The (Not So) Amazing Spider-Man

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: it is incredibly strange that, in 2012, we are already getting a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise.  Quite simply, it feels way too soon, as Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy ended just five years ago.  Also, most people seemed to like Raimi’s films and his interpretation of Spider-Man — his ‘Spider-Man 2’ routinely ranks as one of the best superhero movies ever made.  Even if the last film, ‘Spider-Man 3,’ was something of a mixed bag, it’s not as if there was a desperate outcry from the fan base demanding a whole new version of the character*.  So, what exactly Sony is doing by giving us this reboot as if we either forgot about or completely hated Raimi’s films is a complete mystery to me.  I suppose it comes down to money and the rights to the character; you know, the dark side of capitalism.  But hey, as long as this film is a fresh, original, bold new take on the Spider-Man mythos, it’s a welcome addition in my book.

Too bad it isn’t.

Which isn’t to say that it’s completely awful, either.  It has some good things going for it, most notably the performances of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who are both exquisite in their respective roles as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy.  Garfield, with his perfect mix of insecurity and bravado, has the potential to be a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, and Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a more interesting character than Mary Jane ever was in the Raimi films.  Also, the film boasts some impressive visuals and cinematography, which contribute to fun action scenes.  (If you can, see this film in IMAX 3D).  In short, it is entertaining.

But there’s one big problem here that cripples this film: plot.  Instead of taking the opportunity to give us a completely different and exciting adventure, the filmmakers decided to use the origin story from 2002’s ‘Spider-Man’ as the template for telling this one.  The result is that ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ feels almost like a carbon (but inferior) copy of ‘Spider-Man’, following many of the same plot points WAY TOO CLOSELY.  Seriously, so many of the events in this movie mirror those of its decade old predecessor, but whereas Raimi knew how to give dramatic weight and importance to those events, here they come off as shallow and derivative.  Scenes feel rushed, critical moments feel disrespected, plot threads that should be of utmost significance are dropped, never to be spoken of again; and despite the film’s impressive leads, the other characters are grossly underdeveloped and underutilized.  I cried when Uncle Ben died in 2002.  I couldn’t care less when he died in 2012.  It all comes across as a cheap imitation rather than a reinvention.

Now, before I get attacked for not knowing the comics, let me just say that maybe the filmmakers didn’t actively decide to use the 2002 ‘Spider-Man’ as a template, maybe both movies just draw on the same classic origin story of Spider-Man and this film is just being faithful to the original premise.  Ordinarily I might applaud such a thing; but, again, we’ve already seen this story and it was done better in 2002.  ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, as a reboot, is supposed to be new and different.  If they were going to do the exact same thing that Raimi did, why are they bothering to reboot this at all? (Commercial reasons, I know. It was a rhetorical question.)  Why not pull a James Bond and have this be a continuation of the Raimi series but with a different director and actor behind the mask?  Or, if it must be a reboot, why not pull a ‘Batman’ 1989 and have this story already start with Peter Parker as Spider-Man?  Why not skip the origin thing all together and just jump into an original story?  Or have the origin be in flashbacks.  Or something, anything other than spoon-feeding us a watered-down version of what we saw in 2002.

Anyways, that is the critical failure of this film, that it chooses not to take any kind of risk and instead gives us more of the same, except that it’s actually a little worse this time around.  It feels more like a remake than a reboot, and only an okay one at that.  Even without the Raimi series to compare with, if this film had come out as is, it would still seem only average.

Average, but entertaining. Despite my incredible frustration with the creative decisions behind this movie, it is fun and is worth seeing for Garfield’s and Stone’s performances as well as the action. And it is doing well, both critically and commercially, so obviously a lot of people aren’t as frustrated as I am about it; you out there might very well enjoy this film more than I did.

Personally, I actually do want this film to be a success; because then, like ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ — with which it shares many of the same problems — it might get a nice ‘Wrath of Khan’ treatment.  If and when Garfield and Stone’s characters are let loose in an all new Spider-Man epic that breaks free of the trappings of Raimi’s films, I’m all in.  Until then, I’m sticking to the older Spider-Man trilogy, which I already own on DVD.  If nothing else, at least it’s cheaper.

*None that I heard of anyways.

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Perfect Pacing — Independence Day

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: ‘Independence Day’ is a good movie.  There, I said it.  I have watched and read review after review on the Internet trying to tell me otherwise — that this film is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to be ever be truly good; that, at best, the film falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.  But I’m not buying it.  I have seen this film countless times over the past sixteen years since it premiered in 1996, and my resolve remains unshaken. It is many things, but a poor film it is not.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand people’s common criticisms about this alien invasion flick, namely that it has key plot holes, token stereotypes, overly silly moments, and a corny theme of American patriotism.  All true, all true.  There’s no question that infecting an advanced alien spaceship with a ’90s computer virus, as they do in the film, is a little absurd.  There’s no question that the film’s inclusion of characters such as a stereotypically Jewish man who says stereotypically Jewish things is a little ethnically insensitive.  There’s no question that the U.S. president jumping into the cockpit of a jet and fighting the aliens head on is a little silly.  And there’s no question that the film’s indulgence and build up to the titular holiday — and the president’s speech that accompanies it — is a little blunt about the whole “America Rules” idea.

But here’s the thing.  Wasn’t it fun?  I know that’s a very basic question to ask, but didn’t you, whoever is out there reading this, have at least a little fun watching it?  Weren’t you entertained during the jet-on-spacecraft dogfights?  Didn’t the president’s speech, silly as it was, move you just a little?  I know it’s ridiculous and implausible (an argument can be made for “stupid” as well, provided one is cynical enough,) but can’t that argument be levied against nearly all science fiction?  By attacking ‘Independence Day’ as absurd, escapist trash, have we not mistaken the messenger for the message?

Those are questions that you, individually must answer, but I will attempt to sway you with one idea: pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm of film.  It is less about what happens in the story and more about when it happens.  It’s about how long we wait and whether or not that waiting means anything.  Good pacing builds to an effective climax, it allows time for characters to stop and breath if necessary, it lets the story go to different places if necessary; but it is always building to something important.  The road to catharsis must be well-paced.

In the context of an action film like ‘Independence Day’ pacing is about knowing when to pull the punches, and that often means not jumping into the action right away.  It is about letting time pass; not to waste it, but rather to build suspense and add gravity to the action.  Again, the key is the action has to really mean something.  By contrast, when action movies are crammed full of as many guns, explosions and chases as the filmmakers can manage, the beat is is buried under noise, and the audience is denied the plot’s theoretical impact.  Thankfully, ‘Independence Day’ is in fact a darn near-perfect example of pacing, and so, even with all of its silliness, the film still seems meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate: the film opens with an enormous mothership flying toward earth and releasing smaller ships, which enter our atmosphere.  They position themselves over cities and then what happens?  Do they immediately try to destroy them?  No.  They do nothing, at first.  That’s brilliant — people stop, they take notice, they wonder what the hell is going on.  Some are optimistic and try to communicate with them, some flee, others continue to scratch their heads until one man figures out that these extraterrestrials are organized on a countdown, but to what exactly he doesn’t know.  Then, as the countdown completes, the ships finally unleash hell upon the world.  And it means something.  That’s the key: it really means something now because we got to know people first, to identify with their unique mix of fear, paranoia, delusion and simple curiosity.  We, too, wondered what would happen at the end of the countdown.  And it’s great that the filmmakers made us wait that long, it was great that they knew when to build anticipation, and this sort of thing continues on until the end when we have a truly satisfying final battle.  Why?  Because the movie was smart enough to make things matter, and the only way you do that is by letting the film rest appropriately, allowing for the times between action scenes to have real weight and importance.  Most of the film, by the way, isn’t action.  For a film that stretches over two hours in length, I don’t there is much more than a half hour of pure action in the film, which again plays to its strengths.  Again, it’s the moments between all the fighting and explosions that are true heart of this picture, and I, at least, found myself believing in it.

So there, I have attempted, best I can, to convince you all that ‘Independence Day’ is a good film.  Undoubtedly some of you will cling to your former beliefs, but I hope that at least a few might consider giving this one another view, perhaps appropriately on the Fourth of July.  If nothing else the score is pretty awesome.  I think we can all agree on that.

Cameras in Orbit — Chronicle

Review: If there’s any conceit in post-modern filmmaking that strikes me as dubious, it’s found-footage.  Though of course, it certainly is a fantastic example of blatantly post-modern filmmaking, in that it deliberately makes the audience aware that they are watching a fictional world through a camera.  Conversely, classical Hollywood style — the most pervasive form of filmmaking in the world — tries to render narrative construction and the camera invisible, so that the viewer sees only the story and not the seams.  Found-footage changes the rules, reframing fictional narratives as cinema verite documentaries, and therein lies the rub — audiences don’t like being reminded of a film’s fictionality while they are watching it.  They want to be fooled.  (As an aside, this is exactly why the French New Wave persists as such a big hit with filmmakers and the intelligentsia and not regular disinterested folks; French New Wave techniques, being deliberate exposures of the filmmaking process, appeal to those who can appreciate films objectively or even ironically.  Most people just want to have a good time, and why shouldn’t they?)  To understand this phenomenon, consider dreams: the emotional power of a dream relies on the dreamer’s belief, while in the dreamworld, in the dream’s veracity.  When the dreamer becomes aware that the dreamworld is a lie, the dream loses its power, and the dreamer seeks escape or control over the dreamworld, a rebellion against the unconscious fears and desires that shape dream logic.  Movies, however, require willing suspension of disbelief.  They are, in effect, dreams on demand.  What matters, therefore, is the filmmaker’s promise to the prospective dreamer about what sort of story, and, more importantly, what sort of emotions they will experience in the fictional world.  This is why genre exists: it’s a shorthand for a promise.

Since found-footage is a conceit, not a genre, it cannot be used as such a promise.  In fact, found-footage often betrays these promises by failing to justify its use as a narrative conceit.  For example, ‘The Blair Witch Project‘, which, as perhaps the most famous found-footage horror film ever made, set the tone for all films of its type.  A great deal of its box office power came from the filmmakers’ elaborate marketing campaign, in which they promised that the fictional legend of the Blair Witch was real, and that the footage assembled into a mass-market horror film came from a real ill-fated expedition.  How or why or even if anybody ever really believed that is unclear.  But they were making a promise, one that tied directly into the found-footage conceit and supported it; though the film has lost its luster now due to endless imitations, it’s still fascinating as an experiment.  Of course, what it really proved was that the found-footage conceit is limited to how plausible it seems to the audience, making any narrative so framed vulnerable to critiques leveled at the conceit rather than the narrative itself.  In short, found-footage is dubious to me because it’s a needless risk.  That’s not to mention the aesthetic shortcuts made by filmmakers in its name, of course, although these shortcuts are arguably just as bad in classical Hollywood style films that employ lots of shaky-cam.

To counter that sour note, let’s move on to ‘Chronicle’, the first film from young director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (yes, the son of John.)  Beyond being remarkably succinct and emotionally credible as a story, ‘Chronicle’ does two really interesting things.  First, it directly challenges the superhero genre — which is in a bit of a renaissance at the moment — by playing out as a superhero drama rather than an action-adventure.  Second, it uses the found-footage conceit primarily as a character device, and at the first opportunity more or less jettisons cinema verite in the name of a unique binding aesthetic that could only exist in its particular fictional world.  In other words, it presents a real step forward for its genre and conceit, an organic evolution in narrative technique that emerges out of human drama rather than pure experimentalism.  It is, in a way, the anti-‘Blair Witch’.

There’s no attempt to get the viewer to believe any of this actually happened; instead, from the outset, Trank & Landis establish the camera as the protagonist’s method of engagement with the world.  It’s how the character defends himself against harm, makes sense of life, exercises control and renders his identity.  As the story progresses, the protagonist makes friends (with whom he gains telekinetic powers, which is almost incidental) and the camera’s use expands — it no longer functions at his exclusive command.  Instead, the movie includes cameras of all sorts, the sort of footage you could never find and assemble into a narrative like this.  That’s because “found-footage” is in this instance a misnomer — ‘Chronicle’ is too evolved for that.  Brilliantly, Trank & Landis hijack the conceit and make it do something a great deal more interesting.  Since the story revolves around three contemporary teenagers, the camera’s function as a metaphor for the nexus between the self and the world makes perfect sense.  The titular chronicle is the echoes their lives leave behind in omnipresent media devices, and the protagonist’s struggle to gain control over his world means he must direct the camera, thereby seizing the chronicle itself.  Hence, the protagonist literally fights for control over the movie, a daringly meta dramatic device that never rings false.

Earlier I alluded to the notion that this is a superhero drama and not an action movie.  While there is action, there’s no good vs. evil or find-the-MacGuffin plot, but plenty of deft writing that strives moment-to-moment to cultivate empathy for the characters.  Action, therefore, appears as character crisis.   Indeed, the biggest and most satisfying burst of action in the story emerges out of the rage of a traumatized teenager.   Furthermore, this climatic battle serves to sum up the film that preceded it, pitting the protagonist — who becomes the villain in a practical sense — against his super-powered cousin, as hundreds of visible cameras spin around them in the air, a striking image that renders the film’s main theme obvious.  Interestingly, the protagonist acts as if he’s fighting to protect his dominion over the movie, centering the cameras on him, putting them up, as he does in the opening scene, as an emotional shield.  His cousin isn’t interested in wresting the movie from his grasp, though he’s aware of its existence; he just wants to break through the shield and rescue the protagonist.  In sum, the climatic sequence functions as pure drama, simultaneously thrilling and tragic, and says everything the film wants to say with poetic brilliance.  Is it too early to call Trank & Landis virtuosos?  Too bad.  They’re virtuosos.  Deal with it.

Unfortunately for found-footage filmmakers, ‘Chronicle’ is a logical end-point for the conceit, returning to filmmaking’s raison d’être — any image created by the camera must develop the immediate experience of human emotion.  An audience, once betrayed, is never emotionally invested in the story.  Therefore, found-footage should be avoided in all cases that do not reward audiences for their faith.  ‘Chronicle’, by reinventing the conceit, builds a bridge between the audience and its characters, never once denying that it is fictional, while simultaneously being self-reflexive in order to strengthen that very bridge.  As a drama and an evolution in cinematic technique, ‘Chronicle’ is a triumph.

A Bureaucratic Cosmos — The Cabin in the Woods

Though the film has already seen a pretty wide release, I’m putting up a SPOILER WARNING right here, just in case anyone wants to preserve the surprise.

Review:  It’s a very good year to be Joss Whedon, not only because of ‘The Avengers’, his triumphant return to feature film directing, but on account of his co-writing, with first-time director Drew Goddard, the excellent and under-seen horror flick ‘The Cabin in the Woods‘.  In some superficial senses the two films are similar — they both epitomize their respective genres via the kitchen sink approach, they both feature ensemble casts with Chris Hemsworth, they both feature shadowy government agencies — but their themes are diametrically opposed.

Artistically, of course, this is a wonderful boon for Whedon, marking him as a flexible writer with a taste for genre-specific philosophies, meaning he approaches screenwriting with a critical, rather than purely exploitative, eye.  Whedon knows why filmmakers do what they do and why audiences watch them.  Better yet, he doesn’t write to deconstruct genres (at least not in the sense of dismantling to discredit) but rather to deliberately and overtly explore genre psychologies while crafting fulfilling narratives in their own right.

To see how this technique works so subtly, compare Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ to Christopher Nolan‘s ‘The Dark Knight‘; here’s two great superhero films that push their title characters to the absolute limit in search of their respective cores, hoping, at the end of each film, to remind audiences why the protagonists ought to matter to them.  Superficially, then, despite differences in tone and political philosophy, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ have the same kind of rousing conclusion.  By contrasting them, however, we see where Whedon’s technique differs substantially from Nolan’s.  In ‘The Avengers’, Whedon uses the ensemble approach to turn character complexities into a straightforward putting-the-band-together narrative, and wraps a rote summer blockbuster story around classic comic book optimism, rejuvenating the genre without resorting to major surgery.  Or, simply put, Whedon puts the fun back into it.  We, the audience, need the good guys to come together and put the smackdown on evil.  It just helps when we believe in it, and Whedon makes that possible.  Nolan’s approach to ‘The Dark Knight’, on the other hand, is to explore the post-9/11 political climate — which, worldwide, is afraid of both authorities and anarchists — by exposing Batman’s inherently fascist elements and the Joker’s archetypal resemblance to real-life terrorists.  Here’s the world on the edge of a knife; the audience must choose which way to lean.  Rather than affirming the genre’s emotional truth, Nolan goes for the big artistic bucks and tears Batman down, generating catharsis by making him a tragic figure.  In other words, Nolan takes the fun out of it so he can make us think.  The trouble with Whedon’s approach is that it’s limited; it can never be quite as definitive as Nolan’s technique, as we’ll see in Whedon’s writing of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’.  However, the trouble with Nolan’s take — at least in ‘The Dark Knight’ — is that it doesn’t allow for unironic genre consumption.  Rather than rewarding viewers for their love, it punishes them, hoping to affect their outlook towards thoughtfulness, though it often generates cynicism instead.  For Whedon, though, the audience is king; they just sometimes forget what they want.

Which is why ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is such a different beast.  Rather than just catering to our tastes, like ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ wants us to have a critical, detached look at our cake and to eat it sincerely, too.  The problem, of course, is that these demands don’t really jibe without generating an unnervingly pessimistic theme.  In order for you to understand what I’m driving at, I have to describe the film’s mechanics in detail, hence the spoiler warning up top.

In the film’s world we have three levels: on the surface is, basically, the real world, with the control bunker beneath devising murderous scenarios that fulfill horror film tropes, and deeper yet is the prison of the Ancient Ones — evil gods who threaten to destroy the world if their desires (for elaborate and sexualized sacrifices) are not satisfied.  In a psychological sense, this geography seems pretty well spot-on — well, at least if you subscribe to the dominant Western view of human nature.  The Ancient Ones are primal human instincts (soul, a wellspring of evil,) kept in check only by the bureaucracy (mind) which in turn determines events in the surface world (body) in service to the underlying instincts.  If the problematic facet of this isn’t obvious to you, well, here’s the deal: we, the audience, are the Ancient Ones.  We are a wellspring of evil.  So that we don’t run wild, the filmmakers, in touch with their own violent instincts, create fantasies to satisfy our desires and keep our darker selves sublimated.  Horror films exist to save society from collapsing into chaos. This is line with the world according to Hobbes and indeed most of Western philosophy.  Unlike ‘The Avengers’, where Whedon trumpets humankind’s ability to overcome pretty differences in service of unmitigated good, this is a deeply pessimistic film.

However, it’s also brilliant, and pretty well spot-on in regards to the spiritual machinations behind horror films.  Yes, horror films do exist to fulfill a ritual function that taps into, and satisfies, a violent and sexual undercurrent of the human psyche.  That much is clear.  What ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ doesn’t offer, though, is what Nolan might have created using his toolbox — a deconstruction that provokes real doubt in the viewer as to the genre’s legitimacy.  Whedon & Goddard never really question it; they just accept the premise of humankind’s inherent evil and roll with it, seeming to point an accusatory finger at the audience while giving them a sympathetic wink.  Therefore, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ approximates Whedon & Goddard’s solution to Truffaut’s Law; that is, the aphorism that you can never make an anti-war film, because war is inherently spectacular in the literal sense, and people like to see things blow up.  Put another way, the gross features of human nature will always undercut any serious attempt to critique them by using imagery that excites those same features.  Contrary to Truffaut’s Law, however, I suggest that it is possible to create an anti-war, or, to the point, an anti-horror film.  Just avoid spectacle, which is, after all, the exploitative fuel which war, horror and erotic films run on.  With an oblique approach, it is possible, in theory, to directly comment on these genres without participating in them.  That’s assuming, of course, that a screenwriter could resist exploitation’s pull on the page, and a director could do the same.  Again, Whedon & Goddard’s solution is that there is no solution, and we might as well make the most of it.  We can never defy the Ancient Ones; if we do, they destroy the world.  Catch 22.  Keep the spiritual bureaucracy running.

In view of Whedon & Goddard’s brilliant, if negative, writing, is it possible to make a plausible alternate reading of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’?  Yes, actually, and to their credit, Whedon & Goddard deliberately give us this option, even though it runs counter to the film’s obvious thematic statement.  Like our lead characters, we can choose to defy the Ancient Ones anyway, grasping at the dignity of the choice that prevents the leads from murdering each other, even though it unleashes a greater, indeed apocalyptic evil.  In a way, the writers are penalizing us for this reading by suggesting that, if we chose to stop making horror movies, we would release real sublimated evil into society.  Whedon & Goddard are not about to play fair on this point.  They’re kind of cheating, which is of course their right as artists.  On the other hand, if, like the leads, we decided that rising above the negative aspects of ourselves was worth the cost, there is no proof that it would actually unleash the apocalypse.  Counter to the Western view to which Whedon & Goddard subscribe, if we accept an Eastern take on human nature — namely Taoism — we could conclude that the goodness inherent in all things would overcome the temporary destabilization caused by refusing to participate in horror films.  Therefore, though brilliant, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is understandably biased towards its own conclusions, and with a more comprehensive outlook and even hand, it need not cut to black on the end of the world.  Like ‘The Dark Knight’, it could have benefitted from a conflict and conclusion based on balance, rather than acting in typical Whedonesque fashion as an absurdly well-written genre tract — though, again, such affirmations are not in any way less artistically valuable.

All of this is not to say, however, that the horror genre is necessarily a product of human evil that must be done away with.  I’m not here to make any such definitive statements, though I can sympathize with arguments for and against its existence.  Indeed, that’s ultimately what makes ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ such a terribly good movie; it provokes critical discussion deliberately while also functioning as a pure exercise in entertainment.  It’s a subtle, intelligent work, proving Whedon’s excellence once again and hopefully paving the way for Goddard’s should-be-long-and-wonderful career.

Old-Fashioned Notions — Marvel’s The Avengers

Review:  May 4th, 2012 was, in keeping with geek tradition, ‘Star Wars’ Day.  On that most, uh, Force-full of days, we the guardians of sci-fi, fantasy and comic books take a moment to remember when we first got to see the saga of a ragtag team’s struggle against cosmic evil on the big screen.  Let’s never forget those days.  They were very nice, though some of us were eleven in those days, or as yet mere concepts in the hearts of teenage lovers, or not even proper inklings in anyone’s head, really.  But in counterpoint to ‘Star Wars’ Day nostalgia (which is only too appropriate, given “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”) on that particular May the Fourth in the U.S. we were blessed with the frankly stunning apotheosis of the cinematic superhero genre: ‘The Avengers’.  And the future — at least of sci-fi action-adventure cinema — seems very bright indeed.

Capping off Marvel Studios’ ambitious (and actually quite sudden) plan to finally approximate the diverse world of comic books (with their multitude of clashing heroes, villains and subgenres) in the movies, ‘The Avengers’ is a major coup for everyone involved in its creation.  Especially writer/director Joss Whedon, who, having previously built up a well-deserved but continually frustrated cult fanbase, successfully helmed one of the biggest summer movies of all time, and if he were to die young, he would die having proven to the world that he really knew what the hell he was doing after all.  Outside the rewards reaped by its creators, however, the whole of genre filmmaking stands to benefit from the film’s success, since, like the original ‘Star Wars’ before it, it can serve as a roadmap to properly realizing fantastic concepts in an appealing human manner.

For as big and silly and wonderful as ‘The Avengers’ gets, it’s grounded by honest, fallible and likable characters that remind us, by their magnetic presence, why we ought to enjoy any of this ballyhoo.  Any hack filmmaker can pit a superhuman against an alien invasion force and call it drama; it takes a real storyteller like Whedon to assemble a team that feels, despite their colorful and disparate personalities, inevitable.  These people — indeed, they are people first, heroes second — compliment each other perfectly.  Flaws become strengths by virtue of the team’s unlikely unity.  Out here in the real world, such moments of cohesion do occur, and tend to generate shockwaves when they do.  Because the film’s structure builds to the point where the team finally coheres, the expected trope of the climatic battle suddenly becomes organic, and the team’s fight against evil, instead of being rote action, is raw humanity gloriously unleashed.  Audiences react to this instinctively in a way they never will to ‘Transformers 3’.  They may not know why the dynamic in ‘The Avengers’ thrills them so deeply, but it surely does, and some of the kids who see the movie in theaters today will turn their quest to replicate the experience into a career in filmmaking.

The team dynamic is not the only secret to the film’s success, but it’s arguably the most important one to discuss in terms of its immediate cultural impact.  It’s the team itself that excites the (to use a word I dislike) zeitgeist.  ‘The Avengers’ is incredible optimistic and fun only because the team coalesces, by doing so healing all wounds and overcoming all evils within the team and without, at least as long as the team is together.  So ‘The Avengers’ is not obviously important like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Citizen Kane’, because it’s not a critique or a deconstruction of societal forces, but it absolutely is important and resonates so widely because it strongly affirms human community.  Basically all ‘The Avengers’ says is “We need each other.”  But does anything else really need to be said?

Let’s not presume that every work that captures the zeitgeist must include riffs on relevant real-world conflicts, i.e., the Joker-as-archetypal-terrorist plot of ‘The Dark Knight’ (which, I hasten to add, is extremely good) or the military’s presence on Pandora in ‘Avatar’ (which, like it or not, struck a chord with audiences to the tune of billions of dollars.)  Of course, even if we were to say that ‘The Avengers’ must include such imagery to resonate properly, we can easily find it in the film’s central conflict.  Eleven years after 9/11, here’s a massive hit movie that features a hostile force appearing suddenly in the sky and killing thousands in New York (sound familiar?) only to be thwarted by a team led by the embodiment of American heroism.  It’s an optimistic statement that draws (explicitly) on old-fashioned notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice and patriotism.  Indeed, while the film’s thesis is pretty much on-the-nose, so, for that matter, is ‘The Dark Knight’.  As much as I appreciate that film, it’s not exactly subtle; in fact, I’d say one reason Batfandom can be so irritating is that they do not understand how simple ‘The Dark Knight’ is, and flatter themselves for understanding a pretty damn obvious thematic message.  That, of course, is part and parcel with the common fantasy among Batfans (and I count myself among their number) of being the brilliant, dark, misunderstood vigilante — as much as I like it, the Batman concept appeals to (typically teenage male) arrogance.  It’s like walking out of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ convinced you’re the only one who realized that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and then thinking you’re the wise Jedi master who has to explain it to everyone.  But ‘The Avengers’ lacks the haughtiness of ‘The Dark Knight’; it isn’t trying to be important, it just is, because Whedon and company have their hearts in the right place.

Films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers’ impact audiences in deep, unconscious ways, making their particular brands of storytelling popular again.  Before ‘The Avengers’ hit the screen, there were many unqualified rumblings about superhero films dying off, but those diagnoses were really prescriptions, trying to cure cinema of a trend many believed was sapping the movies of their popularity and importance.  It’s much harder to make such statements now without coming off as hopelessly cynical or snobbish, because the superhero genre has just now come into its own, injecting Hollywood and audiences with new enthusiasm for superheroes and other related genres.  For the guardians of geekdom, who have taken over the multiplex yet again, May the Fourth can serve as a reminder of past glories and the possibility of future revelations.

Bittersweet Victory — Plan 9 from Outer Space

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: Well, no film review website is complete without a review of this “gem”, so allow me to contribute one to the Silver Mirror.  Similar to my review of ‘Django’, there’s no point in reviewing this film seriously.  It’s cheap, it’s cliché, it’s meshing of gothic horror and science fiction feels awkward at best, and the story, if you’re determined enough to follow it, just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Yes, ‘Plan 9’ is a horrible movie, and its director, Edward D. Wood Jr., was a bad director; but you miss the point if that’s all you see.

Even as we mock and ridicule him, there is something to remember about Ed Wood before completing writing him off — he lived the dream.  Whether you can stand to watch his films or not, they are the hard-earned treasures for a man who fought against the studios and “won” (I use that term loosely.)

James and I can attest to this through our work in S&T Pictures: Even now, in a world of digital cameras and editing software, it’s not easy making movies.  They require time, money and resources; and for the silver screen that almost always means having to appeal to a studio, even if it’s just a small one, for funding and support.  And that’s not easy.  Studios, after all, are at least as interested in making a profit as they are in telling a story — often times more — and if you aren’t a big name, or your story doesn’t have enough commercial viability, you’re out of luck.  Heck, even being a big name won’t help you sometimes.  George Lucas, the man who almost single handedly reinvented Hollywood, was turned down by major studios for his film, ‘Red Tails’.  That shows you how unwilling most studios are to take the slightest risk.

This was the situation of Ed Wood.  The studios, even the independents, wouldn’t touch him.  His 1953 endeavor, ‘Glen or Glenda’ — a film of his that actually did have a separate producer — is bold, uncompromising and completely unwatchable.  It seemed to forever earn him hatred and distrust from studio Hollywood.

What was a man like Ed Wood to do?  Self-finance.  Sometimes he had to stoop pretty low to get money, but he got it, and he made his films.  Even if they’re considered the worst ever made, he did make them.  This is the American Dream, folks.  It’s not all glittery and made of gold, but it’s there and it works.

Sort of.

This brings us to ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, a film he supposedly made with funds from a church in Hollywood, promising them religious films with the profits from this one.*
The film’s premise of aliens resurrecting the earth’s dead (well, three people at least), combines sci-fi and horror mainly so that Ed Wood could continue to use actors he already knew and footage he had already shot.  Bela Lugosi of ‘Dracula’ fame, who had starred in two other Ed wood films, returns here as one of the resurrected dead, although this is really just pre-shot footage of him, done before his death in 1956 (three years prior to the film’s release).  Other actors include sexy television hostess Vampira, psychic Criswell and wrestler Tor Johnson.  It goes without saying, but none of these people, nor the “aliens” who look exactly like human beings, can act.  The footage of Lugosi, probably not amounting to more than three minutes (a double was used for the rest of the film), at least seems a little credible.  Lugosi had once been a good actor.

Should I talk about the effects?  It seems worth mentioning.  They are pretty bad, even by 1950’s standards.  Model spaceships fly on visible strings in front of obvious photos and paintings; the interiors of these space ships look like office buildings with giant radios sitting in the corner.  The graveyard set where the dead are resurrected is obviously fake, with plywood gravestones set on stands that are visible all too often.
The whole thing feels feigned and artificial, and believe me, it is bad.  But is it the worst? No.

Think about it: Ed Wood may have been a skilless director, but then again, his films were made on budgets of mere thousands and schedules of mere days.  He didn’t have the time for reshoots, nor the money for special effects. T hat he produced what he did given those limitations is actually sort of impressive.  Compare this to ‘The Room’, a film that far more deserves the title of worst movie ever made; if for no other reason than because Tommy Wiseau somehow sank six million dollars into it; and that movie didn’t even have any special effects.  Or compare ‘Plan 9’ to the latest ‘Transformers’ movie.  Can you honestly say that THAT movie makes any more sense than ‘Plan 9’ does?  That it’s any more watchable?  That it’s any less stupid, cliché?  And that movie had a budget of hundreds of millions.  Pound for pound, there are a good many movies that are better qualified to be called the worst ever.

Ed Wood was a man who was rejected by the system, fought back, and had something to show for it.  That he hung in there for as long as he did is commendable, even if his films are not.  Still, there’s a certain hilarious charm to them, and ‘Plan 9’ in particular.  So, if you can stomach it, you might just enjoy giving this one a go.

*The wondrous trust and gullibility of people before the Internet…

Tough Love — (500) Days of Summer

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: As I said once before, we don’t really review “chick flicks” (or, films about relationships in general) on this website.  Partly because James and I are men and we have more masculine tastes; partly because they are an easily exploited genre, and finding truly worthwhile films to review can be, well, cumbersome.

That said, 2009’s cult hit ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is a little different.

I suppose people might have thought it was traditional romantic stuff when the film first came out.  You know, boy meets girl, they fall in love, a lot of “will they?/won’t they?” before they finally do.  But that’s not what ‘Summer’ does.  Very boldly during the opening, it announces that the boy and girl will NOT wind up together at the end.  Crazy, right?  But it works, for the most part anyways.
Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt (‘Inception’!), is a young romantic who believes in true love.  Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, is a coworker who does not.  They slowly begin a relationship (though Summer maintains that they are not boyfriend and girlfriend), and the film, told from Tom’s perspective, chronicles 500 days of it, through good and bad, through their break up, and what we conclude is their final goodbye.  The entire film is told nonlinearly, showing their break up early in the movie, which, combined with the film’s opening promise that they won’t fall in love, manages to keep us involved throughout; we, like Tom, look back through the past to see what went wrong in their relationship.

But that’s just it: their breakup, sad as it is for Tom, is not due to any flaws in either his or Summer’s personality or any mistakes they made.  Neither was a bad person, neither was unreasonable.  Though it could be assumed that they broke up because of their different views on love, this isn’t really true.  That Summer does learn to believe in love at the end of the film (albeit with another man) shows that she was not beyond growth.  She admits that Tom was right about love, just not about them.  So, nothing really went “wrong,” beyond that they simply weren’t right for each other.

Thematically, this reminds me of the biblical Book of Job, which tells the story of a man who, while virtuous and god-fearing, still suffers greatly in his life.  The point of that story, I think, is that, while we like to believe that we can, in some way, “earn” a good life, we are ultimately always at the mercy of others, always subject to forces beyond our control.  Bad things do happen to good people.  And so it is with love.  We cannot win love, we cannot earn it, we do not deserve it, and we are not entitled to it.  Love is simply given and received.  All we can really do, then, is share our own love with others, and hope that they return it, knowing full well that it doesn’t always happen.  That, I think, is what Tom learns at the end of this film.

I said that ‘(500) Days of Summer’ mostly works.  It’s very well-crafted and creative, and I think it was right for someone to make a movie that, while not completely realistic, more or less draws from realty.  In that sense, ‘Summer’ is a very unique, important film.  Perhaps the only thing about the film, though, that doesn’t really work is the ending, which implies that, for Tom anyways, true love is “just around the corner”, which, while ending the film on a hopeful note, feels a bit forced.  But I won’t fault it for that.

That said, for those of us who have gone through what Tom Hansen went through, the film is a little painful as well.  It is uncompromising in showing that sometimes the people we love don’t love us back the same way, and sometimes our greatest hopes and dreams are smashed in front of our very eyes.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and while I’m glad I watched the film, I can’t see myself watching it again any time soon, if only because the experience itself was so harsh.

‘(500) Days of Summer’ is the kind of film that comes only occasionally, although that’s more than sufficient.  It’s a “tough love” story for the audience that will challenge more than comfort.  But it’s also a very good, truthful film, reminding people that, sometimes, even Summer has to end.