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He gets around: Maguire and Dunst in Spider-Man.

Super Human Interest
By Ralph Hammann

Directed by Sam Raimi

One of the most anticipated film treatments of a comic-book hero has finally premiered in a fairly premier production, as the genre goes. Fans of the Marvel comic probably won’t be disappointed. Fans of Tim Burton’s Batman probably will.

I had expected a bit more exhilarating camera work from the director of the first two Evil Dead films—perhaps some swinging shots from Spider-Man’s point-of-view would have done the trick. Not to worry, there are plenty of special effects shots of the super arachnid-bite-produced hero leaping and swinging through New York City, but aside from early ones where he is still discovering his powers, none of them gives one a sense of vertiginous delight. And none lands with the sort of smack that attended the early pre-Sept. 11 previews that wittily featured the World Trade Center as a prime action location.

Not even Times Square, in which the best action sequence takes place, is fully exploited for its possibilities, and but for a few glimpses of a few landmarks the area could be any city square. This is the problem through much of the film, which doesn’t connect with the Manhattan environment nearly as well as Burton’s Batman evokes a sense of the fictional Gotham City. No use is made of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. At least the Chrysler Building gets a cameo, but in general New York—with its fabulous architectural photo-opportunities—is treated rather generically.

Then there is the relative anonymity of Spider-Man, among the most fully disguised of superheroes. His full-head mask allows him about as much expression as a bondage hood and doesn’t make for very dramatic close-ups. And when he is in action, he looks like he could be a computer-generated image, which is particularly irksome in those special-effects shots. Well-done as they are, I never suspended my disbelief, and they remained at the level of lifeless effects.

If a human element is missing from the costume-drama scenes, it is made up for in the more plentiful sequences that feature Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s teenage alter ego. The film’s chief surprise is that these non-action sequences are the highlights. Credit that achievement to Tobey Maguire, who imbues Parker with a touching awkwardness that is never clichéd and a disarming charm that is never forced. Warm and self-effacing, Maguire gives the film a humanity rarely achieved in the genre.

Which, finally, is probably how it should be. After all, as Parker says early in the film’s narration, this is a story about the girl next door. As that girl, Mary Jane Watson, Kirsten Dunst creates a believable chemistry with Maguire and rises well above the damsel-in-distress trope that her role could have been. Even if the script lacks them, Dunst brings teeth to the proceedings.

The same is not true of Willem Dafoe as the villainous Green Goblin, the film’s biggest disappointment. Why screenwriter David Koepp and Raimi chose to invite comparisons to Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman is anyone’s guess. But aping the structure of Burton’s Batman, they crosscut the “birth” of Green Goblin with that of Spider-Man. It is a worn device that gives the film a by-the-numbers feel that is totally unlike Raimi’s best work. And it reminds one of the Nicholson Joker, who set a benchmark for all super villains. Dafoe, a grossly overrated actor, may be scarier without his mask, which is not saying much since the disguise looks like the stiff, plastic Halloween variety.

At least there is J.K. Simmons cast as the crass editor at the Daily Bugle, where Parker gets a job as a photographer. Yes, Spider-Man rips off the old Perry White sort of character from Superman, but Simmons is wonderful and exacts the maximum effect from every line. He would have made a spectacular villain, but then we wouldn’t have the chance to see him again in the sequel that is already in the works. For that matter, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the arresting Elizabeth Banks as a new potential love interest for Parker at the office. Actually, now that the derivative exposition and Dafoe are out of the way, the sequel (like Superman 2) could easily surpass the original.

That Was Some Party

The Cat’s Meow
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Today’s Hollywood scandals lack that pizzazz, that glamour, of those from a bygone era. Let’s face it, Robert Blake’s alleged shooting of his white-trash wife reads like an outtake from Cops. Even the O.J. trial was riddled with tacky: No matter how fervently the media tried to portray the Simpson’s Brentwood “estate” as exclusive, it and its surrounding homes looked like generic cellblocks. All in all, a far cry from the naughty shenanigans depicted in, say, Kenneth Anger’s infamous Hollywood Babylon, or, for that matter, in Peter Bogdanovich’s new film, The Cat’s Meow.

Based on a play by Steven Peros (who also adapted it for film), The Cat’s Meow concerns the mysterious 1924 death of a Hollywood player who had been one of many guests aboard the Oneida, the palatial yacht captained by none other than William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann). That’s right: Before he was skewered by Orson Welles, Hearst, and his longtime mistress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), were known as the host and hostess with the most-est, and so desirable was an invitation to one of their swank affairs that guests could almost overlook the plethora of listening devices and peepholes that the insanely insecure W.R. had installed. It was partly because of these devices that W.R., on the weekend of that fateful birthday cruise for director Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), went berserk and . . . well, that’s giving away too much of the mystery for viewers who weren’t weaned on Hollywood Babylon.

Suffice it to say that all viewers will know immediately (this is a murder quasi-mystery) that of all the movie folk, jazz stars, media heavies and party girls invited to Ince’s floating party, one will not survive and, of course, one will be at fault. While Bogdanovich’s narrator, Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley)—Glyn was a fabulously popular author whose torrid novels became films starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson—stresses that the truth can never really be known, because none of the principles spoke publicly about that weekend, she equally stresses that The Cat’s Meow is based on the loudest and most persistent of the whispers that have surrounded the story for decades.

So who is to say what really happened? Certainly, this conspiracy-minded reviewer feels compelled not to give too much away. Bogdanovich clearly loves the story’s era, and has a sympathy for the characters and all their moral foibles. Indeed, the director’s affection robs the movie of a well-needed edge, and imbues it instead with an agreeable softness that makes it more of a trifle, and more like something one would see on A&E than a major motion picture that wraps us in the feel and decadence of the roaring ’20s. For all the tension aroused by W.R.’s growing awareness that Marion and Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) might be engaging in some offscreen hanky-panky, and by Ince’s desperate feeding of W.R.’s jealousy to suit his own, desperate ends, the movie’s pace and tension relax considerably about halfway through, weakening the climax and its aftershocks.

Still, as both a period piece and an actor’s dream, it’s worth seeing. Herrmann is astounding as the all-powerful yet scared-stiff mogul. Somehow, despite his character’s shameful manipulations and secret spying, we are able to see and actually feel his sadness, and how that parlays into his obsession for Marion. Typically, modern audiences either know nothing about Davies or assume she was the untalented shrew depicted by Susan Comminger in Citizen Kane. In fact, while most of Davies’ movies were the turgid costumers that “Willie” deemed appropriate for her, she was thought by many who knew her a delightful comedienne and gracious, down-to-earth friend and hostess. Dunst really captures these little-known better qualities, and evokes understanding of why, aside from financial security, this young, beautiful woman would stay with the much-older Hearst. Izzard, as the third wheel in this deadly triangle, captures Chaplin’s desperate need to be loved, and Elwes is masterful as the conniving, yet sympathetic, Inces. Only Jennifer Tilly, as columnist Louella Parsons, strays too far into the absurd, to the extent that when she reveals heretofore unknown stores of cunning at a crucial point in the film, it lacks the oomph it should have.

—Laura Leon

Sentimentally Retarded

Hollywood Ending
Directed by Woody Allen

Once upon a time, audiences could count on Woody Allen to deliver a funny, trenchant picture without a feel-good fade-out. Annie Hall didn’t go back to Alvy. Cecilia, the obsessive moviegoer in The Purple Rose of Cairo, was stuck with her abusive husband in a dead-end town. Harry, the manipulative, narcissistic artiste of Deconstructing Harry, didn’t suddenly become Gandhi in the last scene. One might expect that a satire on contemporary Hollywood would be similarly jaundiced, but, alas, this is not the case.

The story begins promisingly enough. Neophyte movie producer Ellie (Tea Leoni) convinces her studio- president boyfriend Hal (Treat Williams) to hire her ex-husband Val Waxman (Woody Allen) to direct a film set in New York. This is a risk, as the two-time Oscar-winning director’s last few projects were ruined by his temperament and mysterious illnesses. Maybe Val really is the best director for the project; maybe Ellie is just feeling guilty for dumping him. In any event, Val is in no position to turn down the opportunity, as the most recent job offered this once-great artist is a commercial for adult diapers.

Val is the latest addition to Allen’s entertaining gallery of aging, self-absorbed, neurotic monsters. Val accommodates some of the requirements of his studio bosses, then makes petty, self-defeating demands. (He hires a Chinese cameraman who can’t speak English, and an art director who wants to build Central Park Reservoir in the studio.) There’s a terrific scene in which Val and Ellie meet to discuss the film, and he flips back and forth, in mid-sentence, between calmly discussing the script and raving at his ex-wife for her faithlessness. Allen is sharp in these scenes.

Then, just before shooting is about to begin, Val goes blind. Physically, there’s nothing wrong with his eyes. It’s a psychological condition. The film starts to come apart as soon as this gimmick is introduced.

The idea of a blind film director is funny, and the notion that everyone else on the set can be fooled into not noticing this is even funnier. Unfortunately, Allen’s imagination isn’t up to it. The blindness gags are just not inspired. The one clever bit is having the Chinese cameraman’s translator (Barney Cheng), a business student with no background in visual arts, be the only character in on the secret. The translator’s horror at having to make artistic judgments is very satisfying. Unfortunately, this character is dispatched from the story too soon.

Allen fails with some of the casting as well. Tiffani Thiessen (formerly Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) is bland and sexless as the film’s leading lady, and Debra Messing, as Val’s airhead girlfriend, doesn’t do much with an admittedly embarrassing role. Mark Rydell and George Hamilton fare better as slick industry types, and Treat Williams is inspired as the “golden boy” studio chief.

The one actor who really shines is Tea Leoni. Whether in the sharply comic, emotional scenes at the beginning of the film, or in the abysmally slow final section, Leoni’s work is funny and focused, and gives the story what little conviction it has. However, even this can’t save Woody Allen from indulging in the unbelievable, sentimental claptrap of his film’s Hollywood ending.

—Shawn Stone

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