Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man and Savages

  Law and Disorder
     Review by Ken Burke       The Amazing Spider-Man
Possibly the best of the Spider-Man movies yet, with a solid focus on the human feelings and motivations that propel Peter Parker into action against the dangerous Lizard.
An energetic, cinematic combination of flesh—hot young bodies for the set-up-to-be-sympathetic-dopers leads—and the devil—cruel, evil Mexican drug cartel villains.
            Producers of media products, including comic books and movies, face many challenges in both entering into and maintaining themselves in their desired marketplaces.  It’s hard enough to break through the increasing competition to even get your prized creation before the public, but then if you’re skilled and lucky enough to make a connection that sustains your “baby” over the years then comes the difficulty of keeping the idea “new” for ongoing generations of readers and/or viewers.  It’s been increasingly difficult for the DC folks (and their movie colleagues at Warner Bros.) since the late 1930s to keep refreshing Superman, Batman, and other Justice League characters (case in point, they used to be the Justice Society in the WW II era but evolved into different versions of themselves over the decades, spawning the coming-and-going mulitverse of similar manifestations in different dimensions in the process) over the decades and even attempt to preserve some continuity of the involved characters, but the creative team assigned to reboot the cinematic Spider-Man franchise had to contend with overhauling the most financially-successful same-director-commanded superhero trilogy of all time, with screen incarnations that had been released just in the last 10 years.  (I’m being very precise in my terminology here so that the 6-episode Star Wars and 7-episode Harry Potter aren’t in consideration, nor are the earlier Batmans, with various directorial visions from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher along with an ongoing change of actors in the title role.  Admittedly, this makes the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man trilogy in competition only with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films as a planned movie mini-series, with Raimi’s grossing about $1.1 billion vs. Jackson’s $1.035 billion [and that’s domestic U.S. and Canada; worldwide the totals reverse with Jackson’s trilogy grossing about $2.9 billion and Raimi’s $2.5 billion], but my point is that the previous Spider-Man movies are a powerful, contemporary, worldwide phenomenon, building on a well-known, beloved character with great recognition value from a variety of media—including the star-crossed Broadway version, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which finally opened after long, problematic delays in 2010—so that new franchise director Marc Webb has a lot to live up to, including the upcoming competition from the other singular-vision superhero-trilogy director, Christopher Nolan, when his The Dark Knight Rises opens next week.  Nolan likely won’t win the franchise money race as he’s only at about $738.6 million domestically and $1.4 billion worldwide, but if Batman proves to be as popular this year as he was in 2008 with The Dark Knight Webb will certainly have a literal run for his money in terms of 2012 box-office impact.)
            Webb and company chose the route of origination homage by titling their new film The Amazing Spider-Man, just like the earliest version of a regular-issue Spider-Man comic from the early 1960s, balancing their hero’s new-found pubic persona with the reality that he still has to contend with the raging traumas of high school as his day job, and following the comic-book chronology by using Peter Parker’s (Andrew Garfield) original love interest, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone)—although in the comic book he doesn’t get involved with her until he goes to college—before she was replaced by Mary Jane Watson, whom Peter connected with immediately in the previous movies starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. (Gwen, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, even pops up in the 2007 Spider-Man 3 as a short-term rival for Mary Jane, but that just further confirms that the old and new series seemingly take place in parallel universes [Or is that just a DC comics device?] where we’re not supposed to see all of these plots as contributing to one over-arching narrative, just as the life of Nolan’s Batman isn’t supposed to be integrated into the previous actions of Burton’s and Schumacher’s Bruce Wayne; this can get confusing if you expect a general sense of continuity with the lead character as you’d find in the James Bond films from 1962 [Dr. No, Terence Young] through 2002 [Die Another Day, Lee Tamahori], although Bond didn’t age much over that 40-year span, but even he has been rebooted via the Daniel Craig versions beginning in 2006 with Casino Royale [Martin Campbell], so if you want consistent continuity in your fantasy film heroes you’d better stick with Jackson and the self-contained The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings story where no one has yet attempted a remake with Bilbo and Frodo trudging through different neighborhoods of Middle Earth where Gollum rides on an orc and doesn’t spout Yoda-speak [in fairness, though, Gollum was talking like that in the books long before we knew about the Jedi).  In the current film, Gwen is a charming, confident presence in Peter’s life, even though her police captain dad (Denis Leary) initially abhors Spider-Man’s vigilante actions, at least until his daughter is in mortal danger, as is the constant problem for Peter in any of these movies where his loved ones are the usual target of the villains (along with, collaterally, the rest of NYC; as I noted in my review of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers [see posting from May 12, 2012] the budget for urban repair in that place would make many small countries envious), along with his identity being revealed at a rate that would astound Superman, who kept everyone at bay for decades with just a pair of glasses whereas Spider-Man’s true self comes dangerously close to being posted on a Facebook wall in all of his films.
            We also get a lot better sense of Peter’s adolescent life with his Uncle Ben (Shouldn’t he have been cooking rice at some point?  Oh, wait, that’s his half-brother from a mixed-race family.) and Aunt May, played by long-time respected actors Martin Sheen and Sally Field (You like them, you really, really like them!), nicely balancing newer-but-still-well-known-screen-presences Garfield and Stone (who’d better keep their off-screen romance stable or there’s going to be more than synthetic webbing slung around when they make the inevitable sequels).  As always, Ben bites the dust, partially as the result of a typically-teenage callous act by Peter leading to his resolve to fight crime on behalf of his fellow citizens, but at least this time we get a better insight into the moral authority that Ben bequeaths to Peter with Sheen bringing appropriate gravitas to the role just as Field provides a recognizable, therefore calming, presence as May, whose steadfast devotion to Peter’s well-being helps him see past his own preoccupations and remember her needs as well, even at the finale when he’s considerably worn down from the night’s downtown web-slinging that ultimately saved the city’s population from all turning into humanoid lizards.  Ben and May provide a safe refuge for Peter, before and after his accidental transformation into Spider-Man, a grounding of human decency in a world where crime often runs roughshod through the streets and supervillains emerge just as quickly as do superheroes (but at least we’re just focused on 1 powerful antagonist this time rather than the attention-diverting overload of troublemakers from Spider-Man 3 or some of the earlier Batman movies).  Ben even steers Peter away from the “dark side” of his new-found powers (not realizing what his nephew is truly capable of) with a lecture on the stupidity of revenge-taking, a needed lesson for a young guy whose raging hormones aren’t always a good match for his agility, strength, and hyper-responsiveness.  (Not to mention his early problems with sticking to everything he touches.  I’m trying to keep these comments on a family-friendly level, but I also can’t help but think what might happen when those hormones start raging in Gwen’s direction and some other “sticky stuff” comes shooting out—let’s see how long it takes for you to get that image out of your mind!)

            In The Lizard, the genetically-transformed persona of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) as the result of his experiment with trying to regenerate limbs to replace his missing right arm, we have a villain worthy of combat with the energetic, acrobatic Mr. Parker.  He has noble ambitions in his desire to use inter-species experiments to help ailing humans, he has mysterious connections to Peter’s disappeared and deceased parents (a plot line clearly kept back for now, with implications of more revelations in the sure-to-come sequels), he’s as overwhelmed by his own genetic transformation as is Peter with his new-found mutation (careful, Peter, prepare yourself for an onslaught of membership applications from the X-Men), and his passion to accomplish something significant also mirrors Peter’s final focus on using his new abilities for the public good.  It’s just that Connors, at least in his fevered reptilian mode, begins to see humans not as beings who could advance up the evolutionary ladder but as flawed, weak creatures that he despises for their shortcomings so he wants to make them over in his image (sorry, Dr. Connors, but you probably won’t be getting membership applications from the evangelical true-believers).  Soon his salvation mission has transformed as well, into an attempted attack on NYC using a device invented by his former partner, Peter’s father, Richard (Campbell Scott), to douse the metropolis with lizard serum so as to force everyone to become like him.  Unlike Peter, though, with his permanent new powers, Connors’ reptilian manifestation needs periodic injection boosts to restore him to full lizardhood, so he’s able to be captured and continued in human form, leaving the probability that Webb will emulate the previous Spider-Man movies, unleashing The Lizard once again (as we’re also being set up to learn more about what actually happened to Peter’s parents, whose deaths currently provide a sense of mysterious loss for our protagonist rather than the direct inspiration for crime fighting as we see with the vicious murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in any version of the Batman story; I guess we might have had an opportunity to also encounter The Joker again in The Dark Knight Rises because he was likewise imprisoned rather than killed [as in the 1989 Burton Batman], but with the untimely death instead of Heath Ledger I doubt that Nolan would dare put anyone else in that savage clown makeup), à la The Green Goblin's semi-return in Spider-Man 3.

            Increasingly larger doses of the serum add bulk and power to Connors’ alter-ego making him a formidable opponent for the fledgling wall-crawler, but—as we’d expect with our foreknowledge that it would take a very alternate universe for Peter Parker to die so soon into his career—the masked vigilante saves the city, is finally welcomed by the police (thanks to Capt. Stacey’s support, although, sadly for Gwen, he’s the one to join Peter’s parents in the great beyond—however, as yet another person who knew Spider-Man’s secret identity it probably helps to get him out of the story, along with his final plea to Parker to leave Gwen alone for protection from Spidey’s enemies, setting up another dramatic-tension situation for the next installment), and even finally remembers to get the organic eggs for Aunt May despite being bone-tired from swinging all over the city most of the night.  (It’s amazing how much of that webbing material he can cram into those tiny wrist containers, enough to get him across all of lower Manhattan and up to the top of the Oscorp skyscraper for the final showdown; maybe one of the sequels will use the occasional comic-book device of the reservoir running dry, leading to a perilous fall, a risk that Tobey Maguire generally didn’t have to face because his web spurts were produced organically [although in the 2004 Spider-Man 2 Peter’s powers begin to wane because of the self-induced stress of being the community protector so we have explored aspects of this concept previously—just as I’ve previously noted a relevant book for these post-9/11 concerns with terrorist attacks on NYC and the frustrated fate of the self-sacrificial community guardian, The Myth of the American Superhero by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, an extensive study I highly recommend]—or maybe this new version of Peter Parker can get by without webbing for awhile with his ability to stick to surfaces, although it’s never clear after the initial spider-power scenes how he’s come to control not making a Post-It note out of everything he touches, a funny bit at first but one that conveniently disappears once the humor has made its impact.)

            You may feel bone-tired yourself by the end of The Amazing Spider-Man, especially if you watch it in spectacular 3-D where you really feel yourself flying along with Peter through the concrete canyons of NYC, because the action is intense, the sincere motivations of the characters (along with the flawed egos of the principal combatants) lead reasonably into their various selfless and self-serving choices, and even the absurd science that’s at the heart of such fantasy movies (as opposed to the magic-driven environments of the fantasy approach in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars stories) all combine to make a compelling case for this being the best of the Spider-Man movies so far (using little background touches that display the care that went into every scene such as the poster in the subway car, when Peter first unwittingly discovers his spider-like powers, with the ironic message “This Year Thousands of Men Will Die from Stubbornness,” a statement I’ll leave to your individual interpretation), despite all the good things that exist in the previous Tobey Maguire-starring trilogy.
            Whether you’ll feel as exhilarated by Oliver Stone’s latest, Savages, possibly depends on your disposition toward the protagonists, because I doubt you’ll find much sympathy toward their assailants.  Much as I hate to sound like I’ve moved to the other side of the cultural fence (and I haven’t, I promise me as much as I promise you) since I long ago enthusiastically supported the dope-dealing but freedom-loving, disillusioned-with-the-Establishment anti-heroes Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) in Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), I’m not yet fully sure that I care enough about the perils faced by Savages’ two main “good” guys, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), and their shared partner/lover Olivia (Blake Lively), or usually just O so as to conflate Shakespeare’s tragic classic Hamlet and Anne Desclos/”Pauline Réage”’s sadomasochist classic The Story of O (this O also has to deal with some harsh treatment, later on in the film), as their boutique but highly-successful marijuana business is put in peril by south-of-the-border interlopers from the vicious Baja Cartel, headed by mostly cold-blooded Elena (Salma Hayak)—running the business after her husband and brothers were killed in the never-ending wars for control (“This Sicilian thing that’s been going on for two thousand years!”—Oh, sorry, wrong film, over-saturation with the annual spaghetti-and-Godfather-trilogy celebration that Nina and I do every summer.)—with her even more fierce enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), only a couple of steps more humanoid than The Lizard and Javier Bardem as the soulless, homicidal Anton Chigurh in Ethan and Joel Coen’s 2007 No Country for Old Men (Best Picture, Best Director[s], Best Adapted Screenplay [Coens], and Best Supporting Actor [Bardem]).  Clearly, “our” guys are set up to be sympathetic given that Chon (Interesting name or could he just not pronounce “John” when he was a kid and it stuck, the way that so many grandparent names evolve from the mouths of babes?) is an Afghan War vet who’s clearly dealing with a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome (but you’d definitely want him and his now-civilian commando team on your side if you needed protection from anything, including The Lizard if Spider-Man’s otherwise occupied with Gwen and that sticky goo) but is the kind of dedicated hard-ass needed to keep things stable on the illicit side of town while Ben is a college business-biology whiz needed to further the amazing THC level (33 %!) of the superweed Chon brought back from the war zone (Ben’s Buddhist to boot, plowing much of their profits into helping the needy in Africa and Asia).
            How much more organic, humane (besides their standard trade they’re even growers for medical marijuana stores—not that there’s anything wrong with that; seriously, because I’ve seen firsthand how needed a medication that can be), and sexually-charged (that’s where O comes in … no, wait, they come in her … oh, never mind, you get the picture, from the picture above of the 3 of them) in their own rough or gentle ways could these pot kings be?  Toss in their Laguna Beach mansion, their master-of-their-domain attitude, and their gleaming Anglo identities in contrast to those … Mexicans! … and you’ve got some ready-made heroes, right?  (In certain parts and minds of Arizona for sure.)  Well, maybe not Spider-Man caliber heroes, but we're now talking about Southern California rather than terrorist-scarred NYC after all.  Heroes can be a relative commodity, unless you’re more of a naturist than a nurturist, so for Stone’s latest cinematic assault these are the folks you’re supposed to root for, unless you’re not quite sure if their good deeds fully justify their protagonists’ positions.  But before you can get too confused with your moral meter things get really nasty with the Baja boys and their queen bee, Elena (shown here dining with hostage O before all hell breaks lose at the end of the story), a group who gleefully decapitates their local problems, then uses the easy strategy of Internet video of their persuasive tactics to convince Chon and Ben that the merger offer wasn’t to be rejected, nor were the Bajas interested in simply buying them out rather than absorbing their expertise as “partners.” Soon, O is a captive bargaining chip, Elena is finding a bit of sympathy for her (given that her own roughly-same-age daughter will barely give her the time of day, despite Elena understanding her disgust with the family business), and Lado is eager to make a mess of anyone who presents the opportunity.
            For me, the best aspect of Savages is implied by the title itself and the way in which the term is used by Chon and Ben to describe their Baja opponents and in reply by the Baja Cartel guys to refer to their gringo counterparts (here we see Lado imposing his presence on Ben, a man reluctantly recruited into the more physical side of his chosen business).  No one is really innocent here, so the question is really one of how much leeway we’re willing to give any of these characters in their various quests for dominance, revenge, and material success.  Certainly our yanquis aren’t vicious killers (except when they have to be to gain O’s release) as part of their everyday business and their glamorous lifestyle in their seaside palace is a very attractive alternative to the humdrum lives led by most of us sitting in the theatre (and some would say that having such a willing business/sex partner as Lively is a further enhancement to the situation, but for me she was the least "lively" of the BFFs in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films [Ken Kwapis, 2005; Sanaa Hamri, 2008], her role in The Town [Ben Affleck, 2010] is fine but minor compared to so many others in that film, she was unfortunate collateral damage as Hal Jordan’s girlfriend Carol Ferris in Green Lantern [Martin Campbell 2011] another movie where there’s a lot more going on than her whether it all works or not, and while she’s had an ongoing role on TV’s Gossip Girl for several years that just hasn’t been part of my cultural milieu [thankfully], where even Desperate Housewives seemed more worth my time), but despite their intertexual references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) as a model for their romantic attraction to each other and (seemingly) for us I’ll leave it up to your individual sensibilities as to whether you see the crisis faced by our hot-bodied trio as something to be morally concerned about or just enjoyed for the fast-paced, visually-powerful, relentless thriller that Stone commands expertly.
            Maybe it’s just my old-fartiness, but it was also a pleasure to have the emerging talents of Ms. Lively and her male costars (Kitsch made quite a name for himself in the worthy TV series Friday Night Lights [2006-2011]—one that I would have certainly paid more attention to than Gossip Girl if time had permitted, and the reality that I got enough exposure to high-school football and small-town melodrama by actually growing up in Texas to not need to see it again every week on the tube—and he certainly acquitted himself more successfully in the box-office dud John Carter than he was generally given credit for but I see no sequels on the Martian horizon there [see my review if you like in the March 17, 2012 posting]; Johnson would most likely be known for his performance as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy [Sam Taylor-Wood, 2009] and the title role in Kick-Ass [Matthew Vaughn, 2010] where he’s ultimately overshadowed by Big Daddy [Nicolas Cage] and Hit-Girl [Chloë Grace Moretz], although his turn as the abusive Joe in Albert Nobbs [Rodrigo García, 2011] carries more substance for me) balanced out not only by the more established Hispanic actors Hayak (nominated for Best Actress [Frida, Julie Taymor, 2002]) and Del Toro (an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor [Traffic, Steven Soderbergh, 2000]) but also the seldom-seen-of-late John Travolta as Dennis, the DEA agent who protects Chon and Ben’s operation but turns out to be an across-the-board double-crosser by also working closely with Lado, as he’s making a move to ditch the Baja Cartel and link up with emerging power El Azul (Joaquín Cosio), and then turning up at the end to arrest Elena during the hostage trade-off so as to enhance his credentials on the right side of the law as well.  Dennis and Lado are emblematic of the shallow loyalty to be found in Savages, where anyone is just a deal away from truly savage self-serving actions that leave dead bodies all over the landscape and corrupt even former innocents such as gentle Ben into being killers as circumstances demand.

            Given that this production was wrapped long before Travolta became a headline-grabber (if that’s all that was grabbed) about the time of the film’s release there’s no way that the following conversation could have occurred during filming (although if I heard the dialogue correctly at one point the Bajaistas note that the return to power of the PRI  will be detrimental to their organization, a prescient prediction given their recent victory of PRI politician Enrique Peña Nieto in the Mexican presidential election so who knows how psychic this film may be), but given the years in the entertainment business that these old larger-than-life pros have shared I could imagine a conversation like this if circumstances allowed:

Stone:  “So, John, any more masseur allegations, or are you accusing them of harassing you now?”

Travolta:  “Nah, Ollie, everything’s cool with the rubdowns.  Say, I haven’t seen your name much on the screen lately?  Been busy polishing up that DGA Lifetime Achievement Award?  Oh, wait, that was Scorsese.  I always get you ‘S’ guys mixed up.”

Stone:  “I’ll mix up your ‘S,' you washed-up has-been!  It’s a good thing I got Cruise out of the Scientology register for Born on the Fourth of July.  If it’d been you, you’d have tried dancing in the wheelchair!”

            After which they throw beer bottles at each other until it’s time for the next scene to be shot, with Travolta now in a properly angry mood to lash out at whichever drug dealer happens to be in his car or his house at that point.  So, with that sort of speculation in mind, overall I found Savages to be compelling to look at, just as the older and newer stars on screen “give good presence” to go along with the typically dynamic manner in which Stone manipulates the footage and moves the story along at a frantic, danger-laden pace (but still in more of the relatively-subdued manner of JFK [1991] than the all-out cinematic assault of Natural Born Killers [1994]).  There’s a lot to like in how Savages constantly dazzles you with spectacular, opulent, bloodthirsty, and, at times, shockingly violent imagery, so I’m more inclined to recommend it than not, but it’s hard to get past that initial question:  If these guys aren’t me, do I really care about the turmoil they have to endure (along with Lively’s ongoing narration that we get to endure) to preserve their illegal empire?  I’m a lot more invested in Spider-Man’s ultimately selfless call to duty, but both experiences will give you good reason to re-order that overdue blood-pressure medicine and give you a clear choice of whether you want to be attacked by a giant lizard-man on the East Coast or border-crossing drug-thugs way out West.  You’ll get your money’s worth either way (unless you lose a lot of screen time covering your face during the brutal Savages moments, but maybe the opening “orgasms vs. wargasms” sex scene between O and Chon will balance that out or the surprise alternate endings—oops, not a complete surprise now, although a clever bit for the film—will serve your creative needs, but I’ll leave the details for you to see for yourself if interested); given the choice, though, I think I’d rather swing with the spiders than panic with the pot.
            If you’d like to go flying above the streets of Manhattan on your own with The Amazing Spider-Man here are some recommended links: (an expanded 4 min. trailer, because you can never get too much Spider-Man can you?)

            If you think that “across the border” refers to a chain of Mexican restaurants then you might need to explore Savages a bit more at links such as these: (a clip from the film with a bit of Blake Lively but mostly Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro in confrontation)

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