Third's Still a Charm

With Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi does it again  

Movie Guru

by Mike Gibson

To all appearances, the third installment in director Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movie series had all the makings of another Batman and Robin , the buffoonishly overstuffed 1997 DC Comics-based film that nearly spelled the end of the Batman franchise. Never mind that Raimi deftly handled the first two films of Marvel Comics' Spidey series with an appealing, character-driven mixture of action, humor, and pathos; or that ineffably winsome co-stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco had all returned to the fold. With no fewer than three new super-villains, a new love interest, and the introduction of a souped-up new costume on tap, Spider-Man 3 looked for all the world like Raimi's inevitable misstep, a turgid mess of half-realized characters and subplots left in the wake of the mad stampede for more merchandising revenues. The only things that seemed to be missing were a Spidey suit with rubber nipples and hoary Joel Schumacher stumbling around somewhere in the background, gibbering in a coke-addled frenzy.

But something happened on the road to action-figure Valhalla; despite all the malignant storyline clutter, Raimi fashioned yet another rousing, heartstring-plucking superhero yarn. Though it's a tad sillier in spots and not as neatly tailored as its predecessors, Spider-Man 3 still rates as formidable multiplex entertainment.

This time around, the world seems to be turning up roses for our hero Peter Parker (Maguire) at the outset of the film. What's more, his alter-ego Spider-Man, the arachnoid superhero once vilified as a dangerous vigilante, is now the toast of the town.

But the life of a superhero is never very easy for very long, and Peter's is on the verge of going terribly awry. His erstwhile best friend Harry Osborn (Franco), son of supervillain Green Goblin, has discovered the secret of his late father's Goblin powers, and is hellbent on vengeance, blaming Peter/Spider-Man for daddy's death. Meanwhile, NYC police discover that the street thug who killed Peter's beloved Uncle Ben way back in Spidey No. 1 is still at large, having morphed into a stupendously powerful entity known as the Sandman.

Pete also has a cutthroat rival for an open staff photographer's position at the Bugle , and belatedly realizes that his self-absorption in the wake of Spider-stardom has created a rift between himself and his beloved Mary Jane. And then there's his mysterious new costume, created when an amorphous black alien parasite crash lands in Central Park and chooses Peter as its host. And with the advent of the new suit, Pete's personality undergoes unseemly changes.

With almost any other director, the freehanded inclusion of so many disparate elements would have yielded an unholy disaster. And make no mistake, Raimi (who is also credited as screenwriter along with brother Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent) would have done well to pare down the plot to a more manageable handful of concepts. The introduction of Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard), for instance, one of Peter's old girlfriends from the mid-'70s version of the comic book series, seems mostly pointless, a misplaced stab at geek verite. And though each of the three villainsâ"Sandman; Franco's New Goblin; and Venom, a sort of shadow-version of Spider-manâ"serves a distinct purpose in the morality play that has become a trademark of Raimi's Spider-films, one would think the writer-director could have accomplished the same ends without calling on the entire rogues' gallery of Marvel Comics.

What redeems Spider-Man 3 , and ultimately sets it apart from other action movies, is the humanity that lies at the heart of all the mad fantasy and super-heroics. It's hard to imagine a more engaging duo than Dunst and Maguire in the lead roles, Dunst with her sad blue eyes and fetching smile, and Maguire with his perpetually flushed apple cheeks. There's a profound, and profoundly simple, quality to their ongoing love story, an enduring sweetness that shines through because of its childlike simplicity rather than in spite of it. (Favorite moment: Peter standing in front of a mirror, goofily rehearsing his intended proposal to Mary Jane.)

And Raimi strikes all the right chords, too, with a larger message of forgiveness and understanding, as Peter is forced to confront his own shortcomings, and not all of the villains turn out to be as villainous as they seem. In an era when comic book heroes seem to be defined by Dark Knights and merciless Punishers, it's refreshing to see a storyline where vengeance takes a backseat to redemption.

Artistically, Spider-Man loses points due to over-complexity and sprawl. But it's still a pretty compelling piece of filmmaking by summer blockbuster standards, maybe better than its three-guru rating would have you believe. Initial appearances notwithstanding, director Joel Schumacher still stands alone in painful ignominy with his dreadfully overwrought Batman and Robin , and Sam Raimi is now three for three.

Movie Guru Rating:

Video a-Go-Go

Faster Than a Speeding Seabiscuit

Between his first and second Spiderman projects, Toby Maguire found time to shoot a different kind of movie, about a different kind of creature. Nominated for seven Oscars, Seabiscuit ( 2003 ) was a favorite with both the horse-crazy crew and the mainstream public.

Set in the Depression, Seabiscuit is the based-on-a true story of a racehorse that stole the nation's hearts at a time when everyone needed something to believe in. It's a film about second chances, and it's a film about challenges, and, mostly, it's a film about horses and their relationships with people.

The real Seabiscuit was smaller than most racehorses, and in his first year of racing he came in first only five times out of 35 races. Then he was sold to a different trainer, given a new jockey, and began winning graded stakes races. The film follows Seabiscuit through all of those trials, beginning with him as a loser, and then tracking him and his people as they begin a life of success, despite their circumstances.

Besides Maguire, the film also stars real-life jockey Gary Stevens, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Jeff Bridges. The movie's only flaw is its occasional lapse into tedium and dreariness. Director Gary Ross wanted the movie to contain all the history of the horse's trainer, jockey and owner, and lining those stories up takes a long time. Seabiscuit is 141 minutes long and about 30 minutes of that could have been dropped, with no alteration to the plot. Mostly, it's a riveting story, made even better because it's largely true.

The DVD contains several special features, one of most interesting being about the filming of the racetrack scenes. It didn't use Spiderman-caliber special effects, but it was a challenge, especially when the use of live animals is factored in. There were 10 horses used for Seabiscuit, and most of the racing shots were done with a full field of horses and jockeys; only the close-up shots of Maguire racing were simulated. But the coolest thing on the DVD is the real footage of Seabiscuit racing, though you have to wade through some unexciting interviews to get to it.

â" Lisa Slade

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