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
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
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
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!