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DVD Summer Preview, Part One!

From FIGHT CLUB to THE GREEN MILE, we've got the low-down on the hottest upcoming and recent DVD releases!

An Aisle Seat Sweeps-tacular By Andy Dursin

It seems to happen every year at the same time: so many DVDs are released, one right on top of the other, that it's tough to keep up. Your wallet gets maxed out as studios decide that the windows prime for new releases come right around May-June and November-December... it's just the way it is, a fact of life as sure as birds migrating and fish swimming upstream.

This summer, to catch up on the plethora of new releases that have infiltrated our Aisle Seat offices, I figured I'd take the same approach I did with last winter's Holiday DVD Wrap-Up, and go studio-by-studio through the new stuff I've received. So, without further commentary from me (except to say that, if you enjoy raunchy college comedies, ROAD TRIP is worth a look), here's the first of two Aisle Seat columns looking at the DVDs of summer...

FOX: Has planned a handful of big releases, including a 2-DVD box-set for INDEPENDENCE DAY, a boxed set of PLANET OF THE APES, and other goodies.

The cream of the crop in terms of supplemental, however, will easily be FIGHT CLUB (**1/2 movie, **** presentation, $34.98), a lavish 2-DVD set due out June 6th that, from my viewpoint, truly sets new marks in terms of Special Edition DVD presentations. With this terrific release, Fox raises the bar on extras -- no small task given some of the terrific recent DVDs we've seen of late.

In addition to actually interesting packaging and menu designs, you get for your money: 4 separate commentary tracks (the best with Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and David Fincher watching the film together, interspersed with comments from Helena Bonham Carter), 20 minutes of outtake footage, a handful of alternate opening credit sequences with a choice of musical compositions, behind-the-scenes info and storyboards, trailers (including an unfinished teaser completed specifically for the DVD), and best of all, some 17 different interactive chapters that enable you to examine a certain sequence in the film from pre- production scouting, location filming, and post-production angles. Add in a music video, a sensational Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, a great 2.35 transfer, and a movie that encourages repeat viewing even if you didn't care for it the first time around (and I was one of those people), and you have the makings for what truly is a brilliantly produced DVD that covers all the bases.

I have to say, although Fox did a bang-up job with THE ABYSS, I think the studio has taken the lead with this title in terms of producing innovative and comprehensive supplemental packages specifically for the DVD format. Few other studios have been willing to take the leap into the Double-Disc sets that Fox has released so far, and yet they've managed to do it while keeping the price affordable at the same time.

Needless to say, if you enjoyed FIGHT CLUB you'll find this comprehensive package to be an essential pick-up, while general DVD viewers will savor the extras that enrich a flawed but at least energetic blast of social commentary, thriller, and twisted black comedy. For a closer examination of my original review, click here.

Fox has recently released the chick flick ANYWHERE BUT HERE (**1/2, $34.98), one of two coming-of- age Natalie Portman pics not to be confused with the in-release "Where the Heart Is." This one stars Susan Sarandon as a wacky mom who tries her teen daughter Portman's patience; while the film is predictable almost at every turn, the movie is elevated by the performances and assured directed from Wayne Wang. There's also a pleasant Danny Elfman score that helps out a great deal. The transfer (2.35) and Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack are both excellent, so if you have a date or spouse out there who tries of your constant viewings of "Armageddon," you could do far worse than to check out ANYWHERE BUT HERE.

WARNER BROS.: One of last winter's biggest box-office hits, Frank Darabont's long-awaited but disappointing adaptation of Stephen King's terrific novel THE GREEN MILE (**1/2, $24.98) will be rolling out on DVD on June 13th. Because the movie is 188 minutes, supplements here are limited to a brief documentary and a trailer, but the overall visual presentation and Dolby Digital soundtrack are both on a par with the typically pristine Warner Bros. release.

Darabont's long-awaited follow-up to his fantastic THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE is, as you've heard by now, another Stephen King prison story, though what was a far more layered and developed literary source than "Shawshank" turns into far less of an involving cinematic experience by comparison. This straightforward death row tale with supernatural elements, chronicling the gentle giant John Coffey's tenure on death row in Louisiana during the Great Depression, is depressingly bland and dramatically static, plodding through its bloated running time with an air of self-importance while disregarding the pulpy, serialized nature of King's source material.

Part of the problem is that Darabont's obvious faithfulness to the novel's plot is contrasted with his interpreting the story and the characters by way of a rather formulaic filmmaking approach. There's no substance to the drama, none of King's biting commentary. While Darabont seems firm in his desire to capture the basic "Point A to Point B" storylines, he misses the grit and the heart that King's book provided in spades.

What results is a film that moves so slowly and on such an even dramatic keel that it never conveys the life and energy that the story held on the page, in effect turning a low-key emotional tale into a bloated "Hollywood movie" that doesn't appear to be worth all the fuss after 3 hours and 8 minutes of celluloid.

Tom Hanks (as Paul Edgecombe), Michael Clarke Duncan (as John Coffey), and David Morse (as another guard on the "Mile") are all terrific, but THE GREEN MILE is so downright maudlin at times -- as opposed to the novel's bittersweet examination of life and death -- that it never captures the atmosphere and various layers that made King's novel so moving and captivating. It's as if Darabont was knowingly filming "an Oscar contender," and while the picture is well-made and acted (and perhaps more satisfying if you haven't read the book), it's surprisingly sterile, right down to the generic bookending sequences and Thomas Newman's mundane score.

While the movie may be worth a look for patient viewers, despite its high-profile cast and filmmakers, I'm not too certain that THE GREEN MILE wouldn't have been better off being adapted as a made-for- television project, where the multi-night form and lower budget might have been more ideally suited for one of King's best stories.

Moving on to lighter fare, in the annals of the baseball movie -- a distinctly American genre not unlike the Stephen King prison film -- there are many classics out there, from fantasies like THE NATURAL to satires like THE BAD NEWS BEARS.

One of the most enduring films of the lot is David S.Ward's nutty comedy MAJOR LEAGUE, the 1989 chronicle of the then-miserable Cleveland Indians' rise from futility to league champions, something that as any baseball fan will tell you happened for real just a few years after this picture was released. Ward's original film, which he directed, helped establish Charlie Sheen as a marquee-name (at least for a while), gave a huge shot in the arm of Tom Berenger's career as well, introduced Rene Russo to most of the movie- going public, and launched Wesley Snipes on his way to a lucrative career going stronger than anyone else at the present time. Along with the three leads, this "Slap Shot"-styled laughfest features a super supporting cast and plenty of guffaws -- ingredients that turned MAJOR LEAGUE into a box-office hit and spawned a pair of belated sequels in the process.

Unfortunately, while Warner Bros. has issued both MAJOR LEAGUE 2 and MAJOR LEAGUE: BACK TO THE MINORS ($19.98 each) on DVD this month, Paramount owns the original film and has yet to give it the digital go-ahead on disc. Until that time comes, fans of the series will have to enjoy the two follow-ups, both of which vary in terms of quality and DVD presentation.

It might surprise some that, despite returning most of the original cast (sans Wesley Snipes) and Ward as director, MAJOR LEAGUE 2 (**) is easily the weakest film of the series. While Ward did return behind the camera, it apparently was a last-minute decision which shows in the finished product: the movie has virtually none of the energy of its predecessor, while the cleaned-up, PG-rated script has neither the bite nor some of the raunchy laughs that the original had (Ward also had nothing to do with the script). Most of the action here consists of a lethargic retread of the first film, with Charlie Sheen taking over the lead role from the Tom Berenger character (Rene Russo shows up in a cameo) and the Indians attempting to win the ALCS. Aside from Bob Eucker's colorful color commentary, the film is long and drawn out, and the addition of some wacky fans (including Randy Quaid) to the cast don't help much.

Despite being a box-office flop (waiting five years until 1994 to get the sequel out helped contribute to its less-than-stellar fiscal performance), Morgan Creek decided to give it another go in 1998 with the far more entertaining MAJOR LEAGUE: BACK TO THE MINORS (***), which changes the main cast, setting, and filmmaker much to its advantage. "Naked in New York" director John Warren has made a formula but fun variation on the losers-become-winners plot, adeptly switching the setting to the lazy, sleepy world of minor league ball, and focusing on a washed-up pitcher (Scott Bakula) talked into managing an affiliate of the Minnesota Twins by returning series vet Corbin Bernsen. Hard to believe, but former "Happy Days" co- star Ted McGinley is quite amusing (I'm not kidding!) as the hapless manager of the big-league Twins, and the movie coasts along amiably with some laughs and good spirits throughout.

Warner's DVD presentation of these two pictures is, as I mentioned, as varied as the quality of the two films: BACK TO THE MINORS has a razor-sharp, perfect 1.85 transfer and a punchy Dolby Digital soundtrack along with it. MAJOR LEAGUE 2, however, has a colorful but somewhat erratic 1.85 transfer, and a particularly muddled "Dolby Digital remix" that actually sounds more weaker than the standard Dolby Surround track from previous releases. Certainly the picture is workable but the presentation is fitting for the movie overall. Either way, if you're a fan of the series, you should still enjoy the two movies - - hopefully Paramount will get off their horse and release the original MAJOR LEAGUE on DVD in the near future.

MGM: Leo the Lion continues to mine movies both from its own library and the collections of other studios it has acquired in the recent past, most notably Orion Pictures' catalogue.

One of them is a relatively high-profile MGM film that's been sitting on the shelf for the better part of the last two years: the Elisabeth Shue vehicle MOLLY (**, $24.98), which was butchered in the editing room and remains severely disjointed in its presentation on DVD. Fine Australian director John Duigan ("The Year My Voice Broke," "Flirting") has made a well-acted though thoroughly by-the-numbers female variation of "Charly," with Aaron Eckhart as Shue's workaholic brother, Jill Hennessy ("Law & Order") as the understanding doctor who tries to give the autistic Shue a new life through an experimental brain procedure, and Thomas Jane (pre-DEEP BLUE SEA) as a nursing home charge who cares for her.

Shue gives a game performance, as does most of the cast, but the first half of the movie was reportedly cut to shreds in the editing room, something that remains a major problem in the 91-minute, PG-13 rated version contained here. The movie gets into more of a rhythm in the second half, and is buoyed enormously by the cast, Gabriel Beristain's cinematography, and most of all, a wonderful score by Trevor Jones that is as emotional without being melodramatic as I've heard a soundtrack of this kind in quite some time.

The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are both superb, so if you're inclined to take a gander, MOLLY has enough merit to warrant a view. It's simply unfortunate that the original cut of the film couldn't have been included here, since the story is told in a very odd, choppy manner, and there are handfuls of scenes in the trailer not included in the picture as a telling sign that most of the film was left on the cutting room floor.

Switching from dramatic comedy to musical-comedy we come to the wonderful 1967 Mirisch-UA production of Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows' hit musical HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (****, $24.98), which brought back Tony-winner Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee in their original Broadway roles for a textbook example of how to actually adapt a show to the silver-screen faithfully and effectively.

"Parent Trap" filmmaker David Swift concentrates on the music and wisely shot this fun, energetic musical on-location in NYC to capture the setting and atmosphere in this tale of window-washer Morse's climb up the proverbial corporate ladder at W.W. Wicket Co. The songs are tuneful, literate, and include a handful of showstoppers, all of which are superbly rendered in Nelson Riddle's film adaptation. Bob Fosse's original stage choreography, meanwhile, is vividly captured in the wide Panavision frame, something that's accurately and colorfully rendered in the 2.35 DVD transfer (not enhanced, however). The 2.0 mono soundtrack is passable but nothing special. The movie remains a gem and MGM has included a theatrical trailer and some production notes in the inlay booklet to round out a superior presentation for one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations you'll find from the time.

From the vaults of Orion come a pair of video favorites from '83: the zany Michael Keaton comedy MR.MOM (***, $19.98) and the Richard Gere vehicle BREATHLESS (**, $19.98), both of which have been given crisp but non-letterboxed transfers on DVD.

MR.MOM was one of three John Hughes-penned vehicles from the summer of '83 (VACATION and NATE & HAYES were the others), and thanks to Keaton's performance as a dad who stays at home to raise his kids while wife Teri Garr works overtime, the movie became a big box-office hit, sending both Hughes and Keaton on their way to bigger and better projects. As a movie, MR.MOM is extremely lightweight but funnier than most of your wacky '80s comedies (including anything with Tom Hanks from a few years later), and benefits from a strong supporting cast including Martin Mull, Christopher Lloyd, Ann Jillian, and Jeffrey Tambor.

BREATHLESS was Richard Gere's follow-up to his breakthrough performance in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. This remake of Jean-Luc Godard's 1959 French film makes for American B-movie fodder all the way, given pulpy treatment by director Jim McBride and coasting along far too much on the sails of Gere, whose performance becomes grating after all of the Jerry Lee Lewis-posturing the actor conveys in the role. It's certainly entertaining despite the flaws, a movie that did nothing for Gere except establish his standing in Hollywood to capture more higher-profile roles just a bit down the road.

Both movies look fairly good all things considered, and the non-matted, full-frame transfers don't seem to be cropping anything off the sides of the frame. The mono soundtracks are surprisingly strong, and both DVDs have booklets with production notes contained therein (only BREATHLESS has a trailer).

Mail Bag

From David Coscina:

    I just wanted to tell you that I agree with your assessment of GLADIATOR. It seems to be a film that proports to be mythic, but then has a difficult time living up to its charge. I don't think the movie is bad by today's standards- there is so much out there that is far worse- but it did lack a few fundamental traits that would have made it excellent (most of which you discussed in your piece). I wanted to like the film more than I did. I'm a fan of Ridley Scott and actually quite enjoyed 1492 back in 1992 when it came out. I've generally accepted the fact that Scott usually paces his films rather slowly. These days, it's a nice break from the MTV style cutting which is atrocious. In fact, I think the biggest flaw with GLADIATOR is that it partakes in this rapid editing style for the battle scenes to the point where you can't see anything clearly. I think Scott really missed the boat on this one because he builds so much tension before one of these conflicts, then renders it incoherent with the editing! Of any flaw in the film, this is the most detrimental since the movie is largely about physical confrontation. In spite of that, I liked the dialogue sequences and got into the whole theme of the story (which was easy since it was pretty basic). But I do agree about the CG shots which seem very flat (like they did in Phantom Menace as well). I think Pixar is the only company that can attain a real depth when it comes to computer shots in film. However, the opening master shot of the battle with the Germanians is one of the best I've ever seen (the long shot with all those flaming arrows hurling through the air was fantastic!). Anyhow, keep up the good work!

NEXT TIME: The latest from Universal, Image, Artisan, and Anchor Bay, including KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. Send all emails to and we'll see you then! Excelsior!

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