Archive for June 2004

Spider-Man 2

June 30, 2004

Alfred Molina gets a juicy role in the biggest blockbuster he’s appeared in since Raiders of the Lost Ark (his debut film), and he fully deserves the attention. Molina’s performance in Spider-Man 2 is a flawless mix of human-scaled emotion and operatic comic-book excess — a far more successful experiment than Willem Dafoe was allowed to pull off in the original Spider-Man (2002). I didn’t much care for that film, and wasn’t much anticipating the sequel, but Spider-Man 2 has two large things going for it: Molina, of course, and also a series of intricately engineered super-brawls that do a more electrifying job of aping comic-book action scenes than anything else I’ve seen.

Director Sam Raimi, who also helmed the first, delivers a far more fluid and confident piece of work this time out. Having proven himself by shepherding one of the biggest hits in recent memory, Raimi feels free to play now, to dabble in comedy (there’s a wonderful extended shot of Spider-Man sharing an elevator with a nonplussed yuppie), to linger on character moments (this part doesn’t always work as well), and to spend untold amounts of money reproducing the clash between Dr. Otto Octavius (Molina), who becomes Dr. Octopus, and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), who almost becomes an ex-Spider-Man.

Peter is run through the wringer in Spider-Man 2, a dorky Job stumbling over indignities at every turn. He gets fired from a pizza-delivery gig. He’s browbeaten by his boss at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, once again a staccato hoot in the role). His true love Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is dating JJJ’s astronaut son. His best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) hates Spider-Man’s guts. His beloved Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is having trouble holding onto her house. The combined stress affects Peter’s webslinging and wallcrawling (he also needs glasses again). All this, plus Dr. Octopus is terrorizing the city. Eventually, the Spider-Man costume winds up in a garbage can, and Peter embarks on a new life as just a normal college student.

Raimi and his writers (including novelist and comics fan Michael Chabon) have obviously studied Spider-Man’s appeal — Stan Lee created him as a corrective to the spotless titans who dominated comics for years, who seemed to have no lives outside their costumes and therefore no personal problems. At times, Spider-Man 2 overstates the case, and every time the saintly Aunt May shows up — especially when she makes a dreary, endless speech about heroes — the movie nods off. But when Doc Ock is on the screen, all is forgiven. Molina gives this villain — who has four mechanical tentacles that do his bidding but also sway him towards the Dark Side — as much shading as he can, and also an intensity of focus. He’s obsessed with completing the experiment that went awry, killed his wife and fused those arms to his spine. Defeating Spider-Man is only a means to that end. The Spider-Man movies, on reflection, are blockbuster essays on the deformative power of science: Peter rose from his lab accident as a hero, but others like Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius weren’t so lucky. (If you add in the origins of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, you get the sense that Stan Lee harbors a deep mistrust of technology and especially radiation.)

Spider-Man 2 isn’t quite God’s gift to comics fans, but it’s head and shoulders above the thin, rushed first film. It stays with the anguish of lonely, beleaguered Peter, who can’t make it to Mary Jane’s play because he’s off being Spider-Man, and who can’t tell his loved ones the truth because it would endanger them. Raimi finds heroism in Peter’s self-denial, but as a director he denies himself nothing. That sequence aboard the elevated train, with Spider-Man and Doc Ock flinging and bashing each other, is going to go down in action history. I’ve been harsh on Raimi in recent years, only because I’ve felt he was being a bit of a Peter Parker himself, muting his true gifts in order to make it in Hollywood. But in this film the joy is back. Narratively lumpy as it sometimes is, Spider-Man 2 marks Raimi’s return to the pure cinema of fun.

Fahrenheit 9/11

June 23, 2004

In one of the more talked-about sequences in Michael Moore’s barnstorming Fahrenheit 9/11, President George W. Bush sits in a Florida classroom and reads along with second-graders. The book? My Pet Goat — fitting, since Bush, in this film, is Michael Moore’s pet goat, in the sense of the word meaning “a target of ridicule.” Bush sits there vacuously as the students read aloud; a timer on the screen tells us that he sat there for seven minutes, his expression blank and his manner untroubled, after hearing that the second World Trade Center tower had been hit and that America was under attack. Nothing Moore can say is more quietly damning than this footage.

Of course, those predisposed to agree with Moore’s thesis — that the presidency was stolen by a man up to his eyebrows in obligations to oil interests and Saudi Arabia — will likely have seen this footage (widely available online) and much else in Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore is angling, I think, for the folks who don’t trust Bush but don’t really know why — who aren’t avid readers of political blogs, which have supplanted the mainstream news media as outlets of information that often challenges the government’s official story. He’s also reaching out to the non-readers who may not have encountered this stuff in the many anti-Bush volumes to hit stores in recent months, including Moore’s own.

I am not Moore’s ideal audience, since I agree with the gist of what he’s saying and I’ve heard most of this material before. Ray Bradbury has made a fuss over Moore’s hijacking the title of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but Moore is more indebted to the writings of Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Craig Unger, Ted Rall, and countless others who have made a similar case. Moore’s advantage here, aside from the free publicity the controversy over his film has generated, is that he’s working in a visual medium — and when he acts as a counterprogrammer to the sanitized official narrative of the war in Iraq, Fahrenheit 9/11 cuts deepest.

Consider the story of Lila Lipscomb, an employment-office worker in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. Once again, Moore goes home and finds a goldmine: Lila, an average American in terms of her ideology (she resents war protesters because two of her kids are in the service), is not so different from the audience members Moore hopes to sway. Lila defends military service as a great opportunity for young people to better themselves. But then the narrative deepens: Lila’s son serving in Iraq, Sgt. Michael Pedersen, is killed when his Black Hawk chopper goes down. Grief turns this average woman into an activist filled with extraordinary rage, and her furious blast at a woman who accuses her of staging her mourning for the cameras is breathtaking.

Perhaps Moore should have stuck to The Lila Lipscomb Story. But his goal is broader and sometimes foggy. Much of the movie’s first hour deals with the ties between the Bush family and the Saudis — and, by extension, the Bin Laden family — and it may lose a part of the audience; the material is hard to sex up. By the second half, as Moore’s embedded camera crews catch the carnage and casual cruelty on both sides of the Iraq conflict, it’s an invaluable show-and-tell for those whose only exposure to this war has been from news networks heavily influenced by an administration that has refused to show us the coffins coming home.

Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t quite the bullseye Moore’s supporters are hoping for and Bush’s supporters are dreading. On either side of the fence — those who want Moore to be the golden truth-teller to deliver them from evil, and those who see Moore as the Anti-Christ — the hysteria is a bit overblown. As a hype-soaked cultural moment, though, it’s of obvious importance; it is to the Left what The Phantom Menace was to Star Wars fans, and to the Right what The Last Temptation of Christ was to fundamentalist Christians. This hotly debated and politically charged document in a movie era otherwise known for White Chicks and Van Helsing — and the phenomenal success it will no doubt enjoy on its first weekend — speaks volumes about the country’s current agitated mood of discontent, intensified by ongoing tales of torture and corruption so blatant that even the mainstream media can’t put a happy spin on it. Moore has his own spin, and his movie sometimes gets dizzy from it, but there’s no doubt it will move audiences.

I don’t think Fahrenheit 9/11 is Moore’s best work; I prefer his messy, searching Bowling for Columbine, which grew humbler as it went along, as Moore realized the problem went deeper than guns. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore knows exactly what the problem is; he isn’t a questioner this time, he’s a lecturer. Sit down, class, and let Professor Moore tell you what’s what. As a Moore supporter and Bush detractor, I was grateful to have my prejudices stroked in this way. But I wished, for art’s sake, for a work less sure of its foregone conclusion.


June 18, 2004

The dodgeball they made us play in junior-high gym class was a lot less structured than the pro-level stuff we see in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Mostly it was a matter of two groups of kids, staring across the gym floor at each other and gunning that red ball at whoever didn’t move fast enough. But the gist of it is the same — as dodgeball legend Patches O’Houlihan describes it in a vintage instructional film, it’s “a game of violence, exclusion, and degradation.” Dodgeball touches on all three to render a satire of sports and sports movies. It’s hardly a great movie — many scenes are laughless. But it’s good semi-clean fun, the sort of scruffy comedy made for couch viewing on a rainy Thursday.

Vince Vaughn takes what could be considered the Bill-Murray-circa-1981 role — Peter La Fleur, lackadaisical manager of Average Joe’s Gym, which, by benign neglect, he’s managing right into the ground. Peter’s gym is really more of a clubhouse where misfits can hang out and feel like they’re working out. The clientele includes Gordon (the always dependable Stephen Root), a sad sack with a disrespectful mail-order bride; Justin (Justin Long), an aspiring cheerleader; Steve (Alan Tudyk), a goofball who thinks he’s a pirate; Dwight (Chris Williams), who used to work at an airport and prefers his non-work at the gym; and Owen (Joel David Moore), who can be relied upon to mix things up disastrously.

This motley crew is endangered by the insufferable White Goodman (Ben Stiller, relishing a rare bad-guy role), egotistical owner of the high-scale GloboGym across the street. White wants to buy out Peter, raze Average Joe’s, and put in additional parking space for his clients. Peter needs $50,000 to hold off debt, and Gordon notices that the grand prize in an upcoming dodgeball tournament is, conveniently, $50,000. With the help of GloboGym lawyer Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor), who can’t stand White and who has a vicious underhand throw from years of softball, Peter puts together the Average Joes team — who will eventually face off against White’s team, the Purple Cobras.

Like many directors trying to deliver a just-this-side-of-R-rated comedy that’s legally accessible to the lucrative teen market, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (a rookie) hints at a lot of dirty business without showing it; parents may find themselves explaining to their kids what “assless chaps” are, or why some audience members guffaw when Peter and his crew go to a bar named the Dirty Sanchez. Thurber gets a lot of mileage out of the hostile rapport between Vaughn and Stiller, who sound as if they improvised their scenes together. Rip Torn brings his usual irascible glee to the role of the now-broken-down Patches O’Houlihan, who offers his coaching expertise to the Average Joes and soon wishes he hadn’t.

Dodgeball gives us quirky heroes to root for, though I wish White’s team — including the hulking Me’Shell (Jamal Duff) and the frightening Fran (Missi Pyle, alarmingly uglified) — were more strongly individualized. A few of the Purple Cobras just seem to be Star Trek red-shirt types, solely there to get hit by our team’s dodgeballs. The fight here is really only against one man, the arrogant White, and, by extension, the whole narcissistic-masochistic gym culture he stands for. You can tell White is a bad apple because of his mustache; between Vaughn’s own ‘stached villain in Starsky and Hutch and Will Ferrell’s clownish Ron Burgundy (with facial hair that resembles two large, amorous caterpillars) in Anchorman, recent comedies seem to hold stock in Norelco.

The climactic battle between the Joes and the Cobras gets you worked up the way this stuff always does, and two sportscasters for “ESPN 8” (devoted to obscure sports), played by Gary Cole and a blissfully out-of-it Jason Bateman, pose some competition to Fred Willard’s clueless emcee in Best in Show. I didn’t like how the movie loses track of Alan Tudyk’s pirate fetishist — he plays Steve endearingly, with some sense of how ludicrous the character is, and makes us wish Steve (who may have been named after Steve Zahn, whom he resembles) had embraced his inner swashbuckler and come back to carve up some Cobra meat. This being a farcical comedy, the denouement is a little too neat, though you don’t go to a movie called Dodgeball for a starkly realistic ending. The film wants only to pit its common-man heroes against a bunch of colorful, laughable adversaries, and achieves this goal admirably. I don’t know whether it’ll become a cult comedy like Office Space or the first Austin Powers — for one thing, it’s made too much money, trouncing its opening-weekend competition, the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film The Terminal, by racking up almost twice the grosses. Now there’s a true underdog story.

The Terminal

June 18, 2004

2004_the_terminalWith The Terminal, Steven Spielberg gives us an amiable if rather toothless fable about a man without a country. Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a citizen of the nation of Krakhozia, has come to New York on unspecified business. As luck would have it, Krakhozia has fallen to revolutionaries, so Viktor’s passport is rendered invalid, and he’s stuck at JFK International Airport until … well, nobody really knows. The problem with The Terminal is that it’s also about a man without an identity.

Viktor is based, incredibly enough, on a real-life case — an Iranian named Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who got waylaid at De Gaulle Airport in 1988 and has resided there ever since. Nasseri’s story sounds more interesting — and more spikily human — than what Spielberg and his writers (Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson) have gleaned from the basic premise. Viktor falls into a routine at the well-appointed airport, a shining oasis with its own restaurants and stores; he figures out how to earn pocket change from collecting luggage carts, and he subsists on crackers and sleeps on rows of cushioned terminal seats. Viktor is a can-do kind of guy — the sort of ingenious immigrant that forged America itself, Spielberg is saying.

What passes for conflict here comes from the airport’s security officer (Stanley Tucci), a harried and impersonal drone who just wants Viktor off his radar. It’s a contest between two kinds of single-mindedness — the optimistic old-country kind and the jaded urban kind. Viktor won’t budge, even when given a chance to leave illegally. You sense he’s dealt with this kind of bureaucrat many times in Krakhozia. After a career of films spanning continents and centuries, Spielberg narrows the struggle of the human condition down to one building and one man. The Terminal is Spielberg consciously downsizing. But one can’t help thinking that he did this sort of minimalism better, and with much more verve, in early thrillers like Duel and the last hour of Jaws.

Tom Hanks keeps his end of the bargain. He’s practically the whole show, as he was in Cast Away (which this movie resembles in its theme of a marooned man making the best of a bad situation), and he works up a satisfyingly twisty accent that loosens up a bit as the movie goes on and Viktor learns more English. (All told, he’s stuck at the airport for nine months — are we supposed to read a birth metaphor into that?) Hanks is now the all-American go-to guy (he rose to the position after Harrison Ford seemed to disregard it), and his performance as a foreigner is full of comic bits of incomprehension giving way to a native shrewdness. But after spending over two hours with Viktor, we’ve learned almost nothing about him except the contents of his mysterious can of Planters peanuts (and the heart-tugging backstory behind it). We leave with clearer impressions of the people Viktor meets, such as a lovestruck cafeteria worker (Diego Luna) or a floor-mopping Indian refugee (Kumar Pallana, veteran of three Wes Anderson films).

Spielberg tries to inject a love story between Viktor and a romantically confused flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones), but the subplot feels strained and groundless, leaving Zeta-Jones with virtually nothing to play. Eventually, The Terminal swells up to full Capra idolatry, surrounding Viktor with his new friends in shots that make It’s a Wonderful Life look like a chilly art-house film. Spielberg has set himself the challenge of one location and a near-plotless structure, and the movie is certainly fluidly directed — he keeps it going almost as an exercise, the way Hitchcock took on the technical obstacles of Rope. But in the end, you’re not quite sure why, other than the chance to play on what’s been advertised as the biggest set in movie history, Spielberg has picked this story to tell. There’s very little of him in it except the part of himself that can’t resist schmaltz.

Napoleon Dynamite

June 11, 2004

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), the eponymous hero of an incredibly deadpan new high-school comedy, is a gawky collection of nerdish obsessions. He worships the paraphernalia of schlock fantasy (Pegasus, iron-thewed warriors, ninja weapons) and mopes around the school hallways, his expression frozen in open-mouthed passive-aggressive hostility. Napoleon, who seems almost out of it at times, owes a lot to Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s great Rushmore, and director Jared Hess (who wrote the script with his wife Jerusha) may have used Anderson’s style — symmetrical compositions giving a buzz of the surreal to the banal — as a jumping-off point. But Napoleon Dynamite has its own pleasures. I can’t figure out quite when the movie is set — early ‘80s? early ‘90s? — and I don’t think Hess wants you to figure it out. The film is set Whenever, in small-town Idaho, where things probably haven’t changed much in the last twenty years. The high-school girls have the crimped hairstyles of the mid-’80s, but the adults seem stuck in the ‘70s — although Napoleon’s pathetic Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) yearns to go back to 1982, to the point of buying a time machine online.

Lackadaisically plotted, Napoleon Dynamite works as a sort of shrugging character piece, even if the characters all seem rather stunted. The movie feels as if it were made by Napoleon, casting himself as the geeky-cool hero who’s always honest and who moves heaven and earth to get his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) elected class president. Everyone else is viewed as vaguely ridiculous, though most everyone is also treated kindly in the end. Yet everything is held at arm’s length. I suspect that’s why the movie became a cult favorite among high- schoolers: Since it neither depicts nor elicits much in the way of emotion, it doesn’t risk fake emotion, and so the film can remain safely — and amusingly — stuck in neutral. I much prefer the ambition and flailing of Max in Rushmore, not to mention the saggy despair of Herman Blume, but Napoleon Dynamite, with its dead-zone dork protagonist and its air of curdled, half-jokey nostalgia, may speak to kids in a clearer way than many Hollywood teen comedies can. This thirty-four-year-old enjoyed it quite a bit. Some of the calculatedly dimbulb sequences don’t pan out, but some of them do, and the successful jokes owe more to the blank-faced Jim Jarmusch than to Wes Anderson. Those looking for credible developments should steer clear: the movie is all about the moment, the juxtaposition of the sublime and the absurd. When Napoleon’s brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who’s even more hapless than Napoleon is, finally meets his online “soulmate,” she turns out to be a warm and sexy woman who eagerly makes him over. (She’s also black, which the movie, to its credit, cares nothing about whatsoever.) Napoleon himself may find love, or at least friendship, with an equally geeky girl (Tina Majorino) who works for Glamour Shots and wears her hair in a variety of adorably strange ponytail styles. Well, she agrees to play tetherball with him, anyway. In this movie, that’s grand passion.

The Stepford Wives (2004)

June 11, 2004

When Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives hit stores in 1972, it hit like a lightning bolt. It used a mix of sci-fi and horror to cut right to the heart of the gender war — the backlash against feminism, the dark fears of what men really wanted. It sold many, many copies, and the first film version (1975) was so successful it spawned three made-for-TV sequels (including The Stepford Children and The Stepford Husbands). Now comes a “comedic re-imagining” (doesn’t anyone want to call a remake a remake anymore?), and my prediction is that it will go nowhere. Its concerns are simply not our concerns now. The movie congratulates us for rejecting sexist notions that the majority of us put to sleep decades ago.

It’s true that a funny remake might’ve been possible, if set in the ’70s. But this Stepford Wives is pointedly set now, when fabulous network executive Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) gloats over her new reality shows that pit gender against gender. (A hapless victim of one of the shows, I Can Do Better!, is played by actor-writer Mike White in a vivid cameo that brings up emotions the movie can’t deal with.) Joanna is soon dumped from the network, and she and her schlumpy husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two kids move to Stepford, Connecticut, a gated community full of suspiciously chipper and “perfect” women married to smug dweebs.

Screenwriter Paul Rudnick tries to establish the post-feminist complaint that many career women, having tasted power, have become as corrupt and establishment as the men, and have neglected their families just as much. Joanna’s reality shows reveal a strong male resentment of women’s freedom to choose (or at least to choose foolishly). Okay, so men and women both suck — what else is new? Rudnick, whose reputation as a sharp wit is fading fast, follows the basic template of the earlier versions of the story, but the male-female attitudes seem yellowed with age. He does much better with the gay and Jewish humor, relaxing into bitchy, comfortable repartee voiced by Bette Midler’s Jewish-feminist author and Roger Bart’s swishy urban gay man. Midler and Bart are the sole curators of the film’s laughs.

The movie could only have worked as an overbaked parody, but director Frank Oz, despite some feinting towards an antic-gothic Tim Burton style, just doesn’t have his heart in it. When Walter is surrounded by the shadowy, red-jacketed men of Stepford, led by a leonine Christopher Walken in full sinister bloom, Stepford Wives hits the tone it seems to be straining for. But most of the movie is blandly designed, with a performance by Nicole Kidman to match. As in To Die For, she doesn’t play emotion — she plays her idea of dark-comedy caricature of emotion. As a remedy for this film, which gives Kidman nothing to do except walk in Katharine Ross’s footsteps, I refer you to her work in Dogville, which digs far deeper into the realities of how men and women use each other, and how a challenging personality can be subjugated to a rigid community.

I saw various couples at The Stepford Wives. What could the film give them to discuss? Of what relevance is this 1972 story to us now? What hurts the film most is that the openly gay Paul Rudnick doesn’t seem all that horrified by the fate of the Stepford women; he seems to find it kind of funny, the way he finds all surface-obsessed women (such as Lisa Kudrow in the awful Marci X and his own creation for Premiere magazine “Libby Gelman-Waxner”) comical and lovably blinkered. When Glenn Close leads a group of Stepford wives in a ridiculous aerobics session that employs household-cleaning motions, we’re not supposed to be shocked; we’re supposed to laugh (unfortunately, we don’t). The audience feels much worse when the chatty gay man becomes a boring gay Republican, or when the slobby, Jewish Bette Midler turns up Stepfordized. This Stepford Wives isn’t about the war between the genders; it’s more about Jews and gays vs. hetero WASPs. But Rudnick did that already, brilliantly and subtly coded, in the Addams Family movies. Maybe it’s time for this once-gifted comedy writer to find something else to say.