Seen at the Movies: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is the best comic-book movie adaptation since another sequel, Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman Returns. Unburdened by the demands of exposition and coasting on the success of the original, Raimi, like Burton before him, is able to give rein to a fuller vision in this follow-up to the 2002 blockbuster. The film finds Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in crisis over the responsibilities that attend his Spidey alterego, and pining over the winsome Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), now a successful model and actress. He temporarily surrenders his suit, only to witness a shocking rise in crime and the ascendancy of the mad Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), a scientist with four giant mechanical tentacles who terrorizes the city.

Spider-Man 2: Melissa Moseley/Columbia Pictures

Story-wise, there’s nothing unsurprising here, but Alvin Sargent’s script is smart and funny, and expertly structured to bring Peter’s frustration to a crescendo and release, which leads to a more mature assimilation of his dual identity. Raimi provides the movie with a much more sustained thrust than the first film had, and, calling upon the supple qualities of Maguire and Dunst, stretches its comic-book boundaries with emotional dips and swells. While the digital effects, by Sony Pictures Imageworks and others, are a still a bit cartoonish for my taste, the movie is superbly shot by Bill Pope, who balances the vivid color palette with darker tones and, expanding to a widescreen frame, takes in more of the New York streetscape. (Even a puzzling shift to the Chicago El for one terrific action sequence doesn’t jar too badly.) Back from the first film and helping to create a perfect blend of the everyday and fantastic are production designer Neil Spisak and costume designer Bob Ringwood, who gets co-credit with Gary Jones.

The simultaneous arrival of Spider-Man 2 and Richard Linklater’s lovely Before Sunset is almost enough to give sequels a good name. It’s nine years after Before Sunrise, and Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) run into each other in Paris. As you may recall from the previous film, the pair had spent a night together in Vienna, and agreed to meet again in six months. For reasons revealed in the new movie, that reunion failed to take place, and now Jesse has written a novel derived from the experience. Before Sunset finds its protagonists to be older, somewhat worn down by life but still guardedly hopeful, and as full of good conversation as ever (Delpy and Hawke get co-screenplay credit with Linklater). DP Lee Daniel’s camera follows them—often in remarkably extended takes—as they walk the Left Bank streets and take a boat ride on the Seine, all the while talking and, one gathers, assessing the still-tantalizing romantic possibilities in the other. The 80-minute movie takes place in real time, with an encroaching deadline (Jesse’s due to catch a plane) to furnish a surprising degree of suspense. I can’t wait to see what Celine and Jesse are up to in another nine years.

Before Sunset: Warner Independent Pictures

De-Lovely is a major disappointment. The songwriter (played by Kevin Kline), who suffered years of pain after a horse-riding accident, was known to be depressed in his final years, but Winkler, working from a script by Jay Cocks, makes this the overarching truth of his story, casting a pall over the entire film. It’s structured as a tour of Porter’s life from his deathbed, guided by Jonathan Pryce as a mysterious figure named Gabe (and yes, Pryce does sing "Blow, Gabriel, Blow"). This is presented as a warts-and-all treatment, so Porter’s affairs with men are dutifully included, as well as the conflict this caused in his relationship with beloved wife Linda (who was eight years her husband’s senior, so of course the filmmakers cast 36-year-old Ashley Judd to play opposite the 56-year-old Kline). Even when Cole and Linda are shown as (comparatively) young and high-spirited in Paris and Venice, the movie’s energy is low and its atmosphere is glum; DP Tony Pierce-Roberts’ flatly lit images don’t help. Furthermore, when the scene shifts to New York and then to Hollywood, there’s nothing to convey a sense of place. The film was shot in England, and I’m sure production designer Eve Stewart did her best, while hamstrung by an unimaginative director. Periodically, contemporary artists such as Alanis Morisette (who wears one of costume designer Janty Yates’ uglier creations), Elvis Costello, and Natalie Cole show up to sing Porter standards, to variable yet never thrilling results. You want the Porter fizz, you want fun? Look elsewhere. Maybe even to the derided and obviously fraudulent 1946 Night and Day starring Cary Grant as Porter and Alexis Smith as Linda. I haven’t seen it, but it can’t be as torturous to sit through as De-Lovely.

De-Lovely: Simon Mein/United Artists

Fahrenheit 9/11. Far less rollicking and entertaining than Moore’s Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine, this provocative piece of agitprop is uneven and structurally shapeless, with too-familiar accusations against the Bush administration stacking up side by side with startling footage from Iraq and elsewhere. The movie finally comes into its own when it zeroes in on a Flint, Michigan mother who lost a son in the war; her story highlights what Moore contends is a betrayal of our troops by sending them into battle under false pretenses. It remains to be seen if his arguments will persuade any of the already-unpersuaded.--John Calhoun

Heard around town : Theater Design Inc in Cold Spring, NY has announced that construction has begun on the new Events Center at the Oneida Nation’s Turning Stone Resort, scheduled to open in the fall of 2004. Designed by architects Brennan Beer Gorman, the center is part of an extensive expansion that includes two suite hotels, an atrium, and an additional gaming space. Theater Design Inc provided theater consulting, and theatrical equipment and systems design for the project. Wilson Butler Architects is the new name for Wilson Butler Lodge, the seven year-old Boston-based architecture firm that specializes in architecture for arts and entertainment. Their new web address is French designer Jean Kalman recently created the sets and lighting for the world premiere of Raaff, a co-production with De Nederladse Opera and The Holland Festival. Costumes were by Robby Duiveman.

Happy 4th of July weekend!--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux