Tag Archives: Tobey Maguire

The Amazing Spider-Man – The reboot is on the other foot

Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker-Man

The world has become a cynical place. Here we have a massive franchise reboot of a box office certainty only 10 years after the original, and five years after the last entry in that run. Desperate to hold onto the rights to the Spider-Man name and make more money (and, more importantly, deny money to Disney/Marvel), Sony have pumped out this curious superhero origin tale, The Amazing Spider-Man (was he not amazing back in ’02?), which is at times all too familiar and at others unsettlingly new. Even Marvel had the cop-on to pick up The Incredible Hulk more or less where Hulk had left off five years previous. Did Sony really need to put us through all this again?

But audiences are as guilty of this cynicism, many assuming the worst before release and, overwhelmed by the success of The Avengers, bitter that Sony’s declaration to use the Spider-Man brand will deny us a Spidey-Iron Man crossover anytime soon. You think this is bad, wait ‘til you see what Fox do with the Fantastic Four to hang onto those rights! The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a pretty decent entry in the comic book movie canon.

The problem is that now the previous films seem like a waste of our time. All of a sudden, everything we’ve been through with Peter Parker is undone. Tobey Maguire is off with Gatsby, Sam Raimi is off in Oz and Kirsten Dunst is basking in the glow of Melancholia. So we’ll start over. I guess.

Peter Parker is a young scientifically minded but socially awkward teenager who… no. No I’m not doing this again. You know it. You’ve seen the trailer. Spider bite, magic powers, gets the girl. So what’s different?

The film opens with young Peter Parker being left with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (his traditional surrogates) by his mysterious parents, who flee for clandestine, sciencey reasons. Peter is left with abandonment issues and an identity crisis. In high-school, now played by Andrew Garfield, he begins the search for information about who his parents were, leading him to sky-scrapping science-hub OsCorp and his father’s former lab partner Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). This is where the infamous spider bite happens, although the underlining issue here is that the spiders were a project Peter’s father had been working on. Comparisons to the movie Hulk come to mind. Curiouser and curiouser and possibly disastrouser.

Now super strong and flexible Peter becomes king of the schoolyard by showing off his tricks on the basketball court (in a scene worryingly similar to one from the cinematic travesty Catwoman). He begins to woo the girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a blonde, sassy science-type herself, and Peter’s original love interest in the comics way back in the 1960s. Because these details matter. Of course all this success and cool skateboarding comes with a sacrifice, and his relationship with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) becomes strained. Soon Ben is gunned down by an assailant who Peter selfishly chose not to stop during an earlier robbery. Racked with guilt, Peter decides to become a hero.

Peter Parkour

Well actually no, he doesn’t. He decides to go on a massive vigilante hunt tracking down goons who resemble his uncle’s killer. While doing the police a minor service, his actions are more than a little shameful and all too Batman. Thankfully a supervillain is on the way.

Dr Connors, with Peter’s help, develops a cross-species chemical thingy that might allow him to regrow his missing arm (we never find out where it went) by injecting himself with lizard DNA, but sure enough within minutes he’s a giant lizardman wreaking havoc on NYC. Determined to save the city and the man who can tell him about his parents (probably, Peter never mentions it again), Spider-Man must battle the Lizard and… well, it’s all the same from here on in.

This can only end badly

The Amazing Spider-Man has a lot going for it. Adeptly directed by Marc Webb (who made the appealing but bafflingly overrated (500) Days of Summer), it balances strong scenes of teenage anxiety with a surprisingly believable romance and some dizzying, well-choreographed and rather amazing action sequences. James Horner’s score is suitably epic throughout.

Andrew Garfield, who has frustratingly played the tear-stained, put-upon barely-adult all-too-many times before, finally gets his day in the sun as a character who avenges all his previous geek roles by leaping into affirmative action. And he really gets into the role, convincingly balancing moments of gentle tragedy with witty retorts during his wall-crawling escapades. Emma Stone similarly gets a strong role to sink her teeth into, a character who has all the pluck the Mary Jane role lacked in the original Spider-Man trilogy. Stone and Garfield, an item since filming this movie, have a suitably awkward but intense onscreen chemistry, and with Webb’s background in romantic comedy, it is this chemistry rather than the 3D action (or the silly “the lizard knows my daddy” sub[?]plot) that carries the film. Sheen and Field are similarly fine in their supporting roles.

Honestly I’d be jealous if they weren’t so damned adorable together

But as I’ve noted already, all this charming romance and quippery is buried in a bog-standard villain-of-the-week plot. Rhys Ifans, coasting carelessly, plays a role that has barely been sketched. Connors is not jealous of Parker (Sr or Jr), he’s not overly ambitious, and while he wants his arm back he doesn’t seem utterly traumatised by not having it. After his injection, he succumbs to a bad case of what the villains in the first two Spider-Man films fells prey to – superpower-induced megalomania. (Say what you will against Spider-Man 3 (please do, it’s wretched), but at least its villains had reasons to be bad). Once Connors becomes the Lizard, a weird CGI creature that more closely resembles Spider-Man villain the Scorpion than the traditional Lizard, he does nothing but rampage, attack children and try to poison New York.

The various other plot threads of the film are abandoned like somany threads of webbing across the skyline of Manhattan. The mystery of Parker’s parents is not left unexplained, but rather sidelined by the reptile hunt. Similarly Ben’s killer remains at large, possibly set to become the Sandman in a likely sequel (dear lord no). References to Connors’s experiments being the only thing that can “save” Norman Osborn (owner of OsCorp, villain of the first Spider-Man and traditionally the web-slinger’s arch-nemesis) are similarly discarded, with only hints that he may be connected to the Parkers’ vanishing.

Ben and May: The only parents a good Spider-Man will ever need

And this Osborn stuff is at the root of The Amazing Spider-Man’s problems. While almost justifying itself as a reboot, it fails to do what is required of major comic book movies now: world-building. While the Avengers movies all hinted at their shared universe, even before them Batman Begins hinted at the rise of the Joker in its final reel. While Osborn is clearly part of the Amazing world, the only real hint at things to come is a mid-credits sequence about Peter’s parents. But at this stage who cares? What The Amazing Spider-Man needed more than anything was a last-minute stunt casting, having a major actor play Osborn or some other Spider-Man nemesis (or ally) to make us believe in this world. Because believing in this world requires us to believe it is better than the Raimi Spider-verse. And while Spider-Man 3 tainted that world to no end, it was still a place that we cinemagoers spent many years of our lives. So if we’re going somewhere new, you need to sell it better, and build it bigger, than this.

There is plenty of general clumsiness on display – a deus ex machina referred to early on as “gathering dust for 15 years”, but which is clearly plugged in, stands out – but we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from our blockbusters. A forced reference to Spider-Man’s traditional origin in the wrestling ring goes down like a lead balloon, while a skateboarding montage seems as desperate to be cool as the ‘Stayin’ Alive’ strut from Spider-Man 3 was desperate to be embarrassing. A scene where Parker tries to make money off photographing his alter-ego in action reaps no reward, denying a link to his traditional profession and also failing to explain how he pays for his nightly pursuits. At least the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo (he created most of Marvel’s biggest heroes, in case you’ve missed him before) is amongst the cleverest yet.

The action scenes are slick and witty, although one sequence oddly falls back on the jingoism that those in the original Spider-Man films demanded in reaction to 9/11 – now in 2012 it feels very out of place. Determined to scupper the fun, the 3D effects on display are amongst the most jarring seen since Clash of the Titans, with horrendously blurred backgrounds and double imaging rife.

Needlessly overlong (it is but a few minutes shorter than Spider-Man 3!), The Amazing Spider-Man is still arguably the best Spider-Man movie yet. Its decision to set the story entirely during Peter’s high school days is a wise one, which adds to the character’s confusions and uncertainties. The love story is more believable, and Garfield’s Parker is more likeable than Maguire’s. Ironically it is in the major shifts from the original, particularly the empty mysterious parents story, that The Amazing Spider-Man falls down. Because of this, all the best bits in the film feel like retreads, even if for the most part they are pulled off with far more success than Raimi ever managed.

Quiet, no one likes you!

If 2002’s Spider-Man didn’t exists, The Amazing Spider-Man could have been one of the superhero movie genre’s greats. A truly amazing Spider-Man movie still alludes Hollywood, and probably will until Marvel get their hands on the rights.

3/5

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Satan’s Alley – Review

There is a lot to be said for Satan’s Alley, the new ever-so-slightly over-the-top drama starring Kirk Lazarus. Lazarus is by now notorious for his repeated shots at Oscar fame, and this film is, in a pleasant, crowd-pleasing and pretentiously boundary-pushing manner, the sort of film that does well at award ceremonies around the world.

Filmed in a world of shadows pierced by light, this tale of two infatuated priests in medieval Ireland involves itself in showing how the prejudices in our past still haunt the way we see the world today. The film often borders on the erotic, but always steers clear of it, intent on revealing how religious practices can indeed be more pornographic than any sexual encounter.

The film of course is clearly buying into that “homosexual films for straight people” genre that was popularised first by Brokeback Mountain, and the casting highlights it; Lazarus is the blonde and brooding Australian, Tobey Maguire is the innocent-faced Jake Gyllenhaal lookalike (the two will in fact play brothers in Jim Sheridan’s upcoming film Brothers). The duo have a surprising amount of onscreen chemistry, as the older and more world-weary Father O’Malley (Lazarus) takes the younger under his wing and teaches him things that priests aren’t supposed to know. There hasn’t been this much sin in a monastery since The Name of the Rose

Ok, fine, I’m going to have to stop that there. I am, as many of you will already be aware, reviewing a fake film.

However, there is method to my madness; the above enjoyable diversion was designed to highlight the fact that while some films peak too soon, Tropic Thunder is a film that peaks before it even actually begins.

Tropic Thunder was expected all summer to be a comedy highlight of the year, and it doesn’t quite disappoint. In order to sell to us its would-be mockumentary behind-the-scenes style, it opens with a selection of trailers for fictional films starring Tropic Thunder’s fictional stars. The trailer for Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown presents Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) as a star who, despite the audience having grown up with him, has outlived his own greatest character and now fails to impress. The Fatties: Fart 2 conjures horrific memories Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor sequel, and is by far the weakest of the three trailers, presenting Jeff Portnoy as the sort of actor that shouldn’t be given work. The same could be said for his portrayer, Jack Black.

But as I’ve already highlighted it’s Robert Downey Jr’s Kirk Lazarus’s Satan’s Alley that steals the prologue and indeed the whole film, not just for its inspired innuendo but also for tapping into a very real and evident trend in modern melodrama; it’s ok to be gay provided you’re the underdog – audiences can relate to that.

The actual film itself is a sloppier affair than we might have hoped for. It’s never quite expressed what sort of film Tropic Thunder (that is, the film being made in this film) is supposed to be – its diverse cast (including the “5-time Oscar winner” Lazarus, method acting as a black man on and off camera) would seem to imply a large-budget Hollywood action film, rather than the artistic sort of war movie suggested by its writer and British director. For a film that we’re meant to think is meant to be Apocalypse Now, it never quite stops looking like Michael Bay’s Vietnam. The parody is diluted, if not utterly washed away.

Indeed, the revelation that the author, Vietnam vet Four Leaf, is actually a phoney, is meant to make us laugh at the thought of this farce not being true; but then none of the great Vietnam War movies claim to be based on true events. The audience is left at a loss for who to root for.

Anyways, when the film goes over-budget a more reality TV method is attempted, which in turn goes horribly wrong (in an awfully predictable gag – though a blessing since Steve Coogan hasn’t been this dreadful since Marie Antoinette). The actors are left in actual danger in the jungle and have to remain in character. Some genuine hilarity ensues – the infamous sequence in which the word “retard” is used repeatedly to discuss mentally challenged characters winning Oscars owes a lot to its predecessor in Extras (which had Kate Winslet make the same declaration to Ricky Gervais) but deserves credit, particularly for coining the now essential expression “going full retard”.

But there’s a lot that’s not funny. The one smart character, new-comer Kevin Sandusky (played by Jay Baruchel – getting confused yet?), is repeatedly ignored. Jeff Portnoy wants drugs (and does little else for two whole hours). A panda gets killed for the second time in a comedy in a year – ok, admittedly that was pretty funny this time!

As the film wears on its structure turns into the sort of rescue action picture that we were meant to assume this was not; a Missing in Action instead of a Platoon. There are again inspired moments, Lazarus’s “I’m a lead farmer” is perhaps one of the great one-liners of the decade. Speedman’s “I’m a rooster illusion” is the sort of wonderful non-sequitor that made Will Ferrell famous, but which he can no longer pull off.

What might have been a spectacular moment of comedy, Speedman’s adopted ethnic child (because all celebs must have one!) stabbing him in the neck repeatedly, was pointlessly, and one might argue unethically, spoiled in advertising for the film. Some jokes work a lot better unexpected and in context.

And while all of this is happening in the jungle there’s a whole subplot going on in LA. Tom Cruise, wearing prosthetics and a fat suit, plays Les Grossman, a vicious Hollywood executive and producer of the film-within-the-film. It’s an impressive turn for Cruise, who is surprisingly funny and carries of the grotesque excesses of the Hollywood execs and actually makes Grossman the monster we would expect him to be. But he is no doubt not the film’s highlight, as was assumedly anticipated by Stiller (who by the way co-wrote, co-produced and directed this film). The decision to have Grossman continue his hip-hop dancing throughout the film’s closing credits was a disastrous one that left the audience I saw it with cold and silent, uncertain if they were even supposed to laugh, let alone being tempted to.

There is a lot to like in Tropic Thunder, and it is certainly one of the best American comedies since Zoolander. But too many mistakes have been made. For example, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Speedman’s agent, is so entertaining that we might feel cheated we didn’t get to see the respective agents for Lazarus (assumedly a quivering wreck) and Portnoy (which might have given this waste of space something to do other than moan all film long). It holds together in the end, but only just, and largely because of inspired moments such as Satan’s Alley, Simple Jack and Lazarus (channelling Russell Crowe) and Speedman’s breakdown near the finale. Jon Voight deserves special mention for his brief cameo – he just looks so damned disappointed!

Tropic Thunder is a fun and clever action comedy, but it fails to be the one thing it wanted to be most: a satire. And failing that is the greatest sin of all.

3/5

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