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Web of angst: Maguire in Spider-Man 2.

Second Time’s the Charm
By Ann Morrow

Spider-Man 2
Directed by Sam Raimi

Spider-Man 2 is a huge im provement over the deadly dutiful Spider-Man. In fact, the sequel is not only a terrific comic-book flick, it’s a terrific flick, period. Although fans of the Marvel Comics series will be overjoyed at how part 2 captures Stan Lee’s artistry, sending Spidey swinging through the canyons of Manhattan with vastly greater authenticity, you needn’t know a thing about the comic to enjoy Spider-Man 2’s wit, visual panache, and exhilarating storytelling. After two tries (with Spider-Man and his own Darkman), director Sam Raimi has it down on how to up the emotional ante without impeding the gee-whizzery of a summer popcorn movie. He’s aided by the replacement of commercial screenwriter David Koepp with the eminently versatile Alvin Sargent, whose optimistic subtext is that most people are inherently decent, a notion that works with, rather than against, the snappy pacing.

The best thing about the first one, it now seems, is that it set the stage for the sequel’s charming humanity. Two years after defeating the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is in college and close to failing, due to his extracurricular activities as a crime fighter. Late hours also cost him his job as a pizza delivery boy (in the very clever opening, Peter resorts to his alter ego in a desperate attempt to get a pie out on time.) His love for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is undiminished, but so, too, is his resolve not to put her in the path of his many enemies. Mary Jane isn’t exactly pining away, however; she’s on the rise as a theater actress and dating a handsome astronaut. Peter’s heartache—and poverty, which the film gets lightly but exactly right—is genuinely affecting: Maguire has deepened the role with what is arguably his best performance yet. Soon enough, though, there’s a new menace to challenge Spider-Man: A mad scientist with gigantic, nefarious mechanical tentacles.

To the film’s great credit, Doctor Octopus—as he’s dubbed by Peter’s blowhard editor (hilarious J.K. Simmons) at the Daily Bugle—is a new kind of comic-book villain. As played by Alfred Molina, Dr. Octavius is one of the most recognizable and ungimmicky baddies ever. He doesn’t wear a mask; in fact, even his upper torso is left exposed. Because Molina uses acting rather shtick to make the character interesting, only sunglasses are needed to cue the audience that the kindly but ambitious scientist has been driven mad by his technological breakthrough. The societal fear being plumbed here, creepily enough, is those prosthetic limbs that operate by neurological impulses from the brain. When Octavius first goes berserk, in an operating room no less, it’s actually scary.

Spider-Man 2 is actually funny, as well, and in more ways than just an abundance of zany dialogue and situations. When Peter spends a day as an average geek on campus, the soundtrack breaks into a Burt Bacharach song. Which is perfectly in keeping with the slightly time-warped production, a subliminal homage to the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Dunst, for instance, has never been photographed so beautifully—the camera plays up her face as if she were an old-time screen goddess, and she justifies the attention with a heart-melting performance. And when Mary Jane is overpowered by the villain, she flails and screams (naturally enough) rather than throwing an aerobicized, CGI punch. She needs to be saved. Adding to the tension is the knowledge that Spidey is not himself lately; unhappiness has sapped his special powers. Could it be? An unpredictable comic-book movie? Well, not too unpredictable—except in how thoroughly enjoyable it turns out to be.

Bad Aftertaste

Coffee and Cigarettes
Directed by Jim Jarmusch

The combination of coffee and cigarettes, so they say, can fuel great conversation. In a movie, however, great conversation is best facilitated by good writing. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch didn’t keep this in mind when he was slapping together his shaggy-dog anthology Coffee and Cigarettes, in which assorted celebrities, musicians, actors and hangers-on slurp java, smoke up and occasionally say something interesting.

Back in 1986, Jarmusch made a short film—also titled Coffee and Cigarettes—in which comics Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni availed themselves of caffeine and nicotine and tried to communicate. It was a funny idea, pairing Wright’s catatonic shtick with Benigni’s peripatetic mania, except that there was practically no script, and the non-English-speaking Benigni couldn’t improvise on what he couldn’t understand. Jarmusch must have liked the result, however, because he filmed another, slightly better installment with Steve Buscemi and (Spike’s kin) Joie and Cinque Lee, around 1990.

These two bits open this full-length feature. There are 11 segments in the film. One is brilliant, three are inspired, two or three others are adequate, and the rest are a waste of time. Not a great average for a 96-minute film, but also not the worst evening at the movies if the Jarmusch aesthetic (Stranger than Paradise, Dead Man, Ghost Dog) fits your temperament.

After all, as Jarmusch is arguably one of the 10 or so best American directors around today, the film is not without merit. The design motifs are witty variations on black-and-white checkerboard, from the dive bar Iggy Pop and Tom Waits amusingly skulk around in to the fancy hotel café where Cate Blanchett meets her “cousin.” The music is the kind of classic old-time rock & roll Jarmusch favors, and the black-and-white cinematography, by a team of hotshots including Frederick Elmes and Robby Müller, is nicely textured.

The funniest sequence (surprise, surprise) is also the best written. English actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, playing “themselves,” get together for tea in an L.A. bistro. Molina’s sincere attempts at friendship are rebuffed at every turn by Coogan’s self-importance and craven careerism, until it appears that Molina isn’t the social nobody Coogan assumed. Watching the worm turn is particularly satisfying.

Of the others, Blanchett as both her movie-star self and a grungy cousin is delicious in its not-quite-poignant awkwardness; Meg and Jack White puzzling over a Tesla coil (as a portrait of Lee Marvin looms over them) is absurd; and Wu-Tang’s GZA and RZA meeting up with a delirious Bill Murray in an all-night diner is bizarre. The film even ends on a poetic note, as onetime Warhol superstar Taylor Mead imagines his awful cup of joe is really champagne.

Too much of Coffee and Cigarettes, however, is half-assed or overdetermined. It’s proof that in the case of Jim Jarmusch, being a hipster genius only goes so far.

—Shawn Stone

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