5/15/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Aisle Seat May Madness!
Plus: MGM Vintage Titles, IRONSIDE and Tex Avery Too

The third go-round for Sam Raimi’s cinematic take on “Spider-Man” isn’t as cohesive a package as its immediate predecessor, and generally isn’t as satisfying as the original movie either.

So what?

After last year’s bland and disappointing “Superman Returns,” SPIDER-MAN 3 arrives as a big, broad comic book fantasy, packed with some good performances, great special effects, and a free-wheeling, entertaining pace that is at least never dull.

Raimi co-wrote the film with his brother, Ivan, bringing in veteran scribe Alvin Sargent to provide the same seasoning he brought to the preceding pictures.

This time out, Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire again) is on a high -- the city has fully embraced its friendly neighborhood webslinger, and Peter’s girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is about to open off-Broadway in a new play.

Of course, things don’t work out as planned after MJ bombs on stage, Peter’s attempts to propose fail in a humorous sequence that enables Raimi stalwart Bruce Campbell to appear in a memorable cameo, and not one but two villains arrive on the scene: The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), a transformed ex-con looking to provide funding for his disabled daughter’s operation, and the extraterrestrial symbiote “Venom,” which attaches itself to Peter and turns the reserved Parker into an unrestrained ladies man.

If it sounds like “Spider-Man 3" is overflowing with story, consider that I haven’t even mentioned the return of Harry Osborne (James Franco), who comes seeking revenge for his father’s death as the “New Goblin” (aka “The Hobgoblin” in the comic books); Peter’s brief flirtation with classmate Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard), which comes into play after MJ breaks up with him; and a new, competing Daily Bugle photographer named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), whom “Evil Peter” exposes as a fraud, leading him to assume the “Venom” form in the film’s frantic climax.

“Spider-Man 3" is jammed with plot, characters, and numerous set-pieces, some of which truly click: once Parker is exposed to “Venom,” the film doesn’t turn dark so much as it provides Raimi and especially Maguire with a chance at engaging in dynamic scenes that break the mold of traditional comic book fare (such as Peter playing the piano at MJ’s club and dancing the night away). These moments come off as truly inspired, patented Raimi sequences that utilize Maguire’s talents in a way that most genre movies would never take a chance on, and it’s to the credit of both that those sequences are some of the most entertaining in the picture.

Also effective is Haden Church’s performance, from his transformation into the Sandman in a gorgeous display of effects wizardry, to his final revelation to Spider-Man about his intentions at the end. Like Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, the Sandman comes off as a somewhat sympathetic bad guy, a man initially trying to act nobly who’s lead astray by circumstances and tragedy.

As executed through Raimi’s direction and Haden Church’s performance, the Sandman represents another reason why I’ve always been a fan of Marvel Comics as opposed to DC -- not everything is pure black-and-white in the Marvel books, with bad guys often having identifiable, relatable aspects that makes them anything but the cookie-cutter “evil” antagonists we often see in genre films.

Alas, not everything in “Spider-Man 3" works. The Venom character, once Brock “merges” with the alien symbiote, is cool looking but doesn’t do very much -- one gets the sense that the villain was shoe-horned into the film by studio execs and not at Raimi’s discretion, since it plays like an afterthought once Peter is able to separate the “black goo” from his own identity. If handled properly, a full film could’ve been made with Spidey taking on Venom, but it’s not developed enough here to really work -- outside of providing Maguire with a chance to open up during those “Dark Spider-Man” sequences, it feels more like an unnecessary, cluttered aspect to the picture.

Even more significantly, Kirsten Dunst’s characterization of Mary Jane Watson continues to regrettably distance itself from the comic book heroine even more in this sequel. Instead of being free-spirited, independent and strong, this MJ is whiny, weak and downright obnoxious, inexplicably breaking up with Peter once Harry applies pressure (doesn’t she think Spider-Man could handle the “New Goblin” in a fair fight?) and providing endless scenes of the two bickering about their future.

It’s all a bit repetitive and never feels believable, even for this kind of film (in fact, during one of the film’s more misguided moments, several audience members started laughing outloud when Peter starts crying over their break-up), and it makes Bryce Dallas Howard’s too-brief appearances as Gwen Stacey seem like a breath of fresh by comparison.

For all of these reasons, “Spider-Man 3" may feel like a comedown after the previous two installments, and to a degree it is. Yet, at the same time, the picture is still satisfying thanks to Maguire’s performance, the wild (if overly chaotic) action, and a story which tries to pack plenty of entertainment into a 140-minute structure. It’s not entirely successful but it’s still good fun, a splendid, Spidey-centric way to kick off the summer movie season. (***, 140 mins., PG-13).

Coming Next Week on DVD

Mel Gibson’s personal life seemed to be reviewed every bit as much as his new film, “Apocalypto,” was analyzed when the controversial picture was released last December. It’s a shame as well, because this rip-roaring adventure film is one of the most exciting, enthralling films of its kind ever produced.

APOCALYPTO (***½, 138 mins., R, 2006; Buena Vista) is not a politically driven film. It doesn’t claim to be a historical document about the last days of the Mayan culture either, but rather an adventure odyssey set during that span. 

It is, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate, R-rated “Tarzan” movie -- a riveting outdoor action film that follows one of the last remaining young men (Rudy Youngblood) from a small village that’s wiped out by invading warriors from a city nearby. With his wife and child hiding in the remnants of their camp back home, “Jaguar Paw” is sent along with his fellow tribesmen to a vast Mayan metropolis to be executed.

Mel Gibson and Farhad Safina’s original script is set during the final days of that civilization, prior to the plague and the arrival of Europeans to the new world, and charts our protagonist’s harrowing efforts to free himself from captivity, escape his pursuers, and save his family at any cost possible.

“Apocalypto” is violent, graphic, and has torture sequences that are undoubtedly not for the squeamish. Some critics enjoyed yucking it up and equating the violence with Mel’s psychological state, but taken on its own terms as a film, the violence is at-times cringe-inducing but necessary to depicting the civilization as a brutal, unrelenting culture, almost doomed to perish from the start.

Vividly photographed by Dean Semler, “Apocalypto” is also a straightforward movie, playing like a hybrid of “The Most Dangerous Game,” “Rambo” and “Tarzan” set during the end of the Mayan civilization. It’s also one of the most memorable and unique film-going experiences you’ll ever see in this day and age -- Gibson completely immerses you in time and place, utilizing authentic Mayan language with English subtitles, though making the dialogue contemporary at times in an effort to make the drama relatable to viewers (as well as being quite funny in certain places). It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking in every regard.

The action is thunderous and unforgettable, with Gibson piling cliffhanger upon cliffhanger as Jaguar Paw vaults, leaps, and bounds from jungle terrain to water falls in an effort to stay alive. It may not be completely believable, but it’s one of the most captivating, visually impressive action-adventure films you’ll ever watch. Those who opted to preach instead of review, and those viewers who opted to bypass the film due to Gibson’s off-camera issues alone, sure missed one hell of a movie.

“Apocalypto” makes its debut on DVD next week from Buena Vista. While I’m eagerly awaiting the Blu Ray edition of the film for review, the regular, standard-edition DVD still looks magnificent in 1.85 (16:9) widescreen. The 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are superior as well, though James Horner’s overly restrained score stays firmly on the sidelines and ranks as one of the most thankless of his entire career.

On the supplemental side, Gibson and Safina provide a commentary track that’s fascinating to listen to. Unlike a lot of films, this is one instance where you’ll actually want to turn on the commentary, find out how the film was made and dissect the sorts of historical research Gibson and his crew did in making the film possible.

One worthless deleted scene (running all of 30 seconds!) with optional commentary is also on-hand, though regrettably it doesn’t provide any insight into the deleted material that was seen in the film’s theatrical trailer (including an elaborate, CGI shot of the Mayan city).

A Making Of featurette rounds out the disc, in addition to English, Spanish and French subtitles.

Highly recommended!

Also New From Buena Vista

KYLE XY: Complete First Season (2006, 437 mins., Buena Vista): Top-rated and well-received ABC Family series arrives on DVD in a three-disc set featuring all 10 first-season episodes with ample bonus content, including the extended season finale, audio commentaries, alternate premiere, and a “Declassified” featurette. The 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 sound are both excellent, and the show (a mix of teen drama and adventure with a possible sci-fi twist) is good fun, following a mysterious teen with no memories who attempts to find out right from wrong (as well as his own identity) after moving in with a social worker and her family.

SCRUBS: Complete Fifth Season (2006, 530 mins., Buena Vista): The series that keeps on going..and going..in spite of mediocre ratings seems as if it’s finally going to be cancelled by NBC (and it’s about time -- even here in Season 5 Zach Braff and the gang seem a little long in the tooth). This fifth season for the long-running comedy series offers 24 episodes in full-screen with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus deleted scenes, commentaries and other extras on par with Buena Vista’s previous DVD sets of the series.

HOME IMPROVEMENT: Complete Sixth Season (1996-97, 561 mins., Buena Vista): Tim Allen and the gang are back in the sixth season of the long-running ABC comedy. By this point “Home Improvement” had certainly begun to show its age, but die-hard fans will still mine some laughs from this three-disc set sporting the sixth season’s 25 episodes with full-screen transfers and extra bloopers on the supplemental side.

VENUS (2006, 95 mins., R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Peter O’Toole’s Oscar-nominated performance as an elderly actor who improbably falls for the very young niece (Jodie Whittaker) of his fellow actor-pal (Leslie Phillips) is the highlight of this effort from writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell. The story is fairly simplistic and the film doesn’t develop it much beyond the realm of its 95 minute running time, but as a showcase for O’Toole “Venus” still fits the bill. Miramax’s DVD includes commentary with Michell and producer Kevin Loader, a standard featurette, and deleted scenes. The 1.85 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both fine.

Also New & Coming Soon On DVD

IRONSIDE: Complete Season 1 (1967, 23 hours, Shout!): Raymond Burr’s irrepressible, wheelchair-bound Chief of Detectives helped solve innumerable crimes in the Bay Area during the late ‘60s and ‘70s, via NBC’s long-running crime drama.

Shout! Factory’s long-awaited box set of “Ironside”’s first season (under license from Universal) includes the series’ initial 28 episodes in good-looking full-screen transfers and mono sound. The box-set’s eight discs are housed in double-disc slimcases with episode descriptions and somewhat minimalist packaging, but fans of the series ought to love the fact that old “Ironside” is available on DVD at long last.

TEX AVERY’S DROOPY: Complete Theatrical Collection (200 mins., Warner): Tex Avery fans will love this two-disc Special Edition that offers all 24 theatrical shorts involving America’s favorite basset hound. Remastered transfers are sure to satisfy every Avery buff, while the final seven Droopy shorts, produced in Cinemascope, are all presented in beautiful 16:9 widescreen. A pair of extras (including a look at Avery’s career and Droopy himself entitled “Droopy and Friends”) compliment an excellent package for Golden Age animation fans, though die-hards will have to check to see how uncensored some of the more un-P.C. shorts fare here for themselves.

THE O.C.: Complete Fourth Season (2006-07, 727 mins., Warner): Few series fell farther and faster than Josh Schwartz’s night-time soaper “The O.C.,” which was launched in the hopes that it would establish itself as another long-running teen series a la “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Sadly, while it worked for a while, the show came crashing down during its fourth (and final) season in the ratings, fizzling out with its lowest numbers earlier this year. Warner’s DVD edition includes the last 16 episodes from the series in 16:9 widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound with commentary from Schwartz on the series finale, several featurettes and unaired scenes.

HELLBOY ANIMATED: Blood & Iron (75 mins., 2007, Anchor Bay): The latest direct-to-video animated feature starring Mike Mignola’s comic book hero offers all the same attributes as the previous “Hellboy” animated effort -- namely, colorful action, voices from Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt and others, as well as the participation of Mignola on the creative end. Anchor Bay’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, commentaries, an “e-comic” and other goodies. Recommended for “Hellboy” fans when “Blood & Iron” is released early next month.

Vintage Titles From MGM

Since MGM signed up with Fox for the distribution of their back catalog on DVD, we’ve seen a steady increase each month in the amount of vintage titles coming from the studio.

At the forefront this May are a handful of Gary Cooper titles, many of which are reaching DVD for the first time.

The 4-disc GARY COOPER: MGM MOVIE LEGENDS COLLECTION offers the previously available “Vera Cruz” with three new-to-DVD titles: “The Cowboy and the Lady” with Merle Oberon; “The Real Glory,” co-starring David Niven; and “The Winning of Barbara Worth.” The latter three are presented in full-screen black-and-white with mono sound, while “Vera Cruz” is presented in 2.00 widescreen and mono sound.

Available separately are four other Cooper titles, each in standard, full-screen black-and-white/mono transfers: the 1944 romantic comedy “Casanova Brown,” co-starring Teresa Wright and Frank Morgan; the 1941 comedy “Ball of Fire” with Barbara Stanwyck; “The Wedding Night,” a 1935 drama with Cooper playing opposite Anna Stein; and Cooper’s infamous portrayal of the great explorer in “The Adventures of Marco Polo,” the so-so 1938 epic co-starring Basil Rathbone and a self-proclaimed “Cast of 5000 People”!       

Also new from MGM this month is another star retrospective, PETER SELLERS: MGM MOVIE LEGENDS COLLECTION, a four-disc set that may be worth a look for casual Sellers fans who have yet to upgrade most of their collections to DVD.

The box offers “Casino Royale,” “The Pink Panther,” “What’s New Pussycat” and “The Party,” all in 16:9 widescreen transfers, packaged in individual slimcases.

Since all four have been previously released on DVD, there’s nothing new here for die-hard Sellers devotees, but if you haven’t purchased any of these on DVD previously, and can find the set on sale, it may be of interest.

NEXT TIME: PIRATES Set Sail in HD! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above

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