Sunday, October 20, 2013

Big man in a suit of armor

Iron Man 3 is out on DVD. Here’s my review from when it was in the theaters this past spring.

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Iron Man beside himself:  Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark feeling less than invincible as he contemplates what else he is without his suit of armor besides a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist, and wonders if he’s up to that job in Iron Man 3.

Maybe it’s the painkillers talking, but I’m about to write a review of Iron Man 3 arguing it’s a two hour commentary on Pixar’s The Incredibles.

This isn’t a joke. After all, The Incredibles is one of the best superhero movies ever made, right up there with Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and the original Iron Man. Every superhero movie ought to be able to stand up to comparisons of one type or another with it.

No matter where I go with this, I will not be arguing that Pepper Potts is sexier than Mrs Incredible.

But think about it. Syndrome is a version of Iron Man. Both owe their powers to available technology which means both are walking, flying, fighting advertisements for the notion that anybody can be a superhero. Syndrome not only embraces the idea, he intends to peddle it. Tony Stark rejects it, but what is it Cap says to him in The Avengers?

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

And that’s the big question. What makes Iron Man a “super” and not merely a spoiled man-child playing with a lot of cool toys he’s invented?

What makes a “super” a superhero is one of the themes of The Incredibles. It’s the theme of the Tony Stark/Iron Man arc in the Avengers series.

Iron Man 3 is the story of Tony Stark trying to answer for himself the challenge Captain America put to him in The Avengers:

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

Stark’s comeback, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” is funny but empty, because it’s missing a word.

Superhero.

Or even just hero.

Stark tries to get back at Cap by calling him a lab rat and belittling his powers. “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” Which shows that he must never have read his father’s notes on the Super-Soldier project.

We know, from Captain America: The First Avenger, that everything special about Steve Rogers was already in him. That’s why Dr Erskine picked him. The serum just brought it to the surface. At heart and in his soul and to the physical degree he was capable of, Steve Rogers was already Captain America.

Iron Man 3 is one of the better-made of all the movies in the Avengers series. But I left the theater feeling strangely let down and anxious and…lonely.

Alienated might be the better word.

This ennui surprised me because I thought I had been enjoying the movie while I was watching it. Mulling it over afterwards, I got half way to concluding I’d just been put off by the obligatory ad for the video game that’s become the standard climactic battle of every Marvel superhero movie. At least this one varies from the endings of Spider-Man 3, both Fantastic Four movies, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers. It doesn’t take place in the city streets full of crowds of screaming civilians running pointlessly to and fro while cars and trucks blow up around them and pieces of buildings rain down on their heads. But it’s confused, directionless, repetitive, purposeless in that it doesn’t build toward a satisfying confrontation between our hero and the villain, it just keeps throwing up more obstacles between them until the director and his stunt coordinator run out of gags and the whole thing just sort of times out, nihilistic, perfunctorily violent for violence’s sake, visually ugly, boring, and ultimately just another big noisy mess, and it’d have been no wonder if it was what had soured me on the film.

But then I realized that all the battle had done was dampen the sense of fun to the point that I was left feeling more strongly something I’d been feeling all along.

Sad.

And it dawned on me that Iron Man 3 is in fact a sad story about the losses that come when you reach a certain age and you turn around and realize you are now the grown-up in the room and everybody around you is relying on you and you have no one to rely on yourself in the same way, because all the grown-ups you used to count on are gone from your life.

In Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Tony Stark behaved as if he didn’t need anybody and nobody really needed him. Being a superhero was just something he did to amuse himself. In The Avengers he got a lesson in teamwork. He found out he couldn’t go it alone. The question was going to be whether the lesson would take.

Maybe we’ll get the answer to that in The Avengers 2. In Iron Man 3, Tony learns something else, that he was never as alone as he’d always thought and prided himself on being. But he learns it by finding himself suddenly very much alone. And he learns it while also learning that being a superhero isn’t something he can do for kicks. It’s something he’s obligated to do because other people need him to be one. And he learns that when as it happens he doesn’t have his superpowers.

Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what is he?

Jeez. No wonder Tony’s so sad. And since he’s still played by Robert Downey, his sadness is profound and convincing and, at least for me, infectious.

This is the first Iron Man---the first Avengers---movie without a certifiable grown-up, good or evil, to guide, advise, support, or challenge the hero, or, as Stark has always taken advantage of, mother, father, big brother or sister him. Agent Coulson is dead. Nick Fury is off doing whatever it is he’s doing with Cap in The Winter Soldier, along with Black Widow. Jim Rhodes is busy trying to chase down the super-terrorist known as the Mandarin. Happy Hogan’s in the hospital. Jarvis, Stark’s cyber-assistant and alter-ego, has been knocked out of commission. And, while Pepper Potts lives to take care of Tony, the trouble coming his way is way beyond her skill set and it isn’t long before she’s in no position to take care of him in any way.

Even Iron Man is out of the picture for much of the picture.

That is, if you accept that it’s the armor that makes Tony Stark Iron Man and not Stark who makes the armor something more than a machine.

Stark’s tried and true suits of armor have disappeared in the rubble of his house after the Mandarin’s minions leveled it in a helicopter attack and the one suit he has left is a prototype designed to assemble itself telekinetically but it has a few bugs in its program so that at the moment it’s much better at disassembling itself. It has a habit of short-circuiting and falling apart on him and eventually, instead of carrying Tony through the air, Stark is hauling it through the snow on a makeshift litter.

Tony is left to save himself, save his friends, save the President, save the country, and save the day all on his own, and it’s not a job he feels at all up to.

Iron Man 3 isn’t about learning that with great power comes responsibility. It’s about learning that with responsibility you don’t have enough power to take care of everybody you’re responsible for and yet you still have to try to take care of them.

In Iron Man 3, we get to see Tony doing things he hasn’t had to do before---think seriously about what he’s up to, doubt himself, ask for help---and not doing things and being things he’s used to doing and being. He has to not be so full of himself, not deflect criticisms, not shrug off or joke away feelings. In short, he has to act like an adult. Since he regards all this adult behavior as a drag (and an assault on who he thinks he is), he is add odds with himself in a way he hasn’t been before, consciously.

And he’s not sure whose side he’s on.

He jumps back and forth, but either way he jumps he treats himself as he’s been in the habit of treating everybody, dismissively, with impatience, with a general lack of sympathy, with offhand contempt, and as the deserving object of his meanest jokes.

And this means we get to see Robert Downey doing something he hasn’t had do to often in the series, play it straight. He gives us a Tony Stark who’s sober, somber, sorrowful, afraid, and…lonely.

It’s disconcerting. And of course Downey does it all very well. Maybe too well. Which it’s why it’s like I said earlier. Infectious.

Nothing that happens in Iron Man 3 undid that for me.

Since Tony is on his own throughout much of the movie, Downey is on his own too. He has some fun moments in the early going with Jon Favreau as an unhappy Happy Hogan and a funny scene with a couple of the villains’ henchmen who let themselves get a little cocky after making the mistake of thinking that Tony Stark without his armor is just a billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. But his scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle as Jim Rhodes are mostly a matter of their focusing together on the same spots on the green screens. All his best work with the Rebecca Hall as a sexy scientist with a secret and Guy Pearce as an unsexy scientist with a bigger secret is over and done with in the first fifteen minutes of the film.

And when Stark at last confronts the Mandarin, Downey’s main job is to hang back and feed Ben Kingsley pieces of scenery to devour.

The closest then Downey has to a co-star to really share a scene with is eleven year old Ty Simpkins, who plays Harley Keener, a fatherless middle-schooler with access to a workshop Tony commandeers to try to repair his recalcitrant suit of armor after it crashlands in the woods outside Harley’s small town in Tennessee.

Harley is a budding engineering genius in his own right and desperately in need of a father-figure, so naturally he takes to hero-worshipping Tony right away, something the old Tony would have enjoyed as his due but at the moment, beaten up from within by self-doubt and self-recrimination and not in the mood to hear what a swell guy he is, something he doesn’t feel he deserves. This has Tony brushing off Harley’s attempts at friendship which allows Downey to deliver some of the most acerbic anti-child acting since W.C. Fields last said, “Go away, son, you bother me.”

If you’re thinking that Tony and Harley sound a little like they're paralleling Mr Incredible and Buddy Pine at the beginning of The Incredibles, then you’re thinking along the same lines I’m thinking, but you’re ahead of me. I’ll catch up.

Downey and Keener make a good team, but given that Tony is divided against himself, Downey is really his own main co-star and mostly left alone to play against himself. Which means we finally get to see Tony Stark/Iron Man in the full Hamlet mode that’s the signature emotional state of Marvel’s superheroes.

This doesn’t mean he’s all gloom and doom. Like Hamlet, Downey’s Stark is still quick with a joke and, since the suit of armor’s been taken away, we get to see him (Downey and Stark) do something else we haven’t really seen him do yet, play the action hero. And Downey has a ball with it. As is the case with any great movie star, the man can move.

Stark is in good shape and he’s had training that’s made him a martial arts expert, but he’s no Captain America without his armor. What he is, though, is a genius. That’s his superpower: his ability to think and invent and build on the fly or, since the suit’s out of commission and he’s grounded, on the run.

He has to MacGyver his way through various challenges and around obstacles and past dangers and out of all kinds of trouble, and, as he showed in his last three outings as Tony, Downey is a genius at playing a genius. He doesn’t just look and sound smart, he moves smart. As a scientist, he’s poetry in motion. As an engineer, he’s a dancer and a painter, a musician and a performance artist. He makes the act of creating look creative.

Of course, what we’re really seeing is if without the suit of armor, Tony Stark is still Iron Man.

There’s always been a distant allusion to the Tin Man of Oz in the Iron Man myth, the working and survival and metaphorical existence of Tony’s heart being always and often literally an open question. Tony’s brain is what powers and empowers the armor, but what the suit needs is a heart. The Stark chapters of the Avengers series have been about the search for Iron Man’s heart.

But in Iron Man 3, there’s one more missing element Tony has to find.

Courage.

Tony has never been a fraidy cat. But that’s not the same as saying he’s been courageous. What’s to be afraid of when you’re the Invincible Iron Man?

But it’s not physical courage he needs. He has plenty of that, although with him it’s a fine line between bravery and a recklessness born of pure vanity. Tony needs to find the moral courage to accept grown-up responsibility for other people even though he doubts he has the strength or the wisdom necessary for the job.

Ok. This has gone too far down the Yellow Brick Road. Let’s back up so I can get back to The Incredibles.

In most superhero movies and most action-adventure movies in which the supposedly normal hero is in effect a superhero, the villain drives the plot in one of two ways.

Either he’s just going about his business as a supervillain and his scheme to control or destroy whatever he feels he needs to control or destroy is really just an excuse to show our hero acting heroically.

Or it’s personal. For one reason or another he has it in for our hero. His schemes to control or destroy are just ruses to draw our hero into a trap and, of course, force him to act heroically.

Sometimes the two get combined. Things get personal because our hero gets in the villain’s way and the villain’s feelings are hurt by that.

In The Incredibles it’s the second situation. It’s very personal for Syndrome. But with this variation. It’s the hero’s fault.

This is where things can start to border on the tragic or, at least, on the grown-up. Sometimes it’s personal because the hero has, to one degree or another, helped bring about the evil he has to confront and defeat.

And in effect, this puts our hero in conflict with himself.

Kind of goes without saying that The Incredibles isn’t a tragedy. Neither is Iron Man 3. And neither one is really intended for grown-ups. But it’s definitely an important theme of both movies. And The Incredibles does a better job of developing it and resolving it.

Both movies begin with our heroes making the same potentially tragic mistake. They reject offers of help from characters they make clear they regard as not worth their time or attention.

Stark does it with less reason and more cruelty and with a gratuitous demonstration of open contempt. But the effect is the same. The characters whose help they reject return to threaten everyone they love and they return having reinvented themselves as evil shadows of our heroes.

And their intention isn’t simply to destroy our heroes.

It’s to replace them.

Syndrome wants to be the superhero. Iron Man 3’s villain wants to be…Tony Stark.

They’re also in it for the money, of course. But that’s gravy. Mainly what they’re after is the sense of self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction Mr Incredible expressed in rejecting Buddy’s application to be his sidekick. “I work alone” means I don’t need anybody else. But it also means “I get to take all the credit and reap all the rewards.”

Mr Incredible can only triumph by recognizing the mistake he made that brought Syndrome into existence and rectifying it. He has to face up to the fact that he can’t work alone and, not only is this well played-out in the dialog, it’s resolved in the climactic battle.

That’s what makes The Incredibles far more satisfying in the end.

That and that Syndrome is just a much better written villain with a far more interesting and sexy sexy henchwoman.

Also, Iron Man 3 has no Edna Mode.

The Incredibles gives Mr Incredible time---and better dialog---in which to realize what’s he done and face up to the consequences.

Tony does realize his mistake but he and we have very little time to process it before the video game boots.

And the big noisy mess that’s the climactic battle sequence in Iron Man 3 doesn’t play out as a confrontation between Tony Stark and his own evil shadow.

That might have contributed to let down at the end. I think there was something else, though.

So, Iron Man 3 isn’t as good as The Incredibles. But how does it stack up against the other Avengers movies?

Pretty well. I’d rank them this way. Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 3, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2.

But it’s getting to where asking which movie you think is best is like asking which chapter of a novel you liked best. All the chapters share in a fan’s affection for being part of the same book, and that’s the point. Iron Man is now thoroughly part of the Avengers series and I missed the other Avengers, Cap most of all. Not just because I’ve always liked him the best, but because his story is still ongoing.

Tony’s almost certainly going to be back for The Avengers 2 and probably for an Iron Man 4, and there’s already talk of recasting when Robert Downey decides to take off the armor for good. But really Stark’s and Iron Man’s story was completed in The Avengers and in a very real way Iron Man 3 is about driving that home---the story is done and it’s time to say farewell.

So maybe that’s what I was feeling at the end. A sense of loss.

It’s over and I’m going to miss this Iron Man.

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Yes, Stan Lee’s back for another cameo, and, yes, you should sit all the way through the end credits.

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The Incredibles, The Wizard of Oz, Hamlet?  Really, Lance?  Of course. What else would you expect from the English professor who reviewed The Avengers as a commentary on the Knights of the Round Table?

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Like I said up top, as much as I like Gwyneth, Mrs Incredible is far sexier than Pepper Potts. But know what else? Much as I like Don Cheadle? No way the Iron Patriot is as cool as Frozone.

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Saturday Matinee update: I'm not the only one who saw references to The Incredibles.  Via Oliver Mannion: How Iron Man 3 Should Have Ended. Probably you shouldn't watch if you haven't seen the movie. Spoilers, of course, but also the jokes won't work if you don't know the film.

Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, screenplay by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyenth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce, Paul Bettany, Ty Simpkins, Jon Favreau, and Ben Kingsley. Now in available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Company Robert Redford Keeps

Mannion Family Movie Night!

TCYK Grant and Lewis

“We were a peace movement, for Crissake!” Jim Grant, a former 60s radical back on the run from the FBI after decades underground, turns for help to his rival, antagonist, and friend from his college days, Professor Jed Lewis, a one-upon-a-time campus activist now a celebrity academic who wants nothing to do with him or their shared past in The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford with Redford as Grant and Richard Jenkins as Lewis leading an ensemble of great character actors and stars playing against type in a group portrait of people bound together by a decades-old crime.

Early in Robert Redford’s often thrilling but not all that political political thriller, The Company You Keep, Susan Sarandon, as a once-upon-a-time 60s radical recently arrested after thirty-odd years underground, tries to explain herself to a hotshot young newspaper reporter come to interview her in jail.

She begins her attempt to make him understand why she did what she did all those years ago and why she’s done what she’s now done by asking him if he has children.

The reporter, Ben Shepard (played by Shia LaBeouf), grins a calculatedly charming self-deprecating grin you know he’s applied to have patented and is working on bottling for sale.

“I barely have furniture,” he says.

It's a revealing line. Not so much of his character. For Shepard it's just a reflexive joke. It doesn't mean much. He's caught up in the fun and excitement of being a hotshot young reporter. He's not given any real thought to marriage, family, or his future beyond the next big scoop, and he's not about to start thinking about any of that now, not while he's in the middle of chasing this scoop, at any rate.

But one of the themes of The Company You Keep is that having children makes conservatives of us all.

This being a movie directed by Robert Redford, conservative means law-abiding, job-holding, tax-paying decent-minded, do-gooding liberals working within the system to make it better as opposed to radicals and revolutionaries working to destroy it from outside.

TCYK Solarz busted 2 Sarandon plays Sharon Solarz, a now wife and mother of two college-aged children who as a die-hard member of the Weathermen more than a generation ago took part in a bank robbery during which a security guard was shot and killed. The FBI has been looking for her and her accomplices for decades. One of those accomplices, the actual shooter, is long dead. Another, the gang’s leader of the moment, Mimi Lurie, has gone so deep underground that none of her former friends in Weather know where to even begin to look for her. But the third, Nick Sloan, Mimi’s lover at the time, has been hiding in plain sight, living as a lawyer named Jim Grant near Albany, New York, and in the course of investigating Solarz’ story, Shepard stumbles on a connection between her and Grant and it doesn’t take him long to figure out that that connection is something more than that of lawyer to potential client. And it doesn’t take Grant long to figure out that Shepard has him figured out.

Sloan has been so successful at building a new identity for himself---one that besides a semi-public law career includes a late-in-life family. His wife has recently died, leaving him the sixty-something single father of a still grieving and emotionally fragile eleven year old daughter---that he no longer thinks of himself as Sloan.

But there’s something else he’s never thought of himself as.

Guilty.

He wasn’t in on the robbery.  That day Mimi had borrowed his car for the getaway and when the police found it after she’d abandoned of course they found Sloan’s fingerprints all over it and assumed he was the getaway driver.  But not only was he not there, by that time, Sloan had already distanced himself politically and morally from the Weathermen. The only reason he was still in the picture at all was Mimi.  He was hanging around out of love for her and for the sake of the someone else.

But even though Grant doesn’t think of himself as Nick Sloan, he has never stopped thinking of himself as a fugitive who might have to go back on the run at any moment.  He has always had plans for escape and when he realizes Shepard is about to expose him, he puts one of those plans into motion.  His intention, however, isn’t to disappear.  It’s to finally clear his name so he can keep his life as Jim Grant, not just for his own sake but the sake of his daughter who he knows isn’t up to losing a second parent in the course of a year.

Grant, then, is on a rescue mission to save his daughter.  He’s running to chase down the one person who can vouch for his innocence, and while he’s chasing Mimi, Shepard, chasing his big scoop, chases after him.

The politics and history of the 1960s and 70s are important to the backgrounds of the main characters, but they’re not important to the movie.  It’s a given that the war in Vietnam was immoral but also as a given that the Weathermen’s efforts to “bring the War home” were inexcusable and a betrayal of the anti-war movement’s principles.  As one of Grant’s rivals for campus leadership and Mimi’s affections back in the day (Richard Jenkins in a brilliant cameo) exasperatedly reminds him, “We were a peace movement, for Crissake!”  But The Company You Keep spends little time rehashing those old debates.  Politics is the Maguffin, the excuse for the chase.  The Company You Keep is a chase movie, and a pretty exciting chase movie at that. In parts it’s as exciting as The Fugitive and Redford's own Three Days of the Condor and Spy Game.

But the chase is itself a Maguffin, the excuse to paint serial portraits of people haunted individual and particular ways by their part in a crime. That the crime had a political nature only matters in that it lets them and us avoid thinking of Grant and Mimi and Solarz and their old friends and associates as run of the mill criminals and murderers.  The Company You Keep is about the company they kept and, out of love, loyalty, and complicity, still keep despite the distances of time and space that appear to have separated them.

As Grant/Sloan, Robert Redford is at the center of The Company You Keep, but as director the main job he’s given himself as actor is to lead the camera into scenes with his many co-stars and hold it there while they deliver the real goods.  Redford mostly just has to convince us he’s thinking his way through the problem of being on the run again and that he’s smart enough to stay one step ahead of Shepard and two steps ahead of the FBI.

Playing smart has always been one of his Redford’s strengths.

Back in the day, people thought Redford was unconvincing as Bob Woodward because he was too handsome to be a newspaper reporter. All these years later, now that we know Woodward better, Will Ferrell's performance as Woodward in Dick seems more true to life than Redford's in All the President's Men. Redford is unconvincing because he seems too smart.

Redford has often seemed too smart for the characters he's played. He has infused characters, who played by other actors wouldn't have been as smart, might even have been dumb, with a surprising and complicating intelligence making them not so much too smart for their own good but smart to their own perplexing. They know enough to know they should know more and suspect they would be happier knowing less. Sundance, Jay Gatsby, Hubbell Gardner. Even Bill McKay.

That intelligence is a problem here. It's not that the likes of Bernadine Dorn and Bill Ayers weren't smart. They were very smart. But they were also dumb in the way very smart people can be dumb, especially very smart young people who are also vain, egotistical, careless, and full of self-righteous purpose. They could persuade themselves that they were always smart, smart about everything, and therefore any idea they had must be a good idea. Smart as he can play it, Redford doesn’t come across as smart enough in that way to have been dumb enough in that way.  But there's another, offsetting quality to Redford's screen persona, a degree of passivity. Many of his characters are temperamentally drifters, carried along by whatever current they've happened to fall into until taken into tow by more active and driven personalities.

“I'll change.”

“No, don't change. You're your own girl, you have your own style.”

“But then I won't have you. Why can't I have you?”

“Because you push too hard, every damn minute. There's no time to ever relax and enjoy living. Every things too serious to be so serious.”

“If I push too hard it's because I want things to be better, I want us to be better, I want you to be better. Sure I make waves you have I mean you have to. And I'll keep making them till you’re everything you should be and will be. You'll never find anyone as good for you as I am, to believe in you as much as I do or to love you as much.”

__________

"You know what you are, Paul? You're a watcher. There are watchers in this world and there are doers. And the watchers sit around watching the doers, do. Well, tonight you watched, and I did. "

"Well, it was a lot harder watching what you did than it was for you to do what I was watching!"

___________

"You keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at."

"I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals."

Something to keep in mind when picturing his Gatsby standing at the edge of his lawn and feeling the pull of the green light the end of Daisy's dock.

But in The Company You Keep there's no Butch, no Corrie Bratter, no Katie Morosky.

There's supposed to be.

Maybe I'd have felt there was if Mimi had been played by someone else. Mimi is supposed to be the one still carrying the flame, the one who has not, at least in her own mind, made concessions to time, age, or history.  And I can think of two of Redford's former leading ladies who’d have fit the bill perfectly.

Jane Fonda.

Barbara Streisand.

The late Nathalie Wood would have been ideal. But, now, since she was already on hand, Susan Sarandon would have been fine in the part. (Sarandon was never one of his leading ladies but she was a minor love interest. Quick. Without checking Imdb. Name the movie.)

Instead it's Julie Christie playing what is more or less the femme fatale from Grant's and the other old men's shared past, and as wonderful as it always is to see Christie on screen, she's just too cool and aloof for a former planter of bombs and robber of banks and current smuggler of pot still breaking the law in the name of the Revolution.

Redford himself almost saves the day here.  We might not quite believe Christie’s Mimi was ever the force of nature who made smart men stupid enough to rob banks and plant bombs with her, but Redford makes us believe his Grant is the type of romantic who would do almost anything for the women he loves. (Something else to think about when thinking about his Gatsby.) Anything but something really, really stupid, which, as it turns out, is to the point.

All this, though, is by way of an aside to talking about the Redford who really matters to The Company You Keep.  Redford the director.

Somebody somewhere must have done a study of the influences on Redford’s work as a director of the directors he’s acted for, including George Roy Hill, Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula, and Lasse Hallstrom, all of whose lessons pop up throughout The Company You Keep.  But I think just as important to Redford’s directing style is his time spent as an aspiring painter.  Before he turned to acting, Redford studied at the Pratt Institute of Art and lived the artist’s life in Paris, and it’s a painter’s eye that guides his camera. I don’t mean he thinks in terms of pretty pictures. I mean he works in illustrations.  His films are series of still lifes, landscapes, street scenes, single and small group portraits, and genre paintings. He creates people-scapes. He knows how to see his way through a crowd.  Large groups of people aren’t masses in motion for him, they are forms arranged around what we need to find or follow.

Movies are stories told in pictures. Redford likes to tell stories within pictures.

TCYK Shepard hits the wall 2There’s a shot of Sarandon in profile that perfectly translates into an image a line from the Neil Gordon novel The Company You Keep is based on---“Sharon Solarz, in person, was a handsome woman with thick black hair and a face that had aged hard, bringing out a certain pugnacity that would not, in my opinion, sit well with a jury.”---and a single shot of Redford and Richard Jenkins as a former student radical turned celebrity academic sitting on a bench in an art gallery tells us the whole story of these characters’ past rivalry, current animosity, and permanent bond of sympathy, loyalty, and respect.  And something similar is at work when LaBeouf’s reporter confronts Brendan Gleeson as a former FBI agent strangely indifferent to the solution of a case he began his career investigating.  He looms over LaBeouf like a wall of integrity, honesty, and secrecy Shepard can’t climb, break through, or get around, the only motion on Gleeson’s part the potential motion of his character’s picking up the reporter and tossing him off the dock they’re standing on.

Often there’s not a lot of movement in a single shot but there’ll still be a lot going on.  Redford creates tension through juxtapositions of shapes and shadows and he can imply an awful lot of motion simply by a small disturbance in the stillness:  The distant, solitary figure of Joe Mondragon scrambling up a dusty hill in The Milagro Beanfield War.  The flick of Paul’s wrist and then the curling through space of his fly and line in A River Runs Through It.  A finger pinning down the corner of a newspaper and then slowly dragging it across a countertop in The Company You Keep.

As an actor Redford has always had a good ear and an excellent sense of timing, and he brings both to his work as a director.  And he has a knack for putting together ensembles of great character actors and stars cast against type. Besides Sarandon, Christie, Jenkins, and Gleeson, The Company You Keep features features finely tuned, low-key performances by Terrence Howard as the implacable FBI agent chasing Grant, Stanley Tucci as Shepard's tough-talking but easily talked over and around editor, Chris Cooper as Grant 's doctor brother manipulated into having to make the sort of choice between what's lawful and what's right he avoided having to make back when he and his brother were in college and Grant's radicalism was tearing their family apart, and Stephen Root as a former pot farmer turned organic grocer who can't seem to believe his current business is legal any more than he could believe his former one was illegal.

My favorite, though, and possibly for sentimental reasons, is Nick Nolte as Grant's best friend from college who, even though they haven't seen each other in decades, is still cheerfully loyal and happily willing to risk everything to help his old friend in whatever way he can.

I got a special kick out of seeing Nolte and Redford together because I've always believed Nolte's career took off when some producer said, Get me a Redford type only one who looks like he'd be a little slower on the uptake and quicker to reach for a drink or a joint or to throw a punch.

The two have a nearly wordless scene together in a diner that sums up the dynamic of their characters' friendship and made me look forward to their upcoming  pairing in the adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods which I'd been mildly dreading.

But for me the most remarkable and surprising performance is LaBeouf's. I'd given up expecting him to follow through on the promise he showed in The Greatest Game Ever Played. This is the most relaxed I've seen him on screen since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In everything that's followed he's looked tense and headachy as if trying desperately to hear himself think through the din of The Transformers movies still pounding in his ears. But here it's as if the noise has finally faded and, able to concentrate again at last, he's not only remembered how to act but how acting can be fun.

It's also as if Redford has reminded him that there are other ways to be a leading man besides trying to be Harrison Ford Jr or, for that matter, a darker Robert Redford.  Or, rather, that the way to be like Ford or Redford is to not take himself too seriously.

LaBeouf is clearly having a good time playing Shepard as one of those annoyingly self-infatuated young men who enter every conversation convinced it won't be very long before you start finding them as charming as they find themselves.  These types are even more annoying when it turns out they're right. Shepard isn't half as adorable as he thinks you'll think he is, but he's adorable enough that a shy smile, a deliberately clumsy witticism, a widening of his big Bambi eyes will usually cause a source to open up, a boss to surrender, an old girlfriend to forgive and forget, and a potential new girlfriend to become very curious about what she'll be expected to forgive and forget.

It’s not surprising that he’s come to think of journalism as a contest between himself and a source, that good reporting is a matter of turning up the charm, and that point of getting a story is the he got it.

LaBeouf's Shepard comes across as heartless and careless, thanks, apparently, to an excess of vanity, ego, and ambition. And he is vain, egotistical, and ambitious. But so are most talented twentysomethings enjoying the fruits of early success. Shepard's real problem is that he has never had reason to question what he does professionally. As far as he knows, just being good at his job makes him one of the good guys. (Maybe it's an idea he picked up from movies like All the President's Men.) Very few stories come a reporter's way that will, if reported honestly and fully, ruin innocent people's lives. By the time the reporter gets there with an open notebook, those lives have already been ruined. The cars have crashed, the houses have burned, the shots have been fired, the bodies have fallen, and the cops have moved in.

Shepard is about to learn that there are other kinds of stories---and more to every kind of story---that can't be told honestly and fully in a newspaper. Reporters who learn that lesson too well quit and become David Simon.

The Company You Keep is Jim Grant’s adventure, but it’s Ben Shepard’s story in that, this time, getting the story means getting the point, at last.

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For one of Redford’s best peoplescapes, see the scene in The Conspirator in which Lincoln’s body is carried out of Ford’s Theatre and through the crowd to the house where he will lie on what will be his deathbed.  Here’s my review of that one.

And here’s my review of The Guard, an Irish comic thriller that stars Brendan Gleeson as a very different sort of lawman than he plays in The Company You Keep.

The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford, screenplay by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon. Starring Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Julie Christie, and Nick Nolte. Now available on DVD and to watch instatnly at Amazon.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bill Murray’s Broad Shoulders: A review of Hyde Park on Hudson

HP FDR What polio

"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."  Bill Murray craftily suggesting the crippled President, Franklin Roosevelt, who seems to be at his jauntiest when he's shouldering the burdens of others in Hyde Park on Hudson.

Couple times a month my routine travels take me across the river to Hyde Park and now and then when I’m over there and I have the time I make a point of stopping in for a visit at FDR’s old place.

His estate---he liked to call it a farm---overlooking the Hudson and his mother’s house Springwood and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

I don't go in reverently to genuflect before a shrine. I’m not there to commune with ghosts. I drop by for the company.

The Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, have always been alive to me in a way other historical figures whose careers I actually lived through aren’t. It’s probably because they were still alive to my parents and grandparents when I was growing up and they got talked about with the same immediacy, knowingness, and affection as absent friends and family. I’ve mentioned how in Pop Mannion’s heart FDR is still his President. And part of it is that they both had such expansive, engaging, and inspiring personalities that their spirits can’t be bound within a history book…or a grave. But it’s also because they’re still at work holding the country together.

When conservatives insist that the New Deal didn't end the Depression, insist back they're missing the point.

The New Deal wasn't designed to end the Depression. It was put into place piece-meal and catch as catch can to save the country from complete collapse. Economic, political, and social. People were starving. Unemployment was 25%---nationally. It wasn't spread around evenly. Whole towns were out of work. States weren't coping by laying off some teachers. They were closing school districts! There were serious communist and fascist movements on the rise. Conservatism---Hooverism---budget cutting, austerity of the sort ruining Republican-cursed states here and now and doing such a bang up job of bringing economies back to life in Europe and yet still advocated by serious people in Washington as the cure for all our financial woes---had failed so miserably that even Herbert Hoover was giving up on it. The Depression had been going on for three and a half years and was just getting worse. FDR didn't come into office with a systematic plan that said in X number of years we will have reversed the downward trend, brought industries back to full capacity, and reduced unemployment to statistically zero. He came into office saying let's do what we can as quickly as possible to get people fed and back into their homes and save what's still there to be saved and head off riots and most important of all help people from being afraid.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" may be the most rousing declaration in the history of Presidential oratory and the most necessary thing any President ever said, but my favorite saying of his was something he routinely told people in private.

"If you run into troubles, bring them to me; my shoulders are broad."

He put everybody on those broad shoulders and saved the whole goddamn country.

I suppose that's why the Right hated him and hates him to this day. He didn't throw enough people overboard.

So many of us are still riding on those shoulders that I think he must be getting tired. He’s got to put us down at last. But then I feel the shoulders square, see the smile broaden, the chin lift another inch, the cigarette holder tip up even more jauntily.

This side of Roosevelt, the crippled man who couldn’t stand without locking into place painful leg braces, who couldn’t walk on his own more than a few steps without falling, who often needed to be lifted from a seat and carried by aides who was at his happiest and most energetic when he felt that he was carrying others, informs Bill Murray’s portrayal in Hyde Park on Hudson---there’s a shot of Roosevelt in the arms of an aide and the look on Murray’s face tells us that the President seems to think he’s levitating and hoisting the aide and pulling him along as she sails across the room. You can tell he wants to call out, “Hold on!” But it only comes out forcefully in one scene.

You won’t be surprised that it’s my favorite scene.

But it’s also the scene that gives the movie its reason for being.

Of course the reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is Murray as FDR. But that scene is why we should care. Which makes that scene what the movie’s about. Which is interesting, because for long stretches the movie seems to think it’s about Roosevelt’s (probable) affair with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.

Since Ghostbusters, Murray has played many parts that aren’t just variations of Peter Venkman, and not all of them for Wes Anderson. But with those parts it doesn’t matter---too much---if from time to time you notice it’s still Bill Murray up there. In fact, it wouldn’t matter---much---if your mind switched gears and you saw only Murray up there. In Hyde Park on Hudson Murray does his best job, that I remember, of not letting us see him as Bill Murray. And the times I caught myself noticing it was Murray I was delighted.

“Hey!” I said to myself, as if pleasantly surprised, because that’s what I was, “That’s Bill Murray!”

His performance is more suggestion than impersonation. He captures the look, sound, and spirit of the man, what it might have been like to be in a room with him, even have a drink with him, but at a distance. Roosevelt himself was good at that, making people feel welcomed into his company while still keeping them at a distance, a matter of temperament he turned into a political skill that the movie never shows him using overtly as a political skill. There are no other politicians on screen. No opponents whom FDR had a way of treating like his best friends. No friends and allies whom he had a habit of manipulating as if they were opponents.

Instead, we see him practicing on the four important women in his life at the time, his mother, his wife Eleanor, his secretary and mistress Missy LeHand, and Daisy.

And on the King of England, his majesty George VI.

“Bertie” to his family and those of us who saw The King’s Speech.

Hyde Park on Hudson centers on a historically loose---Ok. Practically entirely made up---account of an actual visit the King and Queen made to the United States on the eve of World War II, a visit that ends with a picnic on the Hyde Park estate at which the Royals are to be served hot dogs!

That happened. The picnic. The hot dogs. The nearly week long visit, which began in Washington (The movie leaves that part out) in June of 1939, three months before Hitler invaded Poland, was arranged by Roosevelt, who was working to prepare the U.S. for getting involved in the coming war in Europe. There was a strong isolationist movement here and FDR calculated that the visit would engage Americans' sympathies on the side of England and her allies.

The hot dogs were an amusing aside to the news reports. Supposedly, when the  queen expressed uncertainty about the proper way to eat one, Roosevelt said, "It's easy, your majesty. You just put it in your mouth and push!"

In the movie, the serving of hot dogs is a very big deal.

The visit and surrounding events are seen through the very wide eyes of Daisy Suckley, who has become a frequent houseguest at Hyde Park at the invitation of the President's mother. The elder Mrs Roosevelt has the idea that in Daisy's innocent and totally unpolitical company, her son will be able to put aside his burdens as President and relax.

This works out, although probably not exactly as Mother Roosevelt expected.

HP Linney as Daisy as little girl lost Laura Linney plays Daisy as a woman on the brink of middle age who for some reason has apparently regressed to a shy and timid teenager. It's not explicitly explained how, when, or why this happened or even if it was a thing that happened as opposed to its just being who she is.  Historically, FDR and Daisy became close in the early 1920s when he was fighting his way to the degree of recovery from polio he managed and she was still reeling from the deaths of her father and one of her brothers. But Daisy tells us enough in her narration to imply that it's the Depression and her side of the family's come down in wealth and status that's knocked her for a loop. She's sapped of confidence and energy and, practically, of will. On her visits to Hyde Park, she sees herself as more of a servant than a member of her family, and all she hopes to be around the house is useful and invisible.

In a way, then, she's symbolic of what the Depression did to the whole country, which sets her up to become another one of FDR's New Deal rebuilding projects.

We see him best at work on this project in the scenes of him driving her around the still very rural and bucolic Dutchess County where he grew up in the Packard convertible he had fitted with hand controls instead of pedals for the brakes, gas, and shifting. He enjoys showing her the countryside. He enjoys scaring---and thrilling---her with his apparent recklessness behind the wheel. We don't get to hear him at it, but Daisy tells us he teaches her to identify the local birds and wildflowers.

Unfortunately, there isn't a scene of them doing something FDR made a point of doing when he went out for his drives, stopping to chat with various people (voters) along the way. A scene something like this. Besides possibly saving us from an embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture by getting it consigned to the cutting room floor for time's sake, a scene like that would have done two other important jobs.

It would have shown Daisy coming out of her shell to learn some lessons about the art of politics and it would have provided a set up for a couple of later scenes, one involving Daisy and some unemployed working men doing odd jobs around the Roosevelt estate and the other a scene in which the King tries to mimic an American politician by doing the democratic thing and stopping his car so he can say hello to some ordinary Americans on the roadside, which doesn't go over as well as he'd hoped.

I have to mention: that embarrassing and unnecessary moment of pure conjecture is embarrassing and unnecessary, but it's also ridiculous and belittling to both characters and insulting to the audience, not to mention totally out of keeping with the mood and tone of the movie itself. It's ruined the movie for some people. But Pop and Mom Mannion shrugged it off and so did Old Mother and Father blonde. You can tell when it's about to happen and fast forward or leave the room to go get a drink.

Daisy doesn’t appear to learn any political lessons from Roosevelt. We aren't shown her developing the insight and the acumen that would make her useful to both Franklin and Eleanor as President and First Lady over the coming years and eventually lead to her becoming one of the first archivists at the Presidential Library. And her narration doesn't seem to contain the keenly descriptive voice of the letters and diaries that were found under her bed after she died and which have become a treasure trove for historians and biographers.

But she blossoms. She takes up smoking. She mixes it up with the working stiffs doing odd job round the estate (a scene that should have been an echo of an earlier one like what I mentioned, FDR stopping to banter and exchange gossip with all and sundry when he's taking her on a drive.) We watch her grow more sophisticated and adult. We see her recovering from the Depression.

Drama ensues when she discovers she’s not his only rebuilding project.

Drama being a relative term.

Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson are determined to keep things light and frothy. They don’t explore their characters’ psyches and motivations. And we're not given any real insight into why these proud, smart, talented, spirited women put up with him or what FDR needs from them.

Whatever it is, it doesn't appear to be sex---or, at any rate, not just sex---or to be coddled and taken care of, although he expects that. And why all of them? (Two more lovers are said to be waiting offscreen.) Were his burdens so great that one person alone couldn't lift them? Was it that because he worked round the clock he needed them to work in shifts so there was always a nurse on call? The movie doesn’t give any answers. Or even look for them

It simply appears as though they liked thinking they were needed by him while needing him more and he needed to be needed by them and and that his way of relaxing from his burdens as President was to take on other burdens. He was doing for them what he was doing for the country, putting them on his shoulders and enjoying it. I like to think this is true. It fits with my ideal of the man. But the movie doesn’t try to persuade us that it is.

But then Hyde Park on Hudson isn't a psycho-drama or even a historical drama. It's not a drama at all.  It's a drawing room comedy that happens to have one of the greatest Presidents of the United States as its main character.  It has more in common with The Man Who Came to Dinner than with Lincoln or The King's Speech.

The fun is in watching a set of eccentric characters interact and in being amused or appalled or both at their misbehavior, although on that ground it should have been funnier.

Keep in mind that it is funny.  And its funniest moments are provided by FDR's  most serious rebuilding project, his efforts to teach the King of England how to be a leader not just his own people will look up to but who will inspire Americans as well.

So we arrive at that crucial scene, the centerpiece of the movie, an extended two-hander between Murray and Samuel West as George VI in which we see FDR at his manipulative and mischievous best subtly letting Bertie know he’s already taken England on his shoulders, but it’s time for Bertie to stop being so Bertie-ish and start acting the part of King and share the load. The weekend’s a test that will let them both, and their countries, know if he’s up to it.

West plays the king as superficially enough like Colin Firth in The King's Speech as to be a comic counterpoint if not an outright caricature. His Bertie is more callow, more boyish, even more easily embarrassed and cowed. His stammer is the least of his reasons for his chronic insecurity.

But he's smart and he's eager and he's quick. What makes their big scene together work isn't Murray's gentle and witty fatherliness but West's thoughtful resistance on the grounds he's just not bold enough to pull it off slowly but surely giving way to a suddenly cheerful but still characteristically modest determination to give it a jolly good try.

The capper is a little moment of private triumph Bertie giddily allows himself on his way up to bed where he knows the queen will be waiting to listen sympathetically to how he's botched things once again.

Olivia Colman plays Queen Elizabeth (the present Queen Elizabeth's mother; Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech) as a proud but fussy woman who's found herself in a situation where neither her pride nor her fussiness avail her or even make sense. To her horror and consternation her husband's being democratized, even Americanized, right before her eyes and all she can do is let herself be democratized along with him and that's going to mean a bunch of appalling things are about to happen, including eating a hot dog.

Physically, Colman looks to me like a more likely choice for Eleanor Roosevelt than the other Olivia in the cast. The real Eleanor Roosevelt, always insecure about her looks, probably would have wished she was as youthful and lantern-jawed handsome and as apparently indestructible as Olivia Williams who plays her in the movie as a cunning-eyed enigma with a roguish grin and a devil may care brazenness that I don't see in any of the photographs but which she must have had or been able to muster in order to accomplish what she accomplished as her husband's eyes, ears, legs, and public conscience when she went out into the country and then into the world while it was at war on his behalf and in her own later public career.

Williams’ Eleanor is hard to read except in that she's clearly made herself FDR's best student in the art of manipulating people.  She and Murray share one brief, silent, but persuasive moment in which we see that whatever else is going on between them, they are happy partners in this game.

Disappointingly, the script seems to accept that the reason for Franklin and Eleanor's estrangement was her latent lesbianism and not his heartless caddishness.  But Williams deftly swats this aside when she meets another character's clumsily  alluding to Eleanor’s “friends” with a big, blithe but steely smile as if to say, I'm not saying you're right, but if you are, so what? It doesn't change anything about you, about me, about my husband, or the importance of what's happening here this weekend, does it?

As Missy LeHand, Elizabeth Marvel does more with the lighting and quick stubbing out of a cigarette to let us know the crucial facts about LeHand than other good actresses could do with all her lines. This is a brisk, active, extremely intelligent and competent woman who has given over her life to what’s decided is the most important job she could ever have, being indispensible to the President of the United States in every way possible, at the expense of her pride, her feelings, and her health.

This is the only note of realistic sadness Michell allows into the movie. He’s determined to keep things lighthearted. For the most part he relies on our knowledge of history and some special pleading in passages of Daisy’s narration to provide the tragic background to the comic events on screen. Hyde Park on Hudson is a temporary relief from history, which in a real way was the point of the actual picnic.

HP FDR behind the wheel It’s a slight and small-scale film that doesn't do a particularly creative job of expanding upon its origins as a radio play. The reason for seeing Hyde Park on Hudson is, as I said, Bill Murray’s Roosevelt, which, again as I said, is more suggestion than impersonation, a sketch rather than a detailed portrait. Up close and sitting still, Murray doesn’t look like the real FDR. He doesn’t sound like him either. The cigarette holder, the pince-nez glasses, and the hat with the pushed up brim aren’t much more than props for a Halloween costume, and fortunately he doesn’t rely on them. What he relies on is misdirection. A line here, a gesture there, a look, a grin, and he has us looking over here instead of over there and what appears to be over here is the impression we just saw Franklin Roosevelt, a magician’s trick appropriate to the spirit of one of the great political sleight of hand artists this nation has known.

I left Hyde Park on Hudson feeling the way I often do when I leave Hyde Park, as if I’ve been in his company and that, if I’d needed him to, he’d have been glad to add my troubles to his shoulders.

Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Richard Nelson. Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvell, and Elizabeth Wilson. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.


______________________________

Here’s the real Daisy Suckley playing with Fala in the President’s study in the White House, December 20, 1941. Suckley gave Roosevelt Fala, which is the subject of a blink and you’ll miss it joke early in Hyde Park on Hudson.

HP Daisy Suckley and Fala

There’s a useful biography of Suckley at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum’s website. Also, an account of the King and Queen’s visit.

_____________________________

In an interview with NPR, historian Geoffrey Wolff goes to town an the many things Hyde Park on Hudson gets wrong. But this about the movie’s portrayal of Roosevelt’s polio confused me:

First of all, he's seen doing all kinds of things in the film which he never could have done. He could not walk on crutches by himself.

I wonder what Wolff means by “by himself.”

HP FDR on crutches

___________________________________

In the year before filming began on Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray and some other members of the cast visited Hyde Park to do some research.

HP Murray and FDR

In December of 2010, someone else paid a call.

HP Great Democrats

Great Democrats. Pop Mannion and his President.

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A Man Alone: A review of 42 – The Jackie Robinson Story

42 A man alone

I once asked Pop Mannion, a Dodger fan since he was a kid, his affections and loyalty having gone West wit' dem Bums to L.A., if he remembered if it took fans a while to warm up to Jackie Robinson.

Pop, who was fifteen in 1947, said he didn't know how it was in Brooklyn---judging by the cheers of the crowds on the radio, he'd guess not long---but what he remembers is that among Dodger fans he knew in his hometown, Troy, New York, where they were outnumbered and beleaguered by Yankee fans with more to brag about and root for, there was an excitement of a kind they weren't used to. Robinson was helping the Dodgers do something they hadn't done a lot of in their history.

Win.

As Pop recalls it, because of that, long-suffering fans felt about Robinson the way Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher says he does in the movie 42. They didn't care if he was black, white, or zebra-striped. As long as he helped take the Dodgers to the World Series, he was their guy.

And it wasn't as though Robinson's arrival was a surprise. Fans had followed his progress with the Dodgers' Montreal farm club. They saw him coming and couldn't wait for him to get there.

That anticipation and excitement aren't shown or felt in 42.

For all we see of Ebbets Field on game days, the Dodgers might have spent the whole of the Forty-seven season on the road, playing only before the most hostile crowds.

There are some other things missing I'd hoped to see.

A flashback to the young Branch Rickey as a college baseball coach comforting one of his players who'd been humiliated in public because he was black.

A scene in Montreal of Robinson chased down a street by a crowd of white people Robinson assumed were after him for the same reason a crowd of whites might have come after him in the U.S. but who turned out to be clamoring for his autograph.

Hilda Chester and the Brooklyn Sym-Phony.

42 - The Jackie Robinson Story is an excellent biopic, getting at essential truths of the true story it's based on without too much embellishment and while avoiding sentimentality and underplaying the moments that are too good to be true. It doesn't take too much for granted but resists overburdening itself with exposition. It's hokey in spots, contrived in others. You don't come away thinking, If that's not the way it happened, it's the way it should have happened. More like, if it didn't happen exactly like that, it's close enough.

Though I missed those things I said are missing, their absence don't make it a lesser movie. It makes it a weaker baseball movie.  The rhythm of that pennant-winning season isn't part of the rhythm of the film. We get to see individual plays and at bats but get no sense of whole games being played. And we don't really get to see and appreciate Robinson as a baseball player.  It's as if we're meant to take his greatness as a player for granted and not think about how the game was his passion and profession.

We don't see him playing to win.

We see him playing to show them.

Every time he steps up to the plate, whenever he's  in the field or on base, it's a confrontation, a showdown between Jackie Robinson and racism.

And there's some truth in that. Every moment on the field was a moment when he might have failed.

But there'd have been as much truth and more fun in it, if we'd seen him taking an extra base now and then just because he saw the chance and not to prove a point.

I understand , though, why some of what I was rooting to see was left out.  Director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland didn't want to give white audiences an excuse to think that if they'd been alive and in the stands back then they'd have automatically rooted for Robinson or to say, If he had that much support from white fans, and most of his teammates liked him, and lots of players on opposing teams accepted him, how bad could it have really have been for him?

(Think of Republicans, who did not vote for him, insisting racism must be a thing of the past because we have a black President, as if Barack Obama was elected and re-elected unanimously.)

But 42 doesn't dwell on showing crowds of black fans coming out to cheer for Robinson either.

This is thematic. 42 emphasizes a possibly unappreciated aspect of his story, how alone he was.

It didn't matter how many people, black, white, or zebra-striped were rooting for him. They couldn't go out on the field and play for him.  They couldn't be him in confrontations with racist hotel managers, airline ticket agents, local cops, waiters, opposing teams' players and managers, members of his own team, umpires. They could not hold his temper for him. They could not swallow his pride.  Everything, everything!, depended on Robinson's success on the field and his behavior in public.  Which is to say everything depended on what he could only do by himself.

He had to be better than good for his own sake, for his family's sake, for his teammates', for the sake of all the black ballplayers hoping to make it to the majors behind him, for the Brooklyn fans, for everybody who showed faith in him, for all black Americans, for all Americans, black, white, and zebra-striped, for that matter. (Another theme of 42 is that while Robinson's struggles were inspiring they were also redemptive for many people.) That's a lot of people to be carrying on your back when you're reaching far to your right for a hard-hit ground ball or taking a long lead as you're getting ready to steal a base.

42 Robinson at  bat As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is heart-breaking in conveying that sense of aloneness and the what must have often felt unbearable loneliness that would have gone with it.  I have some vague memories from my kidhood of the white-haired Civil Rights leader Jackie Robinson became, but I only know him as a player from film clips so I can't say with any certainty how close Boseman comes to capturing the real man. Rachel Robinson seems impressed enough. But Boseman isn't built like Robinson---Robinson looked and ran like what he was, a former star running back at UCLA---so he can't quite match that sense of dangerous abandon on the basepaths.  Imagine what it was like to be a shortstop of the time, who tended to be puny and anemic, and looking up to take the throw from the second baseman on what is now not going to be a routine 4-6-3 double play seeing Robinson coming at you as though you are all that stands between him and a touchdown.  Boseman doesn't fly, he sprints like an athletic actor who might have run track in high school.

Robinson's voice was high and piercing and he spoke fast with the volume turned up. Boseman speaks low and slow. No one would describe his Robinson as the real Robinson's teammate Don Newcombe once described him in an argument as not just wrong but " loud wrong." And the thoughtful look in his eyes is that of someone who sees obstacles ahead as problems he's quietly worrying his way toward solving, while the brilliant glint in Robinson's eyes was that of a man who sees obstacles as challenges to be met head on, at top speed, and at full force.  And if, as the great sportswriter Roger Kahn said of him, Robinson burned with a dark fire, Boseman smolders.

But impersonation isn't required. Boseman plays Robinson as what he was in essence, a proud and talented man called upon to be two things he would rather not have had to be, a hero and a saint, and one thing he was but only more so, a great ballplayer. Boseman captures the pressure and the frustration and the strength, but he also conveys the natural human fragility. He's strong enough that we believe he'll stand up to it all, but we can see how he might break.

Boseman also shows us something else important about Robinson, that he was a man deeply in love with his wife. In showing that, though, he gets a lot of help from Nicole Beharie.

42 is as much a story of a happy marriage as it is a baseball tale and a history lesson.

As Rachel Robinson, Beharie gives what I hope will be a star-making performance. She’s smart, she’s independent, she’s got a strong will of her own, every bit a match for her husband. They’re equal partners and quietly passionate lovers. Together they make monogamy look very, very sexy.

As Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford might surprise a lot of people. His performance might even strike them as a revelation.  But when you think about it, Ford has been playing character roles all career long. Han Solo and Indiana Jones are not typical action-adventure heroes. There's a fundamental insecurity Ford gives both, an almost neurotic self-doubt behind Han's bravado and Indy's guilt that mark them as thinking men---"I don't know. I'm making this up as I go."---and they are articulate. They know what they're saying. They're self-aware. Ford is always playing smart. This time out, he can really let the smartness show.

42 Rickey the con manAnd it's not the case that it's time for him to play the grumpy old coot or wise elder. It happens that this character is in his sixties. But don't be fooled by the glasses and the dentures and the wig. They make him look like Branch Rickey. But he's still recognizably playing a Harrison Ford specialty. His Rickey is roguish and conniving, a conman and a liar in a good cause when the situation calls for it. Boseman gives 42 its heart. Ford gives it a sense of fun.

(Just for kicks, take a look at this picture of the real Branch Rickey as a young man. Still think having Harrison Ford play him was a stretch?)

That incident from Rickey’s past I’d hoped to see in the movie as a flashback gets in there in a confession Rickey makes to Robinson. Ford delivers the lines as an awkward and embarrassed apology. Back then, he tells Robinson, he knew what his player was going through was wrong but he didn’t have the courage to do something about it. Now he’s placing yet another burden on Robinson’s shoulders by looking to him to redeem his moral failure of thirty years before.

42 doesn't go out of its way to congratulate its white characters, like Dodger coach and scout Clyde Sukeforth and pitcher Ralph Branca, who treat Robinson decently. It's more interested in manager Leo Durocher's romantic misadventures with movie star Larraine Day, which got him suspended by Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler just before the Forty-seven season started, than in Durocher's championing of Robinson, although it does give Chris Meloni, who is excellent as Durocher, one powerful scene in which he puts the kibosh on a players mutiny being organized by some of the Southerners on the team led by Dixie Walker who think the Dodgers management would rather keep them than let Robinson play. 42 isn't one of those well-meaning but inadvertently insulting movies that portray episodes from the Civil Rights movement as cases of brave and kindly white people coming to the rescue of noble but powerless on their own black folk.

Instead, what we see more of is Robinson's morally uplifting effect upon some whites, starting with a few of his teammates.  This includes Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese.

The famous moment at Cincinnati's Crosley Field when Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky playing before what was for him something of a hometown crowd---Kentucky lying just across the Ohio River---silenced the boobirds by putting his arm over Robinson's shoulders, a gesture that legend has it earned Reese his plaque in the Hall of Fame, is presented as Robinson doing the white guy the favor.

Despite how it might look from a distance, Reese (affably played by Lucas Black) assures Robinson, what's really happening is that he's thanking Robinson for giving him the courage to decide between what he knows to be right and attitudes he was taught growing up. You made a better man of me, is his essential point.

But, to make sure we don't get too sentimental and make too much of the moment's effect, at the same time Reese and Robinson are having their conversation on the field, up in the stands a white Cincinatti fan is instructing his young son on how to hate the black man Robinson. The boy takes the lesson immediately to heart and enthusiastically joins in on the boos and the jeers. But when he sees his hero Reese put his arm around Robinson, he looks stricken, baffled, and sick to his stomach. Suddenly he's struggling with a choice similiar to Reese's. He has to choose between his father and what he's just been shown is right.  His dilemma isn't resolved when the scene ends and we're left to wonder which way he'll choose.

Given the time and place and what we know is coming over the next twenty years and a son's natural instinct to take after his father, it's unlikely he'll choose well. It's frighteningly easy to imagine this cute little boy as a young man dumping milk shakes over the heads of people sitting in at lunch counters and screaming at children on their way to school.

One brave man has only so much redemptive power.

42 is an inspiring film but not a triumphant one. It doesn't reward Robinson with the comforting knowledge he has saved anybody or anything but himself and his baseball career---and that's only for now. There's still a lot to be done and a lot of troubled water ahead. In the end, it leaves him and Rachel only a liitle less alone than when we met them.

Robinson may have been a man alone, but Boseman sure isn’t an actor alone. Along with Beharie and Ford, he gets strong support from Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith. Smith was the sports editor for the Pittsburgh Courier and later became the first African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America but at the time he was writing his stories in the stands with his typewriter on his knees because he wasn’t welcome in the press box. The Courier sent Smith on the road with Robinson. In the movie he acts as Robinson’s press agent and advance man but also as his conscience. Howard is by turns amusing and affecting as a basically nervous and introverted intellectual inspired by Robinson to find the courage to stand up to…Robinson and push his hero to be even more heroic.

Chris Meloni has a grand time as Leo the Lip Durocher. The script gives him some of the best lines, after Ford’s, and two scenes of him on the phone to Rickey are two of the funniest in the movie. Max Gail has a sly cameo as the easy to underestimate Burt Shotten who replaced Durocher as manager after Durocher’s suspension. T.R. Knight is a hoot as Harold Parrott, Rickey’s timid, bottom line-watching, bean-counting assistant who develops what Rickey calls “sympathy” for Robinson but which looks like an irresistible urge to start going around punching racists in the snoot. Alan Tudyk is delightfully despicable as the racist whose snoot Parrott wants to punch first and hardest, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a shameless insult artist who taunts Robinson in the vilest ways from the safety of his dugout in one of the film’s necessarily ugly but most powerful scenes.

42 – The Jackie Robinson Story, written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, Chris Meloni, Lucas Black, T.R. Knight, and Alan Tudyk. Rated PG-13. 128 minutes. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man could be a little bit friendlier

ASM Not easy being Spidey

Peter Parker learns that with great power comes great…pain, along with various cuts, bumps, bruises, strains, sprains, and the occasional broken bone and odd scratch. What it doesn’t come with is a great deal of fun, at least not in The Amazing Spider-Man, starring Andrew Garfield as Peter and now out on DVD.

Didn't write a formal review when we saw The Amazing Spider-Man in the theater back in July, but I posted a few thoughts, Spidey Thoughts, and in Spidey Thought Number 4 I noted that the movie begins with Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker already Spider-Man in every important way except for the minor detail of not having spider powers.

He's brave, he's cocky, he's a wiseguy, he's a genius scientist---this is very important because, as I noted in Spidey Thought Number 3, most of his major enemies are mad scientists and/or victims of science experiments gone tragically awry---he's a natural born detective, and he's a hero. Heroic, at at any rate. This Peter Parker is only a target for bullies when he deliberately gets between the bullies and their first targets. He stands up for---and gets knocked down for---the weak against the strong.

It's not the case with Peter as it is for Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger that his powers are the expression of his innate goodness and strength of heart.  For one thing, Peter’s spider powers appear as temptations. Rogers goes right to work at being Captain America.  In The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter starts off in a less than heroic direction.  But like Rogers, he doesn't need superpowers to be a hero. Only to become a super-hero.

What this means is that, essentially, at first, there is no Spider-Man. There is only Peter Parker wearing a disguise he calls Spider-Man.

His challenge is to make Spider-Man into something more and greater than an alter-ego: his job and his vocation.  He has to turn that disguise into the uniform of his new chosen profession. Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

This is a key point, thematically, as far as it goes, which turns out to be not far enough.

The first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man was about Peter learning how to be Spider-Man.  The Amazing Spider-Man (the first half of the movie, at least) is about Andrew Garfield’s Peter learning to be Spider-Man and what it means to be Spider-Man.

As I mentioned, Peter is not in a heroic frame of mind, nor a particularly friendly one, when he starts webslinging.  He’s not in the mood  to use his powers for good and not for evil. He’s in the mood to use them for revenge.

He’s out to get the thug who murdered his Uncle Ben. Any crooks he captures along the way are---what’s the opposite of collateral damage? Collateral success?

He’s not even the vigilante Captain Stacey calls him.  Vigilantes are at least nominally interested in justice.  Peter is only interested in assuaging his own emotional pain.  He’s using his powers to work out his guilt. What he has to learn is that he didn’t fail by not stopping the robbery that led to Uncle Ben’s getting killed. He failed by not doing the right thing for the simple sake of doing the right thing.

He has to learn that he has an obligation to help people, because with great power…

But he has to learn something else.  This.

He has to learn that being Spider-Man is fun!

You’d think there’d be joy and a thrill in being a superhero who has the proportional strength of spider, can climb walls, spin webs any size, and catch thieves just like flies. And it should feel good to have the power to do good and then go out and do it.

Plus, it’d be really cool.

Peter learns this.  Or he says he does.  He has an epiphany after his first fight with the Lizard---in a scene on a bridge unfortunately reminiscent of the much better staged and much more suspenseful bridge scene in Maguire’s first Spider-Man.  “Who are you?” asks the father of the little boy he’s just saved, his first truly good deed as Spider-Man, the deed that in fact makes him Spider-Man.  And that’s his answer. “I’m Spider-Man.”

He should say something else.  The guy knows he’s talking to Spider-Man.  J. Jonah Jameson (not seen in this movie because the producers had the good sense to know it’s too soon to ask any actor to try to follow J.K. Simmons in the part, but he makes his presence felt) has already been at work making sure the whole city knows he’s Spider-Man.  What Peter should say is “I’m your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” which would be a way of claiming the name Spider-Man for himself and announcing what his job is now.  He’s a public servant.  Every neighborhood has one, right? Along with the cop on the beat, the letter carrier delivering the mail, the firefighters in the station down the block?  And he ought to say it with delight and with a great big grin that we should sense through his mask.  And then we should see him go off and have some fun in a series of scenes like the ones that make up Superman’s first night in the Christopher Reeve’s first Superman, capturing jewel thieves and bank robbers for the pure, unselfish rightness of it.

It doesn’t happen.

Instead he swings over to his girlfriend Gwen’s apartment to tell her in the mopish way she inexplicably finds endearing that that’s what he’s going to do from here on out.

Which is a letdown, as endearing as it is to watch Emma Stone acting as if Garfield’s moping is endearing, but it would be something to shrug off if the movie had let him to follow through on his promise. 

He doesn’t get the chance. He has to go back to being plain old Peter Parker on a personal mission. The Lizard’s on the loose and it’s his---Peter’s not Spidey’s---responsibility to stop him.

When asked why it’s his responsibility, Peter replies, “I created him,” making it all about him and between him and the Lizard.

Spider-Man isn’t really part of it and goes back to being the name for the disguise Peter doesn’t really need at this point.

Never mind the stampeding crowds, exploding cars, and massive destruction of private and public property that has become the signature of too many Marvel Comics-based movies---both Iron Man movies, both Fantastic Four movies, Spider-Man 3, The Incredible Hulk, and The Avengers all end with the same insurance agent’s nightmare in the city streets---the final battle in The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a fight to save New York City.  It’s a struggle to save Curt Connors from himself. Spider-Man can’t do it. But Peter Parker can…by using SCIENCE!  Spider-Man is just there as a distraction to keep the Lizard away from the Oscorp lab while Gwen concocts the serum that will cure Connors based on a formula devised by Peter.

In the end, The Amazing Spider-Man turns out to be a personal drama about a philosophical disagreement between two scientists.

ASM Connors it begins The Lizard is one of Spidey’s least interesting enemies.  (Not as uninteresting as the Rhino, but that’s a very low bar.) Curt Connors is interesting because he might give in to the temptation to become the Lizard any frame now.  His struggle to resist the temptation and his fear that he won’t be able to and then his self-loathing and remorse after he turns back are what make him a sympathetic anti-hero.  Essentially, he’s the Wolf Man, and, like Larry Talbot’s, his is a very personal horror story. Which makes him the wrong choice of villains to build an epic public battle around.

Another way Connors is interesting is as Peter’s nightmare of himself as monster come to life.  Connors is Peter’s double.  By virtue of his scientific genius, Connor has great power but he’s always in danger of forgetting the responsibility that comes with it.  The movie could have made that a subplot, with Peter coming to realize how he and Connors are alike and that he faces the same temptation to use his powers if not for evil then for personal satisfaction and not for the public good.  They’re also alike in that as both freaks and geeks they’re outsiders and misfits who can only fit in by not being themselves.

It’s understandable that outsiders and misfits of all sorts dream of a world where the definition of “normal” and the rules that decide popularity are expansive enough to include them.  The intellectual temptation, though, is to insist that “normal” and “popular” ought to be redefined to mean them and it’s up to everybody else to conform. In real life, giving in to this temptation is usually only self-destructive because it leads to anger, resentment, bitterness, and further alienation and isolation.  But Connors has the power to make others conform to his idea of “normal.”  And that’s the motivation director Marc Webb and and his team of screenwriters have given him.

This is an apt theme for a movie based on a comic book that became famous for having a teenage hero who had to deal with the typical problems of an ordinary high school kid while saving the City from the likes of the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus.  Almost every teenager, even some of the popular ones, feels as freaky and geeky as Peter Parker at some point.  One of the things I liked about this movie (and it probably sounds as though I didn’t like much. I’ll deal with that in a minute.) is that it lets us see that the popular jock Flash Thompson, Peter’s high school nemesis but future good friend, feels like an outsider and a misfit.  

But it turns out the movie isn’t really interested in that theme.  Connor’s crackpot scheme for world domination is just an excuse for the preview of the video game that’s the final confrontation between cgi Spidey and the cgi Lizard.

So, here’s the progress of Peter Parker through the three acts of The Amazing Spider-Man:

I. Peter Parker, budding boy hero but ordinary mortal, struggling with his sense of identity.

II. Peter Parker, spider-powered angel of vengeance, using his new abilities selfishly.

III. Peter Parker, super-scientist.

Peter Parker, the actually amazing Spider-Man? Pretty much offstage throughout.

Now, onto what I liked.

The cast.

I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man more than I thought I would when we saw it in the theater. I enjoyed it even more watching it again on DVD. It's not as good a movie as either of the first two Maguires. (I think we all can agree to pretend Spider-Man 3 never happened.) But it's different enough to have earned the right to be judged on its own merits. And one of the very good ways it's different is in having a heroine who is not just a damsel in distress.

Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson spent a lot of time in all three of her Spider-Man movies literally hanging around screaming for Spider-Man to come to her rescue.  When she wasn’t doing that, she didn’t seem to have much else to occupy her time except fretting over her relationship with Peter.

Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is never in distress.  The script doesn’t put her in need of rescuing at any point, but if it had, we’d know she’d figure her own way out of her fix without wasting time screaming for Spider-Man to come save her.

ASM Gwen the scientistOf course Emma Stone is adorable in the part.  But she’s also very smart.  The filmmakers have made Gwen a budding scientist herself, which means we know she and Peter have more to talk about than his problems being a superhero.  But Stone makes her a different type of science nerd from either Peter or her boss Dr Connors.  We can’t see her holing up in a lab pursuing her research in private like them. She’d have her own lab, surround herself with brilliant grad students, and earn her reputation as a teacher and administrator.  She’s not a freak or a geek.  She’s who is she is and happy and secure with that.  She’s a people person who sees the best in everyone, including Flash Thompson, and insists on dealing only with that side of them.  The only way to respond to someone like her is to be as good as she knows you to be. 

This isn’t naiveté. It’s insight.  It’s how she handles her demanding and irascible father.  She’s not defiant. She’s not rebellious.  She just won’t to talk to him as if there’s any other side to him except the loving, considerate, and understanding side.  And she won’t let Peter keep secrets.  He has to confess to her he’s Spider-Man because she already knows he is---that is, she knows he’s a hero and won’t talk to him as if he’s not.  I wish the director had given her a scene with Connors in which she did this with him.  It would have been heartbreaking to watch both of them realize that that side of him she admires is on its way to being lost.

As Gwen's irascible father, police Captain George Stacy, Denis Leary is as convincingly upright, noble, reliable, professional, public-spirited, and incorruptible as he is convincingly all the opposites as Tommy Gavin in Rescue Me.  Stacy is always stern and earnest, but Leary gives him an underlying sense of humor and sense of proportion to make us believe that despite his present antipathy he is the character we know from the comic books (the originals not the Ultimates) will eventually get and appreciate what Spider-Man is about.  It's too bad the next movie won't be bringing Leary and J.K. Simmons together so we can have the fun of watching Stacy and J. Jonah Jameson go at it over the Bugle's treatment of Spider-Man.

Rhys Ifans plays Curt Connors as a self-absorbed but basically high-minded scientist who keeps trying to convince himself he's motivated by nobler things than vanity and wounded pride. If Garfield's Peter Parker is already Spider-Man before he gets his powers, Ifans' Connors is already on his way to becoming the Lizard in that he sees himself as repulsive and something less than human.

ASM Ben May Peter Sally Field is more distracted than dotty as Peter's easily flustered and apparently easily fooled Aunt May.  But as Field plays her, May isn't clueless. She's just learned that it's easier for her to get done what she needs to get done if she's willfully blind to what the men in her life are up to. Which explains how she doesn't " know" Peter is Spider-Man, but it also makes you wonder what secrets Uncle Ben has buried in his past.

Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben doesn’t seem to be a man keeping secrets, only a man trying not to show how he’s weighed down by longstanding regrets and probably unjustified guilt and self-recrimination.  Sheen has built his characterization of Uncle Ben around the idea of Peter’s budding greatness.  Ben, even more than Gwen, senses the hero within Peter, and as proud as it makes him, it also scares him.  He knows that with great power---by which he means talent, brains, and the ambition to put them to work, the webslinging and the wallcrawling haven’t started yet, and when they do, he won’t know about it---comes more than great responsibility.  It comes with the potential for all kinds of trouble and heartbreak that he wants protect Peter from but knows he can’t.  This worries and saddens him but it also makes him feel like something a failure.  He believes Peter deserves a surrogate father up to the job of helping a hero.    He’s at a loss.  It’s a little more complicated than the sense of loss all parents of teenagers on the brink of outgrowing their ability to protect them feel, but he deals with it in a familiar way, by being inconsistent in his approach, alternating between indulgence, humor, over-asserting his authority, and just plain asking the child he wants to help for advice on how to help him. This Uncle Ben never says the iconic line but in the two speeches that boil down to “With great power…” there’s more than a hint of apology. He feels judged by Peter, one of the few ways in which he underestimates his nephew.

Of course the movie depends on Andrew Garfield making Peter the hero Uncle Ben and Gwen expect him to be while still making him the awkward, angst-ridden, insecure, self-absorbed typical teenager he can’t help being.  Garfield works this balancing act just fine.  He overdoes the mumbling, mopey act sometimes, and seems a little too taken with this as one of Peter’s charms.  But he is charming.  As for how he compares to Tobey Maguire, it’s not a matter if he’s as good, it matters that he’s different.  And he is.  He’s more inward, to start. More of a jerk.  Even when he’s doing good, his cockiness crosses the line into jerkiness. Which is in keeping with the idea that this Peter needs to learn more personal lessons than Maguire’s Peter did.  He’s more romantic than Maguire, and sexier.  Maguire’s Peter needed to be Spider-Man in order to approach Mary Jane. Garfield’s Peter lacks for poise but not confidence and Gwen and he are well on their way to hooking up before he gets bitten.  And he’s smarter.  Maguire’s Peter was no dope. But Garfield’s is undoubtedly a genius.

Garfield doesn’t seem to be having as much fun as Maguire did.  Some of that is due to what I was trying to get at above, his Peter isn’t allowed to have much fun.  That could change in the next movie, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The producers have made it plain they’re doing a trilogy. The movies are going to tell one complete story and, given that the heroine is Gwen, fans already know where that’s going.

The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb, screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves. Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Denis Leary, and Rhys Ifans. Rated PG-13. Now available on DVD and to watch instantlyat Amazon.