Soaring Spidey

"The Amazing Spider-Man," the recent incarnation of one of the most iconic Marvel comic book characters, conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, is an origin reboot.

Actually, be it Spider-Man or Batman or Superman, origin tales offer some of the most interesting and possibly complex material. Each character struggles with a period of transition, learning to cope with his superhuman abilities, the rush of awed excitement and ambivalence about his gifts and all that implies. Batman aside, both Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, and Clark Kent, aka Superman, were adolescents, who come to realize that they are markedly different from their peers.

In "The Amazing Spider-Man," the familiar trope of the geeky, isolated, picked on high school kid (Andrew Garfield) is resurrected (pushed in the halls, challenged by the mean jock). Peter Parker's only friend is his skateboard. He does have a crush on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), coolly popular and very stylish.

Peter, raised by his uncle (Martin Sheen) and aunt (Sally Field), finds a weathered briefcase in a closet that once belonged to his deceased father. Within he discovers a file and a formula. Curious, Peter visits a bioengineering outfit, Oscorp, in search of his father's partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). And it's there, in one of the experimental labs, that he's bitten by a radioactive spider. Let the games begin and the new Peter Parker emerge.

This re-imagined period, taking up much of acts one and two, is nicely told. There are smash cuts of Peter skateboarding, soaring, leaping off buildings, clinging to vertical walls, awash in exhilaration as he defies gravity. In one scene, on the subway, he levels a group of thugs and demolishes the rail car, reacting with new strength and agility, much to his own surprise. Of course, there's the bully jock at school to be confronted. Sweet.

Had the writers gone for something beyond the predictable in act three, they would have explored and elaborated on this moment. Peter's new-found abilities are a rush, allowing him to contemplate a new life. These same traits make him an outcast, a freak of, well, nature. How he copes with this reality is, to be sure, interesting and worth developing.

Instead, as is always the case, the narrative moves from origin to nemesis. Peter needs a foil, the writers decide, something over the top — not just menacing but outlandish. In "The Amazing Spider-Man," they send in the Lizard, actually called The Lizard, connected to Oscorp's biological regeneration program and Dr. Connors.

But no matter, it's a missed opportunity, The Lizard being a bit silly and soporific. Peter does soar wonderfully through mid-town Manhattan; but he could have done that, absent The Lizard.


"Bernie" is so unexpected, so unusual, so darkly witty that it takes almost two acts to completely grasp how quirky and wonderful this film is.

Set in the rural town of Carthage, Texas, population 6,500, it is delightfully authentic, with the feel of a docu-drama. But then, it is based on a true story that appeared in the Texas Monthly, written by journalist Skip Hollandsworth.

At the film's center is Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a mortuary assistant, much loved by the local DLOLs (dear little old ladies), a committed Methodist, he sings in the choir, volunteers around town and ushers widows through their darkest hour. He is gushed over by the town's denizens in a series of cameos, amounting to a gossipy chorus that opines about Bernie in a delightfully down-home way, giving priceless testimonials that are funny, sardonic and slice-of-life, Texas-style Americana.

These folks — some the real-deal locals — are unequivocal Bernie Boosters. Even when he murders a sour, caustic, very rich Carthage widow (Shirley McLaine) — "whose nose is so high she'd drown in a rainstorm" — with whom he has grown unexpectedly close. Four gunshots to the back with an armadillo rifle, and still his popularity never falters.

"Bernie," from the first frame, to its credit, never relies on caricature, though the east Texas townsfolk would lend themselves to exactly that. Ultimately, this film is a character study, one that unfolds ever so slowly and strangely until it becomes a true crime court drama.

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