Movie Reviews - 2000s postsWednesday October 07, 2015
Movie Review: Rocky Balboa (2006)
“Take It Back” plays over the title credits of “Rocky Balboa,” which is appropriate since that’s what Sylvester Stallone does here. He takes us back 30 years to the days of “Rocky.”
We get Spider Rico again, the first boxer we saw Rocky fight, and Little Marie, the “Screw you, creepo!” girl who didn’t listen to his advice when he walked her home that one night. We see two turtles in Rocky’s room, replacements for Cuff and Link, and instead of running through the Italian market to Bill Conti’s ridiculously uplifting score, Rocky (Stallone) buys produce for his restaurant, Adrian’s, where he acts as gregarious host telling old boxing stories to the patrons.
Adrian’s dead now, joining Mickey (“III”) and Apollo (“IV”), which leaves us with Paulie (Burt Young), the one who won't go away. He’s back at the meat plant for most of this movie, and is the complaining chorus as Rocky, on the anniversary of Adrian’s death in 2002 (“woman cancer” Rocky explains to Little Marie), does a nostalgic tour of their old haunts—or at least the ones from the first movie. There’s the pet shop where she used to work; there’s Mighty Mick’s, more rundown than ever. The ice rink where they went on their Thanksgiving date is torn down now, so Rocky stands beside the rubble, reminiscing. He even goes by his old apartment—the 1818 one—the one he couldn’t wait to get away from; the one that STINKS. He’s fond of it now.
Which raises a question: In old age, do we get nostalgic about even the things we hated in our youth? Or is the nostalgia tour more for Stallone? A reminder of better days for him, and for the movies?
A cruise or something
I always felt “Rocky” epitomized the split between good ‘70s films and crap ‘80s flicks. The first half is a ‘70s character study of a down-on-his-luck dude, skirting morality and legality; a man who WASTED his life, in the words of Mickey. The second half is, you know, “Rocky”: an inspirational tale of perseverance and success. When the receipts came in, making “Rocky” the No. 1 box-office hit of 1976, Hollywood began to run with the second half of this equation and hasn’t stopped. We got less and less character study and greater and greater wish-fulfillment fantasy. In the subsequent “Rocky” movies, it wasn’t enough to go the distance; Rocky had to win. Then he had to beat: 1) angry blacks; 2) Russia; 3) punk kids. He got sleeker and smarter and less talky. In the original, he talked forever. Whatever was on his mind. He filled gaps.
We get this Rocky again. He’s not sleek here; he’s a pug. The first half of the movie is a character study of the lion in winter, and it’s not bad. It’s touching when Rocky puts on his glasses in the Italian market to read from his grocery list. There are subplots with his son, Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia from “Heroes”), that aren’t cartoonish. Junior has a corporate job with a douchey boss who belittles him even as he admires Rocky. He’s trying to create space for himself away from his father’s shadow.
I think the relationship between Rocky and Little Marie went on too long and go too creepy (creepo), but I like the dialogue after he first drives her home. It says a lot about our society. Two kids, one black and one white, are hanging near her front stoop. That’s my son, she says.
Rocky: You know he sort of resembles you—he’s got that big Irish hair.
Marie: Yeah, it’s the other one.
Marie: His father was from Jamaica.
Rocky (nodding): Jamaica. European. [Pause] Was you on a cruise or something?
I was hoping it would remain this kind of character study, but it’s a Rocky movie so we have to have a fight. But even here Stallone goes retro.
During the training sequence, Rocky drinks raw eggs and pounds frozen meat, neither of which he’s done since the first film. More importantly, his opponent here, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), isn’t demonized the way Rocky’s post-Apollo opponents were. Clubber Lang was all seething trashtalk, Ivan Drago amoral Teutonic stoicism, Tommy Gunn whiny, spoiled need. They’re cartoons. Dixon is a little more complex. The movie has mixed feelings about him that bend positively. He winds up a good guy. At the same time, he’s kind of a non-entity.
In the sequels, Rocky always won. Here, as in “Rocky,” he goes the distance but loses. But in losing he wins. As does Dixon. It’s win-win.
So “Rocky Balboa” isn't a bad movie. I’d probably say it’s the second- or third-best Rocky movie.
Sunshine and rainbows
Sorry, but it makes no sense that the boxing match is a win for Dixon. The criticism of him in the press is twofold:
- He doesn’t have heart
- He wouldn’t have lasted a round against the superior fighters of the past—like Rocky Balboa.
In the match with Rocky, he shows heart. He breaks his hand and keeps going. He shows people he’s a true champ—that’s what everyone says afterward. But look at that second criticism. He barely wins a split decision against a 60-year-old man. What does that tell you about his place in boxing history? In losing, Rocky wins, but in winning, Dixon loses. He should never have taken the fight. It was lose-lose from the beginning.
We also get a ton of fudged messages to arrive at the feel-good ending. Paulie tells Rocky, “You’re livin’ backwards,” Robert Jr. tells his father he’s having trouble living in his shadow, and everyone objects when Rocky decides to fight again. All of these people are essentially correct but the movie doesn’t recognize that. In the movie, the fight totally makes sense, his son shouldn’t use excuses for why he’s not his own man—that’s what cowards do—and apparently it’s OK to live in the past if it’s with the girl you loved.
There are better lessons the movie could have played up. This, for example, is what Rocky says to his son before telling him that cowards use excuses:
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.
So if nobody hits as hard as life, why isn’t that the story? Why go into the ring for the lesser hits? Why not make the superior hits the story?
I know. Because that’s not what the public wants. Or what studio execs think the public wants. Of course, back in 1975, studio execs didn’t think we wanted a feel-good story about a down-on-his-luck boxer going the distance, either.
Movie Review: The Cat's Meow (2001)
Peter Bogdanovich has always been fascinated with early Hollywood (cf., “Nickelodeon”), so the scandal-laden death of film pioneer Thomas Ince while he was aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during a 1924 trip down the coast, which included Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Louella Parson (Jennifer Tilly) and Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), well, that’s the cat’s meow.
The result is a fairly straightforward picture, with touches of melodrama in the end.
I first saw the movie shortly after it was released, but 14 years later had pretty much forgotten whodunit. Didn’t Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros leave Ince’s death up in the air?
No, they didn’t.
Orson Welles, piker
Almost everyone boards Hearst’s Oneida with an agenda that relates to Hearst:
- Ince, credited with creating the “cowboy picture,” but with career floundering, wants to strike a deal with Hearst.
- Chaplin wants to woo Davies away from Hearst.
- Parsons wants greater Hearst distribution for her entertainment column.
The rest, mostly girls, just want to have fun.
So what happens? Ince witnesses Chaplin wooing Davies and uses this intel to get closer to Hearst. He keeps feeding him information (innuendo, love letters) until Hearst’s volcanic, cuckolded anger erupts. Except Hearst mistakes Ince—wearing Charlie’s hat, and talking softly with Marion in a stairwell—for Charlie, and shoots him in the head. Ince, in other words, creates the circumstances for his own death.
In the messy aftermath, the murder is covered up, Chaplin and Davies part company, and Parsons, a witness, lands a lifetime contract with Hearst’s newspapers and becomes one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.
How true is all this? Unknown. It’s gossip and guesswork. Apparently Bogdanovich first heard about it from that great raconteur Orson Welles, and in telling Welles’ tale, Bogdanovich actually gets to outdo his idol. In “Citizen Kane,” Welles suggested Hearst was a megalomaniac, warmonger, tyrant, bad friend, and a poor little boy who just wanted his sled—but he stopped short of murderer.
What I never understood while watching? Why these people were on that boat. Why did Hearst invite Chaplin? To spy on him? If so, why in the early going does he seem oblivious? Why invite Ince if he doesn’t want to do business with him? Or did Marion choose the guest list?
Dunst makes a great, bubbly Marion, and Izzard is a good Chaplin, if a bit thick-limbed and graceless. (Chaplin would’ve been all over that Charleston number.) The standout is Edward Hermann’s Hearst: the giant undone by the Little Tramp, and then, post-tragedy, remade by will, wealth and power.
(I’m curious: Did Hearst’s newspapers hound Chaplin after this? Were they part of the “Get Charlie out of the good ol’ USA” line in the late 1940s? Anyone know?)
Another standout is Joanna Lumley as the cold-eyed romance writer and Valentino screenwriter Elinor Glyn, who I knew nothing about before this movie. (Apparently she popularized the concept of It, as in “The It Girl.”) So much of our history just goes. We need to remind ourselves how our archetypes (cowboys, Valentinos) were created and monetized. In the long run, that’s a more valuable exercise than figuring out who killed Thomas Ince. Ince is long dead, but we still have Valentinos. And men are still being elected president of the United States by pretending to be cowboys.
Movie Review: Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss (2008)
Here’s a quote from “Cinemas of the World” by James Chapman that I’ve always found helpful in explaining the world:
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
I expected more of that, or at least some of that, from the documentary “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss.” Instead, Felix Moeller’s look at Veit Harlan, the Frank Capra of Nazi filmmakers who directed one of the most notorious anti-Semitic films of the era, a period drama called “Jew Süss” (1940), focuses almost exclusively on how Harlan’s family has dealt with its tarnished legacy.
His son Thomas led a fascinating life, although we get only glimpses of it here. He became a playwright, a poet, a filmmaker. In the 1960s, in Italy, he unearthed thousands of Nazi crimes, which helped with thousands of prosecutions. He became, in effect, a Nazi hunter. He also publicly condemned his father. “Once you’ve seen that the fruit of your work turns into a murder weapon, it is difficult to just say, ‘Well, I’m a filmmaker and I will carry on making films,’” he says. “That was the end for me.”
Another son, Kristian, wearing a trim beard and a severe look, takes the opposite tack. “The image of my father is mine,” he says without heat but with firmness. “And it’s nobody’s business what I think of my father or my mother,”
Caspar calls his father’s work “unforgivable,” while a daughter, Maria Körber, talks about how work-oriented their father was—to the exclusion of all else. She also mentions seeing “Jew Süss” late in life and wondering what the fuss was all about.
So do we, in a sense, since we only get glimpses of the movie here. No one even tells us the plot. We have to look that up for ourselves.
Basically, it’s a Nazi version of “Birth of a Nation.” In the 18th century, a Jewish merchant wiedles his way to power, taxes the people, takes a Christian woman by force, and is eventually executed for the crime. “May the citizens of other states never forget this lesson,” one character intones in the end. It was a huge box office success in both Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Overall, Harlan’s movies were seen by more than 100 million people during the war.
That's why it’s startling when we learn that earlier in life Harlan had married a Jewish woman—a cabaret singer named Dora Gerson, whom he divorced in 1924. (She died at Auschwitz.) The phrase “fellow traveler” comes up often to describe his politics. He wanted to make movies and went along with whatever regime was in power. For most of his career, that was the Nationalist Socialist Party.
The Harlans are spread over Europe now. One grandchild, Alice, is French and beautiful; another, Caspar, is Italian and handsome. Harlan’s niece, Christiane, wound up living in England with her husband Stanley Kubrick (yes, that one), while her brother, Jan, produced Kubrick’s last four films: “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Overall, the doc includes too little history and too much handwringing. It’s video footage of what the Harlans think of Veit Harlan, and of being Harlan. The nature of propaganda is hardly explored.
The most telling moment may be when Maria admits that her father didn’t feel particularly guilty about any of it. “He’d always claimed that he’d been forced,” she says, “and that he’d been under such pressure that he couldn’t refuse.” This is then juxtaposed with the ending of “Jew Süss,” in which the Jewish merchant, on trial, says the same thing:
The charges against me are due to the direct orders I received from my duke. I have the duke’s written orders. You can check. I am merely the faithful servant of my master!
It's not only ironic but unoriginal. It was the most tired defense of the era. Or any era.
Movie Review: Please Teach Me English (2003)
Comedies don’t travel well, but since I taught English abroad—Taiwan, late 1980s—I thought Kim Sung-su’s South Korean comedy, “Please Teach Me English,” might work for me. And it does, for the most part, but I doubt I needed the ESL experience to appreciate it.
The comedy is pretty broad. At times it’s really broad. There are bells and whistles: thought balloons popping up on screen, cartoon versions of the lead character, a video game takeoff of ESL. It’s fun. But it goes on about a half hour too long. In the boy-meets-girl playbook, it plays like this:
- Girl meets boy
- Boy is a jerk
- Boy becomes less of a jerk
- Girl becomes more of a jerk
- Girl does something so awful I lost all interest in her
- Boy gets girl
If I were the filmmakers, I might have lost step 5.
A financial Sophie’s Choice
It begins well. Slow-motion panic enuses at a government office in Seoul when an American shows up to complain about his electricity bill. Everyone ducks out of the way, unsure of their English ability, and afterwards at a restaurant/bar they all play spin the bottle to see who in the office will take English lessons to deal with foreigners in the future. The bottle lands on our heroine, Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong), who might be one of the few people in Asia who doesn’t want to learn English.
But off she goes, meets the cute boy, Park Moon-su (Jang Hyuk)—the smooth “playa” in her class whom the cute blonde teacher, Catherine (Angela Kelly), dubs “Elvis” for his sideburns. He eminates nothing but disinterest, not to mention a lazy kind of loutishness, but she’s smitten anyway. She does whatever she can to land him.
Since this is Asian cinema, there’s pathos amid the comedy. Years earlier, Moon-su’s mother faced a kind of financial Sophie’s Choice: She had two children, couldn’t afford both, so she gave up the daughter, Victoria. Now Victoria is a successful attorney in New York and coming to visit for the first time. That’s why Moon-su, a shoe salesman, is taking the ESL course—so they can talk between the tears.
Of course, just when our romantic couple is about to get together (step 3, above), Yeong-ju finds the photo of the pretty Korean girl in his wallet, assumes it’s Moon-su’s girlfriend rather than his long-lost sister, and retreats. He pursues. She retreats again. And again. Then she does step 5. Corralled into translating for mother and daughter, and still assuming Victoria is the girlfriend rather than the sister, Yoeng-ju tells Victoria that the mother and Moon-su both hate her and never want to see her again. It’s a pretty horrible moment. But then she goes the other way—flinging herself in front of Victoria’s cab to tell her the truth—before running away again, pursed by Moon-su, who, in a nice bit, if one that goes on too long, finally corners her on a subway and slips on her feet the red shoes she’s always wanted while professing his love for her. Applause from the people in the subway. Cinderella wins, even though she was a total jerk 10 minutes earlier.
War in somewhere
It’s not bad, not great, but what recommends the movie for me is its take on English and America: from the colorful and confusing corporate logos swirling around Yeong-ju as she rides the bus, to the Hollywood SWAT team that, in Yeong-ju’s nightmare, bursts in on their class and demands they answer a question in English at gunpoint: What is your favorite movie?
But my favorite moment was when Yeong-ju was watching CNN as a way to improve her English. A western correspondent in fatigues was reporting from abroad. The headline? WAR IN SOMEWHERE. Nothing says “America” more than that.
START: What does Na Yeong-ju want? To live in a world where she won''t have to speak English.
The world doesn''t cooperate.
But at least in ESL class she meets a cute boy.
Unfortunately, he''s a jerk.
Fortunately, she's goofy.
But there's all those damn western girls around. (Psst: They put out.)
Meanwhile, ESL is as scary as a video game.
Or a SWAT team nightmare.
But is anything as scary as U.S. foreign policy? *FIN*
Movie Review: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made? I’ve stated so in the past, but we’ll see how I feel at the end of this review.
The movie is based upon one of the classics of the Silver Age of Comics, Spider-Man #50, “Spider-Man No More!,” written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita and published in July 1967, in which our hero, tired of losing as Peter Parker as often as he wins as Spider-Man, dumps the Spidey costume in a back alley and gets on with his life. It’s all going fine until he spies an old security guard being roughed up by hoods and comes to his rescue. Why does he save him? Because the old man reminds him ... of course! … of Uncle Ben! How could he forget? Indeed. How could Peter forget the man who raised him but lost his life because Peter was too busy making money as Spider-Man to stop a simple thief? That’s like Adam and Eve forgetting the snake. And that’s the main problem with Spider-Man #50.
Director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent, working off a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and famed novelist Michael Chabon, go a slightly different route. Just as their first movie, “Spider-Man,” internalized Spidey’s webs, making them part of his physiology rather than a weekend Peter Parker science project (thwip!), so “Spider-Man 2” internalizes the “No more!” part. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gives up being Spider-Man because he actually loses his powers. He never forgets his Uncle Ben.
Forget him? Shit. He’s haunted by him.
Worst. Party. Ever.
This is the superhero movie, by the way, that most reminds me of the period when I was collecting comic books: roughly 1973 to 1977. It’s Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man. No Spider-Mobile, thank god, but Pete’s got the tenement walk-up, the rent is due, and he’s failing his classes. Everything that can go wrong, does. In the movie, he’s fired as a pizza delivery guy, then forced to take J.J.J.’s crap pay so J.J.J. (J.K. Simmons) can turn the city against him. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is losing her house, Harry Osborn (James Franco) is obsessed with revenge, and M.J. (Kirsten Dunst) is dating a handsome astronaut, who just happens to be J.J.J.’s son, John (Daniel Gillies). You wonder when Pete’s going to break.
He does in bits. He’s web-slinging through the city and suddenly ... no web. He looks over a tall building and feels vertigo. But he still turns into Spidey to save: 1) the city from Otto Octavius’ botched fusion reaction experiment; and 2) Aunt May from a bank-robbing Doc Ock. But the third time? Bupkis. No web, no grip, no nothing. “Why is this happening to me?” he says. His doctor, tapping his noggin, tells him the problem is “up here.”
Later, up there, Pete debates a ghostly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson):
Uncle Ben: You’ve been given a gift, Peter. With great power comes great responsibility.
Peter: No, Uncle Ben. I’m just Peter Parker. I’m Spider-Man no more.
Cut to: a goofy montage of everything going Pete’s way, backed by Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
But to get back to his earlier question: Why is this happening to him?
Back in 2004, I assumed it was the weight of all of it: Harry, Aunt May, J.J.J., M.J., Aasif Mandvi. But it’s not. It’s just M.J.
The clue comes early, during a kitchen table conversation with Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). “If you keep something as complicated as love stored up,” Octavius tells him, holding hands with his wife, “it can make you sick.” And so it does.
The final straw is a brutal one. J.J.J. hires Pete to photograph a big event for his son. Harry’s there, drinking, being an asshole, and obsessing over “your friend, the bug.” M.J., now a successful model and actress, is there, too, on the balcony, cold and distant, and Pete, at the 11th hour, and against all logic, tries to save the day with 19th-century British poetry. For some reason it doesn’t work. “I don’t know you,” M.J. says. She tells him that John has seen her play five times, Harry twice, Aunt May once. Him? Never. “After all these years,” she says, “he’s nothing to me but an empty seat.” This is followed by, in short order, 1) a drunk, belligerent Harry accuses Pete of stealing his father’s love and letting him die, then 2) slaps him repeatedly (where are those Spidey reflexes when Pete needs them?), before 3) John Jameson announces his engagement to M.J. as everyone cheers. And even that’s not the low point. The low point is when J.J.J. shouts, “Parker, wake up! Shoot the picture!” and a stunned, heartbroken Peter, with the sting of his best friend’s slaps still on his cheeks, is forced to photograph the engagement announcement of the woman he loves to another man.
After a day like that, you’d lose your powers, too.
Nobel prize, Otto
Even so, how stupid is Peter Parker? He only goes after M.J. once she’s gone. And with poetry? My god, that’s dumb. Pete’s dumb, J.J.J. is oblivious, and everyone else is brutal. Seriously. The problem with Peter Parker isn’t the weight of being Spider-Man; it’s that he chooses lousy friends.
Even as just Peter Parker, life’s still screwed up. When he tells Aunt May he’s the one responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, she simply walks away from him without a word. When he saves a kid from a burning building, a fireman deflects his heroics by saying, “Some poor soul got trapped on the fourth floor.” When the skinny daughter of his Russian landlord brings him milk and cake, their time together is awkward and cringeworthy.
So how does Spidey get his groove back? It begins with Aunt May. She can’t afford the mortgage anymore so she’s moving into an apartment. (BTW: Shouldn’t Uncle Ben have paid off this mortgage, like, years earlier? What was he spending his money on? Booze? Broads? Gambling? Forget Pete’s parents; that’s the retcon story I’d like to see.) As Pete’s helping with the move, or at least standing around like a goober, Aunt May gives this speech about the missing Spider-Man. It’s basically a Gipper speech:
I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride—even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.
Hey! Every emotion Pete’s trying to sort through in this movie! What a coincidence.
By the way: Does Aunt May know? That he’s Spider-Man? You almost get a glimmer of recognition earlier when he yells “Hang on!” as she’s clinging to the side of the building while he’s battling Doc Ock.
More than terrified: A look that says, “Wait a minute, I know that voice ...”
It’s like she recognizes the voice beneath the mask. You get a glimmer during her Gipper speech, too. I mean, why say all this to Peter Parker, mousy NYU science student? Because of his cowardice at the bank? Is she trying to make him a hero? With this speech? “Peter, be a hero because it sucks.” Either she knows he’s Spider-Man or she's kind of an asshole.
Then we get more “I’m ready, you’re not”/ “No, you’re ready and I’m not” from M.J. and Peter. Seriously, these two. Seriously, M.J. It’s not just going hot and cold with Pete. It’s not just calling Peter “a great big jerk” and not inviting him to the wedding. It’s the idiocy with the kiss. In the first movie, Spider-Man kissed M.J. upside-down in the rain (you remember), so M.J. is trying to figure out who Spider-Man is by kissing guys. Or at least two guys. First, it’s John, her fiancé, and that makes tons of sense. He’s only the son of the man who has made a career making a villain out of Spider-Man. Is she even thinking? Then she tries to kiss Peter at the coffeeshop. Because Spidey and Peter are connected by the photographs? Because Peter “changed” just as Spidey “retired”? Who knows? Who knows what goes on inside that woman’s head?
But that’s the moment we begin the rest of the movie: As M.J. is puckering up, the car comes crashing through the coffeeshop window, Doc Ock appears and takes M.J., saying, “I’ll peel the flesh off her bones,” snap snap. Then Pete loses his myopia, turns back into Spidey, battles Doc Ock on an elevated train, battles him by the river, and M.J. sees who Spider-Man really is. Wedding with John? Nope. She’s a runaway bride. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” The End.
Can I complain before we get into the end? How much of an idiot Doc Ock is, too? At the coffeeshop, he needs Peter to contact Spider-Man. Yet if not for Pete’s Spidey powers, which Ock doesn’t know about, he would’ve killed him. Twice. Once when he sent the car through the window and the second time when he slammed him into the wall and it fell on top of him. Smart, Otto. Nobel prize, Otto.
And look, I get Sam Raimi’s background as a horror director, and it led to that great scene in the hospital room where Octavius’ arms take out the surgery team. But, dude, what’s up with all the screaming women? It’s half the movie.
SLIDESHOW: The Terrified Women of Spider-Man 2
Ock's wife is our first terror victim.
Then the nurses at the hospital get into the act.
Ah, the old fingernails stand-by.
Ock terrifies the secretary pool ... or excites them. Is it a supervillain outside or the Beatles?
Hey, this one can act! Hire her.
And what’s with all of the gratuitous shots of pretty women? Who does a girl have to fuck to not be in this movie?
But we still get a great ending.
The great ending
The battle sequences throughout the movie stand up 10 years later. It’s a comic book brought to life.
But the elevated train sequence elevates things a notch.
Spidey keeps getting knocked off the “el” and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds but Spidey saves them. You almost hear Ock’s “Bah!,” his great unspoken “Bah!,” as, fed up with nickel and diming it, he destroys the train’s controls and leaves it shooting like a bullet through Manhattan. Maskless at this point, Spidey can only save the passengers by exhausting himself, at which point we get our greatest version of the superhero pieta: Spidey, supine, passed over the heads of the passengers and into the safety of the train compartment. “He’s ... just a kid,” a man in a Mets cap says, and that says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is just a kid. Back in 2007, when I wrote a “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes” list for MSNBC, that scene landed at No. 3.
But it gets better.
At the river’s edge, Ock is using the tritium he got from Harry to recreate the botched fusion reaction experiment. He thinks it’ll work this time but it doesn’t. Same deal: small sun, huge gravitational pull. What to do? Spider-Man tries to appeal to the humanity inside Doc Ock by revealing his own: He takes off his mask. For a moment, it works. “Peter Parker,” Ock says, smiling. Then he remembers an earlier line and relays it again with amusement: “Brilliant but lazy.”
Can I pause to compliment the casting here? We get the best J.J.J. and the best Aunt May we’ll ever get. Molina is not only our best Spider-Man villain, but, I’d argue, one of the best superhero villains of all time. And that’s tough competition: Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Sam Jackson’s Mr. Glass. But I’d put Molina top 5. He not only terrorizes the city and us, he wins back his humanity. The way he says, “You’re right,” to Peter after Peter repeats Aunt May’s self-sacrificing words to him. It’s lovely to watch an actor think on screen. Molina helps make the movie.
But what really makes the movie is The Shot. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero-making.
From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects the nerdy me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies. And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.
Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.
That scene, by the way, was No. 1 on my list of the “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes.”
M.J. in the window
So: Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made?
All superhero movies have faults. They have to. They’re absurd. Spider bites don’t turn us into spider-men, gamma radiation doesn’t turn us into hulks, men from other planets don’t develop god-like powers because of Earth’s sun. Plus the movies make their own mistakes. The Joker’s machinations are impossibly complex, Hulk has daddy issues, Superman joins the anti-nuke movement.
The faults of “Spider-Man 2” are more numerous than I remembered: Peter is stupid with poetry, M.J. and Harry are both bitter, and who doesn’t find out Peter is Spider-Man? Probably just Aasif Mondvi. But everything else works.
We even get an ending as ambiguous as “The Graduate.” Remember it? Yes, M.J. is a runaway bride, and yes, she shows up at Peter’s tenement walk-up, and yes, they finally, finally kiss. Then she lets Spidey be Spidey. He hears a siren, he knows what he has to do, and she says, a la '60s M.J., “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” So off he goes, web-slinging through the canyons of Manhattan. But instead of ending right there, Raimi cuts back to M.J. in the window, worried and filled with doubt. This is the burden she carries now. Because the man she loves risks his life every day.
Or maybe she’s simply anticipating the disaster of “Spider-Man 3.”