gets around: Maguire and Dunst in Spider-Man.
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
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
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.
Was Some Party
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
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
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.
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
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