[Editor's note: Caution, minor spoilers about "Spider-Man 2" and "Before Sunset" ahead.]
Everybody knows there's one movie that's definitely worth seeing this weekend, but please be advised there are actually two. Let's consider the obvious one first.
"Spider-Man 2" is that rare event, a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster with both a heart and a brain. As was the case with the first Spider-Man movie, the source material helps: The conflicted superhero and his diffident alter ego, Peter Parker, are possibly the most soulful of the Marvel Comics characters. And bringing in the gifted novelist Michael Chabon to help develop a story line for this second movie out of the many hundreds of "Spider-Man" comics published since 1962 was an excellent idea. The narrative deepens this time out, and the characters bloom.
When last we saw Spider-Man, two years ago, he had just put away the Green Goblin — mad industrialist Norman Osborn, the owner of the New York chemical company OsCorp, and the father of Peter Parker's best friend, Harry Osborn. From a sweet-natured science dweeb living with his aunt and uncle, Parker had been transformed into a full-fledged superhero, a role he accepted with deep misgivings, because he realized that his new powers would never pay the rent and couldn't protect him from simple human sadness or heartbreak. He felt isolated from the rest of the world by the need to keep his identity a secret, and cut off most painfully from Mary Jane Watson, the girl next door, who was the love of his life.
"Spider-Man 2" opens with Parker (the doe-eyed Tobey Maguire, now looking 14 rather than 12 years old) on his own in the world and screwing up as a pizza deliveryman — a part-time job for which he obviously lacks the requisite zest. Peter needs the money to pay his way through college; but between biking pies around Manhattan and attending to his superhero sideline, he has little time left over to devote to his science studies, so he's screwing up in school, too.
Meanwhile, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is now an actress. (She's appearing in an off-Broadway production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," a play about double identity.) She still loves Peter, but she's grown tired of waiting for him to make a move. So she becomes engaged to the astronaut son of J. Jonah Jameson, the hilariously hardboiled editor of the "Daily Bugle," the tabloid for which Parker sometimes works as a freelance photographer.
As for Peter's friend Harry, he's now the head of OsCorp, and is financing the fusion experiments of Dr. Otto Octavius, a genial physicist who is also one of Peter's science idols. Octavius is attempting to create "an exponential increase in energy production" using the radioactive isotope tritium. When this undertaking goes catastrophically wrong, and the four huge robotic tentacles he has affixed to his back to assist in the endeavor become fused with his body and take over his brain, he mutates into the decidedly less genial Dr. Octopus — "Doc Ock," as "Bugle" editor Jameson immediately dubs him: "New Villain in Town." From this point on, let's just say that dull moments are few.
"Spider-Man 2" is a terrifically entertaining action-fantasy film not just because of its special effects (which are as head-shuddering as you'd expect), but because director Sam Raimi realizes that his most special effect is the bittersweet emotional connections among his characters. It's exhilarating to track along behind Spider-Man as he leaps across rooftops and swings through the canyons of Manhattan, and it's pretty wild to watch Doc Ock snap a taxi in two or go clamping up the side of a skyscraper (just like Spidey, only a lot more noisily); and when the two of them go up against each other in a big bank-robbery scene or (even more thunderously) on the roof of a barreling train, you know you're getting something in excess of your money's worth. But there's no more magical FX scene in the movie than the one in which Peter and Mary Jane lie quietly in a nest of webs on the side of a bridge, and she looks at him without his mask and says, "I think I always knew."
Superhero tales usually end with the triumphant dispatch of the supervillain. But Doc Ock is basically too nice a guy to qualify in that regard — he's fearsome, but he isn't really evil, not deep down. So the elation that does come at the end of "Spider-Man 2" is romantic. I don't think I'm blowing it for you to note that when Mary Jane runs up to Peter Parker and says, "Isn't it about time somebody saved your life?" — well, it's the perfect line at the perfect time. It's moving and human, almost as if the iron law of FX action movies — boom! bang! ka-bash! — had been temporarily repealed. All too temporarily, as I suspect we'll all-too-soon see.
"Before Sunset," the new Richard Linklater movie, was shot in 15 days and completed for a fraction of what Columbia is spending just to advertise "Spider-Man 2." But while this picture consists almost entirely of two people walking around Paris and talking, it's also an exhilarating film, in a unique form.
The lead characters, Jesse and Celine, appeared earlier in Linklater's 1995 movie, "Before Sunrise." Played then, as they are now, by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, they were strangers on a Eurail train — a wandering young American and a French graduate student — who got off in Vienna and walked around and talked and talked and slowly, over the course of 14 hours, improbably, but undeniably, fell in love. They had to part before sunrise, but each promised to return to Vienna in six months to see where this nascent relationship might take them.
In "Before Sunset," nine years have passed (of course). Jesse is now a writer in his early 30s, living in New York with his wife and 4-year-old son. He has written a successful book about that long-ago one-night romance in Vienna, and on a European tour to promote it, he visits a Paris bookstore to autograph copies and be interviewed by a group of journalists. Looking up at one point, he's startled to see Celine standing off to the side. Quickly winding up the interview, he goes over to greet her. He's scheduled to get on a plane back to the States in just a few hours, but there's time to do something, he says. Maybe just go for a walk.
Strolling through the cobbled streets and leaf-strewn byways of the city, they fall back into an easy intimacy. Celine claims not to be really clear about the details of their long-ago night of love; Jesse remembers the brand of condoms they used. "Do I look different?" she asks. "Well," he says, laughing and having fun with her, "I'd have to see you naked."
Celine works for the environmental organization Green Cross. She has relationships with men — she's in one now — but they always seem to fizzle out. She's restless. She's read Jesse's book, and found it strange "being part of someone else's memory." She says, "When you're young, you believe there'll be many people you can connect with. You get older, you know it'll only happen a few times."
Jesse tells Celine he loves his son, but that he and his wife aren't happy together and haven't been for a long time. It's a melancholy observation, not a come-on. He simply wishes he and his wife could have the better lives they both deserve, with other people. He says, "Do you think if we never wanted anything, we'd never be unhappy?"
Celine wonders about the six-month reunion that never happened nine years ago. Did Jesse actually return to Vienna for it? No, he says. She's visibly relieved — she wanted to make it, but her grandmother died and it became impossible to keep the date. As it turns out, though, Jesse knows she didn't make it ... because he was there. He really cared. He still does. But does she? And is there enough time to find out before his flight leaves?
This 80-minute movie is a marvel of artful compression. The dialogue, which was written by Delpy, Hawke and Linklater, seems so completely spontaneous that it comes as a surprise to learn that the film was in fact tightly scripted and rigorously rehearsed. (A necessity: Linklater was committed to shooting the picture in very long, uncut takes.) In standard movie terms, nothing really happens — no one gets shot, nothing blows up. But there's an uncanny sense of life actually happening, unmediated, right before your eyes. It's a hypnotic experience.
For a film like "Before Sunset" to open in the same week as "Spider-Man 2" is absurd, of course. Without substantial promotion, how large an audience can it possibly draw? And as Linklater himself said during a visit to New York last week, "If you don't have a great opening weekend, you go down in history as a bad movie."
But this is a very good movie, and good movies can always live on: in repertory theaters, midnight screenings, on DVD. It's always possible you might see it at some future point, I suppose. But it's for sure you can see it right now. Make it a two-movie weekend.
by Kurt Loder