hector blocks it. Hooray for Hector! There's some more tussling, and he tries it again, and Hector blocks it again. Achilles finally just has to wear him down the hard way before finishing him off. I guess I mention all this because it was fun to see that the choreography of this battle (which the movie builds up to for quite a long time) had been plotted out as a mini-story with intelligence and some amount of wit.

Two of the stars of Lord of the Rings are reunited here, Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean. Orlando Bloom plays Paris, who is not only a stupid kid who causes an entire war because he can't keep his sweaty little hands to himself, but who is later revealed to be a coward who crawls away from a fight on his hands and knees, clutching his brother Hector's legs and begging Hector to save him. Bloom is kind of a big matinee idol type star these days, and I admired him for playing a part that required him to be unheroic and snivelling. A lot of actors would have an ego problem about such a scene. Sean Bean plays Ulysses, another character in the movie who tends to talk a lot of common sense. Hector sees everything as too dire to have any sense of humor about it, whereas Ulysses offers his counsel with a bit of sparkle, a suggestion of seen-it-all sarcasm.

Most of the reviews I read, even if they didn't like the movie overall, seemed to like Peter O'Toole as Priam. I agree, his presence does add something. Old pro that he is, he can somehow invest his scenes with emotional straightforwardness and depth while still seeming to preserve the sense that this movie is all just in good fun, and not to be taken too seriously. I'm not quite sure how he does that.

One quibble I had that I couldn't quite erase from my mind was that the movie keeps mentioning explicitly that this war is going to be the greatest war ever fought, and that memories of it and the participants in it will last forever. Then we see it unfold, and somehow the entire Trojan War seems to take only about three and a half days. Well, they do elide over a 12 day truce for Priam to mourn Hector, but that still only makes it a little over two weeks. It doesn't quite feel like the most epic battle ever. On the other hand, I did like all of the battle scenes in the movie. CGI-enhanced though they may have been, they were presented with a clarity that I found helpful. Even with the screen full of crazy montages of noise and blood and sand and sword, I could always tell which army was which, which direction they were headed, who was making and who was losing ground, and so on. This is not an easy thing to do, which is why I admired the accomplishment.

The cinematography suits the movie quite well. The sun always looks baking hot on the beaches, and everything is given just a subtle glossy enhancement that makes it feel like you're watching mythic events rather than real ones. There is one very nice sequence two thirds of the way through the picture, where a battle erupts just before dawn, with the sky black. Then, as it continues to unfold, the sky begins to brighten; the sun is not yet up, and we see the armies in the grey predawn light. The light grows, shot by shot, a little brighter and more colorful each time, until eventually the sun rises and full sunlight spills over the beaches. My mind boggles at the ridiculous amount of planning that is required to achieve this effect, which the average audience member isn't even going to notice. It definitely caught my attention, and I thought it was fantastic.

Anyway, even though I had a good time watching this movie, I am loath to actually recommend it to anyone else. People who do actually remember and admire The Iliad should probably steer clear, because they're just going to hate every difference in story and character, and there are hundreds of differences. For me, though, I thought that the story they ended up using, about a love affair sparking war between a mighty army and a walled city, with heroes and warriors on both sides that you could root for, told with earnestness and good humor and a little bit of (PG-13 rated) nudity and sex, made for a pretty entertaining movie.

VIEWED ON: 05-16-04, 06-01-04

Directed by Sam Raimi

I have been reminded several times recently (by Adam Cadre) of what I said after viewing the first SPIDER-MAN movie two years ago: that I wasn't sure that it was a good movie, but that I thought it was good Spider-Man. I can say without hesitation that SPIDER-MAN 2 is a good movie among good movies, and also that it is good Spider-Man; however, I would like to talk a bit about what I mean when I say good Spider-Man — or, specifically, what I meant the first time.

Adam recently explained why he thought the first movie failed to be good Spider-Man. I noticed that his argument against it was based on the writing, and that my positive reactions were largely based on the visuals, a distinction that readers of ACX might find amusing. His primary argument was that it didn't feature Spider-Man making wisecracks as he fought bad guys. He's right, it is a distinguishing feature of Spidey that he throws as many jokes as punches. I have been trying to picture whether the fight scenes could have accomodated a lot of jokes. They'd have to be cut to a different rhythm. It seems to me that it would have been possible, but I'm not sure that it's a bad compromise to let them slide. I didn't even notice their absence until Adam pointed it out. I am led to wonder whether there was ever a version of the script where Spider-Man kept up an ongoing banter during a fight, or whether they made the decision early on to keep his witticisms to a minimum.

A lot of what I was keying on was that the comic book visuals were right: all of his leggy, acrobatic poses; compositions cribbed directly from Ditko and Romita, and so forth. However, I don't think Adam was ignoring the visuals; he, like other reviewers, probably didn't think very much of Spidey suddenly becoming fakey looking CGI whenever he sprang into action. This didn't bother me so much; I wasn't looking for perfection, just that they were doing they best they could with the technology while stretching him into authentic poses. I also wasn't completely ignoring the writing, either, although I was thinking more broadly: the origin story was intact instead of being rewritten (including the wrestling match, which I did not expect), and Spider-Man was placed into predicaments that could only have crappy outcomes no matter what he tried to do. I remember particularly liking the Green Goblin shouting, “CHOOSE!” and simultaneously dropping Mary Jane and a carload of innocent people. (I also remember particularly disliking the notion that the Green Goblin was capable of holding up the cable car with one hand, but oh well.)

On to the sequel. Large promotional posters for SPIDER-MAN 2 appeared a few weeks before its release, one of which was emblazoned with the tagline, “THE STORY CONTINUES.” That kind of promotion gives me a bad feeling, because it usually is hype leading to a big let-down. How gratifying, therefore, that in this case it wasn't a load of b.s. SPIDER-MAN 2 unfolds as the meaty second part of a larger story about the troubled life of a young man who had greatness thrust upon him.

Spider-Man may be a hero, but Peter Parker is unfortunately a bit of a loser, with a Charlie Brown-like ability to always come up short. When the movie starts, he's got a crappy pizza delivery job that even his ability to swing through the city unencumbered by traffic doesn't allow him to keep. He's behind on rent for his ratty apartment, he's already spent the advance on his Daily Bugle paycheck, he's falling behind in his college studies, and he can't manage to keep the simplest of promises to people. Being Spider-Man doesn't help any of this, and in most cases, makes them worse. His best friend has a vendetta against Spider-Man, and the woman he loves has given up on him because of his unexplained absences. That's basically the set-up. Then his life really gets bad.

The CGI is a little better this time, and I must admit I found it particularly thrilling to see Spidey fighting Doctor Octopus on the big screen, watching static images from my childhood suddenly alive and in motion. I did have a little problem with Doc Ock shrugging off punches to his face, given that Spidey can put his fists through bricks. I suppose you could argue that he was pulling his punches because he didn't want to kill the guy, but you'd think when his life and Aunt May's are both at stake, he'd kind of at least incapacitate the bad guy.

I was particularly pleased with the sequence where Octavius puts on the octopus arms and fires up his machine, only to have everything go blooey. It's an incredibly dense sequence, full of exciting visuals and some impressive sound work. (In a theater with a good set of subwoofers, the machine makes some tingle-your-spine rumbles of the kind that I have always wished I could get in my movie, THE KRONE EXPERIMENT — which, incidentally, also has to do with a mad scientist using a giant machine with superfocused lasers to stimulate the creation of a dangerously powerful source of energy. Go figure.) I really like the extreme close up shot of Octavius's goggled eyes, one dark and one flaring with reflected light, as we hear him say, “The power of the sun — in the palm of my hand!” We don't see his mouth, so it functions as interior monologue, something that's standard in comics but trickier to do in a movie. (The line itself is also classic Stan Lee-type writing.) Immediately following this is a scene in a hospital that's done in classic horror movie style, all shadows reflections and movement, quick clips of screams and violence happening more in your mind than onscreen, making it all somehow scarier.

This scene unfortunately culminates in something so cliched I want to tear my own head off in despair. I would appreciate it if, never again in any motion picture or television show, even done ironically or for parodic value, will a character throw his head back and shout “Nooooooooo!!!” This is partly redeemed a minute later when Octavius uses his arms to toss aside a taxicab that's barreling straight at him. Throughout the movie, I loved Alfred Molina's body language, which really sold the idea that these mechanical arms were part of him.

Other problems I had with the movie, before going back to things I liked: The ridiculously rough treatment Doc Ock gives Peter Parker, that he would never survive if he weren't Spider-Man. Doc Ock needs to find Spider-Man, something only Parker can help with, so what does he do? He throws a car at Peter Parker. Then, after telling Parker to find Spider-Man in a couple of hours or else, Doc Ock throws him so hard against a wall that it collapses, burying him in rubble. Not a very smart course of action. This bothered me more the second time than the first, but it's going to bother me on all future viewings.

Back to the good stuff. Shortly after this, there's another battle that culminates in a terrific setpiece in which Spider-Man has to stop a runaway elevated train. They contrive to have him remove his mask for this sequence, but I endorse the idea, because it's the agony on Tobey Maguire's face that makes the scene especially work for me. It actually reminds me of my all-time favorite piece of Spider-Man writing, not from a comic book but from a Spider-Man novel written by Marv Wolfman. I don't remember anything else from this book except this one scene, but it really etched itself into my memory. A bad guy (probably also Doctor Octopus) has collapsed a building onto him. Buried alive under a mountain of bricks, he nearly gives up. Then his will to survive sparks anew, and there is an incredible description of the sheer fight and strain he makes to push himself up out of those suffocating tons of rubble. It's the willpower more than the spider-power that frees him. This movie really reminded me of that. There's a scene before this train sequence where Aunt May (who, in a departure from the comics, is a tough, experienced and resourceful lady instead of a feeble, naive, and weak-hearted one) tells Peter that a hero is someone who just hangs on one second longer. In a lesser movie, you'd get a flashback to Aunt May saying this as he's trying to stop the train, but of course it isn't needed. We remember it, he remembers it; he holds on, he saves everybody on the train. I love this scene.

Then after that, the scene continues in a way that's wonderful and surprising and that almost makes me want to cry. Exhausted by the effort, he collapses, only to have the people on the train gently, gently catch him and bear him up, and lay his nearly broken body down, and gaze tenderly at him, silently appreciating what he has just done for them. He still doesn't have his mask on, but nobody cares, nobody's going to call the Daily Bugle to get a reward; they just want to know that he's okay. Gosh, what a scene.

I feel like I've only described half the things that I found stimulating about this movie, but I guess I'll probably leave it at that. I caught one of these dodgy new VH-1 shows recently, the one where people pretend to be nostalgic about things that happened a month ago, and there was a segment exploring the inexplicable Summer 2004 phenomenon of “Sequels that don't suck.” One guy put it like this: “Shrek 2? Didn't suck. The Bourne Identity didn't suck. Spider-Man 2 *totally* didn't suck.”

I'd agree with that. This movie totally did not suck. Amazing.

VIEWED ON: 07-02-04, 07-05-04, 08-08-04

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