‘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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Lincoln

lincoln-movie-poster

The one thing which always drove me nuts in history class as a kid was how the teachers and the books we read made the past seem so much better than our present. We were taught about how Presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were such great leaders who helped make America the country it is today, and in the process, they were turned into mythological characters to where we forgot they were human beings like the rest of us. Juxtaposing this with the politics of America back when Ronald Reagan was President, it looked like we could do nothing but complain about the state of the world. It made me wonder what we did as Americans which made us seem so ungrateful for what our forefathers brought about.

This is why I’m thankful for movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” which helps to humanize those historical figures we learned about in class. In this case, the historical figure is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. The film focuses on the last four months of his Presidency when the Civil War was raging on and was insistent on getting the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, passed in the House of Representatives. It presents this President, one of the greatest America has ever known, as a flesh and blood human being endowed with strengths and flaws which will make you admire him more than ever before.

Much of the accomplishment in making President Lincoln so vividly human here is the result of another unsurprisingly brilliant performance from the great Daniel Day Lewis. Known for his intense method acting and laser sharp focus in preparing for each role he does, he brings his own touches to a man so defined by his historical deeds, and he succeeds in making this character his own during the movie’s two and a half hour running time.

“Lincoln” also shows how the world of politics has always been a cutthroat place to be in. The Republican and Democratic parties were much different than from what they are today, but during the 1800’s getting certain amendments passed involved a lot of tricks which were not always highly regarded. Even Lincoln wasn’t above hiring three politicians, played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader, to lobby members of the House to vote in favor of passing the Thirteenth Amendment. But what made this President’s actions especially courageous was how he wasn’t just thinking about solving the country’s problems but of the effects this particular amendment would have on generations to come.

“Lincoln” also delves into the President’s personal life which had been fractured by the loss of a child and was also unsteady due to the fiery personality of his wife Mary, played by Sally Field. Watching Field here reminds us of what a remarkable actress she remains after all these years. Field is such a live wire as she struggles to make her husband see the consequences of the actions he is about to take. The actress had signed on to play this role years ago, back when Liam Neeson was set to play Lincoln, and she had to fight to keep it. It’s a good thing Spielberg kept her around because she has always been a tremendous acting talent, and she enthralls us in every scene she appears in.

Like many of Spielberg’s best films, there isn’t a single weak performance to be found in “Lincoln” which boasts quite the cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had a heck of a year in 2012 with “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Looper” and “Premium Rush,” is excellent as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, who considers quitting school to join the army and fight for his country. David Strathairn is a wonderfully strong presence as Secretary of State William Seward, the great Hal Holbrook is unforgettable as the influential politician Francis Preston Blair, Gloria Reuben is very moving in her performance as former slave Elizabeth Keckley, and Jackie Earle Haley has some strong moments as the Confederate States Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.

But the one great performance which needs to be singled out in “Lincoln,” other than the ones given by Lewis or Field, is Tommy Lee Jones’ who portrays the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. Jones is a powerhouse throughout as he empowers this fervent abolitionist with a passion as undeniable as it is undying, and seeing him reduce other congressional members to jelly is a thrill to witness. Jones is tremendous as we see him fight for what he feels is right regardless of how he goes about achieving it.

Spielberg employs his usual band of collaborators here like producer Kathleen Kennedy, director of photography Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams to create a movie which captures the importance of Lincoln’s place in history while also making it intimate in a way we don’t expect it to be. He also benefits from having the great playwright Tony Kushner on board as the movie’s screenwriter. Kushner’s knowledge of history has never been in doubt ever since we witnessed his magnum opus of “Angels in America,” and word is he spent six years working on the script for “Lincoln.” His efforts do show as he gives us a riveting portrait of a divided nation on the verge of making a major change, and even back then America was resistant and deeply frightened to making certain changes regardless of whether or not it would benefit from them.

Granted, Lincoln’s life would probably be better explored in a miniseries as there is so much to explore, and this movie can explore only so much of it. Regardless, “Lincoln” is an invigorating portrait of a great American President who fought for the benefit of his country’s future. The sacrifices he made tragically cut his life short, but his legacy will never ever die as Spielberg’s film rightly proves.

* * * * out of * * * *