THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (*½)

Some films cannot escape comparisons, especially when they are reboots made so soon after the originals. So when Sony Pictures decided to film its do-over less than a decade after Spider-Man and its classic sequel Spider-Man 2, many comic book fans such as myself were perplexed. We could understand a need for sequels, but why mess with the success of a franchise that launched the golden age of superhero films? The Amazing Spider-Man won’t answer that question any time soon.

Its failings come right off the bat, setting up a supposed intrigue with Peter Parker’s past which is never fully exploited. We briefly meet Peter’s parents, Robert and Mary Parker, played by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz. You’d think that with such terrific actors you’d get meatier context, but the first moment we see them is also the last. There is no heft that plays out of their short appearances. They feel more like gimmicks than true characters.

Besides, Spidey’s fans know that the crux of Peter’s family life lies with his beloved Aunt May and Uncle Ben. And yet despite being played by greats Sally Field and Martin Sheen, their scenes and relationships are sorely lacking compared to their predecessors. They being Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson, who embodied their roles completely in our minds to an almost mythical degree.

Then there is Peter’s love interest, this time in Gwen Stacy whose tragic importance to him is well known in comic book circles. But even this promising avenue is botched with meet cutes and contrived romantic situations, which is mind-boggling for such a canonical character. Emma Stone is a cinematic gift, and her misuse here is depressing. There is no comparison worth making to Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson.

There’s also the villain, played by Rhys Ifans, who is given no theatrical room for machiavellian menace the way his predecessors Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina were. And even if he was granted such leeway, those two are a tough act to follow anyway. Nonetheless, his CGI alger-ego the Lizard is effective as can be. But I would have much rather preferred seeing Irrfan Kahn, clearly with more gravitas, as the main baddie.

And lastly, there’s Peter Parker himself, portrayed by Andrew Garfield, taking on a role in that Tobey Maguire made his own, much in the same way Christopher Reeve made Superman his. Maguire’s Spider-Man may have lacked the smart-aleck-ness of the comic books, but he possessed an effortless transformation of naiveté into quiet strength and dignity that once seemed impossible to achieve in our jaded times. Garfield’s Spider-Man attempts to take on a vulnerable wisecracking edge, and succeeds all too well, turning our beloved web-head into Woody Allen. I believed him as an insecure teenager, but not as a centered youth capable of heroism. For me, this was a great miscalculation.

I could go on about how each perfunctory scene set up another one. Or how utterly dreadful the film’s soundtrack was, seemingly telegraphing each emotion, masking the film’s feeble storytelling. But it isn’t worth it. And that’s precisely what’s wrong with this movie. It’s unnecessary in almost every way.

If the film has any saving grace, it is in its action sequences, which among Spider-Man films are probably the richest in detail and the most convincing in terms of physical movement (at least from what I could tell). But everything else has been told better and felt truer elsewhere. I couldn’t help but shake my head through its entirety. The Amazing Spider-Man is a well-made agony.

BRAVE (****)

I always wanted a girl.

Before I had my darling Cate, I vividly remember a father wading through a swimming pool with his daughter riding piggy back with her arms wrapped around his neck. She screamed in delight, “Daddeee!”

I had always seen other fathers wrapped around their little girls’ fingers. My dad included. I didn’t mind. I thought it would have been the greatest deal in the world, having that kind of bond. And I still do. But I was also aware of how especially daunting it is to raise a woman in this world. Many of us don’t like to admit it, but men are acutely aware of how harsh the world is towards women. That’s probably why fathers become doubly compelled to be overly protective of our “precious and fragile” little girls. I’m proud to say that I’ve been guarding against this impulse as much as I can. So far all she longs for are super powers and rocket ships.

These thoughts echoed within me while watching Brenda Chapman’s Brave which I fell in love with just a few hours ago. It’s of a young woman’s coming of age story, but though Disney has had similar female protagonists in the past, whether of noble deeds (e.g. Mulan, Pocahontas) or royal blood (e.g. countless princesses), none are quite as headstrong or independent as Princess Merida (played with unceasing charm by Kelly Macdonald). She doesn’t belt out a tune in her moments of joy and isn’t supplied a young man to fall head over heels with. Her prowess rivals that of any white knight or fair prince. Even her hair is in defiance of stereotypes. No shampoo commercial straightened locks, just a fabulous firestorm of a coif. She isn’t even presented with a villain to defeat. but a choice whether to determine her fate. It may sound corny, but ask any woman whether that choice is taken lightly.

Yes, she is supplied with a somewhat overbearing mother in Queen Linora (Emma Thompson), but even this trope doesn’t follow the usual lines. Many animated parents merely exist to be proven wrong by their children, but in a virtuoso scene, Brave shows both sides in a heartfelt conversation between mother and daughter that never truly takes place; a sequence that highlights empathy and the hesitance to bridge the gap. And how about the refreshing King Fergus (the irresistible Billy Connolly) as Merida’s dad? When was the last time you saw an animated king not care about how his royal daughter should behave or be treated?

There were many other aspects that I adored about the film. Some more than others. Merida’s three baby brothers never speak, but their antics supply some terrific comic relief, especially with the use of shadow puppetry. I liked the Miyazaki-esque elements and influences. The witch (Julie Waters) who provides Merida’s turning point seems inspired by the old sage Oh-Baba of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The will-o’-the-wisps feel like they might come from the same family of the Kodomas in Princess Mononoke. Even sub-themes such as man’s relationship to nature and myth, as well as the lack of a true antagonist ring a bell. Like all Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the only true villain in Brave is the lack of understanding.

The film also pulsates with unbridled love for all things Scotland. The caricatures and digs at accents are there. But just like Scottish humor, it is done in fondness and without malice. And never have the Scottish highlands been more mythical in film, as the movie evokes vast misty forest-filled mountainsides with both dread and dreamy romance.

But what strikes me most is its strong voice for womanhood. Feminism is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days, connoting politics or agendas. But the term isn’t devoid of emotion or care. The film resonates especially in a time when women’s rights have come to the forefront of global consciousness and where fantastical film heroines haven’t been this prominent in ages. Dejah Thoris, Elizabeth Shaw, and Katniss Everdeen are Merida’s kindred spirits. Who would have thought that archery would become the weapon of choice for girl power?

Brenda Chapman directed The Prince of Egypt, a tremendously underrated animated spectacle that deftly handled its grand tale and emotions. She displays that same skill and purpose in Brave but with greater focus and conviction. Though she is listed as one of the film’s co-directors, watching the movie only reinforces the notion that it is her baby. It was inspired by her relationship with her daughter, and achieves more irony knowing that Pixar let her go from its production before its completion. A lady filmmaker getting only part of the credit for her story of female independence? One can only wonder.

No matter. Brave is a princess story that readily sheds all the fat from such folk or fairy tales, told with great skill and even greater spirit. And with Merida as its heroine, it gives us the embodiment of a strong-willed and free spirited lass, free to make her own fate. We can only wish the same for all our daughters.