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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 12, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Amazing Spider-Man, Bunheads, Rivers

How odd -- the critics, who are supposed to have some kind of superior vision, have been almost universal in despising the new Spider-man movie.

It's as if they all were organically connected to the 2002 Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire, and by bringing out, not a sequel, but a re-boot of that movie, some vital organ had been ripped from their bodies.

I'm curious. What makes a movie "unnecessary"? That's how some critics are describing The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) and starring Andrew Garfield (The Social Network).

In point of fact, all movies are unnecessary. Think of any movie ever made. If it didn't exist, we would get along just fine. We would never know that it was missing. (Yes, that includes Citizen Kane. Especially.)

If you doubt me, let me assure you that there are thousands of excellent scripts that have never been filmed, for reasons ranging from idiocy to cowardice. The fact that they remain unmade does not shatter our lives or prevent an occasional good movie from getting made.

One might make a case that all movies with the name "Dr. Dolittle" in the title were unnecessary.

But if a movie is very, very good, then who cares whether it was "necessary." All that matters is if, having seen it, we're glad we saw it and hope to see it again. Then it has made itself necessary.

And if these critics were not so biased by their own prejudice, they would realize that The Amazing Spider-Man has made the earlier Spidey movie unnecessary.

Let's put things in perspective. When Tobey Maguire first breezed above the streets of Manhattan in Spider-Man in 2002, superhero movies were still being played for campiness. Tongue in cheek.

It was the tone set by the Richard Donner Superman -- the one that introduced us to Christopher Reeve back in the previous century. There were serious moments, but also frequent winks at the audience. Lex Luthor was a pathetic joke of a villain. The menace was absurd. It was all for laughs.

The Batman movies got progressively darker -- but no less stupid at their core.

So with Spider-Man, Sam Raimi took us to a new level of seriousness. We were actually invited to believe in Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. We were supposed to care when Cliff Robertson, as his Uncle Ben, gave a lovely little death speech in Peter Parker's arms.

And we did care. Many of us saw it more than once, because the story resonated with us. There was a core of reality. It was less comic and more book.

But as the series went on, it got campier. The Batman reboot with Christian Bale set a new standard of seriousness in superhero movies -- especially since Batman has no superpowers.

Iron Man -- about another superhero without superpowers -- gave us wit without camp. As portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man was funny within the movie. He didn't stop and wink at the audience, he winked at the other characters. He didn't break the fourth wall.

Also, the Smallville television series -- by far the best screen treatment of the Superman character -- did a much better job than Spider-Man of exploring what it means to a kid to have adult responsibility thrust upon him.

And because of several very bad superhero movies-- several Hulks, a Four, Iron Man 2, the Superman reboot attempt -- our standards rose. We began to recognize how lame most villains were in these movies, how trivial the distinction between good and evil -- or, to be honest, between nice and nasty, which is about as deep as the moral reasoning went.

So in the ten years between the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man and the Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man, it had become as impossible to continue the existing Spider-Man franchise as it had been to go on with the first Batman franchise or, for that matter, Star Trek in its first sequence of feature films.

I'm not sure when they made the decision to make this a reboot instead of a fourth installment; I know there was a script for the sequel, and all reports were that it was wretched.

Nor do I know which of the three credited writers is most responsible for the quality of this script -- though it would be nifty to think it was Steve Kloves, who contributed so much to making the Harry Potter movies non-stupid.

But whoever was responsible, the script for The Amazing Spider-Man did away with the last shreds of self-conscious unearned melodramatic cheesiness. The most telling demonstration: Uncle Ben gets no last words after he's shot.

This is a script that expects the audience to think; it's a script that isn't counting on special effects to get us past the weak spots.

In the climactic confrontation between hero and villain, we don't have the overworked cliche of the hero being at the point of losing, and then he has a moment of digging down deep in his soul and coming back with a new burst of will that allows him to win.

Bursts of will get you the charge of the light brigade; bursts of will get you a couple of invasions of Russia; they don't give you victories.

Spider-Man wins (come on, you didn't think he was going to lose, did you?) by staying focused on the primary goal, which wasn't beating the bad guy; he wins because he has help from Denis Leary in his most sympathetic role ever.

There were moments with emotional demands, but in my opinion they were wholly earned within the script, rather than reaching for external manipulative tools. The thing with aligning the cranes was earned, I thought -- it was way more thrilling than merely showing Spidey swooping from building to building (which we have already seen).

The entire group I saw the movie with received that moment with a sense of affirmation: Yes. The people recognize that Spider-Man can't do this alone, and so they do what they can to help -- and it's not nothing.

In other words, the superhero isn't a species apart. The superhero needs the people.

Was this a lesson learned from the Batman reboot? Probably -- who cares? Artists build on what they learn from each other. Some learn by trying to turn the achievements of others into formulas; others learn by actually understanding how a good effect was brought off, and adding the technique to the artist's tool set, to be used only when appropriate.

Yes, there was an actual ticking clock near the climax -- I didn't say the movie was perfect, did I? But at least director Marc Webb did not cut back and forth between the action and the clock with the obsessiveness of formula films, in which the ticking clock is all they've got.

They had the script; they had a director with judgment and taste; and then they cast it. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans and Denis Leary, Martin Sheen and Sally Field had way more to work with than the cast of Spider-Man had; but they also did more with what they had.

Or rather, they did less. Underplaying was the order of the day in this movie. They didn't poke us with their "moments." They stayed surprisingly real. It's as if they thought they were in a film directed by Robert Redford or Nora Ephron -- absolutely clear storytelling, emotional without sappiness, with real characters.

Real? In a comic-book movie? Absolutely. Like Smallville, The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a coming-of-age movie. Most adolescents don't get actual superpowers, but they all get radical transformations in their minds and bodies, and have to deal with them; they either accept responsibility and become adults, or they fail to do so.

In that sense, The Amazing Spider-Man is an allegorical documentary of adolescence (the way that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was in that astonishing reboot of an exhausted series).

The result of all this is performances that these actors need never be ashamed of. If acting awards were given for honest, powerful performances instead of scenery chewing or obvious "technique," then this cast would be in contention; but that's not the planet we live on, so the actors will have to be content with having delivered re-watchable performances -- rather like the terrific and underappreciated ensemble of Twister from eighteen years ago, whose work is still delightful to watch.

No doubt the third Batman movie will top this one at the box office; nobody will be talking about The Amazing Spider-Man at Oscar time. But I'll bet that in twenty years, this will remain as one of the good movies from the era of the superhero film. And Andrew Garfield will get his Oscar -- not for this movie, but because of the talent and skill and artistic judgment that this movie gave him a chance to show.

*

I had high hopes for the TV series Bunheads, a comedy about kids in a serious dance program, with Sutton Foster as the Vegas showgirl who becomes one of their teachers.

The pilot was very good. Oh, yes, Sutton Foster is definitely limited by her Broadway roots -- like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, she has two basic acting modes: mugging for the camera, and rattling off dialogue. But the script was full of surprises and it was rollicking fun.

Then we watched the second and third episodes and realized that there was nothing there. The writers know how to do cheap quirkiness, but every moment has a desperate anything-for-a-laugh air about it, and nothing feels real. Nothing.

What made the pilot work, it turns out, was Alan Ruck (who played Ferris Bueller's depressed friend in Ferris Bueller's Day Off). As the man who marries Sutton Foster's showgirl character and brings her to his mother-dominated home, he makes an absurdly unbelievable character so real that we were fooled into thinking the series would be good.

But they killed him off at the end of the first episode, and with him died any hope of this series being watchable.

And here's the clincher: In episodes two and three, there was almost no dancing whatsoever.

A TV series about dance in which nobody dances? Oh, wow, what genius wrote those scripts?

We gave it those first three episodes, and now we're not recording it any more. If it gets better, we'll never know. But it's hard to imagine how it could get worse.

*

Speaking of disappointments, Joan Rivers's new book, I Hate Everyone ... Starting with Me, is not really about hatred. It's also not funny. It's really about the end of a career that has become nothing but going through the motions.

Rivers knows she's supposed to be outrageous, but there really aren't any taboos left; and even if there were, there's nothing clever or witty about the way she tries to entertain us. She just sounds bitter and very, very tired.

I say this with great sadness, because I've been a fan of hers for many years. But this book wasn't written by the Joan Rivers we all know and love. This was written by a Joan Rivers puppet, and even though Rivers herself was the puppeteer and the ventriloquist, it can't be saved.

I don't begrudge her the money I spent on the book. I don't even begrudge her the time I spent reading it. It's like visiting an old friend in a hospice, and she's so spaced out on drugs and pain and illness that she isn't making any sense, but you sit and listen for the sake of who she used to be, and how much she meant to you.

We'll remember her for how she was in her prime; this self-imitative babbling near the end of her career won't spoil what went before.

*

I grew up on Reader's Digest, and just as I read The New Yorker for the cartoons and only occasionally find an important article, so also I have always read Reader's Digest for the jokes (or, as they used to be called, "amusing anecdotes").

So when you see the Reader's Digest extra edition entitled Ha!, I can promise you that it's actually quite entertaining. Yes, you've probably read or heard most of the jokes before. But they're still good.


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