‘Spider-Man’: (Super)Hero of the Working Man

Superhero movies have been a big-screen staple ever since Superman flew through his first animated adventure in 1940. But for all the glory of Richard Donner’s majestic Superman and the kooky, dark weirdness of Tim Burton’s Batman films, it took comic-book-fan-turned-fanboy-director Sam Raimi to capture the graphic thrills and eye-popping spectacle of a true comic book superhero. The film was Spider-Man, and superhero movies have never been the same.

Tobey Maguire is the shy science geek Peter Parker, buffed up from everyman to superman when the bite of a radioactive spider transforms the high school nerd into a mutant wall-crawling muscleman. The adrenaline charge of unbelievable abilities comes at a price, however, and he learns the hard way that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Suited up in a bright, web-laced body stocking, he battles muggers, thieves and his inevitable supervillain nemesis, the cackling, rocket-powered, Jekyll-and-Hyde gremlin Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). But out of costume he’s just as nerdy and nervous as ever as he struggles with his unrequited love of girl-next-door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst under flaming red tresses). It takes a web-slinging rescue to get her attention and you can almost see the sparks when she plants a soft, slow kiss on her knight in red-and-blue skivvies.

Spider-Man is more than simply a faithful cinematic update of an iconic 40-year-old comic book character. With contemporary flair, Raimi translates the teenage melodrama of alienation and tortured secrets that redefined comic book heroes in the 1960s. He embraces the zip and zoom of modern moviemaking magic with a vengeance to send Spidey whipping through the steel canyons of New York like a spider monkey out of hell.

Raimi captures the ineffable quality that makes this misfit with muscles New York’s own blue-collar, working-man’s hero. He delivers high-flying whoosh, gymnastic spectacle and graphic comic book punch without losing the tragic weight of guilt and responsibility that gives Spider-Man his calling and his credo.

There have been slicker superhero films, but none with as much heart, unabashed charm and sheer kinetic thrill of whipping through the world in a state of high-flying gymnastic bliss.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

DVD of the Week – ‘The Last Emperor’ – February 26, 2008

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor has been out on DVD before, in both the original 165-minute theatrical version that won nine Academy Awards and the longer 218-minute TV version, the latter having been stamped with the label “Director’s Cut.” That’s an incorrect label, says Bernardo Bertolucci, who should know. On the Criterion blog “On Five,” DVD producer Kim Hendrickson writes about working with Bertolucci on preparing their lavish four-disc edition and Bertolucci’s remark that the longer TV version “in my opinion is not much different from the other one, just a little bit more boring…” According to the commentary track on the disc, the TV version was actually completed first and then Bertolucci continued to pare down and shape the film to his ultimate version.

The Criterion set features both versions, and the theatrical cut features commentary by Bertolucci (who launches in to the film before he remembers to introduce himself), screenwriter Mark Peploe (who calls it “the biggest screenwriting experience of my life”), producer Jeremy Thomas, and composer/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, all recorded separately and edited together in a dense, meaty that builds on the accumulation of observations and insights. The final two discs of the set are filled with marvelous archival documentaries and TV programs and new interviews. “The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci,” a 53-minute documentary directed by Bertolucci’s old assistant director Fernand Mozskowicz, is a meandering tour with the director as he reflects on past films while visiting the locations of 1900 and Last Tango in Paris and others, and ends with his trip to China to make The Last Emperor. Bertolucci narrates the whole way, and leaves with a thank you to China for giving him yet more places and experiences and people to draw from. There is no narration in Paolo Brunatto’s observational “Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure,” a behind-the-scenes look at the process of filmmaking, from on-set preparations and direction to editing to Ryuchi Sakamoto recording the score. And that’s just a start.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnificent epic tells the dramatic story of Pu Yi (John Lone), the last Chinese emperor. Crowned at age three, he’s a prisoner of his own palace, a puppet ruler manipulated by both the Western powers and the occupying Chinese, and finally a project for re-education by the Communist Regime, Pu Yi is a man buffeted by history, a figurehead whose power ends at the walls of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci’s production is sweeping and lavish – this was the first foreign production granted access to film within the walls of the Forbidden City – and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro uses color like a painter on an epic canvas. At the center of the spectacle, however, is the story of a boy raised to believe in his own divinity and a man who learns to become a simple human being against the backdrop of China’s volatile history. Winner of nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Oscars for director Bernardo Bertolucci, the screenplay adaptation, and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography).

Also new this week is The Legend of the Black Scorpion, which was Hong Kong’s submission to the Academy Awards for Foreign Language Film in 2007. Haven’t heard of it? Probably because this lavish Chinese reworking of “Hamlet” with a flourish of martial arts spectacle was originally released to theaters under the title The Banquet. Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘The Last Emperor’ – February 26, 2008”

Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” – DVD review

Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most important film director of the 1960s, began the decade with his feature debut Breathless, a scrappy, free-spirited, cinematically audacious take on the B-movie crime genre. By the end of the sixties, he had all but rejected commercial cinema for politically pointed commentaries and film essays like Sympathy For the Devil and Le Gai Savoir.

Smack in the middle of the genre goofing and cinematic game-playing of Godard’s earlier sixties film and the consumer satire and cultural deconstructions of his late sixties films lies Pierrot le Fou. Not that there was some sudden turn in direction; Godard embraced both sides throughout and they blur in so many films of this era. But Pierrot feels like a perfect midpoint (whether or not you could even objectively measure such a thing) in the way that it bounces between the flippant play of moviemaking fun and the social commentary on the modern world.

My extended review/overview of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and Criterion’s new 2-disc edition is running on Turner Classic Movies online. Here is another excerpt: Continue reading “Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” – DVD review”

What’s In Your DVD Player, Ang Lee?

Lust, Caution was released on DVD this week (see review in DVD of the Week – February 19, 2008). To mark the occasion, MSN published an interview I conducted with Ang Lee in the fall for the “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature. You’d never guess what his answer was.anglee32418660.jpg

MSN Movies: What’s in your DVD player?

Ang Lee: “American Pie.” I saw it on the road because my son was watching it. He just happened to pop it in and I just walked in and I decided to sit there with him because I didn’t have much time with him. It’s a movie I missed and I always wanted to watch. If you asked me what’s the latest I saw, that was the movie. I hardly watch anything these days because I’m so busy flying around.

How did you like it?

It’s OK. I expect it’s something of a modern classic of that genre. It didn’t do as much for me as I hoped it would.

My interview is now running on MSN. Here are a few more clips:

I recall that in one scene the characters walk past a poster for Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.”

“Suspicion” was a big hit in Shanghai in 1942 so I put a poster there. The movie is somewhat Hitchcockian, so I think it’s proper. I would have used film clips except that it’s too on the nose for what we were doing with female anxiety.

There is another scene that reminds me of Hitchcock, and that’s when Yee’s bodyguard comes to the group to blackmail them and they try to kill him and he just won’t die. It wasn’t like “Torn Curtain” in any stylistic way, but it made me think of the film.

That particular scene was like Bar Mitzvah for me. It’s a coming of age for the boys, a disillusionment. The real deal. Because later on I’m going to show the real deal about sex. I think it’s a good establishing scene to get into the second half of the film. The illusion is over, they’re getting to the real deal, let’s go to Shanghai.

Continue reading “What’s In Your DVD Player, Ang Lee?”

New reviews: ‘Be Kind Rewind’ and ‘The Signal’

The increasingly scruffy cinema of Michel Gondry dives deeper into the junkyard of creativity with Be Kind Rewind, a whimsical comedy about a pair of buddies (Jack Black and Mos Def) who decide to shoot their own scrappy versions of Hollywood films.

be_kind_rewind_poster.jpgJack Black gets electrified in a guerrilla attack on the local power plant, one of the film’s sequences less like an improv skit than a live-action cartoon, and winds up demagnetizing all the tapes in the relic of video store and second-hand shop. Their stock isn’t all that up-to-date, which no one seems to mind, and they really haven’t figured out that the DVD revolution has made them obsolete.

Gondry’s film lives in the corners of such obsolescence as it embraces a community that has practically fallen out of time. And that sense of community comes alive as a cult underground video community grows around these guerrilla remakes, or “Sweded” versions, as they call their process (unregistered trademark).

Gondry’s script is haphazard, to be sure. One pointed scene, where store owner Danny Glover talks about streamlining his selection according to modern business plans (“Two sections: comedy and action”) and Mos Def’s character bemoans the loss of the character and variety of their selection, rings false considering what we actually see on the shelves. There are none of the silent films or classics that we’re told must go, merely a generic selection of Hollywood releases of the past 15 or so years.

But their zero-budget filmmaking, turning spare parts into costumes and props and making it into a kind of folk art spin on Hollywood gloss, is obviously near and dear to Gondry’s heart. It’s an amateur version of his own preferred style and their fictional flurry of on-the-fly productions seems to have guided his real-life production, at least to some extent. The scenes have a looseness, as if the performers are feeling their way through them and sparring with their co-stars. Which means some of the scenes tend to ramble at times, and Gondry’s camera is given to wandering for no apparent reason. Not too much, but enough to let you know that this isn’t your usual Hollywood film.

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Continue reading “New reviews: ‘Be Kind Rewind’ and ‘The Signal’”

‘Dirty Harry’ – Clint Eastwood’s Urban Cowboy

Dirty Harry delivered justice from the barrel of a .44 Magnum

Clint Eastwood was a Western icon for a fistful of spaghetti Westerns and cynical American copycats. When he strapped on his .44 Magnum to stride the streets of San Francisco as Inspector Harry Callahan, known to the squad as Dirty Harry, Eastwood turned his frontier persona into an urban cowboy on the mean streets of our urban world.

He didn’t get his nickname for hygienic reasons. Everyone offers a different explanation for it: His partners have a habit of landing in the hospital or in the morgue. He’s been known to bend the law in the pursuit of justice. He’s an equal-opportunity bigot.

Harry has the best explanation: “Every dirty job that comes along. …”

In Dirty Harry, Callahan tracks a psychopath with a sniper rifle trying to extort the city for a small fortune (at least by 1971 standards). The killer signs his ransom demands “Scorpio,” a not-so-veiled reference to the Zodiac killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area for years. The real-life serial killer eluded capture, but on the big screen we get a pure law-and-order fantasy, and closure from the end of a barrel.

Harry Callahan was made to order for an audience nervous about escalating urban violence in the ’70s, a go-it-alone John Wayne cowboy for the modern era. Despite comments about his “long hair” from fellow cops, he’s as square as they come. And as ornery.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he growls. “‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

That’s as much dialogue as Eastwood ever delivers in a single scene. He tends to let his eyes do the emoting and his gun do the talking. He doesn’t let distractions like civil rights and rule of law stop him from delivering justice to the scum on the streets. The film’s tagline says it all: “You don’t assign him to murder cases, you just turn him loose.”

In real life, we’d be terrified of Harry and the loose cannon he calls a handgun. On the big screen, we applaud his frontier justice on the mean streets of our modern urban America.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

DVD of the Week – ‘Michael Clayton’ – February 19, 2008

“I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor.” – George Clooney as “Michael Clayton”

It’s an Oscar preview on DVD this week, led by Michael Clayton, nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (both Tony Gilory).

George Clooney simmers as Michael Clayton, a legal “fixer” who works behind the scenes of a powerful New York law firm, in Tony Gilroy’s smart, sharp legal drama. When he’s sent to clean up the moral meltdown of the firm’s leading litigator (Tom Wilkinson), he unwittingly stumbles into a corporate conspiracy with reverberations that could kill him. This description makes “Michael Clayton” sound the kind of adrenaline thriller that made screenwriter Gilroy’s name (namely the “Bourne” espionage thrillers, which Gilroy scripted with a certain realpolitic intelligence), but it’s much more of a chamber drama where characters wield dialogue like precision weapons. Gilroy directs with a cool hand and an underplayed sense of drama, letting the words and the performances carry the film.

Supporting actors Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson earned Oscar nominations as well. My complete DVD review leads my MSN DVD Column this week and is archived here.


Tommy Lee Jones is up against George Clooney in the Best Actor category for his turn in Paul Haggis’ In The Valley Of Elah.

Charlize Theron co-stars as the sole female detective on the civilian force and his only ally through the slapdash investigation and jurisdictional tug-of-war. Haggis drops exclamation points after his symbolic gestures and muddies his message more than once, but at its best the film tells a good story with moments of chilling eloquence.

I previously reviewed the film at the Seattle P-I here.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Michael Clayton’ – February 19, 2008”

I Am Cuba and more on Turner Classic Movies

Politics, propaganda and poetry are whipped into an exotic cinematic cocktail in Mikhail Kalatozov’s delirious tribute to the Cuban revolution, I Am Cuba. The film, a co-production between the USSR’s Mosfilm and Cuba’s national film production company, ICAIC, was embarked upon as a gesture of solidarity in the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis. Castro, a film buff who loved both Hollywood movie and the great Soviet classics of the silent era, saw an opportunity to put Cuba’s story on film. Kalatozov (director of The Cranes Are Flying) saw the film as his opportunity to create his own Battleship Potemkin, but for the Cuban struggle against Batista. What he emerged with is an epic revolutionary art movie of socialist ideals that opens in the decadence of Batista’s Cuba and ends with the intoxication of righteous uprising against the capitalist oppressors.

I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting one of the best DVD releases of 2007 (and one of the greatest film rediscoveries of the 1990s) for Turner Classic Movies: I Am Cuba.

“We saw the film as a kind of poem, as a poetic narrative,” explained cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in a 1965 interview. Urusevsky, who had previously shot Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, and Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko joined director Kalatozov in a tour of Cuba to scout locations, soak up the culture, and get to know the people in order to find their story. Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet was their screenwriter partner and tour guide. He helped sketch out ideas and characters with the three Soviet artists in group meetings in Cuba and then traveled to Moscow to help write the script from the notes and scene sketches. Pre-production reportedly took over a year as Kalatozov worked out every aspect of the film, and the shooting lasted almost two years.

The resulting portrait, ostensibly a collaboration between Soviet and Cuban artists, is undeniably European, the work of Russian filmmakers intoxicated by the Caribbean culture and music and set loose away from the oversight of Soviet studios and politicians. Continue reading “I Am Cuba and more on Turner Classic Movies”

Blu-ray Triumphant!

Or so it looks.

blu-ray_logo.jpgI’m not one to make sweeping pronouncements (really, it’s not in my character), but the momentum is pretty indisputable. Netflix and Best Buy threw their support behind Blu-ray earlier this week, and on Friday Wal-Mart announced they would stock Blu-ray as their exclusive high-definition video format. Here’s the Wired report on the announcement. The New York Times has already provided HD DVD’s obituary.

I like to think of it in terms of the primary campaigns. Just a couple of months ago, the format war resembled the Democratic campaign, with studios split between the Blu-ray and HD DVD. When Warner and Fox committed to Blu-ray exclusively, it tipped the balance and the metaphor jumped parties. Now it’s akin to the Republican primaries with Blu-ray as the John McCain campaign. Now everyone’s just waiting for the HD-uckabee to toss in the towel and give in to the inevitable momentum.


A few friends have been keeping much closer tabs on the politics of high-definition. Seattle film critic Jeff Shannon sent me this link from the US News and World Report blog about the Netflix decision earlier this week.

Nils von Veh followed up with this E-mail, which I reprint with his permission. Continue reading “Blu-ray Triumphant!”

New reviews: ‘Diary of the Dead, ‘Definitely, Maybe’ and ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’

George Romero’s Diary of the Dead is sure to be compared to “Cloverfield,” thanks to a vague similarity in the first-person video diary style that became an instant cliche minutes after “The Blair Witch Project” made it into a high-concept horror success. They couldn’t be more different, and it’s more than simply budgets and gloss.

diaryofdead.jpgWhere “Cloverfield” begs your indulgence while a clueless schlub refuses to put down the camera in a situation where it could impede his survival, “Diary” makes the cameraman’s refusal to drop the camera the defining characteristic of the character, an aspiring filmmaker who is more concerned with making history than surviving it, and the often heated arguments.

It also shares something in common with “Redacted” – the mix of first-person video footage, news footage and streaming video uploaded to the Internet, not to mention rather awkward performances that substitute volume for commitment. Performance has never been Romero’s strong suit and he’s not one to coax convincing characters from limited actors, but at least they are more interesting than the bland nothings on display in “Cloverfield.” More importantly, however, Romero has something more on his mind. Not always subtle, but interesting and insistent and less verbal than visual and visceral. Romero follows a familiar horror narrative structure and knows how to deliver the zombie conventions – the stumbling chases, the gore, the scrambling survivors who inevitably trip in the panic of their escape – but between the conventions is a root suspicion of the veracity of the media in the way if reports on our world.

It also questions the engagement of the cameraman in such a situation. Is his duty to document, or to put down the camera and help?

I reviewed the film in the Seattle P-I here.

The motivations of the citizens aren’t necessarily altruistic, but that fits nicely with Romero’s balance of pragmatism and ambiguity.

Even as society breaks down into looting and feudalistic enclaves, information is still a commodity in the digital age.

Update – my Seattle Times colleague Mark Rahner interviewed George Romero about Diary late last year. The interview was published in the Seattle Times with an extended on-line version. Continue reading “New reviews: ‘Diary of the Dead, ‘Definitely, Maybe’ and ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’”

Kon Ichikawa – 1915 – 2008

Kon Ichikawa died on February 13, of pneumonia, at the age of 92.

He directed over 80 films in a career that spanned more than 70 years. He entered the Japanese film industry in 1933 as an animator, directed by first feature (Musume Dojoji, aka A Girl at the Dojo Temple) in 1946 and (according to the Internet Movie Database) his most recent feature (The Inugamis) in 2006. Yet, apart from a few key features, his filmography is less well known and certainly less available stateside than the films of many of his colleagues.

The Kon Ichikawa never secured the international reputation of fellow studio professionals Akira Kurisawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Yasijiro Ozu, but the versatile director made an indelible mark with two of the most powerful anti-war dramas made in or out of Japan. The lyrical and introspective The Burmese Harp (1956) follows the odyssey of a Japanese soldier in Burma during the waning months of World War II who steals the robes of a Buddhist monk to make his way back to his platoon and undergoes a spiritual transformation as he witnesses the destruction and wholesale death left in the wake of battle. After a career of studio assignments, largely satirical comedies and melodramas, this passion project from Ichikawa made an impression on critics in Japan and became his first film to be seen outside the country, picking up a prize at the Venice Film Festival and securing distribution in the U.S. and Europe.

Fires on the Plain made three years later, stands in stark contrast, stark being the operative word. Based on the novel by Shohei Ooka (who drew from his personal experiences as a soldier and POW) and scripted by Ichikawa’s wife and collaborator, Natto Wada, it too takes the form of soldier’s journey through the battlefields of World War II, this time an island in the Philippines in 1945 as the Americans drive the Japanese out. The striking photography and imagery is the unmistakable work of the same creative artist, but otherwise Ichikawa takes a very different path. Where the serenity amidst death of The Burmese Harp is about the healing of wounds caused by the war, Fires on the Plain is a grim and gruesome and at times macabre autopsy of its (selectively Japanese) victims. Continue reading “Kon Ichikawa – 1915 – 2008”

DVD of the Week – ‘Lubitsch Musicals’ – February 12, 2008

Ernst Lubitsch was the master of the silent movie comedy of high society manners and lusty passions and he crossed over to sound with the grace of his cultured characters, adding music and dialogue sparkling with veiled suggestion to his opulent romantic comedies of manners and mischief. Lubitsch Musicals presents four of the delicious, delectable, deft sex comedies, musicals as earthy and randy as they come, but presented with such wit and elegance that the innuendo isn’t dirty, it’s just fun. The rich and beautiful are just as lusty as the rest of us, but they have style, at least when Lubitsch is directing them

I review the four-disc set in my MSN DVD column:

One would be hard put to actually describe the legendary Lubitsch Touch – it’s as much attitude as style – but there’s no mistaking the smooth elegance, continental wit, and winking innuendo of his best films. This set, from Criterion’s no-frills Eclipse series, charts Ernst Lubitch’s first sound films with the DVD debuts of his first four playfully adult musicals, three of them starring the perfectly-cast Maurice Chevalier. “The Love Parade” (1929), starring Chevalier as a womanizing military attaché with eyes for American in Paris Jeanette MacDonald, was not just Lubitsch’s first talkie but a sophisticated musical at the birth of the cinematic genre. The film marked MacDonald’s film debut and she returned for Lubitch’s next musical, Monte Carlo (1930), playing a countess romanced by a sly count (Jack Buchanan) who poses as a hairdresser to get into her boudoir. How Lubitsch!

The set also features The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), a seductive triangle with Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins, and One Hour With You (1932), a remake of Lubitsch’s silent masterpiece The Marriage Circle with Chevalier and MacDonald.

Another highlight this week is Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners, 26 Nominees, a three-disc collection of animated shorts from the libraries of MGM, Warner Bros., and the Fleischer Studios. I’m actually far more enchanted by the two discs of nominated films than the disc of winners, which is dominated by Hanna-Barbera “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. But then I’m a Chuck Jones guy, and most of his pieces (as well as work by Tex Avery and the Fleischers) are among the nominated films:

“From A to Z-z-z-z” (1954) is the first of only two cartoons featuring the unlimited imagination of schoolboy Ralph Philips, “High Note” (1960) is a memorable Merry Melody featuring a drunk musical note stumbling and hiccupping through “The Blue Danube,” and “Now Hear This” (1963) is a delightfully abstract tale of sound effects morphing into surreal imagery.

The set includes numerous cartoons released on previous sets (only 15 are new to DVD), but for those who haven’t invested a few hundred dollars in their animation collections, they make a great sampler of the best, the funniest, and the most creative cartoons from the classic age of studio animation.

Also check out the box sets Joan Crawford Collection Vol. 2 (which includes George Cukor’s A Woman’s Face) and Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 4 (which collects the first four features starring Sidney Toler, who took over from Warner Oland). Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Lubitsch Musicals’ – February 12, 2008”