Maleficent – Review


Coming after a long string of other fairy tale adaptations in theaters, the new movie Maleficent brings us a retelling of the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty, only this time told from an angle that we haven’t seen yet.  As you can tell from the title, this version is less about the slumbering princess and instead is centered primarily on the one who cursed her in the first place; the dark fairy, Maleficent.  Naturally this fantasy film comes from the Walt Disney Company, who are taking their inspiration not only from the original fairy tale, but from their own 1959 animated classic as well. Celebrating it’s 55th anniversary this year, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) is a film that has withstood the test of time and has become a favorite to many, including myself.  Sleeping Beauty actually holds a special place in my heart because it was one of the very first movies that I ever got to see in a movie theater.  It was during a 1985 re-release that I had my first experience with the tale and the 2 1/2 year old me was forever changed by it.  That movie, along with another Disney classic I saw that same year (1961’s 101 Dalmatians), probably are what helped propel me towards becoming a lifelong film buff, and because of this, I still hold the film in very high regard.  The same is probably true for many other people too across the globe.
Walt Disney created the original Sleeping Beauty at a transitional time for animation.  Walt Disney saw that tastes in styles were changing in the late 50’s, so he decided to take a whole new approach to Sleeping Beauty by giving it a very unique look.  Styled to look like medieval tapestry art, the movie was unlike anything the studio had ever made before and it still looks magnificent in all it’s 70 mm widescreen glory.  But,  it’s art style isn’t what has become the film’s biggest triumph over the years.  Instead, that honor goes to the creation of it’s villain, Maleficent.  Drawn by legendary animator Marc Davis and voice brilliantly by actress Eleanor Audley, Maleficent is an all time great antagonist; one by which all other Disney villains are now measured against.  In fact, her popularity has grown so much over the years that she has since become the unofficial antagonist of the entire Disney community.  You’re more likely to see her sparing with the likes of Mickey Mouse and friends today than with characters in her original film.  This is evidenced in other mediums by the company that she has also featured in, like the Kingdom Hearts video games and the Fantasmic nighttime shows at the Disney Parks.  Not to mention the numerous merchandise made available with her image on them.  Given a legacy like this, it’s not all that surprising that Disney would feature her prominently in their brand new live-action adaptation.  What is surprising, however, is that Disney would take their most popular villain and try to make her sympathetic.  Given how much she’s beloved by many people like me as someone we love to hate, it’s a risky revision to undertake, and one that does have to face some extra scrutiny from fans.
What is unique about this movie is that it looks at all of the events of the story from Maleficent’s perspective.  It begins with her childhood as a powerful yet innocent fairy living in a magical kingdom called the Moors.  Soon she meets a young human boy from the neighboring kingdom named Stefan, who becomes her closest companion as they grow older.  But when they become adults, they grow apart.  Maleficent (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie) soon finds her kingdom at war with the neighboring King, who grants his crown to anyone who can kill the winged Maleficent.  Stefan (played by Sharlto Copley) betrays his friend by cutting Maleficent’s giant wings off her back, leaving her both grounded and defenseless.  Stefan becomes the new king thereafter and Maleficent vows vengeance, which she soon enacts once Stefan and his Queen have a child.  At the presentation ceremony, Maleficent places a curse on the child, ensuring that she will be put into a death-like sleep once she turns 16.  The years pass and Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) grows up far from Stefan’s care in the woods, raised by three fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple).  Unbeknownst to the others though, Aurora is also being looked after by Maleficent herself, who surprisingly grows attached to the young girl and begins to regret the curse that she made out of anger.
So, as you can tell from this premise, the movie actually takes the angle of making Maleficent less of a villain and portrays her more as a hero.  Stefan on the other hand is cast as the villain of the story, with Aurora still caught in the middle.  This may be jarring to people who have grown up with the original movie, but it’s a reversal that is not without precedence.  The Broadway musical Wicked has become a popular retelling of the Wizard of Oz tale, centered around the maturity of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West.  In that retelling as well, the popular villain is treated more sympathetically, becoming something of a misunderstood hero, while the Wizard is cast as the cold-hearted villain.  It’s a reversal of roles that works perfectly in that story, but unfortunately works less so here.  I’m not saying that it can’t be done.  It’s just not given as much care as it was with Wicked.  Unfortunately, it also takes away a bit from what made Maleficent so memorable in the first place.  She’s really at her best when she’s at her worst; being an unruly source of terror that strikes fear into all.  The original animated classic did that perfectly and it’s mainly why she is remembered so well today.  In this version, the movie hits it’s high points when Maleficent is allowed to be menacing, especially in the presentation of Aurora scene, which is almost lifted directly from the original film, including some of the same dialogue.  That moment works very well and unfortunately it’s an aspect that is not carried throughout the entire film.
I have to say that the biggest problem with this movie is it’s inconsistency.  Tonally, it is all over the place, not knowing whether to be dark and brooding or fun and lighthearted.  Sometimes the shifts in tone are so abrupt, that it will be absolutely distracting.  I attribute this to the screenplay, written by Linda Woolverton, who does have a long legacy with the Disney company, having drafted scripts for both Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), as well as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010).  Unfortunately, her grasp on a story-line isn’t as refined as it was on her early work.  While not as needless complicated in plot as Wonderland was, Maleficent still feels incomplete, particularly when it comes to the characterizations.  Maleficent gets fully fleshed out in the film, but Aurora and most other characters do not.  I feel like another draft of the script could have worked some of these problems out, because there are some genuinely good ideas present there in the script.  Also problematic is the direction.  The film is helmed by first-time director Roger Stromberg, an Oscar-winning visual effects artist and production designer whose work we’ve seen in films like Avatar (2009), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013).  Unfortunately, by giving direction over to a novice more comfortable with visual effects, you’re most likely to have a film that looks pretty, but feels hollow, and that’s unfortunately what happened here.  The inconsistency in tone is probably the result of Stromberg being unsure about what kind of movie he wants to make, and it shows.
But the movie isn’t un-salvageable.  What does hold up is some of the performances, particularly Angelina Jolie as the titular character.  Jolie’s involvement probably helped to give this film a boost during development and thankfully the potential in that casting is not wasted.  Thanks to some rather good make-up work by the great Rick Baker, Jolie is spot-on as the iconic character.  She matches the original look of the character perfectly and she plays the character well, clearly relishing the grandiose nature of the part.  She also makes the transitions between Maleficent’s darker and lighter sides feel more natural than they do in the script, which helps to keep the film from falling apart.  One other character that proved to be surprisingly effective is her companion  Diaval (played by actor Sam Riley).  In the original film, he was personified as a pet raven named Diablo, a character with very little complexity.  Here, he shifts forms between human and raven, and even into other creatures, depending on the needs of Maleficent.  What could have been a throwaway servant character actually turns into a thoroughly likable individual.  He works perfectly off Maleficent as her companion, bringing out some of the movies most genuinely humorous moments.  I give the movie a lot of credit for taking a minor character from the original film and reshaping him into a more involved personality that actually contributes something good to the overall story.  Honestly, I would have preferred more scenes with Diaval and Maleficent, since they are the only characters that had any sort of chemistry throughout the whole movie.
Unfortunately many of the other characters aren’t as well balanced as those two.  King Stefan is a mixed bag as a character.  Sharlto Copley does give a solid performance, especially in the later scenes where he begins to descend further into madness.  Unfortunately, he gets the shorter end of the stick when it comes to the role reversal of the story line.  Taking Maleficent’s place as the villain, King Stefan feels a little out of his element.  He doesn’t have the same kind of menace that Maleficent had in the original film, and he never comes across as truly terrifying.  It’s a missed opportunity with the character and it unfortunately reduces the impact that the final showdown at the end could have had.  Elle Fanning’s Aurora is likewise a one-dimensional character, but to the movie’s defense, she was pretty bland in the original film as well.  Most problematic though are the depictions of the Three Good Fairies.  In this film, they are very obnoxious and incompetent characters, who seem more preoccupied with squabbling with each other than looking after the princess.  At times, these characters almost made the movie insufferable to sit through, particularly when you think about how well portrayed they were in the original movie.  The fairies were actually the heroes of the original film, and I for one love their characterizations from that version; especially Merryweather.  God I wish Merryweather was in this movie.  I don’t understand why the filmmakers chose to go that route with the characters, but I can tell you that it did the movie a big disservice.
So, did the movie honor the legacy of the original, or did it insult it?  I do have to say that at certain points, this movie did come very close to losing me.  Only the strength of Angelina’s magnetic performance helped to pull this movie off of the ledge.  I do think that there is a great movie in there wanting to come out, but is hampered by a lackluster script and uneven direction.  The performances help to make this film bearable, and I do think Angelina Jolie could not have been more perfectly cast.  The film unfortunately doesn’t break the recent trend of tired, CGI heavy fairy tale adaptations for the young adult crowd that have failed to live up to their potential.  Following in the wake of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and 2012’s two failed attempts at the story of Snow White (Mirror, Mirror  and Snow White and the Huntsman), Maleficent likewise fails and instead becomes a jumbled mess trying to be too many things at once.  Albeit, this version does do some things right and probably is the best movie out of this trend that we’ve seen, but that’s not saying much.  Hopefully, Disney gets the tone right when they release their live action adaptation of Cinderella next Spring, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother.  As far as this movie goes, I’d rather stick with the original that has been a part of my life since childhood.  At least in that version, the “mistress of all evil” is allowed to be as such.  I greatly prefer the dark side of the character, though I don’t discredit this movie for trying something different.  It’s not a terrible take on the character, but I feel like it could have been done better.
Rating: 6/10

Top Ten Worst Adam Sandler Movies…So Far


How do you sum up the movie career of one Mr. Adam Sandler?  The former Saturday Night Live alum has had a film career that is surprisingly resilient, despite also being responsible for some of the worst movies in recent memory.  But as a result of relying so heavily on formula, Adam Sandler has inadvertently closed off his range as a performer, becoming something as a one trick pony rather than a quality actor.  Believe me when I say that I believe that Sandler is indeed a talented performer, and sometimes even a great actor.  When given a meaty role to work with (which rarely happens), like he had in the woefully under-appreciated P. T. Anderson film, Punch Drunk Love (2002), he can actually be quite good; Oscar-worthy even.  But, unfortunately no one pays to see a serious Adam Sandler performance.  It’s the goofy Sandler that brings in the money.  And you know, there was a time when that was welcome too.  Sandler’s first two headlined films, Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) are both very funny, and surprisingly still hold up nearly 20 years later.  But recent years have brought a steep decline in the quality of Sandler’s cinematic output, and it only seems to be getting worse.
One thing I noticed from his movies is that most of them more or less interchangeable  and follow the same kind of formula.  They usually involve Sandler acting with a man-childish personality; they contain numerous jokes involving bodily fluids; they usually feature actor Rob Schneider as an offensive racial stereotype; and they often try to shoehorn an uplifting message at the end as some sort of concession to make audiences less repulsed by what they just saw.  At the same time, I noticed that Sandler is looking less interested in these films with each new release; like he’s phoning it in just until the check clears.  Given that he’s also the producer of his movies, through his production company Happy Madison, it’s clear that he’s continually putting less effort into his onscreen presence, instead using his movies as a means to keep his affluent lifestyle going.  This is most evident in his recent films, which includes taking trips to exotic locations.  Is this his way of saving money by getting a paid vacation?  Whatever motivates Adam Sandler’s movies, it’s very clear that most of them feel lazy, or even worse, offensively insulting to it’s audience.  What follows is my list of the 10 worst films he has made to date, and what ended up surprising me was not what made it in, but rather what made it off the list; because there are just so many bad ones.
One of the other notable trends in Adam Sandler’s film career is his proclivity for remakes.  This particular one is based off of the 1969 Walter Matthau/ Ingrid Bergman film Cactus Flower.  That movie was a charming story about middle aged professionals pretending to be a couple so that the Matthau character can impress a much younger girl that he’s got his eyes on, played by a very young Goldie Hawn in a performance that won her a Supporting Actress Oscar.  Ingrid Bergman played the other professional in question, and the film was about her coming out of her awkward shell and becoming more of the ideal woman for Matthau’s character, making the entire film a nice complex character driven comedy.  Adam Sandler took that same set-up, removed everything that made the original charming and replaced it with pointless slap-stick and formulaic plotting.  By no means the most offensively horrible Sandler film, but probably by far his laziest.  There is absolutely no effort put into this movie.   The 45 year old original will probably make you laugh more frequently.  The only person who comes away from this film with any kind of dignity is co-star Jennifer Aniston, and even she looks like she would rather be doing something else.
The first cinematic flop of Sandler’s career, this movie was released right on the heels of the enormously popular Happy Gilmore.  I for one remember being excited to see this movie because of how much I enjoyed Sandler’s first couple films, and the fact that this was his first R-rated flick.  That fact alone should have signaled this as a must-see, because it meant that we were going to see Sandler completely unrestricted.  Instead, what we got was a weak comedy/action thriller, with a completely charmless performance by Mr. Sandler himself.  Bulletproof is trying to be like a reverse of the 48 Hours movies, with Sandler filling in the Eddie Murphy role and fellow comedian Damon Wayans in place of Nick Nolte, only it fails on every level.  The action scenes are lame, the comedy is weak, and the characters never amount to more than simplistic caricatures.  While Adam Sandler wasn’t really known for his range just yet (or ever), this film should have been a great opportunity for him.   Instead it just made us long for more movies like Billy Madison, which is what we got for better or worse.  Perhaps Adam Sandler’s lack of originality in his later films can be linked all the way back to the failure of this one, because it forced him to not play outside of his comfort zone.  That, or because he just didn’t have a fun time making this, which isn’t surprising.
Yet another Adam Sandler remake, only this time he takes on a sports movie classic.  The Longest Yard was a 1974 film about a former football pro (played by Burt Reynolds) serving time in prison and who is forced by the warden to form a team of inmates who will take the field against an opposing squad made up of the prison’s sadistic guards.  It was a smart, character driven movie about teamwork and overcoming oppression through peaceful means.  Adam Sandler’s remake on the other hand took out all the subtlety of the original and again replaced it with more slap-stick humor and stereotyped characterizations.  What’s more upsetting is that Burt Reynolds came on board this film to play the coach of the team, in a lame attempt to give this movie some credibility and pay homage to the original.  Sandler’s version again lacks effort and feels more like a Cliff Notes of the original and better movie.  Add to this some of the more annoying aspects of Sandler films, like ethnic and gay stereotypes, a self-centered main character, plot conveniences, and yet another Rob Schneider cameo, and you’ve got a movie that doesn’t pay homage to a better movie, but instead disgraces it.
GROWN UPS 2 (2013)
The first Grown Ups (2010) was no masterpiece either, but the fact that Sandler and Co. managed to eek out another flick from the already weak premise of the original film just makes this movie all the more unnecessary.  The first film was about four high school friends reconnecting in their adult years during a Fourth of July weekend trip.  The second movie is exactly the same plot, only it’s Spring Break and the four friends (Sandler and co-stars Chris Rock, David Spade, and Kevin James) must contend with aggressive college kids who have invaded their favorite vacation spot.  Not surprisingly, this is not a plot driven film.  The movie is more or less a collection of unfunny vignettes involving crude body humor and pointless slapstick.  Sadly, everyone in this movie looks again like they are phoning it in, and of course with a movie centered around vacationing, you can probably guess the true purpose behind the making of this movie.  And it’s too bad because I know some of the other actors here can be really funny, Chris Rock and David Spade in particular; Kevin James less so.  But, given that this is a Sandler-produced picture, it is indicative of the larger problem of Adam Sandler movies in that it’s just playing to the lowest common denominator with no real purpose other than to make the star more money.
MR. DEEDS (2002)
Yet another remake of a classic film, and this one is by far the worst.  The original movie, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) is a beloved masterpiece that starred Gary Cooper as a simple, working man who inherits a fortune and is raised into the upper-class overnight, leading to a lot of misunderstandings and heartwarming life lessons.  Directed by Frank Capra, who won an Oscar for his work on the film, the movie was an intelligent and humorous look at class differences in Depression-era America and a brilliant expose on the true nature of the American dream.  Adam Sandler of course had no use for smart socially commentary in his version and he instead used the premise to just show off his trademark brand of sophomoric humor, once again.  Why Sandler thinks he can improve upon these beloved classics is beyond me.  The gap between the original and Sandler’s version is most pronounced here.  Gone is the touching portrayal of Cooper’s original protagonist, replaced by an obnoxious man-child who enjoys showing off his frostbitten foot.  Just what the original needed more of: frostbite.  Do yourself a favor and watch the original masterpiece instead.  The fact that Adam Sandler thought we wouldn’t know about the original at all is enough to earn this terrible movie a spot on this list.  And it just get’s worse from here.
CLICK (2006)
What’s worse than doing a lazy and crude remake of a classic story?  It’s taking a wholly original idea and spoiling any potential it had.  That’s what happened with Adam Sandler’s high-concept comedy Click.  The movie follows the story of a man who gains control over his complicated life when he gains possession of a magical remote control, given to him by a strange salesman played by Christopher Walken.  Naturally, this leads to some hi-jinks where Sandler has near God-like control over time and space, and it typically is crude in nature.  But that’s not where the movie falters.  What happens is that the movie has a huge 180º turn in tone, where the story goes from silly to deeply serious.  Sandler’s character begins to lose control of the power given to him and his life flashes ahead faster than he can appreciate it, creating a very dour and dark final act.  This whiplash in tone is what ultimately sinks the movie.  Had the film stayed true to this dramatic tone, it could have worked, but given that it’s following about 90 minutes of crude, sophomoric slapstick, it feels like a cheat meant to shoehorn sincerity into a movie where it doesn’t fit.  Not only that, but the shift is handled so poorly, that the movie becomes this weird mishmash of two very different types of movies.  Probably more than any film on this list, this is the one that disappointed audiences, and myself, the most.
This film on the other hand did not disappoint.  Pretty much from the moment everyone saw the trailer to this movie, we all knew that this was going to be terrible; and it certainly was.  The movie mainly exists to let Adam Sandler act in drag and the result is one of the most obnoxious characters that he has ever created; and that’s saying something.  The Jill character will grate on you from the moment that she appears to the very end.  Even worse is the fact that Sandler’s Jack, the twin brother, is also a self-centered jerk, so we get two awful characters from Sandler for the price of one.  The plot again serves no purpose other than to string together many different comic situations, most of which are not funny.  One really odd subplot has Jill being pursued by a lustful Al Pacino.  Yep, the Al Pacino.  The film also shows the characters taking a cruise, so once again, we are pretty much watching another one of Adam Sandler’s vacation videos.  Unlike most of Sandler’s other comedies, however, this movie actually under-performed at the box office, showing that even his fan-base were growing tired of the shtick.  It lived up to it’s already notorious reputation, but there’s wasn’t anything particularly reprehensible about it, unlike the following movies.
THAT’S MY BOY (2012)
You’ve got to really question a comedic performer’s sensibilities when he bases the premise of his film around the issue of pedophilia.  That’s exactly what happened with That’s My Boy, and it’s an uncomfortable subtext that just sabotages everything else in this film before anything else takes hold.  At the start of the film, a pre-teen boy is seduced by his attractive and much older teacher and the two end up having sex and producing a child from this.  The teacher goes to jail and the irresponsible boy ends up raising the baby, and this is all played for laughs.  Would it be funny if the genders were reversed?  It’s not funny either way, and the movie seems to think that this is no big deal.  Sandler plays the boy as a grown man, and he’s again resorting to his obnoxious man-child persona, only with none of the charm of Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore.  The child he raised is grown-up as well, and is played here by Sandler-in-training Andy Samberg, who at least attempts to play a likable character.  Unfortunately nothing in the movie escapes the reprehensible nature of it’s premise and everything that follows is not funny enough to make us forget it.  I don’t usually dismiss movies when they poke fun at something taboo, but this is one example where the film clearly crossed the line and fails to make up for it with anything worth watching.
You would think that someone as cartoonish as Adam Sandler would fit perfectly in an animated film.  Unfortunately, Eight Crazy Nights is just as irritating as the other movies on this list.  What makes this movie worse is the fact that it is posing as a movie made for all ages, and in addition, tries to emulate classic Holiday specials from the past.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas this is not.  In fact, I would take the Grinch over the jerk that Sandler voices here any time.  Named after a verse from Sandler’s popular “Hannakuh Song,” Eight Crazy Nights follows the story of a dead-beat who slowly relearns the meaning of the holiday season after interacting with a couple of ostracized care-givers.  What could have been a heartwarming story is undermined by Sandler’s typical crude and gross-out humor, which I’m sure upset a lot of family audiences who probably were tricked into seeing a PG-13 movie because it was animated.  Surprisingly, the animation in this movie is really good (done by the same team that worked on 1999’s The Iron Giant, believe it or not) which makes the fact that it’s wasted on poop jokes and racial stereotypes all the more infuriating.  In addition, Sandler provides the voices of all the main characters, including the elderly care-givers who come off as horrible Semitic caricatures.  Even Mel Gibson wasn’t this insulting to the Jewish people, and Sandler himself is a Jew.  The whole thing is a baffling assortment of awful ideas and easily the worst holiday themed film ever, if not worst animated one too.
And now we come to the absolute worst movie of Sandler’s career.  Why is this movie the worst?  Where to start?  The story is about two heterosexual firefighters played by Sandler and Kevin James who pretend to be gay so that they can take advantage of the State of Massachusetts then newly legalized same-sex marriage and marry each other in order to receive family medical benefits as a couple.  The movie centers around this deception and is merely just an excuse to throw in every gay joke in the book.  Now, the fact that they are poking fun at homosexuality is not what makes this film so offensive, though it certainly contributes.  There are plenty of comedies that exploit gay humor well (Mel Brook’s The Producers (1968) for example).  What makes Chuck & Larry so reprehensible is the fact that it tries to pass itself off as a pro-gay film, with some shoehorned message at the very end.  The idea that Adam Sandler thought he was making a movie favorable towards gay rights after exploiting every tired stereotype beforehand is what truly makes this film so hate-able.  If you wanted to make a positive movie about gay marriage, you should show a gay character having his or her rights restricted and then reclaiming it by the end.  That’s not what Sandler did.  Instead most of the plot centers around how uncomfortable the two leads feel doing things that gay men and women are completely comfortable with.  Sure, Sandler probably sympathizes with the causes of gay people, but this movie clearly shows that he made no effort trying to understand them, and that’s why this film is not only bad, but insulting as well.
So, these are my choices for the worst movies of Adam Sandler’s career.  Of course, given that he’s still relevant in Hollywood, there will probably be many more to come.  This weekend brings the latest entry in his filmography called Blended, costarring Drew Barrymore and it looks as formulaic as all the others.  But, like I said before, when Adam Sandler leaves his comfort zone, his films can actually sometimes be good.  The reason why his movies tend to suffer is because they try to please too many people, being both crude but also heartwarming, which creates an uneven mixture.  When Sandler films work, it’s because they are either genuinely heartwarming (2002’s Punch Drunk Love and 1998’s The Wedding Singer) or they completely embrace their insanity (2000’s Little Nicky and 2008’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan).  And again, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore are still funny today, so that does say something.  If Sandler want’s to be taken seriously as a performer, he probably should look at his collective work and recognize what has been missing all these years.  Well, now that I’ve ripped apart Adam Sandler for an entire article, I thought that I should conclude with some moments that I genuinely enjoyed from the man.

Godzilla (2014) – Review


It’s hard to believe that a giant, spiked lizard could have such a long lasting legacy on the big screen.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, and there could be no better way to celebrate that milestone than with a big new blockbuster film.  First seen in the original Japanese movie Gojira (1954), Godzilla was clearly a product of his time.  For a nation still reeling from destruction by a nuclear bomb, Godzilla was a symbol of Japan’s fears about it’s own insecurity in the post-war years.  Godzilla’s reign of terror in those early films was clearly meant to represent the dangers of nuclear warfare, but his presence could have also represented any other kind of force of nature that is well out of mankind’s control.  That’s probably why Godzilla has enjoyed such longevity on the big screen.  He represents a timeless menace that everyone can fear, no matter what time or place he exists.  That, and the fact that Godzilla movies are almost always fun to watch.  To date, there have been 28 Godzilla movies in total, most of them made in his native Japan by the Toho film company.  The original film still holds up as a classic thriller, even with the crude special effects.  It proved to be so popular in fact that it was one of the first Japanese post-war films to have a wide international release; even premiering in most American first-run cinemas, thanks to an Americanized cut that presented the original movie with actor Raymond Burr spliced in for narration.
Of course, most Godzilla movies look dated now because special effects have become much more sophisticated over time.  Today, it would look silly to have a man in the Godzilla costume walking around and destroying a model set, but that’s what worked well enough 60 years ago.  Now with CGI becoming the norm in visual effects, it makes much more sense to have the creature be animated; it makes him look far less artificial (to a point).  American filmmakers have certainly looked at the creature for inspiration in their own larger than life monster movies, and to date there have been two major attempts by Hollywood at making their own films centered around the big green brute.  The first attempt was Roland Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation, which is a classic example of how not to make a Godzilla movie.  Godzilla (1998) is a notoriously bad film.  It puts much more emphasis on it’s uninteresting human characters, relies too heavily on goofy humor, and it redesigned the monster to the point where it was no longer recognizable.  In fact, Godzilla looked more like a rejected design for one of the T-Rex’s in Jurassic Park (1993), a movie that this Godzilla was clearly trying to emulate and failed.  Sixteen years after this notorious misfire, Warner Brothers has now released a new Godzilla (2014), and it sticks much more closely to the formula that has been used for 60 years in Japan.  Did it work this time around?  Kinda.
The story is nothing that we haven’t seen before.  It’s basically the same plot of every Godzilla movie before it, only done on a much more global scale.  The story begins with nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) witnessing the destruction of his power plant by some unseen force.  After losing his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the accident, Joe becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about what happened.  Fifteen years pass and Joe is confronted by his Army-trained, bomb expert son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who begrudgingly follows him back into the quarantined area of the accident.  There they find what caused the mayhem in the first place, and it’s now just waking up from it’s slumber.  A giant, spider-like creature called a MUTO (mysterious unidentified terrestrial organism) starts wrecking havoc and begins making it’s way across the Pacific Ocean.  Ford quickly makes his way back to America in order to help stop the advancing threat, but not before being informed by scientists, Doctors Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins), that another monster is also following the Muto across the Pacific; it’s natural predator and ancient adversary: Godzilla.  What follows is a race against time between the monsters and the humans before an inevitable showdown in the city of San Francisco.
Naturally, with a film based off of a legacy like this one is, it’s going to have to face some scrutiny with comparisons to other films.  The movie, for me, is a mixed bag.  Is it bad?  Not really.  I can see a lot of people enjoying this one, especially when it gets to the climatic battle scenes.  Also, as far as Americanized Godzilla movies go, this one is light-years better than the Roland Emmerich version.  This movie, for one thing, doesn’t resort to using goofball hi-jinks with it’s human characters in order to entertain it’s audience.  This movie treats everything and everyone involved with the utmost seriousness; something that it probably does a little too well.  Let, me state right away what my biggest issue was with this movie, and that is it’s pacing.  It takes this movie a long time to build up steam towards what it intends to deliver.  For most of the film, you witness more of the aftermath of what these creatures are doing rather than the actual destruction.  There are a lot of instances where the movie cuts to news footage of the mayhem, which isn’t as effective as it would’ve been if the movie had actually let us see it up close.  Now, I do understand that most of the early Japanese Godzilla movies were structured like this as well; saving all the best action moments for the end.  Unfortunately, the movie isn’t effective enough during it’s monster-less moments to make this kind of structure work.
I do blame this more on the shoddy editing rather than on the strengths of the performances.  The human actors here unfortunately have little to do, other than to react to what’s going on.  The movie moves around so much that character development suffers, and many of the main cast usually just fall into stock characterizations.  Aaron-Taylor Johnson suffers the most because of this in his performance.  He’s a fine actor, but the movie never gives him the chance to show off anything interesting in his persona, so he just resorts to becoming your standard every-man protagonist.  Ford really doesn’t have anything to contribute to the movie until one course of action towards the very end, and even still, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on with the monsters.  It’s surprising that a cast this prestigious, filled with many award winners, comes across as so bland in this movie.  Only Cranston and Watanabe stand out in their roles, and just barely.  It may be a little unfair to make the comparison, but this is why a movie like Pacific Rim (2013) works so much better.  That movie managed to balance out the human story-lines with the fighting monsters plot perfectly, giving both the time and focus they needed to work and it kept everything simple.  In this movie, you’ll start getting impatient because the plot chooses to hold off on it’s monsters, which just makes 2/3’s of this movie feel like one, prolonged tease.
But, when it does get to that final 1/3 of the movie, it is indeed spectacular.  At that point, the film knows who the star is, and he doesn’t disappoint.  If people come away from this movie satisfied, it will be because of the final showdown at the end.  One of the many reasons why this Godzilla is so much better than the Emmerich version is because he looks the way that Godzilla should look.  While slightly modified, this Godzilla looks more like the classic version.  One thing that this movie does improve upon from all other Godzilla movies before it is the sense of scale given to the monsters.  His presence in this movie will show you exactly why he is called the “King of the Monsters.”  When Godzilla makes his first appearance in the movie, it is a chilling moment, and it perfectly illustrates why we love the monster in the first place.  You know you’ve done a good job with bringing the creature to life when Godzilla makes the audience break out in applause at certain points.  Also, I give the filmmakers a lot of credit for keeping Godzilla’s one-of-a-kind roar in this movie, because he wouldn’t be the same without it.  Even though the movie makes you wait long stretches for him, it does do right by the character.  That’s mainly why the film can be infuriating at times, because all you want is more of the big guy.  Maybe the filmmakers wanted to be careful and not spoil the character with too many scenes, but I think this is where caution should have been discouraged.
The film is especially well crafted, and does work well at portraying the mayhem caused by the monsters in the movie.  The film was made by Gareth Edwards, a former visual effects producer who’s only directed one feature prior to this one; the far more modestly budgeted Monsters (2010).  While I think Mr. Edwards still needs to refine his skills as a story-teller, I do believe that he has a remarkable vision when it comes to the scope of this movie.  He especially avoids the tiresome Michael Bay convention of shaky camera work, and lets the action play out in tightly controlled compositions.  We thankfully get very long and detailed looks at the monsters, which helps the audience comprehend what’s going on in every scene.  And again, the director’s sense of scale is very well displayed here.  The design team also deserves a lot of credit, helping to make this film feel right at home with the look of the original movies, while at the same time retaining that Hollywood gloss that we’ve come to expect from a big tent-pole film.  The Muto creatures are a nice hybrid of that modern design and traditional Japanese aesthetic that the movie is trying to accomplish.  I often thought that they looked like armor-plated versions of the Cloverfield (2008) monster, and they compliment Godzilla very well and make great foes for him in the end.  Where the movie falters in it’s story, it does indeed make it up in it’s visuals, and it can definitely be said that Godzilla has never looked better on the big screen.
If this movie becomes a big success, which indeed seems very likely, I’m sure we’ll see more Hollywood films centered around the big, green guy again.  My hope is that the filmmakers actually puts more of the focus on the creatures themselves, and less on the plots concerning the humans.  Maybe the filmmakers were living by the motto that less is more with regards to monster movies, but I think they went a little too far.  Yes, the showdown at the end is worth the wait (especially when Godzilla shows off his special trick), but it’s a long way to get there.  When your movie is named after a certain monster, you’d expect to see plenty of him throughout the run-time.  Oddly enough, more screen-time is devoted to the Mutos in this movie than Godzilla himself.  This is indeed how the original Godzilla movies structured, but I think it may have worked better in the movie’s favor if it broke from tradition in this sense.  More interesting human characters would’ve helped too.  It’s probably me being nit-picky, but I feel like the movie could’ve been better if it did something a little different.  That being said, it does a fine job living up to the legacy of the franchise and it will continue to make Godzilla a relevant presence on the big screen for many years to come.  It certainly does that better than the awful 1998 version.  Godzilla has been an influential force on western-based monster movies for years, such as Cloverfield (2008) and last year’s Pacific Rim.  Now the King of Monsters is here to be a force in American cinemas on his own, and let’s hope that Hollywood will serve right by him right in the future.
Rating: 7/10

Evolution of Character – King Arthur


A good old fashioned medieval tale is something that has always been a favorite sub-genre in Hollywood.  Whether it is based in history or in the realm of fantasy, epics surrounding the adventures of kings and knights go back to the very beginning of cinema.  You can track an interesting progression through the years as the Middle Ages would inspire swashbuckling adventures throughout early cinema; starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.  These movies soon led to the grandiose period epics of the 50’s and 60’s, where history and pageantry reigned on the big and wide screens.  In the 80’s, we got the boom of Fantasy epics, with movies like Dragonslayer (1981), Ladyhawke (1985), and Legend (1986) borrowing heavily from the Middle Age aesthetic.  This then led to a period of gritty historical films set in the same time period, like Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1992) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  The fantasy genre made yet another return with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 2000’s and today we are seeing the same genre hit it big on television with Game of Thrones.  Suffice to say, whether it’s fantasy or history, we just love watching medieval stories.  And no character better defines that bridge between the historical and the fanciful on film than the King of Camelot himself: Arthur Pendragon.
King Arthur’s legendary status is interesting because no one quite knows where it exactly started.  Some believe that Arthur is based off of a real 6th century ruler in early British history, while others believe that he’s merely a fictional character transplanted by the invading Normans in their literature.  Whatever his origin, Arthur has nevertheless become one of the most iconic characters to ever come out of medieval culture.  To this day, the character still symbolizes the ideal of true kingship, and he has usually served as the model for most monarchs in literature.  While there is no set original text from which to adapt Arthur’s story from, there have been some plot elements that have been turned into canon over time; such as his pulling Excalibur from a stone to prove his true claim to the throne, his rivalry with the witch Morgana, his friendship with the wizard Merlin, and his fall after the betrayal of his queen Guinevere.  These elements have become expected in most Arthurian stories, though not every adaptation is necessarily bound to it.  In fact, film adaptations of the King Arthur legend are about as varied as any other genre of film.  It’s actually very fascinating to see how many unique ways you can make a movie about the same character.  Below, you will find my examination of some of the most notable film adaptations over the years, and how they’ve managed to define our own modern view of King Arthur.
Although King Arthur and his knights had made appearances in many silent adventures and serial swashbucklers of Hollywood’s early years, it wouldn’t be until this particular feature that the kingdom of Camelot would be fully realized.  The film is notable because it was the first widescreen production made by MGM, and it’s clear why this production holds that distinction.  It’s a grand, epic scale retelling of the Arthurian legend shot on location in England with a cast of then A-list movie stars.  However, like most of these early productions, the film is less about Arthur himself and more about the knights who serve him.  In particular, the love story between Lancelot (Robert Taylor) and Guinevere (Ava Gardner) takes center stage.  The film does give Arthur a prominent place in the story, however, and it does show his strength as a leader.  Mel Ferrar looks the part well enough, with his chiseled face and commanding stature, but unfortunately he never is quite able to shake off his New Jersey accent.  This makes his performance a little distracting at times, and unfortunately causes the film to suffer.  Though the movie is beautiful to look at, it is firmly a product of it’s time.  King Arthur would have to wait a bit longer to receive his due on the big screen.
Finally, a film devoted entirely to the character of King Arthur.  Based off the novels The Sword and the Stone and The Once and Future King by English author T.H. White, the story follows the adventures of Arthur during boyhood, before he knew of his noble lineage and was working as a squire to lesser knights.  In the books, he is tutored by the wizard Merlin and soon is led to the mythical Sword in the Stone, from which he pulls Excalibur and proves he is the true heir to the throne.  Given that Walt Disney Pictures is known for their fairy tale adaptations, this one seemed a natural choice for them.  Interestingly though, the film is unlike most other medieval tales and it’s even unique among Disney movies as well.  This is a film about the relationship between a teacher and his student, which is something that you rarely find central to any movie’s plot.  Of course, there is magic involved, but most of the film is devoted to Wart (as Arthur is called in this movie) learning that there is more to life than just being a knight; lessons of wisdom that will someday influence him when he becomes king.  It may not be one of Disney’s most heralded films, but there is still plenty to like about it.  It’s colorful and the characters’ relationships are wonderfully constructed, especially between Wart and Merlin.  Also, the film is unique for it’s sense of humor.  It was the first animated film to use anachronistic humor and pop culture references, something that has become common in animated films since, like Aladdin (1992) and Shrek (2001).
With a legendary, grandiose story like the tale of King Arthur, it seems natural that it would inspire a musical retelling.  Adapted from the same T.H. White novels and the Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical, this grand scale production was made at the tail-end of the epic musical craze of the 50’s and 60’s.  Stylistically, it is very different from what you would expect of the era, given it’s grittier production design and darker cinematography.  The film feels a little disjointed because of this, given Lerner & Loewe’s bouncy musical score.  The odd juxtaposition was probably made because of the changing styles of the times, as late-sixties film-making became less light-hearted.  Unfortunately, none of the Broadway cast made it into this film, including it’s original stars Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.  This film did however do right by the casting of Arthur himself.  Richard Harris gives a commanding performance as the character, balancing both the charming aspects of Arthur as well as the menacing aspects.  And he can sing very well too.  The film focuses again on the betrayal of Guinevere and his trusted knight Lancelot, both played by real-life couple Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; but here the focus is on the turmoil Arthur feels over losing trust in those he loves, which Harris captures beautifully.  Though not as good of a musical movie as it could have been, there’s no doubt that King Arthur was served well by Mr. Harris’ performance.
As odd as it may seem, the men of Monty Python may have come closer to authentically portraying the Arthurian legend than anything before it.  At least they certainly got the dinginess of medieval times down exactly.  It would make sense in this time period that Arthur would be identified as King because “he hasn’t got shit all over him.”  The film is a comic masterpiece and one of the most oft-quoted movies of all time.  I also love the way that it both celebrates Arthurian legends, and mocks them relentlessly, often at the same time.  Graham Chapman perfectly encapsulates this kind of idea in his portrayal of Arthur, making the king both noble and incompetent simultaneously.  And in this kind of medieval world, every iconic element of Arthur’s story gets sent-up.  Whether it’s hacking a stubborn Black Knight to pieces, or searching for an elusive shrubbery, or tossing Holy Hand Grenades, nothing is seen as too ridiculous in this story, and it’s all hilarious.  At the same time, the movie points out that the very nature of these legends are ludicrous, especially as role models for modern government and traditions in British society.  They make as much sense today as a man playing dress up and pretending to gallop around while clapping coconuts together. Truly, how can one be called a king just because some “watery tart threw a sword at you” in some “farcical aquatic ceremony?”
Director John Boorman proudly took the biggest step forward in making a genuine epic film centered entirely around King Arthur.  His Excalibur is seen as one of the movies that started the fantasy film Renaissance of the 1980’s, and the film holds up very well today.  It embraces every single aspect of the Arthur legend, from both the mystical elements, personified in the characters of Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and the evil Morgana (Helen Mirren), to the historical authenticity of it’s time period.  Nigel Terry also portrays an Arthur that we’ve never seen before; that being the reluctant warrior who grows into his role of king and ultimately earns the trust of all his knights through strength of wisdom.  Terry’s performance may be the best version of the character we’ve seen overall because of the many nuances that he brings to it.  This film is one of the best examples of the genre because of the way that it embraces everything that we come to expect from a fantasy and pushes it into directions that we never expected it to go.  Boorman is known for his very gritty and sometimes odd-ball style, best shown in his early thrillers like Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974).  Excalibur feels right at home with those movies, and has an almost dream-like quality to it’s narrative and production design.  If you want to see the most earnest attempt to make an authentic film about King Arthur, than this will be the movie that’ll satisfy all your needs.
First Knight is a noble attempt to craft a very ambitious Arthurian tale, but it falls short in many ways.  Again King Arthur is relegated to the background as Guinevere (Julia Ormond) and Lancelot (an oddly miscast Richard Gere) takes center stage with their secret romance driving most of the plot.  The film also dismisses most of the mystical elements of the legend as well.  Merlin is no where to be seen, and traditional villains Morgana and Mordred are replaced by disgraced Prince Malagant (Ben Cross), who proves to be a very ineffective antagonist.  Not only that, the film’s tone is all over the place, probably because it was made by former comedy director Jerry Zucker (of Airplane and Naked Gun fame) who probably didn’t have the confidence to make a period drama.  So why is this film still a noteworthy adaptation of the Arthurian legend?  Because it has Sean freaking Connery as King Arthur.  The man carries the weight of this film on his shoulders, and is easily the best thing about this movie.  Connery just looks absolutely right playing the aging Arthur.  If you made a shortlist of all the actors who were tailor-made to portray the King, Connery would certainly be near the top.  If only this film had been made while Sean was still in his 007 prime, but still, he makes the most of his time in this movie and the film is better off for it.  First Knight is a flawed retelling of the legend, but it does deserve credit for giving us the ideal version of King Arthur that we’ve always wanted.
The most recent adaptation of the legend gives us what is probably the most historical version of the character to date.  This movie takes us to the very beginning of Arthur’s origins, showing him as a Roman legion general who defends the people of Britain from invading Vikings once the Roman Empire’s influence has left them.  Accompanied by his centurion knights including, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), and allied with the Saxon queen, Guinevere (Keira Knightly), they repel the Viking king Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) as his vast army.  Once again, we get the right kind of actor in the role of Arthur.  Clive Owen is definitely likable here and he has a commanding presence on screen.  Unfortunately, the film seems more preoccupied with the action sequences in the narrative rather than the character development.  The film was made in the post-Gladiator (2000) era, and it certainly feels like a movie crafted a little too quickly to cash in on the success of that previous film.  While I do credit the movie for at least trying to do something different with the legend of King Arthur, I just wish they had made something that was a little more interesting.  Instead, we get a flimsy plot holding together a collection of action scenes.  Clive Owen does what he can as Arthur, but the movie never gives him any room to delve deeper into the character’s motivations.  In the end, we end up with an ambitious take on the legend that never really lives up to it’s potential.
Looking at the whole of King Arthur’s trips to the big screen, it’s very interesting to see how varied the different versions are.  I, in particular, found the ones that centered on the King himself to be the ones that stood out the best.  Boorman’s Excalibur best personifies how to adapt the legend to the big screen, though other individual films do give us worthy versions of the king as well, like in Sean Connery and Richard Harris’ versions.  I think the best way to portray the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is to fully embrace all the aspects of the story; even the most fanciful versions.  After all, Arthur is a larger than life character and his story should reflect that.  I particularly love all the inclusions of Merlin in the story-lines, especially when the movies focus on their long standing friendship.  You take that away and you make Arthur just another ordinary king.  I’m sure we’ll see many more adaptations of the legend in the years to come, and hopefully more of them will follow along with that same principle.  Long live King Arthur.

Focus on a Franchise – Spider-Man


Super hero movies dominate our movie landscape right now, with Marvel Comics clearly leading the charge.  And if there was a character in the Marvel stable that has truly achieved iconic status both on the page and on the screen, it would be Spider-Man.  Created in 1962 by the great writer/editor Stan Lee and fellow artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man has since become Marvel’s most prolific character, and has even challenged DC comics’ Superman and Batman in terms of international popularity.  Naturally, with a character as popular in comic book form as Spider-Man is, it seems natural that he would also make an impact on the big screen as well.  The task of bringing the web-slinger to the big screen was given to director Sam Raimi in the early 2000’s and his first attempt was not only a success, but it even shattered box office records, becoming the first movie ever to make over $100 million in it’s opening weekend.  Raimi would go on to make two more Spider-Man movies, with mixed results.  Although Raimi is no longer behind the reigns of the Spider-Man franchise, the impact of his trilogy can still be felt today in the recent crop of superhero movies.  This week, I will be looking at the Sam Raimi directed films in the Spider-Man franchise, and how they work individually as movies and as part of the whole Spider-Man mythos.
First of all, one has to look at what makes a Spider-Man movie work in the first place.  It has to center around the coming-of-age story of it’s main protagonist and Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker.  Parker is unlike most other super hero characters in that he’s still not a fully matured man yet in his story-line.  He’s a fresh out of high school teenager who’s still trying to balance a normal social life while at the same time fighting crime, thanks to his extraordinary abilities.  His powers are also not genetically inherent like they are for other superheros like Superman and Wolverine.  They come to him after a genetic mutation he receives due to a bite from a radioactive spider.  These are the fundamental aspects that each Spider-Man story-line must follow, and for the most part, each Spider-Man film has stayed true to the origin.  The varying degrees of success come from whether or not the movies are able to let an audience buy into the believe-ability of the character.
Casting also matters, especially when it comes to Spider-Man himself, and Sam Raimi gave those honors to actor Tobey Maguire.  While I’m mixed on Mr. Maguire as an actor on the whole, and I think he may have been a bit too bulky to play the slimmer looking Spider-Man that I remember in the comics, I do think he brought out the charm in the character, and he definitely nailed the socially awkward and nerdy aspects of Peter Parker in his performance.  The same care with the casting also factors in with the many foes that Spider-Man faces, and some of those characters are what really makes or breaks these kinds of movies.  Each film does take the character seriously, mostly, and you can tell that Raimi set out to make genuinely fun movies.  So, let’s take a look at how they work individually.
The triumphant arrival of Spider-Man to the big screen.  After years of trying to get this film off the ground, Marvel finally brought their beloved character to cinemas in a movie that was not only ambitious, but unique.  It follows the comic origin pretty effectively, perhaps even a bit too much so.  Peter Parker visits a science exhibition with his classmates Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco), and unexpectedly runs into contact with that fateful spider bite.  The next morning, he discovers that he has gained extra-ordinary abilities like super strength, the ability to stick to walls and shoot webbing from his wrists, and most importantly something called his “Spider Sense,” which alerts him to oncoming danger.  Peter selfishly uses his powers for financial gain at first, until his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is killed by a criminal that Peter unknowingly ignored.  From that point on, he vows to use his powers to fight crime, while hiding his identity to protect those he loves, particularly his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who helped raise him.  Things get complicated when Harry’s father, a corporate tycoon and mad scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) gains powers of his own and becomes the supervillain, The Green Goblin.
It’s clear to see why this movie became such a success when it first came out.  It was colorful, action packed, and had a unique sense of humor.  The action sequences hold up and the look of the characters is particularly well done.  Spider-Man’s costume, in particular, is perfect.  Practical and iconic, and yet still something that you could believe was put together by a teenager, it’s a costume that instantly makes the character pop on the screen.  The Green Goblin’s costume is even more spectacular, departing a bit from the look in the comics, while still feeling right for the character.  The helmet itself even becomes a character in the movie, with Norman Osborn’s inner monologue taking on a life of it’s own through the helmet.  Sam Raimi’s inventiveness with his camera work has become his trademark, and the film hits it’s high marks whenever the director lets loose and has a little fun with any particular angle or set-up.
Unfortunately, the movie feels a little flat apart from these aspects.  It’s not a bad movie by any means; it’s just underwhelming.  I always thought that this first Spider-Man felt a little hollow; like it hadn’t found it’s footing yet.  Sam Raimi certainly made a pretty film, but his grasp on the story feels a little routine.  Remember how I mentioned that the movie followed the origin a little too closely; that’s because the movie feels like it’s going through the paces as you watch it.  It’s a problem that most origin story-lines have in superhero franchises, given all the heavy exposition that each has to deal with.  This film unfortunately succumbs to this as well.  The performances are also sort of lackluster, because no one in the film seems to understand their roles yet.  Dafoe especially suffers in this movie, playing over-the-top as the Green Goblin in a way that doesn’t quite work.  He actually is more effective without the mask as Norman Osborn.  The scenes where he speaks to himself through a schizophrenic conversation do work well, and they are some of the movie’s highlights.  Overall, the first Spider-Man is a noble beginning for the character, but one that is too flawed to be considered one of the all-time greats.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi’s follow-up sequel is a whole different story.  Spider-Man 2 is far and away the best movie to date in the whole franchise, and a text book example of how to make a great superhero movie.  Not only that, it probably stands as one of my all-time favorite superhero movies ever; right alongside The Avengers (2012) and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  Quite a step up from the disappointing first film.  In this movie, Peter Parker struggles in his new life as a crime fighter.  Unfortunately, he’s lost the friendship he had with Harry Osborn, who is vowing revenge against Spider-Man for the death of his father.  Mary Jane’s budding career as an actress is also creating friction between her and Peter.  On top of this, Peter is beginning to lose control over his powers, which seem to be decreasing.  He seeks help from a mentoring scientist named Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who unfortunately succumbs to a failed experiment that causes metallic tentacles to be fused to his spine.  Overcome with vengeance and obsession, Dr. Octavius becomes Spider-Man’s new nemesis, Doctor Octopus, and he unfortunately begins causing mayhem around town at a time when Peter is unsure whether he still has it in him to be the hero.
This movie works in almost every way.  It’s well written, well acted, and the action scenes are phenomenally staged.  Sam Raimi even changed the screen size for his franchise, from the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first film to the 2:40:1 widescreen for the sequel, knowing that this movie was going to be much bigger than before.  First of all, let me highlight the performances, particularly Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, or Doc Ock as he’s commonly known.  His performance as the villain works in every aspect where Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin failed.  Doc Ock has a couple over-the-top moments, but they are balanced by many other scenes where the character is cold and menacing.  Not only that, but the character has a fully developed arc that helps carry the film along.  The special effects team also did an amazing job complimenting Molina’s standout performance with their animation of Doc’s mechanical arms, which become characters in their own right.  A stronger villain also helps to elevate the effectiveness of the hero as well, and Tobey Maguire’s performance as Spider-Man is infinitely better in this movie.  Supporting characters also shine, especially J.K. Simmons as Peter Parker’s blusterous boss at the Daily Bugle newspaper.
And, of course, there are the exceptional action scenes.  An extended sequence on top of an elevated train car is an especially memorable part of the movie, and probably one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed.  If the movie has any flaw, it’s that the final act loses steam towards the end.  It’s not a bad ending, but it kind of lacks punch after that amazing train sequence.  Otherwise, everything else is done perfectly.  Spider-Man 2 holds together mainly because it finally lets Sam Raimi tell the Spider-Man story that he’s always wanted to do, and not have to be burdened by cumbersome exposition.  He also brought on board a veteran screenwriter, Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Paper Moon), to refine the dramatic aspects of the story, and this move helped to make the movie not only exciting, but poignant as well.  Best of all, it certified that the Spider-Man franchise wasn’t just popcorn-faire, but also a landmark series with at least one genuine classic to define it as such.  Unfortunately, this achievement would be short-lived.
SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)
Spiderman 2‘s reception was so positive that it made many people excited for what was to come next.  Unfortunately Spider-Man 3 proved to be a big letdown.  I wrote an article last year about “Second Sequels,” and how many of them usually don’t work.  This movie would be a perfect example of that, and the reasons are very fascinating.  Apparently Sam Raimi and Columbia Pictures, the company financing the movies, were never on the same page when it came to how the next Spider-Man movie should go; particularly when it came to the choices of the villains.  Sam Raimi wanted a more classic villain like Sandman, while Columbia executives wanted to use the fan favorite villain Venom.  What we got in the final film was both, both awkwardly shoe-horned together into a story-line that would have worked better with just one of the two.  Not only that, but the movie also wraps up the Harry Osborn plot that’s been building over the entire series, so you have a film with three different villains.  Sufficed to say, the movie suffers from having to cram in too much into too little time.  Not only that, but it takes away from Peter Parker’s development, which could have had an interesting arc centered around him finding the alien symbiote virus.
Where does the movie falter?  There are too many things to count.  Perhaps the biggest blunder of the movie is the way it handles the character of Venom.  Never mind the horrible miscasting of Topher Grace as the villain and his alter ego Eddie Brock.  What should have been one of the most iconic villains in the whole franchise is given just 10 short minutes of screen-time towards the end of the movie, and has little significance to the plot as a whole.  It’s clear that Sam Raimi didn’t want the character in the movie at all and was just fulfilling an obligation to the studio.  Unfortunately, by promising to use the character, he sabotages any real attempt to make the story work as a whole.  It’s clear that Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church) was the character that Raimi wanted at the center of the movie, and his purpose in the plot makes no sense once Venom starts to become a factor.  Many of the other problems within the film are all pretty notorious (Emo Peter Parker, the omelette making scene, the dreaded dance number), but the fundamental problems with the movie stem pretty much from the compromised nature of the story-line.  The movie would’ve benefited greatly from having a central villain in the movie, like Spider-Man 2‘s Doc Ock.
As flawed and schizophrenic as the movie is, it’s not the worst superhero movie ever made however.  There are some things that do work.  When Sam Raimi is on his game, he can still deliver some memorable moments, particularly a scene where Sandman first comes to life.  Done entirely without dialogue, the scene shows the character slowly pulling himself together from millions of grains of sand.  It’s a poignant and captivating scene that shows effectively the kind of movie that Raimi was going for.  Church’s performance is also effective, if a little too underplayed.  Oddly enough, the performances from the leads in this movie are the lackluster ones.  It’s seems that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst lost interest in the series at this point in their careers and are just sleep-walking through their roles.  That or they just didn’t believe in this particular plot.  The only actor who seems to be having fun while making this movie ironically enough is James Franco, who was probably the weakest actor in the other films.  Here, he’s actually fun to watch.  This is probably because it came at a time when Franco was starting to move away from the matinee idol persona and into the bohemian weirdo that we know him as today; and oddly enough it works here.  Spider-Man 3 is a bad movie, but it’s flawed in a way that makes it oddly fascinating and watchable.  I actually view this movie more often than the blander first film.  Still, it is a disappointing follow-up to the genuinely great second film.
So, while the Spider-Man franchise is a little disjointed, it’s nevertheless has done it’s job and has helped to turn the iconic comic book character into a true force at the box-office.  This weekend, Spider-Man makes his fifth appearance on the big screen; surpassed only by Batman, Superman, and Wolverine in total number of films.  I only wanted to focus on the Sam Raimi trilogy for this article, because I consider the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man series as an entirely different franchise.  Upon re-watching all these movies again, I was actually struck by how much they have influenced today’s recent batch of superhero movies; particularly the one’s made by Marvel.  It could be said that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man contributed to what we know now as the Marvel house style of film-making, with it’s colorful cinematography and emphasis on humor within the action scenes; similar in how Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies are now influencing the darker, grittier style of DC’s recent film adaptations.  Unfortunately, Columbia Pictures’ parent company Sony still holds the film rights to the character of Spider-Man, so we won’t see the web-slinger joining his Marvel comrades at Disney any time soon for one of the upcoming Avengers movies.  Still, I do admire what director Sam Raimi did with the character during his tenure in the franchise.  Not only did he make the hero fly off the page, but he also set the trend for everything that would come afterward.