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Wednesday, May 9, 2007


It’s hard to figure out just what the Spider-Man franchise has left to accomplish. After a record breaking weekend, earning more in three days than any other film in history, and inaugurating the Summer 2007 movie season, it seems the seminal comic book series has more than done its job. That the final installment in this sequence of adventures (Sony has already announced plans for 4, 5 and 6) is also a very good popcorn entertainment should be icing on the commercial cake. And for the most part, it is. While fans have started web board wars over various elements director Sam Raimi and the gang got wrong, the mainstream moviegoer is lining up to plunk down their recreational dosh. And for the most part, they won’t be disappointed.


What they might be is dismayed. Indeed, one of the biggest quandaries that develops in this third trip into human arachnid territory is why the formula that worked so well in Spider-Man 2 fails to properly function this time around. The story more or less stays the same – Peter Parker struggles with his new found role as superhero and champion of the people; his relationship with Mary Jane Watson fluctuates between great and grave; he has moments of sage wisdom from his doddering Aunt May; and he’s still trying to disarm Harry Osborn’s seething personal vendetta over the death of his father. Toss in a villain – or in this case, two – and over the top visual stunt piece spectacles (check!) and you’ve got everything that made the 2004 epic a commercial and critical hit.


Well, not quite. For some reason, Spider-Man 3 is an ‘almost’ success. It ‘almost’ captures the wrenching emotion of the divergent character concerns. It ‘almost’ gets us to care about the plight of Flint Marco (our petty criminal/doting dad who ends up molecularized into Sandman), Peter Brock (more or less the cocky doppelganger for Peter and soon to be Venom), or new hottie Gwen Stacy (basic blonde eye candy). It ‘almost’ succeeds in tying up all the loose ends left over from Spider-Man 1 and 2 (even though Doc Ock earns just one single meaningless mention). And it ‘almost’ has us convinced that this trilogy will transcend its blockbuster necessities to mean something more – either as art, precedent, or simply a great way to spend some time at the Cineplex.


But ‘almost’ works both ways, and there are moments when Spider-Man 3 ‘almost’ falls apart completely. For example, the narrative is so fragmented and jumpy – which one would expect considering that the filmmakers are crafting an attempted trilogy out of various parts of the comic book myth – that it never settles down and sails the way Part 2 does. In addition, there is still some sloppy CGI, especially in the rendering of Brock’s space virus alter ego. Because of the character’s VERY late appearance in the story, and lack of significant screen time, we just don’t know what to expect from this being. When it starts slinging webs and acting all spider-like, we are left contemplating why we need two entities who both basically do the same thing. Aren’t there more interesting enemies in the Spider-man repertoire?


Controversy also surrounds the Second Act sequences where we are introduced to Power Mad (or as some have labeled him, Emo) Peter, including a corny “strut” montage and an equally odd dance number in a jazz club. In fact, most of the anger metered onto this movie comes from those who complain about Mary Jane’s TWO solo song spots, or the constant attention to character over chaos. It’s almost as if critics, appreciative of how Part 2 deepened the dynamic between everyone involved, said, “Enough all ready! Let’s get to the good stuff!” But anyone familiar with Raimi knows that he likes to trip up the tone of his films. As early as The Evil Dead series, he’d mix the serious with the silly, the scary with some slapstick. In preparation for what he feels will be a five handkerchief finale, a gut wrenching test of friendship and love, our director just wants to have a little fun.


Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t deliver the stirring, staggering epiphanies we’ve come to expect. The showdown with both Sandman and Venom is so straightforward (fight, stop, fight, stop) and lacking in the invention of the previous skirmishes (Spidey and the Granular One do have a great tête-à-tête amid a maze of subway cars) that it feels like middle act mayhem, designed to keep us occupied until the real conclusion comes along. Even in the initial sequence where Gwen Stacey (and a rather tall skyscraper) is threatened by an industrial crane gone crazy, there is an urgency and invention that’s lacking come showdown time. Still, you have to give Raimi credit. He certainly understands the acrobatic element of Spidey’s skills. The sequences when our hero swoops and soars across the NYC cityscape are thrilling in their sense of motion and wonder.


Another area where critics have gotten it dead wrong is in the acting department – specifically, the consistent dismissal of Tobey Maguire as nothing more than a whiny little manchild. On the contrary, he carries the entire weight of the film on his character’s post-adolescent shoulders. He is as good here as he was in Part 2, and all his emotional responses are earned honestly and specifically. Because of all the splash and fireworks, it’s hard to remember that Peter is actually inside that suit – not just some stunt or CGI element manipulated and mauled at the whim of the narrative. As a result, Maguire captures that ‘other’ aspect - the burden - allowing it to color and shade everything he does. If anything, it is Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane that deserves some straightening out. She’s gone from supportive to selfish in the blink of an eye, and her downfall seems premeditated and wrong. Besides, she agreed to a relationship with Spider-Man post reveal – shouldn’t she grow up a little?


James Franco also suffers a bit as well. His post-trauma transformation from a seething ball of rage to a dithering amnesiac with a forced smile is a real contrivance. Instead of making Harry a total head case, maneuvering the people around him to earn their trust (before destroying them), he’s just a good guy gone bad who turns into a bad guy gone good. The camaraderie element to this storyline is the film’s strongest facet (it is reminiscent of the bond shared by the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) but whole portions of the Peter/Harry/MJ triangle seem repetitive and unnecessary.


The rest of the cast is definitely driven to the very edges of the action. J.K. Simmons, so good as J. Jonah Jameson, is reduced to a couple of cameo spots, while James Cromwell (as Police Chief Stacy) is only around to provide Gwen a paternal face. As the villains, Topher Grace is wonderfully smarmy as desperate (and dangerous) Brock, while Thomas Haden Church is more concrete than complexity as Marco. Even when Raimi stops the action cold to give his Sandman room to wax about his sick little girl, the schmaltz seems totally tacked on. Indeed, why did this evildoer have to have a backstory, any way? What happened to the good old days where insane psychopaths wanted to take over the world because…well, because they are insane psychopaths. Had more time been spent on making Sandman/Flint a formidable foe, and not turning up the empathy factor, perhaps his presence as a baddie would have more impact. As a result, he’s sketchy throughout.


Overall, Spider-Man 3 drops down below the previous installment in the hierarchy. It’s shocking how shaky Raimi’s ideals appear this time around. Back at the beginning of this entire series, his storytelling scheme was unique and undeniable. He would push the maudlin and the mawkish as far as he could, then save the psychology structure by making the action supplement and strengthen the sentiment. This made everything feel complementary and complete. The balance he maintained so well over the previous two entries is really out of whack here – so much so that the moments of middling mediocrity compete to overpower the inherent greatness of his vision. In some ways, this is the way Peter Parker’s story was meant to end. As a reluctant hero, he was ill-prepared to take on the challenges of being a champion. As a big screen figure, he appears equally incapable of fully exemplifying the genre’s best aspects. Still, he ‘almost’ gets it – and that’s good enough for now…and Spider-Man 3.


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Need any proof that the entertainment industry has a death wish?  Look no further than this Reuters article: Old media turns combative against new media.  Yes, that’s right- they’ve become even more clueless about modern culture than your grandfather.  The only problem is that your grandfather probably (hopefully) doesn’t have to know about his own biz yet is dangerously, pathologically ignorant of it.


But it gets worse.  With the blessing of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, some states are now cracking down on the practice of selling used CD’s, no doubt the number one scourge which is ravaging America now: see this Ars Technica article for more details.  Might it occur to the biz that like the RIAA downloading lawsuits, such an ill-advised crackdown will turn yet more people away from music or at least legally approved methods of accessing music?  Probably not.  Does it also occur to them that the money lost over CD sales will NEVER be turned around into sales of new CD’s?  Probably not.  Used CD’s are bought up for a reason- many people who buy them aren’t THAT interested in an artist or an album to pay full price for a new copy.  If they can’t buy the music used, why would they run out and buy a new copy?  They won’t and they’ll probably turn to download and not necessarily the type that the industry approves of.


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Tim Harford, the Financial Times’ economics columnist, writes about rent exhaustion in his most recent column.


there’s the ”curse of the free lunch” - or what a more strait-laced economist would call ”rent exhaustion”. It works like this: I fly somewhere deserving - say, Dar es Salaam - and hand out dollar bills to strangers. I’ll do it next Tuesday, starting at noon; please form an orderly queue. This would be guaranteed to produce a long line of people. Someone who made a dollar an hour would be willing to queue for up to an hour; someone on a dollar a day would be willing to queue for a day.
At least the people who found it worthwhile to queue would be poorer than those who didn’t. But many in the queue would surely be better off earning it by doing something productive. Each dollar I gave away would be worth only a few cents once you subtracted the cost of the recipient’s time - by trying to get the handout, they are destroying much of its value.


It seemed awfully shallow to be thinking of this in juxtaposition with people living on less than a dollar a day, but this analysis made me think of the huge amount of time I have spent chasing deals—in thrift stores or sales or wherever—that was not adequately compensated for by the actual value of what I ended up with. When I was a student and had little money but lots of time (I wasn’t an especially serious student, I suppose) I was susceptible to schemes that allowed me to waste lots of time for a little bit of gain. Killing time was an end in itself for me then, which is regrettable—which is the thing for which I tend to be looking for somebody other than myself to blame. Hence the following…


The costs of chasing deals (like opportunity costs) are not immediately apparent, a fact which marketers and retailers routinely exploit when they promise free gifts or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities or rebates or money-back guarantees or what have you—they get you to pay in effort what you save in money, while potentially earning your gratitude at the same time (as well as making the brands in question more familiar to you through the arduousness of the process).


 


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Almost two decades after the official end of the Cold War, Russia remains a major subject of scrutiny for the Western press. While this journalistic presence invariably means scary and strange things are happening there (you don’t see many foreign correspondents writing about Norway), it’s made for some fascinating—and disturbing—reads.


This month’s issue of Harper’s reprints an excellent piece by UCLA history professor Perry Anderson that examines everything from Vladimir Putin’s speaking style to the rise of the ‘imperial novel’ to the consequences of a rising China and European Union on either side of the country. One of the most disheartenings sections discusses the state of the Russian media:


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Tuesday, May 8, 2007


“It seems like a big budget remake or our film.”
—Eric Zala, “Belloq” and director of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, commenting on what it’s like to watch the original Raiders of the Lost Ark today
I have been hearing about Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation for years.  (Even name checking it in a totally unrelated review I wrote a few years ago.)  Its story is now legendary in fanboy circles: In 1982, three kids from rural Mississippi become obsessed with arguably the greatest action-adventure movie of their generation, and armed with the innocence of youth and a Betamax recorder, decide to create a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Seven years later, they wrapped on the film, put it away, and moved on with their lives and apart from each other.  In 2003, on the support of such notables as director Eli Roth and Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles, the film “debuted” at the Alamo Draft House in San Antonio.  Now, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are making the rounds with their masterpiece, and a biopic is in the works to tell their story on the big screen. I had the good fortune to attend a screening and Q&A with two of the three makers of this testament to youth in a near-capacity theater on the campus of the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the movie is exactly as advertised.  All horrible sound and bad picture, the entire first stanza is awash in a yellow-green tint, but by the time Strompolos’ Indy makes his daring escape from Zala’s Belloq and the Hovitos in the opening sequence, your eyes have grown accustomed to the harsh exposure and you are rooting not for the characters, but for the kids putting on this show.  You want them to succeed and you can’t wait to see how they will pull off each subsequent shot that you know is coming next. Very few changes were made to the source material and only one scene is completely omitted, but what liberties the creators have taken are as charming as they are resourceful, like the use of a small motorboat in place of the seaplane (although Jock’s pet snake Reggie in the front of the boat in Indy’s lap remains).  The later omission of the propeller death and the fight scene that precedes it is certainly forgivable and hardly missed in this final cut. The only other change of note is the replacement of the spider monkey with Strompolos’ dog Snickers, who steals every scene he’s in, which undermines the character’s villainy, because the audience is clearly rooting for the mutt.  From his “Sieg Heil!” salute to his ultimate death (both on screen by way of “bad dates” and in real life as noted in the end credits), the dog is a star. Apart from Snickers, one of the surprisingly biggest cheers came from the stop-motion animation of the maps tracking Indy’s flights from California to Nepal, and again from Nepal to Cairo.  The cheers were accompanied by visible disbelief, awe, and head-shaking during the fight and fire sequence in Marion’s bar.  This is also the scene that garners the most attention during Q&A sessions and interviews.  Strompolos’ mom worked at WLOX-TV, where the boys were editing their masterpiece, when footage of Zala on fire was spotted by a responsible adult.  As a direct result, year two of their production summarily halted. The showstopper is most definitely the truck stunt.  You know the scene - Indy is trying to commandeer the truck in which the Nazis have loaded the Ark of the Covenant.  After Indy disposes of most everyone in and on the truck, the driver then throws Indy through the windshield and onto the hood of the moving vehicle.  The cheers are genuine as Strompolos’ Indy descends the front of the truck, but the payoff is how, intentionally or not, the boys brilliantly hold the shot from inside the back of the truck on the ground rushing out from underneath for enough extra beats to really amp up the expectations of the audience before Strompolos shoots out from under the truck.  A perfect money shot, and worthy of the shouts of approval it garners. The credits recognize Mr. Zala for transportation and Ms. Cooper’s work as seamstress, an “in memory of” note for Snickers, and finish with a Jim Morrison quote (“This is the end, my only friend, the end.”).  When asked about the soundtrack that accompanies The Adaptation, the filmmakers cop to lifting John Williams’ original score throughout, and note that their credits actually run longer than the original’s (six minutes total), so they ended up looping themes from Temple of Doom and Last Crusade before circling back to finish up with the Raiders theme in a sort of Indy mega-mix. What’s truly amazing about the boys’ efforts is that these kids worked from memory the first two or three years; there were no home-viewing VHS copies to purchase, or the Internet to find a complete working script of the film.  Raiders was re-released in 1982, which helped, but primarily they relied on collected bits of Raiders info they could gather, including magazines, comic books, long-playing records, a crappy, clandestine audio recording made at the theater, and Zala’s hand-drawn storyboarding. The resourcefulness and originality (which might seem an odd word choice considering they copied a blockbuster frame-for-frame, but trust me, it applies here) of the production itself is a marvel.  And the spirit continues in these boys-turned-men today.  Zala and Strompolos revealed in the Cleveland Q&A session that all the locations used in their movie were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  They hope to work with the governor of Mississippi to have Paramount’s proposed biopic shot in their home state to help pump some much-needed economic life back into the devastated region. Filmed over 21 consecutive days, 23 year-old Kevin Smith’s Clerks launched his career by famously maxing out his credit cards to finance the movie for $27,000 in 1994.  Twelve years earlier, three 12 year-old boys began a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It would take them seven years to complete the film, and cost them roughly $5,000.  Granted, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are not as famous as Smith is, but they just might hit it big yet.


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