Fantastic Duo 

Cinema with legs: Spider-Man 2 and The Saddest Music in the World.

Spider-Man, Spider-Man/Does whatever a spider can/Spins a web, any size/Catches thieves just like flies/Look out: Here comes the Spider-Man!"

Sound familiar? At the risk of spoiling a major treat of Spider-Man 2, I feel compelled to reveal that the song appears in the film, not as an opener or over the credits but during the film. Peter Parker is out for a night at the theater (Mary Jane has a plum role in The Importance of Being Earnest), and at a moment of frustration and pathos, Parker overhears an eccentric Asian street musician cheerfully plucking out the song and lyrics on a violin. The appearance of the song succeeds as comedy because the singer is funny and the timing is comic. However, the fact that the entire audience roared with laughter and could probably sing along solidifies the character of Spider-Man as a cultural icon and does so without standing out as gratuitous. It is one of the many cherries on this sundae that never melts and always pleases.

Two years have passed since the events of the previous film. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), nerdy high school student bit by a radioactive spider and, consequently, given spiderlike super powers, is now in college and juggling studies, pizza deliveries, and superheroics with no shortage of academic and personal angst. Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is now a model and actress, still pining for Peter's affections but ready to move on and marry a famous astronaut. Best pal Harry Osborn (James Franco) has taken over his father's business interests. Harry is still obsessed with the identity of Spider-Man, who he thinks killed his father. This is mostly true, but what Harry doesn't know is that it was in self-defense and that his deranged father was the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe in the previous film).

Harry's research facility has a new ace up its sleeve: fusion. Brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) has developed not only the formula for fusion but also a set of four mechanical arms that can keep the gravitational pull and outlashings of the fusion in check. These "smart arms" have a mind of their own and are fused to Octavius' spine, but don't worry: They contain a microchip that keeps them from straying from Octavius' will. The fusion experiment goes horribly awry (as they tend to), killing Octavius' beloved wife, humiliating Harry, and permanently merging Octavius and the arms. Now enraged and crazy, Octavius decides to try again, only this time with enough fusion power to destroy New York City. Oh, yeah, and Peter loses his job delivering pizzas.

Like a Snickers candy bar, Spider-Man 2 really satisfies. What a joy. For fans of the first film, the sequel will be an exhilarating ride. Every element of the storytelling is a leap beyond 2002's first installment. For one thing, the special effects have gotten better, so the previously cartoony-looking Spider-Man action scenes have a bit more texture and dimension. Previously, it looked like every time Peter put on his suit, an animated version of the movie would begin. Both Spider-Man and the Green Goblin looked more like action figures than men in costumes. That took a human element out of the conflict. Not this time. Molina, handsome but no Adonis, is very human and real as "Doctor Octopus," and his fiendish arms are individual characters all their own, like four aliens riding his shoulders, snapping their jaws wickedly.

While the action occasionally veers into melodrama, we get a much more complicated and developed sense of all the film's characters. Even Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) has more to do, and her own drama and dilemmas are nicely rounded. This characterization is not at the expense of action, however. The stunts and fights are upped considerably, and a second-act subway showdown is exhilarating. But it is Peter's drama -- getting along in the world, finding love, liking himself -- that stands even higher.

Marvel Comics pioneer Stan Lee frequently addresses his readership as his "true believers." A few sequels exempt themselves of the rule of diminishing returns from their originals. Superman II, The Empire Strikes Back, and Star Trek II are among the handful of second entries in the genre that learned that special effects are fine, but it is the human story that best reaches its audience and, in doing so, improves upon otherwise excellent predecessors. That's where true believers come from. Spider-Man 2 tickles the heart and the brain, suspends considerable disbelief, and does so with commanding flourish -- transcending the genre and succeeding as a great movie in and of itself. Believe it. -- Bo List

Evoking both silent cinema (especially Fritz Lang) and classic Hollywood (huckster Chester Kent comes across as a mix of Preston Sturges and Orson Welles) and yet clearly a world of its own, Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World is as distinctive a film as will grace local screens this year. Shot mostly in black-and-white (with much of that in ultra-grainy Super 8) with a few rich blasts of Technicolor, the film has a murky, hypnotic, hallucinatory visual style that is at once instantly familiar and unlike anything else you've seen.

Set in Winnipeg during "the depths of the Great Depression," The Saddest Music in the World draws on early film as we see it now rather than as it actually existed (though some of its cheaply futuristic art-deco sets do seem left over from Metropolis), with a blurry, worn quality that embraces the scratchy texture of decaying celluloid. Much like David Lynch's Eraserhead, which The Saddest Music in the World instantly brings to mind, the film's striking visuals and tone-poem mood unite shabby reality with the spirit of a fairy tale. The film is also rife with unforgettable images: prosthetic legs made of glass and filled with lager; a lost child's heart carried in a jar, preserved by a father's tears; a delightful, fetishistic doodle on the allure and versatility of a lady's gams.

Maddin has long been a highly regarded regular on the film-fest and arthouse circuit, a cult figure through such films as Tales From the Gimli Hospital and Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary. But this marks his widest distribution yet (and first appearance on a Memphis screen). It is perhaps no coincidence that The Saddest Music in the World boasts among its executive producers Atom Egoyan, another Canuck auteur who made the transition from arthouses and film festivals to the multiplex with Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter.

In Maddin's Depression-era Winnipeg, the city has been declared "the world capital of sorrow" and local beer-hall matron Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) has decided to take advantage of the situation (as well as Prohibition south of the border) by sponsoring a contest to determine the saddest music in the world. In this contest, teams from the world over -- bagpipe troupes and sitar players, African drum corps and mariachi bands -- compete in a one-on-one, single-elimination tournament that turns the film into something like an art-movie version of Enter the Dragon (or Bloodsport!).

The film's contest scenes are fantastically entertaining. Rossellini as empress ("If you're sad -- and like beer -- I'm your lady") delivers a thumb up or down to each competitor (and, wearing a blond wig, looking just like her mother, Ingrid Bergman). The winners celebrate by riding a chute down into the bar's giant vat of beer. The contest even comes with radio commentators who give such pithy observations as "You can almost hear a typhoon bearing down on a seaside village in this tortured flute solo!" or "The singer is giving us a sad peek into child burial customs down Mexico way."

Among the competitors are a father and two sons, who, along with Lady Port-Huntley and amnesiac Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros, a Portuguese actress perhaps best remembered as Bruce Willis' pot-bellied gal pal in Pulp Fiction), comprise the dual love-triangles that drive the film's narrative melodrama. Dr. Fyodor Kent (David Fox), a WWI vet, represents native Canada, but his ex-pat sons, much to his consternation, have somehow come to represent other countries. One son, Roderick (Ross McMillan), has made his home in Serbia and now bills himself as "Gravillo the Great, Europe's Greatest Cellist" and hopes to represent the pain of the nine million lost in the Great War. The other son, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), represents America as a fast-talking, wise-cracking, cynical producer of "musical spectaculars" who hopes to win the contest -- by any means necessary -- in order to finance a triumphant return to Broadway. This means vanquishing Spanish guitar players with ambitious set pieces to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" (because "sadness isn't hurt one bit by a little razzle-dazzle showmanship") and appropriating defeated competitors for his own musical numbers ("Long way back to India? How would you girls like to make a quick buck playing Eskimos?").

You might think Kent, whose goal is "sadness but with sass and pizzazz," is Maddin's satiric putdown of the cultural imperialism and capitalist cynicism of his southern neighbors, and, to a degree, I suppose that's true. But The Saddest Music in the World -- unlike this year's other eccentric depiction of Depression-era life, Lars Von Trier's Dogville -- is no polemic. Kent's bid to win the contest is actually a pretty nuanced little riff on the global takeover by American pop. The rest of the film feels way too personal to be so easily explicated. At once hermetic and fantastical, The Saddest Music in the World is a universe entirely unto itself. It is likely to provoke strong reactions both positive and negative, but it is not likely to be forgotten. -- Chris Herrington


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