Aisle Seat SPIDER-MAN 2 Edition

Andy's Full Review of the New Sequel
Plus: Azkaban Mail Bag, July DVD Calendar, and More!
By Andy Dursin

Whether it's the fully-developed characters, more laid back tone, the added dashes of humor and warmth, or the sheer fact that SPIDER-MAN 2 has a genuine story to compliment its dazzling action scenes, the bottom line is that the new sequel is a sensational follow-up that's not only superior to its predecessor but also one of the great genre entertainments in memory.

Not that the original "Spider-Man" isn't a terrific example of comic-book filmmaking, but Sam Raimi's sequel (****), opening nationwide today, is even more satisfying. Thanks to a terrific screenplay by two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent that goes beyond the "origin story" confines of the original, "Spider-Man 2" is one of the rare sequels that improves upon its predecessor, perfectly capturing the essence of both the comic book's wild action and the very human story of Peter Parker at its core.

Here, Peter (Tobey Maguire) is trying to make it on his own, working as a pizza delivery boy at the same time he's taking university classes from the likes of Doc Connors (Dylan Walsh). Peter is still smitten with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), yet his other life as Spider-Man gives him little time to pursue romantic aspirations. While Peter debates the pros and cons of living as a super-hero, Doctor Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) tries, and fails, in a demonstration of a new form of fusion energy he's uncovered. The latter is backed by Harry Osborn (James Franco), still brooding over the loss of his "Green Goblin" pop and wanting to seek revenge on Spider-Man.

Doc Ock's failure results in a near-cataclysmic explosion that kills his wife (Donna Murphy) and causes the permanent grafting of mechanical limbs whose artificial intelligence ultimately controls Octavius -- resulting in a new super villain running amok in the Big Apple.

There's a fantastic set-piece late in the film involving Spidey, Doc Ock, and a runaway train, but the most satisfying aspects of "Spider-Man 2" are found in the further development of Peter Parker's character. Unlike other super-hero films where the protagonists exist only on one level and never evolve through subsequent adventures, "Spider-Man 2" takes its characters and shows them living, changing, and acting like real people. You can identify with Peter Parker because he has a harder time being human than slinging webs in the air, and Tobey Maguire's natural, heartfelt performance captures the duality of the character and his attempts to do the right thing perfectly.

Maguire is once again terrific, and Sargent's script gives the actor more to do here than the comparatively frenetic pace of the early film afforded. The chemistry between Maguire and Dunst also results in one of the most effective love stories ever seen in a film of this sort, and again, the added attention paid to their relationship gives "Spider- Man 2" more complexity and depth than the original film had.

The rest of the cast is every bit as good. Rosemary Harris once again shines as Aunt May, and even participates in Spidey and Doc Ock's first battle. J.K. Simmons is again hilarious as J. Jonah Jameson, given more lines and laughs than he had in the original. Even though Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin is a more outlandish and flamboyant bad guy, Molina's Doc Ock manages to effectively straddle the fence between sympathy and horror. It'd be easy to play the role for laughs, yet Molina finds the right tone for the part and never succumbs to the over-the-top campiness that plagued every starring villain in the "Batman" pictures.

Not only are the characters and story better fleshed out, but the entire tone of "Spider- Man 2" feels right. There are a lot more laughs to be found here, more instances of humor lurking around the edges, yet none are done at the expense of cheapening the story or poking fun at the subject matter. That's undoubtedly due to the more assured direction of Sam Raimi, who seems more confident behind the lens. "Spider-Man 2" has plenty of great effects and colorful battles (this time in full widescreen), yet this film feels a lot more cohesive in every facet than the original. Raimi doesn't feel the need to throw in a handful of montage scenes here because the story has already been established; instead, there are scenes which develop the characters, dialogue which feels less artificial and more "real," and not one wrong note struck in the entire show.

Even Danny Elfman's music score is more organic and less by-the-numbers than his earlier work. Whether it's because Elfman was more inspired by this story or because John Debney (and others) came in to write new music at the eleventh hour, the score is far more effective and satisfying than its predecessor as well.

If it sounds like I'm overflowing with praise for "Spider-Man 2," well, it's because I am. Though I'd heard positive word-of-mouth about this highly anticipated sequel, the finished film nevertheless surprised me with its superb script and was better than I ever anticipated it being. This is a exhilarating, human, and altogether captivating movie that ranks right up there with the first two "Superman" films as the best cinematic comic book ever made -- a full-blown, web-slinging achievement for all involved. 'Nuff said! (PG-13)

July DVD Release Calendar

July 6
Big Top Pee-Wee
The Butterfly Effect
Charlie Chan "Chanthology"
The Name of the Rose
Red Sonja
SuperFriends: Vol. 1

July 13
The Assassination Bureau
The Bourne Identity: Extended Version
The Fifth Musketeer
The Manchurian Candidate (New Special Edition)

July 20
The Big Bounce
Confessions of a Teen Drama Queen
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
Highlander 2: The Quickening (New Special Edition)
La Femme Musketeer (TV Movie)
Millennium: Season One
Predator (New Special Edition)
Starsky and Hutch (2004)

July 27
Garfield and Friends Vol. 1
Pennies From Heaven (1981)
Showgirls (New Special Edition)
Sledge Hammer: Season One
Thunderbird 6
Thunderbirds Are Go
V: The Series

New On DVD

Aaah, the college admissions process. Now there's something I don't think anyone in their right mind would want to relive (unless you happen to be a total, utter masochist!), though a pair of movies freshly released on DVD each give their own, unique perspective on acing the SAT and being admitted into the higher education destination of your choice.

A box-office disappointment this past winter, THE PERFECT SCORE (**, 92 mins., 2004, PG-13; Paramount) is an amiable albeit forgettable teen comedy from "Varsity Blues" helmer (and one-time "Head of the Class" star) Brian Robbins.

An assorted group of high schoolers, thinking they have no chance of getting into their "first choice" universities, decide the only way they can find success on the SAT is to break into the ETS center where the exam is drawn up and steal it. Good idea, but somehow it's a lot more complicated than it sounds (surprise, surprise). Brainy Erika Christensen and outsider Scarlett Johansson are two of the gang who conspire to cheat their way into the likes of Brown, and the standard-issue teen movie shenanigans follow once the group attempts to carry their plan out.

The cast is appealing and Robbins keeps the movie moving ahead at a brisk pace, yet the Mark Schwahn-Marc Hyman-Jon Zack script is never as amusing or incisive as it could have been. Christensen's part is thinly drawn, and while Johansson has enough scenes to make an impression, the rest of the roles feel more like stereotypes than fully fleshed-out characters.

That said, "The Perfect Score" is an entertaining, mildly amusing comedy that's easily forgotten when all is said and done. Paramount's DVD sports commentary from Brian Robbins and writer Mark Schwahn, plus a requisite "Making Of" and the original trailer. The 1.85 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 sound heavy on the bass, featuring a quirky and effective John Murphy score.

A more entertaining -- if romantic and improbable -- film in a similar vein is Savage Steve Holland's HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE (**1/2, 85 mins., 1989, PG-13; Fox).

This unofficial conclusion in Holland's loose trilogy about high school ("Better Off Dead"), the period after graduation ("One Crazy Summer"), and what happens thereafter ("How I Got Into College"), this silly but intermittently amusing comedy focuses on a nerdy student who attempts to follow the girl of his dreams to college. It's a noble and lovely idea, but when you don't have the grades to get into an Ivy League-caliber school, sometimes romantic sentiments can't overcome those obstacles.

Holland's film suffers primarily from having likeable-but-bland Corey Parker in the leading role that John Cusack so ably filled in this picture's predecessors. Parker's perfectly OK, but one wonders what might have been if it was Cusack here playing off female lead Lara Flynn Boyle.

Despite that disappointment, "How I Got Into College" has its share of laughs and a few inspired gags. Anthony Edwards also appears as a college counselor who falls for co- worker Finn Carter (one-time star of "Tremors"), while Joseph Vitarelli contributes a solid, '80s-esque musical score.

Fox's DVD offers 1.85 and full-screen transfers plus a 2.0 Dolby Surround track and no extras.

In spite of its unlikely premise, "How I Got Into College" is a good-natured and amusing late '80s comedy that sadly signaled the end of Savage Steve's big-screen output. While Holland would later find success as one of the directors who helped define the offbeat sensibilities of Disney's "Lizzie McGuire," his career in theatrical features was unfortunately short-lived.

Also New On DVD

HERE COMES GARFIELD (***, 1982-91, Fox): I haven't yet seen Fox's big-screen adaptation of "Garfield," but the movie has become a hit at the box-office despite receiving mixed-to-negative reviews. That's good news for Garfield fans, since Fox has lined up several DVD releases of the comic star's vintage CBS specials and series, which have been out of circulation for years and are rarely seen on television.

This first DVD compiles three of Garfield's network TV specials: the entertaining (though somewhat sentimental) 1982 effort "Here Comes Garfield," its 1983 follow-up "Garfield on the Town," and a later entry, "Garfield Gets a Life," from 1991. All three, produced by "Peanuts" veteran Lee Mendelson and directed by Phil Roman, offer plenty of laughs in adapting Jim Davis's popular comic strip, with the lazy feline expertly voiced by the late Lorenzo Music and scored with vocals provided by Lou Rawls among others.

Fox's DVD looks great in full-screen and the audio is so clear you can hear the discrepancy in the elements of the sound mix (Music's vocals sound like they were recorded in a tin can in "Here Comes Garfield").

No special features are provided, and there are plenty of other Garfield specials that could have been included to fill up the disc. Thankfully, more is coming: the first volume of the Saturday morning series "Garfield and Friends" is due out at the end of July, and the film's successful theatrical showing will undoubtedly result in subsequent Garfield DVDs to come (a holiday compilation DVD is planned for this fall).

THE BOURNE IDENTITY (***1/2, 2002). 119 mins., PG-13, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted scenes, including alternate opening/ending; new interviews; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Re-issue of the popular 2002 hit adds a few new supplements into the mix. Among the new DVD additions are the film's alternate opening and ending sequence (a portion of the latter was included on the original DVD release), which were shot late in the game and ultimately discarded by the filmmakers.

New interviews with writer Tony Gilroy, a retrospective on author Robert Ludlum (with comments from his actor-friend James Karen), and featurettes intended to hype up the upcoming "Bourne Supremacy" sequel are also included, along with deleted scenes from the previous DVD release.

As with that earlier disc, Universal's 2.35 Widescreen transfer is excellent, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

SPIDER-MAN VS. DOC OCK (79 mins., Buena Vista): The latest DVD compilation of the Fox Kids '90s Spidey cartoon features three episodes centering on Peter Parker's initial confrontation with Dr. Octopus. Released to coincide with the debut of "Spider- Man 2," the DVD also sports Stan Lee's Soapbox (comments from Stan the Man himself), episode introductions by Lee, and one classic episode from the '67 series also featuring Doc Ock. Speaking of the latter, Spidey fans may want to check out the DVD box set, "Spider-Man: The Complete '67 Collection," which also streets this week.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT (***, 162 mins., 1996, R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Anthony Minghella's Oscar winner receives the two-disc Special Edition treatment in this latest "Miramax Collector's Series" DVD. Minghella participates in a Deleted Scenes "Master Class," a pair of commentary tracks, interviews with the filmmakers, a Making Of, featurette on Michael Ondaatje's novel, profile of producer Saul Zaentz, and a piece on the story's historical background. The 1.85 transfer is excellent, and the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks likewise superlative.

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

No surprise this week, as several Aisle Seat readers weigh in and throw me under the bus for my mixed review of HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. To set the record straight: would I take John Williams's "Azkaban" score over virtually anything else I've heard this year? Of course. Still, that doesn't change the fact that I found his work to be a disappointment considering his previous two Potter scores. For real Williams magic, check out his score from Steven Spielberg's THE TERMINAL: jazzy, romantic, and an ideal soundtrack album (which I'll review in the next Aisle Seat).

From Hartwig Hanser:

Although I disagree with your rather negative view on HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN and its director, I leave you to your opinion. I can understand, how somebody else may feel different about the general tone of the film and Cuaron's approach. I liked it better than the first two.

But I cannot accept your verdict on Williams marvelous score, easily his best for several years. Not memorable? Difficult to listen? Have you listened to Aunt Marge Waltz? Buckbeak's flight? Double trouble? Whomping Willow and Snowball fight? Quidditch Third year? And, and and... Pure genius, that's all I can say. OK, the old themes are sparingly used, but they where used so much in the first 2 movies, that I agree with Williams choice. It is like the Indiana Jones theme getting less used in the 3rd movie, or even more so in Attack of the Clones, where the Star wars main theme is not used at all AFAIK. I mean, you can stand to listen even to those catchy tunes only so many times, right?

So, perhaps you give this brilliant score a second chance. It deserves it.

From Saul Pincus:
I actually felt like this was the first Williams score that didn't feel overly "grafted" onto a Harry Potter film (as Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, to a lesser degree, did.) The composer seemed to me completely immersed in this film emotionally, and that made things like Williams' trademark use of brass (for example) quite effective when he (and/or Cuaron) employed it. It's well known Cuaron did not initially respond well to being told Williams was part of the package, and perhaps it's that little fire under our revered composer's butt that has brought out what I consider something more defined, appropriate and yes, quite magical in his score.
From Steve Lehti:
Hi Andy --
Just have to drop a note on your HARRY POTTER/AZKABAN review. I'm firmly with those who say this is the *first* good Harry Potter film. Columbus' two tries, despite their enviable production values and FX, were woefully uncinematic. Columbus seemed fatally terrified to leave anything out that was in the books -- lest he offend the fans -- creating virtual scene by scene re-enactments that, while painfully faithful to the books, did not work as *film.* Talk about deadly dull pacing! Cuaron's film, while ungainly in length as the other two were, does manage to tell a story in creative, cinematic terms, and I found the melancholy subtext that permeated the film quite effective, giving the story more depth than it otherwise would have had.
From Ron Pulliam:
What have you done with the REAL Andy Dursin...and when will he be back??? You've struck out on your review of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

The REAL Andy Dursin would point this out to you. It's a wonderful film with John William's BEST "Potter" score yet.

It avoids all the cutesies that kept the first two films from being true classics in the genre -- what I call obeisances to the kindergartener set -- are thankfully missing from this third film. There was far too much cutesy stuff in the first two films, such as assessing penalties to the trio for violating school rules and then giving the back double the number of points taken away from having "saved the day." Such rubbish as that may work on one page in the books, but it weighs down the first two films, IMO.

Oh, well.....

We all change. One day you will see this movie through 55-year-old eyes and say to yourself, "What the hell was I thinking?"

Thanks Ron, but I couldn't disagree with you more about the movie or the score. And the freeze frame which ended the movie? I thought I was watching an episode of "CHIPS" for a second!

NEXT TIME: More summer movies, Vintage DVD Rundown, Andy's Summer Soundtrack Round-Up, and more. Have a happy Fourth of July (for those in the U.S.) and we'll catch you then!


Get Firefox!