The Amazing Spider-Man

What people really like about Spiderman isn’t the web slinging or the red-blue spandex or the zippy one-liners; its that beneath the mask there is a smart, witty, nerdy, likeable and relatable kid in Peter Parker.

Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire knew that for their 2002 film “Spider-Man,” and Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield seem to know it here for “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which is essentially a remake of Raimi’s film. But Garfield’s Peter Parker doesn’t have the boyish charms of Maguire’s, and his mixed persona makes for a film that suffers from its other clichés and hokey gags.

I’m dating myself when I realize that “Spider-Man” is in fact 10 years old, and there are likely a new generation of 12-year-olds who will watch this version and appreciate it just fine. But everyone else may have fatigue at just how familiar this origin reboot is.

Peter Parker is left with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen) after his parents are forced to leave in a hurry, never to be seen again. Now as a bright high school teenager, he’s rediscovering his father’s past and tracks down an old colleague, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who transforms into a monstrous lizard thanks to a genetic algorithm provided by Peter. It’s then Peter’s job to stop him after he’s bitten by a genetically mutated spider that gives him enhanced strength, reflexes and an ability to stick to walls.

What’s tiring is how boilerplate Peter’s backstory is. Of course he has to deal with the obnoxious bully in school, stumble through awkward conversations with the cute Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and rehash the boring pseudo-science that explains his mutation.

And while the original “Spider-Man” is no less guilty of these clichés, Director Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer”) overdoes it. The high school drama consumes the entire first half of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and for every visual gag, there’s an added cinematic punch line in case you forgot how to react, be it in a cheerleader’s bubble gum popping over her face or a Coldplay song cueing in to fill the gooey void.

Garfield handles all these moments with a peculiar attitude. On the streets in his costume, he’s notoriously smarmy and glib, and then at home or around his girlfriend, he shuts up into an awkward ball of angst. Garfield emanates so little chemistry with Stone that you wonder why Gwen is so drawn to him.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” also lacks a moment as instantly iconic as Spiderman kissing Mary Jane upside down in the rain, and Webb is not the visual technician that Raimi is, so a few shots from Spidey’s POV as he careens through the air look plain cartoonish.

Maybe it’s the 12-year-old me talking, but I was able to take the original “Spider-Man” somewhat seriously and still realize it was a goofy popcorn movie. It was as if Peter Parker never forgot how dopey he really is just by putting on that mask. “The Amazing Spider-Man” on the other hand is cornball all the time and thinks itself otherwise. It forgets who’s inside that spandex suit.

2.5 stars

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

There’s something a little silly about the fact that as all hell is breaking loose just outside your window during the apocalypse, the best thing you can think to do is whisper sweet nothings into the ear of the girl you just met.

This is both the strength and the crutch of “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” essentially just a romantic comedy but with the fortune and misfortune of being set at the end of days.

An asteroid is destined to hit the Earth within weeks, and Dodge’s (Steve Carell) wife literally runs off as soon as the news breaks. He’s left depressed and aimless until he meets Penny (Keira Knightley). The two escape their home during a riot and agree to help each other get to Penny’s family in England and Dodge’s high school sweetheart. Continue reading “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”

Rapid Response: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

Gene Siskel would always ask, “Is this film more interesting than a documentary about how it was made?”

Such has been the guiding logic with “Hearts of Darkness,” a documentary on the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” The production hell this film went through is still unrivaled in terms of sheer difficulty and complexity, and some would argue (see: recent episode of “Community”) that the telling of such an immense story actually surpasses Coppola’s masterpiece. “Hearts of Darkness” stands for the same themes of surreal unpredictability and radical change of perspective that “Apocalypse” is about, and it is mystifying and immersive in the way it engages us with such powerful, conflicting emotions.

And yet, you likely couldn’t make a documentary as interesting as this if the subsequent film weren’t also fairly interesting. The Coppola we see has mixed feelings about his film, viewing it as a potential masterpiece with ambitions that are so great and tell so much, and yet he knows that achieving such a vision on film is virtually impossible. Almost never throughout the course of filming is Coppola completely satisfied with his actors, his sets or his own words. He hates the ending most of all, and he said as much at Cannes. Here he calls it too macho an ending, and something closer to the novel would have been more appropriate.

But he never quits in filming. The artwork is done in the process, and it is a never ending process. The art doesn’t stop when the cameras cut. Anyone working that tirelessly and following along with the art at every stage of its development could drive a person insane. But he boldly asserts that you must act as if you are going forward and finishing whatever you’ve claimed, even if it turns into a vanity project that only answers questions for you. They’ll call it pretentious, and that’s what all filmmakers fear, but if it can’t even answer questions for him, then what good is it?

Coppola’s experience in the woods and swamps of the Philippines to make his Vietnam War epic changed his worldview, but perhaps the finished product of his film never answered the questions he sought. Thankfully, “Apocalypse Now” is hardly pretentious.

Director Fax Behr constructs a story from Eleanor Coppola’s documentary footage that truly gets at Francis’s psychological complexity. It’s a chronological retelling of the over 200 days they spent filming, beginning with the origins of “Heart of Darkness” as a film. Orson Welles wanted Joseph Conrad’s novel to be his first film. When the budget was too vast, he made “Citizen Kane” instead.

Coppola tried again before making “The Godfather,” but no studio wanted to deal with the ties to Vietnam. The script was again shelved for years. But after the success of both “Godfather” films, he had directorial freedom and financed $13 million himself. After 10 days of filming, he made the first hard choice and fired his then lead actor, Harvey Keitel, replacing him with Martin Sheen. Sheen was so much his character that it altered his personality. He later suffered from a severe heart attack and was read his Last Rites by a non-English speaking priest.

Coppola also juggled a collaboration with the Philippine military, his $1 million contract with an overweight, difficult and unprepared Marlon Brando, a typhoon that killed 200 local residents and the construction of a massive temple with the help of hundreds. The Gods seemed to be against this film, and Coppola’s hubris flied in his undying defiance to it all.

He really does not come across as entirely rational or sympathetic here. His requirements for a scene inside a luxuriously dream like French home (later cut from the theatrical version, but now available on Redux) sound petty when he requires that red wine be served at 58 degrees, and when all of the things that would make it perfect are not met, he shows his true personal anger and frustration.

“Hearts of Darkness’s” behind the scenes moments are so evocative of “Apocalypse Now,” such as in the caribou slaughter scene or in the infamous shot of a flair being shot high into the dark sky, and yet some of it can seem self-indulgent, complex and vague without meaning or direction. These feelings are perversions of themselves. They conflict at every turn, and so do the ambitions of “Apocalypse Now.” It’s a miracle of embattled ideas and personalities.

What’s impossible to now know is the media firestorm that circled around this project in the 1970s. Today, news would have spread much quicker, been much more fierce and may have killed the project sooner, but Coppola’s fiasco was unheard of. He was not a David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock or Cecil B. Demille. He was a new kid on the block, even if he had won Oscars just before, and this smacked of pretension beyond any.

This film also helped spread misleading rumors about the “actual ending” to the film, in which it is believed that in another version, Kurtz’s entire complex explodes. A still of this image exists in the credits of “Apocalypse Now,” and this film has marvelous footage of the actual set being demolished, but it was merely a necessity captured on film and not scripted.

“Apocalypse Now” is a masterpiece. It is one of my all-time favorites, but could it really be were it not for all this struggle? Often it is true that from great pain or great passion springs great art, and “Hearts of Darkness” embodies all the love and rage that went into this miracle of cinema.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Martin Sheen said about “Apocalypse Now” that if he knew then all that he would have to deal with over the agonizing 16 month shoot, one that sent him through the Philippine jungle and back and gave him a heart attack along the way, he would have never agreed to it. Today, he has no regrets, because I would imagine that not he, nor any critic on Earth, would think about Sheen having a heart attack while watching this masterpiece of cinema.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film is easily the best of the Vietnam War movies, and in my book one of the best of all time. To watch “Apocalypse Now” is to become immersed and dragged deeper into the horror that is war all while remaining distant, confused and utterly hopeless at the idea of ever fully understanding violence. Continue reading “Apocalypse Now (1979)”

Rapid Response: Badlands

I have now seen all of Terrence Malick’s movies… that is until “The Tree of Life” comes out. But having seen his first film last, “Badlands,” it is interesting to see how Malick has grown as a director over time.

The film recreates the story of mass murderer Charles Starkweather and his young girlfriend Carill Ann Fugate, but in the movie they are Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek). These two young kids, he an out-of-work 25-year-old and she a 15-year-old student, are lonely people that simply find each other and discover themselves attached. Their love is hardly a strong connection, and although he looks like James Dean, appearances aren’t really involved either. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Badlands”