There’s an unwritten rule that states that when a Hollywood superhero movie goes into production, it does so at least partly because the story and its central character are in synch with the mood of the times, in the US at least. The first of the Spider-Man films created under the control of that great movie geek Sam Raimi did this: Peter Parker/Spider-Man, in the form of pumped-up nerd Tobey Maguire, was a neurotic hero for nervous times. After a so-so sequel, Spider-Man 3 arrives but you don’t feel – any more than you did when Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo served up the redundant third helping of the Godfather cycle – that Raimi has thought of anywhere interesting for the central characters to go.
Here Spidey has become an even more self-obsessed superhero than before, convinced he is beloved of his fellow New Yorkers and at the same time bent on revenge against Flint Marko, who killed his uncle and has been reborn with special powers after a close encounter with a particle accelerator. Meanwhile Spider-Man, who along the way gets to explore his dark side, is also racked with guilt at having killed Harry Osborn, aka the Goblin, the father of his friend; as if that weren’t enough, Peter invokes the wrath of fellow photojournalist Eddie, who, sure enough, acquires some preternatural gifts of his own.
Raimi is not short of ideas and, in an attempt to give the story resonance, tosses countless themes into the mix: dashes of revenge and forgiveness, including various heavy-handed references to 9/11, and Christianity is dragged in for good measure. But for all its relentless pace, surfeit of ingredients and incident, and continuous onslaught of violent set-pieces, Spider-Man 3 never feels like a coherent fable for our times and, while not exactly dull, it is peculiarly uninvolving.
Some may find it twee and a touch schematic, but Bridge to Terabithia not only tackles its themes – the quest for belonging, coming to terms with loss, the power of fantasy – and its concern with Christian theology head on, it also weaves them seamlessly into its narrative. It’s a story of two pre-teen outsiders at a small-town American high school who find a comforting friendship in their adventures in the fantasy world of the title, one that they invent together. Refreshingly sparing in its use of special effects, it may well appeal to pre-teens who want something a little weightier and more honestly morbid than an overblown, underwhelming action-hero blockbuster.
Goya’s Ghosts is, after two unjustly neglected efforts, Taking Off in the early 1970s and Valmont in the 1980s, the third collaboration between screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and writer-director Milos Forman. It is also, sadly, by some distance their least interesting work together. Forman has apparently been planning a film on Goya for more than 50 years, but this was hardly worth the wait. It is a somewhat whimsical drama in which the painter (well played by Stellan Skarsgard is a secondary player, the central character being Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem gamely doing battle with the English language). Lorenzo is at the story’s start a defender of the controversial Goya but also an enthusiastic participant in the Spanish Inquisition; his actions bring him into contact with a woman falsely accused of heresy, the lovely, innocent and noble Inés (Natalie Portman not for the first time in her short career being stripped and degraded in front of the camera). The story spans 15 years, from 1792 to 1807, with Lorenzo, Goya and Inés acting in different ways as players in and observers and victims of the religious and political tumults of the time. Whatever the serious intentions of Forman and Carrière, and in spite of the sumptuous designs, this ends up looking like nothing so much as a faintly risible costume melodrama.
In Dans Paris, Christophe Honoré’s express desire is to revive the spirit of François Truffaut and his nouvelle vague comrades in a freewheeling, self-consciously cute, supposedly philosophical tale of two brothers, priapic Jonathan (Louis Garrel) and depressive Paul (Romain Duris) in and around Paris. It’s lively enough, but slight; its biggest cultural contribution is sure to be in providing a new excuse for young men’s serial infidelities, Jonathan insisting that his three romantic interludes in a single day happened only as a roundabout effort to keep his elder brother from attempting suicide.
Certain critics have seen something of the early work of Godard in Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski’s exceedingly dull study of a ménage à trois among a vaguely arty set in New York – which suggests that these critics have forgotten how packed with ideas and energy Godard’s films of the 1960s were. Meanwhile Fast Food Nation – which was, like Dans Paris, screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – the most disappointing feature thus far from Richard Linklater, whose versatility clearly doesn’t stretch as far as turning a factual best-seller into a compelling political drama. It was a bold effort to transform the book, with the assistance of its author Eric Schlosser, into a food-themed spin on Traffic, but this is clunky, preachy stuff.
Dans Paris and Fast Food Nation have sprinted to our screens compared with The Upside of Anger, an oddball, occasionally very funny family drama that was completed three years ago. That it finally makes it into British cinemas at all is down to the recent appearance of writer-director Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me; the delay is presumably down to the repellent central character – boozy matriarch Terry (the ever watchable Joan Allen) – and one of the most ludicrous endings in recent memory.
Talking of films being released in reverse order, anyone who was intrigued by The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema last year may want to catch Zizek!, made a year earlier and – perversely, given the time of its release – serves as a fitting introduction to the strange world and barely graspable ideas of the Marxist cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek.