The Spandex ballet is back. The Amazing Spider-Man confirms that there are amazing energy resources in that myth-lode called Marvel Comics, and that some resources are recyclable: not least the one involving a young man in a body suit who swings round Manhattan shooting white filaments from his palms. (Hold those Freudian interpretations; we know them already; and yes, teen-erotic-reverie theories are as plausible as any others in identifying Spider-Man’s oneiric DNA.) With new director Marc Webb – hired at the point of a pun? – and wonderful incoming star Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), it is more than bearable to start the whole saga again.
Garfield brings the unlikely strengths of Bambi eyes, nervous energy and a skittering delivery. This Peter Parker is an Adonis in touch with his inner Woody Allen. The new film over-dwells a little on school-age Parker, romancing Emma Stone’s Gwen (the cast’s letdown, a gooey-eyed bimbo who needs quirkiness lessons from predecessor Kirsten Dunst). Yet the school scenes power up the star-protagonist’s special patent – innocence – and give a brio to the flying-through-air sequences. This teenager, yo-yoing through urban canyons in his skin-tight red, is as amazed as we by his new aerial wizardries.
Aptly too, the film’s villain looks as if he has leapt off the back of a cereal packet, albeit a humungous one. “The Lizard” is the mutated form of genetic scientist Dr Curt Connors, played by a Rhys Ifans still bounding up Hollywood’s intellectual ladder after writing Shakespeare’s plays (Anonymous) and tutoring uni student Emily Blunt (The Five-Year Engagement). The digitised Lizard-Ifans, swishing his tail, causes gridlock on the Brooklyn Bridge, scales skyscrapers and has a late, roof-perched moment that recalls – by design or instinct – Rutger Hauer’s “tears in the rain” moment from Blade Runner.
The film remains lightfooted even with heavyweight cameo casting. Martin Sheen and Sally Field (braving what seems a permanent bad hair day) play the hero’s guardian uncle and aunt. We never thought we wanted Spider-Man back so soon. This Spider-Man can stay. And he can bring, as he no doubt will, more friends.
Arrested development in America is the one form of arrest in which no one is read his Miranda rights. In Todd Solondz films you don’t get the right to remain silent. In Dark Horse, all about thirtysomething Abe (Jordan Gelber), who lives with his parents, works for his father and sleeps amid comics in his Junior High-era bedroom, everyone gabbles his heart and mind out. Mum Mia Farrow coos; dad Christopher Walken wags his tongue and toupee; Abe himself pours out his feelings – slowly but densely, like clotted cream – to Miranda (Selma Blair), the manic depressive he has fallen in love with. She needs emergency help. Abe’s neurotic, abrasive, alarm-bell-ringing goodheartedness is something only an emergency would send her to.
Solondz is a master of malfunctioning lives and hearts, though his masterpiece is still Happiness. Dark Horse, slighter, retains a skilled poetry of disorder and warped order. I loved the identical recurring shots of Abe’s bright yellow Hummer pulling up at Miranda’s house, as if straight off a Yellow Brick Turnpike. A fairy tale turned feral is what we get. We get it too from Donna Murphy’s spinsterly work colleague, who in Abe’s head, where most of his life happens, becomes a sex-cat fairy godmother. No Solondz classic; but nasty-nice, beautiful (sort of) and deftly crafted.
The guiltily pleasurable Killer Joe is a kind of scuzzball Double Indemnity. Even the residual warmth of Todd Solondz is absent from these dysfunctional Dallas-dwellers, scripted by Tracy Letts (from his stage play) and directed by William Exorcist Friedkin. Matthew McConaughey, clad in black, plays the titular killer-detective. Trailer-dwelling Ansel (Thomas Haden Church of Sideways) and son Chris (Emile Hirsch) hire him to murder Ansel’s ex-wife for her life insurance, even though the policy’s $50,000 is promised to ditzy daughter Dottie. Dottie – a little arrested (though arrestingly played by Juno Temple) – opens the trailer door half-naked to visitors and clearly leaves her brain on the bathtub each morning. McConaughey wants her as a deal-sweetener – and gets her. So far, so twisted.
It gets more twisted. A non-PC virus is at large in the script. Dottie’s retarded development ticks the dumb blonde box as surely as sultry brunette Sharla, Church’s live-in belle, is played by Gina Gershon with a virtual swishing tail, woman’s “whorish” flipside gone demonic. The whole drama goes demonic by the end. Trailer trash doesn’t just describe the characters. Few will use the word “art” of a movie where a brutalised woman fellates a Kentucky Fried Chicken bone, or where the anecdote of a man setting fire to his genitals is the conversational high point. There is artfulness to it, though, of a kind: louche, lively, a little loony.
In Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister everyone goes to a glorified log cabin to sort out their lives. It worked for Thoreau. Shelton’s self-discovery refuge is on an island off Oregon. Back to woods and water views; back, for emotionally frazzled Jack (Mark Duplass, who played the gay sex experimenter in Shelton’s funny-forlorn Humpday), to some solo stocktaking after his brother Tom’s death. Only snag: Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt), the lesbian half-sister of Iris (Emily Blunt), Tom’s ex-girlfriend, has crashed the notionally empty house. Soon Iris turns up too, though not till Hannah and Jack have had a drunken one-night stand.
That’s enough complication for a Feydeau play, though Feydeau wouldn’t have given us the “mumblecore” dialogue (nor the eye-blowing views of rugged coastlines). Every actor improvises, which means that every thought – and shading of thought – is peeled and cored like an apple in half-light, a process that can drive audiences mad in bad mumblecore films. This is a good mumblecore. The verbal agonisings are funny, skilful, revealing. Emily Blunt, slumming for indie cinema, is startlingly good. So are Duplass and DeWitt, who sound like a cod-European double act and in a way are: two Rohmeresque extemporisers surreally adrift in the Pacific northwest.
Friends with Kids is another rom-com with brains. Why are we being spoiled? Does America think it can slip out these thinking comedies in the silly season without being noticed? Jennifer Westfeldt wrote, directed and stars in a spry, wry ensembler about two best friends – herself and co-star Adam Scott – who decide to have a baby without marriage or sexual chemistry. Just a one-night stand, then separate lives and demarcated parenting stints. Their friends, all married and kid factories, howl with scepticism. They have paid their dues in nuptial and child-rearing hell. Why should others escape?
Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Edward Burns gleefully sort through the subsidiary character roles, as if raiding a costume trunk. Jon Hamm (Westfeldt’s real-life partner) has a lulu of a drunken derision speech – almost O'Neill-worthy – in a ski lodge. Sadly the film then downhill-races to a feelgood, feel-inauthentic ending. But for 90 of 107 minutes it is cracklingly good.