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Monday, December 11

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Spider-Man 3

In the weekend before I saw the highly anticipated (at least by me) Spider-Man 3, I did something I almost never do, but I plan on doing as often as I can this summer: I watched the first two Spider-Man movies. I'm not exactly sure what inspired me to do this. It's not like there are vital plot points from the first two films that are carried over into the third installment (although the issue of the death of Peter Parker's beloved Uncle Ben is re-evaluated).

For some reason, the idea of immersing myself in the Spidey universe seemed like a fun thing to do in the days leading up to the screening. And I'm going to make every effort to continue the practice by watching the first two Pirates of the Caribbean entries;the first four Harry Potter films; the first three Die Hard adventures; the first two Jason Bourne chapters; the first two capers of Danny Ocean and his crew; maybe 28 Days Later; possibly the first two Shrek films; probably not the first two Rush Hour movies; 50-50 on Bruce Almighty; most definitely Night Watch; definitely not Fantastic Four; already got the first Hostel cued up; with Hal Hartley's Henry Fool (Fay Grim would be the sequel there) after that; and Mr. Bean rounding out the pile. Hey folks, there is an enormous butt-load of sequels filling theaters this year, averaging about one per week. And while I firmly believe that a film should stand on its own regardless of what came before, I'm looking at the summer as a personal experiment by trying something I've never done before: watching what came before immediately prior to seeing the latest entry.

Watching the first two Spider-Man chapters had an interesting impact on my enjoyment of Part 3. It made me not enjoy it as much. But a part of me firmly believes that this is because it's the weakest script we've seen in the franchise so far, if only because it crams not one, not two, but three villains; two girlfriends; one flirty neighbor; a small handful of musical numbers; one major costume change; and boatloads of attitude into one fairly lengthy production. The film has the series' most exciting action sequences, but their impact is tapered by some of the most profoundly limp character interactions between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and between Peter and his elderly Aunt May (Rosemary Harris).

Returning director Sam Raimi has and will always be one of my favorite filmmakers to watch, and he absolutely shines in both his action directing and the nice bits of comedy in these films (Bruce Campbell's supporting work here—far more than the cameos he's made in the last two films—is his absolute best. But Raimi seems almost bored by the interpersonal relationships of his main characters, and focuses his energy on kick-ass fight scenes and his supporting players. The scenes at the Daily Bugle are among my favorites here, as Ted Raimi, Bill Nunn, Elizabeth Banks and the always screamingly funny J.K. Simmons as editor J. Jonah Jameson really stand out in some sublimely paced comedic moments. The addition of Topher Grace as Peter's photography rival Eddie Brock (the man who would be Venom) fits in perfectly. This guy is an utter ass-munch, and Grace's timing is his gift. The blond tips in his hair don't hurt either.

The addition of the Gwen Stacy character is surprisingly strong, but it underscores just how poorly utilized Dunst is this time around. Plus Bryce Dallas Howard's Gwen is so strikingly beautiful and utterly sweet that she kind of makes Dunst look like a grumpy wet dog in this film. By the end of this film, I was truly hoping for the death of Mary Jane.

And what about those three villains? Well, despite the return of Dylan Baker as Peter's professor Dr. Curt Connors, we still don't get my number one choice for new villain: The Lizard. Instead we get Harry Osborn picking up his father Norman's (Willem Dafoe, brought back again as in Spider-Man 2, as the voice in Harry's head and vision he sees in the mirror) glider and pumpkin bombs and going after Spider-Man, whom he knows full well is his one-time best friend Peter. He hurts himself in their first battle, bumps his noggin, and temporarily loses his memory of the events leading up to his injury. So, for a short time, at least Peter's identity is safe.

We also get The Sandman, a.k.a. Flint Marko (an inspired Thomas Hayden Church), an escaped convict who, through a freak accident of science, can turn his body into sand. The scene in which Marko first realizes what has happened to him and is learning to control his power is really cool, but the filmmakers have saddled him with a backstory involving a sick little daughter that seems unnecessary. And I'm not even going into Marko's connection to Uncle Ben's death. Still, I like the way Church plays Marko, and his fight scenes with Spidey are fantastic, so that makes the silly plotlines easier to stomach.

Then we get to the black suit that becomes Venom. The way the suit is introduced is so matter of fact that I couldn't believe they weren't even going to try to explain its existence just a little better. Granted, the filmmakers can't use the comic book origins of the black suit, but my God, just having it drop out of the sky in an unexplained meteor? That's the best they could come up with? That being said, I do like the way Maguire plays the black-suited Spider-Man, with a little more confidence crossing over into cocky and hotheaded, even dangerous at times. Sometimes his newfound behavior is played for laughs; sometimes it's downright scary. Maguire lets his hair flop down almost covering his eyes (which might be sporting a hint of eyeliner), and lets a swagger enter his step. It's a riot.

Even with all its deep flaws, Spider-Man 3 is still all about being entertaining, sometimes to a fault. But the last 20-30 minutes, as Spidey takes on both Sandman and Venom (Brock covered by the symbiotic black goo), with a taste of new Goblin on the side, are some of the finest action scenes I've seen in a comic book adaptation. And it is these moment upon which I choose to dwell and remember fondly. This is a decent start to the summer movie season, people, but I anticipate still better things to come both from sequels and other adaptations, as well as original works. This is only the beginning.

Lucky You

The thinking behind the two-year release delay of Lucky You was that competitive poker wasn't in style anymore with the public. So a 2-hour-plus drama about a professional poker player, in which at least one hour of the film is spent at the tables may not have audiences lining up around the block. Lucky You was meant to mark Drew Barrymore's transition from cutesy romantic comedies (like the recent Music & Lyrics) into more serious works of merit. And while the film is hardly on a dramatic par with something like Leaving Las Vegas, it is a far better offering than its long-delayed opening would lead us to believe. In fact, it's a really great character study not only of poker players but of people who find stability and financial security too much responsibility to handle.

Set in Las Vegas (naturally), the film stars Munich's Eric Bana as Huck Cheever, a player who is as smart as they come but frequently impatient and hotheaded at the tables whenever he feels someone is challenging him a little too aggressively. He likes to put people in their place, but often that leaves him on the losing end of a hand he should have played more intelligently. As a result, he is often pawning possessions and borrowing money so that he can buy into lower-stakes games to win enough cash to play with the big boys. Lucky You is that rare film that actually makes a real effort not just to show you people playing cards, but also to explain the complicated and sometimes baffling strategy that goes into every hand. Funny, I used to think poker was about who had the better hand, and that's why I only play blackjack when I go to Vegas.

Bana's primary objective when we meet him is to win or borrow enough money for the entry fee to enter the World Series of Poker and win the massive grand prize. There's a stellar cameo by Robert Downey Jr. as one of Huck's friends that just makes you love Downey that much more, if that's possible. The guy can do more with five minutes of screen time than just about anybody. While searching Vegas for people he can borrow or win money from, he meets Billie (Barrymore), a singer just in from Bakersfield and the sister of Suzanne, a woman (Debra Messing) who knows Buck's game a little too well. Huck sees her as a temporary solution to his cash flow problem if he can charm her into loaning him some cash. She sees him as the smooth-talking charmer he is. And the two seem undeniably drawn to each other.

As one would expect, the analogies tying Huck's life to gambling and cards fly fast and furious in Lucky You, but director Curtis Hanson (8 Mile; L.A. Confidential; Wonder Boys) and his co-writer Eric Roth keep things from going down a truly cheesy path. In addition to Bana's absolutely flawless performance, the film generates even more fire thanks to Robert Duvall's razor sharp portrayal of Huck's father, a two-time poker champion and the one man Huck can't seem to beat. Dad left wife and son when Huck was young, and the animosity between them is fierce at times. It's also the reason Huck plays recklessly against him.

It's rare that I've ever found a hand of cards suspenseful. In fact, before the masterfully paced hands in Casino Royale, I think the last round of poker I found thrilling was in The Sting, which made me all the more excited that the unprecedented amount of screen time devoted to cards in Lucky You is all pretty exciting stuff. I know the games are rigged for the cameras, but by allowing the audience a little insight into the way the players think and how much they know about the other players' hands, it drew me in and kept me there. These scenes combined with a great deal of humor, an unusual but worthy love story, and a subtle tale of redemption (of more than one character), Lucky You is solid drama that has been shamelessly pushed back and back in the release schedule for months on end, and has the sad distinction of being the only other major film to open up the same weekend as Spider-Man 3. If you're someone who hates crowds and loves a good character study, this should satisfy you on all accounts.

The Flying Scotsman

Over the years, I've seen an overwhelming number of sports-themed movies centering on an athlete overcoming great obstacles to reach some previously unobtained level of excellence. But I can't remember a time when said obstacle was an athlete's suicidal tendencies whenever he lost or somehow failed. Thus was the overriding and terrifying quality to real-life Scottish cycling giant Graeme Obree, who broke a few speed records for one-hour of riding using a bike he designed using bits of metal borrowed from numerous sources, including his own washing machine. The Flying Scotsman is a decidedly darker version of a sports movie because of Obree's mental health issues, but it still manages to tell its difficult story with a great deal of humor and hope.

As the film opens, Obree (played by Trainspotting's Sick Boy, Jonny Lee Miller) loses his family-run bike shop, which he was able to build after having some level of success as a competitive cyclist a few years earlier. To make any money and pay some bills, he must work as a bike messenger. His wife (Laura Fraser) is his never-wavering supporter as he decides he's like to find a sponsor and get back into racing, with the ultimate goal of breaking the World Hour Record. With the help of his new manager and friend Malky (Lord of the Rings' Billy Boyd) and his newly met mentor, Baxter (Brian Cox), Obree sets out to assemble his new bike, built to withstand wind resistance to a degree never before seen in cycling. In the process, he also invents a few new ways of sitting on a racing bike, including the classic "Superman Pose."

I liked Miller's more casual approach to this distinctly heavy material. He treats Obree's illness with respect and realism, especially in a couple of harrowing sequences involving his inability to even leave his own home. I particularly liked the closeness between Obree and Malky, a fellow bike messenger who becomes his manager almost by default. Their mutual understanding of what it takes mentally and physically to break this record makes them a formidable pairing. Also well handled in The Flying Scotsman is director Douglas Mackinnon's treatment of Obree's partnership with his wife, the only person in his life who truly understands him. Relative newcomer Fraser is a beautiful woman, but she dials things back on the looks here to concentrate on playing this almost blindingly supportive wife. But she pulls it off without it looking forced or merely dutiful. She is a full partner is every aspect of Obree's life, and Fraser's style and dignity help carry it off.

There is definitely something a bit different about watching a film about a guy cycling around in circles alone (as opposed to competitive racing in such a film as Breaking Away), but Mackinnon pulls off getting us inside the head of someone whose only real competitors are the clock and his own unstable mind. It's easy to be impressed by The Flying Scotsman.

To read my exclusive interview with Flying Scotsman star Jonny Lee Miller, visit http://www.aintitcool.com/node/32472.

Jindabyne

Quite often, when a film can't decide what sort of film it wants to be, there are all sorts of problems with it. Still, a skilled filmmaker can usually find a way to strike a balance and make what might have been a jumbled, schizophrenic work something a bit more balanced and graceful. Such is the case with the Australian drama Jindabyne from director Ray Lawrence (Lantana), based on the short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" by Short Cuts author Raymond Carver. Moving smoothly from a story of a Australia's racial tensions to a family drama to a serial killer profile to a study in mental illness, the film's ultimate goal seems to be a condemnation of ambivalent behavior in a time of great tragedy.

A group of four men, led by Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), head out on their annual fishing trip many miles away from the relatively peaceful town of Jindabyne. Soon after arriving at their usual desolate spot, Stewart stumbles upon the body of a young Aborigine woman in the river. We are not as surprised to see her, since the film opens with her driving through the Australian outback with a mysterious man in pursuit. The next time we see her, the man is dragging her lifeless body from his truck and tossing her into the river. With the hour getting late and one of the men having twisted his ankle trying to pull the woman's body to the shoreline, the four men decide to use their fishing line to secure the body to the shore and wait until morning to deal with the situation. But come the following day, Stewart arises early and begins fishing. Soon the other three men are doing the same, and they have an exceptional day of catches while the woman's body continues to float nearby. At the end of the day, the men agree they should head back the next morning, which they do.

Knowing that their behavior is reprehensible, the men concoct a story about why they delayed reporting the crime, but they never quite get their stories lined up, and it doesn't take long for the police and the rest of the town to realize the truth of their actions. And although the men did nothing criminal, the town is sickened by the callousness of their behavior. The nearby Aboriginal community is enraged. Stewart's wife Claire (Laura Linney) is perhaps most bothered by her husband's inability to see how he's done anything seriously wrong, and she takes it upon herself to lead a one-woman crusade to make amends to the dead woman's people on behalf of the men and the town. Since Claire has a unstable mental history (apparently, after the birth of her son, she went away for 18 months because the stress was too much), her husband and her mother-in-law turn the tables to make her feel slightly crazy, but she's committed to making things right.

Jindabyne is an exceptional human story filled with rage, disgust, and a rough approximation of understanding. Apparently Carver's original story did not feature the racial element, but it makes for a compelling framework in which to tell this story. Would the men have been so casual about their find if the girl had been white? The question is asked more than once. The emotions stirred up between Stewart and Claire are about as raw and scary as any I've seen on screen this year. Byrne and Linney have more than one screaming match that is so genuine, you feel the need to avert your eyes, as if you're watching a couple fighting in a public place or through the window of their home. Jindabyne also spends some time with the other three fishermen, and how their families and loved ones cope with the events at the river. Let's just say, no one gets off easy here. This is a film that addresses the ability of a community to sweep an unpleasantness under the rug, and how one woman refuses to let that happen. This is a powerful condemnation of a world becoming increasingly unsympathetic to suffering and loss. The film opens today at Pipers Alley.

Red Road

Originally screened in Chicago as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival, this is one of the creepiest offerings this year, from writer-director Andrea Arnold. The film begins with the story of a woman (Kate Dickie) who works as a closed-circuit television monitor, watching over dozens of small monitors that reveal some of the nastier parts of a Glasgow neighborhood. If she sees something bad happen or about to happen, she calls the cops and her job is done. At first I thought this film might turn into a Rear Window rip-off, but thankfully that's not what happens. The woman spots a familiar face (Miami Vice's Tony Curran) on the bank of monitors, and you can almost see her blood turn cold. She takes it upon herself to track the guy down and infiltrate his life and circle of friends. It's clear he doesn't recognize her, so we're not sure at first what their connection is.

Eventually she seduces him in an intensely graphic scene that is both weirdly erotic and utterly tense and mystifying. The film's final act is something of a let down, but revealing the true nature of this relationship would have to be since the reality could never be as interesting as what our mind has speculated up to this point. Director Arnold (she made the Oscar-winning live-action short film WASP a couple years back) has a gift for taking these seemingly unremarkable people and giving them emotionally devastating lives. Dickie's performance is sad and moving, and she has a face I won't soon forget. Red Road is part of an interesting experiment conceived by Danish filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, who are credited with conceiving these characters. Three directors will write and shoot three films set in Scotland with the same cast playing essentially the same character but in completely different stories. I don't think the other two films have been made yet, but I'd be curious to see how this exercise plays out. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Hawk Is Dying

Based on the Southern Gothic novel by Harry Crews, this oddly captivating tale of obsessions follows a short time in the life of a Florida auto upholsterer named George (played with his usual flair for classic misfits by Paul Giamatti). George is known throughout his tight-knit community for trying on several failed occasions to raise hawks in captivity. He's read all the books, knows all the tricks, but the birds keep dying on him because, like most birds of prey, the hawks won't eat food they haven't caught themselves, and they end up starving to death in George's care. One day, George and his full-grown autistic nephew (Michael Pitt) find an injured and quite stunning red-tailed hawk, and George becomes even more determined to make this round of training succeed.

A tragedy in his life pulls George even closer to the bird and makes his near-insane behavior regarding the hawk seem all the more pathetic to those family and friends closest to him. The only person in his life that even comes close to getting how much the hawk means to him is a local prostitute (Michelle Williams), whom George has hired in the past simply to spend a great deal of time talking to about his sad and miserable existence. She allows herself to be dragged around in George's neverending quest to give his bird whatever it needs to take food from him and survive.

Watching Giamatti do his thing never gets old for me, and in The Hawk Is Dying, he has alternating moments of serene, monk-like behavior and absolute rage and frustration. There are a couple of sequences in which it becomes almost too embarrassing to watch George's systematic self-destruction. Williams complements Giamatti's aggression and passion with sweet but unsentimental portrait of a reluctant hooker, who would prefer to have sex because it's something she understands, rather than listen George's philosophical musings. This is not the easiest film to get your arms around, but the impressive performances make the pill a whole lot easier to swallow, and perhaps even make it enjoyable at times. The Hawk Is Dying is classically contemplative material emboldened by Southern mysticism and charm. Above all, let Paul Giamatti win you over one more time. The film has a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning today.

Civic Duty

Arriving in theaters so soon after Disturbia (albeit, far fewer theaters), this profile in post-9/11 paranoia, Civil Duty, has one crucial difference from the wildly popular Shia Labeouf thriller. In Civic Duty, the man staring out the window at his neighbor doesn't suspect him of being a serial killer; he thinks he's a terrorist. Set about one year after September 11, 2001, this movie follows the slow mental decline of Terry Allen (Peter Krause of "Six Feet Under"), who is fired from his job as an accountant. We learn from an exchange with a bank teller (he's depositing his severance check) that Terry is at his wits' end as he lashes at out at her simply for recommending he use the ATM next time.

Terry has every reason to be emotionally mangled: he and his stunning wife (Kari Matchett, currently on "24" as the Vice President's right-hand woman and lover) are in the early stages of buying their dream house and moving out of a fairly small apartment overlooking a small courtyard. One of the things Terry can see out his window is the front door of his new neighbor, a "Middle Eastern-looking" guy (Khaled Abol Naga, who I'm told is a major film star in Egypt, making his American film debut here). Terry has trouble sleeping, so he occasionally peaks out his curtains at all hours and sees the stranger getting deliveries and taking out trash at all hours. This alone probably wouldn't bother Terry, except that he's at home all day with the TV news on spewing a constant stream of "keep your eyes open for suspicious behavior" segments.

Eventually Terry's paranoia leads to him calling the FBI, and soon he's in discussion with an agent played by "West Wing's" Richard Schiff. We know in about two seconds that the agent probably gets a dozen or more calls like this every day, and he has to follow up on every one of them. He leaves Terry with the directive to keep an eye out on his neighbor and call him if he has any actual proof of nefarious activity. In Terry's slowly fracturing mind, he uses these words as instruction to enter his neighbor's home when he finds the door open one day and start snooping. It's around this time that Terry's wife becomes frustrated enough with his behavior that she leaves him. This combination of events leads to Terry confronting his neighbor directly for the first time, an event that…well, doesn't go very well.

I don't want to say too much more about the plot (what there is of it from this point on), because Civic Duty isn't really about story as much as it's concerned with capturing the cumulative effect of media overload, a distrustful nation and a man with too much time on his hands. Krause does a remarkable job is keeping Terry a sympathetic character despite his tendency to be a supreme asshole to everyone with whom he comes into contact. The film has the added disadvantage of having the one truly likable character, the wife, leave the film early on, thus leaving us with characters who are, at best, abrasive. Schiff does great work here as the agent whose career has probably been reduced to following up on leads that never go anywhere, a fact he knows before he ever starts investigating them. Once we actually get to meet Naga's neighbor character, the filmmakers (screenwriter Andrew Joiner and director Jeff Renfroe) wisely don't outright dismiss suspicions about him. After all, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're not right. The film's only near fatal flaw comes in one of its final scenes, and it involves Terry's wife. I won't ruin the moment, but the way her character is handled seems completely ridiculous and unnecessary. Still, this fumble isn't enough to wreck an otherwise provocative, if heavy-handed at times, look at Americans at their most desperate and misguided.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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