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‘Spider-Man 2’ Remains A Peerless Spider-Man Film

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Tobey Maguire portrays a thunderstruck Peter Parker Spider-Man 2; he staggers through the film perpetually on the edge of tears, a hero in crisis, never more so than when he sulks in his squalid apartment, pining for Mary Jane (Kirstin Dunst) and resenting the heroic obligation obstructing his happiness: why shouldn’t he be happy? He didn’t ask for any of this. That question is essentially the crux of the film, and it interestingly wrinkles a classic childhood hypothetical – “what superpower would you choose” becomes “would you choose one at all?”

Still, as the lyrics of Jet’s “Hold On” spill out over images of Peter in his apartment (you tried so hard to be someone / that you forgot who you are / you tried to fill the emptiness / ‘til all you had spilled over) it’s hard to resist cringing at the earnest precision of the music, at Peter’s teen angst, at the mid-aughts of it all. Viewed through the prism of Marvel Studios’ current cinematic aesthetic – technicolor, winking, antiseptic, safe – Spider-Man 2 feels like a predecessor, a relic even.

Yet the film remains impossible to dismiss, largely because of Sam Raimi’s direction, and importantly, because those embarrassing vestiges of MTV culture (Dashboard Confessional with the credits song in a tent pole superhero release?) pin the film to a distinct era – before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before Andrew Garfield, before Tom Holland, before the ascension of the Superhero industrial complex – when a movie’s failures and successes were unrelated to the narrative constrictions and the public perception of a larger cinematic narrative. Unlike Spider-Man: Homecoming, the most recent big-screen iteration of the character, Spider-Man 2 wasn’t assessed with respect to a recent slew of tangentially related, self-serious blockbusters. Raimi’s direction wasn’t constrained by the brand-specific style that has required each Marvel film since 2008 to look, behave, and sound like Iron Man.

It’s worth examining Raimi’s film in contrast to the string of comic book adaptations released since Iron Man, but the merits of Spider-Man 2 outstretch its independence from the modern superhero ecosystem: with its auteurist directorial style, the poignant love story at its center, and its engrossing portrayal of a reluctant hero, Spider-Man 2 is a masterful treatment of comic lore, and a superlative example of the potential of standalone superhero cinema. With Spider-Man 2, the director drenches the 1950 “Spider-Man No More!” arc in a genre cocktail, using horror, camp, romance, and comedy to adapt the story of a disheartened Peter Parker unsuccessfully attempting to ditch his alter ego.

The introduction of the film’s villain, Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), is pure (but bloodless) Raimi horror. Ock’s mechanical arms lash out like the tentacles of a B-movie monster, efficiently dispatching a group of doctors who die with their faces contorted in masks of terror. As the camera whirls through the carnage, following each of his lethal claws to their targets, the scene assumes the unmistakable look of a classic slasher film. Doctors are pulled across the floor, their nails digging shallow trenches into it; other deaths unfold as macabre shadow theater, with silhouettes splayed against the operating room wall.

In other scenes, the director employs a diametrically opposite tone, embracing the absurdity of the superhero genre. A skirmish between Spider-Man and Ock on the side of a skyscraper, which Raimi frames from above for an extra punch of vertiginous suspense, is punctuated with a moment of lighthearted serendipity when Aunt Mae, thrown skyward by the villain, saves herself by accidentally grabbing a gargoyle with her cane. In a later sequence, Peter rescues a young girl from a fire. After finding her, the floor gives out, and Peter is himself saved from certain death when the child – all of 6 years old – helps pull him up in a moment of heartwarming illogic.

Self-aware comic-book silliness is also coupled in Spider-Man 2 with the same quippy humor and sight gags employed in post-Iron Man Marvel films. When Peter is fired from his pizza delivery job after perpetual tardiness, his boss (Aasif Mandvi) rips the joint’s sticker from Peter’s bike helmet, a funny bit re-imagining Peter as a renegade cop made to turn in his badge. As Doc Ock robs a bank, spilling gold coins everywhere, the bank’s Manager (Joel McHale) tries stealing one before Aunt Mae, ever the moralist, composes herself just enough to slap it from his hand. Humor in the film turns meta later, when Aunt Mae tells Peter she threw away his comics – that junk was just collecting dust, anyway. The jab is worth a chuckle now, but in 2004 it astutely referenced the position of Spider-Man (and X-Men, and Nolan’s Batman Begins) at the vanguard of a superhero assault on Hollywood.

Raimi’s genre mastery works to blend levity with a gravity without relying solely on scares, or the bludgeoning darkness that permeates the comic book adaptations of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan. The conflict in Spider-Man 2 doesn’t rise to the level of aliens pouring from the heavens or ominous beams shooting skyward – earth, as a whole, is safe. Still, the events of the film feel momentous because of the way Raimi treats the film’s hero. Spider-Man is placed on a literal pedestal in the film, positioned atop the cities highest skyscrapers, far removed from the elevated trains and three-story walkups of his Queens origins. He swings from the tops of skyscrapers in impressive parabolic arcs that the camera mirrors in long shots that lend a sense of unstoppable inertia to his motion. His movement appears limitless, except when his spinnerets run dry, a physical symptom of his wavering commitment to the suit.

Maguire’s Spider-Man is a savior figure, swooping from on high through narrow alleys and dangerous traffic, toward the numerous dangers he senses from his perch atop the city. He is reactive, quickly and capably using his webs with a variety of techniques the film doesn’t stop to explain, and doesn’t need to. His abilities aren’t fodder for guardians of canon to quibble over, but signals used by Raimi to communicate what the film’s plot doesn’t necessarily: this Spider-Man is a formidable superhero, and Doc Ock, thusly, is a formidable foe.

Outside of his suit, Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker with an overwhelming fragility, as though the next indignity – a rejection from Mary Jane, or a rebuke from Harry Osborne – may break him forever. It’s less a nuanced take on the character than a direct steer into the particular identity crisis at the center of the film: Peter may not be able to coexist with Spider-Man, in any meaningful way at least. This internal conflict projects into the film’s love story, with Peter begrudgingly resisting the advances of Mary Jane, unwilling to risk her safety by acquiescing to her (and his own) romantic feelings. Unable to sustain his most cherished relationship, Peter feels his identity disappearing, as if being consumed by his heroic alter-ego.

Raimi gives the romantic storyline ample screen time, never allowing the tension between MJ and Peter to disappear behind the film’s superhero conflict. All of Peter’s crime-stopping early in the film exacts a toll on his relationship with MJ, in the form of missed dates and withheld emotion. As the film approaches a conclusion, she abandons the prospect of being with Peter – essentially abandons Peter himself. When she is saved by Spider-Man and ultimately discovers that Peter is behind the mask, the tension the film painstaking built is released, injecting an otherwise straightforward superhero film climax with an emotional wallop.

Raimi’s inspired direction, Peter’s interior drama, the romantic core of the film, the presence of a truly menacing villain – all of it coheres to capture the spirit of the Spider-Man character, and to tell a story that feels weighty without relying on an incoming apocalypse for stakes. Spider-Man 2 isn’t perfect; characters deliver awkward soliloquies, announcing their feelings and intentions to vacant rooms, and the film’s portrayal of Peter could add a layer of self-awareness, as the character tends to interpret even the pain he causes others as another facet of his own victimhood. It is flawed, but Spider-Man 2 succeeds in bringing a superhero character to life as more than one part of a greater whole, telling a story that can stand alone.

As for Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tom Holland’s version of the webslinger is definitely charming. His is a DIY hero discovering the range of his powers in Queens, low to the ground (as Tony Stark puts it in the film). But Homecoming quickly strips Peter Parker of his lo-fi appeal by attaching him to Stark, and by proxy, the Avengers storyline. Much has been made of the reboot’s treatment of Spider-Man as a high-school kid with high-school problems (look, he wears a backpack!), but the film itself has very little interest in exploring those problems, and instead portrays Peter as a striver, ready until the very end to abandon his youth and join the major leagues.

When Peter does realize at the film’s conclusion that he is better off as student than Avenger, the epiphany feels rushed, unearned, and inconsequential – partly because he spends the duration of Homecoming chasing Tony Stark’s favor, but mostly because the audience (thanks to the extra-textual visibility of Marvel Studios’ business plan) is forced to add an ellipse to Peter’s realization: he’ll hang out in high school, for now… Avengers: Infinity War is right around the corner, though.

Like Maguire’s Peter Parker, Holland’s take is aspirational and empathetic: he clumsily crushes on a senior girl and navigates the daily indignities of pubescent social life. However, thanks to the looming presence of Stark, Peter Parker’s problems in Homecoming never feel critical. How could they, when the film treats them from its first moment as a precursor to later appearances, and later installments? Spider-Man: Homecoming differs from Spider-Man 2 in this dependence on – and fealty to – a larger narrative. Raimi’s film was an interpretation that focused squarely on the character of Peter, intent solely on telling one story. It’s blend of tone, imaginative action (that skyscraper sequence could stand with any subsequent Superhero set piece), and genuine interest in character distinguish Spider-Man 2 from Spider-Man: Homecoming and the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

As Marvel’s Spider-Man reboot continues to beat up the box-office and receive its welcome as a conquering diversion, here to reintroduce fun and inconsequence to the already bright and breezy Marvel landscape, Spider-Man 2 exists as a reminder that audience investment and fun aren’t mutually exclusive, that significance is not always a byproduct of the bleak. It is ultimately breezy fare that manages weightiness, an earnest adaptation that winks at the silliness of its endeavor without succumbing to cynicism. Even after the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, it remains the defining Spider-Man film adaptation, and one of the standard bearers of the superhero genre.

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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