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Spellbound by The Cell

Plus: T2-THE ULTIMATE EDITION on DVD and comments from the Mail Bag!

An Aisle Seat Entry by By Andy Dursin

The cool winds of September have made an early appearance in New England, but while the feel of Autumn is already in the air at our Aisle Seat offices, that's never entirely an unwelcome event.

In theaters, it means this disappointing and seemingly endless cinematic summer will be coming to a close, and not a moment too soon at that. This generally tepid season of cinematic missteps ends over the next two weekends with everything from a Kirsten Dunst cheerleader film to HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME. Thankfully, one recent film hasn't fallen victim to bad filmmaking and insipid studio-greenlighting, though it certainly is not a journey for everyone....


New in Theaters

THE CELL (***1/2): Anytime you can get someone's attention, capture it and keep it for the duration of an entire picture -- much less for a film belonging to the well-worn serial killer genre -- it ranks as some kind of accomplishment, especially considering the summer of 2000.

The nightmarish THE CELL is a dreamy, lyrical thriller that has already received polarized reaction from critics, but the bottom line is that -- at a time when originality seems to be one of the last things on the minds of studios and, seemingly, filmmakers as well -- Tarsem Singh's feature directorial debut is at least rich with visual extravagance and invention.

Like a cross between SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, DREAMSCAPE, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, and a bizarre variant on ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE CELL finds Jennifer Lopez as a social worker whose participation in a breakthrough scientific project enables her to enter into the mind of catatonic patients and communicate with them. This proves useful when serial killer Vincent D'Onofrio falls into a coma, and the latest of his female victims is trapped in a cell that will, within 40 hours, be filled with water.

With FBI agents Vince Vaughn and Jake Weber looking on, Lopez enters D'Onofrio's brain, and encounters a fantasy world filled with demons, S&M devices, staircases that stretch to infinity, and a young boy that proves to be the innocent inner-child trapped within the killer's tortured, schizophrenic, and demented mind.

Mark Protosevich's screenplay isn't quite as thin as some would have you believe, since at the very least it allows Singh -- a long-time director of music videos -- the opportunity to craft some genuinely spellbinding, haunting images (as well as a few gruesome ones that I was surprised didn't earn a NC-17 rating). THE CELL is a movie where the visuals overshadow the rest of the drama, but that seems to be the very point of the picture: we've been through the motions of this kind of plot many times before, but rarely has the overall effect of the drama and the manner in which it has been delivered been so entrancing.

The performances are generally solid, with D'Onofrio allowed to play a diabolical demonic king, crazed killer, and somewhat-sympathetic villain all at once. Lopez -- who wears an array of eye-popping costumes -- and Vaughn are fine, though both are relegated for the most part to standing around watching the images go by. Not that, in this picture, that's a criticism, since the cinematography, art direction and score (one of Howard Shore's most eclectic and striking works) combine to craft a memorable thriller that should gain a fairly long shelf life as a cult favorite for years to come.

THE CELL is a gorgeous-looking picture that, if it doesn't break new ground, at least breathes life into a summer dormant in creativity. (R, 115 mins)


New on DVD: T2-THE ULTIMATE EDITION rocks and ARABIAN NIGHTS swings

There seems to be an unwritten rule about how DVD (and laserdisc before it) works: wait a while to release the good stuff, then unleash it all at once. Now, I've never been too clear as to why or how this happens, but it seems like the "when it rains, it pours" theory is especially true for home-theater fans. Later this year we're going to be assaulted by a slew of long-awaited titles, so if you don't want your budget to be too pinched by year's end, it might be a good time to catch up on some of the newer titles that have -- or are just about -- to hit your local stores and online dealers.

Due out next week, Artisan's TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, THE ULTIMATE EDITION (***1/2 movie, **** presentation, $39.98) will not disappoint fans of Arnold, Cameron, or the 1992 blockbuster hit that -- while not my favorite JC or Arnold epic -- was a FX groundbreaker if nothing else.

Originally released on laserdisc in a mammoth Pioneer Special Edition limited-edition box-set (itself pressed twice), Artisan's superb, outstanding, insert-adjective-here achievement may well be the finest DVD released in a year that has been chock-full of format-pushing releases. To the best of my knowledge, everything -- and I mean everything -- from that Pioneer laserdisc set is here, with the exception of the Guns N'Roses music video, which seems to have been excluded due to legal wrangling.

Otherwise, every still-frame supplement and extra is on-tap, plus a slew of new features exclusive to this release, which is entirely contained on two sides of a single DVD. First off, the movie includes three different cuts -- the original theatrical release version (still the best cut of the film), the expanded "Special Edition" (which slows down the pace), and a "hidden" third cut of the movie, which includes the alternate "definite ending" coda that was previously seen only as outtake footage on the Pioneer LD.

To access this third cut, you need to perform a special trick, and while I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise for some people, I CAN tell you that you're never going to find it unless someone lets you in on it. (To access the third version, visit the "Special Edition" menu screen. Then, press -- very slowly -- the numbers "8-2-9-9-7." A lighted yellow panel becomes increasingly visible on the right side of the screen, which you then highlight to access the "alternate" Special Edition version. Something tells me more people are going to be asking about this than how to find the isolated score track on THE MUMMY!).

Theatrical trailers and teasers (including a handful of Japanese spots), featurettes, three different documentary features (including the premiere of the "T2" making-of Universal ride special), countless storyboards, still-text supplements, and every other facet from the PSE laserdisc have all been included here, and the menu screens and navigation -- long a pet peeve of mine in the DVD format -- are amazingly easily accessible considering the vast amount of material that the DVD contains. While THE ABYSS SPECIAL EDITION DVD did contain virtually the entire contents from the laserdisc, its packaging and menu navigation was a bit too complicated for its own good -- suffice to say that no such problem exists here.

As far as the movie goes, the 2.35 THX transfer is immaculate and you have your choice of audio formats: 5.1 Dolby Digital (EX-enhanced), 5.1 DTS, or a basic 2.0 Pro Logic track. The audio commentary from the LD is also included, along with a 30-plus page booklet and a metallic case that houses the basic DVD cover.

In other words, this T2 is pretty much the most jam-packed, entertaining supplemental DVD release of 2000 so far.

Also out from Artisan and well worth a rental (if not a purchase) is the exquisite, wonderful made-for-TV fantasy ARABIAN NIGHTS (***1/2, $24.98), which aired on ABC last May and now makes for an enchanting DVD, particularly since the commercial breaks have been eliminated.

A lavish production from veteran small-screen mogul Robert Halmi, this is likely the best of all of his fantasy efforts (which have included the overrated "Gulliver's Travels," the enjoyable "Odyssey," the overlong "Tenth Kingdom," the tiresome "Merlin" and the unwatchable "Magical Legend of the Leprechauns").

ARABIAN NIGHTS, which originally aired in two parts (the DVD contains the full 175-minute cut) boasts a superb cast (Milli Avital, Dougray Scott, Rufus Sewell, Alan Bates, and a hilarious John Leguizamo), terrific locations, an atmospheric score by Richard Harvey, and excellent special effects that are wisely kept in check throughout. The transfer is often razor-sharp and the 2.0 Dolby Surround track is elaborate by television standards. A 13-minute featurette on the making of the production is also included. Highly recommended.

Finally, Artisan has rolled out a fine DVD presentation for Roman Polanski's overlong and disappointing THE NINTH GATE (**, $24.98), with Johnny Depp as an antique book specialist who is lured into finding a long-lost volume that will supposedly lure Old Scratch to Earth. Aside from a few gratuitous sex scenes, this is a passionless, leaden affair, with Depp -- who reportedly hated working on the film -- appearing confused throughout. Only Frank Langella's wry performance brings any life to the picture.

Artisan's DVD features an excellent 2.35 transfer, Dolby Digital track, along with trailers, production notes, commentary by Polanski himself, a featurette, and an isolated score track for Wojiciech Kilar's redundant but often quirky soundtrack, one that's at least more interesting than the movie itself.


Mail Bag

>From Daniel S. Lee:

    Hi, Andy! I read your most recent article on the SUPERGIRL DVD from the FSM website, and I agree with everything you had to say. In fact, my very first complaint about this new transfer (which does look great, as does Ms. Slater) was that too much bottom picture information had been masked off. There are some scenes where the black bars of the widescreen seem completely inappropriate, and give the movie a very cramped look. This is especially noticeable after viewing the full screen trailers, where the "S" on Supergirl's costume is always on-screen, but is cut off in the 2.35:1 picture.

    As for the movie itself...well, I saw this film in its initial at the movie theater where I used to work as a kid. I thought for sure itwould be a hit (especially after the disappointing SUPERMAN III from a couple years earlier) because it kept selling out all week-end. When I finally did get to view the whole thing, and not just bits and pieces while I was on break from making $3.35 an hour, I was shocked by how colossaly BAD it was. The movie seemed to go on forever with bad dialogue, illogical plot points, and boring action scenes. Half the time, I had no idea what the hell was going on because the movie never explained or demonstrated any reason for what was going on with the story (How did Supergirl get her costume? Why did she assume the look of Courtney Cox and enroll in an all-girls school? Why did the producers hire Brenda Vacarro, and how did they cover her heavy breathing [remember those Playtex tampon commercials)? Were those dummies I just saw in that round cage? Is that black line I just saw a wire?) and I was convinced it was the very worst superhero film I had ever seen...that is, until SUPERMAN IV and BATMAN AND ROBIN came out...

    After years of enduring poorly panned and scanned, washed out and murky home video versions of the film (hey, I can't resist seeing Helen Slater, who looked like a fresh-faced Cathering Deneuve in a tight shirt and skirt...so sue me), I was once again shocked by how great the movie looked on DVD (aside from the bottom cropping). So until SUPERMAN THE MOVIE and SUPERMAN II are released on DVD, this film will have keep DC Comics fans occupied...

Daniel, I couldn't agree more. The transfer is a disappointment in the matting department, but despite that (and the fact that the booklet notes get the U.S. version's running time wrong -- again!), I think the DVD is marvelous fun.

As far as the other SUPES movies go, many DVD websites have been reporting that the SUPERMAN DVD has been pushed back to next year. I would think Warner will release all of the sequels together at the same time, and hopefully include the abundance of deleted scenes that exist from the TV versions for all three of the follow-ups.

Listen, I know people hate SUPERMAN III, but if you take the movie as a pure comic-book captured on screen (whether you agree or not with that concept), I think the film is still entertaining, and boasts some of Christopher Reeve's best work as the Man of Steel. I like Annette O'Toole, I enjoy Robert Vaughn, I think the whole Superman-Goes-Evil subplot is great and, okay, so Richard Pryor is out of control, but go back and watch this movie again -- and then compare it with SUPERMAN IV. Night and day, I tell you!

Now that most of you think I'm as loony as Kevin McCarthy running down the street shouting "you're next!" in the original BODY SNATCHERS, let's move on to an enlightening email about our semi-on- going discussion of GLADIATOR's special effects...

>From Jon A. Bell:

    The "blue look" present in some of the shots in "Gladiator" had nothing whatsoever to do with "sub-standard digital effects." You cannot create a digital special effects shot today and have it turn out to be a different color than what you're seeing on your screen; the only way this shot could be "a mistake" is if someone processed the film incorrectly. For the record, some of the Rome shots were desaturated specifically at the request of Ridley Scott, who was going for a near-black and white, "Triumph of the Will" effect in the scenes. (This has been commented on in both Cinefex and American Cinematographer.) As an artistic choice, I disagree with this decision; I thought the shots stood out like a sore thumb, and made what could've been utterly photoreal CG effects look unnecessarily stylized -- and therefore unreal.

    As a 3D graphics artist who's done film and video work, it amazes me that people today seem to think of "digital" effects as inherently phony, or somehow less "real" than "traditional" special effects techniques. I think the takeover of digital effects techniques in production has started to make people feel jaded; now that we can essentially visualize anything on film, people will look at a genuinely excellent effects shot (in my opinion) and think, "huh, I know that's just a digital effect." Well, duh. What would make it better? Matte lines? Jittering registration? Increased grain and scratches?

    I've seen bad digital effects in my career -- just as I've seen tons of bad analog effects shots. However, the majority of digital effects today are so skillfully done that people are utterly unaware of them -- and are effects that couldn't have been replicated with analog means.

>From Michael Karoly:

    Just some thoughts on some films you've been talking about. Firstly, I was somewhat disappointed in the edited JAWS special edition package, especially considering that he re-released the special edition of 1941 in its entirety on DVD. I would have gladly paid for two discs if it meant getting everything- I don't know what he's thinking (or Lucas for that matter), and while I'm grateful for the film (which looks and sounds glorious), why should he stiff us on everything else? It really makes me wonder how he's going to handle the RAIDERS trilogy (if ever), CEO3K, and ET. I saw X-MEN the other day, and I really liked it, except that it seemed "choppy" and incomplete at times. Your review cleared that up for me, so I hope we get to see a "director's cut" or something on a DVD release. I am not familiar with the X-Men universe, so I went into the movie knowing next to nothing. I liked the fact that the fight scenes weren't over-done but were very "modest"; I did wish I knew more about the others, but I'm sure they will be explored in future films. I think it's one of the better attempts to bring comic book characters/super-heroes and villains to the screen, especially after having to endure the last two BATMAN films.

If JAWS is going to be the rule, then you can forget about the complete documentaries for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T. making their way to DVD. Fox should release a great DVD for X-MEN later on this fall, so hopefully we'll get a look at all of the deleted footage -- or even better, perhaps the option of watching an alternate "longer cut" of the movie included in the package!

>From Mathieu Beauregard:

    I read somewhere that there may be a DVD release of the complete first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (like what has been done with The X-Files). Do you have some info about this like, is Fox releasing that? when? will there be any extra material or just the episodes? Being a big fan of this TV series, I'm eagerly awaiting the DVD release, as I suspect you are too. Thanks in advance for any bits of info you may have.

Fox is reportedly working on a box-set of BUFFY's season one for 2001, so that should be good news for the Scooby Gang. For anyone who still thinks this show is an airhead waste of time, any prospective DVD release would be an ideal way to win over some converts. Let's hope Fox does the trick next year.

NEXT TIME... GODZILLA 2000, an-almost-end-of-summer-wrap-up, plus more new releases and your comments! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you later. Excelsior!

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