of angst: Maguire in Spider-Man 2.
Time’s the Charm
by Sam Raimi
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
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.
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.
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.