Arachnophobia, Francophilia, and Other Pretensions
By Fernando F. Croce

All right, cards on the table: Comic-book movies bore me. It should not be like that, for what are they if not the modern equivalent of fairy tales -- maybe I secretly yearn to see superhero blockbusters as vessels of contemporary pop poetry and anxiety, though getting cornered by people trying to expound on the dark complexity of Batman Begins or Superman Returns keeps me from trying too hard. Tim Burton's two Batman films come closest to justifying such claims, but the only superhero flick I truly dug was Superman 3, where Richard Lester clearly disliked the comic and was taking the piss out of it, with the Man of Steel, unshaven and sloshed, flicking peanuts like bullets off a bar top. Another third installment, another arrested adolescent gone wild. In Spider-Man 3, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) embraces his inner mack-daddy after some interplanetary black snot attaches itself to him; his Spidey suit shifts from red-and-blue to tar-black, the hero succumbs to vengeance, and, when off the clock, turns up at the jazz dive where Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) works to show off a few Bob Fosse moves. Even before that, the web-slinger's ego is already swollen, too taken with his own celebrity to be of comfort to his girlfriend -- MJ disastrously debuts on Broadway, the camera cranes from the enraptured Peter to Harry the Junior Goblin (James Franco) sneering from the balcony. Besides Harry's mock-Hamlet inclinations, there is also the Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), an escaped convict "demolecuralized" into a sifting CGI chunk, as well as Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), professional asshole and, eventually, Venom the Bizarro Spidey.

The surplus of archvillains is typical of the when-in-doubt-multiply rationale of Spider-Man 3, which extends to chases, lachrymose crescendos, special-effects and climaxes. Too bad, since the Spider-Man movies always had a light touch, a vulnerable romanticism to counterbalance the noise and the ink undeservedly spilled over these "fables of moral responsibility." Here, however, the strain to elevate Spider-Man from masked Harold Lloyd to troubled-complex hero is even more labored than in the previous installment, and reviewers do cinema no favors by scrambling to wring meaning out of a "darkness" that is worn and tossed like the costume it is. Usually an agile director, Sam Raimi has glue in his veins in this one, torn between a frustrated desire to fashion a musical and the realization that it's getting harder and harder to recapture the heightened intensity of Darkman (a bit of it is felt as Spidey, posing as a cathedral gargoyle, peels the evil skin off while the bell tolls heavily). It sure doesn't help that Maguire is the most neurasthenic star of his generation, though Raimi at least clarifies things for me by putting him and Topher Grace side by side -- I sincerely have never been able to tell them apart. Why the hell is James Franco in the sidelines? His character is given most of the film's hack inanities (including, I shit you not, amnesia), but Franco has the rascally charm Maguire can't even mime properly: When he woos Mary Jane with the culinary dexterity he showed in The Company, the film breathes a playful sigh before having to rush out again. With so many millions at stake, Raimi and Co. must keep rushing, seeking more stunts, "darkness," a soul. Marvel Comics honcho Stan Lee is far more honest about the whole business, he simply shows up, recites his homely without the slightest feeling, and exits left for his paycheck.

*

Alain Resnais weaves a different web in Private Fears in Public Places, another quasi-musical. Melancholic Minnelli to Raimi's acrobatic Donen, Resnais takes the genre's plaintive pitch as the connective tissue for six characters and abstracts everything around them into evanescence. The camera glides through a gentle Parisian snowfall and into an apartment, where Laura Morante is complaining to realtor André Dussollier about one of the rooms being sliced in half by a wall -- British comedy (Alan Aykbourn's play provides the basis) enacted by an Italian actress in French, the disparate elements wrought together elegantly in the same shot, with no montage in sight. To the aged Resnais, editing (fragmented to the rhythm of aching memory in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Muriel) fuses as much as it separates, and here it is silken, dissolves disguised as flickering snowflakes bringing together a graceful roundelay of disconnection. Morante's spongy beau (Lambert Wilson) spends most of his time at the hotel bar run by Pierre Arditi, whose invalid father (unseen but given Claude Rich's choleric pipes) tests the faith of his Bible-reading caretaker (Sabine Azéma); Azéma works with Dussollier and offers him tapes of religious shows with (accidental?) homemade stripteases at the end, which piss off Dussollier's young sister Isabelle Carré, a luckless bachelorette whose newest blind date is with Wilson. Relax, this ain't no Crash -- there are no gaseous, shoved-in statements about the Human Condition, only the director's decades of life and art contemplating a group of puppets, breathing into them an emotional music independent from Aybourn's libretto.

*

Alain Resnais is 84 and Andrea Arnold is 46, and yet how radiantly young Private Fears in Public Places is, and how depressingly decrepit Red Road is! That's because the former flows from an artist's feelings, while the latter is drawn from faddish notions of arthouse chic -- notions posited by charlatans like Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, to boot. Arnold's Red Road is virtually a parody of an "art film," with no drab stone left unturned: Dour protagonist (surveillance-room operator Kate Dickie), sludgy locations (the rubble-strewn surroundings of a Glasgow skyscraper), grimy sex, "ambiguity," "alienation," etc, etc, etc. A peevish and washed-out movie, unaccountably content with its misanthropy; its mainstream equivalent is Year of the Dog, also about a woman (Molly Shannon) whose loneliness masks cracks of anguish. Shannon is a hypersensitive secretary coming unglued following the death of her beloved dog, the better for precious-quirky-writer-turned-precious-quirky-director Mike White to heap derision over her and all the other caricatures orbiting around her. White is a baby Todd Solondz, and, like his fellow bug-eyed faker, chortles while reviewers swallow undisguised contempt and crap out "humanism." Amid fearsome cataracts of disdain, Shannon somehow survives -- like Catherine O'Hara in For Your Consideration, her nakedness of emotion wages a war against directorial scorn, and wins out by sheer individual force. Bless these sublime bitches.


Reviewed May 12, 2007.

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