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Aisle Seat December Mania

PEARL HARBOR strikes, THE GRINCH gripes on DVD

Plus: Anchor Bay's THE BEASTMASTER Special Edition!

By Andy Dursin

Although the stream of big DVD titles seems to slow up in December, all that means is that store shelves (and your wallets) have been inundated with high-profile releases over the last couple of months.

Now that we're headed straight into the holiday season, the Aisle Seat will be taking you through the multitude of titles out there, helping you sort out which ones to stuff your relatives' (or your own!) stockings with. Trash or treasure? Join me next week for Part One of our Second Annual DVD Holiday Buyer's Guide, with a look at titles ranging from TOMB RAIDER to SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (oh yes!), with a sprinkling of kid titles and other genres along the way.

In the meantime, some huge new releases can't wait until next week -- PEARL HARBOR launches this Tuesday on DVD, while THE GRINCH and a boatload of exciting new Anchor Bay titles have already hit store shelves. Here's my analysis, and we'll be back next week with much, much more!


New on DVD

PEARL HARBOR (***, $29.98, Touchstone): There were many conflicting emotions running through me while watching Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer's big-budget recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, supported by a romantic tale of two WWII pilots -- and childhood buddies -- both in love with the same nurse stationed in Hawaii.

And yet, despite all of the flaws -- and there are a multitude -- I still enjoyed PEARL HARBOR as an epic throwback to a '40s B-movie, complete with a stilted romance, laughable dialogue, but also some rousing action scenes that finally sharpen the movie's focus during the second half. "Titanic" this movie isn't, but while James Cameron was attempting to make a serious drama in addition to a meticulous reconstruction of that actual event, director Michael Bay's concern is more with creating a popcorn-munching blockbuster, and along those lines, he's succeeded in crafting a better epic than his previous work showed he was capable of doing.

Not that you would necessarily sense that, however, from the movie's monotonous, vastly inferior opening act.

Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett play two pals thrust first into conflict of a personal nature when pilot Affleck agrees to join the Royal Air Force in England, leaving behind his new girlfriend -- nurse Kate Beckinsale -- in Hawaii months prior to Pearl Harbor's attack. When the inaccurate word gets out that Affleck has been killed in combat, a distraught Beckinsale seeks to move on with her life, and improbably hooks up with her love's friend, Harnett.

The script, credited to Randall Wallace but rewritten by Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenias (prompting Wallace to attack the movie shortly after its release last May), is a bit simplistic through this entire section of the movie, and fails to illustrate why either Hartnett or Affleck would care about Beckinsale other than to fulfill the script's pre-requisite tragic love story.

But all, however, is not lost. If Bay seems ill at ease with the movie's preponderance of characters and development of the love story, he feels far more comfortable with PEARL HARBOR's formulaic but entertaining second half, benefiting from bombastic, scenery-chewing overacting from Alec Baldwin (as Jimmy Doolittle), flashes of rousing patriotism, and fantastic special effects. Here, Bay is able to take full advantage of the improvements in the medium since the days of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" -- instead of that picture's handful of Japanese planes which attack the American naval fleet, here we see the hundreds that truly did. ILM's effects look realistic, detailed, and together with John Schwartzman's cinematography, produce a truly spectacular set-piece that brings home the promised goods that the movie, up that point, had failed to deliver.

And using as its climax an actual 1942 attack on Japan that Doolittle spearheaded the following spring, Bay is able to craft a satisfying, action-oriented conclusion to his film -- one that still could have been improved simply with tighter editing and more attention to detail.

The first half could have been re-cut with no problem (the initial 30 minutes are still overlong, filled with needless supporting players), and many viewers may want more historical background about WWII than what the film provides (the movie would have you think it's all about the U.S. cutting off Japan's oil supply).

Nevertheless, there are a lot of positives to be found with the film.

The movie is beautifully shot, making for an exemplary visual presentation in Touchstone's 2.35 DVD. The soundtrack is most impressive in DTS 5.1 Digital Surround, though the Dolby Digital track also packs a potent punch. The movie is spread to two sides, taking a break during FDR's December 7th speech (rumor has it Bay will work in a proper Intermission for his forthcoming "Director's Cut").

For supplements, the two-disc set available this week doesn't include a whole lot: two 45 minute documentaries (one a promotional piece on the film's production, the other a "Real Life Heroes" tale from The History Channel), Faith Hill's music video, and a slate of trailers and TV spots.

In fact, some may want to wait for the 4-disc Vista Series "Director's Cut" DVD, which was pushed back to May 14. That release is supposed to include a re-cut, R-rated version of the film itself (hopefully tightening up the first half-hour if nothing else), along with commentaries, documentaries, and plenty more extras not included here.

While my thoughts on the film were mixed after seeing it in theaters, I have to admit I enjoyed PEARL HARBOR more for what it is -- and not what it isn't -- watching it a second time on DVD.

It's not trying to be "Saving Private Ryan" or "Tora! Tora! Tora!," and shouldn't be compared with that kind of historical "docu-drama" recreation. Instead, it's a veritable throwback to an old WWII movie where the good guys were truly good and righteous and noble, much like many Americans who fought (and died) in what was considered, until recently, "the last great war."

The flaccid love story and pacing issues aside, it's well-mounted, technically proficient, and near-flawless in its depiction of the actual attack, and on second viewing, I appreciated its craftsmanship more than I did the first time around.



HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (*1/2 movie, *** presentation, Universal, $29.98, $39.98): Although I hate to be a Grinch myself, I still have to be honest and say that I thoroughly disliked this bloated, overproduced blockbuster, which predictably managed to ring up $200 million-plus during last year's holiday season.

Nevertheless, only the last 15 minutes directly correspond to Dr. Seuss' classic tale, leaving the rest to visually un-inventive production design (which looks heavily inspired by "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), a padded and unfunny script, and lots -- and I mean lots -- of sub-par Jim Carrey shtick, most of which isn't of the "Ace Ventura" variety.

Stuck under layers and layers of Rick Baker's Oscar-winning make-up design, Carrey's obnoxious Grinch is harder to take than Scrooge at his worst, and ruins the best intentions of director Ron Howard and the movie's few assets, which include a nicely understated performance from Taylor Momsen (as Cindy Lou) and a lovely score by James Horner.

When the movie sticks to Seuss (with Anthony Hopkins narrating the classic tale), the film tends to work in spite of itself, but at 105 minutes, that unfortunately doesn't happen very often.

Still, the film had its share of admirers, and I'm sure a lot of parents have already picked up the video to entertain their kids over the holidays. While I can think of dozens of better Christmas movies to watch off the top of my head, I can still understand why the movie was appealing to die-hard Carrey fans, and older folks nostalgic for the story that captivated their youth.

Universal has released two editions of THE GRINCH on DVD: the standard packaged edition in separate widescreen and full-frame versions ($29.98), plus an elaborate, pop-up "Playset" edition with fold-out characters that will make for a nice present for young fans of the flick ($39.98). Note that this limited- edition, hardcover set includes the full-frame DVD.

The supplemental content is the same on both DVD editions, including a plethora of supplements. While there's no commentary track, several deleted scenes (culled from a workprint) and an outtake reel are present, plus featurettes on the make-up, production design, and visual effects, featuring comments from the filmmakers. Production notes, the original trailer, DVD-ROM content (screen savers, interactive games), and a "Spotlight on Location" segment are included, along with more unusual extras, including "Wholiday Recipes" and a separate section produced expressly for kids, with sing-along and read-along segments, and other goodies.

The 1.85 transfer on the widescreen edition is fine, though the standard full-frame DVD is also perfectly acceptable, opening up the picture at the top and bottom without cropping much action on the sides. The 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are both top-notch.

In all, a solid presentation by Universal for a movie the studio clearly hopes will become -- flaws and all -- a holiday staple for years to come.


Anchor Bay Goodies

So what has everyone's favorite label of horror and the obscure been up to? Plenty, of course, particularly in lieu of the recently passed Halloween:

THE BEASTMASTER (***, $19.98): Okay, raise your hand if you've NEVER seen even just a split-second of this entertaining 1982 sword-and-sorcery epic on the "SuperStation" (WTBS) over the last, oh, 16 years or so. Chances are good that if you own a TV set and have cable, it's virtually impossible that you've never come across what may arguably be the most frequently screened movie on TV in cable history.

Although its success on the small screen may be surprising, it's not completely unfathomable as to why this box-office underachiever (released in the Summer of '82) found its audience on TV: it's got plenty of action, a scantily-clad Tanya Roberts for guys, a scantily-clad Marc Singer for girls, a fantastical story line, and plenty of animals that kids should especially gravitate towards. With that kind of broad appeal, maybe it's not surprising this underdog turned into both a running joke of stand-up comics ("hey, is 'The Beastmaster' on?") and a cult classic that found its audience years after its initial release.

Anchor Bay's long-awaited Special Edition DVD of this semi-classic comes with plenty of bells and whistles: an engaging commentary from director/co-writer Don Coscarelli and producer Paul Pepperman, the original trailer, behind-the-scenes footage, poster and still galleries, and original production art. The 17- page booklet includes informative liner notes (touching upon the problems Coscarelli had with the producers and distributor MGM/UA, not to mention author Andre Norton, who had her name removed from the film), while the 1.85 transfer is excellent and the 6.1 DTS ES and Dolby Digital EX tracks are both superlative.

As far as the movie goes, it's a simple, "Conan"-like tale of a solitary warrior (Singer) seeking revenge on the man who took the life of his family (a scenery-chewing Rip Torn) while receiving help from hunter John Amos, a beautiful slave girl (Roberts), and his animal pals.

With Lee Holdridge's solid score and plenty of supplements backing up the presentation, Anchor Bay's DVD is the definitive presentation of this beloved '80s flick. It's not high art, it's THE BEASTMASTER -- and what else needs to be said?


HALLOWEEN TELEVISION VERSION ($29.98): John Carpenter's 1978 horror classic has been released on DVD nearly as many times as any other genre film, with Anchor Bay's 2-DVD Limited Edition set from 1999 (now a much-sought-after commodity for collectors) being the definitive package of the film.

If you missed that release, you can still scare up the two discs of that set individually now that Anchor Bay has issued the extended edition of the movie separately. Featuring the 12 minutes of footage Carpenter shot for the film's NBC network airings (during the production of "Halloween II"), fans will either be intrigued by the additions, or disappointed in that they slow down the pace of the movie as a whole (I go along with the latter sentiment, but I know those who fervently disagree).

Either way, the disc is otherwise no-frills, sporting a 16:9 enhanced, 2.35 transfer and mono soundtrack -- not comparable to the theatrical cut, THX DVD edition's super 5.1 remixed soundtrack and extras.


CIRCUS OF HORRORS ($29.98) and THEATRE OF DEATH ($29.98): British horror houses Hammer and Amicus weren't the only independent British companies that produced strong spine-tingling chillers over the years.

1960's CIRCUS OF HORRORS has a strong rep among die-hard fans, offering a tale of a mad plastic surgeon who decides to change the local carney's freaks into gorgeous femme fatales. Of course, you know you can't keep a good freak down, so the crazy doc (Anton Diffring) ends up murdering the transformed women when they try to escape from his nutty clutches. Yvonne Monlaur (of the highly enjoyable Hammer entry BRIDES OF DRACULA, sadly unavailable on DVD) co-stars in this Anglo-Amalgamated production, which is quite striking for its relatively copious amounts of gore and adult material (for its day, anyhow). Anchor Bay's 1.77 transfer is in surprisingly decent shape, with extras including the trailer, TV spots, stills gallery (including posters and advertising materials), a bio of star Diffring, and a French language track to compliment the mono English mix.

THEATRE OF DEATH, a 1967 effort from London Independent Producers, offers Christopher Lee as the head of a Grand Guignol theater in o'l Paris that specializes in truly surreal, bloody shows. This obscure effort co-stars a young Julian Glover and gets most of its mileage out of its widescreen Techniscope cinematography from Gilbert Taylor (later of "Star Wars" and "The Omen" fame). What the movie loses in production quality from its low budget it gains in efficient storytelling and direction from Samuel Gallu. Anchor Bay's DVD contains a nice 2.35 transfer, mono soundtrack, and a newly-produced featurette, "Sinister Theatrics," spotlighting an 11-minute interview with Christopher Lee. The original trailer, radio spots, and stills gallery round out the DVD, which should prove to be a recommended pick-up for British horror fans.


OPERA ($29.98): The latest effort in the Dario Argento Collection will sure to please more fans of Italian blood-splattered cinema.

Argento's 1987 effort, while not regarded as one of his best works, is still compelling for its visual trappings, photographed by Ronnie Taylor in widescreen, adding a good deal of stylishness to the fairly routine plot (a young opera singer stalked by a mad fan). It's Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, done up with lots of gross-out gore and a mind-numbing rock score by Claudio Simonetti that dates the movie pretty badly. The ending, too, is bizarre -- but then again, most of the folks out there interested in this title will be Argento-philes in the first place, so you folks know what to expect.

Anchor Bay's DVD will prove to be a big treat for fans, for it includes Argento's unrated, 107-minute Director's Cut, plus a new 36-minute documentary featuring Argento Taylor, Simonetti, and others discussing their work on the film. Trailers, a music video, and an Argento bio round out the package, presented in 2.35 widescreen with lavish Dolby Digital EX and DTS ES 6.1 soundtracks to boot!

Fans should be alerted that initial copies of OPERA were plagued with defects. The corrected, remastered version can be identified with a "Version 2.0" sticker attached to the back of the jacket, inside the plastic wrapping.


Also New & Noteworthy

WHEN GOOD GHOULS GO BAD (Fox, $19.98): Perhaps you saw a bit of this made-for-video project on the Fox Family Channel in October, and were intrigued by the digital color-corrected cinematography that turned all the trees orange to simulate that Halloween time of year. Alas, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" this isn't, since it's pretty obvious this mildly diverting effort from Fox TV was basically shot in Surf City, U.S.A.

Based on an R.L. Stine story and directed by Patrick Read Johnson ("Baby's Day Out," "Angus"), GHOULS is a comedic tale for kids, with a young teenager moving into a community where Halloween is barred due to the town being overrun with zombies every time trick-or-treating takes place. It's standard fare for the most part, with Christopher Lloyd providing most of the entertainment as the teen's Uncle Fred, who comes back from the grave just in time to save Halloween for young and old alike.

Fox's 1.78 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both superb (though the strange cinematography doesn't manage to evoke the season), with a brief featurette also included. Best recommended for 12 year- olds of the "Goosebumps" persuasion.


BRIDE OF MONSTER MANIA & ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. MONSTER MANIA (Image, $19.98 each)

If you're going to produce hour-long horror retrospectives, you could do a lot worse than these two Elvira- hosted documentaries that originally ran on AMC (and continue to be shown during monster-themed marathons on the channel).

BRIDE OF MONSTER MANIA looks at leading ladies in the horror genre with tongue firmly planted in cheek (or is it fang?), spending a good deal of time examining the role of both horror femme fatale (vamps and the like) and heroine (i.e. Ripley from the ALIEN saga). The hour-long program includes interviews by the likes of former Hammer stars Ingrid Pitt and Martine Beswick, plus clips from well-known entries and cult favorites (like Ken Russell's LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, though minus the comedic coda from the scene it includes).

The Bill Mumy-narrated ATTACK OF THE 50.FT MONSTER MANIA will be of more interest to old- time special effects aficionados, for its interviews with Ray Harryhausen, Forrest J. Ackerman and other noteworthy genre figures. Focusing on giant monsters, beasts, and miniature people, this is more entertaining and better balanced on the whole than the female program, with more a nostalgic view of its subject matter and more revealing interviews.

Image's covers make each DVD look like a "Famous Monsters" magazine issue, and the full-frame transfers and 2.0 mono soundtracks are both acceptable.


NEXT WEEK: Part One of our annual Aisle Seat Holiday DVD Buyer's Guide. Email me at dursina@att.net with any questions and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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