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Spider-Man 2, written Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon, and Alvin Sargent from characters originally created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, directed by Sam Raimi, 2004, 120 min.
Spider-Man 2 was the reliable bet for summer entertainment for 2004 (see my comments following for the rundown on everything else, from the good -- Harry Potter -- to the not so good -- Van Helsing, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Stepford Wives, Catwoman, and so forth), and it mostly delivers on the goods. Sam Raimi's direction still creates a solid feel to the picture, with occasional jolts of excitement and verve. There's an old rule about a script losing quality every time another writer is added, but in this case the scriptwriting team is one quality name after another and their resulting script has meshed together into a coherent whole. The acting is generally passionate and authentic enough and the special effects support the story. All in all, it's a solid, entertaining package. I have some quibbles with the ending, and I wasn't as thrilled with the movie as all of these positive attributes should have made me. I can't deny, however, that this movie is well crafted and thoughtful at a time when summer movies seem to have declined in quality (at least more so than usual).
Peter Parker is back and his problems have only gotten worse. He's still in love with Mary Jane, the girl next door, but he had to tell her at the end of the first movie that he didn't love her -- it was simply too dangerous for her otherwise. He is trying to go to school at the same time as work a job as a photographer, and his grades are suffering due to the stress of freelance work. And mainly due to his night life as a superhero. Spider-Man is in high demand, and Peter simply doesn't have time to fit it all in. Will he continue his job? His life as a student? Or, unthinkably, will he give up being Spider-Man?
The main structure of the narrative is how hard life is for Peter Parker and this can get annoying quite quickly. But the film-making team has to build up to the moment where Peter throws his Spider-Man costume in a garbage can, and that takes a lot of convincing. Genre films, more so than genre books, take the heroics of the superheroic as a matter of course, a matter of duty. That this could overwhelm Peter is part and parcel of the ordinary-guy approach that Spider-Man has favoured (the comics and the current movies more so than the older cartoon).
The villain this time around is Doctor Octavius, otherwise known as Doc Ock. Harry Osborn returns from the first movie as the son of a wealthy industrialist/scientist. Understandably, he's interested in Octavius's demonstration of some kind of new energy source. As anyone sane could have predicted, the demonstration gets way out of hand; the self-aware tentacles that Octavius uses to control the energy reaction also get out of control, taking over his mind. Harry and Doc Ock aren't given that much screen time but they are the underlying menace against which Peter's psychic uncertainties are played out. Also, the fighting tentacles make for some exciting action scenes.
One of my favourite bits in Spider-Man 2 is actually the opening. The story of the previous movie is summarized in a series of still shots, with art by Alex Ross. Ross's style, for those unfamiliar with it, is to do gorgeous full-colour paintings of superheroes in as realistic a manner as possible. He usually chooses models who are strong-jawed or supernaturally beautiful for the heroes and heroines -- in other words, a bit retro or old-fashioned. The fact that the characters here are based on the actual actors reins in this pre-postmodern tendency on Ross's part. It's an interesting collision between the realism of how these movies have used Peter Parker's life and locale and the inherent fancifulness of superhero antics. Somehow the choice of Ross for this beginning is just right.
Spider-Man 2 is actually pretty good all throughout. The blowout of an ending is what left me with a sense that the film-makers might have been less in control of the movie and more just lucky. I don't want to spoil the ending for those who haven't seen the movie, but it steals liberally from the imagery of The Graduate of all things (right down to a famously ambiguous look on the heroine's face). After the carefully calibrated emotional nuances up that point, it's a floodgates-wide-open situation and reduces Mary Jane from a (somewhat) realistic character to an adolescent wish-fulfillment device. It also leaves an awful mess for the next movie to deal with.
For all my complaints, I am looking forward to the next Spider-Man movie. The actors fit their roles, the writing is generally strong, and Sam Raimi seems to know what to do with the material. And the further summer went along, the better Spider-Man looked in retrospect.
Here are my capsule reviews of other movies from the summer of 2004. I still go to see every science fiction movie that comes out but I find that many of them are too forgettable to be worth writing about at length. I've also lost my patience with the disaster movie genre, which why I didn't watch the posing-as-science-fiction Day After Tomorrow. The other movies were:
Hellboy, written by Guillermo del Toro from the comic book by Mike Mignola, directed by Guillermo del Toro, 2004, 120 min.
Hellboy is probably the best of the offerings that came out in early summer. It's got its heart in the right place but it is a bit of a muddle and it doesn't appeal outside of the genre in the same way that Spider-Man 2 does. It's based on a cult-favourite comic book by Mike Mignola and it's directed by a director who has dedicated fans of his own, Guillermo del Toro. They team up for a movie about a demon who is stranded on Earth as a baby and then rescued by an FBI agent and raised to fight for good.
This is a somehow too-typical comic book plot setup, and all kinds of other nonsensical pulp items get thrown onto the pile. The movie opens with a prologue during WWII that tells Hellboy's origin story. The Nazis are up to no good, as per usual, and there is some kind of weird faceless robot-knife guy. And, yeah, Rasputin. Cut to the present day. Hellboy is part of an FBI team that fights paranormal invasions into normal life. Rasputin and some other nasties are back, and it's up to Hellboy and his colleagues to shield the normals from the worst.
Except that all pretense of working out of the scrutiny of the public is thrown out almost immediately. A great deal of time is spent on the crush Hellboy has on a firestarter named Liz (which seems like a good match since he is fireproof), but the rest of the plot advances in strange leaps and gaps. Hellboy himself is somewhat of a cipher. Rather than being tormented by his origins, he's a happy-go-lucky, cigar-smoking, wisecracking man of action -- not quite what I was expecting. He also seems to be invulnerable so most action scenes have a strange lack of urgency to them. Even Superman had his kryptonite, and the other invulnerable comic book character that I can think of, the Tick, was played for laughs.
So, all in all, a fun jumble of pulpy images, but not as much of a thought-out story as it should have had.
Van Helsing, written and directed by Stephen Sommers, 2004, 130 min.
Van Helsing easily takes its place as one of the worst movies ever made. It's a jumbled mess, but, unlike Hellboy, it never really has any redeeming moments. Sommers has thrown a bunch of pulpy images into the blender and given us something that degrades all of the stories that it ostensibly pays homage to. Monster movies have a long if uneven history and Van Helsing represents a low point in that tradition.
A brief snapshot of the plot. Van Helsing is a monster hunter who starts the movie off at loggerheads with Mr. Hyde in a fight across the Parisian cityscape. A second prologue shows us a black-and-white Frankenstein origin story. The next thing we know, Van Helsing is called in by his Vatican masters to go to Transylvania where a family with ancient roots has been fighting Dracula for centuries. Right. It seems that Dracula wants Frankenstein's monster so that he can revive his vampire-babies with the monster's life-juice (the movie might have a more technical term for it). Dracula also controls the Wolfman, and Van Helsing later gets bitten, but then it turns out that Dracula has the antidote. But then it also turns out that only a werewolf can kill Dracula.
All this nonsense is told in a breathless pace. Van Helsing only has one narrative tone, and that tone is full steam ahead. I'm at loss to think of any other movie that so thoroughly leaves out anything except pulse-pounding thrills. And as Van Helsing demonstrates, without any connecting tissue, the thrill a minute approach works for a few minutes then dissolves in meaninglessness due to sheer repetition and audience fatigue. The audience doesn't care that much for Van Helsing; he's not charismatic, nor is he pathetic, or enviable, or disgusting, or any other human attribute. The plot doesn't make much sense, the monsters aren't scary or worthy of pathos, and the special effects are competent but pointless in the face of the movie's other failings.
Shrek 2, written by Andrew Adamson, Joe Stillman, J. David Stem, and David N. Weiss from the book by William Steig, directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon, 2004, 90 min.
Shrek 2 went on to become one of the summer's highest grossing movies. It's a decent sequel, funny but forgettable. It's a pop culture trifle and I don't have that much to say about it. It fulfills its function perfectly -- the audience laughs and wants more -- but it exists in a strangely lifeless state. Despite its attractions, it's a product more than it's art. That's an odd thing to say about a big-budget summer movie; by their mass corporate nature, such movies have to struggle to become quirky or intriguing (which is not to say that low-budget movies are automatically interesting). Shrek had many of the same internal conflicts and largely succeeded in its struggle to be more than dismissible entertainment-of-the-moment. Shrek 2 is not quite as lucky.
What does it mean to live happily ever after? That's the fairy tale ending of the first movie, and Shrek 2 cannily takes that clichéd notion and takes a look at what might happen next. If the results are not entirely realistic, they are at least reality-based in a way that the best fables can be. Shrek and Fiona have come to their accomodation with their differences and now Shrek has to meet his in-laws. Since Fiona is now more or less permanently in an ogre form, and her folks are the king and queen, conflict abounds. The sidekick character of Donkey returns, and the inspired Spanish-accented cat assassin Puss in Boots makes a grand entrance and steals most of the scenes he's in.
Shrek 2 is buried under an avalanche of pop culture jokes and references. This approach adds to the gag-a-minute feel of the comedy in the movie, but as Van Helsing made obvious, too much of one thing is often far much. Shrek 2 is thankfully far shorter so it doesn't outstay its welcome in the same way. And it's a movie that's enjoyable for adults and ok for kids so that's another mark in its favour.
Oh, and the Knights show is hilarious.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, written by Steven Kloves from the book by J.K. Rowling, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, 2004, 140 min.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is definitely the best of the Harry Potter movies, but unfortunately the books the movies are based are getting progressively worse. This means that the ending of this movie gets tangled up in Rowling's clumsy plotting, letting down some of the great moviemaking that came before. I love the subtle gradations of humour and unease and magic that Cuaron manages to get from the first two-thirds of the story. Best of all, he knows what to do with characters who are growing up. Just like Rowling, who has chosen to engage with the process of adolescence and thus giving a natural structure to her seven-book series, Cuaron has done great things with the not-quite-grown-ups Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
Harry Potter is back for another year at Hogwarts and the menace to his life this time around is the famous prisoner, Sirius Black, who has escaped with a vow to kill to Harry. If Black wasn't bad enough, the guards from Azkaban, known tellingly as the Dementors, have circled Hogwarts, ostensibly to protect the school, but they have a few terrifying encounters with Harry that don't look like protection. Along the way there are some nifty moments, especially with a creature called a hippogriff. I can hardly express how happy I am that CG special effects like the hippogriff have reached the point where they are good enough to support the story and not stand out irritatingly. Harry and his friends save the day, of course, but there are dark points along the way and the ending is a welter of confusion and missed plot opportunities (and the special effects are notably worse).
I'll be curious to see how the next few entries in the Harry Potter series will go. Rowling has taken the series quite far from the light and humorous tone of the first book; I applaud this direction, except that her plots are getting too self-involved and filled with loopholes. I hope the books don't collapse under their own weight. And I hope the movie adaptations can somehow top this entry as directed so notably by Cuaron.
The Chronicles of Riddick, written and directed by David Twohy, 2004, 110 min.
Pitch Black was a decent B-movie, relatively unpretentious, and constructed in just the precise way to appeal to my non-critical enjoyment of lowbrow movies. The Chronicles of Riddick takes itself infinitely more seriously than Pitch Black, and the quality is correspondingly worse. As the title indicates, the antihero of Pitch Black has now become the hero and the fit isn't quite right. Riddick wanted to survive the dangerous world of Pitch Black, just like everyone else... what is he trying to do now?
To start, Riddick is trying to mind his own business but it seems there are some bounty hunters after him. Then he wants to know who put a bounty on his head. Then he... well, then things break down. There are some neo-Fascists named Necromongers who have a thing for industrial art-Deco style costumes and spaceships; they're also trying to take over the universe. Somehow Riddick gets involved in the fight against the Necromongers, but he certainly doesn't do a very good job of protecting some of his friends once he finds out about this. Then there's an extended interlude where he tries to rescue another friend from a maximum security prison on a dangerous planet. With no discernable progression in the story, he's suddenly infiltrating the Necromonger headquarters and fighting the big chief baddie.
Some of these strange plot jumps could have been streamlined into coherency. Alas, the dialogue detracts from the movie exactly when some support is required. There are lots of big pronouncements mixed in with the explosions, but never much of a sense of why anyone is doing what they are doing. Or of the people who are doing these things. Maybe these things aren't necessary for big-budget spectaculars like this, but both Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban prove how good a movie can result from careful attention to characterization. Riddick's in the title of his movie but he's nowhere else to be found.
The second 0/5 of the summer.
The Stepford Wives, written by Paul Rudnick from the book by Ira Levin, directed by Frank Oz, 2004, 90 min.
The Stepford Wives wants to be a comedy and it also wants to be a satire. It's taken from a book that gestured in the direction of science fiction but borrowed its structure from a horror story. The movie adaptation jettisoned both the sf and the horror, but has a great deal of trouble being funny. The satirical aspects are also lost in the overall lack of any grounding for its critiques. As this description indicates, The Stepford Wives remake is quite a muddle.
Joanna Eberhart is a hyper-successful TV executive but she gets fired within the first few minutes of the movie. She and her mousy husband move to Stepford where everything is perfect... only if you're the husband. Joanna has trouble fitting in with these house-working sex bimbos; her only friend in the town soon loses her spark of individuality. Joanna and her husband are the blankest of cardboard cutouts, and when they have a serious talk the audience has no idea why they got together in the first place, what Joanna would see or does see in him, and what their relationship needs.
The movie's flaws are accentuated by the uncertainties in its premise. We all know that the individualistic wives are being replaced by facsimiles of some kind by their husbands, but the movie shows the Stepfordized versions as completely robotic at one point and later as the women's original body with a control chip implanted in the brain. It's just one more indication that this movie had little idea of what it was doing.
The third movie of the summer that gets 0/5 from me.
I, Robot, written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman and "suggested by" the book by Isaac Asimov, directed by Alex Proyas, 2004, 120 min.
I, Robot feels surprisingly old-school in its summer movie-ness, by which I mean that Will Smith has been doing this shtick all the way back to Men and Black and Independence Day. This new summer outing is surprisingly not too bad, if you forget the fact that it has the name of a famous book by Isaac Asimov. It's pretty much just a video game but it has more flash-bang gosh-wow moments than many of the other attempts this summer.
Everything about Asimov's original book is jettisoned except for some names. Susan Calvin still works with robots, but the main character has become a detective named Spooner. Spooner runs around town following his intuition, and even has a scene where his boss takes away his badge. It's also no surprise that the robots run amok because those scenes have been in the movie trailers for months. At first Spooner is chasing a robot named Sonny who is accused of murder; Spooner soon finds out that the situation is much worse than one solo rogue. The closing fight scenes in particular are reminiscent of a videogame.
Had I seen I, Robot before I saw Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I would have said the brief shining moment of intelligent adaptations as represented by The Lord of the Rings was over. Now maybe I have to say that fantasy novels are adapted well and science fiction ones are done poorly, but it's not much of a sample size. In any case, this "suggested by" nonsense certainly feels like back to business as usual in Hollywood.
Catwoman, written by Theresa Rebeck, John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris, and John Rogers from characters originally created by Bob Kane, directed by Pitof, 2004, 100 min.
Was Catwoman always doomed to be a flop? Probably not, but this version has very little to recommend it. Catwoman herself has no subversive edge; if anything, she's been trimmed down to a safe role that has little relation to the potential of the character (although I'm not sure if that was ever the case). And if Catwoman is supposed to be sexy or appealing in some way, that's another failure on the movie's part -- I was more frightened and repulsed than intrigued and turned on.
I was a bit surprised to find that the first 20 minutes of the movie were competent and interesting. Patience Philips is a shy graphic designer at a large cosmetics company; we learn about her life, what she's like, what her friends are like, and so on. She even meets a cute detective and some further bits of characterization seemed to be on the way.
Unfortunately everything after the movie's opening is quite bad. When Catwoman goes into fight mode, it's like she switches over into videogame mode -- she's a CG character and she has powers and does things that aren't really explained and don't make her look very human. Worse, there doesn't seem to be much of a surprise on her part that she has changed so suddenly; she wanders around in a daze for ten minutes but it feels phony, mainly because she doesn't agonize much over what is happening.
The villain is the head of the cosmetics company. The new product is addictive and causes extreme side effects upon withdrawal, and poor Patience is unlucky enough to uncover this fact. So far so good, because I'm willing to grant that kind of a premise for this kind of typical movie plot to proceed. That makes the subsequent twist all the more ludicrous: the cosmetic makes you invulnerable to harm. Again, it's like a videogame, +10 to damage resistance. I don't mind videogames if I'm the one playing them; watching them onscreen is the worst of both types of entertainment.
The Village, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, 2004, 105 min.
The Village is the highly anticipated new movie from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. The trailer and advance buzz for the movie hyped its scariness, and, of course, its twist ending. Sad to say, The Village is not very scary; it's more like a juvenile's version of a deep philosophical point. Yes, Mr. Shyamalan, fear can be used to control people. That's about as original as saying war is hell. Any good story using one of these basic ideas needs quite a lot of work before it can stand against all the previous stories with the same themes. The Village is further hampered by this whole trick ending thing -- when everything else is riding on it, it's almost impossible to emphasize the characterization or story. These things float off in a haze of audience anticipation of the twist that's coming, leaving the movie drained of any of the normal qualities that appeal to moviegoers. I'm not saying that a twist will never work -- witness Shyamalan's own The Sixth Sense -- but it's again a case of too much of one thing.
The people who live in a remote village are desperately afraid of the creatures who prowl the woods around them. The creatures are known as Those We Do Not Speak Of, and as other reviewers have pointed out, the villagers don't speak of much else. We are introduced to the situation, and to a brave blind girl named Ivy who has fallen in love with Lucius. After Lucius is gravely injured, Ivy has to venture out through the woods to get "medicines" from the "towns." Shyamalan actually reverses one of his twists at this point; then, even more unbelievably, he retwists the twist by revealing to the audience what Ivy herself can't see. Ivy returns, completely ignorant of what just happened.
The movie is a desperate letdown, mainly because Shyamalan doesn't seem to be growing as a film-maker but instead retreating into an insular world of repetition and self-importance.
The Village: 0/5, fifth of the summer.
Alien Vs. Predator, written by Paul W.S. Anderson from characters created by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett, Jim Thomas, and John Thomas, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004, 90 min.
Alien Vs. Predator was probably the movie that invoked the biggest split reaction from me of any movie this summer. In terms of anticipation, I was dreading the movie because of the director, Paul W.S. Anderson, who has made some of my least favourite movies (like Event Horizon and Soldier) and because the most recent movies in both of the franchises represented here were already distinctly lower in quality. I was looking forward to this movie because I have an irrational side of me that likes exploding spaceships and nasty lifeforms and is always hoping for the next pulp masterpiece a la Tremors.
AvP (as the marketing material tells us to call the movie) is no Tremors, and it's not even a Predator 2 or Alien: Resurrection. It's a movie that has its characters arrive in a room where dead bodies are strapped to a circular array of altars and exclaim, "This is the sacrificial chamber!" Both the visuals and the dialogue are stripped of anything except the most glaringly obvious. Compare this to the first Alien movie, which has sparse dialogue and visuals that present themselves without explanation. Of course, this time around fans are familiar with both the Aliens and the Predators, so playing coy, as Anderson chooses to do, is not the wisest choice. Full-on action is the course already taken by Aliens, and no one since has discovered a decent variation on the theme (neither have I, or I would be writing it myself, but I'd certainly recognize it if it happened).
A few nice moments here and there, but they were often discarded too quickly to make an impression. I'll probably watch a sequel if it ever gets made, with the irrational hope that it will be better. Maybe one of these times I'll learn my lesson.
Last modified: September 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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