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Movie reviews: 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' 'Ted,' 'People Like Us'

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POSTED: July 3, 2012 2:42 p.m.
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'The Amazing Spider-man' is in theaters July 3.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

**1/2

(In theaters Tuesday, July 3)

Perhaps it's best to think of Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man and Marc Webb's 2012 The Amazing Spider-Man as the cinematic equivalents of Coke Classic and New Coke. Despite some alterations to the source material (hey, where's Gwen Stacy?), the Raimi take earned the trust of most purists, offering a near-perfect Peter Parker in Tobey Maguire, treating the origin story in appropriate fashion (right down to the introduction of Spidey in that wrestling ring), and adding the right dash of humor that was long present in the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Webb's new version, on the other hand, is an unnecessary variation on the real thing, sweetening the formula to go down easier for today's sugar-rush audiences. Suddenly, Peter Parker is no longer the ultimate outsider, the self-deprecating, geeky kid who locates the hero buried deep within himself. Now, he's the poster boy for the iPhone generation, a surly hipster who, oh yeah, just happens to also be a superhero.

As before, the teenage Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is bitten by a scientifically enhanced spider and finds himself blessed with newfound abilities. He also suffers the loss of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), a development that leaves him guilt-ridden since it was in his power to stop his uncle's killer before the murder took place. New to the origin tale, though, is a plotline involving Peter's father (Campbell Scott), a scientist who had been working on a secret formula before he and his wife (Embeth Davidtz) abruptly took off, leaving a much younger Peter in the care of Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Sally Field).

The teenage Peter now seeks out his dad's former colleague, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans); their collaboration will eventually lead to Dr. Connors turning into The Lizard and providing Spider-Man with his first super-villain challenge.

The film's problems begin with the casting of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker. It was easy to believe that Maguire's Parker would be a high-school whipping boy, but Garfield? The actor tries his hardest, but when it looks as if Peter Parker just stepped out of a GQ photo shoot (right down to the perfectly coifed hair), it's hard to take him seriously as someone who's perpetually ignored by girls and harassed by guys. Far more believable is Emma Stone as Peter's lady love Gwen Stacy, while Sheen is a sensible choice to play Uncle Ben. Field, on the other hand, is far too young to be playing Aunt May - who approved that casting, Forrest Gump?- while The Lizard isn't nearly as memorable a villain as one might have reasonably assumed.

Visually, the picture strikes all the right notes (even if Spidey's swings are a bit too neatly choreographed), although the same can't be said for a script that went through at least two revisions before reaching the screen. What's most surprising - and frustrating - about the film is that there's little human dimension to it. Raimi took time out to examine the everyday lives of Maguire's Peter and Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson - their discussion of future plans, her miserable home life with a drunken father, etc. - but Garfield's Peter and Gwen are given little time for such introspection, with the script busily racing from one crisis or conspiracy to the next.

What's more, Webb's movie is on the whole rather humorless: Aside from the hilarious (and obligatory) Stan Lee cameo, there are few throwaway gags on the level of Raimi's inclusion of a Lucy Lawless cameo or the street musician's mangling of the theme song from the Spider-Man TV cartoon.

All of this isn't to say that this reboot should completely get the boot. On the contrary, The Amazing Spider-Man is acceptable hot-weather entertainment, filled with the types of colorful characters, frenetic action sequences and high-flying special effects we've come to expect from our multiplex outings. But it's clearly no match for Raimi's Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2 (it bests Spider-Man 3, however), and it certainly can't be mentioned in the presence of such genre high points as Superman, X-Men or even this year's The Avengers.

And with The Dark Knight Rises just around the corner, it's likely that this summertime swinger will appear even more puny.

TED

***

Rude, raunchy and decidedly non-PC, Ted is the sort of movie for which trailers serve no purpose, since they can't convey the R-rated content in PG-approved snippets. In fact, even the adults-only "red band" trailer plays it relatively safe - actually a good thing, since that just reserves more out-of-left-field hilarity for the actual viewing experience.

The idea of Mark Wahlberg and a talking teddy bear sounds as potentially disastrous as Mel Gibson and a talking beaver sock-puppet, but writer-director Seth MacFarlane manages to wring every last drop of comic potential out of this dubious premise. We first meet Ted during the 1980s, when friendless child John Bennett receives him as an ordinary Christmas present and, thanks to a well-timed falling star, discovers that his wish to have a live teddy bear has come true. ("It's a Christmas miracle!" declares John's mom. "Like baby Jesus!")

Ted naturally becomes a celebrity, even appearing alongside Johnny Carson in a bit of Forrest-Gump-meets-JFK sleight of hand, but like other child celebrities ("Corey Feldman ... Frankie Muniz," the narrator reminds us), he's been long forgotten over the ensuing decades, and he now spends his time on the couch, sharing bong hits with the grown-up John (Wahlberg) and repeatedly watching their favorite movie from their formative years, 1980's Flash Gordon ("So bad, but so good," states John, the best review ever given for this wonderful bit of cult kitsch).

John has a beauteous, loving girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), and while she's been generally good-natured about the friendship between John and Ted, she realizes that it's time John accepts adult responsibility so they might consider a real life together. She basically makes John choose between her and the bear, and it's to the film's credit that she's not presented as an overbearing (no pun intended) shrew but as the most sensible person in the picture. John does indeed give adult life a try, and Ted even gets his own apartment and lands a job as a grocery store clerk (what he does on the job with two bottles of lotion is so naughty that the scene was even edited for the "red band" trailer!). But with so many parties to attend and so many bongs to tap, it's hard for the best buds to remain apart for long.

Prostitutes, rich doofuses, fat kids, 9/11, Jews, 80s music, Susan Boyle, James Franco, testicular cancer - pretty much everything's open for funny business in Ted. Flatulence gags and gay-panic riffs - two long-standing faves of man-boys like MacFarlane - make appearances, and it's no surprise that these bits are the ones that most frequently fail to hit their marks.

But favorably adding to the mirth are some superb cameos - not the lazy sorts that mark too many other modern comedies, but ones that are expertly woven into the fabric of the story.

Whether he's wooing Kunis or roughhousing with Ted, Wahlberg is a lively presence in this film, and the scene in which he serves up a stream-of-conciousness tear through "white trash" girl names is an improvisational tour de force. As for Ted, we have no problem accepting him as a living, breathing entity, thanks to the superb effects work that seamlessly places him in the thick of the action. To be honest, I'm more impressed with the comparatively low-tech look of Ted than the been-there-done-that razzle dazzle of The Amazing Spider-Man - a startling declaration that might make some wonder if I've spent too much time myself on that couch with the bong-banging bear.

PEOPLE LIKE US

**1/2

Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are best known as action-script specialists, whipping out screenplays both good (the Star Trek reboot, TV's Alias) and bad (Transformers, Cowboys and Aliens), so it's a modest surprise to see their names attached to the family drama People Like Us. Maybe they needed a break from crafting gems for Optimus Prime to speak ("At the end of this day, one shall stand, one shall fall!"), or maybe they figured this was their Oscar-winning Ordinary People -- at any rate, the middling result will doubtless send them scurrying back to the various cash cows grazing in their fields. People Like Us works in spurts, but that's almost entirely due to the contributions of its actors.

Chris Pine plays hustling businessman Sam, who learns after his estranged father's death that the old man had a second family on the side. Sam visits Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), the half-sister he never knew he had, but rather than reveal his identity, he elects to bide his time and pose as a concerned AA colleague instead. This narrative contrivance, which has been employed so often in movies that it deserves both a retirement party and a funeral, blocks scripters Kurtzman (who also directed), Orci and Jody Lambert from ever fully delving into the worthy subjects of familial betrayal and reconciliation, keeping viewers as distant from the characters as the characters are from each other.

Some superlative turns help significantly: Michael Hall D'Addario never makes an open play for sympathy as Frankie's troubled son, while Olivia Wilde brings some outsider perspective as Sam's sensible girlfriend. Best of all is Banks as the harried single mom who's repeatedly being dealt right cross punches every time she turns around.

Come to think of it, Banks is frequently the best thing about any movie in which she appears - tell me again why she isn't a huge star?

 

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