by Steve Habrat
Less than two years ago, Sony and Columbia Pictures rushed director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man to the big screen, just five short years after Sam Raimi’s overstuffed Spider-Man 3. With a brand new cast led by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man was a rush job of a summer blockbuster—a desperate attempt on Sony’s part to hold on to the rights of the Spider-Man character. It’s easy to see why Sony wanted to keep Spidey trapped in their web, as the beloved superhero is an audience favorite that guarantees the studio a big pay day. Yet for all the insistence that The Amazing Spider-Man was going to be a fresh start for the character, the film’s plot seemed awfully familiar and, frankly, a bit underwhelming when pitted against Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s The Dark Knight Rises, the two summer kingpins of 2012. Now here we are at the commencement of the 2014 summer movie season and leading the blockbuster procession is The Amazing Spider-Man 2—a cramped comic book epic that fails to live up to its colossal hype. Sure it’s made with all the splashy action, on-again-off-again romance, wisecracks, and confliction that we have come to expect from a Spider-Man movie, but returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alec Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner appear to have been bitten by the same excess bug that nipped Raimi when he delivered his Spider-Man 3 dud.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds brainy teenager Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) continuing to battle crime on the New York City streets as Spider-Man. On the day of his high school graduation, Peter’s spider senses lead him to a high-speed chase through the city streets involving a highjacked truck that is carrying a massive load of plutonium. The man behind the highjacking is Aleksei Sytsevich (played by Paul Giamatti), a ruthless Russian mobster who will stop at nothing to outrun the authorities. With the help of Spider-Man, the authorities are able to corral Sytsevich, but during the chase, the webslinger saves Max Dillion (played by Jamie Foxx), an OsCorp employee who is largely ignored by his coworkers. In the wake of the rescue, Dillion develops an unnatural obsession with Spider-Man, believing that he is the superhero’s partner. Meanwhile, Peter suffers from visions of fallen police captain George Stacy, the father of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone), who made Peter promise to distance himself from Gwen after his battle with the Lizard. Haunted by the promise he made, Peter grapples with his romance with Gwen, which leads to a nasty break-up between the two. Shortly after the break-up, Peter reunites with his long lost friend Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan), the son of OsCorp’s late president, Norman Osborn (played by Chris Cooper). Before his father’s death, Harry learns that he has inherited his father’s illness, and that he has to rush to find a cure before it’s too late. At the same time, a freak workplace accidently transforms Max Dillion into an electrified monster called Electro. After a botched attempt to calm the terrified Max in Times Square, Dillion develops a grudge against Spider-Man and vows to destroy him.
At two hours and twenty minutes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 attempts to juggle a staggering number of subplots, all of which seem to demand more time than they are allotted. Webb and his screenwriters continue to reveal tidbits of information about Peter’s late parents, and Harry’s quest to cure himself leads to the creation of a familiar Spidey super villain. And then there are the romantic quarrels between the impossibly cute Gwen Stacy and the stammering Peter, a couple that have to hold the record for the most make-ups and break-ups in a single motion picture. Honestly, trying to keep up with all of it is exhausting, and in the process, Webb practically forgets about one character that we’re left wanting quite a bit more from. After a while, this overcrowded tale begins to feel a bit like Spider-Man 3, the film that single-handedly killed off Raimi’s series. It appears that neither the filmmakers nor the studio learned from this mistake, although Webb avoids the cartoonish brooding and cringe inducing camp that made Raimi’s such a painful embarrassment. What’s clear is that Sony is putting pressure on the filmmakers to set up spin-off movies and lay the foundation for the next two installments in this Spidey saga. Sony has already made it clear that they intend to craft a cinematic universe much like Disney’s Avengers line, although, this world is threatening to be too villain heavy.
While the jam-packed narrative causes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to feel sluggish, the lighter moments between Peter and Gwen put a little pep in the film’s step. The relationship drama does get a bit tiresome, but the two stars have a chemistry that soothes some of the grumbles that are bound to slip out from many audience members who have grown weary of Spidey’s chaotic love life. It also helps that Garfield and Stone share an off-screen romance, which makes their on-screen relationship even cuter. On his own, Garfield continues to settle into the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, wisecracking his way through gunfights, car chases, aerial battles with Electro, and a final showdown with the charging Rhino. There is no denying that Garfield nails the cocky comedic side of the character, but he also proves that he can handle Peter’s darker demons that creep in when he’s not swinging through the concrete jungle. His inner angst is measured with a desire for answers about his parent’s mysterious death—a mystery that he grapples with in the privacy of his bedroom. Stone remains an actress you just can’t resist as her Gwen Stacy looks to a future without Peter by her side. In the final stretch of the film, she proves to be more than just a damsel in distress, daring to jump into the action and assist a desperate Peter as he fends off attacks from Dillion’s Electro and Harry’s cackling Green Goblin.
On the villain end of things, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds one half of the Sinister Six uniting to squash the Spider. If you thought that Lizard was a far-fetched villain, wait until you lay eyes on Electro, a glittery swirl of electricity given a tragic human rage by Jamie Foxx. Early on, Foxx really makes you feel for Max Dillion, a geeky engineer who talks to himself and frowns as his coworkers look right through him. As Electro, Foxx plays the character as a terrified monster that doesn’t wish to harm anyone, but this misunderstood monster performance is rapidly brought down through a sudden script shift that demands Electro get mean fast. DeHaan was born to play Harry Osborn, the chilly son of OsCorp’s late president who is doomed to become the leering Green Goblin. The scenes shared between Peter and Harry are pleasant enough, but there are far too little of them for us to really be shaken when Harry’s Green Goblin comes calling for Peter’s Spider-Man. Giamatti’s Aleksei is appropriately over the top, as he grunts and growls in a hammy Russian accent. Sadly, he’s reduced to an extended cameo, but when he jumps into that menacing Rhino suit and starts wrecking havoc in the streets of New York City, I promise your adrenaline will start surging, especially when he stares down quivering cops and proclaims, “I am zee Rhino!”
As expected, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features numerous action set pieces that will thrill viewers of all ages. The scenes of Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers are some of the most convincing we’ve seen so far, and Spidey’s first encounter with the skittish Electro shows off some impressive urban destruction. My personal favorite action moment is the confined fistfight between Spidey and the Green Goblin, a battle that ends with a shock guaranteed to blindside the packed theater. Another personal favorite is the Wall-Crawler’s showdown with Rhino, who charges into the battle guns and rockets blazing. As far as other complaints go, I found the score, which is composed by Hans Zimmer and the “Magnificent Six,” a super group led by Pharrell Williams, to be an absolute catastrophe. The chugging and whispering theme for Electro is just distracting as it attempts to get inside his glowing head, and the sudden lapses into shrill dubstep leaves your ears ringing. Overall, while there are things to like about The Amazing Spider-Man 2—the action, the CGI, the performances—the film doesn’t find Webb sending the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to soaring new heights. What we’re left with is a cluttered and disjointed superhero outing preoccupied with enticing the audience rather than satisfying them until Spidey inevitably swings back onto the big screen.
by Steve Habrat
For a film that has been selling itself on the promise of telling us the untold story about Spider-Man’s origins, The Amazing Spider-Man feels suspiciously familiar. Replace the original actors with some fresh faces, toss out Mary Jane as the love interest, bring in new director Marc Webb, and scrub away pervious director Sam Raimi’s fresh-off-the-pulp-page style and you have Marvel’s good but not really amazing reboot of their ultimate cash cow. The debate still rages on about whether it was a smart move on Marvel’s part to reboot the Spider-Man franchise just five short years after Sam Raimi left a bitter taste in our mouths with the overly crowded Spider-Man 3. In my opinion, I believe that it was a bit early, especially since Webb’s reboot didn’t really take on much of a life of its own and Raimi’s series is still pretty fresh in my mind. Even though this is familiar territory, Marvel still understands what worked in the previous Spider-Man series and it refuses to let go of that formula. I guess it means a big payday so I can’t really say I blame them.
The Amazing Spider-Man re-introduces us to gangly but brilliant teenager Peter Parker (Played by Andrew Garfield), who is under the care of his warm hearted Uncle Ben (Played by Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Played by Sally Field). Peter has been under their watchful eye since he was a young boy, his parents mysteriously dropping him off at Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s one night and then disappearing without another word. Peter attends Midtown Science High School, where he snaps photos for the school year book, is the target of bullies, and crushes on the equally brilliant Gwen Stacy (Played by Emma Stone). One day, Peter stumbles upon his father’s old brief case and in it, documents that link his father to the pharmaceutical company Oscorp. Peter goes on to discover that his father worked closely with a man named Dr. Curt Connors (Played by Rhys Ifans), who severed contact with the young Peter after his parents disappeared. After sneaking into Oscorp to meet Dr Connors, Peter stumbles upon a laboratory that is crawling with those iconic genetically modified spiders. One naturally finds its way into Peter’s clothing and gives him a painful bite on the neck. He quickly begins to notice some strange by powerful side effects taking effect. Meanwhile, Dr Connors is researching cross-species genetics, which would allow Dr. Connors to re-grow a missing limb. After being rushed into human testing, Dr. Connors tests a serum on himself, with devastating consequences.
Director Marc Webb (yes, that is his real name) and his team of screenwriters understand that what appealed to us in the original Spider-Man movies was indeed the boy behind the bug-eyed mask. Webb allows his camera to linger on Peter for quite some time before throwing him behind that famous mask and letting him loose on the rooftops of New York City. There was a lot to like in that story about the bullied nerd who seemed helpless in defending himself suddenly becoming more powerful than he could have ever imagined. The Amazing Spider-Man really lets us see Peter’s anguish, from the suppressed anger over his parent’s sudden disappearance to the cold-blooded murder of his Uncle Ben. Peter gets an up close and personal look at the ugly side of life and what that ugly side can dish out. While all of this isn’t really new, Webb still manages to wring out some easy emotion from it by shrouding it in shadows and tearstains. Garfield’s Peter isn’t afraid to let the tears of pain fall down his face and paired with the swelling score from James Horner, you’ll find yourself getting easily sucked in to that pain and really feeling it. Webb knows that we can’t resist weepy and he really has a blast hitting the sob button multiple times throughout The Amazing Spider-Man.
The best part of The Amazing Spider-Man is the casting choices, mostly Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Garfield and Stone, who struck up an off screen romance while shooting the film, allow that real life spark to translate and boy, does it pay off. They capture and quickly bottle the giggly self-consciousness of first love and allow it to mature into a confident romance. The little moments between Parker and Stacy easily outshine any of the nail-biting action scenes. You will also find yourself falling for Sheen’s Uncle Ben and Field’s Aunt May, both who are game to play loving guardians to the awkward teen shut away in his bedroom upstairs. Sheen’s Uncle Ben is given endless amounts of fatherly wisdom to pour onto Peter but he does it with quite a bit of spirit. Field’s Aunt May is stuck with grieving throughout much of the film but she is in full command when in front of the camera. Then we have Ifans as Dr Curt Connors/The Lizard, who is a revelation as Peter’s mentor but unsure of himself as the deformed monster. In many respects, he is similar to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the 2002 original, minus the hover board and firepower. For the dark and serious approach, he is at times a bit too fantastical and his destructive plot is unintentionally funny.
What would a Spider-Man film be without the swinging action sequences that are hell-bent on giving us vertigo? There are plenty of showdowns between The Lizard and Spidey to keep the adrenaline flowing but Webb never dares to construct an action scene that we haven’t seen before. He converts it all into 3D and then just sends webs flying our way along with various other debris, rubble, and dust. I found myself getting sucked out of some of the action sequences because Spidey is just too mordant. He does muster up a few good one-liners, especially one about his weakness being “small knives” and a critique of a car thief’s wardrobe (both which you have seen in the trailer). There is a gun-snapping brawl with a SWAT team that pits Spidey against skeptical police Captain Stacy (Played by the underused Dennis Leary), who has vowed to get the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man off the streets. I won’t say much about the edge-of-your-seat finale except that Spider-Man is bruised, battered, and has his back against the wall, on the lookout for all the help he can get. It is all done up in a CGI confrontation that takes Spider-Man to the very top of the New York City skyscrapers.
If Marvel would have held off for a few more years before deciding to revisit the Spider-Man universe, I think they could have come up with something inventive and invigorating. Instead, they rushed into something that obviously could have used a bit more thought and it is apparent in more than a few scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man. Spot on casting wasn’t enough to blind us to the fact they didn’t really elaborate on the beloved superhero. Still, The Amazing Spider-Man does offer up plenty of escapist summer thrills to warrant a trip to the theater to check it out. There is tons of immersive 3D and tweaked special effects, the best scenes being the ones where Spidey is swinging in between buildings. Since Marvel has insisted upon Spider-Man swinging across the movie screen once again, I am curious to see where they take the Webhead in future installments and I can’t wait to see how Garfield develops the character. I guess that is all any good but not amazing origin story can do.
by Steve Habrat
For all the films that have acted like rollercoaster rides this summer, none have been more of an emotional ride than The Help. Do I dare say, this early on in the year, that Tate Taylor’s sassy comedy/drama set at the height of the Civil Rights Movement is one of the best films of the year? I think I can. But while some films find their way to the top of that list by how pertinent they are to the current epoch (see The Hurt Locker, The Social Network, The King’s Speech, etc.), The Help doesn’t send a particularly current message. Sure, it’s can’t-we-all-just-look-past-our-differences-and-just-get-along can work in every climate and it is basically a rallying cry for outsiders (of any color, might I add) to find their voice and stick up for themselves. No, a film can find it’s way to the top of that list on the performances that make up the said film. The Help thrives on this idea. Yet the film strings along scene after scene that in one second will have you chuckling (“I NEVER burn chicken!”) and the next will have you scrambling to pick up the pieces of your shattered heart. It’s quite the bipolar film.
When I say this is a film for outsiders, we must take into consideration the era that this film takes place in. Set in the 1960’s, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Played by the inescapable starlet Emma Stone) is a recent college grad that is also an aspiring writer. She is a confident, self-assured, and snappy woman who is determined to make a career for herself and avoid becoming a phony trophy/stay-at-home wife like the ones she mingles with on a daily basis. Upon returning, she ignites an old friendship with Hilly Holbrook (Played by the jaw-dropping beaut Bryce Dallas Howard), a stay-at-home wife with a racist streak and a political agenda of her own. She is making a push to segregate bathrooms in the household between colored help and the white inhabitants. One day during a violent storm, Minny Jackson (Played by Octavia Spencer), the colored housekeeper of Hilly, has to use the restroom and she doesn’t want to brave the vicious storm to do it. Defying the frigid Hilly, she uses the white facilities and gets herself fired. Simultaneously, Skeeter has started working on a book with the reluctant and reserved Aibileen Clark (Played by the Oscar-worthy Viola Davis) on what it’s like to be colored help in the south. Aibileen convinces Minny to contribute to the book, sharing a story of revenge that threatens to tear apart Skeeter’s friendships with old friends and family.
The Help narrowly avoids being the mandatory mother/daughter bonding film of the summer. Upon an initial first glance, it appears to be the option for the ladies who don’t want to accompany their chest-thumping husbands and boyfriends to the latest Fast and Furious movie. The film does act as a celebration for the liberated, empowered female, but also a film that gives an individual who sees themselves as looked over and brushed to the side courage to find their voice. It’s universal, yes, but outrageously accessible. This is what troubles The Help. It’s so concerned about being unanimous and trying to appeal to everyone. That’s why the ending of the film is such a wallop. It seems like this sequence should serve as a bridge from one conflict to another in a film like this, but it leaves the audience filling in what happens next. I applaud the film for taking this route. It lacks the Hallmark ending that would usually make a sappy film like this diabetically sweet.
Despite its blatant comradery, the film is carried on the backs op Davis, Spencer, Howard, and Stone, who act as the heavy lifters in this picture. Davis plays Aibileen with haunted eyes and a cracked soul. She pulls genuine condolences for her character when we learn about her distraught back-story. Spencer is feisty and adds the spunk a film like this needs. She delivers the best lines of the film and she sometimes seems relegated to jester to the seriousness at hand. Near the end, get ready for a serious shocker from her character that will leave you clutching your gut in laughter. Stone is her usually sweet self as the ambitious Skeeter. She represents what was ultimately rejected during this era—the career driven woman. Her cancer stricken mother who pleads with her to find a man and get married hounds her every step of the way and this further solidifies her outsider persona. She absolutely refuses to give a man an inch. In one flashback sequence, she sulks to her sweet and elderly housekeeper Constantie (I could have watched a whole film about Skeeter’s relationship with Constantine!) about not getting asked to the school dance by a boy. It’s a minor sequence that hints at the confidence seeds planted within her. And we can’t forget Howard, who clocks in a vile performance as Hilly, a despicable human being with no compassion. She gets what’s coming to her and I won’t reveal what that is, but I will say that the revenge here is certainly sweet.
Despite it’s clichés, The Help is a remarkably enjoyable and ultimately a feel good film. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else but what it is. It acts as a voyeuristic look back in time as well as encouraging empowerment and liberation for present times. These messages are elementary at best here, but I had such a great time watching these women that I am willing to forgive this one flaw. There were scenes that ate at me and there are some tearful moments. It’s a performance film that tells a stimulating story with impeccable ease. Since seeing it and thinking about it, the film has a strange pull on the viewer. It’s delectably entertaining. You want to go back and listen to these characters again. The film ends with a monologue from Aibileen saying that no one has ever asked her how she is doing. Well Aibileen, you certainly have my undivided attention. Grade: A