Sunday, July 20, 2014

In Defense of the Jaws Sequels

"SURPRISE!!!"

While the original Jaws (1975) is by far the greatest film to carry that name, I am a staunch defender of the many pleasures to be had in the three Jaws sequels, particularly Jaws 2 (1978) and the much-maligned Jaws: The Revenge (1987). Allow me to briefly explain why.

Tina Wilcox screams: "A . . . SHARK!!!" in Jaws 2.

Jaws 2 (1978)
Sure, Jaws 2 is basically a rehash of the first Jaws film with a less stellar cast. There is a shark out there off Amity Island, Chief Brody knows it's there, and Mayor Vaughn and the townspeople don't believe him. And with Quint dead and Hooper not present, the amazing character dynamics that drive the last third of the original Jaws simply don't exist in the sequel.

But Jaws 2 makes up for this lack on two fronts:

(1) It substitutes in an ensemble cast of sailboating teenagers, and those teen actors are actually quite good. In a way, we actually care more about the victims in this installment because we get to know them better than, say, Chrissy the night-swimmer or Alex Kintner form the first film. Tina Wilcox (Ann Dusenberry) is a particularly great and pivotal character in Jaws 2.

(2) The actual shark attacks in Jaws 2 are more grandiose and badass than in the first film. Knowing he cannot replicate Spielberg's slowly-built suspense and delayed reveal of the shark from the original, Jaws 2 director Jeannot Szwarc just says "Fuck it" and lets us see the shark more or less right away.* The attack upon the waterskier and her friend is flat-out awesome, and it concludes with a motorboat exploding in flames. Cool! Even cooler is the shark's incredible takedown of a Coast Guard helicopter (!) late in the film.

So Jaws 2 is a winner. The destruction of the Jaws 2 shark by electrocution is almost as badass as its being blown up in the original. The remainder of the supporting cast -- Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary, Jeffrey Kramer -- is top-notch as well and the film takes Chief Brody's storyline seriously despite the ludicrousness of the overall premise (i.e., that ANOTHER shark has come to Amity). After the original, Jaws 2 is my next most favorite Jaws film.

Dennis Quaid and Bess Armstrong anchor a solid cast in the somewhat boring Jaws 3-D.

Jaws 3-D (1983)
Despite its clever premise -- the Jaws shark runs amok in SeaWorld -- I think Jaws 3 is the weakest of the Jaws sequels, for two reasons: (1) the film is played a bit too seriously, with too few cool shark attacks and not enough campy humor to sustain a Chief Brody-less installment, and (2) it was made to be exhibited in 3D so many parts look stupid and shitty when watched today on home video.

This 3D shot of the shark looks really fake-o and dumb on DVD.

That said, what are the good points? The cast is good, especially Bess Armstrong, Lou Gossett Jr., and a terrific Simon MacCorkindale as a roguish undersea photographer and adventurer. The premise is good, if it is executed with little flair or panache. 

Probably the best scenes in Jaws 3 are the character development parts in which the Brody brothers and their girlfriends hang out at a bar or go frolicking in the sea. I also like the subplot wherein a SeaWorld worker goes missing (killed by the shark of course) and his brassy girlfriend shows up demanding answers. But there just isn't enough decent shark action to really carry this thing off -- essential viewing for Jaws completists only.

Michael Caine and Lorraine Gary are great in the so-bad-it's-good Jaws: The Revenge.

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
After Jaws 2, the much-misunderstood Jaws:The Revenge is my next-most-favorite Jaws sequel. This film is rightfully criticized for being ridiculous and somewhat shoddily constructed -- this latter point surely applies to its ending, which intercuts newly shot footage with recycled images from the climax of the 1975 original. Yet I truly do not understand why more people do not champion this film as one of the great "so bad its good" delights of the cinema. For me, Jaws:The Revenge stands up with films like The Room in terms of the sheer quantity of unfettered pleasure it delivers via its campy badness.

The movie's premise is one of the most absurd premises ever committed to film: having driven Chief Brody to a fatal offscreen heart attack, the Jaws shark is now systematically hunting down the surviving members of the Brody family, and it is up to the Chief's widow, Ellen (Lorraine Gary) to protect her children and granddaughter. After the death of her younger son Sean in Amity, Mrs. Brody travels to Florida to be with her older son Michael and his family, and -- of course -- the shark follows the family south!

The shark sez: "This time it's PERSONAL, muthafucka!"

Despite the craziness of this concept, and the film's cheap recycling of original Jaws images (the climactic shark explosion, Martin's interactions with young Michael at the kitchen table as Ellen looks on), I nevertheless maintain that Jaws: The Revenge is well-scripted and well-constructed from a purely structural point of view. Unlike many of today's blockbusters, the film makes sense given its premise. It is actually better scripted and acted than any of the Star Wars prequels or any Michael Bay Transformers movie.

Much of the pleasure of Jaws:The Revenge stems from (1) its unabashed, over-the-top commitment to its absurd concept, and (2) its cast. Regarding the latter, Lorraine Gary is great in the lead, and the always-entertaining Michael Caine gives a standout performance as Hoagie, the charming pilot / gambler / ne'er-do-well who develops a romantic interest in the widow Brody. His one-liners during the final shark battle are totally priceless. And speaking of one-liners, Mario van Peebles is another welcome comic addition to the supporting cast, serving as the somewhat dull Michael Brody's marine biologist sidekick.

In conclusion, don't be a hater: check out the Jaws sequels. There is a lot of fun to be had in these unpretentious, if somewhat uneven, cinematic works.

Michael Caine says: "Come fly with me in Jaws the Revenge!"

--
* Szwarc's actual words, taken from the making-of documentary on the Jaws 2 DVD, are: "I kept saying from the beginning: we must show the shark a lot. Because that image of the shark coming out of the water for the first time, it's already happened in the first one. That is never gonna happen again." 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass


I have been slowly working on this post over the course of the past year, and in some ways have been beaten to the punch by Cracked.com writer Adam Tod Brown, who makes a similar case in item #1 on his recent list of "Four Classic Horror Movies That Get More Love Than They Deserve." He notes that "Red Dragon is just Manhunter with less neon and more bullshit Hollywood-recommended plot lines and casting decisions."

I agree. I would in fact say that Manhunter (1986, dir. Michael Mann) is so utterly superior to the half-assed Red Dragon (2002, dir. Brett Ratner) that it is not even worth anyone's time to watch the latter, despite its remarkably good cast.

On what grounds do I make this claim?

(1) Red Dragon features slow, fucked-up pacing due to clunky editing vis-a-vis its predecessor. While this flaw permeates all of Red Dragon, and is foreshadowed by how long the film takes just to get into its actual plot (it's seventeen minutes until we finally reach the frikkin' Leeds house!), I can illustrate this via one emblematic scene comparison:

In Manhunter, Will Graham attends a briefing at the Atlanta Police Department after his initial inspection of the Leeds house crime scene. The scene in headquarters lasts three and a half minutes and consists of about thirty-seven shots, three of which are satisfyingly long takes that help make other sections of faster cutting feel more intense. The long takes include the forensic expert's discussion of the killer's bite, the Atlanta chief detective's address to the assembled agents, and the great opening steadicam shot of the detective, Crawford, and Graham walking down a series of hallways to the briefing.

Manhunter shoots its Atlanta Police briefing sequence effectively and artfully, 
combining longer takes including this steadicam shot . . . 

. . . (which continues as Graham and co. head around a corner, out of profile shot, 
backs to the camera) . . . 

. . .with shorter takes like this one from the more conventional shot/reverse shot pattern 
that ends the sequence. Note how the pensive Graham stands out visually here 
even though others are doing most of the talking. 

By contrast, the same sequence in Red Dragon takes only three minutes but includes forty-two shots, and is spread over two scenes in two locales, first a large lecture hall, then a smaller office. Despite the additional locale, the camera work is less inventive -- no steadicam work or noticeably long takes here -- and the editing is plodding, mostly shot/reverse shot patterns all the way through both scenes.*

The sole visually interesting shot in Red Dragon's Atlanta Police Station sequence. . . 

 . . . and meanwhile, the dully edited sequence's longest take is this predictable 
close-up of Graham as he delivers his speech. 

Though Red Dragon provides some minor variation in editing tempo (i.e., one or two slightly longer takes) when Graham gives his speech in the lecture hall, the scene itself is more boring because it is a one-way lecture rather than a conversation between four guys as in Manhunter. By having Graham be more verbally reticent despite his visual centrality, Mann's film renders him a more pensive, mysterious, and haunted character. Ratner's approach converts Graham into more of a talkative know-it-all and photographs him in a way that makes him more visually central (in an obvious way) yet less intriguing and moody.

These may seem like small things but they add up to palpable differences in cumulative effect over the course of each film.

(2) Ralph Fiennes is WAAAAY too good-looking to play Frances Dolarhyde, whose character arc depends upon him being repulsively ugly and socially outcast due to his unusual appearance. Fiennes' casting = epic fail, despite the actor's great talent and that cool tattoo. Manhunter's Tom Noonan is vastly more believable and (therefore) scary in the Dolarhyde role. See for yourself, in these two stills taken from each film's "unveiling to Lounds" scene:

Tom Noonan in Manhunter: creepy looking, awkward, and genuinely scary.

Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon: The tattoo is cool and Fiennes is a truly great actor, 
but physically ugly social outcast this guy is not. 

(3) Anthony Hopkins' Lecter is a caricature by this point in the game. His added scenes, like the lengthy and unnecessary prelude sequence, are pointless filler that distract from the main event: Graham. Red Dragon's needless over-deployment of Lecter drags the movie down and is a key example of when real-world fandom fucks up a fictional universe.**

Brown notes this problem when he states that
Hannibal Lecter is everywhere in Red Dragon. Pouring wine, walking laps, giving advice, nearly killing detectives in flashbacks, and just generally eating up the scenery like only the Sir [Anthony Hopkins] can. The problem is, he's not supposed to. While there is a Hannibal Lecter character who serves the same role in the plot and is perfectly creepy in his own right, he's not a major focus of the original version of the film. It's more about the interaction between the lead detective and the serial killer.
I love Anthony Hopkins a lot, but I simply cannot buy the over-saturation of Lecter in Red Dragon. The lap-walking scene and the totally unnecessary pre-credits sequence are the most gratuitous examples of this tendency: they slow the movie down and serve no valid purpose. Manhunter gets the Lecter-balance right, leaving him as a sinister presence in the background but not letting him chew scenery and get in the way of the real story being told here.

(4) Lastly, and not to be too sweepingly auteurist, but Michael Mann is simply much better at directing these kinds of movies (and probably better at directing in general) than Brett Ratner.*** As this somewhat recent CinemaBlend post points out,
Ratner is the sort of guy you hire for your franchise when you have no idea what to do, as evidenced by his last two sequels: both Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand operated at the level of a Saturday morning cartoon, the latter a particularly bad one. It’s telling that once Ratner made those films, each series felt the need to follow them up with prequels, producers eager to make audiences forget what just happened. Ratner’s exactly the type to have no idea how to deliver a no-brainer of a concept.
Conversely, Michael Mann has proven himself again and again to be a master of the urban crime thriller: Thief (1981), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Collateral (2004), and Manhunter are all superb entries in this genre, and Heat is an outright masterpiece by any measure. So on the basis of Mann's immense capabilities as a director of action thrillers, and of the better filmmaking choices made in practically every regard, I urge you to see Manhunter and to forget that the lackluster Red Dragon exists.

Ralph Fiennes says: "I'm a great actor, but together with Sir Anthony Hopkins, 
I helped ruin this movie!"
--
* This tendency to cram way more shots into less time and to deny a scene a chance to breathe or vary much in tempo is not limited to Ratner but is part of a broad Hollywood trend David Bordwell has termed Intensified Continuity.
** See also: the over-emphasis of Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels, as pointed out in Part 3 of this lovely video review of Star Wars Episode III. The relevant section begins at the 1:08:10 mark of the video embedded below:



*** Devoted readers will recall that Mann is one of the directors I singled out as a personal favorite at the end of this post.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Belle (2014)


I saw the sharply written and vividly directed historical drama Belle at the Cinema Theater in Rochester last week, and enjoyed it very much. While conventionally shot, the film is superbly scripted and the performances throughout are absolutely top-notch. Belle dares to take on a complex and thorny subject -- the social status of a mixed-race woman of illegitimate yet aristocratic birth in late-eighteenth century England -- and does so in a way that is both emotionally compelling yet never heavy handed or melodramatic. The film achieves a consistent level of nuance and intelligence of script that, say, Spielberg's structurally similar Lincoln (2012) only lands upon quite spottily. This is quite a feat.

I think the critical press liked Belle but, due to unconscious, gendered generic bias, some didn't quite see it for the accomplishment it truly is. For example, I agree with most of the concrete points made by Chris Nashawaty in his review, especially the notion that
the message is clear: Women during this time were, like slaves, property to be auctioned off, making Dido doubly powerless. The added irony is that although she has a sizable inheritance, she's considered less marriageable than her penniless white cousin. [. . .] Belle subtly skewers the absurd rules and hypocrisies of class.
Yet I must take slight umbrage at Nashawaty's description of Belle as "like a Jane Austen novel spiked with an extra shot of social conscience" and his own subtle implication that the best thing -- or maybe the only truly noteworthy thing -- about the film is Gugu Mbatha-Raw's performance in the title role.* That performance is indeed excellent, but Belle (the film) is much more than a politically charged take on the social milieu popularized by Downton Abbey. The film is a serious examination of a key historical moment in interracial politics and should be discussed alongside other recent films on similar themes like Lincoln (to which Belle is superior) and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Like the more formally daring yet psychologically excruciating 12 Years, Amma Asante's Belle grapples with larger historical events -- in this case, the pre-abolition Zong Massacre case presided over by Lord Mansfield (the superb Tom Wilkinson) in 1783 -- by telling the story of its protagonist's immediate experiences during this politically charged period. Belle (called Dido by her family) is the niece of Lord Mansfield and she begins to take an interest in the implications of his case as she experiences the personal difficulties of "coming out" to London society (coming of age and going on the marriage market) alongside her white cousin, Elizabeth (played with great nuance by Sarah Gadon).


Dido and Elizabeth.

The film assiduously avoids going melodramatically over-the-top, either in its dealings with race issues or in its romantic subplot. This alone elevates the film above Spielberg's similarly themed films Amistad (1997) and Lincoln -- Spielberg is one of the most technically assured filmmakers alive but he frequently indulges in moments of melodramatic treacle that diminish the impact and import of his otherwise thematically "serious" late-career films. Belle, conversely, exercises restraint throughout and is far the better for it. 

Further, it must be said that the romantic plot is indeed quite sub in Belle. The main events here are Dido's unfolding relationships with her family: Elizabeth, Lord Mansfield, and her pragmatic-but-never-draconian mother (Emily Watson). There is a romantic interest, and since a woman's marriageability is a key concern of ALL the characters and of that sector of society at that time, some (re-)viewers could mistakenly assert that the romantic plot SHOULD be more dominant and/or that the film is weakened by its lack of florid, melodramatically romantic scenes of the kind one sees in other types of movies set in this time period. But no, there is no Colin Firth in a wet shirt moment in Belle, because this film is much more interested in the political plight of women in 18th century Britain and how their circumstances resemble, differ from, and intersect with the plight of slaves at the same time. All these difficult issues are effectively and brilliantly worked out through the evolving personality and paradoxical social position of Dido. 

Finally, I would suggest that Belle is worth watching not only because the film itself is so good -- much more serious and sharp than Lincoln yet far less excruciating and experimental than 12 Years -- but also because it is a film written and directed by women of color. This such an extreme rarity in the mainstream film business that I would probably urge folks to support this film even if it was less than excellent. Luckily, I don't have to. Asante directs not just Mbatha-Raw but her whole stellar cast to fine, compelling, nuanced performances that are both emotionally involving and thought-provoking. I thoroughly enjoyed Belle, I was gripped by it, and it made me think. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a character-driven film featuring world-class acting, assured direction, and a flat-out excellent script.**

 Tom Wilkinson says: "Hey, old chap -- I give an excellent performance in this movie, too!"


--
* An expert on 18th-century British culture and literature to whom I am close says that this phrasing of Nashawaty's is itself misleading, since Austen's novels are in fact laden with sharp political critique. According to my expert, Nashawaty is making the (all too common) mistake of reading Austen's novels very superficially -- as light, witty romances, rather than as the multi-layered, socially critical, and politically engaged works they actually are.
** I am happy to say that both the New York Times and Guardian reviews concur with my view that Belle balances its elements nearly perfectly.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer (2014)


I saw Snowpiercer, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's English-language debut, earlier this week, and was, as I expected to be, blown away. It is an epic, action-packed, beautifully made, perfectly paced blockbuster. Anyone who enjoys movies and has a stomach for some intense but not overly gratuitous violence will enjoy this film.

I have written before about how much I love Bong's work, and I knew going in that Snowpiercer was going to be well-shot, well-written, and -- most importantly -- character driven. In these areas the film does not disappoint. It is Bong's most grandiose, action-loaded, and spectacular film yet; it is much greater in scale than any of his previous films. For example, The Host (2006), whose action covers many areas across the city of Seoul, is still focused on the fate of one family in that one city.* By contrast, the train in Snowpiercer, despite its linear physical confinements, is literally global in scale: it traverses the world, its passengers encompassing all of surviving humankind. With its expanded, multinational cast and furious, frequently large-scale action sequences driving the plot relentlessly forward, Snowpiercer feels bigger and more kinetic than any previous Bong film. When we catch glimpses out the windows or pull back for a wide exterior shot, the titular huge train moves fast! 

I have previously outlined a schema for interpreting summer blockbusters:


According to this formula, I would place Snowpiercer in the "creative and complex" category, but only barely on the complex side of the line. That is, the film is visually unique and very creatively set-designed, costumed, and shot (i.e., "creative" on the vertical axis) yet actually adheres quite closely to the conventions of the action thriller and does not really allow its plot to twist overmuch -- there is a nice surprise or two near the end, but nothing too complex. No, the film actually earns its "(barely) complex" designation due to the way in which it reveals key plot and character information: slowly and gradually, in layers. The viewer is given certain visual or contextual clues early on, which pay off later when their full nature or importance is revealed. But the main thrust of the story and the action is made very clear from the get-go, and never wavers from its general course.**

This is one of Bong's great strengths as a filmmaker: his keen ability to know just how much to reveal and how much to withhold in order to keep his audience tantalizingly on the hook. Bong has always been good at this but Snowpiercer may constitute his most subtle and refined use of this technique yet. I will keep this review spoiler-free, but suffice to say that one of the best "reveals" in the whole film is a confessional speech made by protagonist Curtis (Chris Evans) just before the final climactic battle. What we learn about our "hero" and his relationships to some of the other key characters in that very effective (and affective) speech adds a whole new layer of complexity and pathos to all we've seen to that point, and brilliantly sets up what's at stake for the final showdown.

Along a similar line, since Snowpiercer is completely character-driven AND is deadly realistic in its depiction of the consequences of violence, there is much at stake here. Many characters perish during the course of this movie. Watching Snowpiercer made me realize that one of the biggest drawbacks of the current vogue for superhero blockbusters is that most superheroes cannot or do not die, so there is rarely a sense of mortal threat or the high stakes that come with risking one's life in those movies. Not so here. As in the Hunger Games films (which this one somewhat resembles tonally) characters we care about in Snowpiercer can and do meet terrible fates, and this only heightens the intensity of the action and our involvement in it. 

On top of all this, and most importantly, Snowpiercer is completely involving and entertaining the whole way through. Its running time is 126 minutes (actually fairly short by today's blockbuster standards) but it does not feel long or exhausting. I simply cannot recommend this movie highly enough, especially right now while it's still in theaters. If you enjoy dark, post-apocalyptic actioners like The Hunger Games films (2012 and 2013), The Book of Eli (2010), and Children of Men (2006), then you will surely find lots to enjoy in the tension-filled, visually stunning, and dramatically compelling Snowpiercer. ***

 Tilda Swinton plays one of the most interesting and creepy villains ever in Snowpiercer.

Bonus Afterthoughts: While the whole cast of Snowpiercer is quite good -- Chris Evans does a terrific job playing what could have been a very generic-feeling character in a way that makes us care without making him too vulnerable or sentimental, and Bong regulars Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung are both excellent as well -- the real gem here is Tilda Swinton. She just blows her performance away, more or less stealing every single scene she's in. Her Mason is the best, most loathsome villain I have seen in a very long time; her performance alone is worth the price of admission. Also, in addition to several intertextual references to Bong's other films (especially The Host), watch for a very clever and subtle The Shining reference two-thirds of the way in.

Curtis sez: "Hey, I'm in a gold room!"

UPDATE 7/7/2014: A friend called my attention to this super-sharp review of Snowpiercer which not only calls the film "an exciting and well-constructed action movie, with more interesting characters and more legible cinematography than the chaotic visual gibberish of CGI and explosions that comprise most contemporary American blockbusters," but also claims that the film conveys a radical critique of capitalism -- a compelling argument I am inclined to agree with.

UPDATE 7/21/2014: Another friend of mine has written this smart review in which she claims, among other things, that "Snowpiercer is the first film I’ve seen since District 9 that takes the tropes of the blockbuster and transforms them into something so compelling that days after seeing it, you stop can’t thinking about it." Indeed!

--
* Note that Bong's The Host is about a mutant monster who emerges out of the Han River in downtown Seoul and starts eating people, NOT to be confused with the recent U.S.-produced YA film of the same name.
** In this aspect -- the straightforwardness of its plot and the clarity of what's at stake -- Snowpiercer is a lot like last year's Pacific Rim, which I also enjoyed a great deal. The main difference between the two movies is that Snowpiercer's characters are more developed and therefore the stakes are higher when things happen to them. And Bong is probably a more artful and innovative visual stylist than Guillermo del Toro, though the latter is no slouch in these areas himself. I should add that the narrative economy and coherence of both these films -- their strict adherence to the conventions of cause-and-effect, setup and payoff -- place them both firmly in the blockbuster tradition that includes Steven Spielberg and owes a great pre-blockbuster-era debt to the work of Alfred Hitchcock.
*** One of my film-viewing friends also mentioned The Fifth Element during our post-Snowpiercer discussion, and while Besson's distinctive 1997 film is lighter in tone and more generally gonzo than Snowpiercer, I think this is an apt comparison. Another friend name-dropped Pandorum (2009) as being broadly similar in plot but said the latter film is far inferior to Bong's action masterpiece.

Friday, June 27, 2014

EW #8: The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain in The Gold Rush (1925).

Entry #8 on Entertainment Weekly's list of 100 All-Time Greatest films constitutes the first (and only!) appearance on the list of silent comedy legend Charlie Chaplin.

Now there is no denying that The Gold Rush is a comedy masterpiece, though so too are several of Chaplin's other features, including The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). My personal favorites of these are City Lights and Modern Times, and while I can understand the arguments in favor of The Gold Rush, both my personal taste and my film history knowledge convince me that Modern Times (which EW does not include in its rundown) deserves to be the highest-rated Chaplin film on any "best film" list.

In defense of its choice, EW writes that The Gold Rush contains "the most iconic performance by Hollywood's most indelible movie star," and that may be true, for Chaplin's gags in this film -- especially the dinner roll "shoe" dance -- are some of his most memorable and iconic. Yet a film is more than the performance of a single actor.*

The dinner roll dance, one of the most famous sequences in The Gold Rush and in Chaplin's career.

That said, there is much to love in The Gold Rush, and it surely marks a key moment in Chaplin's trajectory as a director. It is only the third feature-length film to star Chaplin as his "Little Tramp" character, and the first Tramp-centric film to be released by United Artists, Chaplin's co-venture with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. It is also a landmark film for silent comedy in general: film critic Luc Sante calls The Gold Rush "one of the first truly worldwide cultural phenomena" and notes that "it remains the highest-grossing silent comedy" bar none.**

Yet the film is not as coherent as the later Chaplin films I've already singled out as favorites, a fact that even Chaplin himself indirectly acknowledged by re-cutting certain scenes and omitting others in his 1942 re-issue of the film. I am a snobby purist who has never seen the 1942 version, so cannot comment on the relative merits of 1925 vs. 1942, but what I can say is that Chaplin's desire to tinker with the earlier version and to declare the later iteration his preferred, "definitive" cut speaks to the fact that the director was not totally satisfied with how the original hung together.

To be clear, I love the 1925 version and my pointing out that it is not as narratively tight as, say, City Lights or Modern Times is not meant to detract from how completely enjoyable, hilarious, and touching it is. I love watching The Gold Rush. I am simply saying that whatever its pleasures, and they are many, The Gold Rush does not mark the height of Chaplin's powers as a director, nor is it the most memorable, entertaining, or indelible screen appearance of the Tramp character.

The Tramp always represents the socially outcast and the poor, but whereas Modern Times is a sustained, scathing critique of U.S. capitalism, The Gold Rush leavens its critique by allowing the Tramp to strike it rich by the movie's conclusion. Sure, the Tramp (known here as "the Lone Prospector") never succumbs to greed, and is always motivated by "romance" according to Sante.*** Yet his ascent into the upper classes robs The Gold Rush of its reality principle, diminishing the bittersweetness that attends the endings of Modern Times and City Lights, in which the Tramp must uphold his trademark optimism and pluck in the face of unchanged, deeply impoverished material circumstances. I contend that The Tramp's comedy is funnier, and his pathos far more penetrating, when he remains an outcast and (somehow) a survivor. While The Gold Rush dares to show the Tramp being ostracized, marginalized, and mistreated during many touching sequences earlier in the film -- most notably during his failed New Year's Eve dinner party -- it cops out at the conclusion, sacrificing vulnerability and pathos for a more standard happy ending, which is satisfying in its own way but lacks the power and punch of the later Tramp outings.

The tragicomic ending of Modern Times, in which the Tramp 
puts a brave face on an all-but-hopeless situation.

So while I admire and enjoy The Gold Rush a great deal, and consider it a must-have for a "Top 100 films" list in general, I have to go with Modern Times as my pick for the top Chaplin film and probably the top silent comedy as well. Despite The Gold Rush's amazing special effects and its immense global popularity, I find Modern Times to be every bit as technically impressive, every bit as funny, and, in both an ideological and historical sense, more impactful than EW's chosen film.† Ideologically, Modern Times is the most direct critique of capitalism I have ever seen in a mainstream movie. And historically, Times is the Tramp's swan song and Chaplin's final "silent" picture, so is extraordinarily important to film history for both of those reasons.

Lastly, besides the possible fumble it represents in terms of accurately evaluating Chaplin's ouvre, the other problem that this entry exposes is the stupefying dearth of silent films on the EW Top 100 Films list as a whole. I say this not simply to be highbrow; I am genuinely baffled that a great many enjoyable, thrilling, and thoroughly entertaining silents have simply been omitted or ignored by EW, while drek like Return of the King is included on the list. This is ridiculous. Just in the comedy realm alone, I can think of several features -- the Chaplin titles mentioned above, Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality (1923) and The General (1926), and Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923) -- that are much more entertaining AND historically significant than many titles that appear on EW's list.

A lovely shot from The Gold Rush that poignantly depicts the Tramp's 
perennial outsider status.

--

* This focus upon a single performance rather than the whole picture also distorts many peoples' views of The Dark Knight, a film which taps the post-9/11 cultural zeitgest like practically no other (if we ignore Zero Dark Thirty) and is elevated by Heath Ledger's bravura performance but is simultaneously plagued by many other glaring structural and aesthetic problems.
** The Gold Rush Criterion Edition booklet (Criterion Collection, 2012), p. 7.
*** Criterion Edition booklet, p. 13.
† Anyone who wants to be blown away by the ingenuity of Chaplin and his cinematographer Roland Totheroh simply must get hold of the Criterion Edition of The Gold Rush and watch the "A Time of Innovation" documentary on the second disc of the two-DVD set.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review: Godzilla (2014)


The recent remake of Godzilla is what I call a "noble failure." It tries hard to achieve many interesting things both visually and thematically, but it fails because it just isn't very entertaining or fun or, ultimately, coherent. To be clear, I (mostly) really enjoyed the film as it was unfolding before my eyes, and must state right away that I thought it was quite visually stunning. The MUTO attack at the foggy railroad trestle was one of the best paced and best looking scenes in this film or any action film I have seen in quite some time. The final showdown in San Francisco was beautifully lit and photographed, and most of the scenes of Godzilla -- even though they were too few and far between -- looked frikkin' awesome.

But the film is nevertheless a failure, if a noble one. It failings stem mainly from:

(1) Taking itself too seriously,

(2) Committing some of the worst characterization and character-arc blunders I have seen since The Dark Knight Rises, and

(3) Trying to do too much thematically (or at least not doing it clearly enough).

Going in, I gave this film a lot of benefit of the doubt due to the excellence of director Gareth Edwards' previous feature, the superb Monsters (2010). While I am not a rabid Godzilla fan in the holistic sense, I am a huge fan of the original 1954 Gojira and I have seen and enjoyed my share of other related films such as Rodan (1956), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Gamera (1965), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), Godzilla 1985, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002), and Roland Emmerich's 1998 "Godzilla" film. But most of my hopes walking into the 2014 Godzilla were pinned on Edwards, and at least in the visual sense, he did not disappoint.

Yet as Lee Weston Sabo puts it, the very skills which served Edwards so well on the low-budget Monsters were misapplied here, creating a distracting "identity crisis" at Godzilla's core:
Oddly enough, [Edwards] used the same techniques he used in Monsters to hide the poor CGI (which he reportedly did on his laptop) to hide the monsters in Godzilla, even though the budget was two hundred times larger, resulting in a lavish Hollywood production that is often obscured from view. Most distracting is a recurring motif where the monsters are shown on a television screen rather than in the flesh. The movie is so embarrassed by its giant monsters that it has to constantly show them on the news to make it seem real.
Agreed. Yet even these errors in judgment might not have seemed so egregious had it not been for the profound mistakes made simultaneously in the character department. Why on earth this film kills off Joe Brody (played compellingly by Bryan Cranston) a third of the way in is one of the most baffling decisions I've seen made in any film -- it is as bad and distracting a decision as the numerous similarly terrible choices made in The Dark Knight Rises.* Furthermore, once the film murders its best character and most logical candidate for protagonist, it subsequently utterly wastes the talents of Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa, who, as the namesake of the original Gojira's protagonist, seemed to me the next best choice to step up and take the reins in Joe's deeply felt absence. But no, Serizawa stands around pointlessly while the straight-laced Admiral Stenz and Joe's boring son Ford get all the best lines and scenes.

Why, oh why, does the (potentially) interesting character on the left do nothing this whole movie while the boring character on the right is narratively centralized?

And, as Sabo points out, Ford's role in Godzilla is unmotivated and pointless: "there is no functional reason Dr. Brody could not have been the hero of the film – and, by extension, no reason why Ford Brody needed to exist as a character at all (for instance, even though he’s established as a bomb disposal expert in a plot that surrounds several nuclear bombs, it never actually comes into play)." So even though the main point in a monster movie is to enjoy the monster battles, Godzilla commits a dual sin by depriving us of the monsters AND providing us with a horribly lackluster, "droopy" human plot, as even this mostly positive review of the film admits.

Thus, despite its stunningly impressive visuals, the main problem with Edwards' take on Godzilla is its lack of compelling characters and its over-serious tone. To be fair, these problems are endemic to many contemporary blockbusters, as I have discussed before. In an Entertainment Geekly blog post titled "A Call for an End to Serious Blockbusters," Darren Franich writes that the new Godzilla film is disappointing precisely because it is "so, so serious. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s mom dies and his dad dies and his wife is a nurse and his son misses his daddy. Godzilla is probably the first movie to not even have fun when it destroys Vegas."

Franich is well aware that this serious, boring, "dark" tone is not unique to Edwards' Godzilla but is a general trend in contemporary Hollywood filmmaking -- he writes that
this whole vogue for seriousness has become a tic: For the filmmakers, but also for the studios, for the marketing teams, for the whole apparatus behind Hollywood blockbusters. And for us, the audience, too. There’s a tendency to throw this seriousness on Christopher Nolan’s doorstep, but mainstream geekstuff was turning in that direction long before Batman Begins. You could start with Bryan Singer’s moody X-Men. Or you could point to Peter Jackson’s decision to de-Bombadilize Lord of the Rings. Maybe it’s George Lucas’ fault, devolving Star Wars from a fun-times space adventure to a mopey-faced parliamentary melodrama.
In any case, Franich bemoans this trend (in a very smart article I encourage you to read in full) and names Pacific Rim as a positive counter-example to this tendency, a view I wholeheartedly agree with.

Pacific Rim vs. Godzilla = fun vs. serious. 
As Darren Franich writes, "Godzilla wants so badly to make sense. 
Pacific Rim wants so badly for Ron Perlman to wear golden shoes."

Thematically, the new Godzilla appears to want to re-engage with the 1954 original's indictment of nuclear weapons, but seems confused about what its actual stance on this issue might be.** Is the 2014 version pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear? It is hard to tell. The film does not endorse Admiral Stenz's ruthless approach to detonating nukes in the San Francisco Bay, yet it is pro-military and does not seem all that troubled by the existence of nuclear weapons in general. Sabo labels this ideological muddle "a vague commentary on environmentalism" that ultimately means very little in the context of the film. And despite Robin L. Murray's contention that the film "provides a space in which to explore the complexities of a monstrous nature humanity both creates and embodies," conveying the message that "monstrous nature may also save us," I must agree with Sabo that the film carries self-contradictory and confusing messages along this line.

All that said, I look forward to Edwards' next attempt at the franchise -- he is currently contracted to direct Godzilla 2 and Godzilla 3 -- and hope he and his team will learn some valuable lessons from the mixed critical response to the 2014 Godzilla. If he can bring a bit more zip and fun to the next installment, if he can build upon his accomplished visual style to get us more invested in both his human and non-human protagonists, then he might overcome this noble failure and make the potential-laden Godzilla franchise so much better.

Bonus Afterthought: Though I understand why Godzilla purists despise it, I am not a hater of the Roland Emmerich Godzilla and am inclined to agree with Gabe Toro's claim that the much-maligned 1998 version is at least a rip-roaring good time.***

"Don't I seem more fun now, in retrospect?"

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* That is, the utter pointlessness of Matthew Modine's character, the severe, plot-crippling under-development of Talia al Ghul, and the totally disastrous decision to have Michael Caine's Alfred, the only remotely believable and relatable human being to appear in the entire Dark Knight trilogy, vanish for the bulk of the film's run time.
** Sabo calls the 1954 original "ham-fisted" and criticizes its "audacity and crudity [in] trying to seriously represent the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a man stomping around in a rubber dinosaur suit." Yet I find that audacity somewhat admirable and compelling, and would add that the dark, gloomy tone of the 1954 version helps its theme to "land" with me despite the film's exploitative dimensions.
*** Anyone interested in reading a more detailed discussion of the merits of Emmerich's 1998 version should read this Vanity Fair piece, which makes the bold claim that "if you love the 90s, you pretty much have to love 90s Godzilla."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: Mother (2009)

Poster for Bong Joon-ho's amazing 2009 thriller Mother.

Some while ago, in a post discussing several contemporary (and active) directors I feel are worth every filmgoer's time, I concluded with an "Honorable Mention" shout-out to Bong Joon-ho, my favorite South Korean director.

Since posting that, I have now seen Bong's 2009 thriller, Mother, and my estimation of his talent and abilities has only increased as a result. I am immensely fond of his two previous feature-length works, 2003's Memories of Murder and 2006's monster movie The Host, but now I might have to claim Mother as my favorite.

In fact, my initial reaction to Mother was documented via an email exchange I had with a good friend familiar with Bong's films:
ME: In prepping for teaching Bong this week I finally watched Mother a couple days ago. Literally the best movie I've seen in years, with the best "twist"/reveal EVER! 
FRIEND: I feel the same way. The most unique and arguably subversive take on monstrous motherhood I've ever seen, especially given the title character's star text as a popular character actor who mainly played lovable moms on Television. I think it's an important film to juxtapose with The Host to understand Bong Joon-ho as an auteur. 
ME: I think it is the greatest deployment of "trick" point of view and generation of audience sympathy since Psycho. And I agree that it pairs well with The Host as a precis on parenthood.
As this dialog (and my profile on the sidebar) reveal, I am a professor of film studies by trade, and in my "Film History Since 1945" course this spring semester, I taught a week on "The Global Blockbuster" which required the students to watch The Host. I have seen and taught that film many times and it is always a big hit with students. Not only is it a superb monster movie, it also functions as a kind of over-the top family melodrama about a slackerish dad who spends the whole film trying to make up for the fact that his carelessness leads to his daughter's being taken by the river monster in the movie's first act. The redemption of this father character is a primary theme in The Host, and is handled as well as (if not better than) the father-son sequences in Spielberg's Jaws, a film to which The Host is frequently (and favorably) compared.



Yet my appreciation for The Host was enhanced by seeing Mother. As its title indicates, the movie is a suspense thriller about the investigative efforts of the single mother of a young man named Yoon Do-joon. The son is arrested and  incarcerated for the murder of a neighborhood schoolgirl. The local police all believe they have their man, but Do-joon's mom never wavers in her faith that her son is innocent of the crime, so takes it upon herself to conduct her own dogged investigation of the events leading up to her son's arrest. The result is nail-bitingly suspenseful, beautifully shot, superbly acted, and ultimately revelatory in its brilliant deployment of a narrative "twist" that is not so much a twist as a catharsis for the characters and viewer alike. I am not kidding when I say in the email exchange above that Mother contains one of the best "reveals" I have seen in any film since Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).

Do-joon's mother makes a crucial discovery during one of 
Mother's most suspenseful scenes. 

Like Hitchcock before him, Bong seems to have no great esteem for cops, for they often come across as corrupt, buffoonish, or a little bit of both in his work. This is a theme that ties Mother to Bong's 2003 serial killer mystery thriller Memories of Murder -- the cop protagonists of the latter remind me very much of the supporting police officer character in the former, and even though we are meant to sympathize with the two cops in Memories, the ending of the film tells us a lot about how Bong feels about the ways and means -- and ethics -- of police work in his home country.

One of the last shots of Memories of Murder, in which a police officer 
is shown possibly abusing his position of authority.

Similarly, cops and government officials are not to be trusted in The Host -- in that film, Gang-du's extended family bond together to rescue his daughter Hyun-seo, all the while evading the police and military personnel who would impede them in their morally necessary task. All three films echo each other in certain ways: always there are young girls in danger, always a different type of protagonist -- two cops, a father and his siblings, a lone mother -- seeks a solution to the crime and and end to the threat posed to the children. All three are strongly envisioned, well-scripted genre pieces (two crime thrillers and one monster movie) into which elements of family melodrama are artfully woven.

And then there are the visuals. The screenshots I've included here really cannot do justice to how beautifully shot and edited Bong's films are. No fetishist of the long take, Bong nevertheless knows when to allow for thematically appropriate long takes, as in the opening and closing shots of Mother or in the incredibly long steadicam shot that wends its way through the police station (and eventually outside to the parking lot) partway through Memories. Bong and his cinematographers Kim Hyung-ku (Memories and The Host) and Hong Kyung-pyo (Mother) are amazingly artful in how they compose shots, yet they never let that artfulness impede the forward momentum of these films' suspenseful, exciting scripts and plots.*

One of the funniest moments from The Host, in which Gang-du's family writhes around 
 on the floor in an expression of over-melodramatized grief.

The last component of Bong's work that really stands out for me is his sense of humor. Even in the middle of the direst of situations, Bong always allows for some silliness and human foible to leaven the tone a bit. In fact, one of the director's great gifts is his ability to introduce comedy without allowing it to puncture or nullify the suspense. This is perhaps especially true of The Host, which features the most outrageous comedy moments of any Bong film I've seen, yet also maintains its sense of paranoia and doom throughout, and even includes a few genuinely tragic and touching moments as well. Some of these involve character deaths so I won't spoil them, but my favorite of The Host's touching-yet-comedic scenes is when Gang-du's father explains to his other two grown children why they should cut Gang-du some slack and respect him, describing with great pathos how Gang-du suffered from malnutrition as a child. At the culmination of the father's speech, Bong cuts to the two siblings, revealing that they are asleep and not listening to a word of this profoundly moving speech. This is a moment that is both funny and subtly reveals the film's deeper agenda, which is to unfold that background information about the hapless Gang-du to us, the film's viewers.

It is artful touches like this, combined with Bong's films' sense of excitement and fun, that leads me to recommend his work to anyone who enjoys well-made suspense and/or monster films. Last I checked, The Host was streaming on Netflix, in Korean with English subtitles -- the DVD editions of Bong's films come subtitled AND dubbed.

"I gotta get out of here and go see Bong Joon-ho's latest film!"

--
* The closest comparison I can make to an English-language director's work is probably to that of David Fincher, who, in most cases (including Alien 3, Se7enZodiac, and The Social Network but possibly not the hyper-stylized Fight Club or a few indulgent moments in the generally underrated Panic Room) lets his films' stories and characters drive things forward, interwoven with an abundance of rich visual artistry to be incidentally enjoyed along the way. Fincher also seems to like to work in the suspense thriller genre like Bong does.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Blockbuster Screenwriting and the New Cinema of Attractions


The question of why I don't like very many contemporary action blockbusters has been haunting me for some time now, probably ever since I realized (circa 2008) that I might be one of the few people in the world who was underwhelmed, even off-put, by the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films. I WANT to like today's "popcorn movies" and do not intend to become a highbrow cinephile who ONLY enjoys art films. Yet something about most of today's summer action blockbusters continues to displease (or at least fails to entertain) me.*

This became evident again recently when I realized that, despite my great enjoyment of The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, dir. Marc Webb) and contrary to my original strong intention to see the sequel when it hit theaters a couple weeks ago, I have decided not to bother with The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The two main reasons are:

1. I noticed its two hour and twenty minute running time, and

2. I then noticed, after digging deeper, that its screenplay was penned by two of Hollywood's most incompetent scribes, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.

I will return to that first point shortly, but first let me say that Kurtzman and Orci are flat-out terrible screenwriters. Red Letter Media notes this in their Amazing Spider Man 2 video review, during which Mike states (just after the 19:38 mark) that it seems like "any terrible new movie has been penned by these two." On both the story structure and character development fronts, all of this duo's screenplays are just lousy: Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Star Trek (2009), and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) are all, in Mike's words, "shit scripts." Similarly, a recent CinemaBlend article characterized Kurtzman and Orci's two Star Trek scripts as "typically-complex but still dopey screenplays," and I would call that an accurate assessment.**

To be fair, due to the huge amounts of money involved, non-creative executive production staff interfere with the development of blockbusters in many ways that probably weaken the material: as the CinemaBlend piece notes, "many masters must be served when you're working with $150 million budgets." Yet the consistency and persistence with which these two guys write particularly disorganized and ineffective scripts is hard to overlook.

A prime example of the kind of crappy screenplays Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci 
churn out for today's action blockbuster directors. 

Of course, Kurtzman and Orci are merely part of a much broader contemporary Hollywood trend toward increased emphasis on visual spectacle and intense action over considerations of characterization and script coherence.*** Hell, this trend has been trending since the late 1970s, when a synergistic combination of multinational corporate takeover of the entertainment industry and the successful release and marketing of the summer blockbusters Jaws (1975) and especially Star Wars (1977) changed the way Hollywood did business. Nowadays all major Hollywood studios hang all their hopes for the fiscal year upon one or two mega-budgeted blockbuster films which need to be "high concept" -- that is, based upon an extremely simple premise -- in order to perform well across all global markets.

Furthermore, various critics from David Bordwell to video essayist Mathias Stork have noted the faster-paced editing, imprecise camera work, and "scattershot" video game aesthetic that has begin to permeate contemporary blockbuster cinema, especially (but not exclusively) in its action sequences. This has led to more of a theme park ride / spectacle based approach to big-budget film production, and a concomitant de-emphasis upon story and character.

This tendency reminds me of Tom Gunning's "An Aesthetic of Astonishment," which outlines the phenomenon of the "Cinema of Attractions" in early cinema:
I have called the cinema that precedes the dominance of narrative (and this lasts for nearly a decade, [from 1896] until 1903 or 1904) the cinema of attractions. Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer's curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfillment. This cinema addresses and holds the spectator, emphasizing the act of display. In fulfilling this curiosity, it delivers a generally brief dose of scopic [visual] pleasure.†
In his incredibly sharp and penetrating book Post-Classical Hollywood, Barry Langford discusses the push-pull dynamic between visual spectacle and the demands of narrative in Hollywood films. Although he admits that in contemporary (post-1990s) blockbusters "narrative and character are [often] handled in a slapdash and contemptuous way," he also reminds us that "spectacular elements, often highly intrusive and in strictly narrative terms excessive if not superfluous, have co-existed with more straightforward storytelling throughout much of Hollywood history" (253, 251). Langford concludes that we can therefore potentially see today's action blockbusters as "[building] on the experience of the past two decades: 'perhaps the movies of the 2000s are the movies of the 1980s, only more so'" (247).††

In any case, although today's blockbusters are surely part of a longer tradition of spectacle-intense film production, Gunning's description of the "cinema of attractions" seems particularly apt when discussing the contemporary (that is, post-1980s) big-budget action film, especially with regard to the "more so" aspect of Langford's formulation. Indeed, Gunning's comment that "the attraction addresses the audience directly, sometimes [. . .] exaggerating this confrontation in an experience of assault" squares with Stork's assessment of the assaultive, visually excessive dimension of what he calls "Chaos Cinema." I would also point to Charlie Jane Anders' satirical and yet strangely accurate evaluation of Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as "a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot" that "isn't a movie, in the conventional sense," but rather "an assault on the senses, a barrage of crazy imagery."

As I have confessed before, I came of age in the 1980s and was raised on the blockbusters of Spielberg, McTiernan, Verhoeven, and George P. Cosmatos. None of these guys ever even dreamed of breaking the rules of Hollywood continuity style: their shot compositions were coherent, their editing choices logical, and their sense of character motivation and spatial legibility rarely faltered. They were trained in the ways of "classic" Hollywood, and even when their films were thinly plotted or even over-the-top silly, they nevertheless followed the aesthetic rules that had been in place in Hollywood since about the mid-1910s.

Arnold Schwartzenegger in the great, if silly, mid-1980s action blockbuster Commando.  

Nowadays, new forms of visual excess have taken hold, and today's blockbuster directors -- Nolan, Jackson, Snyder, Bay, and the late Tony Scott -- have not only diverged from the old rules of continuity editing and coherent camera work, but they (or their studios) have seen fit to expand the length of these narratively incoherent CGI-driven "attractions" to over two, often almost three hours. This is a strategy that echoes the expanded visual scope and running time of many of the "widescreen epics" of the 1950s, yet those films were still made in the classical mode: they had compelling stories and world-class stars, actors, and screenwriters on board. True, their widescreen-ness was heavily marketed in order to compete with television, which had just arrived on the scene, and it is also noteworthy that the 1950s also saw the first major rise of 3D movie technology, another parallel with the "striking but superficial imagery"-driven 2000s.††† Yet I argue that those earlier epics, despite their lengthiness and emphasis on spectacle, still hewed closer to classical Hollywood's demand for rigorous continuity, comprehensible character motivation, and tightly scripted narratives than today's blockbusters typically do.

Note that the shortest of the contemporary blockbusters in my sample,
Man of Steel, has the same running time as the longest of the
 1970s-80s blockbusters, 1978's Superman

Which brings me back to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. As A.A. Dowd of the Onion AV club puts it in his review,
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci struggle to transition among scenes of city-demolishing combat, indie-rock-scored montages of Peter pouting in his room, and intrusions of corporate-espionage backstory. They’ve written a checklist, not a screenplay.
So, I am boycotting of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 not because, like all other Hollywood action blockbusters, it is sexist or racist, though it's true that in general I am weary of the retrograde ideologies of our biggest blockbusters -- no, rather, I am resisting it because I actually want character development and decent screenwriting in the films I watch, even the "popcorn movies," especially at their current, incredibly lengthy running times. I truly do not think that this is too much to ask.

UPDATE 5/17/2014: It looks like Cracked.com more or less agrees with my assessment, noting The Amazing Spider-Man 2's "abysmal script" in their rundown of 4 Bizarre Choices That Doomed 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2'

UPDATE 6/18/2014: The Red Letter Media guys also seem to notice that a tight screenplay =  a better blockbuster. In their video review of X-Men: Days of Future Past, they laud the film for the coherence of its screenplay and even single out Amazing Spider-Man 2 as a negative counter-example.

Godzilla says: "Come see MY movie this summer! It's gonna be great!!"

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* There are exceptions: as I have previously written, I really enjoyed The Avengers (2012), the first Iron Man movie (2008), Pacific Rim (2013), Skyfall (2012), and a great many earlier blockbusters such as the first two Die Hard films (1988 and 1990) and the great Schwartzenegger vehicle Commando (1985).
** For a more in-depth exploration of Star Trek: Into Darkness's baffling incoherence, see the Red Letter Media guys' brilliant review of the film here.
*** In fact, Kurtzman and Orci are only two of the most egregiously mediocre members of a larger group of sloppy, vapid, "high concept" screenwriters that includes David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel), Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies), and doubtless many others I don't happen to know by name.
† Gunning, "An Aesthetics of Astonishment," in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism Seventh Edition (2009), pp. 742-43.
†† This is a particularly sharp insight given how many of today's summer blockbusters are literally reboots of '80s hit films. Also, I really cannot recommend Langford's excellent history of Hollywood from 1945 to the present (published by Edinburgh University Press in 2010) highly enough. It is a must-read for any serious cinephile and/or film historian.
††† Langford, Post-Classical Hollywood p. 246.