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Aisle Seat Summer Extravaganza

DVDs hit THE BEACH as a Plethora of New Releases Go THE WHOLE NINE YARDS!

By Andy Dursin

The water may still be in the low 60s here in southern New England, but hey, summer HAS begun, even if you wouldn't necessarily know it. At the box-office, you'd hardly have guessed this was the month of June, judging from movies like GONE IN 60 SECONDS, SHANGHAI NOON, DINOSAUR (given its expensive pricetag), and TITAN A.E. failing to live up to their studio's expectations.

In the media, we've been seeing articles like, "why aren't people going to the movies this summer?" The answer is easy: when they make some movies we want to see, audiences will be there. Haven't they learned that the problem with the box-office and overall attendance are the movies themselves? The big Fourth of July weekend will see a duel between a Mel Gibson "Braveheart"-kinda spin on the Revolutionary War, THE PATRIOT, and THE PERFECT STORM, with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg getting caught in an oceanic "Twister" after going out fishing.

Neither movie has received a lot of positive word-of-mouth prior to release, which doesn't surprise me any given the subpar theatrical trailers turned out for both efforts. (I still laugh whenever I see that ad for THE PERFECT STORM with Wahlberg, Bostonian accent firmly entrenched, going "I love my wife -- but I love to fish!" Talk about quality melodrama!).

Anyhow, I'll be going in with an open mind -- and between John Williams's score for THE PATRIOT and plenty of effects in THE PERFECT STORM, it's hard to imagine either firm being a total waste -- but if both pictures tank in terms of their expectations, once again let's tell the studios that the problem is the product, not the audience.

Next time we'll have a full rundown on the summer MOVIE season, but right now, we need to wrap up some recent DVD releases, including a pair of exciting new Special Editions from Fox...

New DVD Round-Up

Just in time for the Fourth of July, Fox unleashes a terrific 2-DVD Special Edition of INDEPENDENCE DAY (*** movie, ***1/2 extras, $34.98) this Tuesday, which fits comfortably on the shelf alongside their recent, outstanding deluxe packages of "Fight Club," "The Abyss," and "Walking With Dinosaurs."

Say what you will about the movie -- which, yes, did work better in a theater alongside a howling audience -- but the presentation and supplements jammed into this lavish DVD set are more than worthwhile. For starters, you can choose either the original theatrical cut or a special extended version restoring nine minutes of basic plot-filler with Randy Quaid trying to find medicine for his ailing kid. There are also a pair of commentary tracks, one from director Roland Emmerich and his partner in crime Dean Devlin, and another by the effects team (which is actually a bit more interesting); several documentaries; every trailer you could imagine (including the effective Super Bowl spot and another for Mac PCs); plus plenty of other assorted goodies on the special effects. The THX-approved, 2.35 transfer is excellent, the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack will give your subwoofer an intense workout, and the package is spread across 2 DVDs with elaborate animated menus for those who are into such things.

A lot of folks have turned on ID4 since its original release, claiming the movie made a lot of money simply on the basis of its flag-waving, patriotic mind-set and shameless "borrowing" from every other sci-fi alien invasion picture ever produced. While all of that is true, ID4 always did work -- and still does -- on the same level of your excessive, overproduced Irwin Allen-esque spectacle: there are good performances and bad ones, plenty of effects and over-the-top action, and despite an over-reliance on comic relief (Judd Hirsch should have hit the cutting room floor), it all culminates in an entertaining ride.

If nothing else, Fox's presentation of the movie on DVD once again confirms the studio's dedication to producing supplement-rich releases in the format, a trait that once again is evident on their Special Edition of THE BEACH (**1/2 movie, ***1/2 for extras, $34.98), last winter's Leonardo DiCaprio box-office underachiever which seems to be a cross between "Hearts of Darkness" and "Lord of the Flies" with just a dash of the anti-society tone that permeated David Fincher's "Fight Club."

Due to be released on July 25th, the movie is a beautifully shot and interesting tale that works well for about an hour, with would-be college student Leo journeying through Thailand and improbably stumbling across an island paradise after being told of its location through a meeting with a crazy man (Robert Carlyle) in a rundown hotel. What he soon finds is a strange assortment of weed-tokers who populate the other half of a beautiful paradise with gun-toting drug farmers making their living on the other side.

Directed and written by the same folks who made "Trainspotting" (who followed that up with an earlier bomb at Fox, the awful Cameron Diaz-Ewan MacGregor romp "A Life Less Ordinary"), THE BEACH is fine until it becomes a disjointed, rambling "thriller" with elements culled from previous films about paradise lost and dissatisfied youth trying to find fulfillment in this unfair world of ours. Of course, it's hard to envision just how dissatisfied one would be when you spend your time going to the beach, taking a jaunt up the river, and making out with gorgeous Virginie Ledoyen, whose brief but memorable love scene with Leo makes for the film's most enticing moment.

Shot on gorgeous locations and presented flawlessly on DVD in a razor-sharp 2.35 transfer (with a bass- heavy Dolby Digital soundtrack), THE BEACH is an interesting but heavily flawed movie worth checking out for Leo fans and aficionados of the filmmakers -- and for some scenic cinematography with one extremely attractive female lead in it. When Ledoyen disappears from the main plot about an hour into the film, THE BEACH becomes awash in preachy, heavy-handed melodrama.

Fox's DVD here contains commentary from director Danny Boyle, nine deleted scenes (with inferior, alternate opening and ending sequences), trailers and TV spots, an All Saints music video, storyboards, and bios for the cast and crew. Special mention should be made of Angelo Badalamenti's effective, often lyrical score -- one of this year's best, in fact -- which meshes well with a collection of techno-driven songs that fortunately will not drive one to turn down the volume for a change. Badalamenti's music has been recently released on a separate score album in the UK, though no domestic release has been set (THE BEACH performed far better overseas than it did domestically).

Paramount has also been extremely busy on the DVD front of late, with their June releases containing something for everyone.

Top of the list is Tim Burton's SLEEPY HOLLOW (***1/2, $29.98), the auteur's latest opus which became an instant classic for the director's fans upon its release last November. A merry mix of spoof, Hammer horror, Americana folklore, and romantic fantasy, this uniquely Burton concoction excels in all the areas one would expect it to: production design, cinematography, and score (this picture containing one of Danny Elfman's most lyrical and effective recent works). If Andrew Kevin Walker's script becomes somewhat convoluted, the performances of Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci and the film's spellbinding look and feel are more than enough to make this a must-view; in fact, a lot of viewers will probably soak up the sights and sounds even more on repeat viewing, where the plot becomes secondary to the picture's elegant visual sheen, certain to become a Halloween perennial and revered genre production.

The DVD features a sporadic but intermittently engaging commentary track from Burton, along with a promotional-but-interesting half-hour documentary feature containing snippets of the filmmaker, cast, and even Elfman at work. Additional cast interviews, storyboards, and both the film's effective theatrical teaser and trailer have also been included -- a well-rounded package for one of my favorite movies of last year. The 1.85 transfer and crisp, effective Dolby Digital soundtrack (close to being reference-quality) are both outstandingly rendered.

One of last year's more disappointing collaborations was BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (**1/2, $29.98), with Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader reuniting for an adaptation of Joe Connelly's book about an ambulance driver (Nicolas Cage) who has seen too many victims die and searches for meaning amongst all the tragedies he encounters on a daily basis.

Cage is good, giving a nicely modulated performance for the first time in a while, but while he's supported by a terrific cast (including John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, and ex-wife Patricia Arquette), BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is ultimately undone by a repetitive script that's never as emotional or insightful as it would like to be. Scorsese's patented use of editing and his use of Robert Richardson's stark lighting are effective, but somewhere along the line, something went amiss. When it's all said and done, you're left stuck wondering just what the fuss was about, solid performances and dazzling visuals notwithstanding.

Paramount's DVD transfer is exceptional, framed at 2.35, and the Dolby Digital soundtrack, featuring a collection of songs and serviceable score by Elmer Bernstein, also pulsates with energy. A pair of trailers and interviews with the cast round out a good presentation for what turned out to be one of 1999's most frustrating just-misses.

Another recent release from the studio, THE FIRM (***, $24.98), wasn't my favorite John Grisham film adaptation, but in all honesty, it's still a pretty competent thriller. Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman (whose billing was relegated to the film credits for contractual reasons) star in this long but generally involving effort, which makes good use of location filming and all the technical proficiencies that a Sydney Pollak film has to offer: a solid cast, usually smart dialogue, and a polished look and feel.

Aficionados of the book weren't too pleased with the movie, but it was a big box-office hit anyway, and some of the supporting performances (most notably by Holly Hunter) are at least as engaging as the Cruise- Jeanne Tripplehorn lead duo. Paramount's DVD features a good 1.85 transfer and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, though this isn't the kind of affair that's going to get your sound system cranking -- particularly with Dave Grusin's alternately offbeat and repetitive score being a primarily all-piano effort. Supplements here are relegated to a theatrical trailer.

This week, Paramount unveils two more murder-mysteries, one with a comedic angle and the other a decidedly more dramatic twist.

Kenneth Branagh's engaging American feature debut, DEAD AGAIN (***, $24.98), was his 1991 romantic thriller, with he and then-significant-other Emma Thompson playing a pair of dual roles in a nutty reincarnation plot penned by Scott Frank. The terrific supporting cast includes Andy Garcia (who doesn't fare so well under unconvincing old-age make-up), Derek Jacobi, Hanna Schygulla, and a brief contribution by Robin Williams that tends to throw the movie's pacing a bit off-kilter. However, that's part of the film's charm, in Branagh's ability to tell a melodramatic love story with a homage to old-time detective thrillers and film noir thrown in for good measure.

The DVD, while not labeled as a Special Edition, does contain a pair of commentary tracks; one by Scott Frank and producer Lindsay Doran, and another with Branagh commenting on the production. A theatrical trailer is also included, along with a super 1.85 enhanced transfer and an effective Dolby Digital soundtrack featuring a bombastic but enjoyable score by Patrick Doyle.

The other mystery-thriller from the studio is definitely more on the lighter side, that being Jonathan Lynn's 1985 directorial debut, CLUE (**1/2, $29.98), which arrives this week on DVD in a presentation that almost -- but not quite -- takes full advantage of the benefits of the format.

Originally a John Landis vehicle (he's still listed as an executive producer), CLUE is a fast-paced, wacky whoduneit with all the principal characters from the famous Parker Brothers board game assembled for a night of murder and mystery. The cast tries their hardest to make the frantic shenanigans of Lynn's script come to life (Tim Curry is terrific as the Butler, while Martin Mull and Michael McKean provide some laughs as two possible suspects), but the problem with the movie is that it often tries too hard to be funny -- leaving you exhausted by the time the outcome is revealed.

That's the one area where the DVD almost fulfills its promise, since CLUE was shot with three different endings (A, B, and C) and was released that way to theaters, which advertised the specific version of the movie they were showing. On video, all three endings were assembled to create a disjointed finale that didn't really work too well.

For the DVD, Paramount has taken the three endings and presented them in a frustrating manner: you can either choose to watch the movie with all three finales (as it was released on video), OR you can choose to watch the film with a random ending selected from all three conclusions. Good idea, right? Well, not if you've seen the movie once, played one random ending, and then see the same finale again the next time out! A better idea would have been to have the viewer select which ending they'd like to see, but alas, that didn't happen. I assume the culprit had to be one of the DVD producers -- in the physical plant -- with a mental lapse!

Speaking of director Jonathan Lynn, the Brit, whose work runs hot ("My Cousin Vinny," "Trial and Error") and cold ("Greedy"), gives a full commentary track on the upcoming DVD release of his latest film, THE WHOLE NINE YARDS (**1/2, *** extras, Warner Home Video, $19.98), which is slated to be released on July 18th.

This nutty Bruce Willis comedy is definitely on the off-kilter side: Willis plays a macho mafia hitman in the witness protection program outside Montreal who runs into a dentist ("Friends"' Matthew Perry) with a money-hungry, bitchy wife (Rosanna Arquette) and a co-worker (Amanda Peet) who's really in love with him. Mitchell Kapner's script veers from broad farce to thriller and never quite works fully on either level, but the movie is sustained by its cast and Lynn's energetic direction, which keeps things moving at a fairly quick clip.

And speaking of the cast, how can't you at least partially enjoy a movie with Michael Clarke Duncan, Natasha Henstridge and Kevin Pollak amongst its stars? Willis and Perry also have an enjoyable chemistry together on-screen, making it easier to gloss over the film's sometimes strange shifts in tone.

Warner's DVD has a flawless 1.85 transfer and a particularly active Dolby Digital soundtrack, featuring a jaunty Randy Edelman score. The DVD sports a theatrical trailer along with interview clips with the principal cast members, along with Lynn's commentary. All in all, quite a bargain given the relatively inexpensive price-tag, and another solid effort from Warner Home Video.

Finally, MGM has been making some noise of late, with a trio of releases culled from the shelves of Orion Pictures.

F/X (***, $24.98) was one of 1986's sleeper hits, with Bryan Brown as a special effects artist who gets involved with what claims to be the justice department in the staging of an assassination. Naturally, all goes wrong and Brown goes on the lam, with cop Brian Dennehy trying to lend an able assist as they elude the mob and other assorted goons -- while using just a bit of special effects wizardry in the process.

The good-natured chemistry between Brown and Dennehy, along with a surprisingly smart and fast-paced script by Robert T. Megginson and Gregory Fleeman, combined to make F/X one of the best thrillers from the mid '80s. Director Robert Mandel keeps the action moving while Miroslav Ondricek ("Amadeus") contributes a good-looking cinematographic sheen to compliment the action. And so what if Bill Conti's synth score is a dated relic of the '80s -- F/X still remains good fun.

MGM's DVD features a 2.0 Dolby Surround track that's so-so, with an OK 1.85, non-enhanced transfer with a choice of a full-frame, non-matted version on the other side. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

There are more goodies on the DVD of DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (**, $19.98), Susan Seidelman's acclaimed 1985 comedy that got Madonna going on the big screen (blame this movie!), playing a none-too-subtly disguised version of herself whose identity is claimed by housewife Rosanna Aruqette after she gets bumped on the head. Maybe it's me, but I've tried to sit through this movie several times and it's been a chore every time out. At 104 minutes, the movie feels like a concept that's stretched to its possible breaking point, and the film is never as funny or amusing as it would like to be.

Still, the movie has its share of fans, and they will almost certainly enjoy MGM's DVD, which features commentary from the producers, original and alternate endings, plus a theatrical trailer. The enhanced 1.85 transfer looks good though the mono sound is only passable.

Finally, another Orion movie has found its way to DVD via MGM -- 1988's MARRIED TO THE MOB (**1/2, $19.98), yet another acclaimed comedy that I've never really been all that fond of. Michelle Pfeiffer gives an engaging performance as a mafia wife who tries to break out of the system after her gangster husband (Alec Baldwin) is bumped off by Dean Stockwell.

Jonathan Demme's farce is labored but is enjoyably played, with a supporting cast including Matthew Modine, Mercedes Ruehl, and Joan Cusack. MGM's transfer is enhanced 1.85 and there's a decent Dolby Surround track, theatrical trailer, and booklet notes to round out the package.

NEXT TIME: SHAFT scores, ME MYSELF & IRENE misfires, and a look at THE PATRIOT and THE PERFECT STORM on our Fourth of July extravaganza! Until then send all emails to Excelsior!

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