(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012). Perhaps it's best to think of Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man and Marc Webb's 2012 The Amazing Spider-Man as the cinematic equivalents of Coke Classic and New Coke. Despite some alterations to the source material (hey, where's Gwen Stacy?), the Raimi take earned the trust of most purists, offering a near-perfect Peter Parker in Tobey Maguire, treating the origin story in appropriate fashion (right down to the introduction of Spidey in that wrestling ring), and adding the right dash of humor that was long present in the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Webb's version, on the other hand, is an unnecessary variation on the real thing, sweetening the formula to go down easier for today's sugar-rush audiences. Suddenly, Peter Parker is no longer the ultimate outsider, the self-deprecating, geeky kid who locates the hero buried deep within himself. Now, he's the poster boy for the iPhone generation, a surly hipster who, oh yeah, just happens to also be a superhero. The film's problems begin with the casting of Andrew Garfield as our teen hero. It was easy to believe that Maguire would be a high-school whipping boy, but Garfield? The actor tries his hardest, but when it looks as if Peter Parker just stepped out of a GQ photo shoot (right down to the perfectly coifed hair), it's hard to take him seriously as someone who's perpetually ignored by girls and harassed by guys. (Far more believable is Emma Stone as Peter's lady love Gwen Stacy.) Visually, the picture strikes all the right notes (even if Spidey's swings are a bit too neatly choreographed), although the same can't be said for a script that went through at least two revisions before reaching the screen. What's most surprising — and frustrating — about the film is that there's little human dimension to it. Raimi took time out to examine the everyday lives of Maguire's Peter and Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, but Garfield's Peter and Gwen are given little time for such introspection, with the script busily racing from one crisis or conspiracy to the next. What's more, Webb's movie is on the whole rather humorless: Aside from the hilarious Stan Lee cameo, there are few throwaway gags. All of this isn't to say that this reboot should completely get the boot. On the contrary, The Amazing Spider-Man is acceptable entertainment, filled with the types of colorful characters, frenetic action sequences and high-flying special effects we've come to expect from our superhero outings. But it's clearly no match for Raimi's Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2 (it slightly bests Spider-Man 3, however), and this past summer alone, the trendy swinger got pummeled both critically and commercially by the costumed stars of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Webb and producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach; making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; a production art gallery; and rehearsal footage of the stunt scenes.
ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011). Folks who worship at the altar of Aardman Animations as much as they do at the temple of Pixar (raising my hand here) will quickly realize — say, 20 minutes into the movie — that Arthur Christmas won't come close to matching the giddy heights of the British studio's Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit films. Its characters are more commonplace, its plotline is more conventional, its sentiments are more predictable. What this means, though, is that instead of blazing its own path, the film instead manages to beat the other studios' efforts at their own game, effortlessly rising above such 'toon disappointments as Gnomeo & Juliet, Puss in Boots and numerous others of recent vintage. Most of the major laughs come toward the beginning of this clever contraption in which the present Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent) might finally be ready to retire, set to pass along the reindeer reins to his technically savvy son Steve (Hugh Laurie). The doddering Santa doesn't even consider his other son Arthur (James McAvoy) for the position, since the gangly youth is obviously too clumsy and awkward for such a responsibility. Yet when a wayward present means that a little girl in Cornwall won't be receiving a gift this year, it's Arthur, not his dad or sibling, who does everything in his power to insure that she receives the present. The idea of a Santa with a non-American accent will probably irk the same stateside folks who bristle at the thought of a non-Caucasian Jesus — doubtless part of the reason this only grossed $46 million in the U.S. while clearing $100 million internationally. But the mostly British cast has been carefully selected, with an unusually animated (in both senses of the word) Bill Nighy especially enjoying himself as the long-retired Grandsanta. There are sharp sight gags galore — I especially like the handheld device that gauges a child's naughty-or-nice ratio and fills the stocking accordingly — and while this all leads to a predestined ending, at least said conclusion goes down as smoothly as marshmallow-endowed hot chocolate on Christmas Eve.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; five progressions reels showing how the filmmakers created characters and scenes; and an "Elf Recruitment Video."
THE CAMPAIGN (2012). Set entirely in North Carolina but filmed entirely in Louisiana — because, Heaven knows, NC has no film industry to call its own, and we certainly don't need those Hollywood dollars — The Campaign casts Will Ferrell as Democratic congressman Cam Brady, a four-term incumbent who expects to waltz unopposed to a fifth term. But an adulterous fling has left him vulnerable, leading the powerful kingmakers the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to back a challenger who could potentially win the district and thereby allow them to build a Chinese sweat shop on U.S. soil. They choose Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a naive and mincing nobody who's described by even his own dad (Brian Cox) as "one sorry fuck." The Republican Marty hopes to win so he can genuinely serve his constituents (yes, the movie is pure fiction), but it's an uphill battle considering Cam's experience on the campaign trail. As the dapper yet duplicitous Cam Brady (modeled after John Edwards?), Ferrell is allowed one or two of his patented freak-out scenes but for the most part keeps his over-the-top shtick in check. Yet the real surprise is Galifianakis. An actor who has aggravated me to no end in all of his screen ventures to date (particularly Due Date and, dare I say it?, The Hangover and its sequel), he adopts the right delivery tone for the sweet, soft-spoken and simple Marty Huggins. Despite its reluctance to swim in the dark-comedy waters explored by Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts or Warren Beatty's excellent Bulworth, The Campaign still manages to hit some topical targets. When Cam's decades-old elementary-school project, a picture book about a make-believe place called Rainbowland, is hilariously used by Marty as a way to discredit the congressman ("Sounds Commie to me!" charges Marty), an audience member at the debate starts screaming at Cam, "I won't live in Rainbowland and you can't make me!" — a nonsensical stance frighteningly similar to those seen by Tea Party chowderheads at their infamous rallies. And the burning desire by politicians to be photographed kissing a baby leads to an uproarious bit. Admittedly, it's ruined for those who have seen the film's trailer, but no worries: Another scene features a popular four-legged star, and it's even funnier.
The Blu-ray contains both the theatrical version and an extended cut that runs 11 minutes longer. Extras include deleted scenes and a gag reel.
THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986) / THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992). Although it's still too early for retail stores to break out the Christmas signs, sales and merchandise (that's not to say they aren't champing at the bit, though), it's never too early for consumers to start thinking about what to get the smaller members of their family unit. Here are two suggestions that should please the small fry — and most adults as well.
The Great Mouse Detective was made during that lengthy stretch during which Disney failed to produce any genuine animated classics. Still, while it may not rank in the upper echelons, this one's awfully hard to resist, with the children's book series Basil of Baker Street serving as the source for this yarn about two mice, a Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth and his Dr. Watson-like companion, matching wits against the nefarious Professor Ratigan (a rat) as he plots to overthrow the Mouse Queen and declare himself ruler of England. There's much to enjoy here — the nods to Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective, the catchy tune "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind," a climactic skirmish on the face of Big Ben, the character of the cheerful dog Toby -- yet its grandest ingredient is Vincent Price, who's delightful rasping the voice of the villainous Ratigan.
Only a Scrooge could hate Jim Henson's delightful Muppet creations, which is the point of The Muppet Christmas Carol, one of the countless adaptations of Charles Dickens' Yuletide chestnut A Christmas Carol. Michael Caine stars as the renowned skinflint, put through the usual paces by Kermit (as Bob Cratchit), Miss Piggy (Mrs. Cratchit) and the rest of the gang. There's too much story and not enough Muppets, and when the puppet stars do appear front and center, there's too much Gonzo and Rizzo and not enough Fozzie. Yet the film has a startling production design, and Caine delivers a strong performance as Scrooge. Paul Williams contributes a few dreary songs, all a far cry from the gorgeous gem ("The Rainbow Connection") he penned for 1979's The Muppet Movie. Incidentally, this was the first Muppet film created after Henson's death in 1990; his son Brian Henson served as director.
Blu-ray extras on The Great Mouse Detective include a making-of piece; an introduction to sleuthing; and a sing-along option for "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind." Blu-ray extras on The Muppet Christmas Carol include audio commentary by Brian Henson; separate audio commentary by Kermit and other Muppets; a making-of featurette; a blooper reel; and a profile of Gonzo.
The Great Mouse Detective: ***
The Muppet Christmas Carol: **1/2
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967). In Creative Loafing's popular article The 20 Greatest Rock Films Ever Made (found here), no less than three films starring The Beatles made the list (A Hard Day's Night at number 1, Yellow Submarine at number 11 and Let It Be at number 12), while one of the participating critics placed Help! on her also-ran list. But it wasn't all groovy for the Fab Four, as Magical Mystery Tour landed in the number 7 slot on the accompanying article The 10 Worst Rock Films Ever Made. As we wrote at the time, "Made for British TV, this Beatles romp was booked stateside on the midnight movie circuit. It's debatable whether even watching it under the influence can save it." Even the band members themselves have over the years admitted that it was nothing more than a self-indulgent home movie, and the reaction from both the British viewing audience and the press was brutal. Even viewed through nostalgic, kitschy lens decades after the fact, the 53-minute movie remains an excruciating experience, unwatchable except for — naturally — the bits in which great Beatles songs are filling the soundtrack. The loose-knit plot finds the lads joining other folks on a bus that promises to take them to an exciting destination; along the way, Paul McCartney sings "The Fool on the Hill," Ringo Starr bickers incessantly with his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robbins), John Lennon dons a waiter's outfit and shovels a mountain of glop onto a table, and George Harrison looks ill-at-ease throughout. The film's soundtrack is excellent (tunes include "Your Mother Should Know" and one of my all-time faves, "I Am the Walrus") and the Blu-ray contains some interesting special features, so this is clearly a must-buy for Beatles completists. Those on a budget, though, should instead purchase the Blu-ray for Yellow Submarine that was released this past summer (and reviewed here). Now that's 4-star entertainment.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by McCartney; a making-of featurette; a look at the supporting cast; three deleted scenes, including one of the band Traffic performing "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush"; three new edits of "Your Mother Should Know," "Blue Jay Way" and "The Fool on the Hill"; and, hilariously, a brief piece in which a self-important Ringo explains how it was apparent from Help! and A Hard Day's Night that he was "the actor" in the group.
ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968). Adapted from the novel by hitmaker Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil), Rosemary's Baby marked the first American film for Polish writer-director Roman Polanski, who had already scored international hits with the likes of Knife in the Water and Repulsion (both, like Rosemary's Baby, available on the Criterion label). The resultant box office hit emerged as one of the best chillers of its decade, and it still serves as a touchstone of the modern horror film. Mia Farrow, in the finest performance of her often erratic career, and John Cassavetes star as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, who move into a trendy New York City apartment where their new neighbors include the nosy but apparently well-meaning elderly couple Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). Rosemary is elated when she becomes pregnant — even if she is confused about a particularly disturbing sex dream followed by scratches on her body the next morning — but she feels suffocated when it seems as if everyone is trying to take control of her life. Her paranoia magnifies as she comes to believe that the building residents are Satanists who are after her unborn child. A movie that builds momentum through its deliberate pacing, Rosemary's Baby not only functions as a supernatural thriller but also predates many psychological works (including several by David Cronenberg) that tap into the universal fear of having your own body rebel against you. Polanski earned an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Gordon snagged the Best Supporting Actress award. Incidentally, this was followed by one of those trashy sequels completely forgotten by time: the 1976 made-for-TV film Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby, with Stephen McHattie as the adult "baby," Gordon reprising her role as Minnie Castavet, and Patty Duke replacing Farrow as Rosemary.
Blu-ray extras include a retrospective piece on the film, featuring interviews with Polanski, Farrow and producer Robert Evans; a 1997 interview with Levin; and a feature on the movie's composer, Krzysztof Komeda.
RUBY SPARKS (2012). Hollywood is often criticized for not providing enough meaty roles to actresses, so Zoe Kazan tackled the problem head-on: She wrote herself a doozy of a part. She's the title character in Ruby Sparks, a film that superficially appears to be a romantic comedy but whose disturbing undertones guarantee that it will never be mistaken for some Katherine Heigl stinkbomb. Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a writer who has done nothing but struggle since producing a masterpiece of a debut novel many years earlier. Inspired by his dreams, he creates a new character called Ruby Sparks and slowly finds himself falling in love with her, much to the displeasure of his worried, alpha-male brother (a funny Chris Messina). Calvin soon discovers that his fictional character has miraculously come to life, and that he's able to control her every move merely by spelling it out on his typewriter ("Ruby speaks French," he pecks, et voila!). Content with their relationship, he soon backs away from manipulating her via keyboard, but as she comes into her own as a person and once squabbles start to mar their bliss, he considers wielding his word power again. Kazan and Dano are a real-life couple, as are the husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), but don't expect starry-eyed sentimentality to rule this joint project. Dano's character can be downright hurtful and hateful — not only to Ruby but also to his mom (Annette Bening, channeling Catherine O'Hara) and her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas) — and the movie deftly uses fantasy to delve into serious issues involving abusive relationships, patriarchal rigidity and artistic etiquette. Dano and Kazan are both excellent, but let's give the gold medal to the latter, since her screenplay is every bit as noteworthy as her performance.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; a featurette on the real-life couples behind the movie; and interviews with cast members.