Saturday, November 17, 2012

DVD Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I suppose it was OK. The odd thing about The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is that I neither really liked it or disliked it.

OK, I liked it. The film was watchable and entertaining. I enjoyed it and would watch it again, but it wasn't "amazing" or "spectacular" or anything like that. It was just another superhero movie. It had its good points and its flaws.

Warning! Warning! Major spoilers ahead. If you're like me and waited for this film to come out in DVD before watching it (and you haven't watched it yet), I will give away a ton of secrets in my review. You have been warned.

I like that there was a mystery. So many superheroes get their powers by accident and I guess Peter did in this film too, but not quite by accident. In a way, his father created him.

When Peter Parker is four-years old, his parents suffer a home break-in. Someone specifically was looking for something in his Dad's office. Fortunately, Richard Parker hid the really secret stuff in a false bottom of his desk drawer (a trick older than Stan Lee, but the thieves still didn't tumble to it). Pawning little Peter off on his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Richard and Mary Parker disappear into the night, never to be seen again. Later, Peter learns they died in a plane crash, but no one ever talks about it.

Richard Parker's work had something to do with cross-species genetics...and spiders.

It's interesting that teenage Peter Parker was interested in photography before becoming Spider-Man. In the original, silver age version, he started taking news photos as a way to support himself and Aunt May after his uncle's death. I found it particularly confusing though, when Peter webbed his camera to a wall to take shots of Spider-Man's battle with the Lizard, that the film had never established why he did it in the first place. In this movie, he is never shown to have a relationship with the Daily Bugle or making plans to sell his photos to them or anyone else.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Andrew Garfield did a very good job playing the geeky, socially awkward (to put it mildly) teenage Peter Parker. Of course, the audience has to get past the fact that all of the actors depicting high school students are really twenty-somethings, but we should be used to that by now. In fact, Garfield's Parker is so awkward, I found it amazing that the beautiful and quite articulate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) ever found him attractive in the first place. Sure, Peter had just heroically tried to save some kid from being bullied by "Flash" Thompson (Chris Zylka) and gotten pounded into the pavement for his troubles, but that should have just made him look like a loser to most high school girls.

In some ways, I was more interested in Garfield's Parker than in his Spider-Man. It was very easy to see how Peter, abandoned by his parents over a decade before, was an alienated, malcontented, loner sitting on a lot of rage. He wasn't the "nice kid" that Parker was originally created to be by Lee and Ditko 50 years ago. Yeah, Garfield's Parker will stand up for the underdog, but that's because he is the underdog, not because he's intrinsically a nice guy. After all, at various points in the film, he blows off both his aunt and uncle, humiliates Flash Thompson just because he can, and even ends up on the school principle's "bad boy" list (although performing community service isn't such a "bad boy").

So you take all of that and give it "spider powers." What happens?

Oh, but wait. The mystery.

A water leak in the Parker home's basement leads Peter to discover his father's old briefcase that had been left to gather dust in some forgotten corner. Infinitely curious and desperate to know more about what happened to his parents, he examines the filthy old thing and, perhaps remembering the false bottom of his Dad's desk drawer, discovers a hidden pocket with a "secret formula." He also discovers a photo of Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his Dad's former lab partner at Oscorp, and he aims himself in that direction to try and learn more.

By amazing coincidence, the day Peter goes to visit Connors at Oscorp, Connors is supposed to be lecturing new interns who are being taken on a tour of the place by (another amazing coincidence) head intern Gwen Stacy. Peter takes another kid's pass to get in (getting that kid subsequently thrown out) and gets his first look at Connors...and impressing Connors with his knowledge of cross-species genetics. It's the first time that the audience sees Peter has a brain built for science. It's never mentioned before this, and Peter might just have been another angry high school kid for the first thirty minutes of the film.

Speaking of amazing coincidences, Peter just happens to run into (literally) Norman Osborne's top henchman Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) and sees that the folder Ratha is carrying contains the same "secret formula" symbols that Pete found in his Dad's briefcase.

Even though Peter has a stolen intern pass and has left the rest of the intern tour, no one seems to question him as he follows Ratha through the corridors of a private corporate building with lots of trade secrets and watches him manipulate a touch pad to open a door to some secret room. Two guys come out and go with Ratha but for whatever reason, Peter decides to stop following Ratha and to get into that room.

I must say that it was lousy security that let Peter gain access. No smartcard, retina scan, or voice recognition software was required to open the door, just a series of finger movements across the pad, which Peter saw briefly and remembered. And what was in that room? Just a bunch of spiders on webs inside some sort of machine. Naturally, Peter decides to touch and spiders fall all over him. He manages to get out of the room again without setting off any alarms but takes an eight-legged hitchhiker with him, which manages to "put the bite" on Peter's neck right before Gwen catches him and kicks him out of the building.

I should mention at this point that Connors later tells Peter that no animal subject of cross-species genetic experiments has survived, yet, once bitten, Peter seems to do OK. (Should I mention that Peter actually gives Connors the secret of his father's formula at their first one-on-one meeting, making the Lizard possible?) But then, Connors also tells Peter that it was his father's breakthrough with the spiders over ten years ago, that enabled the project to survive. Maybe that's why there was a special room with spiders. They were the only ones who could pass on their genetic traits to another species without killing that species. But why were Richard Parker's spiders (or more likely their descendants) still around at Oscorp and if they were such a breakthrough (even if Parker Sr. took all his research with him when he disappeared ... apart from one briefcase), why in over a decade, were no experiments done with those spiders that would have ultimately created another Spider-Man?

The spiders were there for Peter to get spider powers, then that was that. Bad writing.

The film spends a lot of time showing us how Peter develops his powers. He doesn't immediately decide to become a hero or an entertainer or anything else. The fact that he gained new abilities is cool and a terrific clue as to what his father and Connors were up to, but he didn't decide to do anything with them at all (except mercilessly tease Flash Thompson and shatter a basketball backboard) until his Uncle Ben is killed.

And yes, Peter could have stopped the killer and no he didn't and yes, it pisses him off.

But he doesn't become a hero yet, he just becomes a guy looking for revenge. Ironically, he never finds it. He busts a bunch of guys who kind of look like the murderer, but he never finds the actually guy. Maybe the shooter blows town after he blows away Uncle Ben, but we never find out.

In the process of refining his vigilante role, Peter first develops a crude mask and finally the entire costume. Smart as he is, he can't actually create a "spider web formula" as in the original comics, but he "borrows" some from Oscorp after becoming chummy with Curt Connors.

Which brings up the question of what happens when Peter runs out of his supply? The only place he can get more is Oscorp. Once Connors is put away at the end of the film, his only other way in is his girlfriend. Sure, he invents the shooters, but he has no ability to independently create more webbing.

It's little details like this that kind of bugged me (yeah, that's a bad pun).

Peter finally becomes a hero, not while fighting a bad guy, but by rescuing a bunch of people who the Lizard endangers by throwing their cars off a bridge. Peter's webbing is strong enough to suspend the cards from the bridge, but he only rescues one kid from one car. I have no idea how the kid got stuck in the car when his Dad made it out just fine. I have no idea why Peter didn't rescue anyone else from any of the other cars (and if they were all empty, why did he stop them from falling into the water in the first place?).

But in saving the little kid and seeing the father's gratitude, he gives himself a name and a more noble purpose.

Gwen's father Police Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary) was a jerk for most of the film but he was supposed to be. Peter's dinner with the Stacy family was a total disaster, but what teenage boy hasn't been humiliated by his girlfriend's father at one point or another. It was kind of cool to see the face of "Diego" (Ice Age films), though.

And how the heck doesn't Aunt May know Peter is Spider-Man? Her first clue is right after she and Peter watch Captain Stacy issue a warrant for Spider-Man's arrest during a TV press conference, Peter storms out of the house. May looks at him like, "what they heck is that all about." Later, when Peter comes home all banged up after his last battle with the Lizard, she looks at him, doesn't ask why he looks like he went ten rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson, and just hugs him. I tell you, that woman was smart enough to put it all together. She has to know.

By the way, I really liked Martin Sheen's Uncle Ben, especially when he's teasing Peter in front of Gwen and calls himself Peter's probation officer. Everyone needs an uncle like that. I was also pleased that Sally Field's Aunt May wasn't constantly at death's door. In the Lee/Ditko version (and later), May always has one foot in the grave and the other on ice-coated Teflon. At least this Aunt May is a fighter (although I get the impression she's a lousy cook).

Another thing I liked was that Flash wasn't just a two-dimensional bully. After Uncle Ben dies (and everyone at school knows), Flash tries to make amends. Sure, Peter picks him up and slams him against some lockers, but everyone, including Flash, understands why Peter's so angry and hurt. Just a nice little bit of realism.

Another nice bit of realism was Gwen confessing to Peter how afraid she was growing up, watching her Dad leave for work as a police officer each day, and wondering if he'd ever come home that night. How could she stand being with Peter if he insisted on being Spider-Man and going after the Lizard?

This is a nice echo (though the filmmakers probably didn't intend it as such) to Betty Brant, Peter's first girlfriend in the Lee/Ditko comics. They eventually break up because Peter's job as a freelance crime photographer (Betty never finds out Peter is Spider-Man) is so dangerous. Her brother was also some sort of thrill seeker and was ultimately killed because of it (actually, he was in deep with some thugs and couldn't pay them back the money he took and they killed him). Peter finally left Betty because he knew she'd leave him if she ever found out what he really did every night.

Why did Peter put "Property of Peter Parker" on his camera? Who does that? It was a lame way for the Lizard to find out Spider-Man's secret identity.

Connors survives the film, saves Peter's life in the end (after killing George Stacy) and goes to jail. I'd love to see his defense attorney's strategy. Technically, Connors was under the influence of a mind and body altering substance when he committed his crimes, so can the court really convict Curt Connors for what he did when he was the Lizard? Well, probably, since Connors injected himself with that stuff in an attempt to regain his lost arm. If a junkie shoots up and is high when he kills someone, he's still libel for the murder after he stops being high.

Promises you can't keep are the best kind. OK, it would have been a lousy promise to try and keep, and I don't really remember Peter agreeing to stay away from Gwen as her dying father's last request, but Peter just plain blew off the seriousness of a father's genuine love for his daughter and desire to protect her.

Lots of little interesting developments. Stuff for the future. Supposedly Ratha was pressuring Connors to begin human trails on cross-species genetics because Norman Osborne (owner of Oscorp and usually the Green Goblin) is dying...but we get no details on what's killing him and how the Connors experiments are supposed to help.

Does Peter ever go after the guy who killed his uncle again?

If Aunt May knows Peter is Spider-Man, what will she do about?

It's strongly implied that the plane crash that killed Peter's parents was no accident and that it was arranged because Richard Parker refused to start human trails on his formula. Connors is alive at the end of the film and has this knowledge, but will he ever tell Peter? If Peter finds out, what will he do, go after Norman Osborne? If Osborne wanted the secret of Parker's cross-species formula, why kill him? Why not kidnap his wife and son and hold them hostage (or some other equally evil plot) and force Parker to give up the formula?

And if Osborne wants human trials to begin now because he's dying, was he dying ten years ago when Parker also refused to perform human experiments, or was there another reason (like lots and lots of money)?

I understand that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is in pre-production and scheduled for release sometime in 2014.

Maybe we'll find out some answers then, and get a look at Mary Jane Watson...and maybe Electro.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: V for Vendetta

I've never seen the film V for Vendetta (2005) starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving (though I should get around to it one of these days) but I just finished Alan Moore's and David Lloyd's graphic novel (originally a ten-issue comic book series) and thought, given the wide use of the Guy Fawkes mask by "hacktavist" group Anonymous and some protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement (which is worn in both the comic book and film versions of the story by the main character), that it was high time to look at the source material for these modern, real-life responses to what we think of as oppression in our world.

The original comic book series was developed and published in 1985 by writer Alan Moore, a self-proclaimed anarchist, and artist David Lloyd. Essentially it is one in a long series of dystopian dramas set in the near future (the late 1990s in the comic book series), this time in England. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the developed nations of the world but left England untouched, at least directly. In response to the war, a totalitarian government has come to power, styled after the Nazis, and has seized total control of the country. Much like Orwell's 1984, omnipresent government surveillance observes the public, while a propaganda campaign continually feeds the citizens the usual "the government is on your side" messages, underscored by threats for thinking otherwise. Headed by "the Leader" who uses organizations called "Nose," "Ear," and "Mouth" as detection and communication conduits, and an information system called "Fate," every aspect of an individual's life is monitored and controlled.

Anyone belonging to virtually any group one might consider oppressed, including people of color and the LGBT community, has long since been rounded up, put in camps, and ultimately eliminated. It is out of one of these camps that the anti-hero known simply as "V" has emerged. It eventually comes out that V is a brilliant but mentally disturbed person who was "created" in one of the camps; a victim of chemical and psychological experimentation (sort of a fusion between Batman and the Joker). Over a period of years, almost everyone associated with his camp (which has since been destroyed) has been eliminated. Finally, V in full mask and regalia, "goes public" with the rescue of a 15 year old girl from government police who were about to rape and murder her. As his sometimes unwilling protege, Evey descends into V's shadowy world, learning all but his greatest secrets and even unwittingly, trying to counterbalance his darkness with her drive toward the light.

The story is complex and even a little confusing at parts and I won't attempt to recount the plot in any sort of detail. At first, it seems as if V is attempting to murder those last few who could possibly identify him from the camp, but once they are gone it becomes clear that he has a much greater agenda; to disassemble all organized government control of the populace and to throw England into a state of chaos and finally anarchy. Obviously this is something of a reflection of Moore's philosophy (hopefully exaggerated given the level of violence employed by V), sort of an anti-version of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (fortunately Moore isn't nearly as long-winded and boring as Rand).

Through a long series of twists and turns, V goes increasingly higher up the governmental chain of power, destroying the video and audio spy devices, empowering the population (through threat of mass murder) to take back control of their lives and holding them responsible for voting their oppressors into office and then following their orders (interestingly enough, a very libertarian perspective, speaking of Ayn Rand), with the final goal of completely destroying the governmental infrastructure, leaving only human beings to pick up the pieces.

V's tactics against not just his enemies, but the people he's supposedly freeing are equally as brutal. I was constantly reminded of just how dangerous and insane V was, and how at any moment, Evey could be his next victim. At one point, he abandons her on the street and only after she re-establishes herself with another protector (only to watch him be murdered), does V enter her life again...without her knowledge. Believing she has been imprisoned by the police for attempting to kill the man who murdered her lover, V tortures Evey in an apparent attempt to get her to betray...V. She endures it all and continues to refuse to "confess," even when she believes she will be killed. Finally, V reveals himself and tells her that he has been putting her through these trials to free her from the "prison" of her mind (I was reminded of the Matrix (1999) and how the mind creates illusion, prison, and freedom inside the machine).

But Evey has a very special purpose and there is a sort of logic to V's madness. He knows he is the destroyer, but that's only one-half of the task at hand. Once government has been reduced to ashes and rubble (literally), someone has to assume the mantle of V and rebuild (again, reminiscent of the end of Rand's novel). V (the original) allows himself to be morally wounded but remains alive long enough to give Evey her final instructions. He dies but the reader is only allowed to see different versions of how Evey imagines removing his mask. Only Evey knows for sure that V is dead. His true face is never revealed.

Then, in donning the Guy Fawkes mask and appearing as "V" to the public, do we realize that everyone has the capacity to be a "V" in some fashion. In Evey's case, it was as the rebuilder, the one who gives a future to a fragmented humanity. I suppose this is why people in the world today sometimes wear "the mask" during protests, to represent the opposition of oppressive organization and the power of the people to fight back.

I don't know if Moore meant to suggest anarchism as a sustainable social movement or if this was all allegory to (once again) expose the dangers of totalitarianism and particularly politically and socially conservative totalitarianism. In any event, after every revolution, when every oppressor has been killed or exiled, whoever is leading the revolution becomes the next dictator. Maybe that's why V had to have a more benign successor. V himself, given the lakes of blood in which his hands were soaked, would certainly have been no kinder to England than the government he obliterated.

Was it worth my time to read? Relative to the impact V for Vendetta continues to have on modern protest movements (maybe just the Guy Fawkes mask at this point), yes. However as social commentary, this story has been told, before and since, about a million different times in a million different ways. It didn't seem like anything new. Dystopian stories are like street cars. There'll be another one along in five minutes.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

I loved Brad Bird's work on The Incredibles (2004). But I hated what he did to Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Yes, I actually purchased the DVD because I heard this film was so good and planned to write what I thought would be a glowing DVD review. Boy, was I surprised.

The beginning of the film was confusing, but that's not a problem because it's OK to start out with a mystery and have it reveal itself as the story progresses. I was surprised to see Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) in the field at the very beginning of the action. I had envisioned this "inside man" being forced outside with Hunt's (Tom Cruise) IMF team after some dire emergency resulted in all of the IMFs being disavowed. That particular surprise was not a pleasant one.

No, I like Simon Pegg's work a lot but let's face it, he's a comedian. He's supposed to be funny. He was used for comic relief, but he was too comic. His quips, babbling, and fubars would have gotten Hunt and the rest of the rogue IMF group killed if all this was a real-life op. In fact, when Dunn was distracted while guarding assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), he very nearly did get himself, Carter (Paula Patton) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) killed. I would have been fine with Dunn having an active role throughout the film if Bird would have directed him to be just a little more competent (Dunn did redeem himself by saving Brandt's life late in the film, however).

But that wasn't the only problem.

At first, I couldn't put my finger on it. I knew there was something wrong with the film, but I didn't know what. It had all of the right elements, but I just wasn't as engaged with the action as I should have been. My first clue was the pay phone Hunt used after he was rescued from prison. He's in the middle of Moscow and there just happens to be a pay phone that, when you punch in the right code, turns into an IMF mission assigning device. Don't Russians ever service pay phones? If that was a permanent device, sooner or later, some telephone repair guy was going to come along and find out that the U.S. had at least one secret dispensing machine in Moscow. Of course, it did "self destruct," but only after Hunt had to bang on it like an old radio with a bad connection.

What finally clued me in was the fake freight train car. OK, you've just escaped from Russian security after they think you've blown up the Kremlin. The "Secretary" (Tom Wilkinson in an uncredited role, who I recognized as "Carmine Falcone" from Batman Begins, 2005) has just been murdered and you're on the run with a know-nothing (or so you think) analyst, trying to find some resources that the Secretary said (right before dying) that he would "overlook" so you could "re-avow" yourself after the President has disavowed all IMF teams everywhere.

So the U.S. Government just happens to put a secret, high-tech train car in the middle of a Russian train yard, hooked up to a Russian freight train, and it just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Doesn't anyone inspect trains in Russia? Isn't there some kind of inventory of how many cars a train is supposed to be transporting, what they look like, what they are supposed to contain? This one just happens to get overlooked all of the time?

That was bad enough, but the retina scanner was an insane security addition, as evidenced by how difficult it was to use in order to get in the car while the train was moving.
That's when I figured it out. I was watching a cartoon!

It's OK for The Incredibles to have ridiculous people, devices, and circumstances and still be suspenseful and exciting because it is a cartoon, but Mission: Impossible, although it does have its improbable elements, is supposed to be a tad more realistic and even gritty.

I kept thinking back to the original Mission: Impossible (1996) film. It was gritty, and bloody, and action packed without being ridiculous. It had its little "comedy" moments to lighten the mood, but they didn't distract from what was going on and I never got the impression (well, almost never) that any key member of the IMF team didn't know what he or she was doing.

Oh, and I didn't care that Agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway) got killed. I know it really broke up Agent Carter, but there was no time for any character development of Hanaway, so the audience (including me) had no time to become attached to him in any way, shape, or form. There was also so little development of Moreau, that I didn't really find her all that interesting, let alone dangerous. She didn't creep me out the way she should have. And even though there was a little bit of development of the "bad guy," Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nygvist), I didn't really hate him. I mean in Mission: Impossible III (2006), I really hated Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and would have put a bullet in him myself if I had the chance (the character, not the actor). But I just didn't care what happened to Hendricks. It didn't matter to me whether he lived or died.

I have to say, I liked the character of William Brandt early on in the film. It was nice to see Jeremy Renner play someone not superbly confident, super-skilled, and totally bad ass. However, all that (most of it) was a cover for an agent who thought he'd blown his mission to protect Hunt's wife. He was just pretending not to be super-skilled and bad ass (he was still not confident, but that will no doubt change). I also read that Brandt's role was specifically included so that the character would be available at whatever point Cruise decides to leave the Mission: Impossible franchise. As crummy as I thought Ghost Protocol was, Hunt is the IMF in the franchise. Not sure how Brandt (or Renner) is going to carry it or if I even care (now that Renner is associated not only with the MI franchise, but "Bourne" and "The Avengers" as well, he seems to be the "flavor of the month," so I guess he's not crying about all the attention).

Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). I love the character and the actor, but what's the deal with the cameo? I mean, what's the point? You could have filmed the entire scene without him and it would have worked. There was no reason whatsoever to include him except that you could.

And Hunt's wife is alive, the ultimate "Mission: Impossible" ending, the ultimate illusion, the ultimate result of misdirection, but I didn't care about that, either. By the end of the film, I was tired and disappointed. Please don't make anymore Mission: Impossible films, Hollywood. I'm done with making movies out of old TV shows. Try something new for a change. Please?