Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco

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The summer movie season gets off to a literally swinging start with Spider-Man. Not since 1978's Superman has there been a live-action, comic book-based film so savvy at mixing self-aware camp with sincere emotion, and so successful at establishing the normal guy life of its spandexed protagonist. Spider-Man's web loses tension, though, later on when its hooded hero concentrates on battling evil, becoming another bombastic, special-effects-laden spectacle.

A single bite by a genetically altered spider transforms nerdy Peter Parker (Maguire), a high school senior in Queens, N.Y., into a capeless crusader. Arachnoid superpowers accompany his new, pumped-up physique: He can cast gunky spider-webs from an orifice in his wrist and scale walls via tiny bristles sprouting from his flesh. Welcome to puberty in the parallel superhero universe.

What makes Parker's metamorphosis into Spider-Man so effective is a charmingly bemused performance by Maguire, whose essential passivity works to his advantage here. Parker is confused by his new powers; early scenes of him learning to flick webs and slamming into walls are particularly comic. And Maguire shows chemistry aplenty with the lovely Dunst, who makes a plucky figure out of Mary Jane Watson, the girl next door. Parker has a crush on her but she, unaware of his true identity, has one on Spidy.

Spider-Man, directed with panache by Sam Raimi (The Gift), is best while Parker is new to his tights. Later on, the plot gets pumped full of hot air as he battles the masked Green Goblin (Dafoe, who plays it as if he's slumming), and repetitive zap!-blam!-bap! fight scenes prevail. Computer-generated images of a confident Spider-Man swinging through the air with the greatest of ease are cool, but a little flying goes a long way. The film's heart is so clearly in Parker's conflict over his dual identity, and in his romantic yearning for Mary Jane, that every time he pulls on his hood to pummel criminals, it's almost beside the point. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: A webbed feat

Woody Allen, Téa Leoni, Debra Messing, Treat Williams

When did Woody Allen movies stop being a total treat and instead become almost a chore? There are still glimmers—a swell performance (from Leoni here), an occasional comic zinger—but lately his films seem to go straight from his typewriter to the camera without sufficiently polished scripts or enough effort to make the material fresh.

Case in point: Hollywood Ending. It's a wan, stretched-out romantic comedy about a washed-up movie director (Allen) in Manhattan who gets one last chance at a big picture courtesy of his ex-wife (Leoni), a Hollywood studio exec. Just before shooting starts, he suffers psychosomatic blindness but goes ahead with the filming, keeping his ailment a secret.

There's little payoff to the blindness (a dumb running gag has Allen never looking directly at the person talking to him), and the jokes about Hollywood moguls ("The price of his haircut would feed a family of five"), dim starlets and L.A. versus New York are stale. Allen has his character boast that while American critics may deride his work—et tu, Woody?—the French still love it. That's what's known as the Jerry Lewis defense. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Mere kindling from the Woodman

Stephen Dorff, Brad Renfro, Matt Dillon

This clichéd tale of combative Brooklyn street gangs in the late 1950s gets it so wrong in so many ways, it's almost cruel to count them. But let's just start with the fact that nearly everyone wears a black leather jacket, even though it's summer and, as one character kvetches, "It must be like 115 degrees." This kind of heavy overkill does Deuces Wild in long before its gangbangers start bumping each other off.

Brothers Leon (Dorff) and Bobby (Renfro) are opposites. Leon, the leader of the Deuces gang, is a near-saint, protective of women and children and a regular at church. Younger Bobby is a hothead quick to use his fists. They're determined to keep their block free of drugs, which puts them in conflict with a local Mob boss (Dillon) and his flunky (Balthazar Getty), leader of the rival Vipers. To complicate matters, Bobby is in love with the rival gang leader's sister (Fairuza Balk), and one keeps expecting these two kids to break into West Side Story's love duet "Somewhere." If only.

Dorff at least seems sincere in what he's doing, but Renfro is all posturing and bad Brooklyn accent. Dillon's role is little more than a cameo, and he sleepwalks through it. (R)

Bottom Line: Hackneyed hoods

>When he was studying drama in grad school in the early '90s, Billy Crudup found a list he had written in fourth grade of the things he didn't want to be when he grew up. At the top: actor. "I was much smarter at 8," he says, "than I am now."

Not really. Even before Almost Famous made him almost famous, the actor had successfully juggled stage (Arcadia) and screen (Inventing the Abbotts) roles. "Because I've been given the opportunity at the moment," he says, "I feel I have to take it." Now Crudup, 33—who lives in Manhattan with his girlfriend of six years, West Winger Mary-Louise Parker, 37—is earning raves on Broadway for his prosthetics-free portrayal of the deformed title character in The Elephant Man and winning over moviegoers in World Traveler, directed by his pal Bart Freundlich. Crudup admits it was "a little weird" to have Freundlich's partner, actress Julianne Moore, play his lover in the film. His own partner is more likely to object to his viewers than to his costars. Last summer he was onstage in New York City when an audience member heckled him before getting whacked with a Stagebill by Parker. "Be kind when either of us is in the audience watching the other," Crudup says. "At risk of your own well-being."

>Baran A young Afghan refugee (Zahra Bahrami) living in Iran disguises herself as a boy to work at a construction site after her father is taken ill. A moving drama about small and large kindnesses amid great deprivation. (PG)

Changing Lanes Green light. An involving drama about the bruising battle of wills between a lawyer (Ben Affleck) and an insurance salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) after a minor car collision. (R)

Frailty Bill Paxton, who also directed this creepy thriller, will make your skin crawl as a religious zealot who goes around calmly chopping up folks he believes are really demons. (R)

Life or Something Like It Nothing remotely life-like about it. Angelina Jolie tosses attitude about and little else in a puny romantic comedy about a TV reporter who's told she has only a week to live. Edward Burns costars. (PG-13)

Murder by Numbers Sandra Bullock gives a nicely nuanced performance as a hard-nosed homicide detective trying to nail two teens (Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt) for a murder. Better than average. And Gosling is mesmerizing. (R)

The Scorpion King Rock-bottom. Wrestling's The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) makes like an action hero. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph V. Tirella.