Archive for May 2002

The Sum of All Fears

May 31, 2002

rGvao8CGRgtFmiJewzJxCe6csplWith all due respect to the people of the real Baltimore, I have to say that the highlight — in terms of visual and dramatic force — of The Sum of All Fears is the moment when Baltimore gets nuked. The movie leads up to that mighty moment, but we don’t quite expect it when it hits, and it hits hard and quick. The sequence, which unintentionally and unavoidably plugs into our current wolf-hour preoccupations, is handled no more or less deftly — or seriously — than similar big-bang moments were in Independence Day, Deep Impact, or Armageddon. As before, we’re being teased with a visual of American apocalypse. It’s not that such Hollywood devastation is more obscene now — mass death as a plot point was always obscene. It’s that we’ve seen comparable obscenity on TV, for real, and we fear that we may see worse. The Sum of All Fears may not have set out to trade on the dread of the day, but it’s going to do just that.

If released in a calmer world, the movie would be received and understood, if not necessarily enjoyed, as yet another piece of militaristic pulp from the factory of Tom Clancy, in which only one ingenious American can avert catastrophe. That American, Jack Ryan, has presided over numerous Clancy novels and three previous movie adaptations: The Hunt for Red October, with Alec Baldwin, and Patriot Gamesand Clear and Present Danger, with Harrison Ford. Here, in Paramount’s attempt to reinvigorate the franchise, Ryan has been dunked in the fountain of youth, from which a dripping and tentative Ben Affleck emerges. Affleck’s uncertainty about whether he can shoulder a movie series translates well into this callower Ryan’s insecurity about being forced into situations beyond political analysis. Ryan’s self-deprecating instincts may be wrong, but Affleck’s are correct. He belongs in smaller, more intimate and conversational movies.

We’ve got another of those global crises: A low-yield nuclear bomb has wound up in the hands of a Fascist (Alan Bates, expostulating over a steady stream of cigarettes) who plans to start a nuclear war between America and an unstable Russia. The new Russian President Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds) comes on strong — a rhetorical “hardliner” — but Ryan suspects that forces beyond Nemerov’s control may be shaping his decisions; conveniently, Ryan wrote a paper on Nemerov and seems to be the only American who understands him. Even the American president (James Cromwell) and CIA director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) look askance at Ryan’s defense of Nemerov, even after the bomb — stashed in a cigarette machine in Baltimore’s football stadium (this is an anti-smoking movie if ever there was one) — goes off and brings both countries to the brink.

What follows the big bang is a great, tedious deal of rushing around and arguing. Ryan dashes into the fray, sometimes accompanied by Liev Schreiber as a dead-eyed agent who seems to belong in an earlier breed of spy movie. Directed, unaccountably, by the erratic Phil Alden Robinson (who made the sentimental gem Field of Dreams and the amusing caper film Sneakers), the movie collapses into scenes of manufactured tension and paranoia, culminating in one of those wonderfully dull face-offs in which the antagonists … type at each other. The Sum of All Fears won’t go down in history as anything much. As things calm down, it will be filed away as a franchise movie that avoids asking the most basic question: If we’re worried about how many nuclear weapons are out there, presumably lying around for the picking by terrorists and God knows who else, shouldn’t we be thinking about making sure there are fewer of the things to pick from?

Insomnia (2002)

May 24, 2002

Insomnia film (1)Beauty is in short supply at the movies just now — I mean real beauty, not pretty pictures painted by computers. Insomnia, the new remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s brooding 1997 psychodrama, gives us opening images so stunning they’re almost painful: a small plane angling over the rocky, godforsaken outskirts of Alaska. The terrain looks savage and unforgiving, as if nature itself had decided to keep its secrets by keeping outsiders away. But the plane continues on, carrying two detectives from Los Angeles — Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). They’ve come to investigate a murder, but we know it won’t be that simple, not in this bleak place where the sun never sets but never really seems to shine, either.

The original Insomnia was an artsy mood piece, and highly enjoyable as such, anchored by the sturdy presence of Stellan Skarsgård as the sleepless detective hiding dark secrets and impulses. The new version, directed by Christopher Nolan from a more fleshed-out script by Hillary Seitz, wears its insecurities on its sleeve. Nolan’s previous films, 1998’s trim, stark cheapie Following and last year’s famous Memento, took the unknowability of truth not only as their theme but as their style. Here, Nolan doesn’t mess with nonlinear narrative, but near the end, when Will is asked a crucial question and says “I don’t know anymore,” we believe him. If Nolan’s work is about anything, it’s how nobody can be trusted, least of all oneself.

Will stares down wearily at the corpse on the slab — a high-school girl beaten to death. With him is eager local rookie cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), too awed by Will’s legend (she did a paper on one of his cases) and by the very fact of murder in the dull town of Nightmute to be very upset at the loss of life. Nobody in town seems terribly surprised that the girl was killed; maybe it was her reputation, or maybe the land itself gives the impression that it wants blood sacrifice. With sunlight piercing his motel room at all hours, Will can’t get any sleep. “No rest for the wicked” was the tagline of the firstInsomnia, equally appropriate here. Will may be a great man, but he’s too casually intimate with death and evil to be a good man. The job has begun to decay him from the inside out.

Al Pacino has simultaneously never looked worse or better. His voice seems just about shot, until he gets it up into a roar (infrequent here, and the more effective for it) and reminds us who’s in charge. Generally, this isn’t one of his airhorn performances; he makes us lean forward and listen. He stays still, yet manages to suggest restlessness and constant mental fidgeting. With young actresses like Hilary Swank and Maura Tierney (as the motel clerk) he is fatherly and protective; he gets a weird vibe going with Katharine Isabelle, of last year’s superb Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps, as the dead girl’s best friend (blink and you’ll miss Isabelle’s costar in that film, Emily Perkins, delivering the eulogy). With men, like the untroubled Martin Donovan and the highly troubled Robin Williams, Pacino is subtly combative, as if Will were holding on to macho codes that life beat out of him decades ago.

Williams, as the story’s “wild card” (his character’s phrase), doesn’t stretch as much as you’ve been led to believe. Only those unfamiliar with his brief, terrific dramatic work in Dead Again and on TV’s Homicide could be all that surprised by his unsympathetic turn here. What’s new about his work in Insomnia is the sense of suppressed hysteria: He doesn’t seem just about to go off on a manic riff — he seems about to do something violent. Nolan gets a lot of mileage out of the potential for violence, yet I only count five gunshots that draw blood, one of which is fired into a dog carcass. This director has an unerring knack for arresting imagery and disorienting narrative that often plays you for a sap; given the latter, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, but given both, I wouldn’t miss his movies.


May 19, 2002

People whisper a lot in Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover, mostly in French. They whisper about elaborate, obscure deals and alliances; they whisper about sex and death and, in weak moments, love. Demonlover is about the sleepiest corporate thriller imaginable, especially considering its MacGuffin — 3-D porno anime software that everyone is willing to kill to get. The formidable Connie Nielsen is Diane, who works for a French corporation sealing a deal with TokyoAnime. Diane has risen up the company ladder by sabotaging her former boss, and everyone else in the movie, including Chloe Sevigny as a resentful assistant and Gina Gershon as an executive for an American web-porn outfit, has his or her own agendas and isn’t shy about pursuing them. At one point, Sevigny holds a gun on Nielsen and forces her to step on the gas repeatedly in her parked car. Why? It’s a message.

Just about the last word in hip Gallic crypto-intrigue, Demonlover would love us to find it deeper than it is. Over and over, people hold solemn, antagonistic meetings over who’ll get the rights to make computer-generated sleaze. God forbid there should be any humor in this. Gina Gershon, surprisingly, provides some fresh air in her few onscreen moments as the straight-talking, weed-toking exec. But she’s out of the picture too soon, and the plot collapses into trashy-ominous scenes involving a torture-porn site named The Hellfire Club. Don’t people watch normal porn with real people any more?

The film moves like molasses, but Assayas exerts a rigorous control, framing Connie Nielsen both tightly and generously. I’m not sold on the movie’s being some sort of feminist statement — not when it comes complete with a catfight between Gershon and Nielsen and a couple of scenes with Nielsen slinking around in skin-hugging Irma Vep drag — but, to the extent that it has any politics, it interestingly posits a corporate world wherein powerful women can ignore the content of the misogynistic swill they’re dealing in and focus on how to get it and how to exploit it.

Similarly, I guess it’s possible to ignore all the conspiratorial mysticism and just groove on the atmosphere (which recalls American Psycho), the elite indie cast, and the movie’s night-owl jet-lag mood, in which characters are always waking up in desolately immaculate hotel rooms and watching the same soulless porno. Demonlover is like post-orgasm melancholy reworked as a satire on the techno-corporate beast. I found it incomprehensible on a scene-by-scene basis and almost entirely unreadable on an emotional level, and therefore an endurance test at times — there’s a late dinner scene between Nielsen and a rapacious colleague that goes on forever — but it never quite lost me.

A brain and a vision exist under the surface, though by the time cars are exploding, people are getting shot, and Connie Nielsen falls unconscious yet again (she blacks out more often than a gumshoe in a ’40s noir), the movie more or less abandons its cool and grimly goes about tying up its loose ends. Most critics approaching Demonlover know they’ve seen something but can’t agree on what; the movie is perhaps more fun to talk about or write about than to watch.

About a Boy

May 17, 2002

Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy is really about two boys: Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a long-suffering and ridiculed 12-year-old weathering the instabilities of his depressive divorced mom Fiona (Toni Collette), and Will (Hugh Grant), a well-to-do 38-year-old loafer who grudgingly takes Marcus under his wing. Living comfortably off the royalties of a novelty Christmas song (“Santa’s Super Sleigh,” perhaps Hornby’s nod to Melvin and Howard) written by his dad, Will isn’t quite proud of the fact that he does “nothing” (his stock answer when asked what he does), though he is proud that he’s closing in on 40 without having gotten dragged into anything messy or emotional — anything meaningful, in other words.

Hornby specializes in overgrown boys surrounding themselves with cocoons of comforting, life-blocking stuff. In High Fidelity, adapted into a John Cusack vehicle in 2000, it was records and music trivia; here it’s the empty, flashy detritus of a solitary rich man’s flat. Both stories are also inextricably linked to music; the novel unfolds during 1993 and 1994, when Kurt Cobain nearly killed himself and then succeeded, and is named after the Nirvana song “About a Girl.” (Hornby, who occasionally writes music reviews for The New Yorker, obviously has pop on the brain.) And both stories are about how the overgrown boys are forced to mature.

Will stumbles into the position of Marcus’s adult friend (certainly Will considers himself in no way a father or even big brother) during a particularly dodgy period when he’s attending a single-parent support group, pretending to have a never-seen son named Ned, in order to meet and date single mothers. While dating Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), a friend of Fiona’s, Will meets Marcus on a support-group picnic. Before long, Will is drawn quite against his will (“against my better judgment,” he might put it) into the problems of the miserable Marcus and his equally despondent mum. Who needs the hassle? Surely Will doesn’t. Yet Marcus does fill a need Will hadn’t even known was there — he gives Will a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning other than himself. Slowly, and bitching all the way, Will begins to help Marcus, and realizes that Marcus is the one helping him.

If the role of Will wasn’t written for Hugh Grant, it may as well have been. For perhaps the first time, Grant is allowed to headline a movie in which he isn’t a variation on the amiably stammering Englishman he played in Four Weddings and a Funeral. He dined out on that for years, even though he’d played different kinds of parts before that, and his supporting role as a womanizing cad in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary may have been a dry run for Will, a decent enough fellow whom one character accurately describes as “blank.” Well, it’s not that he’s blank, really — he knows there’s something missing, he’s just too comfortable on the couch to go out in the chaos of life and relationships to look for it. Grant plays him as a man in transition, with potential that could point to triumph or disaster, and manages to paint shades of both hope and fear into the performance.

Marcus (a fine, uncutesy job by newcomer Hoult) needs a father figure, or at least, as he puts it, “back-up.” Fiona loves him as much as she’s able, but her unpredictable bouts with depression scare him, particularly when one of them almost results in her going the way of Kurt Cobain. Sadly, the script — by directors Chris and Paul Weitz of American Pie, along with Peter Hedges of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape — drops all the book’s Nirvana/Cobain references, perhaps because the filmmakers were denied the rights to use Nirvana’s music or Cobain’s image. Happily, the movie, following Hornby’s lead, doesn’t do anything so clichéd as having Will and Fiona fall in love. Instead, Will falls for Rachel (Rachel Weisz), a children’s book illustrator who assumes that Marcus is Will’s son, an assumption Will does little to dissuade.

I could’ve done without the “Killing Me Softly” finale (though it’s amusing to watch Hugh Grant rocking out to Roberta Flack on guitar), and the movie’s loss of the Kurt Cobain backdrop also reduces one of the novel’s more interesting characters — Ellie (Nat Gastiain Tena), a punkish older girl who takes a liking to Marcus. In the book, it’s Nirvana that unites them; here nothing much seems to bind them together, and she’s only in a handful of scenes. About a Boy is more successful as a Hugh Grant vehicle than as a Nick Hornby adaptation. It should reanimate Grant’s career as a leading man, though, and it establishes the Weitz brothers as filmmakers who can do more than teen lust and pastry intimacy.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

May 16, 2002

Here we go again: Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones has landed, and all the fans will have to activate their denial shields anew. You may recall that some fans of George Lucas’s saga, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, accepted the long-awaited first episode, 1999’s The Phantom Menace, as if it were something more than … um … well … crap. Indeed, it was as if Obi-Wan Kenobi had used a Jedi mind trick on the weak-minded throngs: “It’s a Star Wars movie. You think it rules.” “It’s a Star Wars movie. We think it rules.” “You don’t need credible dialogue or a coherent plot.” “We don’t need credible dialogue or a coherent plot.”

With Attack of the Clones, the mantra (seconded, sadly, by many critics) is more like “This is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s better than Phantom Menace.” Both of which are correct, actually — it would be hard not to be the best Star Wars entry since Empire, given that Empire‘s two follow-ups (Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace) stank like the restrooms at a leper colony, and more difficult still to be worse than Phantom Menace. Still, with the saga’s increasingly out-of-it guru George Lucas back in the writing and directing saddle, there’s a sharp limit on how good Clones can be. Lucas doesn’t direct a movie so much as manufacture it, and this time he has corralled a writing partner (Jonathan Hales), who seems to have done nothing but enable the Master’s foibles. You may have boggled at the following exchange already (it’s in every radio promo):

Padmé Amidala
You’re not all-powerful.

Anakin Skywalker
I should be! Someday I’ll be the most powerful Jedi EVER!!

That’s about as good as it gets. Ten years have passed since the events in Phantom Menace, and the annoying Jake Lloyd has been replaced by the annoying Hayden Christensen, whose performance as the sullen, impatient late-teen Anakin (destined to become Darth Vader) is, to put it bluntly, terrible — with his flat, uncomprehending delivery, he comes across like the worst actor in a high-school play, whom everyone indulges because he’s also the star quarterback. Anakin has a serious crush on former queen turned senator Padmé (Natalie Portman, politely composed throughout), who eventually gives in to his pathetic cajoling because — well, because Lucas decrees it; I can see no other reason. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, relegated to a supporting role in a movie he’s first-billed in) zips here and there looking for bad guys who tried to assassinate Padmé and tracking down the hidden planet where an army of clones is being readied.

The clones don’t quite attack, though they get off a few shots during one of the film’s 51 climaxes. Instead of reducing the number of groaningly boring dialogue scenes in which members of the Jedi Council sit around grimly discussing matters of grave intergalactic significance, Lucas arrogantly throws in yet more civics lessons and then aggressively bombards you with action, as if to make up for all the yapping. The action did less than nothing for me. There’s no sense of awe or terror or grandeur in the imagery. It’s all so smooth and fast and hermetically-sealed it makes you feel trapped inside a private PlayStation game set on demo in Lucas’s head.

Even when the ridiculously named Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, underused but always nice to have around) faces off against the wizened Yoda, in the sort of moment that separates the fans from the unbelievers (I thought the duel looked immensely goofy), Lucas can’t bring himself to crack so much as a smile at what he’s wrought. Not that there aren’t sad stabs at humor; C-3PO is the foil for much indignity, as when his head is placed onto a Battle Droid and vice versa, and R2-D2 drags C-3PO’s head away while he says — I wish I were making this up — “Oh, this is a drag.” Does Lucas actually think that’s funny? Is there no one in his sphere bold enough to tell him his writing sucks?

Attack of the Clones is pop junk taking itself with deadly messianic seriousness, as if the morals in these movies would instruct children for generations to come (there’s even a cheesy just-say-no scene when Obi-Wan declines “death sticks” from a scuzzy dealer). The movie never lingers on any identifiable emotion, even when Anakin goes ballistic and avenges his dead mother on a bunch of Tusken raiders, or when he and Padmé end up married in a final sequence full of computer-tweaked beauty but no love whatsoever. I have no particular hopes for Episode III, in which Hayden Christensen will be even whinier, Natalie Portman will be visibly counting the days till she can get back to real movies, and George Lucas will be busily designing new toys and action figures but forgetting to come up with a good film to showcase them in.


May 10, 2002

unfaithful-2002--00A couple of decades back, in Francis Coppola’s ambitious dud The Cotton Club, Richard Gere and Diane Lane engaged in forbidden passion but forgot the passion. Lane was only eighteen at the time, barely a step or two removed from the surly teen she’d played in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Now she and Gere are reunited in Unfaithful, and this time Lane is all woman. After many early years of closing herself off from the camera — maybe she was too self-conscious to give more of herself — Lane has become, in her late thirties, an open and vulnerable actress. She is more than enough reason to see Unfaithful, and this time the lack of sparks between her and Gere is part of the movie’s core.

Connie (Lane) and Edward (Gere) are comfortably married, with an eight-year-old son (Erik Per Sullivan) and a nice house in the New York suburbs. There’s really nothing wrong with their marriage; there’s just not much excitement left in it, though Connie isn’t bored, exactly — perhaps just pining for the intensity and uncertainty of a new relationship. She gets it in spades when she runs into Paul (Olivier Martinez), a darkly handsome book dealer. Director Adrian Lyne and screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr., reworking an old Claude Chabrol film, don’t give us any obvious signs that Connie is doing anything terribly right or terribly wrong. Edward isn’t a jerk, Paul isn’t a sleazy sex hound, and Connie’s life isn’t awful enough to run away from. There is no logical reason for Connie to fall into bed with Paul (and then return obsessively for more), but since when has the libido obeyed logic?

Up to a point, Unfaithful is a distaff bookend piece to Adrian Lyne’s 1987 sensation Fatal Attraction, in which Michael Douglas also had no compelling reason to cheat on Anne Archer with Glenn Close other than the simple fact that Glenn Close rang his bells loudly. Unfaithful isn’t the manipulative hot-button potboiler that Fatal Attraction was; Lyne is interested in the dynamics of sexual obsession and its emotional fallout, as he was in 1993’s Indecent Proposal and his Lolita remake. There’s a wonderful line in Laurell K. Hamilton’s novel A Kiss of Shadows in which a man remarks to the female narrator that she’s looking at him as if he were something to eat. Connie looks at Paul as if he were a buffet table of glorious fattening dishes, after years of marital fruits and vegetables.

Something happens about an hour in — like A Kiss Before Dying, this is a twist-in-the-middle film. Lyne and the actors go about it expertly, and then set about addressing the aftermath. The movie becomes a bit broody and poky, but Diane Lane keeps us plugged into the emotions of the piece even when she’s not around as much. She has a personal-best moment on the train ride home from Connie’s first sex with Paul; you can’t tell whether Connie is laughing or crying — maybe both at once, maybe alternately. You can see why she goes back for more: Paul might screw up her life, but she’s never been this excitingly screwed up before. Lane also brings out the best in Olivier Martinez, whose scenes with her have an ardent tenderness shading into hot roughness, and even Richard Gere, who bestirs himself enough to give a living, breathing performance as a good, solicitous man as bewildered by his own emotional swings as Connie is by hers.

Lyne takes all of this seriously; he has always, I think, been a serious director, though sometimes a bit too smitten with his own stylistic perfume (he’s another Brit in the Ridley Scott/Alan Parker mold).Unfaithful is a better film than the compromised Fatal Attraction (with its egregious bunny-boiling and bathtub-death ending) and leagues better than Lyne’s foolish 9 1/2 Weeks. Lyne doesn’t hype the eroticism here, he just lets it bubble out of Diane Lane’s performance. He gives the film (even in its more lurid moments) a steady, contemplative pulse that earns respect. And he ends it all on an appropriately ambiguous note, a suggestion of escape fantasy that, like the other fantasies in the film, will likely end badly. This is possibly the closest thing to a true adult drama you’re going to see from this talented stylist; as such, it should be looked at as if it were something to eat.

The Eye

May 9, 2002

The Eye is probably one of those horror films completely ruined by Internet hype. Those lucky enough to stumble onto it with no expectations were most likely blown away by a stylish and, at times, quite frightening supernatural thriller about a blind woman (Lee Sin-je) who has a corneal transplant and begins seeing blurry and troubling things. Now, though, the Internet backlash has kicked in, and some cynics want you to know that The Eye is just a ghost story, for Christ’s sake, and not a particularly original one at that (dutifully ticking off predecessors like The Sixth Sense). Granted, the film doesn’t re-invent the wheel. And the premise might’ve been explored with a bit more cleverness and curiosity.

But. The Eye, directed by the hotshot Hong Kong brothers Danny and Oxide Pang, made me jump a bunch of times, and seriously creeped me out at least three times. One such time comes early in the game, when the woman, called Mun, is recuperating in the hospital after her eye operation. Her eyesight isn’t anywhere near 100% yet; the world is still a blur to her. She hears sounds out in the hallway, and rises from her bed to investigate. What follows is simple to describe: she has an encounter with a ghost. And we can see that coming. What we haven’t bargained for is how aggressively the Pang brothers use the film vocabulary of a blurred, disoriented point of view to ratchet up the terror. We may also not be ready for the Pangs’ sadistic use of sound (crank this 5.1 Dolby sucker way up if you want to shit your pants). The ghost doesn’t even really do anything. It moans, it says something, and it slowly, sloooowly approaches the camera while staying defiantly out of focus. And it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Later, Mun wants to take an elevator up to her apartment, but notices on a security camera that a gray-haired ghost, facing the corner (shades of Blair Witch, and done with infinitely more menace here), is in there. She opts for another elevator. She peers inside. It’s empty. She gets in. Pushes the button for the 15th floor. And suddenly we’re into a sequence that could do for elevators what Psycho did for showers. And it doesn’t end there. We may be thinking to ourselves, “She should’ve just taken the stairs,” but the Pangs then do for stairways what they just did for elevators. It’s a virtuoso scene of sustained suspense.

What do ghosts want? Movies, including this one, tell us that ghosts are embittered vestiges of the soul, taken abruptly from life and not realizing they don’t belong on this plane of existence anymore. As in Ringu and its remake, and as in Sixth Sense, the protagonist must figure out a way to appease the restless souls so that they will move on. Here, Mun’s transplanted corneas are courtesy of a deceased Thai girl with a backstory to rival Carrie White’s. In life, the girl was ostracized for her visions; now Mun is seeing through her eyes. Inevitably, The Eye loses some force when it starts explaining itself. The first 45 minutes or so — culminating in that celebrated elevator sequence — carry enough what-the-hell-is-going-on? freakishness to power five lesser movies. We expect resolution, a return to order, an affirmation that all of this is going somewhere logical, but when we get it, there’s unavoidable disappointment. The Pangs pay a price for laying such creepy groundwork in the first half: they have a hard time following their own act.

The incongruously concussive climax has been jeered for echoing that of The Mothman Prophecies, a moron-movie no self-respecting horror film should share a room with, but it reminded me more of the wham-bam opening scenes of Final Destination and especially Final Destination 2 (which The Eye‘s similar highway massacre preceded). Hong Kong movies seem to exist comfortably in the overlap zone between the spiritual and the hyperbolically physical, and some of The Eye‘s excesses might put off Western tastes. (It’s reportedly being groomed for a Hollywood remake by Tom Cruise’s production company.) I cannot say The Eye is the end-all-be-all of modern supernatural horror, and the Pangs, enthusiastic and skilled as they are, lack the perversity of a Takashi Miike or the pathos of an Alejandro Amenabar. Still, the brothers have contributed more than a few fine moments to the horror pantheon, and interrupted my sleep patterns for a couple of nights. I can’t really ask more than that.


May 3, 2002

Try as I might, I can’t find it in me to get very excited about a movie like Spider-Man. What it does, it does reasonably well; this was probably the best Spider-Man movie that could be made (which leaves the inevitable sequels with their work cut out for them). Fans of the comic will be satisfied; newcomers will likely strap themselves in and enjoy the summer-movie ride. Yet Spider-Man may be a harbinger of a new (and, of late, ceaselessly hyped) trend in big-budget escapism: four-color weightlessness, decades-old superheroes presented squarely and without much irony or personal vision. The lights are on in Spider-Man, but nobody’s home; the movie is amiably impersonal, painless yet fundamentally forgettable.

When Stan Lee devised Spider-Man for Marvel Comics forty years ago, he took pains to give him — or, more accurately, the hero’s everyday persona Peter Parker — the mundane problems and insecurities that never seemed to plague the neo-gods over at Marvel’s competitor DC Comics (Superman, Batman, etc.). Peter is a bookish nerd given remarkable powers — agility, strength, wall-climbing — by a run-in with an irradiated spider. The movie sticks pretty close to this premise (though the spider has been decontaminated and made a genetic mutant); Tobey Maguire plays Peter as a slumping dork, smitten with the charms of schoolmate and next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), until the spider intervenes and Peter starts cresting on the high of his new empowerment.

The early scenes of Peter discovering and testing his abilities (with a funny, fan-pleasing moment when he tries to figure out how to make his wrists shoot webs) are enjoyable, like any Hero Learns the Ropes montage. And Peter’s first draft of what will become the red-and-blue Spider-Man togs is a terrific sight gag. But Peter becomes too virtuosic too quickly; before long, the computers take over and we’re watching a bits-and-bytes Spider-Man swing and zip all over the city. The people in his personal life — his devoted Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and his legendarily doomed Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) — take a back seat, and the movie becomes about the clash between Spider-Man and evil genius Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), who turns himself into the cackling Green Goblin in response to being ousted from his own corporation.

Dafoe has one wonderfully creepy moment when he achieves a perfect comic-book facial expression of complete megalomaniacal derangement. It makes you miss him all the more when he’s lost under the motionless Green Goblin mask, and when he’s up against Spider-Man you’re watching two guys in masks, as if the movie were history’s most expensive Halloween party. Maguire is appealing in his early, dweeby scenes, and Kirsten Dunst gets a gently teasing rhythm going with him, but you keep thinking they’ve both been in richer stuff than this. If the press is to be believed, you’re going to see a lot more fine actors collecting paychecks in these superhero thrill rides; they make the rides smoother, but they get turned into action figures.

J.K. Simmons comes through; as the blustery J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle, who has a knee-jerk distrust of Spider-Man, Simmons understands exactly what kind of movie he’s in and delivers a rapid-fire performance of high comedy, both utterly true to the comic-book character and entertaining for newcomers. Once again, he’s the best thing in a Sam Raimi movie. Spider-Man is unquestionably the biggest box-office success this once-great director (who made his name with the delirious Evil Dead films) will ever make, and it’s certainly livelier than his past few films, but Raimi has already made a brilliant superhero movie — 1990’s Darkman, which wasn’t based on a comic book but played so affectionately with every comic-book cliché that it was as if Raimi were saying to Hollywood, “This is how you do it.” Spider-Man doesn’t have anything like Darkman‘s parodic pop majesty. Raimi, who once was such a go-getter director that he had to invent cameras to get the swooping shots he wanted, stages the action here like any other high-paid summer-movie maestro. This time, it’s as if Hollywood were saying to Raimi, “This is how you do it.”