New ‘Spider-Man’ is truly amazing
Owls Head — The Amazing Spider-Man (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 136 min.). Director Marc Webb’s reboot of the Amazing Spider-Man franchise is a winner, due in large part to the casting of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, the teen who is bitten by the genetically-altered spider and becomes Spider-Man, and Emma Stone as his love interest, Gwen Stacy. Garfield brings a vulnerability, a sense of real teen angst to the role. Stone is an emotional match, and their halting scenes of attraction for each other work wonderfully.
Parker’s parents left him with his aunt and uncle (Sally Field as May and Martin Sheen as Ben) when he was young; then they were killed in a plane crash. Now in high school, Peter is hardly noticeable, except for his love of photography. After Peter stands up for another student who is being bullied, Gwen takes more notice of him. Then, at home in the basement, Peter finds his father’s briefcase and notes on the cross-species work his father had been doing. That leads to his looking up his dad’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors (played by Rhys Ifans), head of genetic research at Oscorp Industries, where coincidentally Gwen works. During a visit by possible interns, Peter sneaks off and gets bitten by the genetically-altered spider. Peter first realizes his new abilities during a cool fight sequence on a subway train. Soon after, a death triggers his vigilante mode. Sixty-five minutes into the film, we learn that Gwen’s dad is police Capt. Stacy -- there is a fine butting heads of opinions during a dinner invitation.
In addition to looking for the killer, Peter and the whole city soon have their hands full with the Lizard, the mutant created when Dr. Connors, who is missing a forearm, injects himself with his experimental formula, as he is trying to grow a new arm and hand. Again, for all the razzle-dazzle and the sheer joy when Peter takes to swinging above the city as Spider-Man -- he developed the spider cable, which is mechanical, himself -- it is the human moments that shine, such as when Spider-Man rescues a small boy from a vehicle falling off a bridge. Throughout the film there is a good mix of humor, humanity and action.
Exclusive Blu-ray bonus features include a second-screen app; more than 90 minutes of in-depth making-of featurettes on a second Blu-ray disc; pre-visualization sequences; and image progression reels. The standard DVD, which is included with the Blu-ray version, contains the deleted scenes and audio commentary by director Webb and producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach. Grade: film and extras 3.75 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
The Campaign (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 85/96 min.). The real elections may be over, but that should not stop you from checking out this often hilarious film. Will Farrell plays four-term North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady, running unopposed yet again. However, his constant womanizing leads to an inappropriate call to a married woman -- he calls and the answering machine picks up while she is having dinner with her husband and two children -- and his two backers, the Motch Brothers (played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), decide to find someone to run against him. With their first choice in prison, they decide on Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a simple married man with two children. He always has been a big disappointment to his dad (Brian Cox as Raymond).
The Motch Brothers, who plan to bring their Chinese sweatshops to the district, to save on transportation costs, hire Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) as Marty’s campaign manager. Wattley basically redoes Marty’s whole life, including replacing his two Chinese dogs with new ones. As Marty gets more and more serious about running, and Cam continues his missteps, such as slugging a baby and then a heroic movie dog, the race gets tighter. Among the many highlights on the extended cut are a TV add in which Marty is accused on being Taliban due to his mustache and Cam’s attempt to recite “The Lord’s Prayer” during a debate. Not all the comedy works, but enough does to make this a fun ride. Jay Roach directed.
Extras include nine deleted scenes (15:44), including the full sex add, a scene that replaces buckshot with a crossbow, Marty visiting Cam, and the arrival of the Chinese workers. There also is a line-o-rama and a gag reel. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2 stars
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 105 min.). The winning approach here is that this all happened, that it is just the part of Lincoln’s life you have never been told. So, instead of chopping down trees with his axe, Lincoln chops the heads off vampires. Lincoln’s obsession begins when he was nine, and his mother was infected by a vampire and died. Nine years later, Lincoln has tracked down his mother’s killer, but is ineffectual when trying to kill him. Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) sees this and takes Lincoln under his wing, teaching him how to kill vampires and then, later, giving him assignments of vampires to kill. Meanwhile, Lincoln goes from working in a store for Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), where he meets the love of his life (Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd) to running for Congress. Rufus Sewell and Erin Wasson play vampires who came from Europe and started the infestation of the Americas -- after all, America had slaves already.
Director Timur Bekmambetov (the science fiction films “Day Watch,” “Night Watch”) puts together some exciting, albeit implausible action sequences, including Lincoln chasing a vampire in the midst of a horse stampede and the spectacular train finale. Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote both the book and the screenplay, offers some clever bits, such as the Confederate Army using vampires as soldiers. Extras include a five-part making-of (75:21); the Blu-ray exclusive “The Great Calamity” prologue graphic novel (7:43); audio commentary by Grahame-Smith; and a Linkin Park music video. Grade: film and extras 3 stars
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 123 min.). Simply put, this wonderful movie is chock-full of marvelous actors giving outstanding examples of their craft. A collection of senior citizens -- including Judi Dench as the newly-widowed Evelyn, Tom Wilkinson as a retired judge, Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton as married couple Douglas and Jean and Maggie Smith as Muriel, who needs a cheap hip replacement -- all come for various reasons to stay at the newly-opened Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India, Friendships develop, and they learn how to cope with the next stage of their lives. Running the hotel is Sonny (a wonderful Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire,” showing off his solid comedic style). As Sonny repeatedly says, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.” Most notably, the film gives a good sense of the colorful Indian culture that surrounds the hotel. Extras include behind-the-scenes cast and crew interviews and a look at the making of the film. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Coma (Sony, 2 DVDs, NR, 159 min.). This two-part miniseries of Robin Cook’s bestselling book -- already made into a film by Michael Crichton in 1978 -- seems more than a bit drawn out. Most of it has medical student Susan Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose of TV’s “Six Feet Under”) literally running for her life, including an extensive bit with a stalker that is tangent to the main plot, but takes up equal time. (the stalker does have creepy hallucinations of moving trees.) Wheeler is intrigued by the unusual number of patients who end up in comas at Memorial Hospital, and learns there my be a connection to the Jefferson Institute, where coma patients are housed. Helping her in her investigation is a young surgeon (Steven Pasquale as Mark Bellows), who is having an affair with Dr. Agnetha Lindquist (Geena Davis). There are plenty of familiar faces here, including James Woods, Joe Morton, James Rebhorn, Richard Dreyfuss and Ellen Burstyn, but most are under-utilized. The main culprit is the script, with the direction not far behind. Grade: miniseries 2.25 stars
The Sinking of the Laconia (2010, Acorn, 2 DVDs, NR, 171 min.). This British-German co-production tells the true story of the RMS Laconia, a 200-ton luxury vessel that was converted into a British troop carrier. In September 1942, far off the coast of Africa, the ship is sunk by two torpedoes from a German U-boat. The German sub captain (Ken Duken as Werner Hartenstein) did not know the ship was carrying more than 2,000 passengers, including civilians and 1,800 Italian prisoners of war. When he discovers this, he rescues as many as he can -- some 200 aboard the sub and dozens others in four lifeboats that he tows along. Of course, this unexpected humanity in the midst of war has consequences, especially back at the German headquarters. Duken is the best thing about the mini-series, which, while it tells an important-to-know story, does so with tedious pacing at times and a script that makes for mostly cardboard characters. Brian Cox plays the weary Captain Sharp of the Laconia, while Franka Potente (TV’s “America Horror Story: Asylum”) plays Hilda Smith, a mother who an infant and who is actually half-German. The other main role goes to Andrew Buchan as Thomas Mortimer, the Laconia’s junior third officer, the highest ranking officer to survive. Director Uwe Janson films the submarine crew in German, with subtitles. As is usual with miniseries, we are first introduced with a handful of characters on each side, so we will care about their fates. It was the German sub captain that I cared about the most. The actual sinking occurs 27 minutes in, so there is a lot of stretching out of the remainder, with the most excitement being an emergency test dive that almost turns into a disaster. The sole extras is a 29-minute feature in which six survivors tell their stories. Grade: miniseries 2.5 stars
Secret War (Athena, 4 DVDs, NR, 656 min.). This 13-episode series tells tales of top secret espionage missions by the British during World War II. In 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill set up the secret Special Operations Executive, or SOE, to battle the Germans in any way possible, by disruption and deceit. In episode one, we learn of the Special Interrogation Group of less than 40 men who trained like German soldiers so they could do missions behind enemy lines. They even were trained by two German prisoners of war. Survivor Maurice Tiefenbrunner is extensively interviewed. In other episodes, we learn that celebrated postwar fashion designer Hardy Amies was a spymaster; how the Americans used mobster Charles Luciano to help keep supply lines to Europe open; double agent Tricycle, a young Yugoslav; the Norwegians and a London financier who worked to stop Adolph Hitler from getting the atomic bomb; the liberation of Greece, aided by an Oxford academic; the failed efforts to have spies infiltrate Holland; a French spymistress who lost many agents to the Germans; a French triple agent; the Polish spy Christine Granville; Agent Garbo, the former poultry farmer who created an imaginary network of spies that fooled the Germans and helped pin down some German troops during the D-Day invasion (recently this Spaniard, Joan Pujol Garcia, has been the subject of two books); and a collaboration with communists in Yugoslavia. All the stories are fascinating. Footage of the era is used, although much of it is more generic than specific to the story being told. The set comes with a 20-page viewer’s guide that has a chronology of the war and articles on Churchill, Fortress Europe, resistance movements, the SAS and MI6. Grade: series 3.25 stars