Monday, June 04, 2007

Movies: Big Budget Trilogies

The last two movies I saw in the theaters were big-budget movies that, if you haven't seen them yet, you're likely to see anyhow, no matter what other people say about them. Keeping that in mind, here are my thoughts.

Oh, Spider-Man 3. I was worried about it from the beginning. First of all, it's the third sequel in a superhero series, which almost never bodes well. Of the films that fall into that category, Batman Forever is probably the best but still not that great, while the more obvious examples are Superman III, X3, and Blade: Trinity (which I've never seen but hear terrible things about). Some people might argue that the franchise doesn't necessarily need to make it to three before the bad movies pop up, and I'll take that as granted. Nevertheless, the pattern exists: third movie, usually not so good. Second of all, there was more than one villain in the piece, which usually spells trouble as well. However, I'm a big fan of Sam Raimi and I really liked the first two movies, so I went in nervous but still expecting to enjoy it. But even though I'm pretty much smack dab in the middle of the target demographic for that kind of movie, I ended up not enjoying it very much, even though at times I was really trying to. And the fact that I was actively trying to like the movie kind of proves my point. I shouldn't have to try to like a Spider-Man movie. And I'm not against it for comics fanboy reasons, but rather for filmmaking reasons. (You want to see me get mad at something for comics fanboy reasons, just get me started talking about Civil War or Martian Manhunter. Ooh, that makes me so mad...)

Spider-Man 3 is a mess. It's the product of editorially mandated filmmaking, sloppy writing, and mediocre performances. Editorial problems. As far as I can tell, this is the kind of thing that went down. Sam Raimi wanted to write a story about The Sandman, and the producers said, "You know, Venom's really popular, and we know he came along after your teenager reading days, but we think you should write a story featuring him." So Sam Raimi, instead of trying his best to make a script based on this new mandate, shoehorned the plot into his existing Sandman script. Now, you can talk all about how he should have had creative control and that the producers were trying to bring in Venom to boost sales of toys and so on, but the point is he was given Venom with no way out of, and instead of doing the best job he could with it, he couldn't let go of his darling, so he combined the two plots and ended up ruining the story. With the Venom sub-plot being the focus of the story, the Sandman plot seemed underdeveloped, and I felt that he was trying to cram three-quarters of one mostly decent movie (Spider-Man versus Venom) and three-quarters of one mostly poor movie (Spider-Man versus Sandman) into one movie. Awkward.

The writing just seemed lazy as well, depending too much on coincidence and in some cases, destroying important aspects of the characters. A few minor examples: Spider-Man spends too much time out of costume, or even worse, in costume but with his mask off. It's New York City in 2007: that's going to end up causing trouble. The Venom symbiote meeting up with Spider-Man was dependent on a combination Peter being oblivious and a total fluke. Also: somewhere along the way, the writers forgot about the spider-sense. Again, this isn't fanboy ranting: this is something that was established in the first movie and touched upon in *both* of the previous films. That's just sloppy. And those are only three minor points that don't spoil anything. There are plenty more if you want to get into the nitty-gritty.

As for acting, well, some of the cast does well. In fact, it's mostly the supporting cast. J.K. Simmons, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Thomas Hayden Church are all very good. But when you have James freakin' Cromwell in your movie, you should give him more than fifteen lines of dialogue (note: I didn't actually count how many lines of dialogue he had, but it wasn't very much). And the three leads just seemed like they were walking through the movie. Also: if you want me to believe that Peter Parker's turning evil, then do it through acting, not through adapting an Emo haircut. Bleh.

There were moments that were good, though. The Sandman effects were breathtaking; the first scene he appears as the sand creature was my favourite part of the movie. And I liked the symmetry of the Peter/MJ/Harry storyline being the backbone of all three movies, although I wish it had been done better in this one. The fight scenes were suitably thrilling and well-done. But the good was overshadowed by the bad and the lazy. The movie gave me moments of fun and enjoyment. It's just that, when it comes down to it, moments weren't enough.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, however, succeeded almost entirely because it was fun and fun and fun and then fun again. It's confusing, sure; people are double-crossing left and right, and the story just doesn't know when to quit when it comes to stacking plot points, but you could say the same about the first two. What this movie has over Dead Man's Chest were two things: firstly, getting righ into the fun, and second, characters acting the way they had previously been defined. One of the biggest reasons I hated Dead Man's Chest because it took nearly hours to get fun, while At World's End was fun in the first ten minutes. Double-crossing, explosions, and Chow Yun-Fat! It's a party, people! The movie also had Jack, Elizabeth, and Will acting like the characters you had been introduced to in the first movie. In the previous installment, they were acting completely out of character, not because of organic character change coming from the story, but rather to get the story where it needed to be. In this one, I recognized all the characters again, so I got right behind them.

There was plenty for me to like. Johnny Depp was back in fine form, partly because he got to work with Geoffrey Rush again; Captain Jack and Captain Barbossa are great foils for each other. Keith Richards's cameo was glorious as well; this was a case of using the actor's real-life characteristics as shorthand to understanding the character he's playing, a sort of meta-cameo, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The crew of the Flying Dutchman were also cut way, WAY down in this movie, which is nothing but a bonus as far as I'm concerned, and I actually liked Bill Nighy's Davy Jones in this one (he drove me to distraction before). Plus, when the climax of the movie is a thirty minute high-octane battle between two pirate ships in the middle of a storm, it proves that they've gotten back to the idea that drove the first movie: it's based on a ride, so make it fun. It wasn't as good as the first movie, but it was WAY more fun than the second, so by that criteria alone, it was a success. There are plot holes and convolutions that could make it hard to get through, but for my money, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End was a like a breath of fresh air after being trapped in a stale room, and while it never comes close to the brilliance of Curse of the Black Pearl, it's still worth a watch.

Whew. Done. I feel better about getting that off my chest. Now I have to get ready for this evening's cinematic excursion. After two bloated big-budget Hollywood sequels, I'm looking forward to a taking in a quiet Canadian movie. It makes me feel better about myself, considering this summer's going to be full of movies I know aren't going to be good, but are still drawn to see because of nostalgia and explosions. Sure, I'm part of the reason the big studios can make money off of crap movies, but if I see one indie movie for every one or two big-budget movies, I feel like I'm working against that trend too. Like the person who eats nothing but steamed vegetables the day after they pig out at a Chinese buffet. Wait, that's not good at all.


Natalie said...

I'll probably end up seeing them both but I know to see Pirates first. Thanks!

Mrs. Loquacious said...

I can't wait to see Shrek 3 when the lines die down a bit. I am also planning to see Pirates 3. I will not, based on so many negative reviews (including yours), see Spidey 3, however. I don't like Kirsten Dunst and I am not a Topher Grace fan. Nuff said. :)

The Doc said...

Natalie, you're welcome. Your mileage may vary, of course; I'd love to know what your impressions were after you've seen them.

Mrs. L, I have zero desire to see Shrek 3. I found Shrek 2 a chore to get through, although I do love me Antonio Banderas, even as a computer-generated cat assassin. ESPECIALLY as a computer-generated cat assassin.