11/6/12: The Amazing Spider-Man, Arthur Christmas, High Ground, Your Sister's Sister

The Amazing Spider-Man (PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures)
And the award for the least necessary movie of the year? It has to go to this one, which reboots a franchise that very successfully rebooted 10 years ago and doesn’t really offer a compelling reason for doing it all over again so soon. “The Amazing Spider-Man” isn’t at all bad, and in some respects it makes a case for being better than 2002’s “Spider-Man.” Visually, it’s stylish and lively in its own distinct way, and it better conveys Spidey’s (Andrew Garfield) reckless lust for speed than the preceding trilogy did. It touches on the grey morality of entrepreneurial vigilantism without turning solemn or mopey, and it leans on a sense of humor and similarly lively supporting cast (Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen) to keep things entertaining in spite of feeling so familiar. But there’s no way reasonably appraise “TASM” without recognizing just how staggeringly familiar it is. Origin story wherein a socially awkward high school nobody gets bit by a spider and finds amusement in his newfound gifts? Yep, we’re doing that again. Opposing story about a scientist (Rhys Ifans) whose own villainous transformation comes via a friendship with his eventual nemesis? Yep, that too. Cute dream girl in peril? Oh course. “TASM” moves to a different beat, but it’s a remix of a perfectly good song everyone already enjoyed not very long ago. Unless it funnels into a sequel that takes some risks and go its own way, it’ll be hard to fathom what (other than money) necessitated such an impatient rebuilding of the deck.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, interactive 3D film school, screen tests, stunt rehearsals, art/promo gallery.

Arthur Christmas (PG, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Little Gwen raises a pretty good question in her letter to Santa: How in the world does one guy and some reindeer safely and accurately deliver so many presents in one night? Turns out, he doesn’t. Santa is one guy, but he’s simply the patriarch in a family that passes down the title of Santa like the Royal family hands down the crown. Additionally, what once upon a time was a literal sleigh is now a gigantic, cloaked mothership teeming with a massive army of elves who coordinate and descend on homes with presents like Navy SEALs. Yes, it’s that time of year. Ready for another round of Christmas movies that melt the holidays down to a sad clump of cynical obligations and allegories? Somewhat amazingly, “Arthur Christmas,” despite a setup that easily could transform Santa’s Workshop into a bleak allegory for the soullessness of big companies who reduce customers to statistics, is not. Yes, those points make appearances — and, thanks to the presence of Aardman Animations behind the wheel, do so in imaginative and visually wondrous fashion. But “Christmas” adopts the complete opposite philosophy and trains its focus on exactly one kid. A loud and action-packed kids movie eventually ensues as all the dots get connected, but it’s a loud movie with likable characters, a surplus of imagination and a likable-against-all-odds premise that threads the holiday movie needle so many others miss by a mile.
Extras: Six behind-the-scenes features, elf recruitment video.

High Ground (NR, 2012, Virgil Films)
There have been numerous documentaries about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and since then there has been an unprecedented wave of stories told about the mental after effects that accompany soldiers home from those wars. “High Ground” — the story of 11 returning soldiers teaming to scale the 20,000 ft. Himalayan Lobuche mountain despite an array of injuries and climbing inexperience levels that stand in their way — is the movie that needed to happen after those other movies happened. “Ground’s” injury toll runs the gamut — some physical and obvious (amputations, blindness), but others (extreme difficulties relating to people, feelings of national and local alienation) that aren’t so obvious but are crippling in their own right. Rather than review what we’ve already heard and learned about post-traumatic stress disorder, “Ground” simply lets the soldiers speak for themselves and very personally relay their own experiences — no narrators, no statistical overlays, no editorializing. Is it novel? Of course not, not anymore. But the degree to which “Ground’s” participants open up to both the camera and the mountain is engrossing all over again —both in spite of the stories’ familiar abstracts and because of the common threads that persist across stories like these. With respect to the expedition that is “Ground’s” exciting star attraction, these background stories almost steal the show right out from underneath it. (Almost, but not quite.)
Extras: Deleted scenes, audience reaction trailer.

Your Sister’s Sister (R, 2011, IFC)
It’s been a year, but Jack (Mark Duplass) isn’t nearly over the death of his brother, and a very awkward toast in his memory makes that clear to all. To that end, his brother’s ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) offers him free reign of her family’s cottage for a week to clear his head. What neither Jack nor Iris know is that Iris’ sister (Rosemarie DeWitt as Hannah) is using the cottage to clear her own head after a seven-year relationship to her girlfriend fell apart. When Jack and Jack’s brother’s ex-girlfriend’s sister stumble into each other, the collision is as awkward as it probably deserves to be. So what happens next? Let’s not spoil it, but let’s also just say that viewer reactions should range from expectant to sarcastically surprised. If the moment-to-moment writing wasn’t as strong as it is, “Your Sister’s Sister” would effectively be an elongated episode of a sitcom that never made it out of pilot season. But “Sister’s” writing is strong, and that goes as well for its sense of humor and its constructions of Jack, Hannah and Iris. That isn’t enough to hide how sitcommy the story is or that the ending arrives rather abruptly, but it’s enough to make “Sister” a enjoyable movie anyway.
Extras: Duplass/director commentary, filmmakers commentary.

Also
— “Universal 100th Anniversary Collection” (NR, Universal): Universal Studios likely undercut the impact of this set by effectively already releasing it in pieces over the course of 2012. But for those who didn’t bite on the Anniversary-themed individual releases and don’t mind the studio’s curious taste in history, this set rounds 25 of the studio’s favorite movies — some no-brainers (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”), some questionable (“The Bourne Identity”) and some outright baffling (“The Fast and the Furious,” really?) — into one box and throws in a companion book to tie it all together.
— “Entourage: The Complete Series” (NR, 2004, HBO): This, too, isn’t as exciting as it should have been. Blame “Entourage’s” last two seasons and change, which sputtered, drove in circles and too frequently lost sight of what made the show’s early days so exciting. At least the set — packed like a pop-up book without the pop-up part — looks nice. All 96 episodes (21 with commentary) are included, as are the extras (series retrospective, 10 behind-the-scenes features, two cast/crew roundtables) that previously appeared in the individual season sets.