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Spider-Man Oh Man

Tobey Maguire gets serious in Spider-Man 3

By Eric Kohn

Restraining every ounce of my cynical proclivities, I have to admit that the idea of throwing a “Spider-Man Week” in New York is undeniably cute. The iconic comic book hero has all the messianic symbolism of Superman and still carries an everyman status. Peter Parker, the web-slinging photo geek behind the arachnid mask, simultaneously exudes the innocence of big city aspirations and the woeful self-criticism of its current youth culture. It would’ve been nice, however, if the reason for celebration were pegged to authentic creativity. That’s something, I’m sorry to say, that Spider-Man 3 sorely lacks. Former indie slasher director Sam Raimi’s latest entry in the lucrative franchise carries a drove of good intentions and comes up short in almost every regard.

The story begins in media res, with earnest Parker (Tobey Maguire, geekier than ever) ready to pop the question to his darling Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, painfully relegated to the damsel-in-distress). Spidey’s new alien black suit (one of the comic book’s most compelling plot twists) stirs the devil in him, but in this case that just means Maguire gets a goth-inspired disheveled mop and slinks down the street as though lost in an early MTV video and drops cringe-worthy one-liners like, “You want forgiveness? Find religion!” Ironic, since the movie constantly suffers from religiously depending on its source material for inspiration.

A couple of villains pop up and cause problems, including Parker’s former pal Harry (James Franco), who mistakenly blames Spider-Man for his father’s death. Once Harry gets a nasty bop on the head during battle, causing him to forget his hostile intentions, the character gets downgraded to acting like a smiley mental case (you practically expect his tongue to lackadaisically flop out of his goofy grin). This behavior inexplicably attracts adulterous Mary Jane, providing one of many examples of the movie’s main problem: Everyone seems to be plagued by perpetual stupidity. Raimi, who created a reasonably accurate comic book vibe in the first entry of the series, elevates that same feeling to the extent that the whole thing becomes a live action cartoon, so the characters no longer require real motivation or intelligence. It’s a shame, because the damn thing is destined to turn a profit, further fueling the mentality that dumbing down pop art actually benefits the multiplexes.

Adaptations of superhero comics are no stranger to buckets of cash; back in the late 1970s, when Richard Donner successfully returned Superman to the big screen, word got out that master thespian Marlon Brando nabbed $3.7 million for 13 days on the set playing the Kryptonite’s virtual pop. That’s one of the many entertaining revelations in Brando, a two-part documentary tracing the actor’s career that will air on Turner Classic Movies and premieres at Tribeca in its full three-hour glory. It’s a long time for your standard issue round up of interviewees waxing poetic on talent that everybody already realizes as genius, but the faces that the filmmakers pull together -- including Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, and wizened On the Waterfront scribe Budd Schulberg -- carry so many intricate and fascinating anecdotes about the enigmatically talented performer that the fun mood never falters.

At once an artist, devout activist and eco-friendly inventor, Brando’s life defined the finer moments in Hollywood history and rebelled against them (consider his refusal to accept an Academy Award for The Godfather, a role that contributed to movie history, in order to protest usurped Native American land). The movie illustrates how Brando’s technique became popular as a result of his ability to construct characters on a large scale while injecting an integral brutality to his approach. While his honest work in Bernarndo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris allowed autobiographical elements to seep into the frame, it’s a wonder he never worked with more independent filmmakers, which leaves us to contemplate what could’ve been.

Brando didn’t make it into the early years of neorealism, but he wasn’t the only one; you’d be hard-pressed to find anything from China that matches the style of Roberto Rossellini or John Cassavettes—until now, at least. Lost in Beijing brings the shaky cam mentality to a small story of sexual chaos in the Far East. Director Li Yu endured difficulties in his native country when attempting to release the movie with fairly explicit sex scenes intact, but it’s hard to imagine it any other way. The story centers on a couple of young lower class couples who end up swapping each other’s mates in a series of circumstances too bizarre for me to reiterate them here. At any rate, a pregnancy happens and nobody’s quite sure which man is entitled to status as the father, and a misshapen four-person household takes shape. At once hilarious and movingly tragic, Beijing taps into the deep personal codes of relationships and expounds on their destructive tendencies.

The main appeal of Beijing for American audiences is its successful implementation of traits generally associated with Western independent filmmaking into a fresh setting. That can be found in a variety of Tribeca’s foreign fare, especially among its documentaries. While the remarkable Planet B-Boy, which showcases the world’s greatest breakdancers in an international competition, comes from New York-based director Benson Lee, its global scope gives it a sense of ingenuity. The movie documents the physical talents of dancers from France, Germany, Japan and the United States (whose participants are intent on reclaiming their status as leaders of the herd).

Other entries offer more insular cultural insights: Ido Haar’s 9 Star Hotel probes the lives of Palestinian construction workers slinking through the shadows of Israeli borders as a part of their daily work routine. The unsettling conversations held between these downtrodden youth doesn’t offer any solutions to the Middle East’s most confounding human relations issue, but it’s an illuminating presentation of personal turmoil that newspaper headlines will never provide. The same can be said for The Man of Two Havanas, Vivian Lesnick Weisman’s fantastic personal introspection focused on her father’s clandestine friendship with Fidel Castro. Weisman uses revealing CIA tapes to unravel her familial ties to one of America’s most confounding enemy. It’s enough to make you wonder why the far right hasn’t branded the festival as anti-American -- but that possibility should be the least of its problems.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Spider-Man 3
Brando
Lost in Beijing
Planet B-Boy
9 Star Hotel
The Man of Two Havanas

Posted at April 27, 2007 5:57 AM

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