The Review: When they come to write the history books, they’ll hopefully note the key cultural touchstones of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The impact of 9/11. An actual Big Brother. Krispy Kremes hitting the UK (and shortly after, my waistline). But one which has as good a chance as any as standing the test of time is the comic book movie adaptation. It’s a genre that first took root in the late seventies with Superman: The Movie and has seen some iconic names captured on celluloid, and many now more than once. For any children of the Seventies or Eighties, there are probably three comic book heroes that stand out, that endure the test of time and that seemingly now need to be reinvented for cinema every ten years or so. While this year sees the end of another Batman cycle, it also sees the start of the third, and most relatable – unless you happen to be a billionaire or an alien, anyway – spandex-clad hero on another round of adventures, and this time Spider-Man is back and making claims to be Amazing. It’s a bold statement, especially when two-thirds of Sam Raimi’s web-slinging saga are still so fondly remembered.
Part of the reason – but by no means whole story – of why Nolan’s Bat-saga has succeeded less than a generation after Burton and Schumaker has their stab at interpreting the mythology is down to how much Nolan and co managed to differentiate their version in both style and substance. It’s not just a case of a different story; other than a man who dresses like a bat and a lunatic in clown make-up, the two approaches have little in common and are all the better for it. So it’s easy to criticise The Amazing Spider-Man for its lack of differentiation, but for all the attempts to bring in additions such as the parents’ back story, there’s an awful lot here that feels an awful lot like Raimi’s Spider-Man. Substitute a lizard for a guy in green on a flying skateboard and you’re practically into remake territory. For those questioning whether it was worth going back to the web quite so soon, the answer is far from a definitive yes.
Raimi’s original Spider-Man wasn’t perfect by any means, and Webb’s version gets as much wrong – especially the odd design of the main antagonist – but it also gets a fair amount right. First and foremost is the casting, which nails its Spidey in the form of Andrew Garfield, all teenage irritability and learning hard lessons as he tries to become a hero, more fuelled by vengeance than altruism in this take and willing to risk making himself genuinely unlikeable for long stretches. By way of contrast, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey doesn’t look much like a teenager but does have more charm and charisma than either Kirsten Dunst or Bryce Dallas Howard managed. Martin Sheen makes a memorable Uncle Ben and Dennis Leary a suitably stern authority figure. The let-downs are Rhys Ifans, never quite able to exude the level of menace required and a rather wet and unsympathetic turn from Sally Field as Aunt May.
It’s fair to say that balance of good and bad is also about what The Amazing Spider-Man manages as a whole. Taken on its own terms, there’s a lot to like, with a couple of satisfying action set pieces and a slightly darker tone than you might expect. This does mean that the Spidey wisecracking gets limited to the odd scene or two, and while the romance is good and the web swinging looks authentic, what’s really missing is just a little more fun. It’s a shame as we know director Mark Webb can certainly deliver that, based on his previous effort, (500) Days of Summer, but it’s just about enjoyable enough on its own terms. But there’s an elephant-sized spider in the room; Raimi’s original casts such a cloud that you can almost feel the gears straining as TASM attempts to avoid covering the same ground, and there would have been no shame in wheeling out the same catchphrase about power and responsibility, with this film coming off slightly worse for it. In terms of those cultural touchstones, one looms larger than any other, and the Spider-man series we’ve just had felt like a better reaction to the the mood of the times, as did Nolan’s Dark Knight (but for completely different reasons). When the most that TASM feels like a reaction to is the Twilight movies, you can’t help but feel that this is a reboot too far, too soon.
Why see it at the cinema: Spider geeks will find plenty to enjoy, and the web-slinging action is as crisp and as wide scale as it’s ever been.
Why see it in 3D: I nearly didn’t put 3D on this review, so anonymous is the extra dimension. While there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s absolutely not essential unless you’re a 3D obsessive.
The Score: 7/10 (if you ignore the 2002 Spider-Man, knock at least a point off if you don’t)
The Review: I spent four years at University in Bath, getting a degree and starting to develop my love of movies. While I was there, I came into contact with two things for the first time in my life: drugs, and the Welsh. Not a combination that I, or indeed anyone else, would necessarily put together, but that combination was responsible for one of the biggest drug trafficking rings ever seen in this country, or indeed any other. That Welshness was contributed fairly effectively by one man, Howard Marks, described by the Daily Mail as “the most sophisticated drugs baron of all time.”
Not that you’d know that from watching Mr. Nice. Rhys Ifans comes across as a fairly reasonable approximation of the man himself, and this is the story of his passage from the small coal-mining village where he grew up to Oxford, and the pronounced influence that had on his future direction. Despite becoming a big fan of recreational drugs, if Mr. Nice is to be believed Marks fell into his career almost by accident, just happening to be in either the right or wrong place at the appropriate time. Slowly but surely, he expands his influence and his reach, and every time an opportunity comes up, he takes it.
In order to get what he needs, he begins to rope in a motley crew of accomplices, and ends up getting involved with the IRA (a manic David Thewlis) and eventually even expands into the Americas (via a bearded Crispin Glover), despite the protestations of his wife (Chloe Sevigny), seemingly the only person who can appreciate the potential cost of the risks that Howard’s taking. Through the course of this, don’t expect deep insights into why Marks is doing what he’s doing, or passionate arguments for the legalisation of recreational drugs – those are only implied in the sense that this really isn’t Trainspotting, and the downsides of Howard’s habits are the run-ins with the law that he had, not from what he or any others ended up taking.
But freed from the weight of those expectations, this is an enjoyable romp. Bernard Rose has both adapted the screenplay and directed – his direction is unshowy, but there are little stylised touches (inserting Ifans into stock historical footage) and the occasional impressive image, but by and large he lets the story do the talking. Thewlis probably gets to have the most fun, raging around with his accent, while the only slight weak link is Sevigny, the accent wavering just occasionally and the performance also slightly shaky. There’s nothing shaky about anyone else, though, they’re all too tripped out on the material, so just sit back, revel in the absurdities of the story (all true, as long as you believe Marks), and have a good time, man.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a few shots, such as a car crash, that will benefit from the big screen, but by and large you’d be here more for the company than the impact of the visuals.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Roger the Crabbin’ Boy. (And yes, before you say anything I know that the Roger the Cabin Boy thing in Captain Pugwash is an urban myth, but the pun doesn’t work otherwise, because he’s Roger Greenberg, not Tom. Okay? OKAY?)
The Review: Well, you’ll have to pardon me for being a little grouchy. I think it’s partly because I had to go to see this twice (having had to leave to pick up my wife half way through the first time I went to see it; more on that later), and partly because if you spend long enough in the company of a man like Roger Greenberg, it’s bound to rub off just a little. Misanthropes and curmudgeons aren’t new as central characters, but the trick if you’re a filmmaker is to get your audience to engage with unsavoury characters, even if you don’t necessarily like them straight off.
Roger Greenberg, though, is a little more complex than that. Rather than direct misanthropy, he alienates himself from the world around him through fear and an unwillingness to connect. And although he comes off as miserly, and he looks his fear of age in the face directly through an uncomfortable birthday dinner, he seems to have a real sense of what’s wrong with the world, but it’s locked in minute detail, rather than in the bigger picture, stuck writing letters to Starbucks about the culture they’ve created rather than trying to fix the important things in life. Consequently, his faults and his unpredictability make him fascinating to us, the audience.
It takes two to tango, or in this case mumble, and the other in this case is Greta Gerwig, whose Florence is the yin to Greenberg’s yang. Where he avoids people, she is the life and soul, and even sings on stage; but they are equally lacking in self confidence and self esteem, and that gives Roger the upper hand, at least to start with. Their relationship is like two revolving magnets – pulled together inexplicably, then pushing each other away almost equally without reason, and we end up wanting him to be with her because we know she’s good for him, but also sensing that maybe she should still be pushing away if she knows what’s good for her. Nonetheless, Gerwig is the emotional bedrock of the movie and allows us to connect to the story through her frustrated emotions.
Other characters swirl around in the mix, as Greenberg reflects on the fifteen years of love and friendships that have gotten away from him, most notably Rhys Ifans’ likeable Ivan and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s distant ex-girlfriend Beth. Most of the characters seem to either pity or condemn Greenberg for what he is, and that only serves to feed his neuroses further. What sits on the surface of Greenberg the movie is a study in character, reflected in the passage of time, where almost no-one is happy and the only people who have direction have left the country or are leaving it. But scratch beneath that surface, and you’ll find the neuroses of the characters that reflect our own natures, the parts of ourselves that we successfully hide or try to forget about, and you’ll then find yourself much happier to spend time in their company than they would be spending time in yours.
And as for seeing it twice, or at least part of it? What struck me was the difference in reactions of my fellow cinema-goers; uncomfortable situations or amusing moments met with stony silence the first time I saw it, but warmly embraced and appreciated the second. The differences in people are sometimes reflected on both sides of the screen, so take a friend if you’re going to this one – it could make all the difference.
Why see it at the cinema: This is partly about what’s on screen, including every last expressive millimetre of Greta Gerwig’s face, and partly for the social barometer that seeing this with a large crowd of people will give you. Especially if most of them are on their own, looking mainly grumpy.
The Score: 8/10