Hollywood has plucked up creative, foreign and low-budget indie directors and thrown them into big budget films to varying degrees of success. Phillip Noyce, Lasse Hallström, Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, Gus Van Sant all burst on to the filmmaking scene with very distinctive voices at very small studios. Some of these directors had the fortitude to maintain their voice while others seemed to bury it in the same old classical Hollywood trappings. Marc Webb directed my favorite picture of 2009, (500) Days of Summer (2009’s top 23 films). He took the romantic comedy, a genre so often recycled by Hollywood, and injected it with a quality both honest and artistic. Hollywood snatched him up and put him to work on the re-boot of its Spider-Man tent-pole, the Amazing Spider-Man, which opened in theaters everywhere at midnight, just ahead of the July 4th weekend. Though the film has a lot of flash— as these films should— I was pleased to notice Webb working to transcend the tropes of the superhero film, highlighting the souls of his characters.

As much as I am a fan of indie and world films, I am also a fan of science fiction, raised on not only Star Wars but also “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” on TV. In the mid-eighties, I rode my bike several miles to the newsstand for the latest issue of the Uncanny X-Men. It would be hard to shake that influence as a kid. So when the studio invited me to a 9 p.m. preview screening last night of Webb’s the Amazing Spider-Man, I went.

I arrived at the local IMAX 3D screen with high expectations based on my love of (500) Days of Summer, early critical buzz for the new film itself and news that Webb shot it using 3D cameras with the several-stories-tall IMAX screen in mind (see this Sunday’s article in the “Miami Herald”). The results fall somewhere below Matthew Vaughn’s re-boot of X-Men: X-Men First Class,  but above Joe Johnston’s Captain America. It definitely does not touch Nolan’s re-boot of the Batman films, though, but maybe hovers around the quality of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Thor.

Webb certainly takes his time with the characters and allows them to interact while packing on emotional baggage that subtly informs their behaviors. When Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) kiss, it feels like these are two intelligent, yet clumsy, people falling in love. Between fight scenes involving Parker/Spider-Man, story and character mounts up before the film’s final showdown. Sometimes the smallest things in these flashy, noisy films are the toughest to earn, and Webb knows how to earn them.

I feared nothing good could come out of the number of names involved in the script, which included James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. None of those writers, though well-respected and talented in their own rights, had ever worked with Webb, and his collaboration with his screenwriters in (500) Days of Summer, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, made for a key partnership, as revealed in the extras of the film’s blu-ray (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Movies written in committee often have the soul drained out of them as distinct voices struggle to be heard in the din of what the committee might assume the mass audience would prefer to see in a movie. But that is not the case with the Amazing Spider-Man. I was glad to see Webb avoid repeating lines from the previous series of Spider-Man films by Sam Rami, which have almost become cliché (“With great power comes great responsibility”). Instead, we watch Parker learn responsibility throughout the film from the most extreme situations fighting the shape-shifting Lizard (Rhys Ifans), a mad scientist-type with his own well-earned baggage, to the smallest gestures respecting his last surviving parental figure, Aunt May (Sally Field).

Webb has lined up some fine actors for the film’s many iconic roles. As in the Social Network, the British-born Garfield assumes the American accent impeccably. Also, despite his age, he carries the goofy/angst-ridden quality of a high schooler well. Stone never looked better in a film, and she brings a lot of charm to the roll of Stacy, an alternate girlfriend in the mélange of off-shoots of the Spider-Man universe from Marvel Comics. The director shoots her with a similar affection as he did Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days. Finally, Ifans deserves acknowledgment for bringing some sincerity and pathos to one angry character in the comics.

One of the problems with these kinds of films is that the acting becomes buried behind masks and special effects. Webb allows his actors every opportunity to show their feelings by often unmasking them. Spider-Man is seen in action as much with his mask off as it is on. The Lizard is not always covered in scales, as whatever chemical he has ingested seems unstable, and there is often some human expression working itself out through the effects.

One final thing on the effects, Webb knows how to earn the IMAX 3D effects. All of his shots are filled with depth, and—like (500) Days— he is not afraid of cluttering a scene with props. Meanwhile, Spider-Man’s drops off the high-rises of Manhattan are stomach-churning. I often have trouble with films on the giant IMAX screen, as the screen feels too large to catch a complete shot, but Webb has used the giant frame in the best manner I have ever experienced in IMAX. I have never felt more comfortable in one of those theaters, despite the film’s two-hour-plus runtime. Webb has earned his keep in Hollywood on many levels while not losing touch of the sense of drama that brought him there.

Hans Morgenstern

The Amazing Spiderman is rated PG-13 and runs 136 minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

amazing spiderman

With Greenberg, director Noah Baumbach sharpens his usual focus on the greedy tics of self-absorbed protagonists by pointing his camera on nothing less than a formerly institutionalized misanthrope, probably his most extremely dysfunctional character to date. But the title character is something much more than a self-centered egoist who hates people. He re-directs the hatred he has for himself into disdain for the behaviors of not only what he perceives are the common masses but the actions of those that love him. Baumbach and his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, craft a masterful script to form Greenberg, and Ben Stiller does an amazing, patient job at bringing this character to life.

Greenberg is a carpenter with an attitude fueled by a passion for letters of complaint to companies like Starbucks and American Airlines and wistful memories from the 80s of playing in a new wave/post-punk trio that nearly signed a major label deal. But the only real talent he has is finding something to complain about in every situation he stumbles into, especially with those he thinks he knows. His letters are nothing compared to the anger he throws on those closest to him.

After supposedly being released from a mental hospital, Greenberg, a New York transplant, finds himself house-sitting for his brother in Los Angeles. While Greenberg’s brother heads off to enjoy Vietnam with his wife and kids, Greenberg is left to tend to the family dog, who has grown weak with an autoimmune disorder (Greenberg at one point worries about catching the dog’s illness, but it’s as if the dog actually caught it from him). In the meantime, he takes advantage of his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring singer in her mid 20s with a weak self-esteem. Despite his crude manner of canceling a date with her at a bar to instead split her only bottle of beer at her place, she accepts his advances for a brief sexual encounter that ends as abruptly as it had begun, doing nothing for either one of them.

As their relationship turns on but mostly off, the care of the dog seems to provide the only glue that can hold them together. Greenberg also spends much of his time catching up with his former band mate and longtime friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a soft-spoken man whose 10-year marriage with the mother of his only son has begun to unravel. Greenberg is more happy about the marriage’s dissolution than he is about signs Ivan can work it out. During a dinner out with Ivan and Florence, Greenberg suddenly shuts down an attempt by Ivan to celebrate Greenberg’s 40th birthday by having the waiters bring over a cake and sing “Happy Birthday” with a tantrum. These two characters’ generous attempts to show Greenberg some affection coupled with their own sorry states provide the perfect foils for Greenberg, whose weak anger could find no more comfortable place (there are some brief moments when Greenberg tries to confront strangers to sad but funny ineffectiveness).

Stiller’s performance is nothing short of brave because you can bet lots of people will come to this movie expecting the buffoonery that helped get him the popularity he currently enjoys. But this movie is no Dodge Ball or Tropic Thunder. The last time Stiller did something this low-key was in Reality Bites, though the Greenberg character is probably as ugly as the one in Permanent Midnight, a hardcore tragic drama of a man’s rise and fall in the world of writing a sitcom for TV, based on the true story of the writer behind “ALF.” That film remains one of his least popular.

In Greenberg, Stiller captures his character’s complex as much with his pauses and silences as with his harsh opinions. At Greenberg’s low-key 40th birthday celebration, when Ivan says, “Youth is wasted on the young,” Greenberg responds by saying, “I’d go further,” while staring down at his menu. “I’d say life is wasted on … people.”

I was hoping this to be a laugh-a-minute, though self-deprecating film like the Squid and the Whale, but Baumbach has taken the self-deprecation to a whole new level, along the lines of Margot at the Wedding. Greenberg is a dark glimpse into a man who only seems misanthropic but is actually more in love with his sad, negative self than anyone else around him. Greenberg is a walking pile of hang-ups that he constantly projects on others. What he hates about people is what he hates about himself. Throughout the movie, Greenberg meets people who have moved on and grown up, while Greenberg seems to delight in his therapist’s analysis of his issues. Toward the end of the movie, he attempts to bond with Florence telling her, “My shrinks says, I have trouble living in the present, so I linger on the past because it felt like I didn’t ever really live it in the first place.” Again, his attempts to bond with others turns to himself.

The movie culminates with a drug-fueled party, where Greenberg finally gets a look in the mirror per se, as scores of young people surround him, and it’s literally an unrecognizable, lifeless creature floating in his brother’s pool with a single eye staring back at him. From here on, he can either choose to run further from himself and his life or dive in and start to finally live. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus wrote, “This world has a higher meaning that transcends its worries, or nothing is true but those worries. One must live with time or die with it, or else elude the greater life.” Baumbach offers no clear answers as to whether this lump of wounded humanity has learned to take personal responsibility for maintaining a relationship. The audience can only hope that Greenberg’s choice at the end of the movie to not run away from his developing sense of self is but the start of something remotely caring of others.

In the end, Greenberg proves itself as one of those rare character studies that keeps you hooked with interest thanks to a strongly drawn out and naturally played unstable protagonist (reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s under-appreciated Punch Drunk Love). Stiller’s subtle acting is a refreshing change from his usual shrill, over-the-top clowns. Credit is also due to the supporting work by Gerwig and Ifans, who play people with more subtle hang-ups, yet know how to live in their skin with just enough comfort. Baumbach has turned one of the darker corners of his film career, but it shines an amazing spotlight on human behavior.

Greenberg is rated ‘R’ and opens in wide release on Friday, March 26.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)