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SPIDER-MAN Swings on the Small Screen

Plus: MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, SANTA CLAUSE in remastered DVDs

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Last May the long, long, long-awaited big-screen SPIDER-MAN movie rolled into theaters and smashed all records here in the USA. When the dust settled after a lengthy summer movie season, Columbia's slick and satisfying comic book flick proved to be the #1 film of 2002, even out-pacing the domestic totals of genre flicks like "Lord of the Rings," "Attack of the Clones," and "Harry Potter."

Why "Spider-Man" has remained an enduring character -- and why so many people found themselves identifying with Peter Parker -- is simple: of all the super-heroes, Spider-Man is arguably the most "human" of them all. Yes, he has super powers, but his real-life problems are ones all young people have: trying to fit in and grow up, earn the respect of one's peers, and become a responsible adult. Spider-Man's sense of humor and Peter Parker's maturation are simply easier to identify with than Superman's hang-ups or Batman's psychological problems. Spider-Man's problems are at least ones most of us can relate to on a daily basis.

Those elements were wonderfully captured by Sam Raimi in his SPIDER-MAN film (***1/2, 121 mins., 2002, PG-13; Columbia TriStar), which is filled with eye-popping, colorful action and appealing characters. It's aided immeasurably by a cast with names that may not be leaping off the marquee, but is easily one of the more perfectly assembled ensembles to ever grace a comic-book flick (with the possible exception of a certain movie starring The Man Of Steel).

Tobey Maguire turns out to be a charming Peter Parker and a believable Spider-Man as well, portraying the smart but nerdy high school senior who inherits his powers from a genetically engineered spider during a class field trip. Whereas Peter's previous problems centered on finishing school and finding a job to impress the girl of his dreams -- the lovely Mary Jane (an appealing Kirsten Dunst) -- his time is now spent attempting to figure out how to control his new powers, including webs that shoot out from his wrists and the ability to crawl up buildings with ease. With great power, however, comes great responsibility -- as he learns from his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) after he's gunned down by a carjacker Peter could have stopped (a storyline ripped right out of the inaugural Spider-Man comic book from the '60s).

Donning his homemade costume, Peter becomes Spider-Man, using his powers to help others at the same time that millionaire industrialist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) receives his own powers after testing out a serum on himself. After his own company is sold, Osborn flips out and acquires another personality -- that of The Green Goblin, who terrorizes New York and all of its innocent inhabitants with the help of a top-secret military device.

As a Spider-Man fan, I appreciated how faithful director Sam Raimi was to the source material here. Eschewing the dark and gloomy approach of "Batman," SPIDER-MAN leaps off the screen with colorful cinematography by Don Burgess and -- what's this? -- action scenes set in the daytime? We haven't seen that since the original SUPERMAN!

The movie looks and feels right, and the performances are terrific. In addition to Maguire, Kirsten Dunst makes for an ideal Mary Jane, while Dafoe serves up the right mix of mirth and menace as the Green Goblin (he's only slightly confined by a static helmet that should have had room for facial movements). James Franco acquits himself nicely in the somewhat underwritten role of Osborn's son (and Peter's friend), who may prove to be quite the menace himself in the sequels. Rosemary Harris fills the role of Aunt May just fine, Robertson is perfect as Uncle Ben, while J.K. Simmons marvelously chews up the scenery in his few scenes as the irascible J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of The Daily Bugle.

David Koepp's script is one of the author's better efforts, but is still hampered by some under-developed characters and not taking enough time to develop certain story elements (particularly Peter's transition to a hero helping the community, and his work at The Daily Bugle). On the plus side, the movie's love story is surprisingly sweet and moving, with Dunst and Maguire exhibiting solid chemistry. The melancholy last exchange between them may not be quite in keeping with the tone of the comic, but there's sure to be time to rectify that in the sequels.

Technically, the effects aren't groundbreaking but are certainly sufficient in their execution. Raimi has always had a perfect eye for the often outrageous comic-book visuals the material requires, and viscerally SPIDER-MAN more than fulfills its end of the bargain. Musically, Danny Elfman's soundtrack is perfectly serviceable, though there's a formulaic, been-there-done-that element to his score that comes off as a little disappointing. The main title sounds like "Darkman" meets "Planet Of The Apes," and it might have been nice to have a melodic theme to grasp onto -- particularly considering the tuneful Spider-themes of yesteryear.

These minor gripes aside, SPIDER-MAN is fresh, fun, and often exhilarating -- a superior example of Hollywood blockbuster moviemaking at its best.

Columbia's new DVD edition -- a double-disc set released in separate Widescreen and Full-frame versions -- predictably offers a colorful array of special features and goodies.

Disc One offers both a sterling transfer of the film (the 1.85 widescreen edition looks smashing) and a bombastic 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Columbia's DVDs typically rank with the best of any major studio and how good SPIDER-MAN looks and sounds shouldn't come as any surprise.

For Special Features, disc one offers a so-so group commentary with Raimi, Dunst, producer Laura Ziskin and co-producer Grant Curtis, along with an effects commentary by John Dykstra. Unfortunately, the principal group commentary is one of those mediocre "let's not ruffle any feathers" talks with few anecdotes and a lot of back-patting too typical of most DVD commentaries. Dykstra's talk is obviously skewered more towards the visual effects, and thus comes most recommended for F/X fans.

The first disc also includes TV spots and one theatrical trailer (though not the teaser that involved Spidey capturing a helicopter inbetween the two World Trade Center towers), plus music videos, a subtitled factoid track (with the usual bits of trivia), and "Web-I- Sodes," short featurettes that can be accessed by an on-screen icon throughout the movie. In this instance, though, the colorful factoids provide more interest than the "Web-I- Sodes," which are often so short that they're not worth the effort.

Disc Two includes HBO and E! specials on the making of the film, containing the usual press junket interviews and typical behind-the-scenes footage. They're not bad but are fairly generic, comprised of redundant "Making Of" material and talking head interviews. Short screen tests for Maguire, J. K. Simmons, and an early CGI version of Spidey are included, along with a four-minute gag/outtake reel including Dafoe amusingly losing control a few times.

There's also a very good, half-hour documentary on the comic book, "Spider-Man: The Mythology of the 21st Century," featuring interviews with Stan Lee, Todd MacFarlane, John Romita, and John Byrne, in addition to a still-frame gallery of Spidey comics that goes decade-by-decade through the webslinger's history (other galleries are provided for Peter Parker's love interests and Spider-Man's villains, along with conceptual art and production design galleries for the film itself).

Of particular interest for FSM readers is the six-minute interview with Danny Elfman, which includes recording session footage and the composer discussing the evolution of his score. It's brief but well-done, as is a similar profile of director Sam Raimi.

On the PC side, while most DVD-ROM content tends to be superfluous, Columbia did an exceptional job delivering truly worthy content here, including a "create your own commentary," two entire levels from Activision/Treyarch's video game, interactive comics, and more.

Overall, this SPIDER-MAN Special Edition should prove to be a holiday treat for comic book addicts of all ages, featuring more than enough supplementary material to keep viewers reliving the webslinger's adventures until the sequel arrives in 2004.


New & Noteworthy

THE SANTA CLAUSE (***, 97 minutes, 1994, PG; Disney): There were a handful of Yuletide comedies released in the mid '90s, including the forgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger effort "Jingle All The Way" and the especially lamentable "Trapped In Paradise" starring Nicolas Cage.

Neither would have been made had it not been for the massively successful 1994 Tim Allen romp, THE SANTA CLAUSE, which put a modern spin on the traditional holiday comedy formula and met with widespread commercial and critical success.

The affable Allen, in one of his first big-screen roles, plays an obnoxious single dad whose wife (Wendy Crewson) is re-married to a doofus (Judge Reinhold), and who hears the pitter-patter of Santa up on his roof. Complications ensue that cause Mr. Claus to lose his footing, tumble off the roof and die -- making Allen the heir apparent to the throne of the holiday king, a transformation that turns Allen into Claus himself.

The Leo Benvenuti-Steve Rudnick script is filled with laughs and a heartwarming story that really pays off in a moving ending. John Pasquin paces the film extremely well, knowing when to accent the mirth and merriment, and when to dial it down and let the emotion take over.

Complimenting the whole package is a wonderful score by Michael Convertino that's still one of my favorite Christmas movie soundtracks. Convertino's delicate, melodic string writing -- conducted and arranged by several of John Williams' associates -- is at its best here, managing to be uplifting without becoming overtly sentimental.

Disney has re-issued THE SANTA CLAUSE on DVD in a new Special Edition package to coincide with last weekend's release of the inevitable (and long-in-coming) "Santa Clause 2."

While I had not seen the earlier DVD (which is now out-of-print), the new DVD's primary addition is a colorful and satisfying new 1.85, THX transfer with crisp 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. The movie looks and sounds great, which compensates for a lack of involving special features. The extras that ARE here include a 15-minute program with Wolfgang Puck creating seasonal snacks, a trivia game, co-star David Krumholtz introducing the film, and DVD-ROM content including a Countdown-to-Christmas screensaver.

Also included is a free ticket voucher for "The Santa Clause 2," which can be redeemed at most theaters nationwide for either a child or adult admission (up to $7.00).

Overall, THE SANTA CLAUSE remains a charming holiday film for the whole family, and Disney's new DVD offers the best presentation yet of the film on video. Recommended (ho ho ho!).


MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (***, 1961, 101 mins.; Columbia TriStar): The Ray Harryhausen Collection from Columbia sees its final release on DVD: the entertaining, colorful 1961 fantasy adaptation of Jules Verne's novel.

Michael Craig leads a group of Union soldiers in an escape from a Confederate prison during the Civil War. The men escape in a hot air balloon, only to crash on a strange island filled with some classic Harryhausen creations, including giant insects, a huge crab, and an overgrown chicken! Things really get cooking once Herbert Lom shows up as Captain Nemo and attempts to explain the insanity.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND looks great on DVD and features an atmospheric, rousing score by Bernard Herrmann that -- along with Harryhausen's effects -- go a long way to compensate for the tedious, formulaic script penned by John Pebble, Daniel Ullman, and Wilbur Crane. Like a lot of Harryhausen films, the story -- with its bland characterizations and flat dialogue -- is the weakest element of the package, and there are times when the action really starts to drag in "Mysterious Island." Fortunately, the film's good-looking cinematography (by Wilkie Cooper) and the fact that Columbia's DVD nicely preserves the original 1.85 aspect ratio make sitting through the film much less of a chore than the cramped versions we see on TV.

In addition to the solid transfer, we also have a collection of supplements including "The Making of 'Mysterious Island'" featurette, the same "Harryhausen Chronicles" segment that's been included on every other Harryhausen DVD from Columbia, the trailer, and that staple "This is Dynamation." Overall, it's a must for Harryhausen fans. Now, if Warner would tend to "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" and "Valley of Gwangi" among others, we'd be all set!


SORORITY BOYS (**1/2, 94 mins., 2002, R; Touchstone): The run of college sex comedies in the wake of "American Pie" may be coming to a merciful end after would-be epics like "National Lampoon's Van Wilder," "Tomcats," and SORORITY BOYS bombed at the box-office. While I don't doubt that few of us will be missing the latest "Pie" cash-in, SORORITY BOYS does -- to its credit -- boast a few amusing moments.

"Seventh Heaven" alum Barry Watson, Michael Rosenbaum (better known as Lex Luthor from "Smallville") and comic Harland Williams play a group of fraternity boys who end up having to dress as women and pledge to the hapless, all-femme frat on their campus. The predictable gender-bending gags ensue, though the Joe Jarvis-Greg Coolidge script brings back several original "Animal House" cast members (including Stephen Furst and John Vernon) and boasts several choice moments provided by Williams as the resident seven-year senior. Watson and Rosenbaum look like they're having fun, and several music montages help spice things up (Mark Mothersbaugh's original score is amusing as well).

Touchstone's DVD offers a strong 1.85 transfer and decent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, though this isn't the kind of film you'll be watching to give your home theater a work-out. For special features, a "Boys Will Be Girls" featurette is included (of the strictly promotional variety), along with "All The Angles," an segment detailing multi- filmmaker points of view.

SORORITY BOYS isn't any kind of classic (not even of the "Porky's"/"American Pie" variety), but it IS amiable and engaging, and includes enough laughs to sustain its 94-minute running time.


Mail Bag

From A.L. Hearn:

Thank you for your review of STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. While I enjoyed your review, as always, and agree with most of your perceptive comments, I really must take issue with your characterization of STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME as the third in a trilogy of STAR TREK features.

Apart from the fact that the now-Enterprise-less Enterprise crew continues to tool around the galaxy in the late Capt. Kruge's Klingon Bird-of-Prey, there really is no continuation of the storyline that spans STAR TREKs II & III; moreover, while IV is full of amusing fish- (or whale)-out-of-water time-travel situations and gags, the film's goofy storyline (somebody must've been ingesting a controlled substance when he came up with it) and poorly thought-out plot (with its enormous gaps in -- dare I use the word? -- logic) is hardly a worthy successor to the films that preceded and followed it (ST V notwithstanding). In fact, IV deviates markedly in tone from the other films in the series, and gives the impression that Spock's resurrection is a good excuse to go out and paint the town of San Francisco red with this rollicking, jokey pseudo-adventure. ST IV is fun, I'll grant you that, and that accounts, more than anything else, for its box-office success, but fun is not interchangeable with good -- which it isn't.

I propose that, leaping over its two immediate predecessors, STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (the subtitle Nick Meyer originally wanted for ST II) is the true completion of any trilogy begun with THE WRATH OF KHAN; though it doesn't continue the ST II-III storyline any more directly than does ST IV, it does return to a more somber, straight-adventure tone, and serves to expand on -- and resolve, to some degree -- the Federation-Klingon antagonism that's the driving force behind ST III.


NEXT WEEK: More TV on DVD with "Felicity," "Sports Night," and more! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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