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Aisle Seat DVD Holiday Buyer's Guide 2000, Pt. I

Part One of 33 DVDs Ideally Suited for Holiday Giving!

By Andy Dursin

Greetings again, everyone! The Aisle Seat has been in hibernation for a while, and even though I'm still trying to put down on paper just how much I hated "Unbreakable" (something we'll save for a near-future column, no doubt), the time has to come to run down some of the best, most recent DVD releases just in time for holiday purchasing consumption.

With DVD finally a full-blown success with consumers everywhere, chances are good that someone you know could use a good DVD this season -- but which ones are for the good friends you have, and others for only the naughty ones? The Laserphile knows, and here's the first review block of some 33 new DVD releases for your reading (and purchase-advising) pleasure...


GLADIATOR. Dreamworks, $29.98.

MOVIE RATING: **1/2.

WHAT IT IS: One of the year's highest grossing movies, Ridley Scott's somewhat over-directed and under-plotted sword-and-scandal epic nevertheless packed them in around the world. Russell Crowe gives a fine performance as a Roman General whose family is killed by the tyrannical Emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) and vows revenge against the villain. The performances are strong (Connie Nielsen is breathtaking as Phoenix's sister), Hans Zimmer's music appropriately majestic and moving, and the production lavish enough, but somewhere along the line someone forgot that 2 1/2 hour epics need more dramatic substance than a one-dimensional bad guy whose dad never loved him. Lots of good stuff here -- it just needed more plot.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Dreamworks' 2-DVD set sizzles in a great 2.35 transfer and outstanding DTS and Dolby Digital audio mixes.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: You name it, and they're here. Audio commentary, behind-the-scenes documentaries, deleted scenes (some of which should have been restored to the movie), trailers, TV spots, storyboards, and -- best for all for FSM readers -- a 20-minute interview with Zimmer round out a super package, one of the best DVD supplements in a year filled with phenomenal candidates.

GIFT POTENTIAL: One of the best DVD releases of the last quarter of 2000, Dreamworks' package looks great, sounds better, and offers an impressive gallery of supplements. It's hard to believe anyone will complain with the quality of the presentation here.


SHAFT. Paramount, $29.98.

MOVIE RATING: ***.

WHAT IT IS: The return of Shaft to the big-screen was one of the few truly welcome concepts in a cinematic year filled with more junk than we could have possibly imagined. Six months after this movie's release, "Shaft"'s flaws seem to pale in comparison to many of the other big-studio concoctions we've had to endure in 2000. Samuel L. Jackson is firmly entrenched in cool as the nephew of the great private dick, but co-star Jeffrey Wright steals the show as a drug dealing bad guy. David Arnold's score, meanwhile, is one of the year's best, a fun homage to '70s orchestral/funk soundtracks (making its failure to be released all the more regrettable. Someone let me know if they ever find a copy!). It's a glossy production all the way, well-paced by director John Singleton, and unlike most movies I've seen this year, even improves on second viewing.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Outstanding 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both on a level with Paramount's usual high standards.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: No commentary or deleted scenes, but a few goodies can be found here. Two good featurettes -- one focusing on the film's production, the other on interviews with the cast and crew -- are included, along with the theatrical trailer, and music videos for Isaac Hayes' new recording of his classic "Shaft" theme and R. Kelly's "Bad Man."

GIFT POTENTIAL: If you're looking for a new action movie that won't get on your nerves and has some semblance of style, "Shaft" is one of your few choices from a relatively barren year for cinematic excellence. There was room for improvement in the script, but it's satisfying enough, and Paramount's DVD does nothing to alter that feeling.


CHICKEN RUN. Dreamworks, $26.98.

MOVIE RATING: ***.

WHAT IT IS: Nick Park and Peter Lord, the "Wallace & Gromit" creators, fly high with their first theatrical feature, a send-up of "The Great Escape" and other POW movies with chickens wanting to escape their ultimate fate (being made into yummy chicken pies -- hey, they ARE a holiday favorite!) by flying the coop. A Rhode Island Red (voiced by Mel Gibson) helps to show them the way.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: A solid 1.85 transfer and engaging 5.1 Dolby Digital track are included.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary is the main attraction here, along with a trailer. Extra goodies (like an animated storybook) are included for kids.

GIFT POTENTIAL: One of the best family draws of the cinematic year, "Chicken Run" is more amusing than it is funny, but should appeal equally to kids (especially older children) and adults, who will enjoy the in-jokes related to movies of yesteryear.


THE ROAD TO EL DORADO. Dreamworks, $26.98.

MOVIE RATING: **1/2.

WHAT IT IS: Dreamworks' expensive second animated feature was not a big box-office hit, and after viewing the DVD, it's not hard to see why. This is one uneven ride, with a pair of adventurers stumbling upon the Lost City of Gold, and its various inhabitants (including a spicy female voiced by Rosie Perez). Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh handle the voices for our protagonists, and are backed by Elton John/Tim Rice songs that have the same basic effect as Phil Collins' superior ballads did in "Tarzan" (i.e. commenting on the action instead of being a part of it). The animation is generally superb but Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio's script wanders the gamut from Disney-like kids stuff to adult innuendo. Either way, it sounds as if this movie was the impetus for Disney to junk their "Kingdom of the Sun" project and re-film it as the newly released "Emperor's New Groove."

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Dreamworks' DVD looks vibrant and colorful in its transfer here, even if the 1.85 framing sometimes feels a bit too tight on top. There are both DTS and Dolby Digital tracks to choose from here, and they both sound excellent (with a slight edge to the DTS track). SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary from the filmmakers, featurettes, trailers, and a video of Elton John's enjoyable "Someday Out of the Blue" are included along with features geared for the small fry.

GIFT POTENTIAL: It might wander all over the place, but at least "El Dorado" is more interesting than your typical non-Disney animated feature. Kids, particularly older ones, will find it sufficiently interesting and chances are good that animation fans will soak up the visuals.


ROAD TRIP. Dreamworks, $29.98.

MOVIE RATING: **1/2.

WHAT IT IS: This year's highest-grossing raunchy teen comedy is a great deal of fun, as it chronicles a group of college students who travel from Ithaca, NY to Texas to patch up a small misunderstanding between a poetic guy (Breckin Meyer) and his girlfriend (Rachel Blanchard). Lots of low-brow gags are mixed with genuinely funny moments, most of which are provided by MTV comedian Tom Green. And, after watching the mind-numbingly crass efforts that followed from the Farrellys and Keenan Ivory Wayans later in the summer, "Road Trip" seems like pure comedic genius by comparison.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: An excellent 1.85 transfer is included, along with dual DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Dreamworks' Special Edition is loaded with goodies, including deleted scenes, a documentary featurette, an Eels music video (don't ask me), and four minutes of cut footage restored to the movie (at least in the unrated DVD version we received).

GIFT POTENTIAL: If you enjoyed "American Pie," chances are good that you'll get an even bigger kick out of this superior, wacky teen comedy.


GOSSIP. Warner, $24.98.

MOVIE RATING: *1/2.

WHAT IT IS: One of the year's lowest-grossing studio releases, "Gossip" is essentially "The Game" for teenagers, with sex, lies, and other forms of bad behavior found among college students at a major metropolitan college. This project initially belonged to Joel Schumacher until he dropped out and Davis Guggenheim (Elisabeth Shue's auteur husband) took over. Aside from illustrating his penchant for showing people running and up and down staircases (tell me half of this movie doesn't show characters on staircases!), Guggenheim seems to have borrowed a few pages from the David Fincher playbook in crafting an ugly-looking but somehow compulsively watchable "bad movie," with lame performances turned in by James Marsden, Lena Headey, Kate Hudson and Joshua Jackson, among others.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 2.35 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is throbbing with songs and Graeme Revell score.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Warner's DVD is surprisingly strong on the supplemental side, with commentary from Guggenheim and Marsden, several deleted scenes (including an extended ending), music videos and other goodies thrown in for good measure.

GIFT POTENTIAL: If you're a teen movie addict, you'll want to check out "Gossip," and if you're an aficionado of bad movies, you won't want to miss it.


LOSER. Columbia TriStar, $24.98.

MOVIE RATING: *1/2.

WHAT IT IS: A strange, uneven follow-up to her hit "Clueless," director Amy Heckerling's "Loser" finds "American Pie" stars Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari stuck in a disjointed romantic-comedy-drama filled with stock characters and heavy-handed situations. Biggs plays an optimistic small-town boy who goes to NYC to attend college, encounters fellow free-spirit Suvari, only to find her involved in a relationship with professor Greg Kinnear. The two stars are engaging and have solid chemistry together on-screen, but the movie is curiously uneven, with a tone that seems as if it wants to be more serious but is, generally, stuck in one-dimensional sitcom land. Biggs's obnoxious roommates are awfully tough to take, and the movie's obviously reshot ending is evidence of a movie that never got its act together.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Columbia's DVD features both widescreen (1.85) and full-frame transfers, plus 5.1 and regular Dolby Surround audio mixes.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Trailers, notes, bios and a Wheatus music video.

GIFT POTENTIAL: I wanted to like "Loser" more, but what can you say about a movie where its unappealing title is all too appropriate? Biggs and Suvari are appealing but it's too bad they were saddled with this material. For undiscriminating romantic-comedy, teen movie buffs only.


THE REPLACEMENTS. Warner, $24.98.

MOVIE RATING: *1/2.

WHAT IT IS: An unbelievably bland piece of junk-food movie-making that somehow managed to attract stars Keanu Reeves (fresh off "The Matrix," no less!), Gene Hackman and others. The idea isn't bad (what happens when a group of scab football players take over for high-priced, striking pros during the middle of a season), but the execution plays out like a group of by-the-numbers sports movie clichés without any linking material. Only Brooke Langton, as a cheerleader who falls in love with Reeves (the scab quarterback), provides any brightness to the preceding.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 1.85 transfer and boisterous 5.1 Dolby Digital track are up to Warner's usual high standards.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: An HBO First Look special and a promotional featurette are included, plus commentary from director Howard Deutsch and the trailer.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Even die-hard sports movie addicts will be hard-pressed to recommend this one, which pulled a disappearing act in last August's box-office race. So ordinary it defies any further criticism, perhaps undiscriminating Keanu aficionados will find it of interest.


ANNIE. Columbia, $24.98.

MOVIE RATING: **.

WHAT IT IS: The financially successful but critically lambasted 1982 adaptation of the award-winning Broadway musical, which adeptly illustrated that John Huston never previously directed a musical for a very good reason: he couldn't. Overblown, overlong, and over-produced by Ray Stark, this gargantuan effort wasted Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks and the terrific Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin score in an often charmless theatrical setting.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 2.35 widescreen aspect ratio is essential to watching the movie (as evidenced by the full- frame version also included here), and Columbia's transfer on those grounds is excellent. The 2.0 Dolby Surround is fine but nothing extraordinary.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: A trailer that's as overlong as the movie itself.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Despite everything I've said, there are undoubtedly former Annie-philes out there (especially ladies between 20-35) who will get a big dose of nostalgia from this DVD release, even if the movie's every bit as disappointing as its reputation suggests. Check out the Disney made-for-TV version from last year (also out on DVD) instead.


MALICE. MGM, $19.98.

MOVIE RATING: ***.

WHAT IT IS: A delightful thriller filled with twists and turns (which, for once, weren't entirely given away in the trailers), this 1993 mystery from director Harold Becker is great fun, and boasts some of the best work from stars Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, and Bill Pullman. Set in a quiet New England college town (shot in Amherst, Mass., the collegiate stomping grounds of our beloved publisher), "Malice" is one of those movies where nothing is as it is seems: a succession of co-eds are being bumped off, leading to a barrage of suspects being questioned (including dean Pullman and surgeon Baldwin, whose speech to a medical board headed by George C.Scott is one of the most oft-quoted from any movie made in the early '90s). Jerry Goldsmith's score is effective, Gordon Willis's cinematography is superb, and the script by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank is chock full of enjoyable, noir-ish twists with its audience kept clearly in mind.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Good news for anyone who owned either Image's old, muddy letterboxed laserdisc, or Polygram's pan-and-scan DVD: MGM has done a super job remastering "Malice," including a vibrant, bright transfer in both full-frame and 1.85 aspect ratios. The LD was so dark it was hard to see anything that was going on, and MGM's new transfer is so much better, there's no comparison. The Dolby Surround track is perfectly fine.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: The advertised "original theatrical trailer" on the back jacket is nothing but an advertisement for New Line's VHS release!

GIFT POTENTIAL: For mystery-thriller fans, "Malice" is a great choice for DVD viewing. The movie is one of my favorite thrillers from the '90s and MGM's presentation on DVD is easily the movie's most satisfying video release to date.


IMAGINARY CRIMES. Warner, $19.98.

MOVIE RATING: ***.

WHAT IT IS: An under-appreciated 1994 coming-of-age story with Fairuza Balk as a motherless teen trying to raise her younger sister in spite of a father (Harvey Keitel) who seems more interested in living out his own failed schemes than being a good parent. Director Anthony Drazan coaxes outstanding performances from Keitel and Balk, supplemented by a good script by Kristine Johnson and Davia Nelson, who adapted the novel by Sheila Ballantyne. It's a depressing ride at times, but the story is often moving and remains one of the better period pieces to emerge from the mid '90s (and far superior to the somewhat similar "This Boy's Life," which appeared a few years earlier).

TRANSFER AND SOUND: Warner's DVD, while affordably priced, is something of a disappointment. While the 1.85 transfer is acceptable, the 5.1 "remastered" Dolby Digital soundtrack is a disaster, taking the movie's original Dolby Surround mix and "expanding" it into a muddled mess where the dialogue is often hard to hear. If you have the original laserdisc release, stick with it and pass on the DVD.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: A theatrical trailer, stressing the movie's positive reviews (and hoping to sell a national release which never happened), is included along with ads for other Morgan Creek-produced pictures.

GIFT POTENTIAL: The movie is a true sleeper that has never really been discovered by audiences, so the DVD release is welcome, even if the soundtrack is a problem. Worth a look for those interested in an intimate, well-acted character drama.


GETTYSBURG. Warner Bros., $24.98.

MOVIE RATING: ***1/2.

WHAT IT IS: The highly acclaimed 1993 TNT mini-series which was turned into a theatrical feature after Ted Turner and Co. enjoyed the rushes. And why not? Epic battles and historical accuracy are a pair of elements that this chronicle of the defining battle of the American Civil War have in spades. Backed by an excellent score by Randy Edelman (which remains arguably his finest work) and solid performances from Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen and Stephen Lang among others, "Gettysburg" should satisfy both the Civil War buff and action- craving genre fan seeking to learn more about it.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 1.85 aspect ratio recreates the movie's theatrical appearance, although I'm assuming that the movie was always shot with the TV-safe 1.33 aspect ratio in mind. In comparison to Image's earlier laserdisc release, the transfer is better balanced and only a tad grainier, while the 5.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack is comparable, if not slightly superior, to the original Dolby Surround mix.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Warner has loaded up this DVD with a handful of extras, including a behind-the-scenes documentary hosted by Martin Sheen which aired on TNT, along with a 1955 MGM documentary, "The Battle of Gettysburg," narrated by Leslie Nielsen. Using actual footage of the location, this Oscar-nominated featurette was shot in Cinemascope and is here letterboxed in its 2.35 glory. An enlightening commentary from director Ronald F.Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Ostrum, Pulitzer prize-winning author James M. McPherson and military historian Craig Symonds are augmented by additional information such as battlefield maps, cast-and-crew info, and other goodies -- all packed on one "DVD 18" double-sided disc for your viewing pleasure.

GIFT POTENTIAL: If you know anyone who's a Civil War buff or a history fanatic, this is a splendid disc all around. The extras are terrific and a dynamite value for the money.


TOMORROW: '80s favorites and classics from the '60s and '70s in Part II of our DVD Holiday Buyer's Guide 2000! Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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