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Peter Parker just gives and gives and gives. But his dedication to fighting crime and whisking clueless children out of New York traffic as his alter ego, Spider-Man, only gets the perpetually tardy Peter branded as lazy and undependable. Even when he fudges a little, abusing his superpowers to, say, transport some pizzas within his boss’s 29-minutes-or-it’s-free guaranteed delivery time—swinging, with pie in the sky, above congested city blocks in the Spidey suit as a bystander remarks, “Whoa, he stole that guy’s pizza!”—his efforts backfire. The pizza caper leads to dismissal with the line, “I know to you, Parker, a promise means nothing.”
Stoic photographer Peter (Tobey Maguire) takes the abuse, though, which also comes from his professors at school, his maniacal editor at the Daily Bugle, and, indirectly, his best friend, Harry (James Franco), who blames Spider-Man for his father’s death. But when Peter becomes a disappointment to his lifetime crush, M.J. (Kirsten Dunst), he does succumb to depression: He can’t tell her why he’s so absent from her life; he can’t admit that yes, he really does love her; and when her glances toward him turn cold and she stops returning his calls, the greater good doesn’t seem all that important anymore.
“M.J.,” of course, stands for “Mary Jane,” but in Spider-Man 2, it might as well be short for “mojo.” Sam Raimi’s follow-up to his 2002 megahit is less a balls-to-the-wall action flick than a thoughtful character study on one man and his inability to perform. Superheroically, that is: Based on the comic The Amazing Spider-Man No. 50: Spider-Man No More, Spider-Man 2 shows its usually agile vigilante falling off buildings and running into walls, his web-slinging and surface-sticking powers failing him at the most inopportune times. When it’s clear that even his secret life is crumbling—and, worse, when M.J., tired of the mixed signals she’s getting from the man behind the mask, announces that she’s marrying some astronaut dude—Peter considers throwing in the towel (now colored pink, from washing his work suit with his whites) for an existence more ordinary.
Of course, though its four screenwriters (including Wonder Boys author Michael Chabon) keep Spider-Man 2 rather touchy-feely with a script that’s focused on the love story and prone to long monologues about sacrifice and choices and dreams, there’s still plenty of time for the good stuff. One particularly delicious surprise is the Evil Dead fun Raimi has with the sequel’s villain: Shifting genres for a spell in a campily vicious operating-room scene in which mild-mannered scientist Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina)—who has had mechanical tentacles attached to his body in an effort to somehow demonstrate his research on fusion power—transforms into the evil Doc Ock, Raimi employs dim lighting, chain saws, and quick zooms to horrified faces reacting to the emergence of the way-cooler of the franchise’s bad guys. It’s dark, wicked fun that’s a welcome counter to the frequent treacle, such as Spidey’s awkward I-am-a-human-being plea, “Punch me, I bleed!”
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The action sequences don’t come fast and furious from the start, but when they do, they’re breathtaking in their grace. A speeding-train confrontation shows our hero feelin’ fine, limboing under one bridge and slipping through the lattice of another before a triumphantly vein-popping, clothes-busting Superman moment in which he tests his strength. There is a bit more flash here than in the original—Dr. Octavius’ fusion project, after all, begs for lots of blinding light and brilliant explosions—but for a summer blockbuster, Spider-Man 2 is rather restrained.
Elegant, even: From its opening credits, in which the first installment’s story is recalled in lovely illustration, to Raimi’s frequent use of quiet, especially in the run-up to catastrophe, Spider-Man 2 is as concerned with beauty as with bluster. It’s a slicker, more solid movie than its predecessor, a rarity in the land of sequels. Raimi, like Peter, delivers the goods despite the doubt, clearly believing that a promise really does mean something.
Director Richard Linklater believes that you don’t have to swing from buildings to have a lot of drama in your life. At least that’s the idea behind his 1995 film, Before Sunrise, and its sequel, the new Before Sunset. Both star Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, and not a whole lot else: Before Sunrise shows the American Jesse (Hawke) and French Celine (Delpy), both young and idealistic, meeting on a Eurail train, when another couple’s argument spurs them to start a conversation that lasts 14 hours. It’s Jesse’s last night kickin’ around Europe, and he invites Celine to hang out with him in Vienna until his plane takes off the next morning. When it comes time for him to leave, the smitten pair don’t exchange phone numbers or addresses, but instead agree to meet at the same spot in six months.
Before Sunrise is an intimate series of getting-to-know-you chats whose script exchanges a traditional narrative for the characters’ opinions on life and love. Set nine years later, Before Sunset catches up with the masters of first-date conversation—even if the slice-of-life reality of these movies doesn’t grab you, you can’t deny that Jesse and Celine are damn impressive talkers—when Celine drops in to a Paris bookstore where Jesse, now an author, is giving a reading. His book is a barely fictionalized account of their night in Vienna, and this unexpected encounter is their first since then.
With Before Sunset, Linklater takes the first film’s already spare idea and compresses it into a Gen-X My Dinner With Andre. The movie seems to occur in real time, seamlessly edited as Jesse and Celine move from the bookstore, through the streets of Paris, into a coffeehouse, and finally to Celine’s apartment. Except for a few moments of nervous laughter or gee-whiz—never awkward—silence, their conversation is continual as they become reacquainted and fill each other in on what’s happened to them in the past near-decade.
The conceit is hardly revolutionary. Though the pair’s small talk is much more ambitious and engaging than what you’d typically find at your neighborhood Starbucks, listening to their 80-minute reunion is akin to listening to a Larry King panel, but with anonymous nobodies. Who but the most ardent Before Sunrise devotees (hands, anyone?) really cares what Jesse and Celine think about the environment, consumerism, and violence in America?
But if you let yourself be lulled by the easy rhythm of their conversation, you may suddenly start feeling as if you’d been punched in the gut. Their chatter soon turns to earnest talk of love and choices and longing; Jesse is unhappily married, and Celine prefers the relative solitude of a relationship with a frequent traveler after being suffocated and hurt by clingier lovers. Both are haunted by what might have been, had they reunited six months after meeting as planned.
Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater all had a hand in shaping the script, which is based on characters developed by Linklater and Kim Krizan. The subsequent events of Jesse and Celine’s lives have certainly been more mundane than their cinematic rendezvous in Vienna, but they turn out to be no less compelling, especially when discussed with such impressive naturalness by Hawke and Delpy. The most exciting thing that happens in Before Sunset is Celine’s impromptu shimmying to Nina Simone in her cluttered apartment, with Jesse quietly watching her with a look of fascination and giddiness. The moment is simple and aching and over before you know it—Linklater’s perfectly expressed message that it’s the stuff of day-to-day life that can make your heart soar. CP