Monday, July 12, 2004

Movie: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Saying that I prefer this one to its predecessor is damning it with faint praise. The first installment was dull, and not just because it was saddled with recounting Spidey’s origins. The movie was so determined not to botch the franchise that it took no chances. The result was competent and uninspired.

It’s amazing how a $400 million gross can help everybody cut loose.

From the opening credits, which recount the plot of the first film in bold comic panels, to Michael Buble’s hipster cover of the old cartoon theme over the end, the film courses with energy. The script by Alvin Sargent is clean and focused. (Sargent turns 73 this year. I know he’s married to the film’s producer Laura Ziskin, but still. 73? Attaboy!) Alfred Molina makes Doc Ock a memorable villain, largely because we can see his face. What was the point in casting an actor as gauntly expressive as Willem Dafoe in the first film only to put him in a mask?

Director Sam Raimi knows the limitations of the superhero genre. Why else would he push for Tobey Maguire, whose distinctive voice allows us to identify with the character even when in full costume? Maguire plays some of his Spidey scenes sans mask here, a gambit that does more to heighten the movie’s reality than the New York location work. (The first SUPERMAN remains for me, in spite of its bloat, the best of all comic book films, because we can watch Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman throughout. No make-up, no masks. Just actors. Raimi has learned the lesson well.)

It’s miracle enough that the amiable goofball who masterminded EVIL DEAD has developed into an accomplished filmmaker. Raimi’s adaptation of A SIMPLE PLAN proved that. But to infuse so much joy and personality into a blockbuster of this magnitude is nothing short of astounding. Raimi gives good comic book. He films the accident that gives birth to Doc Ock in a series of arresting images that build in power; the effect mirrors that created by a great graphic novel. He then immediately tops himself in the hospital scene where Molina realizes that his new appendages have a mind of their own. Raimi doesn’t shy away from the horror of the sequence, or from its perverse beauty.

He also injects his trademark silliness in a way that adds to the film’s impact. And to end the movie the way he does – to give us the traditional shot of the lone hero swooping into the hard heart of the city, and then to loop back and close on the silent-movie planes of Kirsten Dunst’s face, allowing us to comprehend the scope of her sacrifice – takes genuine nerve.

Johnny Depp deserved the praise heaped on him for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. But nothing else in that movie came close to matching his performance, and as a result the entire enterprise felt out of whack. You could feel the rest of the film scrambling to catch up with him. Raimi’s work here is the directorial equivalent of Depp’s acting. But his sheer delight at doing his job and doing it well graces every aspect of SPIDER-MAN 2. I was ready to stay in my seat and watch it all over again.

Website: About Last Night

Terry Teachout’s blog is one of the best around. Teachout is the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, and last week he was nominated by President Bush to sit on the National Council of the Arts. Today’s entry is about the new Warner’s film noir DVD set, and about noir in general. I like his definition of the genre: “the porn of pessimists.”

But last week he unintentionally tapped into the Web’s idiotic side. He posted the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, a list of 100 choices along the lines of: Letterman or Leno? The Who or The Rolling Stones? Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter? As Teachout explained, the quiz was “thrown together to amuse and edify,” and “measures the extent to which your taste resembles mine – but that’s all.” I looked it over, found it interesting, and promptly forgot about it. I didn’t even bother to figure out my score.

Within days it was all over the Web. I found the link on other sites. Several people forwarded it to me. It was even featured in USA Today, fer Chrissakes. What I don’t understand is why. All it tells you is how well you’d fare over a beer with Mr. Teachout. It’s the pseudo-intellectual version of a Cosmo sex quiz. But for a while, I couldn’t get away from it.

And I still haven’t tallied up my score.