Friday, May 31, 2013

Aisle Seat: John Williams and the Boston Pops' CD of music from the movies

To me, one of the best things about the movies is the vast variety of themes that composers have created over the years. From Max Steiner’s “Tara Theme” of Gone With the Wind to “The Flying Theme” from E.T., composer/conductor John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra take us on a musical journey spanning nearly four decades in Aisle Seat. 

Of the 10 themes presented in this Philips CD, three were composed by Williams. Two are famous in the Williams repertoire -- “The Flying Theme” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark March” -- but they were still relatively new when this album was first released 21 years ago. The third Williams composition is “If We Were In Love,” a romantic theme from Yes, Giorgio, a forgotten (and forgettable) movie starring Luciano Pavarotti. No matter…even if the movie flopped, the theme survived. It’s sweet and sweeping, almost operatic, yet you can hum it -- if nothing else, great movie music often is catchy and easy on the ears. 

The other composers featured in Aisle Seat include Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz), Vangelis (“Chariots of Fire”), John Kander (“Main Theme” from New York, New York), Nacio Herb Brown (“Main Title” from Singing in the Rain), Dmitri Tiomkin (“Main Theme” from Friendly Persuasion), and Ralph Blaine & Hugh Edward Martin (“The Trolley Song” from Meet Me In St. Louis). 

As always, the Boston Pops Orchestra performs each piece with the appropriate styling for each era. I like the mix of relatively contemporary themes (when I owned the cassette version of this CD the Williams and Vangelis pieces were still relative newcomers) and classic “Old Hollywood” standards. Particularly poignant is Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” evoking memories of a young Judy Garland. Indeed, don’t be surprised if you see mental images of Gene Kelly, Harrison Ford, or a certain long-limbed extraterrestrial being flashing in your mind’s eye as you listen to this album.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spider-Man 3: Too many villains, too little focus on characters

One of the toughest problems that faces filmmakers involved in creating and selling any "franchise" movie series (whether it's Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Star Wars, Batman or Superman) is "How do you keep an audience's interest (and repeat business) in your characters and situations without getting stale or silly?"

Now, there are lots of possible good answers, but two of the most obvious are "Be consistent and follow the rules of the universe you create, and above all, don't be constantly remaking the first movie over and over again."

Unfortunately, not every screenwriter, director or creative team keeps these rules of the road in mind.  TheSuperman movies which starred the late Christopher Reeve started out with a classic (Richard Donner'sSuperman: The Movie) then qualitatively slid downhill when the producers decided to give the next two movies to Richard Lester.

So when Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man movies proved that there are people in Hollywood who understand that comic book superhero films work best when they focus on the human aspects of their characters rather than on the special effects or high-octane fight sequences (yes, Michael Bay, I'm talking about you), I figured that 2007's Spider-Man 3 would be as good, if not better than, the two previous films.

At first glance, the third installment in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man saga (co-written by Sam and Ivan Raimi with Alvin Sargent) is a logical extension of the story as it unfolded in the 2002 and 2004 movies.

Though three years have passed from our perspective, only a few months have elapsed since the events inSpider-Man 2.  Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has, at last, managed to find some balance in life as he juggles college studies, work as a freelance photographer for The Daily Bugle, his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and, of course, battling crime in New York City as "your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."

So well-adjusted is Peter's life that he is able to attend one of his girlfriend's Broadway appearances without being, as he was in Spider-Man 2, "an empty chair" because of his chronic tardiness.

The only outstanding problem in Peter's current situation is the terribly strained relationship with Harry Osborn (James Franco).  Once Peter's best friend (and rival for the attentions of MJ), Harry is seething with rancor toward him; he knows that young Parker is also Spider-Man, whom Harry blames for his father Norman's death.

Obviously, Harry's New Goblin and Peter's Spider-Man alter egos must face off eventually, and if Spider-Man 3'screators had chosen to focus on this plot point, the film would have been amazingly great.

Spider-Man 3 still would have been excellent if the Raimi brothers and Sargent had limited the supervillain count to two; adding either Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) or Eddie Brock/Venom (Topher Grace) would have complicated the story somewhat but in a good way and still left an audience hungry for a fourth movie.

But Marvel Studios' Avi Arad, who is one of the franchise's producers, lobbied hard for the inclusion of Venom into the already complex story the Raimis and Sargent had mapped out.

Perhaps Arad was thinking that Venom's huge fan base would bring in more butts (and bucks) to the movie theaters, but in retrospect, it saddled Spider-Man 3 with more story content than its 140-minute running time can comfortably hold.   

Consider this: How can a filmmaker find a healthy balance in a story which features three different supervillains, two love triangles (with the introduction of Bryce Dallas Howard's Gwen Stacy and Grace's Eddie Brock further complicating the Peter-MJ-Harry thing) and Peter's internal struggles with his own demons once he's "taken over" by an alien symbiote?

If I had been in Raimi's shoes, I'd have gone with the introduction of Eddie and Gwen and the Spider-Man vs. Venom fight, even if it meant saving the resolution of the Harry and Peter feud for Spider-Man 4.
Unfortunately, the screenplay was probably almost complete when Marvel Studios insisted on the addition of Venom (who, by the way, is never mentioned by name on screen); a rewrite would have delayed Spider-Man 3's release by several months to a year.

Thus, Spider-Man 3 ends up being bloated and somewhat repetitive, especially where the relationship between MJ and Peter is concerned.  Just like in Spider-Man 2, the couple's relationship is on again, off again as it veers from near-married bliss to nebulous indecision on Mary Jane's part.  There's even a portion of the film where an amnesia-stricken Harry and MJ seem to be heading for a PG-13 rated "side thing" at the same time as Gwen looks like she is making a move for Spider-Man.

Mary Jane Watson: Let me ask you something. When you kissed her, who was kissing her? Spider-man, or Peter? 

As in the two previous films, Tobey Maguire does a magnificent job at doing the dual role of Peter and Spider-Man.  Even though he was in his early 30s when Spider-Man 3 was filmed, he is still convincing as a young 20-something college student.

Indeed, the whole cast, including J.K. Simmons as the irascible J. Jonah Jameson, Rosemary Harris as Peter's Aunt May, James Cronwell as Captain Stacy (Gwen's father) and guest villains Church and Gopher, turns in solid performances.

Church's Flint Marko/Sandman is both menacing and somewhat sympathetic; he's a guy who has committed crimes, yes, but like Alfred Molina's "Doc Ock" in Spider-Man 2, his transformation from mere human to supervillain is purely accidental.  Even his crime spree is motivated by a father's love for his sick daughter, a girl he barely knows because he's been in jail for a while.

Grace's Eddie Brock/Venom is also interesting, but because Brock is smarmy and is essentially the antithesis of the normally nice Peter Parker, he is less likable than Flint Marko.

As good as the performances are , as great as the set piece action sequences and special effects look, and as funny as Raimi-bud Bruce Campbell's de rigeur cameo is, Spider-Man 3 is much too baroque for its own good.  Not only do the filmmakers mess up the Peter-MJ romance by becoming repetitive, but the many arcs of the script's story take the movie to a plethora of directions instead of remaining focused on a simpler but compelling main plot/interesting subplot combination.