‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is a Better than Expected Reboot

The Amazing Spiderman poster

When “The Amazing Spider-Man” was finally released in movie theaters everywhere, we finally got to answer the question nagging at us: isn’t it far too soon for a franchise reboot or remake or whatever the hell you want to call this? Well, the answer ends up going both ways here as Marc Webb’s film does tread familiar ground, but it gets better as it goes on. This time, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has a lot more edge to him and is a little more complex than he was in the Sam Raimi-directed movies.

This version starts off with a very young Peter Parker being left in the company of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) by his parents, Richard and Mary Parker (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), who are forced to leave town under mysterious circumstances. Forward several years later, and Peter is now a sullen teenager played by Andrew Garfield, one of several actors who should have gotten an Oscar nomination for “The Social Network.”

Like before, Peter is a social outcast who is not exactly the most popular person on the high school campus. But unlike Tobey Maguire’s interpretation, Peter here is sullener this time around; sensitive and shy while dealing with anger at the life he has been dealt which is anything but normal. In essence, he is more of a real-life teenager than he was in previous incarnations; confused about his place in life and unsure of himself. “The Amazing Spider-Man” hence becomes the story of a young man on a journey to find himself, and this helps ground the superhero in a reality we all know and understand.

The first part of “The Amazing Spider-Man” made me a bit impatient as it travels through all the things leading up to Peter adopting his alter-ego. Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie may have come out ten years ago, but its images are still fresh in our minds. I’m not just talking about Kirsten Dunst kissing Maguire while he hangs upside down. Still, Webb and company do their best to make the material their own. The moments where Garfield develops his power to swing from place to place is exhilarating to watch, and whereas Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies were like a comic book brought to life, Webb deals with Peter Parker in a more realistic fashion.

Speaking of Garfield, he has repeatedly said how happy he was to get this role, and the thrill he gets from playing this iconic comic book character is clearly on display. Throughout “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the actor looks to be having the time of his life, and he certainly has earned the right to enjoy himself based on his excellent performance here as he makes this role his own. I also really liked was how he wasn’t afraid to make Parker unlikable at times. Clearly this is a young man with issues, having lost his parents in a way no child should, and the actor makes Parker’s confusion over what is expected of him all the more palpable.

Matching Garfield scene for scene is the wonderful Emma Stone who plays his highly intelligent love interest, Gwen Stacy. Stone shares a strong chemistry with Garfield, and she gives the role a feisty kick which makes her so much fun to watch. She also infuses her Gwen with a strong humanity which keeps her from being just another love interest, and her performance goes way beyond what we could have expected.

Rhys Ifans portrays Dr. Curt Connors, once a friend of Parker’s father, who is developing ways to regrow limbs and human tissue. But something ends up going terribly wrong, as it always does, with an experiment, and he is soon turned into The Lizard. The dilemmas this character faces are not too different from what Norman Osborn/Green Goblin character dealt with, but Ifans makes the character a fascinatingly complex one as his intent to test his experimental serum on himself is not about proving oneself to a whole bunch of doubters as it is about taking responsibility for one’s creation when others are more interested in results and profit.

While I miss seeing the late Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, both Martin Sheen and Sally Field fill the roles wonderfully. I also really liked Denis Leary as Gwen Stacy’s father, NYPD Captain George Stacy, who gets into an argument with Peter as to why he considers Spider-Man a vigilante. After watching him on “Rescue Me” and as an endlessly cynical standup comedian all these years, Leary once again reminds us of just how effective an actor he can be in playing an upstanding citizen and a strong family man.

Previously, Webb was best known for directing music videos, and the only other movie he made was “(500) Days of Summer.” You can’t help but wonder what the studio executives were thinking when they hired him after he made a $7.5 million indie movie to helm a summer blockbuster with a reported budget of over $220 million. Maybe all the other big name directors were busy or something. Then again, when you look at both “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” they have strong similarities. Both feature main characters in the process of figuring themselves out while moving on to the next stage of their lives, and they also have them romancing a female who is as intelligent as she is attractive. Each movie succeeds in giving us relationships which were not the usual dopey romantic kind, and they are all the better as a result.

With “(500) Days of Summer,” Webb also showed a keen understanding of how important it is for the audience to be emotionally involved with the characters in a movie. This ended up making him an ideal choice to direct “The Amazing Spider-Man” as we need to care about these characters in order for the movie’s story and its special effects to work effectively. Webb succeeds in getting us emotionally involved in what goes on, and it makes this reboot stand out from the typical summer blockbuster which invades our local movie theaters more often than not.

Another thing I have to point out is the film score by James Horner. Danny Elfman had done such a brilliant job defining the sound of Spider-Man in Raimi’s movies, and this gave Horner a hard act to follow. But Horner succeeds in giving us music which is as adventurous and invigorating to listen to as Elfman’s was. Of course, this doesn’t keep him from stealing from himself as there is a musical cue from “Star Trek II” in here, and it is instantly recognizable to those who have listened to that soundtrack over and over again.

It would have been nice if Raimi and Maguire got to make a “Spider-Man 4,” if for no other reason than to make up for the huge disappointment that was “Spider-Man 3.” But in retrospect they must have seen the writing was on the wall as there was nowhere else for them to take the character. While a reboot still feels way too soon for this franchise, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a very entertaining movie which looks to get this series back on track. Now that we got the origin story out of the way once again, we can get to an even more exciting chapter in Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy’s lives.

* * * out of * * * *

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Recount

recount-poster

Memories of hanging chads and confusing ballots permeate our consciousness years after the heavily contested 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. We saw this played out on the networks with all their furious coverage, but with “Recount” we get a look at what went on in the campaign offices while this election fight went on to get a picture of what they each felt was fair and just.

How you view “Recount” may depend on what side of the political spectrum you have placed yourself on. I’m not sure how accurate this movie is to the real events, but I imagine it is pretty close. Coming out of it, you may feel it values one candidate over the other. But in the end, “Recount” is not so much a movie about the fight to get candidates elected as it is about the fight for democracy. It is a fight for all the voters to be heard, and also a scary tale of how the fate of the Presidency can end up in the hands of a powerful few instead of America as a whole. Hopefully, this is something that we all collectively hope we never have to live through again.

“Recount” was directed by Jay Roach, best known as the director of the “Austin Powers” movies. Here, he directs a large cast of superlative actors who take the roles of many people we know well from the 2000 election and gives us a strong case of why many still thank Al Gore was robbed of the Presidency. Both Gore and Bush are basically supporting players here, and we only see them from the backs of their heads or in news footage of them during the campaign. The movie is more interested in what went on behind the scenes of the election and of the different fights made to get to the truth of who won the Florida electoral votes.

Even though we all know how this ended up and who got elected, the movie is still riveting in the same way “Apollo 13” was. The filmmakers are not so much interested in the general way things happened as they are in the specifics of the election. We see brilliantly shot examples of how chads in ballots could not be broken off as they were designed to. The opening shot of the movie shows how easily confused some Florida residents are when they are trying to vote, and yet it is not altogether clear how to vote for Gore so that you don’t accidentally vote for Pat Buchannan. The moment where one of Gore’s campaign workers rushes up to him before he is about to make his concession speech on the night of the election is scary as we all feel like we are running alongside him. Even after all these years, we have a strong emotional reaction to the thought of Gore conceding the election.

At the head of this star-studded cast is Kevin Spacey who gives one of his best performances as Ron Klain, Gore’s legal advisor on the campaign trail. The day before the election, it is presumed Gore is going to win, and Klain is offered a job in Gore’s new administration. Klain ends up turning it down as he feels it is not the way he wants to spend the next eight years of his life. But when it becomes clear there are clear inconsistencies in the voting in certain Florida counties, Klain goes right into action to make sure all the votes are recounted, as the margin of victory is only off by just over a thousand votes. Klain is aided by a large team of political strategists from Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) to Warren Christopher (John Hurt).

Spacey makes it clear from the start that Klain is an idealist more than anything else about the way the political system works. What he does throughout the movie is not motivated by his desire to see Gore become President, as he even admits he is not even sure he likes Gore, as it is by the desire to see all the votes counted and to not have any of them thrown out for different reasons like those rejected ones which contain the similar names of convicted felons. Because the election was so close, we can see in Spacey’s eyes how this election is much too important for anyone’s vote to be cast aside.

We also get great performances from actors like Ed Begley Jr. who plays David Boes who passionately fought for the recount to continue when testifying at the Supreme Court. Another great one comes from the always reliable Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) who plays James Baker who fights on behalf of George W. Bush to turn the election his way. Wilkinson plays Baker as being idealistic in his own way, and he is almost as idealistic as Klain is for the democrats. Bruce McGill is also great here as Republican lobbyist Mac Stipanovich who is brought in to persuade Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to stop the recount.

Speaking of Katherine Harris, who by the way wanted nothing to do with “Recount,” she is played here in a brilliant performance by Laura Dern. With makeup, which brings up harsh memories of Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest,” Dern gives us a Katherine Harris who is not dumb, but who is oblivious to what is going on around her. Harris says she is following the law, but never really questions those around her as to what their true motives are. Dern is one of the best actresses working today, and this movie is a good reminder of this fact.

The other thing to note about “Recount” is how the actors do a great job of inhabiting their roles as opposed to impersonating people we have become all too familiar with. The trap of playing real life people is many actors end up playing them from the outside in instead of the inside out. It takes a group of well-trained actors to play these roles, and who are not mere impressionists or mimics. Mimicry is a cool art, but it doesn’t work in a movie like this one.

Roach does a great job of putting us back in the year 2000, and he makes you a witness to all the events to where even though you know how this race ended, you still hope and pray for a different outcome. He also shows how each candidate has to be grateful for the dozens of people and hundreds of supporters who helped them get to where they ended up. The truth is we haven’t had many movies recently which have looked at the people who work so hard for the politicians they support, and these people need to be thanked for all they do. They can’t stay behind the scenes forever. They need to be seen for who they are.

In the end, “Recount” is not so much a movie about how Gore got screwed out of an election he won the popular vote on. It’s not even about if Gore lost the election. It is about how democracy was lost in the 2000 election, and of how many voices were rendered irrelevant for reasons which were not altogether justified. The final scene of the warehouse where all those uncounted votes is haunting, and it  feels like an outtake of the scene from “Raiders of The Lost Ark” where the Ark of the Covenant got stored in a factory holding hundreds of boxes which all look alike. The real victim of this election was all the voters were not heard, and this left a shadow over George W. Bush’s presidency which will never be erased.

It also serves as an important document of this moment in history which we can never forget. We need to remember what happened so it never happens again.

* * * * out of * * * *