Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Sam Raimi's Spider-Movies in 4K

When I did the 4K upgrade, I said I wasn't going to be rebuying many things that I already had on Blu-ray because those still look quite good and both the new TV and player do a good job of upscaling, so how much will new discs really get me? Anyway, I think you can guess how well that went after the first time I picked up a disc of something made on film and saw that, yeah, there's a difference. Amazon puts these movies on sale for $30 for the entire Sam Raimi Spider-Man series in 4K, and I'm all over that.

Anyway, the discs look great; movies were still being shot on film at this point and even if they were being edited and composited off a digital intermediate, Raimi is clearly a guy with strong ideas of how his movies should look, and he's not particularly worried about them having to exist alongside anything else, so there are bold colors and contrasts which absolutely benefit from an UltraHD/HDR presentation. It's a terrific upgrade.

It was also a real pleasure to just watch these movies again for the first time in years, because they're pretty terrific as a set and even the weakest of them feels interesting. A thing that really surprised me is how much my impressions of the first two movies have been a bit reversed from reality; I thought of Spider-Man 2 as the one that Raimi assert his personality and style more, in large part due to the memorable operating room massacre, but it's actually the one that nudges things closer to the mainstream after diving into the first like a guy who might never get a chance to do this again. By the time that the third comes out, it's not quite a movie that could have been made by anyone, but you can sort of see the Marvel Cinematic Universe coming. I enjoy the heck out of those movies, but there's no denying that for all that Marvel will give their filmmakers some room, there are clear boundaries and a sort of gravity that draws them back toward being able to all fit in an Avengers crossover without looking out of place. Sam Raimi and Ang Lee weren't really thinking along those lines, and it's kind of left their movies striking and memorable but also the last gasps before "counting" mattered in films the same way it does in comics.

Anyway, I was just going to log them on Letterboxd and move on, but, well, I went long enough to want these on my space as well.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2021 Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-Ray)

Coming back to this for the first time in a while, with two decades of other Marvel stuff since, it's amazing just how much Sam Raimi is in it. There are the same sorts of comic-inspired framings and transitions that he used in Darkman, crazy montage, and cameras that zoom in to make sure that the audience can't miss something important in the scene as he gleefully leans into what you can do with a movie when everyone knows and acknowledges that it's a movie rather than trying to make the audience a generic observer. The action owes a ton to Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness as he leans into how a fight between superheroes is going to have a bunch of slapstick to it. It's an approach that not many others have gone for, opting instead for grim intensity and rocket-powered smashing through walls, but just look at the way these things are staged as characters get thrown around like ragdolls and look bewildered while absorbing punishment that would kill a normal person: They're superhuman but they react in ways we understand without grounding the action too much. It's absurd and entertaining but always right near the line where someone could get hurt in a way that wouldn't be funny at all. All of that makes for a sincere embrace of the pulpy comic book roots. Back then, it seemed like Sam holding back a bit, making the comics more in line with the mainstream films he'd been working on, but compare it to what Marvel's doing now, and it's clear that he's doing much more to drag movies toward what comics do than drag comics to what people expect from film. It's not quite one guy with a vision going for broke, but it's probably closer to that than I thought at the time, so excited to see my favorite director put in charge of a blockbuster meant for everyone.

From the very start of this one, Raimi, writer David Koepp, the cast, Danny Elfman, and everyone else are going big but also filling in all sorts of great details. From the opening shots where the camera seems to be just checking out Peter Parker's Queens neighborhood, it feels specifically like New York, for instance, and the different family dynamics of the Parkers, Watsons, and Osborns all feel true. Some of the turn-of-the-century digital effects aren't perfect, but it's okay because of how Raimi isn't exactly gonig for realism anyway. They mesh with the style and tone so that it all fits.

The amount of dead-solid perfect casting is kind of amazing, too - aside from how Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire are just right as teens/young adults figuring themselves out (something Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben lays out as a theme beautifully), there's James Franco making Harry Osborn just the right sort of tragic figure and Willem Defoe so perfectly on Raimi's wavelength that it's kind of surprising they haven't done more together. Dunst is probably the unsung hero of this trilogy, even though I've seen people hate her Mary Jane Watson for one reason or another that often boils down to MJ not just being Peter's conscience but valuing herself. The movie is filled with people who have ambitions beyond being Spiday's supporting cast, and it helps make Peter a believable underdog as he's a little intimidated and finally ready to push back.

It's a great little movie. That the folks involved would (for many) top themselves a couple years later is its own sort of amazing.

Spider-Man 2

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-Ray)

As much as this is considered the best of the series, I may like the first one more, having watched them in the past week. This one is striking more of a balance between the Raimi-ness of the first and something that feels a little more comfortably mainstream. Maybe that's what makes it strike such a chord - the movie lays what it's doing right out there with utter sincerity in a way that feels familiar, yet there's still enough style that you're definitely not just watching TV.

Which isn't to say that there's any single thing in this movie that doesn't work. It's more or less the same great cast with added Alfred Molina, for example, and while Molina has a little trouble making the leap from Otto Octavius being a mentor to him being a madman, he gets past it, and the confusion and difficulty works. This film's the most convincing and matter-of-fact go at playing Spidey as the hard-luck hero on the big screen - one always believes that the things which would make all his gifts snap into place rather than work against each other are just out of reach rather than playing as contrivances, even when they come in the form of cartoony Daily Bugle scenes.

And, of course, the centerpiece action sequences are terrific, especially the nightmarish bit with Ock's arms that seems tailor made for Raimi, not just because of the chainsaw but because those tentacles with cameras on the end are able to actually make the Sam-Ram-a-Cam part of the movie's text. The really surprising thing is that there aren't actually that many of them - the story has the confidence in itself to let the movie breathe between them. The most memorable part of the big hero moment is its aftermath, the big-city "just because we're all crammed together doesn't mean we're gonna get in your business" moment after Peter's lost his mask stopping a train from derailing.

It's a refinement of a bit at the end of the first, polished and presented to the audience rather than tossed off as one of a dozen things going on at once. There's still a lot of Raimi here, but he's playing to the bigger audience in a way that's tremendously effective if not quite his in the way that the first film was.

What I wrote back in '04

Spider-Man 3

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-Ray)

Arriving just a year before Iron Man, Spider-Man 3 almost feels like a test run for the Marvel Cinematic Universe - the 137-minute runtime isn't quite so compact as Raimi's previous films, Stan Lee shows up to say hi rather than being someone you spot in the crowd, there's more conscious attention to the film as part of an ongoing series, and Sam Raimi's personal signature is less prominent. It's common knowledge that Raimi was given less of a free hand on this movie than before (and it's interesting to watch a scene where J. Jonah Jameson is pitched new slogans for the Bugle and reminded to take his heart medications in the most stressful way possible in that light); watching it after the other two, you've got to wonder why so many people were trying to act like they knew this stuff better than Sam.

There is too much stuffed into this movie, but the thing is, there's so much that's good. After playing Peter as the hard-luck hero in #2, there's something very true in how this movie plays with him not actually handling success and popularity very well - he's not so much a bad person underneath, but staying humble and dealing with attention is a skill that he hasn't developed. Venom was by all accounts imposed on Raimi, but he and brother/co-writer Ivan do their level best to make him a metaphor for all the worst aspects of Peter coming out and scaring him; there's just not room in this story for the whole arc that includes Eddie Brock Jr. (one can mock the Tom Hardy Venom movies for avoiding Spider-Man, but it's a step something this size doesn't have the time for). That's especially true with the time given to Thomas Haden Church's Sandman, but I appreciated parts of his story more this time around - the origin sequence is beautiful, for instance, and while I scoffed at him roaring like a dumb kaiju when I originally saw the film, I get the guy literally trying to keep himself and his humanity together through sheer force of will a bit better now. Church has a lead character's arc crammed into a supporting role that's getting cut back itself.

At the time, I thought Raimi would do another despite the disappointment - there was more to do with the folks played by Dylan Baker, James Cromwell, and Bryce Dallas Howard, darn it! - but now I kind of think that he said his piece here. Spider-Man 3 is a movie about people trying to be their best selves, failing, and then trying again, and on and on, whether they're Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson, Flint Marko, or Harry Osborn (Brock just doesn't have it in him and becomes a monster for it). Anything else he does with the character is going to seem smaller. It's a shame that the movie is such a mess in so many ways, never able to juggle all of its pieces, feeling like maybe it should have been a limited series in structure, and never quite having enough of the Sam Raimi style to match the over-the-top action with heightened emotional stakes. It's got all the pieces to be a great cap on the trilogy, but seldom puts it together well enough to be truly satisfying.

What I wrote back in '07

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