RIORI Volume 3, Installment 8: Mike Binder’s “Reign Over Me” (2007)


Reign Over Me


The Players…

Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler and Saffron Burrows, with Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon and Donald Sutherland.


The Story…

After a chance run-in with his old college roommate, Alan tries to reconnect with his friend who’s since fallen on hard times. But his old buddy Charlie wants nothing doing, regardless of how his life’s fallen into ruin. As far as Charlie’s concerned, all he needs is his music, video games and a kitchen to remodel. But Alan thinks there’s something more going on…and not just with Charlie.


The Rant…

I’m not entirely sure how Adam Sandler has had a successful movie career.

I’m not going to lambast the guy; that’s too easy. We all know his comedies are exercises in dumb, sophomoric, scatological and generally adolescent crapola. We know this. So does Sandler, as evidenced in recent, questionable newswires. He understands this very fact, and makes little to no apologies for his junk. Hell, if morons want to go to the movies to see Sandler act moronic himself, that’s their lookout. Sandler’s wisely adopted the classic “Hey, if you don’t like my sh*t, don’t go to the theatre” attitude. I’ve seen a few of his flicks, and some I’ve found fun—if taken with the right amount of salt. And weed. But overall they’re dumb with a capital Q, and that’s the point. His is mindless entertainment. You know what you’re in for when you go to a Sandler comedy, and it ain’t gonna be Shakespearean. It’s gonna be stupid, all pratfalls, farts and Adam’s signature screeching. And really, let’s face it, we all need a can of PBR to chase the single malt now and again, right?

Like I said, Sandler’s funny films—up until recently—do good business. But is it because they’re really funny? No, not really—at least not consistently. Sandler also doesn’t score many points for originality, either (wasn’t Blended essentially a re-write of 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore notwithstanding?). As of late, Sandler’s audience has been drying up, perhaps finally getting hip to how old the joke’s become. And that’s just it, my opening statement: how has Sandler maintained a successful movie career for so long?

Every pop culture trend has a limited shelf life. If you’re an actor and get, say, seven years in the spotlight, you’re a true success. It’s even better if you score a few Oscars in the interim. Some actors’ work is best regarded within particular decades. Tom Hanks, for example, ruled the 90s with charm and chameleon-like acting chops; he’s like the modern day Jimmy Stewart. Pacino’s halcyon days were in the 70s. Hell, Shirley Temple held sway throughout the 30s—FDR even gave her a commendation for keeping morale up on the homefront. Barring Temple, the above actors are still active, but their cachet is waning (or with the case of Pacino, hurtling into self-parody and a never-ending toilet paper roll of sh*tty scripts). I’m not gonna bury the man before he’s dead, but along my argument, can you recall a truly noteworthy performance by Hanks in the past five years?

You chew on it; I’ll wait here.

*crickets*

Yeah. Me neither.

Despite some awesome Tom Hanks movies—running the gamut of roles and styles starting with Big in 1988 and winding down with Cast Away (“WILSON!”) in 2000—I think Hanks’ time in the spotlight is fading. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t want the guy to ultimately be best remembered for just Forrest Gump and “Houston, we have a problem.”

That’s not a bad thing, really. Examples? Even though he took up some really dumb roles at the end of his life/career, Marlon Brando will always be remembered fondly as Vito Corleone (or Col. Kurtz, or f*cking Jor-El, depending on who you ask). Regardless of DeNiro’s roles over the past 20 years delving into inane comedies or playing second fiddle to Bradley Cooper or Ben Stiller, most of us will always recognize Bob as Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta or Johnny Boy. All of those were great—if not signature—roles, and ultimately Brando is resting soundly, legacy secured.

Here. I know. I ramble. Let’s put it into simpler terms: consider the career lifespan of a rock star. If you’ve maintained the spotlight for three to five years, moved a million units, get a gig promo’d by Ryan Seacrest and hobnobbed with Kanye and Kim, then good on you; you made it. But precious few of us can be Bowie. Hell, most of us are Imagine Dragons.

So how come Sandler hasn’t become Hollywood’s latest iteration of “Radioactive” by now?

I know, I know. I hear ya screaming. It’s the whole Hollywood profit margin guided by either “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “If it works, beat it into the ground” in full operation, right? But if the actor or rock star examples above illustrate our ADHD cultural shelf life, then why haven’t we got sick of Sandler’s antics yet? I mean, we trade in our PlayStations every three to four years. Since Sandler’s rise into his heyday 20 years ago, there’s been four PlayStations (more if you include the Vita. I don’t), and at least with those consoles its media evolves, gets smarter and more sophisticated. Folks like that kind of thing, except when it comes to Adam Sandler’s film output apparently. There they like that as progressive as stone wheels-and-axles. Or a PSX.

Don’t get me wrong. I reassure you I don’t hate Sandler. I might hate some of his movies, but I’m not so out of joint to deny he’s a talented, funny guy. For instance, I liked The Wedding Singer and his screwball sports comedies The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore (or as I like to call it, Caddyshack for the 90s), not to mention that his salt mine years on SNL were great. But we’re still talking shelf life here, so here’s what I’m asking:

How can Sandler’s movie career be totally one-note yet has thrived for over twenty years?

Sandler—by conscious choice or an accident of design—has honed his on screen persona as loveable loser/irresponsible man-child to a razor sharp edge. He has played the same guy in almost every one of his 40-plus(!) movies, and we can always count on Adam to always deliver these goods in all of his movies—all of them:

  • Screaming,
  • Speaking in a funny voice,
  • Doing something musical,
  • Engaging in light physical comedy, and;
  • Acting all childlike.

In the face of examples presented by Hanks, Pacino and DeNiro with their films of diminishing returns and the present, increasing resentment of Sandler’s oeuvre—the audiences increasingly bored, and the plots (such as they are) growing beyond repetitive—his goofball act slogs ever onwards. By and large, his sh*t still sticks. Christ, even when he flexes his acting chops and tries his hand at a dramatic role, Sandler gets no quarter nor respect. He does get a response, however (mostly out of critical disbelief he’s actively trying to avoid peeing on camera), but the general public—his core fan base, rather—demand fart jokes, and the promise of serious drama as departure unpalatable.

As a professional actor, attempting to stretch and branch out, it’s become Sandler’s tender trap, what with the dyed-in-wool snot rockets on command. The people have spoken; they want belches. But now with 20 years under his belt, Sandler wants critical respect, even if it flies in the face of—defies—his lucrative cinematic legacy. Butt jokes and all.

Sandler’s stint in Reign Over Me is no different a situation. Well, maybe a little…


Success can be defined in quantitative measures in our society. What you do for a living. How much you earn. Where you live. What freedoms these things offer. Dr. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) can answer all these things with an affirmative. He’s a prominent cosmetic dentist. He has a nice Park Avenue apartment. He has his beautiful wife Janeane (Smith) and his equally wonderful daughters. He has money in the bank, a good reputation in his field, a nice ride and all the bells and whistles that a successful life allows.

Then how come Alan feels so bloody tight, trapped and depressed?

One day on his ride home from work stuck in the usual rush hour gridlock, Alan spies some guy on a scooter recklessly weaving around the stuck cars, oblivious to the traffic. Alan knows this guy. It’s Charlie Fineman (Sandler), his old roomie from dental school. Alan tries to flag him down, but Charlie’s oversized headphones cut him off from Alan’s cries, and from most of the world, too.

Lately, Charlie’s been zipping around Alan’s homebound route a great deal. Eventually Alan catches up with his old pal and asks him what’s up, what’s been going down? At first, Charlie is in a haze; he doesn’t recognize Alan. Charlie barely recognizes reality. The well-heeled Alan, all nice haircut and perfect cut of suit, tries to press Charlie. How have you been? What’s happened? How’s your family and why aren’t you listed in the directory of practicing dentists?

All Charlie can do is hitch on his headphones and get back on the scooter.

Alan asks around. What the hell happened to Charlie? He used to be an eager student and eventually a success story in the dental field. He had achieved the standing Alan now enjoys light-years before he even smelled a partnership. Now Charlie’s a disheveled mess instead. Again, what the hell happened?

9/11.

Charlie lost his entire family when the planes hit. He also lost most of his sanity. He quit his practice. He gave in to his hobbies as lifestyle, such as it is. He shut out the world. Alan learns it’s PTSD; Charlie copes as well as he can with music, video games, government stipends and endlessly overhauling his kitchen.

It’s terrible. Despite Alan’s material success against sympathy, he reaches out to his old, wounded friend, hoping to get Charlie reacquainted with reality. Alan also hopes—learns—that reconnecting with his old roomie might give him some perspective on his present, boring, probably needlessly stressful life.

After all, Alan is still successful. He still has his wife, daughters, prestige and an office with his name on the door. All Charlie has is a drumkit, a PlayStation and a never-ending kitchen. And a sh*t-ton of memories he wishes he could shake…


Reign Over Me was a tragic waste of time.

(Oops! Did I give away my review already?)

Seriously. Sh*t, we had a veritable goldmine here to plumb. Post-9/11 New York? PTSD echoing the tragedy soldiers from the Mideast return home to face? How the mentally ill are both maligned and feared by the upwardly mobile?

Funk dat. We got Shadow of the Colossus instead. That and Bob Seger.

Oy. Reign falls under the auspices of what I’ll call the Lady in the Water syndrome (go read the review). This film had such great promise, and it dropped the ball more times than Manhattan has every New Year. The premise was ideal, with a classic, no-fail storytelling device: friendship and salvation. And director Binder screwed the whole pooch using a very deliberate and forced execution. His execution muddied the movie waters with cloying, inorganic drama, half-baked, inconsistent characterization and a sputtering pace that makes the film drag in most places and skitter away elsewhere. Reign is riddled with flaws, and it’s really a shame because the story had such promise…if it made some sense.

I don’t want to tear apart Reign just yet. I do want to spend my opening sortie picking apart the good —or at least noteworthy—aspects of the film. Since first and foremost this is a buddy movie/character study at heart—a very odd buddy movie, mind you—we have to talk about the acting. Naturally, Sandler and Cheadle’ characters.

All right. Y’all know I’ve got a man crush on Cheadle. I’ve also mentioned before here at RIORI that Cheadle is a fine actor that almost always gets stuck in dumb roles. He should get a new agent. Here his Alan is our Everyman; it’s kind of a stereotype—man who has everything feels trapped by his success—but Cheadle delivers it in a very down-to-earth way. I’d use the “have a beer” analogy here, but Binder already has a scene like that in Reign. Even though Cheadle’s had a track record for lame roles, he’s always good, and can make the most mundane character a little more three-dimensional.

The key to Cheadle’s acting style, I feel, is his earnestness. I’ve never seen him play out of character (even when he should, like in Iron Man 2). His Alan is no different. Our protag is solid; all the conflicts Alan faces—from a crisis at work to his straining marriage to helping Charlie—are handled in a candid manner, with Cheadle working the plain, but pretty good and clever. I’ll give Binder’s direction that much—dialogue with utmost conviction and sympathy. Cheadle is as reliable as ever in Reign. At the end of the day—or movie—solid acting is more important than “good” acting regarding Reign. Good acting is subjective, but a guy like Cheadle is dependable enough to give the audience the proverbial “goods.”

However, what’s also reliable in Reign is Sandler’s usual histrionics. Those five things I listed above about fixtures in Sandler’s comedies? Welp, they’re all present and accounted for here. All in all though, regarding Sandler’s performance, it’s nice to see the guy try and sort of stretch himself as an actor. But even here in Reign, Sandler gives us his usual man-child schtick, albeit wrapped in a veil of “maturity.” In another movie, in another light, Charlie would be no different than Billy Madison. Think about it: Charlie as PTSD victim. He wraps himself up with his video games, record collection and drumkit. Whenever he gets mildly agitated, he screams and tears about. He has this fetish for root beer. He even ogles women with no shame (and isn’t Charlie a guy who supposedly misses his wife more than anything in the world?). In the context of Charlie it works it fits and starts, but when you think about it, it’s still Sandler doing Sandler.

And the hell of it all, I liked Sandler as Charlie. For real. Here’s a role where Sandler’s gig was actually put to some good use. I’ll agree his act is threadbare, and trying it out in a “serious” role was a shaky prospect at best, but you know what they say in storytelling: write what you know. Sandler knows how to be an adolescent goodfball, very well I might add. He just rolled with it in Reign—with mixed results—and it more or less resulted in a Sandler character that was at somewhat sympathetic and tolerable. He even had some good moments, too. Not many, but the few present worked well (e.g.: the therapist’s waiting room scene). So it wasn’t a total wash.

But…

Unlike Cheadle, Sander plays out of character a lot. I blame the writing. The narrative started to get real sloppy by the second act. The seams got frayed, and Charlie vacillated between disturbed and surprisingly lucid (all this from reconnecting with Alan? And wait. Going to therapy? Just like that?). I’m no expert, but Charlie eventually appears to be suffering from more than PTSD, and PTSD isn’t like psychosis, not really. I dislike how mental illness if often portrayed in movies as either being plum crazy or just plain sick. Reign is guilty of that. We know Charlie’s been through some sh*t, but excluding very little backstory, he just comes across as textbook nuts most of the time. Charlie’s inability to relate to anyone (except under certain circumstances) comes and goes at will halfway through the film, surprisingly not for the ever-patient Alan to take note. Seemed rather convenient to me.

Reign is your basic character study/buddy movie, right? Well, it’s mired in arrested (character) development. Both of our leads play children masquerading as adults. Alan is repressed and wants to lead a carefree life like Charlie seems to have. Charlie is unhinged and without a family to ground him—to give his life purpose—and basically retreats to his bedroom and bolts the door. Retreat, both “good” and “bad” is the axis of this movie. That’s the general undercurrent I felt in Reign, and that would be a reliable fulcrum for a story to balance.

But Binder blows it, time and again, with a lot of rambling in a script that never feels balanced. There is the overarching feeling of “play it fast and loose” pervading the entire damn movie. The opening scenes feel rushed in setting up the backstory. The 9/11 tragedies seem more like an inconvenience and/or wallpaper rather than being the movie’s Maguffin. Reign is interspersed with honest pathos but sandwiched between layers of filler—a lot of saccharine filler. The wobbly nature of the script leaves you never really sure of where the film is going. The meandering can become actually jarring, due to its ensuing frustration as the audience gets lost or forgotten about entirely. And a lot of the “message” (whatever it is. Even that ultimately gets confusing. Is it the healing power of friendship? Sympathy for the lost? Sandler can act when he really tries? I couldn’t keep track) gets delivered with ham-fisted empathy via a jumbled plot seemingly thrown together by the third act. By and large, everything feels forced.

I’m feeling that the only reason this movie got any press was that our established goofball Sandler was going to “play it straight” in a rare dramatic role. He didn’t (but tried), and the script betrayed him. Also, and once again, Cheadle got the short shrift. Granted, neither of them did any fart jokes, but both actors were either underused—their talent downplayed—or maybe under the delusion that a film tackling New York 9/11 matters automatically meant playing in Reign was a noble gesture and tribute. Didn’t they read the script before signing on? Could they have?

Call me cynical (no, really), but I think that the only reason Reign got any kind of praise is for employing post-9/11 sympathies on us. If Charlie had been a homeless vet…well, that’s been done before. If it was a role akin to DeNiro in Awakenings…uh, that’s already been done, too. PTSD afflicted guy from the WTC attacks? With Sandler? Hollywood gold!

Hey. Don’t throw the beer cans at me. Aim for Binder.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This movie is awful. It’s pandering, in poor taste and awful…not unlike the majority of Sandler’s “funny” films. Blech. What a shame.


Stray Observations…

  • “I hated kitchen talk.”
  • I know that yellow diner. Then again, so does half of Manhattan.
  • “Get a new shrink. Get several.”
  • I envy Charlie’s hair. I tried to achieve that kind of mane in my post-punk phase…in 1999. Slap me.
  • “You need some Mel!”
  • Why is Liv Tyler in this movie? She’s not a very convincing shrink. Discuss.
  • “Nobody has the right to look that good.”
  • Admittedly, Quadrophenia is one of my favorite albums.
  • “You don’t like this?” “I don’t like remembering.”
  • (Later, in the third act) Oh, God. Is Burrows still in this movie?
  • “Can we go get Chinese now?”
  • No visible facial wounds from that street…apprehension? Bad editor. Bad, bad editor.
  • “You used to take sh*t from everybody…but you were great at it!”
  • It’s a Madison 23 Production, doubtless a nod to the 23rd anniversary of Sandler’s break throughmovie, Billy Madison. Now stop looking at me, swan.
  • “It’s a kitchen, sweetie.”

Next Installment…

Hey! It’s time for another Kick-Ass comic book movie adaptation! Again! Comic books! All right! Here, at RIORI! Again! We get a lot of ‘em! Yet again! C’mon!

Sigh.


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RIORI Volume 3, Installment 7: Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (2007)


Spider-Man 3


The Players…

Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Hayden Church, Topher Grace and Bryce Dallas Howard, with Rosemary Harris, JK Simmons and James Cromwell (I think Stan Lee’s somewhere in the mix, too).


The Story…

Spidey returns yet again, now to take down not one, but three super-powered menaces who threaten his life and loved ones. But is his night job getting the better of him? And what’s with those nagging voices in his head and that alien symbiote—er—monkey on his back?


The Rant…

This might be a continuation of my screed back with the Green Hornet installment. Y’know, the whole rhetoric about Hollywood adapting old TV and radio shows into big budget films? Okay, maybe not a continuation. More like an extension.

But first—and as always—some editorial related to this week’s feature. This is, as they say, par for the course.

Over a decade ago, when I was adrift, boozy and generally depressed, my baby sister did me a favor. I didn’t realize it at the time (back then, I failed to realize virtually anything), but she was extending a hand.

My sis had always been my biggest booster. Even as kids she almost always sided with me against whatever nefarious schemes my other sister plotted against me (and perhaps her, too). My baby sis was vocal, impudent, and stubborn and after puberty kicked in, could be a royal bitch. That being said, she’s been my wingman for many-a-year.

Later in life, me being rudderless in my 20s, she still gave me quarter. To this day, now mostly cleaned up, gainfully employed and an awkward but pretty decent family man, I have no idea how she had suffered me for so long. I did her no favors, except maybe to serve as a warning, making her laugh, and never making her feel dumb (she’s dyslexic, and has always felt insecure about her learning disability. Recalling that I have an English degree from a prestigious school and work in a kitchen, one could only say, “You want fries with that?” If that isn’t a learning disability…).

No matter. My sis always stood up for me, even with my being deep in the trenches of substance abuse and clinical depression. She would often tell—nay, scream—to our parents about my condition, and made claim that I deserved sympathy rather than disdain. Sometimes her arguments even worked, despite her betting on a very obvious losing horse. We should only be so lucky to have a sibling that’ll go to the ropes for you like that.

One day, in 2004, she showed up at my flat. It was late afternoon on a weekend, and I was hungover, the sun blearing my eyes as it could only do after 8 hours with a dozen beers and half a bottle of Irish whisky in my gut. With no pretense, she said I looked like sh*t, needed a shower, shave, tooth brushing and clothes that didn’t smell like smoke and belches. Something like that. I’m not sure; it was a bright day. What was up, besides a reluctant me?

Paraphrasing, she said, “Get cleaned up. We’re grabbing dinner, and then we’re going to go to the movies.”

“What for?”

She scowled. “You need it.”

I forget where we ate. We tried to chew the fat like we once always did. She talked about school and her current job. I talked about how I wasted my degree and my almost non-existent job besides exercising my elbow. But over some nice food and bright lighting, our usual repartee resurfaced and we shared stories, compared notes, bagged on the middle sister and griped about mom and dad. The basics.

Then came the matter of the movie to see. I had no cable, and usually dicked around on the Internet for…well, nothing. Just surfed it, looking for Nirvana somewhere (and I ain’t talking Kurt Cobain). I had no real clue what was out, nor did I care. I was probably on my way to saying, “Pick something” when she suggested:

“The new Spider-Man movie’s out.”

She knew I was a comic collector. She wasn’t much for reading them (or regarding her troubles, books in general), but was curiously fascinated why some drunken, pill-popping, quite literate college grad halfway to a Masters’ if he could only get up before noon guy like myself would collect and read essentially coloring books populated with characters sporting skin-tight suits, weird powers and often limitless bank accounts. I was a reader; she wasn’t really. But she was always and still is the curious sort. Enough so to actually prod me out of my basement squat to get my ass out to the multiplex for my own good.

Now I thought the first Spider-Man movie was great. Maguire really surprised me, as did Defoe. I always thought that Sam Raimi was an inspired, thoughtful, and very funny director. I had heard about the sequel but would’ve rather stood in bed. To this day, I simply cannot go to the movies alone. Watching them at home alone is one thing, but going to the theatre? That’s a social thing. Passively social, but we can’t have an audience of one can we?

I think my sister knew this, what with my early cinema habits already established. I had dragged her along to endless, stupid pictures as a kid just to have someone to chat with after the show. Y’know, to share opinions. It was now time to return a favor. So after our dinner at some local eatery, off we went to the newly built (stadium seating!) multiplex to grab Spider-Man 2. I had my endlessly patient wingman with me. We bought a bag of popcorn each, plus a prerequisite bag of red Twizzlers for me—which I usually devour before the previews are over—and some sturdy large sodas. We were wired for sound.

Finding seats in a movie theatre is never a problem for me. I always sit in the front row, which is usually vacant. Why sit in the back to recreate the small screen action you get daily in your living room? Let me put it this way: when the original Star Wars trilogy was re-released in theatres back in the late 90s, with all their remastered sound and CGI enhancements, I plopped my ass in the front row so to look up Harrison Ford’s nose. Any questions? So me and sis hunkered down in the front row—me ignoring her protests—and waited for the show to begin.

I’ll spare you the intimate details, but getting to see Spidey 2 was the first time in a long time I had a really fun time with another person without the bottle. My sister was sympathetic. She liked action movies. She thought Maguire was a cutie. She even asked me, politely, many times over the movie for deeper details about what was going on. She knew this was yanked right out of the comics. Maybe she was just appealing to my ego…or id, rather.

After we sat through the credits (I always do this. I ain’t wasting one cent of my 12 bucks), we stepped out into the light, me getting all rhapsodic about the film. My sis was listening to me. I wouldn’t say intently, but since she was well aware of the state I was in, letting me yammer endlessly about a subject—and a film—I enjoyed without a drink could only be helpful. I answered some more polite comic book questions, and then she asked me one.

“When does the next movie come out?”

I was quietly stunned. I couldn’t be sure if she was just humoring me or really had a nice time at the flicks with her damaged big bro. But let’s face facts: my sister was too sharp a cookie to just humor me. She and I really had a fun time. I love movies and comics, and after many times hunkering down with me and my beater VCR at home for that weekend’s rental, not to mention every Wednesday after school that’s week’s haul of new issues, I’d be pretty dumb to assume she didn’t pick up on a few things.

So when she asked when the next Spidey flick came out, I was no less than amazed. Me being in the field (when I was working semi-part-time at the local comic shop, with access to the industry previews and related Hollywood scuttlebutt), she knew I must’ve heard something. The fact she was even curious piqued my interest.

I guess on some low level, her interest in forthcoming comic book movies tapped into an interest I made a great investment into when I was working at my then low-level job as a bookseller at the local comic shop. Even more simply, just hearing curiosity about a future comic book movie from a layman (or laywoman) not only kept my spark alight but also offered hope regarding bringing the wonderful, crazy-ass world of comic books to the masses.

Christ, I was so drunk and naïve. Thanks, sis, regardless.

That was over seven years ago. Since then, the cinemas come summertime have been choked to the rafters with comic book superhero movies. It’s enough to make even the die-hard collector sick. There was one point in time that a movie adapted from a comic book story was a momentous thing. Nowadays, it’s pedestrian; we expect a few comic book movies between May and August to clog our screens. The novelty is over. Even when a beloved family member drags you out of the abyss to rekindle a sense of lost wonder…well. Let’s just say these days the wonder is seriously lacking.

Let’s rewind to a few weeks ago, wrangling with the lumpy execution of the movie version of The Green Hornet. When the TV-as-movie fad died a horrible, grateful death in the late 90s, Hollywood looked ever onwards into the new century for other established pop culture touchstones to revamp into mindless twaddle. So enters the comic book movie.

Hold it, hold it, hold it. Hear me out. I’m not gonna slag on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not entirely, and definitely not paired against the display of clemency my sister offered. Where I’m going this week has very little to do with comic books and their film adaptations. However since nostalgia for the Millenial generation is breakfast, I figured I’d delve into today’s skewering by comparing it to a pop culture phenomenon that the kids could rally around and recall fondly, like lunch. Now dig this:

Most comic book films have been very entertaining, even successful. However, for every Avengers there’s been a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The early-2000’s comic movies were stepping stone and stumbling blocks until the studios figured out how to open the Pandora’s box they received. Nowadays, especially since Disney acquired the rights for Marvel comic adventures, such adaptations have become well marketed, hugely popular, guaranteed profitable cash machines. That’s until the bubble eventually bursts. And it will.

Before Disney picked up the tab, like I said. comic movies were a dodgy undertaking at best. Comic book readers were dedicated fanboys with an unhealthy, encyclopedic knowledge of the arcane intricacies of a fantasy world thatonce would result in being ostracized by the general public at best and result in atomic wedgies in the boys’ bathroom at worst. Probably due to restraints with licensing, actual comic book property rights then were either too expensive to acquire, or—more accurately—such adventures were regarded as too outré for mainstream audiences and therefore not very hot commodities (Oops!). The succeeding film adaptations weren’t lifted from the Big Two—DC and Marvel—comic books, but instead from newspaper serials from yesteryear. Most of these plots might’ve been already in the public domain by then. We had Dick Tracy, The Shadow and The Phantom. The X-Men, Spider-Man and even Blade franchises were miles away, waiting for the next century. So audiences got what was available, based on established, albeit old, creaky comic strip panels.

Why these ancient, half-forgotten comic strip/old-timey heroes? Well, besides Supes, Spidey and Wolverine being too exclusive or expensive to acquire at that point, the chosen few were, well, ancient and half-forgotten, ripe for the picking to do a modern-day spin, as well as fodder for the older generation who might want a li’l bit of that nostalgia bite I mentioned earlier. That, and I can’t hammer this enough, were probably cheaper and most young 90’s audiences never ever heard of the Shadow of the Phantom (I know I didn’t) so it would be a perfect opportunity to—let’s face it—cash in on the ignorance of the crucial 13 to 25-year old demographic.

Nowadays, this Millenial demo can’t wipe their collective asses without staining the next ­Superman movie script. In the 21st Century, we’re f*cking inundated with comic book movies. Every summer, Disney or Warner Brothers rolls out a bunch of new blockbusters adapted from the endless well from the House of Marvel or their “Distinguished Competition.” After the success with Guardians of the Galaxy­—a comic book series so forgotten and obscure I doubt without the Marvel bug in the opening credits no one would’ve been the wiser—it seems as if all bets are off. Hollywood has finally seen the light/dollar signs, and comic movies are not only here to stay, but practically endless. All of it capitalizing on some form of nostalgia, for younger generations or the current regarding comic book fans: nostalgia is Wednesday last when the new sh*t hits the shelves.

A good example of how entrenched the pop culture mind is to comic book movies is all the hullabaloo surrounding Ben Affleck’s turn as Batman after Christopher Nolan’s expertly executed films. People who don’t even read comic books—let alone read period—are all a-flutter about this state of affairs. Based on all the press, twittering and newswires, one wonders why—barring copyright bullsh*t—comic movies weren’t jumped on years sooner?

For those not in the know—and I mean pre-Internet youths—I mentioned that in the latter days of the 20th Century, the nostalgia market bit big. Hollywood decided to create big budget adaptations of not only nearly forgotten radio serials and limping comic strips, but also classic TV shows. Like I alluded to earlier, Hollywood wasn’t sure what to do with the Tim Burton Batman Rubik’s Cube they were offered. I reiterate, the acquisition money was either not there or not seen as a return-on-investment.

You’d think a comic book head like me would be jumping out of his skin with glee with all the press comic books have been garnered with over the past 10 years. Finally! Our medium is being accepted into Middle America! It’s like cappuccino, Candies and flossing on a daily basis! And soon this stupid gluten-free fad will die like the pet rock! Time for elation! I should be celebrating!

Ser-prize. I’m not. But I always try to make my argument as palatable and informed as a Bill Hicks monologue.

*drum roll*

I blame all of the ballyhoo surrounding the comic book movie phenomenon and all its marketing a result of the misperception of comic book as not a vital American art form. It’s disposable. Trash. It’s junk culture and deserves to be treated as such. Nostalgia for adults who fondly remember those 10 cent issues of Fantastic Four that so enriched a lazy, Saturday afternoon. If comic books are so easily dismissed as puerile, adolescent fantasy, however, then how come we queue up in droves every summer to see Spidey thwart Doc Ock or witness Batman punish the Joker? People of all ages plop down hard-earned money to catch these films. Everyday people, non-readers of comics love these movies. Hollywood is walking away with wheelbarrows full of cash. It’s all so prevalent that comics are a valuable art form that we are bludgeoned to death with cinematic comic book adaptations every year for the past 15 years. I mean, f*cking Ant-Man is getting his own film! Ant-Man! Kiddie bed sheets are already being spindled for sale before the film actually drops!

Sigh.

All right. You ought to be used to it by now. The following is more social commentary on how commerce and art are never mutually exclusive things than a movie review and blah blah blah. Like I’ve already said, Hollywood is based on making money, not art. If any art trickles out of their machine, then bravo. But the bottom dollar, and all those people who help make it happen, must be attended to first. It’s the reality of capitalism, but sadly it also makes us all shallow.

Sorry, but we Americans are a shallow, impatient lot, and are quickly dismissive of the artists and their work that so richly enhance our cultural tapestry. When that tipping point is reached, then and only then we jump onto the trendy bandwagon that might ultimately prove profitable, monitorial or of a fruitful social contract. That’s unfortunate, to say the least. These days, art is a hard-won, futile endeavor. And pop-art—Warhol notwithstanding—is just so much clutter against the day. We blindly need the next big thing quickly before it gets stale in the next half-hour. Our media reflects this, probably since and due to the Internet gaining traction.

Here’s a little story about the dollars and sense regarding the takeaway from a big-budget comic book movie and how they shape—or warp—our pop culture. It’s not quite pertinent to the Spidey matter soon at hand, but it does shed a little light on the mass-media mentality of our nation.

The profits made from actual comic book sales—the actual issues—have zero bearing on the profit margins of Sony, Disney, Universal or any other Hollywood superhero movie-making studio. The ink-and-paper books themselves are published independent of the parent company’s say-so. Sure, DC has access to WB’s marketing and advertising budget, and they are the avatar of Batman, but that’s not where the studio makes its money off comic books. They make it from merchandizing (video games, clothing, beer cozies, etc). Your average ish of ­Batman costs three bucks. You wanna know how much money DC makes on that sale? Three bucks. What does DC’s parent company Warner Brothers make on that sale? Nothing. What did WB make on the last Batman release? The GDP of Belize. What did DC make? Zilch.

Here’s the curious thing about marketing and franchising: the creators of the source material seldom see the financial reaping of their efforts. Example? Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster received none of the marketing dollars their creation spawned. Not even from the first Christopher Reeve movie. None. According to the party line, in their later years, Siegel had to borrow money from patient DC execs to pay the bills and Schuster died in a VA hospital unnoticed. It was only after their fall that both men received posthumous recognition and reparations for their families. Their grandkids now earn millions. Schuster was unable to pony up for dialysis.

Here’s my point.

Comic book movies and their ensuing merchandizing pay into nothing regarding publications. In short, Marvel, DC and others make no money from the movies their books are based. And very little promo goes into pushing book sales. Besides, if Sony pushes the book, it would detract from ticket sales, right? Sad, but true.

I’ve told here that I used to work at a comic shop. Back in 2007, when Spider-Man 3 crashed onto the screen, we set up a display of classic 80’s Spider-Man issues when he was sporting the black costume, like in the movie where (SPOLIER!) the outfit later became the symbiote Venom, Peter Parker’s Mr. Hyde. It was in hope to capitalize some sales on the movie’s (misguided) popularity. The original issues are valued between 30 and 50 bucks today, miles away from the original 75-cent asking price.

We didn’t sell a one. We did sell the action figures, though. Disney made money. We didn’t. And every Wednesday since, when I go to buy my weekly haul, those 80’s issues are still hanging on the damn wall. Meanwhile Target sells out of those Avengers PJ’s at an alarming rate.

Ahem…Sorry. I was talking about movie adaptations, right?

Despite all the shock-and-awe comic book movie ticket sales make these days, that wasn’t the case not too long ago, and it always starts in the trenches. Hollywood tried to take some tentative steps into the superhero waters at the end of the 90’s. Most with middling results. Back then, I figure the kiddie stigma of comic books was too much of a turn off, and therefore too much of a risk to take investments seriously. Amazingly enough, nowadays Oscar-noms like Robert Downey, Jr., Mickey Rourke and Gwyneth Paltrow all show up in the same Iron Man film. The same film! Go figure. I’d like to think that the whole disgrace attached with the mainstream, movie-going audience with comic books has eroded.

Nowadays, I feel there is too much bombast, too much hype surrounding every release of a comic book movie. The aforementioned “Affleck as Batman” controversy illustrates this. It’s this expectation of the annual comic book movie releases that has resulted in the erosion of their magic of the books at their core; the fantastic stories of sci-fi, fantasy, urban crime, espionage and even soap opera drama paired with amazing art is the allure of the comic book. It’s not about hype and shock and awe. At least, it shouldn’t be.

We all know that familiarity breeds contempt. A lot of comic book movie plots are of course lifted from the source material, but a lot of those stories are retreads of established tropes within the comic medium. Comic storytelling is a lot like playing the blues: it’s not the notes, but how you play them. Most audiences don’t care about the playing, just the notes. That and all the spectacle modern comic book movies have. You know, lots of explosions, crazy stunts, one-liners and over the top derring-do with ever thinning character development and nuance.

The summer superhero blockbuster attendance has become de rigueur for the herd. The actual comics are ignored. The respect and appreciation is out the window. The screens are alight with CGI histrionics and tangled plot lines. The magic is dwindling, and everything has to be bigger, better, faster, more in order to fill the studios’ coffers.

Sorry, sis, but I think this shark jumping commenced with the release of Spider-Man 3…


Looks like Peter Parker’s (Maguire) luck is improving. He’s doing well in college. He’s got his own place to call home. Work is steady at the Daily Bugle. He and Mary Jane (Dunst) are in a happy relationship. What’s more is that after years of derision, Parker’s web-slinging alter ego Spider-Man is finally getting the respect and appreciation he deserves! Spidey’s saved New York on more than one occasion, so a little public adoration is in order. Finally, Pete’s usual bad “Parker luck” isn’t snapping at his heels.

But wouldn’t you know it; things can only stay so good for Pete only so long. Old demons come back to haunt our hero from distant and not-so-distant spaces, including even outer space.

When Pete’s former best bud Harry (Franco) discovered that his wingman turned out to be Spider-Man—the person who allegedly murdered his father, the original Green Goblin—he forged out a plan using his dad’s tech to devise new, meaner Goblin gear, as well as plot for vengeance. Needless to say, Peter and Harry’s friendship has been strained.

Also, former petty thief Flint Marko (Church) is on the lam. A questionable escape from the law into a nuclear test range—and the ensuing, inevitable accident—renders Marko as an atomically unbalanced creature made of sentient sand. Now he has the power and ability to knock over as many banks as he wants. And as sure as sh*t not even Spider-Man’s gonna get in his way.

Also, Pete has new competition at the Bugle. Upstart photographer Eddie Brock (Grace) has been snagging up close and personal shots of Spidey in action, and better than Pete’s work ever was despite the personal connections. Brock’s work is so good that the Bugle’s head honcho J Jonah Jameson (Simmons) grants the freelancer a full staff job—something that’s been eluding Parker for years. But it seems belying Brock’s maverick tactics he has something far more sinister brewing than a personal agendum.

ALSO, Pete himself has been going through some changes, like a personality crisis. Awakening one morning after a long night of web-slinging (and thereby crashing in his Spidey duds), Peter is stunned to find that his usual red and blue ensemble has been replaced—transformed—into a slick ebony number. This new outfit fits great, like a glove. But the longer Peter wears it, the more he notices he feels increasingly aggressive, removed…alien even.

Hey! Waitaminnit! Where’d that black suit come from in the first place?

ALSO


Movies have been paramount in shaping American pop culture, almost as much as (and far longer than) television. Marketing the hell out of it results in a modern day equivalent of a Van Gogh exhibit at Madison Square Garden. Spectacle. It’s what all of us as the collective wants: entertainment en masse. Anything to distract us from boring classes, sh*tty jobs, traffic, bad fast food and coming home to endless repeats of Naked & Afraid. Touchstones from our imagination past—a lost childhood—that could bring smiles to our wizened, cynical mindset and the ever-deepening crevices in our faces is what we’re really looking for.

Director Sam Raimi understands this. He’s like the ring master in a circus, rallying all the entertainers at his command to dance, jump, sing and sling webs for you. At any cost. Costs like, in the case of Spider-Man 3, solid writing, character development, coherent plot and above all else showmanship and a respect for the movie making craft. Raimi delivers boom here in a very big, very confusing way.

Story goes that Raimi has a three picture contract with Sony to direct the Spidey films. It looks like he—an ardent Spider-Man fan, and it really shows in the first two films—had a lot, like I mean a lot of ideas to throw at our beloved wall-crawler to get him into pickle after pickle in hopes of certain triumph. Seeing that his time was up, Raimi and his brother Ivan concocted a “plot” in 3 to jam as many ideas they thunk up as possible, kind of like a crazed episode of Supermarket Sweep (YouTube that. You won’t believe it until you see it). The final edit is one very busy, busy movie. I understand that the Raimi’s are fanboys, but recall I worked at a comic store once. I love Spidey, but I wasn’t one of those fans who got into a heated argument in the store, like about who was stronger: Thor or Superman. When I say heated, I mean such sh*t almost came to blows and I had to eject these mouth-breathers from the shop with all the gentleness of Ed Norton regarding Jared Leto as “unwanted.” In simpler terms, my respect for the character never turned into a fomenting frenzy, and I just read the books smiling with brows arching ever so often. I never had some a personal bias.

Spidey 3’s execution is not unlike a fanboy kerfuffle. Sam and Ivan have such a reverence for the character that they put him into maximum overdrive for over two hours, chucking darts at a target already clogged with darts to make sure their final, dying testament to Spider-Man on film doesn’t go unheard. The final product that is Spider-Man 3 is an exhausting—not exhaustive, as the Raimi’s hoped—movie. And like I said, very busy.

The third installment of the franchise is a lot more light-hearted than the first two, however. Even from the start, there’s even a promise of cheese. Spidey’s a public hero now! He’s on the cover of every magazine! Fan worship personified! It already feels more “comic booky” than the first two movies. And after all, the darkness that permeated the second movie probably needed a lighter touch the third time around. You gotta bookend tragedy with comedy. It worked for Bill Shakespeare, and allegedly his stuff’s worthwhile. So let’s lighten up here, get a bit goofy, have some splash and dash. And we have Raimi, under the big top, orchestrating all this organized chaos into one big fanboy festival. Enjoy, ladies and gentlemen!

We would, if given the time.

Scattershot is the feel of Spidey 3. All the action, comedy and drama—which the movie has in droves—comes across as disjointed. Due to the speed of the movie—the pace is fast. Too fast, even—all the good stuff whips by in a tidewater surge so that the audience can have a hard time keeping up. Like I said, the Raimi-helmed Spidey movies were at their end, and Sam and Co. weren’t gonna let the ghost die without doing a signature kitchen sink sendoff. There’s a lot to digest here, and one can sense that Raimi was under the gun (by himself and/or Sony) to cram as much superheroics into 120-plus minutes that could fit, even with a lot of loose ends flapping out from under the bulging suitcase lid. All that baggage (ha!) made for an extremely fast and sloppy execution.

In what way? Well, for one, the dialogue is more stilted, and delivered with a degree of woodenness you couldn’t find even in Shasta State Park. Our characters seem to be out of character for most of the film. Maguire’s wide-eyed looks and demeanor are more pronounced. Dunst has gotten all fluffy, even more so than before. Franco just grinds his teeth a lot (and I really don’t enjoy Franco as cranky). Even Simmons’ Jameson—some ideal comic relief in the other films—being relegated to the sidelines with not a lot of scene-chewing (but some succulent hammy) lines. Besides body language, most acting stems from delivering dialogue, and although our cast tries to do their best, what falls out of their mouths feels half-baked and off the cuff (or in the case of Harris’ Aunt May, obviously staged). All this being delivered at blinding speed, like the editors were jacked up on mainlined Red Bull with no sleep for a week.

Second, the plot is sketchy. Well, maybe not sketchy. Underdeveloped, yes, and delivered in the aforementioned frenetic style, but also hard to put a finger on. It’s hard to say what Spidey 3 exactly about. Is it an action movie? A tale of revenge (the Harry and Marko sub-stories)? A romantic triangle (and what exactly was the purpose of introducing Gwen Stacy into the mix)? A psychological character study? Yes and no to all. Nothing really solidifies, either due to the breakneck pacing, jumbled script or Raimi hearing the clock ticking in the background. This Spidey is under a self-imposed deadline, and there’s no real time for subtly, human drama or even action scenes that don’t seem confined.

I’m going to do something here at RIORI that I’ve tried real hard to not do—but reluctantly have—for the past 50-plus installments. I have to include spoilers. Have to. There are so many particular scenes in Spidey 3 that throw the movie off the tracks I’d be hard pressed not to get into specifics without getting into specifics. So if you wanna read on, you’ve been warned.

About the action scenes, like the one in the first act with Spider-Man versus the new Goblin. They seem a bit chaotic. They look cool, but awkwardly choreographed. Almost everything is in your face with pyrotechnics abounding, racing through Manhattan’s back alleys (which almost gave me vertigo) and again going too fast to really follow what’s going on. Yeah, yeah. We know Harry’s going on a revenge tear, but there’s no clear stakes defined, none beyond the “you will pay for killing my father” schtick. Not only is that trope tired, it makes Franco’s character really one-note. The same goes for Spidey’s other enemies. Marko may be a sad story of humanity, but the whole super-powered villain with the heavy heart is all the Sandman is. Likewise with the revenge-plotting Eddie/Venom. Is it just me that found Brock’s axe to grind came about a little too quickly, intensely and shallow? Besides, it took weeks for Peter to feel the effects of the space symbiote. It took Eddie about 30 seconds. Hurry, hurry. Clock’s a-tickin’! Sure, Brock’s been humiliated and fired, but to plot to kill Peter/Spidey? Seems a bit drastic to me. Overall, it made for a cluttered—and notably more violent—action movie.

All that’s boring, and along with the narrow portrayals of Mary Jane, Aunt May, Gwen, Eddie and, yes, even Peter himself. Maguire, for instance, acts a lot with his face. I mean a lot. His boyish looks and wide-eyed expressions are both endearing and telling. But he’s forced to work with shoddy lines, and delivers them in a bored, “anywhere but here” way (although I kinda liked smarmy, infected Peter. That acting at least had some depth). Even though our cast’s roles have been well-defined in the first two films, that doesn’t mean we stop expanding their personalities. People grow, people change, they have lives. Raimi tries to keep a few sparks there, and throws us a bone once in a while, but our actors’ lots in life are concrete here with little room to grow further. Hell, even the addition of ancillary characters like Gwen, Capt. Stacy and (let’s face it) Eddie and May aren’t really fleshed out nor serve a purpose to drive the already schizo plot. They’re used as wallpaper, and virtually unnecessary to the story.

Lastly, Spidey 3 does a lot to undo all the hallmarks of the Spider-Man saga from the first two films (and the comic book history in general). There’s no heart in 3. There’s a lot of staged emotion, interspersed between the action scenes if only to give the crowd a moment to breathe. But it’s most of those moments where the legacy of the prior movies gets sullied. I know, we’re not talking a remake of Citizen Kane here, but Spidey 1 and 2 got so many things right by Raimi’s sincere and respectful treatment of the Spider-Man story, it’s baffling to re-retcon elements of the whole series to service such a muddled storyline.

For instance, now the iconic kissing scene from the first movie is parody in the third? The whole Marko killing Uncle Ben undoes a lot of the pathos and Spidey’s raison d’être attributed to our hero’s origin in the first movie also. Since when his Harris’ earnest portrayal of a strong woman trying to cope with loss become so damned weepy? All that and then the nerve of Raimi employing dues ex machina at the end of the third act is insulting and weak. The whole execution of these points kicks the reverence and respect Raimi had in the first two movies into the sewer…not unlike a washed away Sandman. Could that be considered art imitating life? Hmmm.

It was reported that Raimi tried to do too much with this film. He later admitted in an interview that he’d bitten off more than he could chew. The result was Spidey 3 never seems to get anywhere. It’s not as organic as the first two. The whole ball of celluloid leaves you unsatisfied, but not necessarily wanting more. What a drag. And what a lousy way to end a really fun movie franchise. As I said, my sis and I never got to see Spidey 3 in theatres, despite her polite curiosity and anticipation. I never got around to seeing it either, until now. Things in threes, I guess.

Although I’m not a fan of it, I think if only the studio heads would reboot the Spider-Man franchise. Undo the damage the final original chapter inflicted. Start over fresh. Cast some unknown British kid as Spidey and former In Living Color alum/Ray Charles-impersonator to play Electro. That and get Forrest Gump’s mama to be Aunt May.

Sounds crazy. Who’d wanna screw with Spidey’s movie legacy any further?

Huh? What’d you say?

…Oh, f*ck


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Spidey deserves better for his first, last time out. Now get out of my store.


Stray Observations…

  • It’s funny that Dunst, a blonde, plays a redhead and Howard, a redhead, plays a blonde. Neither dye jobs are very convincing.
  • “D’you smile? Just kidding.”
  • Franco has one of the most honest smiles in Hollywood, I feel.
  • “He likes my shirt.”
  • Nice musical touch there with the marching band.
  • “I am French.” God bless Bruce Campbell.
  • Trivia! Director Sam Raimi always includes his favorite, old beater ’73 Oldsmobile Delta 88 in all his movies, save the western, The Quick and the Dead. We saw Uncle Ben driving it in the first movie, as well in the flashbacks here.
  • “’Nuff said.” I laughed out loud.
  • Pay phones? In 2007? And in NYC no less? You’d figure Pete could at least afford a TracFone on what the Bugle pays him.
  • I loves me some Chubby Checker.
  • That’s it; it’s official. Goth haircut paired with Gerard Way fashion sense equals evil.
  • “Where do all these guys come from?”

Next Installment…

“Only love can bring the rain that falls like tears from on high. Love, Reign Over Me…” Aw, sh*t. Sandler’s gettin’ all serious again.