Produced by Relativity Media
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Shane Salerno and Don Winslow from Winslow’s novel
Distributed by Universal Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man
Produced by Marvel Entertainment 
Directed by Marc Webb 
Written by James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent 
Distributed by Columbia Pictures


Directed by Oliver Stone, Savages is an adaptation of a novel by Don Winslow, which, I understand, has a certain cachet among cannabis devotees.  I’m confident the movie will delight them as much or more.  Speaking for myself, I found its narrative too naive to be credible and its performances too smug to be engaging.  While I’m not familiar with the cool drug scene, I’m convinced its portrayal here must be entirely misleading.

The novel is a natural fit for Stone, dramatizing one of his favorite themes: how America’s reckless military adventures abroad wind up seeding turmoil at home.  Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a Navy Seal veteran of the Iraq war who also did some time in Afghanistan, has come back to Laguna Beach with some Afghan marijuana seeds.  With them, his lifelong friend Ben (Aaron Johnson), who majored in business and botany at Berkeley, develops a strain of the plant more potent than anything this side of the Hindu Kush.  In no time at all, Ben and Chon become millionaire merchants of puffed happiness.  This allows them to laze about their beachfront condo with their shared girlfriend, the vacuous Ophelia (Blake Lively, typecast), familiarly known as O, a diminutive that simultaneously refers to her emptiness and her dedication to orgasms.  As she tells us in her narration, she has rough sex with the warrior Chon (“I have orgasms; he has wargasms”) and makes love with the sensitive Ben.  Preferably on the same day.  Doesn’t leave her much time for knitting.  The boys, she confides, make up one whole man and, thus, keep her satisfied.  Cute, no?

All is well in la-la land until reality breaks through in the form of Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek wearing chilling Cleopatra bangs) and her ruthless Mexican drug cartel.  She’s learned of the boys’ product and proposes what she assumes will be an irresistible offer: You can sell your operation to me along with your expertise, or you can have your heads removed from your shoulders.  She sends some videos illustrating just what this would look like, complete with shots of booted feet kicking severed heads across a luridly lit blood-soaked concrete floor.  But she underestimates one of her marks.  Chon bites his lip meaningfully and refuses to go along.  He reasons that whether he and Ben comply or not, the cartel has them in its sights and will eliminate them sooner or later.  Best to attack first.  Sweet Ben recommends just walking away.  After all, he really wants to pursue his charity work in Africa and develop a solar-panel business in the United States.  Yes, like so many other drug dealers, he wants to make a difference, improve the world, all that.  As O explains, this toker’s essentially a Buddhist.  (Heavy.)  When the cartel’s lawyer hears this, his capitalist soul quakes as if he’d swallowed a noisome enchilada.  ¡Ay, caramba!  So, naturally, Elena has O kidnapped to be used as persuasion.

The film’s best moments come when Elena talks with the kidnapped O, who rambles on about her life with Chon and Ben and how she could really use some of the product in which everyone’s so homicidally interested, since being held hostage is playing hob with her admittedly limited powers of concentration.  After a few minutes, Elena cuts her off sharply.  “Do all Americans talk like this?”  When the nonplussed O fails to respond, Elena logically asks, “How long have you been using marijuana?”

“Since the eighth grade,” comes the prompt answer.

“And what did your parents say?”

Again without hesitation, O replies, “They didn’t seem to care.”  Well, what do you expect?  O grew up in L.A.  Elena gazes bemusedly at this enormously self-indulgent young lady, knowing she has before her the very embodiment of her consumer demographic.

Our honorable boys are determined to rescue O, of course.  Their strategy?  Steal from the cartel and use the money to ransom her.  Chon calls in his service buddies, who come running with the usual toys Navy Seals take with them upon their decommissioning: high-tech automatic rifles, IEDs, and, for good measure, bazookas.  Soon they’re blowing up Elena’s thugs big time and making off with metal suitcases stuffed with millions.  For his part Ben is at his computer genteelly hacking into the cartel’s accounts and transferring more millions to his own.  No sweat.  They’re beaners—what do they know?

While our boys are orchestrating these sophisticated operations, they’re continually inhaling their high-potency weed.  This got me wondering.  I’ve only sampled marijuana three times in my long life.  (Hey, it was the 70’s and thought de rigueur.)   Maybe I don’t have enough experience to talk sensibly about cannabis’s effects, but I can tell you this: After smoking a joint, I wasn’t able to think my way out of the plastic baggie the stuff came in, much less conduct a high-tech raid on a heavily armed enemy or electronically siphon bank accounts.  Marijuana had the effect of dicing time so that each moment seemed to encapsulate me hermetically from the preceding and following moments.  I felt stranded in a perpetual now that didn’t admit of weighing cause and effect or planning next moves.  Not exactly the state of mind conducive to quick or subtle thinking.  This is why I stopped using the stuff.  Who wants to sit around incapable of stringing so much as two sentences together without plunging vertiginously into a bottomless non sequitur?

Perhaps this was Stone’s mental condition while making this feverish film.  That could explain his decision to conclude with alternate endings, one nihilistically romantic, the other capitalistically smug: two moments sealed hermetically from each other, leaving us wafting bemusedly among the clouds.

The executives at Marvel Entertainment were surely not nihilistic when they affixed “Amazing” to their new Spider-Man movie, but neither were they at all romantic.  What they were is looking for trouble.  “Amazing” signals that we can expect this Spider-Man to be an immeasurable advance on the first three films directed by Sam Raimi, which were modestly named just plain Spider-Man with a 2 and a 3 added to indicate the sequels.  Comparisons, we’re told, are odious, but in this case we are all but forced to assess the new film against its predecessors.  The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by the appropriately named Marc Webb, comes up short.  Judged on its own, it’s entertaining enough.  There’s no denying, however, that it lacks Raimi’s ingenuity, wit, and sense of fun.

On Marvel’s orders, Webb has undertaken to reboot the original.  He does so with perfunctory obedience.  He stumbles from the outset and continues to falter right through to the film’s tired conclusion, a full 136 minutes later.  Webb’s Spider-Man, a.k.a. Peter Parker, is played by Andrew Garfield, a capable but rather somber young actor who seems to think he’s playing Shakespeare’s woeful Dane swinging on web filaments over Manhattan’s glass-box architecture.  (Thrift, thrift, Horatio!)  By the way, few scenes in the film seem to have been shot in the Big Apple. 

The original Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire, knew exactly what the role required.  Where Garfield is hangdog, Maguire under Raimi’s direction exhibited an irrepressible wide-eyed verve.  He was perpetually thrilled by the arachnid powers conferred upon his unassuming self by a radioactive spider bite.  Even when he comes upon his beloved Uncle Ben bleeding to death where he was shot by a robber on the real Fifth Avenue alongside the actual great stone lions of the New York Public Library, you never for a moment doubt he’ll be bounding after the villain a few seconds later.  In the not so Amazing version of this scene, Garfield droops with protracted grief as he berates himself for not having the presence of mind to have saved his uncle.

What’s truly amazing about Webb’s film is what he cut from Raimi’s.  In one of the best scenes in the first Spider-Man, we watch Peter Parker come bounding down the cramped staircase of his modest Queens, New York, home.  As he approaches the landing turn, his right hand shoots out to palm the wall ahead of him.  Then using his hand for a pivot, he lifts and turns his body so that he can vault feet-first over the banister.  The wonder of this stunt is that it’s not superhuman at all.  While it must have required a high degree of athleticism, a fit young man of 17—Parker’s age, or 27, Maguire’s at the time—could carry this off without loss of breath.  It’s a fleeting moment in a 121-minute film, but Raimi packs it with suggestion.  When Aunt May expresses concern that Peter might hurt himself performing such high jinks, Uncle Ben reassures his wife.  After all, it’s just youth’s “raging hormones,” he smiles.  That’s just it.  The scene telegraphs the story’s central theme: the transformation of a timorous, inept boy into a daring, capable man, courtesy of those hormones.

You’ll look in vain for this scene in The Amazing Spider-Man, nor will you hear Uncle Ben warn Peter that with “great power comes great responsibility,” the refrain of the first film.  Webb and his writers aren’t interested in such grace notes.  On the evidence of the film’s tired look, I’d say they satisfied themselves with going through the motions, relying on special effects and 3-D to cover their boredom.

The new narrative recycles the premise of the earlier outings: Peter’s transformed self uses his powers responsibly against a good man turned villain, whose own preposterous transformation tempts him to wield his newly acquired power selfishly and destructively.  Raimi was interested in exploring this simple theme; Webb, clearly, was not.  If you’re Warner Brothers, you don’t care.  You’ve already pulled in $527 million (as I’m writing this column) against your $230 million investment.  That’s amazing enough for the bottom-line boys.