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Swing Time

Tobey Maguire offers up a compellingly human superhero in Spider-Man; Woody Allen thumbs his nose at Hollywood -- what else is new?

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Bridgework: Tobey Maguire as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  

Spider-Man is an odd duck. Despite all the computer-generated effects and highflying superhero theatrics, this roughly $120 million movie is, with few exceptions, remarkable only in its small human touches. Tobey Maguire plays the resonantly nerdy Peter Parker, who is bitten by a genetically mutated spider during a high-school field trip and acquires arachnidlike powers: Newly buff, no longer needing to wear specs, he discovers he can spin webs and scale buildings. Peter's initial awe and distrust for what he has become are compelling and funny; his grand-scale spidery exploits, as they play themselves out in the second half of the movie, feel fairly standard, lacking even the graphic charge of the Marvel Spider-Man comic books.

Stan Lee -- who, with Steve Ditko, first came up with the idea for Spidey in Amazing Fantasy in 1962 -- is credited as an executive producer of the movie, and yet the lore and the look of the film seem derived not so much from the Spider-Man comics as they do from other superhero movies, especially the Superman series. Sam Raimi, who began his career making low-budget horror schlock and graduated to bigger and blander fare, is reputedly a Spider-Man aficionado, but instead of pulling out the stops, he allows a dull conformity to settle in. He's doing here pretty much what Chris Columbus did to Harry Potter; he's protecting the franchise by keeping everything as palatable as possible.

For a while, at least, the mundaneness of the enterprise is somewhat refreshing, compared with, say, the camp grotesqueries of the last few Batman flicks, which just about turned me off to superhero movies forever. Maguire is well-chosen to play a kid with a dual existence: In his earlier movies, such as The Ice Storm, he often appeared rather blankly indrawn, but his reticence here has emotional levels; his character seems genuinely conflicted about using his powers. And Maguire works well with Kirsten Dunst, who plays redheaded Mary Jane Watson, his schoolmate and neighbor in the middle-class Queens neighborhood where he lives with his super-nice aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). Maguire and Dunst take their sweet time in their scenes together, puzzling out the feelings their characters have about each other. The coy, lovestruck reticence of Peter and Mary Jane, along with their occasional bursts of brashness, will probably mean a lot more to the film's core young-adult audience than all these supersonic spiderwebs. The couple share the film's best moment: After rescuing Mary Jane from a gang of thugs, Peter, as Spider-Man, hangs upside down in the rain in a dark alleyway and allows himself to be kissed by her, his face mask pulled down just enough to facilitate the smooch.

Raimi presents a New York that is only slightly stylized, and the plainness helps to set off the superheroes, not only Spider-Man but his arch enemy, the Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe. An armor-plated horror with a gargoyle face who zips around in a metallic glider outfitted with munitions, the Goblin has his own double life as corporate arms manufacturer and mad scientist Norman Osborn. (Dafoe seems scarier, and more goblinlike, when he's not hidden behind a mask.) The big battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin takes place at a World Unity Festival in Times Square, and it's a pity we don't get to see more than a snippet of Macy Gray performing "My Nutmeg Phantasy." If the filmmakers had any humor, they would have set Gray against the Goblin -- she's already flying high.

One aspect of Spider-Man may inadvertently move audiences. The film was conceived, of course, pre–September 11, and originally, before the scene was excised, Spidey had an encounter at the World Trade Center. I wish they had kept that material in, but even so, the film seems imprinted with its loss. As a movie location, New York isn't used particularly well in Spider-Man, and the scenes of the superhero whizzing up and around the skyscapes are too blurred and frenetic. And yet, there's a kind of poetic fulfillment for audiences in being able to soar fancy free above the city. For those who have felt confined by fear, it's an immensely satisfying flying dream.

In Hollywood Ending, Woody Allen plays Val Waxman, a has-been movie director who is hired for a comeback project and then promptly goes blind. The cause is psychosomatic: Val is highly neurotic. (Surprised?) The premise of a blind director making a movie in Hollywood -- he manages to keep it a secret from virtually his entire cast and crew -- is so funny that the dribble of a comedy we're left with is doubly disappointing. The joke, of course, is that, judging from the look of them, most Hollywood movies these days could just as well have been directed blind, and in general, Allen seems to be using his new film as an opportunity to fire off a slew of barbs at the movie business. And yet, the barbs are also self-inflicted: It's never clear just how talented the sighted Val was, and a few of the film executives, in particular the ones played by Téa Leoni (as Val's ex-wife) and Treat Williams, seem fairly humane. We end up sharing their exasperation with Val's yammerings.

At one point, Val bemoans how stupid the country is, how dumbed-down everything has become. Allen's new movie is far from dumb, but it has an air of abdication about it. He's been making piffle for a long while, and Hollywood Ending may be his way of saying that piffle is all that the airhead movie business deserves from him right now. When it comes to being self-deprecating and self-serving at the same time, nobody can match Woody Allen.

From May 8 through 21, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater will be presenting a complete thirteen-film retrospective of the movies of the great Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko, including his silent masterpiece Earth, among the most lyrical of all films, as well as Zvenigora, Arsenal, and Aerograd, which approach his greatest work. Dovzhenko's career, like Eisenstein's, was tragically truncated by Stalinism, but he's always been regarded as one of the cinema's premiere poets, and this retrospective offers a rare opportunity to see why.

Spider-Man
Directed by Sam Raimi; starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.
Hollywood Ending
Directed by Woody Allen; starring Allen.


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