Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (C) skews too safe and squeaky-clean with Tobey Maguire a particularly bland central casting choice stuck playing the dual role of the superhero and Peter Parker. After dispensing with the mythology of how the teen becomes the “arachninspired” legend, Raimi plunges the story into a rather weak romance with Mary Jane (a dead-eyed Kirsten Dunst) and a beleaguered battle with the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, in another “didn’t he used to be good?” role). The special effects are obvious cartoonish CGI and miniatures, and the action just doesn’t seem all that urgent. The best thing that can be said is it’s a fairly harmless film that kids will enjoy as a starter comic book adventure, viewed with parental guidance of course. With great power comes great responsibility, and the usually very creative Raimi stumbled a bit on the job here. Kudos to the iconic upside-down spider-kiss though!
George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (C) upgrades the effects and the action from its prequel predecessor but leaves at its centerpiece a burgeoning and head-scratching love affair between Hayden Christensen’s pouty Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman’s listless Padmé Amadala that is so poorly written and acted that it threatens to bury the whole franchise in the sands of Tatooine or the waters of Naboo. Some bounty hunter espionage helps put a spring in the film’s step, and Anakin gets to show a darker side when he kills some Tuskin Raiders (hey, aren’t those guys bastards anyway?); and the action of the passive voice title seems to partially occur. It’s largely an attack on good sense. John Williams’ love theme is pretty but underscores a Harlequin romance. Ewan McGregor is again wasted as Obi-Wan Kenobi solving a parallel mystery.
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (B-) is an epic historical drama set in the mid-19th century in the Five Points district of Lower Manhattan. While Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are fine in their roles, it is Daniel Day-Lewis who steals the show as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, the crime boss and political kingmaker of a time period inclusive of Irish immigration, the Civil War and the New York Draft Riots. It’s clear Scorsese was going for Dickensian characters and atmosphere on classic American turf, but then he rushes the final act. The story isn’t all that memorable, even if The Butcher’s menace lingers on.
At around an hour and a half, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (B-) is a quirky trifle from a director who’s accustomed to directing an opus. Adam Sandler’s character is a schmuck with rage issues, but he’s paired with the super-sweet Emily Watson in a romance. To the tune of Jon Brion’s harmonium and through bizarre sequences with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and others, this is PTA’s version of After Hours. Sandler glows from the great writing and direction.
Related article: I reference Adam Sandler’s acclaimed role in this Wall Street Journal story.
Even richer in its themes about the importance of telling stories, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (A) centers on the friendship between the Hobbit characters played by Elijah Wood and Sean Astin while continuing to build a mosaic of characters preparing for a battle for the ages. The adventure in this installment is a wonder to behold. The sequences with Treebeard slow down the film a bit like the Yoda sequences do in another famous trilogy, but it’s mainly forward momentum all the way here as the merry band of adventurers encounter new obstacles.
Rob Marshall’s 1924-set musical Chicago (A-) brings song and dance razzamatazz back to the screen as Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones take on the juicy roles of ladies who will kill for fame. Many musical numbers from the stage show become fantasy dream sequences in the film, which works beautifully. From the cell block tango to vaudeville sketches, this film brings all that jazz and more to the proceedings, and it’s a dark comedic good time.