Walk Before You Crawl

In Spider-Man 2 everyday hard knocks trip up our hero

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click to enlarge MONSTER OF THE DEEP DEPRESSION: - Parker/Spidey's problems worsen considerably - when Doc Ock shows up. - copy; 2004 Columbia Pictures
copy; 2004 Columbia Pictures
MONSTER OF THE DEEP DEPRESSION: Parker/Spidey's problems worsen considerably when Doc Ock shows up.

When we last saw Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, at the end of the 2002 blockbuster that bears his name, he was brushing off the girl of his dreams and walking off into an uncertain future, apparently sealing his fate as the world's most messed-up superhero.

Parker's an even bigger hard luck case in Spider-Man 2, which is bad news for him but good news for us. The new film spins a web of solid gold from the various small and large tragedies of its characters' lives, providing substance and flavor to what is essentially a kick-ass action movie.

It's a given that the life of any costumed superhero in these postmodern times isn't exactly a bed of roses, but Parker/Spidey (Tobey Maguire) seems particularly marked for misery and loner status. Most of the first hour of Spider-Man 2 is devoted to young Pete's money problems, girl problems, guilt, self-doubt and general depression (with a rousing action scene or bit of levity thrown in every now and then to keep the natives from getting too restless). He's just been fired from his job, he's failing his classes, his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is about to marry somebody else, his saintly Aunt May's being evicted and his former best friend (James Franco) has turned on him.

As if all that weren't enough, it seems as if the old Spidey-powers are beginning to malfunction, a condition that turns out to be — you guessed it — psychological, culminating in a crisis of confidence leading to Parker chucking his Spider-Man persona. This makes for one surprisingly poignant storyline, and director Sam Rami interweaves it beautifully with the movie's more visceral attractions, namely Spidey's showdown with a spectacular, mechanical-armed transgressor called Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina).

Just as the heroes are tortured and flawed in the Spider-Man universe, so are the villains anything but the dastardly stick figures we've come to expect in other comic book movies. Doc Ock is a complicated and tragic figure — a benevolent genius accidentally transformed into an all-powerful megalomaniac. Where the first movie's nemesis, Green Goblin, was (unintentionally) silly, Ock is a monumental and menacing foe — and, as we all know, movies like these live or die by their villains. Rami stages Doc Ock's every scene brilliantly, harking back to the director's pre-blockbuster days as a class horror act with pulp fare like Darkman and the Evil Dead movies.

Much time is spent in Spider-Man 2 reintroducing the characters and rehashing their relationships, but this turns out to be essential in getting us to care about what happens to the characters when the sparks eventually do begin to fly. Rami skillfully juggles the movie's human-size dramatic elements with its enormous action set-pieces, driving his hero into a deeper and deeper hole only to make his ultimate redemption and resurrection all the sweeter. (Watch for the money shot that'll make Mel Gibson weep: a prostrate and apparently martyred Spidey being carried aloft across a sea of upraised hands.)

The movie gets off to a bit of a slow start, but soon finds its footing, concentrating and amplifying the strengths of the first film until it winds up being even better than its prototype. There are one or two endings too many, including what appears to be a trailer for yet another sequel, but if it's even half as good as this one, then bring it on.

The Players
Love Me If You Dare may sound like some advertising come-on for a tacky new line of perfume, but it's not. It's actually the title of a brand new romantic-comedy imported from France, and one that I really, really wish I liked more than I do.

Audiences in Europe are singing the film's praises, and more than a few festivals have even seen fit to award it one prize or another. Even more important, at least on the home front, this is one of the first foreign films to open at Sunrise Cinemas since they assumed the mantle of Madstone Theaters over in Hyde Park. So what better time than now to show our support for this brave new local endeavor?

Easier said than done. Love Me If You Dare is a tale of amour fou — that distinctly French concept of mad, crazy love, so ravenous and all-consuming that it eventually even gobbles up itself. Done right, amour fou is an impossibly juicy subject for the big screen, full of screaming drama, for sure, but too rich with passion and joi d'vivre to remotely qualify as depressing, even with all the self-destruction in the air. There's a delicate balance to be negotiated there, though, and Love Me If You Dare doesn't quite get it right.

The look of the movie is opulent and loaded with a quirky, playful visual imagination that strains to evoke the form and feel of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's much-loved Amelie. The Amelie connection is inescapable and probably intentional, from the brightly colored and slightly fractured fairytale universe that the movie works a little too hard creating, to the camera's relentless swooping and swirling.

What all this elaborate style furiously strives to embellish is a story about a boy and a girl who spend their lives torturing the world and each other with stupid little games, even though it's clear they're both just looking for love. The film is divided roughly into three parts, following Julien (Guillaume Canet) and Sophie (Marion Cotillard) at 10-year intervals — as children, as twentysomethings, and then in their mid-30s — as they compulsively play what amounts to a private version of truth or dare.

The movie might have benefited had the games played by the pair been either ingenious or at least subversive, but they're not. Julien and Sophie's antics at first are just frivolous and dumb — peeing on floors, inappropriate singing at funerals, wearing their underwear on the outside of their clothes — and eventually become personal and mean-spirited. As the couple enters adulthood, their games turn into cruel and pointless rituals targeting each other's emotions and leading nowhere.

The movie makes it abundantly clear that these two damaged souls are nuts about each other and belong together, but it delays and complicates their inevitable merger in a manner that's ultimately as annoying as the lamest Hollywood romantic comedy. Worse, the movie doesn't seem to know if it's serious art or fluff, or how it wants us to react to what it's showing us. The constant tonal shifts from the whimsical to the pathological seem less calculated than slapdash, and none of it is very much fun to watch.

The film's bouncy, brazenly artificial comic-book aesthetic rarely jibes with its curiously dour realism, and the whole thing eventually becomes a bit of a drag. It's amusing enough watching the camera perform loop-the-loops in and out of some character's ear for a while, of course, but sooner or later we realize that some more conventional camera movement would have done just as nicely.

Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at 813-739-4858, or [email protected] weeklyplanet.com.

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