Foundas on Film: The Amazing Spider-Man & Savages
They say time speeds up as you get older, but that isn’t the only reason why going to the movies these days feels like déjà vu all over again. Now in addition to the endless onslaught of prequels, sequels, and remakes, there is that curious commodity dubbed the “reboot,” Hollywood-ese for taking some iconic character or property, returning to the drawing board, and starting anew. Batman and James Bond have been rebooted in recent years, as has Superman (with yet another reboot due in the next year). And now Spider-Man—a series first “booted” a mere decade ago—has checked in for a similar makeover. If at first you don’t succeed, the big-studio wisdom seems to be, try again. And even if you do succeed the first time (like Sony’s first, Sam Raimi–directed Spider-Man trilogy, which grossed in excess of $2.5 billion worldwide), you should try again anyway, with new (and cheaper) talent, especially if there’s a chance you might otherwise lose the underlying rights to the franchise. Had Hollywood come to this determination a few decades sooner, we would doubtless now be on our third or fourth cycle of Godfather movies, with Zac Efron as Michael Corleone.
So we come to The Amazing Spider-Man, a movie that must seem to writers of original screenplays the way those “invisible” fences you can install in your yard seem to dogs wearing electrified collars. And yet this umphundredth origin story of a nerdy outsider turned unlikely crime fighter is surprisingly enjoyable—the surprise being that it’s one of those rare superhero movies that doesn’t mount a full-frontal assault on the audience’s senses. This Spider-Man is an altogether lower-key, more modestly scaled affair than the Raimi pictures, which adopted the hyperreal aesthetics of the old MGM musicals, unfolding against a pop-up-book Manhattan replete with elevated trains, cigar-chomping newsmen, and starry-eyed Broadway starlets. Directed by Marc Webb, who made the charming if too-clever-by-half rom-com 500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man has a smaller cast of characters and keeps its focus mostly on the blooming adolescent romance between the bullied, bashful Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his comely classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). It’s a romance complicated by mutant spider bites, giant man-lizards and, of course, Gwen’s disapproving dad (Denis Leary), who just happens to be the NYPD captain hot on Spider-Man’s trail. And yes, Spidey still has his de rigueur parental abandonment issues, and guilt over the senseless death of his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). But even with all that, The Amazing Spider-Man is pure John Hughes through and through—so much so that Webb even sets the movie’s penultimate action sequence in a high school. Think of it as Pretty in Red Spandex.
At this point in his career, Webb isn’t nearly as imaginative a visual storyteller as Raimi. Most of the time, he just seems to be putting the movie dutifully through its paces, and particularly in the daytime scenes, it has the same washed-out, overly pixelated look of the excruciating Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But here and there, The Amazing Spider-Man surprises you, most of all in a thrilling sequence on the Williamsburg Bridge, where Spidey comes to the aid of motorists by wrapping their plunging cars in his super-strong silk, until the entire bridge is one enormous, weirdly beautiful mobile of dangling autos. And when Spidey climbs down into one of those suspended cars to rescue a young boy trapped inside, Garfield plays the scene wonderfully, removing his mask and with it his superego, calming the frightened child with the carefully reassuring words of an older brother.
Indeed, it’s the actors more than anything else that make The Amazing Spider-Man seem worth the effort—not just Garfield, but Stone (The Help, Superbad), who infuses the movie with her dizzy charm, especially in those scenes where she’s figuring out just what it is her boyfriend really does at night. You see that she gets a wide-eyed adolescent thrill out of dating Spider-Man, like the girls in the old greaser movies whose boyfriends were the leaders of the pack. And that wonderful Welsh chameleon Rhys Ifans brings gravitas to the role of Dr. Curt Connors, the brilliant geneticist whose efforts to eliminate our weaknesses and disabilities inadvertently transform him into a rampaging human Godzilla known as The Lizard. Still, it’s hard not to wonder: will this case return for an encore, or will the next Spider-Man mark yet another pressing of the reset button?
I’m not sure that Oliver Stone has ever made so purely exuberant a movie as his new Savages, an unabashedly lurid sun-and-surf ménage-à-trois cum drug-running caper, with touches of Jacobean tragedy for good measure. In Stone’s own filmography, the only things quite like it are the 1997 Southwestern noir U-Turn and the infamous Natural Born Killers (94), with its ultraviolent fugitive lovers on the run through multiple layers of stylized reality. But Savages is a freer, more highly spirited work than those pictures—it gives off a joy in filmmaking, as if Stone had rediscovered what made him excited about making movies in the first place, coming on the heels of 2010’s moribund sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in which money may not have slept, but the director seemed very tired indeed.
The source for Savages is a 2010 novel by Don Winslow—one of the increasingly rare mass-market fiction writers who actually has serious literary chops—that exploded across the page in a mixture of free-verse poetry and traditional prose as it told the story of a couple of Southern California marijuana growers who run afoul of a powerful Mexican drug cartel. In the movie, which Stone and Winslow adapted together with Shane Salerno, the growers, Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), are yin to each other’s yang—the former a neo-hippie botany major who funnels his pot profits into a third-world charitable foundation, the latter a Navy SEAL vet of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Somewhere between those two extremes lies O (Blake Lively), short for Ophelia, who tells us early on (in ripe voiceover narration taken almost verbatim from Winslow’s book) that both men are the loves of her life, that where Chon is “cold metal” Ben is “warm wood.” All innuendo and double entendres entirely intentional.
Into this stoner Garden of Eden comes a viper in the form of cartel honcho Elena “La Reina” (Salma Hayek), who wants a cut of Ben and Chon’s business and, moreover, the keys to their seed-growing technology, so that she can offer their high-test weed as a gourmet item in her international, big-box pot emporium. Forget the product for a moment and we could just as soon be talking about Wal-Mart (which the film directly references) or Monsanto (which it doesn’t), and it’s one of the unexpected delights of Savages that Stone’s least overtly political movie in years turns out to be one of his most prescient and stealthily subversive. Much more than the Wall Street sequel, this is a movie for the new economy, with college-educated youth betting on private (and illegal) entrepreneurship rather than an unstable job market, the behavior of drug cartels mimics that of the Fortune 500, and the precious marijuana seeds themselves come from the heart of the Afghan war zone itself. Take that, NAFTA!
Stone puts all of this across with tremendous verve: the cinematography by Dan Mindel is so drenched in eye-popping ocean blues and desert browns that the movie sometimes feels like a giant beach blanket, and the musical score by newcomer Adam Peters is pure spaghetti Western. It’s genuinely sexy, too, with the toned and tanned young cast coupling and tripling in various states of undress. But the high style never overwhelms the film, because Stone keeps us rooted in the reality of the characters, all of whom have their reasons, whether pushers, growers, or the wily DEA agent (John Travolta) trying to play both sides against the middle. It’s a very fine ensemble, including a deliciously sinister Benicio del Toro as Hayek’s chief north-of-the-border henchman, and above all Hayek herself, who transforms what might have been a stock villainess role into a complex, utterly fearless portrait of a widow and mother trying to hold together the family business. Sporting a Cleopatra fright wig, her face wrought into a steely, impermeable mask, her Elena is Medea, Mother Courage, and Stella Dallas all rolled into one. Pity the man or super-man who has to go toe to toe with her.
The Amazing Spider-Man and Savages are now playing nationwide. Read Scott Foundas’s Film Comment interview with Oliver Stone.