Movie Talk: The Sam Raimi Spider-Man Films Re-Visited [Part 2]

spiderman2posterRelease Year: 2004
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy

When I re-visited the first of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, I was somewhat apprehensive, expecting the movie to have aged poorly. I didn’t have such doubts about the first of the two sequels though. Spider-Man 2 was always regarded as the best of the three movies for multiple reasons, and I certainly remember agreeing with this sentiment back in the day following the release of the divisive Spider-Man 3. I do have a small confession to make before I get into Spider-Man 2 though: I’m writing this review having also already re-watched Spider-Man 3. I’m not going to talk about the final Sam Raimi Spider-Man film in this review, but I will say that – having watched the whole trilogy – Spider-Man 2 is still by far the strongest of the three.

For starters, only two years separate this movie from its direct predecessor, yet the CG felt vastly improved with far fewer of those small, unconvincing moments from the original that served as reminders of the film’s age.

Secondly, the origin story was out of the way, leaving Spider-Man 2 to do its own thing.

The best thing about this film though, in my opinion, is that it nails the character of Peter Parker and depicts the consequences of his double life authentically in a way that fans of the comic will be immediately familiar with. He may have crazy super-powers but the man behind the mask is still just a normal dude with normal problems. In fact, Peter is besieged by personal problems, all of them caused by his need to be Spider-Man and spend so much time swinging around New York, pulling people from burning buildings, stopping thieves or saving kids from being hit by cars.

He lives in a slum of an apartment and is always behind on rent. He can’t hold down his pizza delivery job. His college grades are slipping. He can’t tell Mary Jane how he feels about her because of his need to keep her safe from his enemies. He can’t help letting people down all the time because his activities as Spider-Man cause him to consistently run late or not be where he says he will be.

Peter is torn between staying true to the memory of Uncle Ben – and the iconic power-and-responsibility philosophy – and having a life of his own. The first portion of the movie sees Peter getting beaten down by all of this heavy life shit until he decides that enough really is enough. Taking direct inspiration from the classic Stan Lee/John Romita “Spider-Man No More” arc, he bins the costume (literally) and turns his back on Spider-Man.

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Unfortunately, a new villain is on the scene: Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina. “Doc Ock” is one of Spidey’s oldest and most popular adverseries but I’ve never really been a big fan, purely because of his look in the comics where he was always drawn as a tubby bloke with a bad basin haircut and terrible costume. Not so here in Spider-Man 2. Doctor Octopus was drastically reinvented and looks utterly badass, more in line with the version from the ‘Ultimate’ universe. His extra appendages in particular look much more threatening than in the comics and are animated believably, thanks to the primary use of physical tentacles and practical effects which were then “topped up” with CGI.

While I loved Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in the first Spider-Man, there can be no doubt that Doctor Octopus is the better villain overall, largely because there is so much you can do with him and his tentacles. This is shown in the fight sequences which are much more dynamic in Spider-Man 2 and an absolute blast to watch, especially when Spider-Man and Doc Ock are fighting in freefall.

Doctor Octopus is also a tragedy of sorts. While he is the villain who will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, he is also the victim of the science-experiment-gone-wrong. His wife is killed in the disaster and the inhibitor chip on his harness destroyed, allowing the tentacles to fuse with his nervous system and “speak” to him, poisoning his mind. After a titanic battle with Spider-Man at the movie’s climax, Ock does manage to regain control and redeem himself by sacrificing his life to destroy another dangerous fusion experiment that could have consumed New York. Some might bemoan this conclusion – considering Ock’s ruthless nature in the comics – but I think it was a fitting way to conclude the villain’s story given the fact that he was a good man and husband at the beginning of the movie.

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There’s also welcome closure to the will-they-won’t-they story of Peter and Mary-Jane as she finally discovers the truth about Peter. He still attempts to push her away but MJ decides that enough is enough and ditches her wedding to J. Jonah Jameson’s son, John, to be with Peter. So, Peter gets the girl at last but a vengeful Harry Osborn – armed with Peter’s secret and Daddy’s sanity-stealing serum – is waiting in the wings…

It sets the stage perfectly for Spider-Man 3 which is why it’s such a shame that the third film turned out the way it did.

But that should take nothing away from Spider-Man 2. The movie is perfectly-paced, authentic to the source material and packed with action. There are also some really fun supporting roles that help break up the bleakness of Peter’s life, such as the ever-brilliant J.K. Simmons as the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson. I love the scenes at the Bugle as they are just so entertaining, thanks to Jameson’s ranting, Robbie Robertson’s (Bill Nunn) despair and the sharp Betty Brant (Elizabeth Banks). Comedy relief also comes from Peter’s landlord, Mr Ditkovitch (Elya Baskin) and his awkward-but-cute daughter, Ursula (Mageina Tovah). There are also the usual Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell cameos too.

Oh and there’s another wet t-shirt contest tribute for Kirsten Dunst’s character, making me wonder if these were being intentionally written in at this point. No complaints here, mind!

Spider-Man 2 is what I class as a perfect sequel. It picks up the dangling plot points of the original while upping the ante with the action and effects. More importantly, I feel like I am sharing the journey of the main characters and it’s the near-seamless transition between the two movies that I really appreciate. It really is the kind of movie that is best enjoyed as a double-bill with its predecessor.

Movie Talk: The Sam Raimi Spider-Man Films Re-Visited [Part 1]

spiderman-1Release Year: 2002
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

I’ll be honest: I was expecting the first of the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies to have aged terribly before I re-watched it yesterday. After all, this film is eighteen years-old at this point. EIGHTEEN. Where has all of THAT time gone? Since then, we have had many Spider-Man films, with the webhead played by different actors to much critical acclaim. So what was I expecting? Ropey CG? Dodgy acting? I don’t think it was unreasonable to have gone back into Spider-Man with low expectations. It had been a long time since I last watched it, for starters. Also, the movie has since gone on to inspire countless memes and inevitable criticism from a younger generation along the lines of, “Oh my God! Look how bad this looks compared to the new ones!”

Well, guess what? The film is still awesome. The end credits rolled and I was just as satisfied as when I first watched it back in 2002, as a twelve year-old. You can keep your newer Spider-Mans. I never fully bought into the whole crossover or ‘event’ thing, even in the comic books. I preferred Spider-Man to have his own self-contained adventures with his own supporting cast, as it used to be in the pre-millennium comics (guest appearances from other characters aside). That’s probably one reason why I still enjoy first Spider-Man.

Another is the casting, which was spot-on. I’ll admit that Tobey Maguire’s version of Peter Parker isn’t 100% satisfying (he occasionally comes off as just weird/creepy as opposed to nerdy and shy) but for the most part, I have no issues. Willem Dafoe is great as the billionaire industrialist, Norman Osborn, who becomes the iconic Green Goblin. I have to say that I really enjoy the look of the Goblin in this movie, especially that grinning, gargoyle-like helmet with the slide-up eye covers. Back in ’02, I was dubious but now? I’d say that I like it more than the Goblin’s classic costume from the comics. The glider is bad-ass too.

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Admit it: this was better than the rubber mask and messenger boy satchel from the comics.

Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson are perfect as Aunt May and Uncle Ben while J.K. Simmons couldn’t have done a better job portraying the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson. Seriously, it’s a pleasure whenever he’s on-screen, shouting and puffing away on a cigar. I couldn’t help but smile.

Kirsten Dunst does a pretty solid job as Mary-Jane Watson, Peter’s high-school love interest, though I wish her character had been a little more fiery and bubbly as in the comics where she was first introduced as a party girl. Here, she is softer and an unlikely sympathiser towards Peter given their respective places in the high school social hierarchy. That aside, I’ve never been able to forget that alley scene in the pouring rain where MJ’s sodden top leaves nothing to the imagination. As I said earlier, I first watched this film as a twelve year-old and I can’t count the number of times I reversed and replayed those few seconds of the DVD. If it had been the VHS version then the tape would surely have worn out! It was gold for a sheltered adolescent, and – while I didn’t indulge in any reverse/replay shenanigans this time – I still appreciated the scene as an adult. I couldn’t see it getting through the censors in today’s uber-critical, Woke world without some photoshop-like post-production magic though. Nor would I be so confident about her super low-cut top from the movie’s start making the cut.

It’s another reminder that more time has passed than I realised since Spider-Man hit cinemas, and that the world has changed a lot in those eighteen years. This DVD I have is a further reminder. It’s my original copy – the same one that I stressed so much with all that reversing/replaying – from 2002 and it was the first DVD that I ever owned. It’s a ‘Special’ 2-Disc Widescreen Edition (remember those?) that I seem to recall costing about £20! The double-discs, thick booklet and solid plastic for the casing are a stark contrast to today’s DVD’s which usually have no special features and the flimsiest of cases.

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Would this make it into a 12-Rated superhero movie today? Somehow, I doubt it.

Back to the movie, I was able to appreciate the origin story and scripting far more this time around. When I first watched Spider-Man (and the few times after that), I questioned why they had skipped over Gwen Stacy and gone straight to Mary-Jane; why the Goblin and not one of the other villains that Spider-Man faced off against in the comics before Osborn? Obviously, I was just being a pedantic nerd but this stuff seemed to matter to me back then. Now, well…I’m still a nerd, but a more informed nerd at least. Everything about Spider-Man seems to be more closely aligned with the ‘Ultimate’ universe which hadn’t long kicked off back then and was a modern re-telling of the Spider-Man origin story with Peter a teenager in the new Millennium. It’s a great alternate universe to the ‘normal’ Marvel one because it brought Peter Parker bang up-to-date without getting too dark or edgy. That’s what the Spider-Man movie feels like and, while some may consider the tone to now be outdated, I think it remains a perfect halfway house between the 60’s original and the more current stuff.

I really enjoyed the final showdown with the Green Goblin too. The finale apes the comics when Norman discovered Spider-Man’s identity and made things personal by killing Gwen Stacey. Here, in the movie, Osborn attacks Aunt May before kidnapping MJ and making Spider-Man/Peter choose between saving the girl he loves or a cable car full of kids. It remains an exciting climax and the final, final battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin is fucking awesome. The two really go at it, punching one another through walls and all that cool stuff.

While I don’t think Spider-Man has aged as badly as some may have you believe, there are a few things that aren’t quite so hot. The CG for instance, is largely still convincing but there are those odd moments when Spidey’s web-swinging sequences look a bit rigid and unnatural. Then there are the few scenes with the Green Goblin on his glider that don’t look quite right, especially when there is other shit going on in the background. There are also a couple of really corny “imagination” sequences where Peter is thinking about something (buying a car to impress MJ, for example) and various images are floating about, overlapping and fading out. These bits look like they belong in a TV comedy from the 90’s – at least in my mind.

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Shit gets real at the very end.

These are pretty minor criticisms however and, honestly, I’d expect any CG to look dated almost twenty years later. Movies use so much of it now that the age of the tech is going to be a lot harder to disguise further down the line.

One final shout-out has to go to Danny Elfman’s superb score. There are several rousing pieces of music in Spider-Man that unmistakably belong to this movie and give it its own sound – a sound that I would recognise anywhere and immediately link it back to Spider-Man.

Overall, I still got a good kick out of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man effort. Natural aging aside, the movie still does a damn good job of capturing the source material’s magic and telling an origin story. I also can’t help but like Spider-Man that little bit more for the fact that it is a film from a more innocent time and is entirely self-contained without all the MCU bullshit and associated expectation. As an added bonus, it features the best Green Goblin and the best Jonah Jameson (in my opinion of course).

Movie Talk: Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)

hobo-1Release Year: 2011   |   Directed By: Jason Eisener   |   Starring: Rutger Hauer, Gregory Smith, Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey, Nick Bateman

[to a group of newborn babies] “A long time ago I was one of you. You’re all brand-new and perfect. No mistakes, no regrets. People look at you and think of how wonderful your future will be. They want you to be something special like a doctor or a lawyer. I hate to tell you this, but if you grow up here, you’re more likely to wind up selling your bodies on the streets, or shooting dope from dirty needles in a bus stop. And if you’re successful, you’ll make money selling junk to crackheads. And you won’t think twice about killing somebody’s wife, because you won’t even know what was wrong in the first place. Or maybe you’ll end up like me – a hobo with a shotgun! I hope you can do better. You are the future.”

There’s nothing thought-provoking or “big” about a film like Hobo With a Shotgun but then, we don’t all want to coo over arthouse drivel or social commentary masquerading as entertainment. Sometimes we just want unrestrained fun, audacious violence and black humour without all that thinking man’s crap. This film certainly delivers on all those counts. The Hobo (Hauer) is a drifter travelling by rail who rides into Hope Town, a town with irony dripping from its name because there couldn’t BE a town with any less hope on display. Oppressive urban decay is everywhere as is flagrant, violent crime. Worse still, a psychotic crime lord self-styling as ‘The Drake’ (Brian Downey) rules the town with fear, routinely carrying out live executions in highly gruesome fashions. These killings take place in the streets for all to bear witness to and are dubbed “The Drake Show”. The Drake has his equally sadistic sons, Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman) on hand to help keep Hope Town dancing to his tune. Mess with The Drake or his business and you could well be The Drake Show’s next special guest.

All the Hobo wants is to keep himself to himself and scrape together enough money to realise his dream of purchasing a beat-up lawnmower from the town’s pawn shop. He quickly finds it difficult to turn a blind eye to the brutal, bloodthirsty acts taking place all over town however and his curiosity lands him on Slick’s radar when he intervenes in a struggle between The Drake’s favourite son and prostitute, Abby (Molly Dunsworth). The Hobo bucks the status quo by laying the smackdown on Slick and hauling him to the police station to make a citizen’s arrest. Unfortunately, Hope Town’s police force is in The Drake’s pocket and the Hobo finds himself on the end of a vicious retribution attack which he is lucky to survive, largely thanks to help from Abby.

The Hobo manages to obtain enough money for his lawnmower but upon visiting the pawn shop to make his purchase, he finds himself caught up in an armed robbery and despite the price paid for his previous intervention, steps in once more by seizing a shotgun and blowing away the criminal scum. He forfits his garden appliance to pay for said shogun instead and thus begins his vigilante quest to clean up the streets, delivering justice one shell at a time.

I said that this movie isn’t about the commentary but what I will say is that the Hobo’s desire to act and his subsequent killing spree speaks to that part of us that secretly wants somebody like the Hobo around; that person who can cleanse the streets of deviants and the very worst criminals when the justice system(s) has proved too soft and law ineffective. We want to see the monsters of society reap what they sow and not get off lightly. Of course, I wouldn’t go as far as to promote vigilantism but thankfully we have movies like this and I found immense satisfaction in seeing the utterly evil scourge of Hope Town first introduced through the Hobo’s eyes then blown away by his shottie.

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The other reason I really dig Hobo With a Shotgun is because it just doesn’t give a fuck. They went wild with the free-flowing gore, sadistic violence and generally fucked-up stuff here, firmly placing the movie in the Exploitation sub-genre with that crazy Grindhouse feel that you’ve seen in the likes of Planet Terror and Machete. There’s heads being crushed to a bloody pulp between two fairground bumper cars. There are heads being ripped off by barbed-wire nooses tied to cars. There are topless girls giggling as they beat the shit out of a human pinata with baseball bats and then squealing with delight when his blood sprays like a burst water main and soaks their naked bodies.

It’s disgusting, gratutious and extremely OTT but at the same time, it’s all so silly and comical that you can’t take it seriously and so all this highly creative violence is likely to coax out a smile from the viewer rather than a grimace.

Hobo With a Shotgun doesn’t just stop at the ultra-violence however. This is a no holds-barred movie that frequently shocks with the daring makeup of some of the scenes that fly in the face of our overly-sensitive society that wants everything banned. The paedophile santa for example who parks outside a children’s playground and spies on kids through binoculars, touching himself before speeding off with an unfortunate captive hammering on the back window of his car. Then there’s a scene where a school bus full of kids gets torched with a flamethrower to the tune of The Trammps’ Disco Inferno.

Nothing is held back and I got the sense that the director and writer of this film let their imaginations run riot without even considering putting their ideas through an acceptability filter in order to appease the “won’t somebody think of the children?” brigade. And I love them for it, I really do. It’s a fat dosage of mental, unpretentious FUN that absolutely rocks hence why I’ve watched this movie about four or five times since 2011.

I must also quickly mention the lovely Molly Dunsworth who plays Abby. All horror and bizarre exploitation films need a hot female lead who can kick ass as well as look sexy and Dunsworth more than succeeds here.

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If I had to level any kind of criticism at Hobo With a Shotgun then I suppose I would have to wheel out the traditional “style over substance” trope and I can’t completely refute that observation. However, it’s also worth pointing out that you know exactly what you are getting into with a film like this just by looking at the poster, DVD cover or synopsis so I imagine it unlikely that you could expect anything other than what I’ve described in this review.

Movie Talk: Heat (1995)

Heat-Poster-1Release Year: 1995     Directed By: Michael Mann   |   Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Kevin Gage, Natalie Portman, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Trejo, Jon Voight

[Not to be confused with “The Heat” (2013) or Heat (1986), Heat (1972), Heat (1996 Australian TV film)…how many times has this name been used? Jeez…]

I’ll go ahead and begin by stating that Heat is my favourite movie of all-time. It hadn’t used to be; that honour tended to switch between Terminator 2 and the first Kill Bill. Each time I re-watched Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece however, it crept up the order until I decided that, fuck it, Heat may as well be my favourite movie. I can’t say enough good things about it.

The film centres on professional thief, Neil McCauley (De Niro) and determined LAPD homicide detective, Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino). Both are dysfunctional individuals with their own code and the cat-and-mouse game between these two main players of the movie is one of its main draws. McCauley heads up a proven crew of organised thieves and is a loner by nature, living with the philosophy of not having anything in your life “that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner”. For McCauley, making the big scores is his life and all he wants to do. Hanna on the other hand is a workaholic cop that puts his job first at all times, even at the expense of his increasingly frustrated wife (Diane Venora) and step-daughter (Natalie Portman). Hanna is determined to take McCauley and his crew down and is unable to avoid putting the hunt aside to rescue his marriage.

The thing I absolutely love about Heat is that there are no irrelevant, filler scenes or dull moments – quite an achievement for a film that goes beyond the two-hour mark. Even the scenes that involve characters simply talking are enthralling because the writing and characterisation is brilliant. Obviously, the stars are De Niro and Pacino but the supporting cast are just an important. From the crazy Waingro (Kevin Gage) to the disillusioned Donald (Dennis Haysbert), there are so many memorable performances. Then there are the women who have to suffer for the actions and decisions of their other halves – just one of many subtle plot threads woven together to produce the epic tapestry that is Heat.

Another notable bit of genius is that it’s impossible not to like the characters no matter if they are good-hearted and innocent like Eady (Amy Brenneman), psychotic and violent like Waingro or greedy and unsavoury (most of the criminals). Heat is a character piece as much as it is a crime thriller or action movie and it feels natural to understand where everybody – good or bad – is coming from. Many of the characters blur the line between being wholly good or bad and this is probably what makes them so endearing as this is what it means to truly be human. We viewers may not partake in anything as dramatic as holding up armoured cars or putting big-time crooks behind bars but we can still relate to the characters and their motivations.

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The action scenes are another highlight of Heat, particularly the gun battle in downtown LA as McCauley’s crew attempt to escape following their carefully-planned bank heist gone wrong. This kind of scene just wouldn’t exist today for many reasons. First up, there are no unrealistic and unnecessary explosions or dynamic action shots. There’s no music either. What you get is a group of guys simply trying to get away, using cars as cover while shooting at the LAPD, deafening bursts of assault rifle fire echoing off the buildings. It’s exactly what a real-life version of this scene would sound like and I’ve even read that their tactical retreat was used as a reference for police or military training (though how true this is, I can’t say). The whole thing feels raw and natural and is totally immersive.

The final showdown between McCauley and Hanna is another scene that would never be permitted today. Hanna gives chase to a desperate McCauley across the runways of LAX, even running across the path of a taxiing passenger plane at one point. As I understand, this kind of filming is now strictly prohibited in a post-9/11 world which is a shame but completely understandable.

Heat is a masterpiece of scripting backed up by superb performances from all actors involved. Every set-piece, every action scene and every conversation is special. I know I’m probably gushing over this fim and I haven’t said anything bad about it but really, I can’t think of anything. If you’ve somehow missed it then you should really rectify that mistake because – as cliched as it sounds – they really don’t make ’em like this anymore.