YOUR CALL whether to see The Amazing Spider-Man, the reboot of the Marvel Comics favorite from director Marc Webb. To be honest, there are many aspects to this retooled Spiderman that are superior to the Sam Raimi franchise, but in the end this picture is the same old Spiderman origin story.
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By now, you probably know the story as well as Stan Lee. High school student Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) gets bitten by a genetically altered spider and his DNA changes to give him spider-like super powers. There are a few twists here. In this incarnation, the spider in question was part of experimental research being done by Peter’s father (Campbell Scott) and his lab partner Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Peter’s parents get spooked and disappear, leaving him in the care of kindly Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field).
At first, Peter uses his abilities for frivolous reasons – settling a score with a high school bully (Chris Zylka) or doing real cool skateboard stunts that had previously eluded him – but when Uncle Ben is gunned down by a robber Peter could have stopped, he gets serious. He borrows some technology from Oscorp to make his signature web (I was always annoyed that in the Raimi franchise this ability came with the super powers instead of being developed by Peter himself) and he goes on a quest to find the man who killed his uncle.
Along the way, he meets and becomes enamored of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who is Peter’s intellectual equal, but is also the daughter of the police captain (Denis Leary) who is convinced Spiderman is a vigilante menace who needs to be stopped. Gwen Stacy is a far more sharper character that Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson, and she becomes a partner to Peter and Spiderman (he even reveals his identity to her early on), not just an admirer.
Andrew Garfield brings intensity and even joy to the role of Peter Parker without losing his essential qualities as a smart but lonerish outsider. The heat between Garfield and Stone is off the charts, and their chemistry is one of the signature aspects of the film. Sheen and Field make for an excellent Uncle Ben and Aunt May.
Stone and Garfield
But the film is not without its problems. Denis Leary doesn’t really capture the humor J.K. Simmons brought to J. Jonah Jameson in a similar role, and Ifans’ Curt Connors is a lackluster villain – nowhere near the equal of Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus, although his CGI enhanced Lizardman is pretty bad ass.
In the end, however, this is the same old origin story all over again, and you are left with the certainty that the sequel (which is already in production) is likely to be a lot better film. That possibility is not without precedent, as The Dark Knight was certainly a better turn than Batman Begins.
I came very close to just recommending this picture outright, but the best reason I can give you to see it is that you are going to want to see the next one.
SEE Brave, the latest animated entry in the Disney/Pixar stable. This original and well made film is remarkably sharp and quick, and while it is clearly a children’s picture, its story and theme are anything but childish.
Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is a Scottish princess who feels trapped by her gender and her station. She is expected to be ladylike and eventually to marry the suitor her parents choose for her when all she really wants to do is ride her horse Angus and shoot her bow and arrow. Her repeated clashes with her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), leave her feeling like her voice isn’t being heard. Her father (Billy Connolly), the King, is affectionate but lets Elinor run the day to day business, especially when it comes to Merida.
Eventually, Merida runs across a witch (Julie Walters) who gives her a chance to change her fate, but naturally the spell isn’t what Merida was expecting and she nearly loses her mother forever, before the two of them find a way to restore their relationship and save the kingdom.
The relationship between Elinor and Merida is instructive and guides our understand of the characters and the story. I don’t ever remember a Disney film, moreover, that relied so heavily on true character development and dialogue. Brave has moments of comic relief, in particular Walters’ witch, who is clearly a distant cousin of Miracle Max, and it also works as a grand adventure, but this film is very much a drama about a mother and daughter’s verbal jousting as they push and pull for control.
Merida and Elinor
Brave has gotten some fanfare for featuring a non-traditional Disney princess, but it and its heroine are so much more than that. Merida is an allegory for the world of choices modern women must face. It would be terribly oversimplistic to suggest that Merida is ONLY rebelling against a traditional women’s role, especially in films like this. Brave is a classic coming-of-age story, and Merida is struggling with what is expected of her versus what her own desires are. Her mother isn’t always wrong for urging her to go along, and Merida isn’t always wrong for not wanting to. Finding this level of delicate complexity in a Disney film is, to say the least, a rarity. Most live action romcoms never come close to matching it.
The performances here are top notch. Kelly MacDonald is a criminally underrated actress who’s been in one of the most acclaimed British miniseries of the last 20 years (State of Play) and one of the best weekly dramas on television (Boardwalk Empire). She’s terrific here. Emma Thompson is one of my all time favorite actresses and Billy Connolly is perfectly cast as a good-natured but distracted King who’d rather be out fighting bears than running the kingdom. The dramatic score by veteran composer Patrick Doyle plus a few well placed songs by Scottish folk singer Julie Fowlis is a nice touch and adds atmosphere.
Brave is a divergent and well-crafted turn on the standard Disney princess movie, and I was very pleased to see it do so well at the box office. This is a superior film, not just because it lets it female characters kick a little ass, but because it isn’t afraid to let the characters take center stage while it tells its story.
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