Rhys Ifans

(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Back when Sony announced “The Amazing Spider-Man” as a reboot of the franchise after director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire bailed on a potential fourth installment, they might have been a little off. After all, a reboot implies a reinvention, and while “The Amazing Spider-Man” makes a few small tweaks to its hero’s origins, it’s really a remake of “Spider-Man,” a mere 10 years after that film hit theaters.

If you saw the 2002 original, or have any familiarity with Spider-Man’s history, you know most of the story already. The smart yet awkward Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is bitten by a radioactive spider, one that gives him the ability to climb walls and impossibly fast reflexes. He learns the consequences of his powers after his Uncle Ben’s (Martin Sheen) death, and dedicates his life to fighting crime. “The Amazing Spider-Man” mixes in a few new elements, namely Peter’s interest in the circumstances that resulted in his living with his aunt and uncle. This ultimately leads him to Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), whose obsession with growing back a missing arm leads to his becoming the Lizard, a scaly, near-immortal beast.

In their reinvention of the franchise, Sony went with “(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb. This could have been a total disaster, throwing a rookie director into very deep water, but Webb rises to the challenge admirably. His strongest scenes are still the bumbling, sweet moments when Peter and his crush Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) get to flirt with one another. However, Webb also delivers an exciting, satisfying spectacle of a finale, and his use of the film’s Manhattan setting, particularly as Peter is first learning about his powers, is a franchise best. Webb also made some truly inspired casting choices, ranging from Martin Sheen’s warm take on Uncle Ben to Denis Leary, whose role lacks his trademark bite but still manages to play out an interesting, vital character arc.

Garfield was an interesting choice for Peter Parker, cast long before Garfield started amassing Oscar buzz for his performance in “The Social Network,” and he nails the character’s trademark awkward charisma. His take on Spider-Man is much more humorous than Maguire’s, and much more fun to watch. Garfield plays Parker as much smarter than the original films gave him credit for as well, something that comes across in small details like Garfield’s boyish face in his father’s oversized glasses, or in the big ones like the web shooters Parker builds for himself.

Casting Stone was another bold move, especially when they asked her to play Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s love interest from the first three films. However, so early in the story, the characters are more or less interchangeable, and the gracelessly charming way Peter relates to his love interests is more or less the same with both characters.

A major problem with “The Amazing Spider-Man” is, frankly, that there’s no reason it couldn’t just be “Spider-Man 4.” The James Bond films get away with recasting their hero without much confusion, so why can’t superhero films adapt to the same standard? The Raimi films had also spent time setting up Dylan Baker’s Curtis Connors, who Raimi planned to transform into the Lizard this time around, and it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see Baker’s take on the villain. While Ifans is perfectly fine in the role, it seems to demand a subtle creepiness that Baker could have delivered.

More importantly, “The Amazing Spider-Man” spends half its runtime telling the exact same story that “Spider-Man” told just 10 years ago. Audiences may have short memories, but it’s still a waste of time to tell Spider-Man’s origin story if you’re just going to wheel out the exact same narrative with a few cosmetic tweaks to it. “The Amazing Spider-Man” may not be telling a particularly new or original story, but thankfully, Webb still keeps it exciting, coaxes strong performances out of each of his actors, and crafts a familiar but entertaining superhero film that will surely keep you sated until “The Dark Knight Rises” hits later this month.

Rhys Ifans portrays the Earl of Oxford in a scene from “Anonymous.” (Photo courtesy of Sony and Columbia Pictures)

Roland Emmerich has built his career on disaster film epics such as “Independence Day” and “2012,” but his passion project “Anonymous” is a film of an entirely different vein. Positing that William Shakespeare’s (Rafe Spall) works were in fact written by the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), Emmerich’s film has been in development for more than a decade and is the director’s latest since 2009’s “2012.”

The Daily Texan participated in a round table interview with Emmerich when he was in town for a screening.

The Daily Texan: Why did you choose to make a film about the Oxford theory?
Roland Emmerich:
I got a script where Oxford was the candidate. Right now, I’m 100 percent of belief that the man from Stratford [William Shakespeare] didn’t write it. I would say that Oxford is the most likely but also the most interesting candidate of all the candidates. I think it’s appropriate that Oxford is the true author in our version.

DT: How is doing a period piece like this one different from your bigger blockbuster fare?
On one hand, it’s exactly the same. It’s shooting a movie. You have a camera, you have a crew, you have actors. When I’m doing a big movie, I always dread the days when I have to do action scenes or visual effects scenes because they’re actually really boring, and it’s very hard to keep the energy of the actors up and say, “John [Cusack], you have to run faster!” He tries to run faster on this fake walking machine. It’s ridiculous. In this movie, everything was there for me, because the actors were all there.

DT: Did you have time afforded to you that you could spend with actors on set?
It’s English actors. When you look at my other films, I use a lot of English actors. I love how well-prepared they come and how easy they are to direct. You can really have a normal conversation with them. They have no ego and really just want to please you. When you’re good with them and you say the right things to them, they give amazing performances, and I think we have some of the best performances we have seen ever in a film in this film. I think it’s stunningly acted. I don’t know how these guys did it, they can even control the tears in their eyes.

DT: Tell me about casting.
These are high-class English theater actors. You’re quite honored that they want to take a meeting with you. And then some of them are my favorites. David Thewlis has been one of my favorites since “Naked.” He’s a terrific actor. And Vanessa [Redgrave] and Rhys Ifans. A friend of mine shot a movie with him like 10 years ago, and he said he’s probably one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. I started studying him, and when we met, he was so interesting. You kind of pigeonhole directors, but you can also pigeonhole actors. He’s always been pigeonholed since he was in his underwear in “Notting Hill,” and he is the clown. That’s it.

DT: Was it by design that you had Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave [a mother-daughter team who play the adult and elderly versions of Queen Elizabeth] in the film?
When we wrote the final draft, I said, “I know how we do Elizabeth. We cast Vanessa and Joely.” It was an idea I had at that moment, but it totally made sense for me and I never wavered in it. I got very lucky that they both wanted to do it. Joely always kind of stands a little bit under the shadow of her mom, and I think she gives an amazing performance. It was tough for both of them, they’re competing in a weird way to overcome that it’s not competing. It’s showing two sides of a character, and they kind of understood that.

“Anonymous” opens in theaters today.

Printed on Friday, October 28, 2011 as: Director Roland Emmerich returns with 'Anonymous': Emmerich branches out from disaster genre