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January DVD Releases from the Aisle Seat

New Releases from Universal, Fox, Warner & Buena Vista

By Andy Dursin

January usually brings about an influx of new titles on video, and 2000 hasn't been any different in regards to that phenomenon. While the quality of theatrical releases generally heads south (we usually receive leftover orphans that have been on the shelf, like SUPERNOVA), video's new titles generally go in the other direction, as last summer's movies migrate to the small screen.

Universal's new batch of January releases proves this point, as three of their efforts from late last August are now available on DVD.

The best of the batch is the uneven but amiable BOWFINGER (**1/2, $29.98), writer-star Steve Martin's satirical jab at Hollywood moviemaking that's filled with scattershot laughs.

Martin, as a down-on-his-luck filmmaker, tries to film a movie with superstar Kit Ramsay (Eddie Murphy) without the action specialist's knowledge. Shades of THE TRUMAN SHOW ensue, with Kit running around believing he's being chased by aliens, consulting spiritual adviser Terence Stamp (in a jab against scientology), while Martin frantically tries to catch him on film with a patchwork cast and crew of illegal immigrants and would-be thespian Christine Baranski (who, as usual, steals most every scene she's in).

Martin is good but Murphy is better, flexing his comedic skills in both a self-satirical part, and in the role of a likable nerd improbably thrust into the role of a leading man. BOWFINGER isn't a classic by any means, but has enough choice moments to warrant a viewing.

Universal has produced a fine DVD with BOWFINGER, featuring several outtakes, a couple of deleted scenes (culled from videotape), and audio commentary by Frank Oz rounding out the presentation. The Dolby Digital sound is acceptable and the 1.85:1 transfer is excellent; as with DUDLEY DO-RIGHT (reviewed below), Universal has also provided a DTS audio track which sounds a bit clearer and impressive than the Dolby Digital track.

If THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI is regarded as a cult classic these days, then there's some hope for MYSTERY MEN (**1/2, $29.98). This amiable comic-book spoof features several goofy comedic performances and more laughs than the last AUSTIN POWERS movie, even if it never becomes as truly wacky and over-the-top as you hope it would. One thing's for sure: on DVD, the movie now has a far better chance reaching the audience it missed the first time around.

Greg Kinnear plays a goody-goody superhero who is kidnapped by the evil Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, most of whose dialogue is incomprehensible gibberish) in a city that looks an awful lot like Joel Schumacher's BATMAN Gotham City. To the rescue come three loser-heroes, played by Ben Stiller (who gets angry), FARGO's William H.Macy (who shovels well), and Hank Azaria (who uses a Brit accent and throws his mother's kitchen utensils), who all recruit another collection of similar underdog- types to save the day.

With a cast like that, and on-target supporting roles filled by the likes of Janeane Garafolo and LAST OF THE MOHICANS' Wes Studi (hilarious as a message-spouting hero who guides the group), you know MYSTERY MEN will have its share of laughs. Fortunately, it does, with most of them coming during the first half hour; Stiller in particular seems in tune with the manic energy of the film and Macy's timing is perfect, as it seemingly always is.

Universal's DVD is a superb package all around, featuring deleted scenes (including a more subdued climax), audio commentary, and other extras in an affordable, non-deluxe price package. The 1.85:1 transfer looks at least as good as Joel Schumacher's BATMAN films and the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix -- featuring Stephen Warbeck score (some of which was reportedly replaced by Shirley Walker) -- will give your home theater set-up a workout.

While MYSTERY MEN was not a box-office hit, at least it didn't end up losing all of its funds the way that DUDLEY DO-RIGHT (**, $29.98) did.

The idea was an obvious one: reteam the creative talents of GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE, option another Jay Ward cartoon, and hope for similar box-office results. Unfortunately for Universal, the movie didn't click, and was hacked down by the studio (to some 75 minutes!) before being dumped into release last Labor Day weekend.

Still, this wacky adaptation of the cartoon favorite does boast a slick production and a few laughs. Brendan Fraser (as Dudley), Alfred Molina (as Snidely Whiplash), and Sarah Jessica Parker (Nelle) seem to be having a good time and the widescreen cinematography -- kudos to Donald E.Thorin for giving the movie a cinematic look -- is lush and colorful. Steve Dorff's amiable score gets good use out of the old theme song, and you do get to see truly nutty supporting turns by Eric Idle and Alex Rocco. It ain't high art, but for kids and fans of the old show, you could do a lot worse.

Universal's DVD here gives you the option of listening to either the Dolby Digital or DTS soundtracks; if you have a choice, the DTS mix is clearer and better-defined. A 2.35:1 transfer gives you the entire widescreen frame while a cropped Pan-and-Scan print is also included, which predictably doesn't look nearly as good.

Buena Vista has also been busy, releasing several notable new releases, highlighted by Spike Lee's entertaining though overstuffed SUMMER OF SAM (**1/2, $29.98), a technically proficient drama that feels a bit too much like Martin Scorsese for its own good and has a few unintended laughs thrown into the mix.

John Leguizamo plays a regular fella in an Italian neighborhood in Queens during the hot summer of '77; Mira Sorvino is his faithful girlfriend who stands pat while Leguizamo plays around with everyone else in the village. Meanwhile, affected by the rising punk movement of the day, Adrien Brody returns home to find his friends bewildered by his appearance and questioning whether or not he may be the Son of Sam, the serial killer that struck terror in the hearts of all New Yorkers during that long, hot summer.

Jimmy Breslin even appears to open and close this flavorful slice of life, which, like most of Spike Lee's films, boasts striking cinematography (by Ellen Kuras) and excellent performances across the board, most notably from Leguizamo and Brody. Touchstone's DVD release, matted at 1.85:1 and featuring a searing Dolby Digital soundtrack, helps to preserve the movie's atmosphere and visual look, which in its best moments truly makes the viewer feel the atmosphere of the moment.

Unfortunately, like a lot of Lee's films, the director doesn't know when to quit. The script -- by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, and Lee -- tends to get bogged down in Italian stereotypes, non-stop profanity, and overdone melodrama, leaving you with the feeling that you're watching a watered-down GOODFELLAS. A cringe-inducing shouting match between Leguizamo and Sorvino is the sort of sequence that should have been left on the cutting room floor, while a pulse-pounding montage sequence culminates in unintended laughs once Terence Blanchard's overstated music score is coupled with the unforgettable, never-should-have-been-shot sequence where a talking dog (voiced by John Tuturro!) tells the Son of Sam to go out and kill. It's simply too much, coming in from left field with no rhyme or reason (sure, it may have been one of the killer's motivations, but there HAD to be a better way to show it on- screen).

Nevertheless, it's a better movie than most of Lee's more recent efforts, with nearly as many good sequences compensating for the not-so-good ones.

Buena Vista has also released SCREAM and "Dawson's Creek" creator Kevin Williamson's disastrous directorial debut, TEACHING MRS. TINGLE (*1/2, $29.98), on DVD in a technically proficient package boasting both Dolby/DTS digital audio formats and a razor-sharp 1.85:1 transfer to boot.

Unfortunately, the movie is every bit as disappointing as you've heard -- a curiously tentative high school farce that wants to mimic HEATHERS, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and other John Hughes youth comedies, but winds up shooting blanks on all counts.

"Dawson's Creek" ingenue Katie Holmes virtually reprises her TV role as an overachieving student from an underachieving family who needs a scholarship to get into college. Grumpy history teacher Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren) stands in her way once she accuses Holmes of cheating, which leads Holmes, her best friend (the hysterically unfunny Marisa Coughlan) and bad boy Barry Watson (a vet of another WB teen drama, "7th Heaven") to do what any normal high school student would: bound Mrs.Tingle to her bed, threaten to kill her with a crossbow, and get her to change her mind.

It would be offensive if the movie wasn't so D.O.A. from beginning to end. Even Williamson's usually incisive, witty, too-adult-for-teenagers dialogue is completely absent from the preceding, which fails as both comedy and thriller, and only shows signs of life when drunken coach Jeffrey Tambor pops up to consummate his affair with the gagged professor.

Fox, meanwhile, has recently unleashed the DVD of LAKE PLACID (**1/2, $29.98), which contrary to most of the negative reviews the movie received last summer, is actually a SPOOF that wasn't intended to be taken seriously on the part of viewers (I think).

Bill Pullman, wasted for the most part, plays a Maine wildlife expert called to the scene of a boating accident when small-town sherriff Brendon Gleeson witnesses an environmentalist's death while diving in the lake -- the kind of demise that Michael Ironside suffered in STARSHIP TROOPERS, to be more specific. Along with Pullman comes Bridget Fonda, a museum aide sent packing by ex-lover Adam Arkin to take a glimpse at the mysterious goings-on.

Directed efficiently by Steve Miner and with some competent digital effects work turned in by Stan Winston's group, LAKE PLACID is pretty much of a throwaway joke: the dialogue is often amusing, as is the interplay between the various characters. None of it, though, is quite as funny as it sometimes thinks it's being, and there's little suspense in the picture as much of it takes its derivative set-pieces straight from JAWS and JAWS 2. (And could it have killed the filmmakers to throw in a climactic kiss between the two leads?)

Still, I admit that I was entertained by LAKE PLACID. Fox's DVD certainly sweetens the deal with a lush 2.35:1 transfer capturing Daryn Okada's great widescreen cinematography in its scenic glory, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is likewise effective. I was not impressed with John Ottman's score -- it's too serious and predictable -- but the movie otherwise has enough engaging moments, and performances, to make it a worthwhile winter-time video view.

Fox is also releasing a handful of romantic comedies in time for Valentine's Day. The first batch features the Sandra Bullock comic soaper HOPE FLOATS (**1/2, $34.98) and the surprisingly good Jennifer Aniston vehicle PICTURE PERFECT (***, $34.98).

The former, directed by Forest Whitaker, does at least have the benefit of strong characterizations and good performances, particularly by Bullock as soon-to-be-single Mom who returns to her Texas hometown to pick up the pieces of her troubled love life. Harry Connick, Jr. acquits himself quite well as a possible romantic interest, while Dave Grusin's twangy-score is laced with country ballads in establishing mood and atmosphere.

PICTURE PERFECT isn't as ambitious, but it's a lot more fun. Aniston plays an advertising executive who desires arrogant agency man Kevin Bacon, but ultimately marries good-guy fireman Jay Mohr for appearance's sake, so she can nab a promotion. The key to this film's success is the funny and effective script, co-written by "Moonlighting" creator Glenn Gordon Caron, who also directed the film. As surprising as it may seem (yes, it's a good movie starring one of the "Friends" cast!), the relationships are well established and the movie is thoroughly entertaining from start to end. (And if you have a chance to catch Caron's new series, "Now and Again," by all means do so. This CBS series, which airs on Friday nights, is easily the most entertaining and unpredictable show on TV for my money).

Both HOPE FLOATS and PICTURE PERFECT boast crisp 1.85:1 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, as well as theatrical trailers. In terms of the abundance of gooey "date movies" out there, both of these should be of interest for discriminating DVD owners.

Changing gears a bit, Paramount has unloaded a feature-laden DVD for one of last year's quieter $100- million grossing hits, the military drama THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER (*1/2 movie, *** presentation, $29.98).

CON-AIR director Simon West is clearly a protÈgÈ of the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer school, and judging from the amount of smoke machines, filters, and fog that permeates every shot of this film, he's likely to follow in the footsteps of Ridley Scott and use a room full of circulating fans in his next movie.

As for this film, THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER is another run-of-the-mill service thriller, with folks in high places abusing their authority, hiding behind the code of honor, and conspiring to cover-up crimes. Yep, it's the same o'l song, with a murder -- and a possible rape of the General's Daughter (hey, there's the title!) -- being investigated by military cop John Travolta and former girlfriend Madeline Stowe.

You get the parade of suspects, which this time include presidential candidate James Cromwell (also the General himself), screwy James Woods, seemingly innocent Timothy Hutton (who had my money right from the start), and the General's faithful associate Clarence Williams III.

The film is ugly and predictable, and gets its only dramatic chops from the performances; Travolta and Stowe have a good chemistry that was undermined by pre-release cuts, while Woods and Cromwell do their darndest to sell the dialogue by Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman, as adapted from Nelson DeMille's novel. Otherwise, you've seen this act before (try A FEW GOOD MEN), as THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER offers no surprises whatsoever, and serves up a feast of ridiculous, illogical plot holes to compliment the action.

Paramount's DVD does look excellent, framed in the full 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, featuring an elaborate Dolby Digital soundtrack supporting Carter Burwell's edgy score and plenty of atmospheric surround effects. The DVD also features a featurette, trailer, commentary by West, and most impressively, four deleted scenes, three of which center on the relationship between Travolta and Stowe.

There's even a far better ending than the one used in the final cut, which confirms that West's dramatic instincts were incorrect and that the movie's only saving grace are the appeal of the performers. If you saw the film in theaters, or are a fan of either Travolta, Stowe, or Woods, the extra scenes make THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER a recommended view on DVD.

Next week we'll have a quick look at Anchor Bay's DVD of William Friedkin's nutty 1990 horror effort THE GUARDIAN, which Friedkin directed instead of the far superior sequel THE EXORCIST III (***, $19.98), which Warner Home Video has just released on DVD.

William Peter Blatty adapted his novel "Legion" for the screen, and the result is an often quietly effective thriller with George C.Scott taking over Lee J.Cobb's role as police Lieutenant Kinderman, investigating a new series of religiously-themed murders in Washington, D.C. which may or may not have something to do with the death of Father Karras (Jason Miller, reprising his role) from the original film.

Blatty's movie has two or three wonderfully effective moments (including one long take in a hospital corridor) that achieve genuine horror without resorting to a caravan of special effects. Scott's performance heads a superb cast, with fine support turned in by Ed Flanders as the sarcastic Father Dyer, Scott Wilson as a troubled doctor, and Brad Dourif as a mysterious mental patient claiming to be a murderer who was executed years before. (Also be on the lookout for Samuel L.Jackson, former Georgetown coach John Thompson, Larry King, and -- yes -- Fabio in blink-or-you'll-miss-em cameos!). It's an intriguing follow-up to the first film and, for my tastes, one of the best horror films of the 1990s despite its uneven editing in parts.

Speaking of that, Blatty did such a fine job directing the picture that it's unfortunate studio politics got in the way of the film's ending. Morgan Creek and Fox (which distributed the film to theaters) put up an additional million to change the film's climax since they didn't think a movie with THE EXORCIST in its title couldn't NOT have an exorcism actually in it. So, they added FX, make-up gore, and Nicol Williamson as an Exorcist to punch up the finale, which ultimately took away from the film's otherwise subdued, restrained tone.

Warner's might have been wise to include Blatty's original cut as a supplement here, but for $20 you could do a lot worse than this affordable DVD package, which offers a 90-second teaser, though the DVD itself is not without its flaws. The good news is that the 1.85:1 transfer looks terrific, and offers more picture information on the left and right edges than the full-frame version we've been saddled with ever since the film's theatrical engagements. The flesh tones look a bit orange but generally the picture is solid.

The bad news is that the remixed-for-Dolby Digital 5.1 track is vastly inferior to the sound on the old CBS/Fox laserdisc, utterly lacking any surround presence, which certainly wasn't the case on the original video releases. Perhaps Warner isn't to blame (they likely weren't working with the original materials, since Fox originally released the film theatrically and on video), but it's still a disappointment given how pungent the earlier audio mix was.

Still, given the low price-tag, you can overlook the flaw and enjoy the best-looking presentation of THE EXORCIST III we've yet seen -- a fitting package for an overlooked and effective chiller.

NEXT WEEK: SUPERNOVA, GALAXY QUEST, and new Anchor Bay releases. All comments can be sent to me at Until next time, excelsior!

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