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The Aisle Seat Spring Training Report

DVD Round-Up, PITCH BLACK, and Rants on the Year's First Dumped Scores

By Andy Dursin

A few quick tidbits and takes before we get into this week's DVD rush:

I thought it was a sad day when the only movie John Barry could get an assignment on was THOMAS AND THE MAGIC RAILROAD. I guess the only thing that's worse is when Barry's music is removed from THOMAS, despite the fact that he and lyricist Don Black were to play a major role in writing the movie's songs.

No offense to the famous Tank Engine, but it's been a sparse last couple of years for Barry, whose scores have either been tampered with (PLAYING BY HEART), removed completely (THE HORSE WHISPERER), or never fully recorded (EVER AFTER). Certainly it can't possibly the music itself, since you know what you get every time Barry scores a film. From what I have heard from various sources, it's Barry himself who is partially to blame -- he insists on total control and refuses to give an inch to the filmmaker?which has given him a bad reputation around the film scoring scene. What's worse is that studios now don't want to work with him for fear that he'll walk out of their picture -- leaving the movie without a score and, more significantly in financial terms, a composer who commands top-dollar getting his usual salary regardless. Seems like nothing has changed, unfortunately.

I was also excited to learn that John Williams is scoring THE PATRIOT, but a bit saddened for David Arnold at the same time. Apparently Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, those wacky guys who catapulted into fame thanks to STARGATE, didn't care for what they heard of Arnold's score and decided to get Williams as a replacement (or perhaps they learned Williams was available and willing, and opted not to retain Arnold's services accordingly).

Now, don't get me wrong; this is John Williams we're talking about here, but just the same, Emmerich & Devlin never would have gotten to this point if it wasn't due to STARGATE and, principally, Arnold's music, which gave that movie a sense of grandeur and romanticism predominantly absent from the duo's often insipid script. True, INDEPENDENCE DAY was only so-so, but there was nothing wrong with his GODZILLA score, particularly when you consider the soundtrack people were more concerned lining up the likes of Puff Daddy and the Wallflowers to contribute to the album than giving the composer free reign to do what he pleased.

Arnold's James Bond scores have been the most successful non-Barry scores ever written for a 007 adventure -- certainly TOMORROW NEVER DIES more than THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (too techno-heavy for most tastes) -- but it was his gorgeous score for LAST OF THE DOGMEN that signaled to me that Arnold had a future scoring large-scale orchestral works. Unfortunately, Arnold hasn't received many opportunities to follow through on that success. A few years later, his big chance to score another movie like that -- THE PATRIOT -- has gone the way of the axe. Too bad, but something tells me we haven't heard the last from David Arnold, either.


DVD Corner

My own prejudice against Patricia Arquette was enough to make me stay away from STIGMATA (**1/2, $24.98) in theaters, but after catching up with MGM's DVD, I have to admit that it wasn't quite as bad as I initially thought.

This stylish supernatural thriller stars the soon-to-be-former Mrs.Nicolas Cage as a Pittsburgh hairdresser who improbably winds up with a "haunted rosary" that causes the poor girl to bear wounds from Christ's crucifixion. Gabriel Bryne plays the Vatican investigator sent to uncover the cause of Arquette's visions and injuries, with Jonathan Pryce turning up as a Holy City big-wig who may just be part of a bigger conspiracy to suppress a recently-uncovered Gospel that offers a different interpretation of Christ's teachings.

Director Rupert Wainwright uses all the tricks in the MTV playbook -- including montages, techno soundbytes, heavily filtered cinematography, and plenty of candles -- in crafting a good-looking thriller which was sold as if it was the next EXORCIST.

Unfortunately, while MGM's marketing department did a savvy job selling the picture, the horrific build-up promised by the theatrical trailers doesn't actually represent what STIGMATA is about. If you go in expecting a terrifying, blood-curdling chiller, you're likely to be disappointed by a movie that grinds you through a lengthy series of ordeals for Arquette before it tells us what the fuss is all about -- and when that moment finally comes, it's a let-down since it's just so?well, ordinary. The biblical mumbo-jumbo also doesn't make much sense when closely scrutinized, either, with the screenwriters holding an axe to grind against established religions (principally Catholicism) that is so utterly simplistic it makes END OF DAYS look like a theological masterpiece by comparison.

However, all that being said, STIGMATA still looks good and that's half the battle in this movie's case. Wainwright paces the move quite well and MGM has sweetened the pot with a terrific DVD presentation, featuring one of the most effective Dolby Digital soundtracks I've ever heard. The transfer (2.35:1 widescreen) is not quite as exemplary, appearing a bit "smoky" at times (no great surprise given the reliance on filters, smoke machines and the like), but it's certainly on the acceptable side.

The supplemental materials add a great deal to the DVD's appeal as well; a handful of deleted scenes are included as a separate chapter, giving some additional character depth or alternate angles to many scenes (Patrick Muldoon of STARSHIP TROOPERS has more time in the excised scenes than he does in the finished film). The DVD also enables you to watch the movie as it was shot, or with Wainwright's original ending, which is a bit more poignant but a trifle confusing given the movie's final sequence. The supremely effective theatrical trailer is included along with a music video of lovely Natalie Imbruglia's melancholy end credits ballad.

There have been a great number of Special Edition titles released out there of late, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention Image's recent DVD releases from the Ed Wood, Jr. Library Collection: PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, GLEN OR GLENDA?, JAIL BAIT, and BRIDE OF THE MONSTER.

Each of these wacked-out '50s classics retails for $24.95 and contain crisp, black-and-white transfers culled from the Wade Williams library of bizarre cinematic achievements.

Now, if your only exposure to Ed Wood is from Tim Burton's 1994 mostly-fictional biopic, chances are good that you'll get a huge kick out of these Golden Turkey-certified, unintentionally hysterical Wood productions, courtesy of a man who carved himself a niche as one of the worst filmmakers of all-time via the 1959 epic PLAN NINE -- a movie which ultimately drew attention to his previous "hits" (1953's GLEN OR GLENDA?, 1954's JAIL BAIT, and 1955's BRIDE OF THE MONSTER).

As you have likely heard, PLAN NINE has a reputation as being the worst movie ever made, but while it certainly qualifies as ONE of the worst, I'd rather watch Wood's magnum opus with its hokey production values and inept acting than many of today's "bad" movies, which have the budgets that Wood lacked and still can't get their act together (half of Wood's problem was financial constraints -- or at least one of Wood's many problems was that, to be more specific!).

PLAN NINE has been given the deluxe treatment in Image's batch of Wood DVDs, and it looks the best that I've ever seen it, particularly considering the amount of public domain releases the movie has had over the years (including a Passport DVD which pales in comparison to Image's transfer).

To top it off, Image has included a lengthy, two-hour documentary on the movie's phenomenal rise as a cult classic, interviewing directors like Joe Dante, fans and non-fans, and comments from cast members Gregory Walcott, Carl Anthony, Paul Marco, Conrad Brooks and Vampira herself. The program is a bit long and was obviously a labor of love, but for anyone interested in Wood or the film, it should be an essential view.

As far as the other Wood pics go, GLEN OR GLENDA? explored Wood's fetish for dressing up in female attire, and in many ways it's even funnier than PLAN NINE -- complete with Bela Lugosi introducing the picture as a God who enjoys interfering in human lives. The movie is hilarious and includes Wood starring himself as a normal, heterosexual guy who enjoys wearing a bra and panties.

BRIDE OF THE MONSTER reunites Eddie with Lugosi once more, and it once again includes plenty of unintended laughs and assorted hyjinks as batty mad scientist Bela tries to create a race of supermen via atomic radiation experiments! Once again, former wrestler Tor Johnson establishes his acting credentials as Lobo, Lugosi's faithful servant.

JAIL BAIT, which rounds out the releases, features Timothy Farrell as a guy who lures young Clancey Malone into a life of crime. This rare (for the filmmaker) police thriller isn't quite as all-out hilarious as the other Wood features (Wade Williams calls it "his first legitimate feature film"), so it therefore would benefit from some Mystery Science Theater-like comments from your personal viewing audience in order to be fully engaging. Still, you do get to see future HERCULES Steve Reeves as a cop, and that's always good for something!

All of the Wood DVDs come packaged with brief liner notes from Williams, and when combined with the superior transfers, should be absolute must-owns for the apparent legion of Wood aficionados out there -- and recommended viewing for anyone interested in some of Hollywood's most notorious and enjoyable bad movies!

Shifting from the ridiculous to the sublime, Universal has put together another highly recommended Collector's Edition, this time for 1985's multiple Oscar-winner OUT OF AFRICA (***, $34.98). Robert Redford is the British big game hunter that writer Karen Blixen becomes enthralled with while helping her husband work a coffee farm in Kenya; Meryl Streep essays the author, while Klaus Maria Brandauer is her philandering spouse. Together, they form a romantic triangle sumptuously filmed by director Sydney Pollack and cinematographer David Watkin, and beautifully scored by John Barry.

The settings and photography remain the highlights of this romantic drama, which coasts along at 155 minutes but always remains a pleasure to look at. On DVD, its scenic attributes become magnified, thanks to a crystal clear transfer (in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio) and a pleasing Dolby Digital soundtrack (in 4.1 Surround) that strive to capture the movie's elegant visual presentation at home.

If you can't see the movie in a theater, the next-best way to appreciate the picture is easily in its sweeping new DVD presentation, which also benefits from a fine selection of extras. Pollack delivers an informative commentary track on the making of the picture, and Universal has also included "Song of Africa," an outstanding 48-minute documentary by Charles Kiselyak that includes new interviews with Pollack, Meryl Streep, and Isak Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman.

Film music buffs will certainly be interested in the comments of John Barry, who talks at length in the program about his score, the creation of the movie's central sweeping theme, and use of music in various sequences. Combined with footage culled from the film's behind-the-scenes featurette and a look at the actual relationship between the characters, it puts a perfect cap on a terrific disc.

Once again shifting gears from the bad to the beautiful, and back to the truly obscure again, we come to MGM's recent DVD release of the intended-for-theaters-but-never-got-there THE EXTREME ADVENTURES OF SUPER DAVE (*1/2, $24.98).

If you remember Super Dave from his Showtime series back in the '80s and early '90s, you likely remember comedian Bob Einstein (brother of Albert Brooks) and his dead-pan, dry delivery as a hapless stuntman whose jokes always culminated in a crash for a punchline. Who, what, or why someone decided to make a theatrical movie based on the character some years after his popularity ceased from existence is a good question, particularly since this tiresome, 90 minutes (with 10 minutes of credits) crash & burn comedy has been languishing on the MGM shelves for two years now.

Matted at 1.85:1 and with a punchy Dolby Digital soundtrack, SUPER DAVE has been dusted off for its DVD premiere and does boast a theatrical look at least, courtesy of co-stars Dan Hedaya as an obnoxious sports promoter and Gia Carides as a single mom with a cute little kid. Sounds a bit like JERRY MAGUIRE, right? Well, any other similarities end right there, with the target audience of this production clearly aimed at the 10-and-under crowd.

To be fair, Super Dave's antics were enjoyable when I was younger and the show ran 20 minutes, but the movie has an awfully hard time sustaining itself and shows what a mess the MGM ownership was in just a couple of years ago, greenlighting material like this (and the also recently-released SUPERNOVA). MGM's DVD looks nice and lacks any special features.

Artisan has produced a more supplemental-laden package for their release of the disturbing and occasionally effective ghost story STIR OF ECHOES (**1/2, $24.98), with Kevin Bacon as a man tormented by a female spirit who died violently in the basement of his house.

Writer-director David Koepp, working from Richard Matheson's novel, has fashioned a compelling tale with many effective jolts, but also a tendency to accentuate the movie's more unpleasant passages, particularly a gruesome rape sequence near the end that could have been shot just as effectively without being quite as graphic. It ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth and will certainly limit the movie's appeal to viewers on multiple viewing. For further analysis of this one, check out my original review here.

Artisan's DVD, contrary to the jacket annotation, is framed at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio and contains a superb, effective Dolby Digital track featuring an atmospheric score by James Newton Howard. Fred Murphy's cinematography is captivating and the performances are likewise excellent; it's just a shame that Koepp couldn't find a more magical or interesting ending than the cliched, by-the-numbers finale he came up with.

Commentary from the director, a theatrical trailer, TV spots, a featurette and music video round out a terrific package for one of last year's more infuriating "just-misses."

Fox has unearthed a trio of titles from their Classic Collection that fans of Golden Age cinema -- who undoubtedly have been turned off by the number of new-movie-only releases we have been mostly receiving on DVD -- will obviously want to add to their small collection of classic older films.

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER will all be released on March 7th and retail for a Fox-low price of $24.98.

All three titles look exceptionally good, free of any background pixilation or grain that sometimes become associated with prints of older movies on DVD (like a few of Universal's Classic Monster releases). HOW GREEN.., John Ford's classic Oscar-winner with a great score by Alfred Newman, looks surprisingly crisp and clear in its original black-and-white, and contains a theatrical trailer along with a handful of still photographs. AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING both come letterboxed in their original Cinemascope aspect ratios, featuring colorful transfers and sporting genuine stereo soundtracks.

Fox should be commended for releasing this inaugural batch of Oscar-winning classics on DVD with their usual technical prowess and at a lower price than usual. Hopefully this will be just the first of many more to follow.


In Theaters

PITCH BLACK (**1/2): The growing cult of Vin Diesel fans (don't ask me where he came from, I'm as clueless as you are) had ample reason to celebrate at the box-office two weekends ago, when BOILER ROOM and this slight but enjoyable sci-fi thriller were released starring this up-and-coming muscleman.

I didn't see the former but mildly enjoyed the latter, best described as ALIENS meets THE BIRDS with a bit of CON-AIR thrown in via Diesel's criminal hero, stranded on a barren planet along with a collection of civilian passengers.

It turns out that a group of dinosaur-like aliens fly around at night and prove to be nasty company for the group, though fortunately Diesel has night vision implanted in his irises so he can get a good look at the nasty-looking critters.

Writer-director David Twohy last directed the entertaining 1996 sci-fi thriller THE ARRIVAL and boasts screenwriting credits for the underrated TERMINAL VELOCITY and G.I. JANE on his filmography. PITCH BLACK isn't quite as good as THE ARRIVAL, and some of the characters just aren't interesting, but more often than not the movie gets the job done, with some effective CGI and make-up work compensating for a less-than-charismatic cast and bland character development.

Judging from his monotone delivery, Diesel might have the makings of the next action star, and if PITCH BLACK seems too familiar for its own good, a delay of several months might be just the recipe for audiences to fully appreciate it on video. (R, 120 mins, **1/2 budget-confined synth score by Graeme Revell on that could have used some orchestral sweetening).

NEXT WEEK: Universal and Paramount DVDs, plus your comments! Send all relevant emails to me at dursina@att.net and we'll see you next time. Excelsior!

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