The Amazing Spider-Man (12A) *** Killer Joe (18) ***

 

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The Independent Culture

The publicity material for The Amazing Spider-Man promises "an untold story that tells a different side of the Peter Parker story". Let's overlook that unlovely repetition of "story" and just ask one question: does Columbia Pictures believe we don't have a memory?

This "untold" story was actually told 10 years ago in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man when Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire, got bitten by a mutant spider and found himself transformed into a superhero who swung through the canyons of Manhattan like some masked Tarzan. Come on, you remember it too: Kirsten Dunst as the next-door amour Mary Jane, their upside-down kiss (eew), Willem Dafoe cackling away as the Green Goblin, James Franco as Peter's conflicted best friend Harry....

So has the 2012 version improved on Raimi's film? Not really. Director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) has tweaked a few plot details here and there, allowed us a quick flashback to the orphaned Peter's parents and changed his lady friend to fellow student Gwen (Emma Stone). And the mad scientist is now Rhys Ifans, whose specialist area, herpetology ("reptiles, if you don't know") will make for a cross-species mutation less comely than the lithe, wand-thin Spider-Man.

It's in the title role that the film makes its most interesting choice. Instead of Maguire's sleepy-eyed charm, Andrew Garfield gives us a nervy mumbler whose loneliness you can read in his eyes. Peter's initial perception of his arachnid powers involves an assault on the subway by a gang, and the best thing about it is that he looks as surprised as everyone else by what he does – first leaping to the ceiling (his new agility), accidentally ripping a woman's dress off (his sticky hands), then tossing a thug the length of the carriage (his superhuman strength). And he does all this while frantically apologising. You can tell he's a Brit underneath.

There's also fun to be had in the way Garfield puts his crimefighter look together. This time it's not just about customising his own Spidey suit and patiently stitching that alarming red gimp mask; those suggestive skeins of webbing-goo Maguire fired by hand are now the product of mechanical wristbands. (A colleague who knows these things confirms this is faithful to the original Marvel character.)

That said, there seems less of a psychological conflict in Peter's bifurcated identity. When he's building to the moment he fesses up to Gwen, there's a nice note of confusion. "I've been bitten," he begins. "So have I," she coos in return, hearing a metaphor where none was intended. In the event he yields up his secret pretty quickly, delayed gratification not being a strong suit in Hollywood blockbusters. Garfield and Stone are sweet together, but once Ifans turns reptilian and the CGI starts to bully the screen you feel this film has already shot its bolt. "With great power comes great responsibility" is how Peter's Uncle Ben warned him of trials to come. The studio sees it differently: with great power comes the chance to relaunch a superhero franchise, audience memory go hang.

Forty years ago William Friedkin made one of the greatest maniac-cop movies of all in The French Connection. His latest, Killer Joe, also features a badass lawman and if Matthew McConaughey is no serious match for Gene Hackman it still serves up a vinegary Southern-fried Gothic. You can tell it's not going to take any prisoners from the opening scene. Texan lowlife Chris (Emile Hirsch) bangs on the door of the family trailer one rain-lashed night, to be answered by a woman naked from the waist down. It's his stepmom, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Chris is in debt to a local druglord and needs money fast. His solution is to have his mother bumped off and thus finagle the $50,000 insurance money that's supposed to go to his dreamy young sister Dottie (Juno Temple). He knows the man for the job, too –enter Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a saturnine police detective who also happens to be a killer for hire.

Adapted from his own play by Tracy Letts, the film twists itself into fine knots of sump-black comedy. Chris can't raise the $25,000 fee Joe demands, so instead he offers him Dottie as a "retainer". It shouldn't shock us: a man who can plot to kill his own mother might just as easily pimp his sister. It shouldn't, but it does. Chris's dim-bulb dad (Thomas Haden Church) takes an indulgent view of the transaction: "Might do her some good."

The milder shock of Killer Joe is McConaughey in the title role. Having debauched himself as the smug shirtless git of many a dire romantic comedy, this actor looked all washed up. Yet here, without changing very much, he looks fully in command, keeping his head still and his voice soft. His big scene, in which he forces his victim to fellate a fried chicken leg, is surely destined to figure in any 50-best list of sicko cult classics. I wonder how those critics who chowed down the complimentary KFC before the screening now feel about it.

The other star of the show is Temple, who as the cracked belle Dottie manages to appear at once innocent and enticingly lewd. For most of the time you can't tell what she thinks of the family that has loaned her out to a stranger, or what she makes of the stranger himself. But those watchful eyes of hers miss nothing, and forget nothing, including the moment in childhood her own mother tried to kill her. All things considered, Dottie's done well to get this far. If young Juno doesn't get to play Blanche DuBois at least once in her career then some theatre producer will have failed her badly.

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