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Aisle Seat DVD Summer Mania

New DVDs plus MORE Mailbag on "A.I."!

By Andy Dursin

Wednesday will see the release of JURASSIC PARK III, the latest summer sequel that's arriving after a tumultuous shooting schedule that saw the movie's script re-written each and every day. With a rep like that, it's going to be hard to top the 1993 original film, though for me, it won't take much to surpass Spielberg's 1997 sequel, "The Lost World," which still ranks as the director's worst film all told.

I'll be back Wednesday with a review (I'm catching the film Monday night), but in the meantime, here's a round-up of recent summer DVD releases, plus even more A.I. comments from the Mailbag! (And don't forget to email your thoughts to anytime).

New From Buena Vista

UNBREAKABLE (*1/2 for movie, *** for content, Buena Vista, $29.98): Bruce Willis, looking like he needs a gallon of coffee, gives a sleep-inducing performance in this disappointing "modern comic book" from M. Night Shyamalan, the "Sixth Sense" director who fell victim here to the follow-up-to-a-smash-hit routine that's plagued many a filmmaker in the past.

The plot finds Willis plays the last survivor of a train wreck whom comic-book guru Samuel L. Jackson believes is really a super-hero. Willis's estranged wife, Robin Wright-Penn (in another ineffective role), tries to reconcile her relationship with Bruno while the security guard goes about finding out if he indeed is as strong as the Man of Steel.

Shyamalan has a bigger budget at his disposal here but retains many of the same cinematic techniques that he brought to his last picture, along with the addition of several embarrassing moments -- including endless shots of Willis lifting weights, an awful sequence where Willis' son attempts to prove his dad is Superman by shooting him in the family kitchen, and a laughable ending complete with a tacked-on epilogue scroll.

While "The Sixth Sense" worked because of its well-developed characters, UNBREAKABLE's protagonists are so stilted and one-dimensional that it's hard to care, ultimately, where this picture goes (which, after 107 minutes, isn't very far). The movie is slow, sterile, even ponderous at times, with a pretentious tone that's hard to comprehend since the story, in the end, has nothing to be pretentious about.

After a big opening, Shyamalan's film faded at the box-office but Buena Vista has nevertheless selected it to inaugurate its two-disc "Vista Series" line of Special Edition DVDs. The results are not up to the work other studios have produced (like New Line's Platinum/Infinifilm or Fox's special editions), but for a first-time effort, the 2-disc package is agreeable enough.

The disc features a full array of deleted scenes introduced by the filmmaker (including even more scenes of Willis lifting weights!), featurettes on the film's production and comic books in general, multi-angle footage of the train station sequence, an excerpt from one of Shyamalan's early films, plus a pair of Alex Ross postcard illustrations that have reportedly been missing from some copies of the set. The 2.35 transfer is excellent and a subtle, effective DTS track packs a potent punch on the audio end (a Dolby Digital track is also available).

UNBREAKABLE did boast its share of admirers in the cinema and, while the movie didn't quite work for me, Touchstone's DVD is the best way to appreciate the film at home, with some interesting supplements backed by a top-notch technical presentation.

DUETS (**, $26.98, Hollywood) and BOUNCE (*1/2, $26.98, Miramax): It wasn't a memorable year in 2000 for Gwyenth Paltrow, who starred in a pair of films last autumn that failed to find appreciative audiences despite a few positive critical notices.

In DUETS, Director Bruce Paltrow guides a solid ensemble cast (including daughter Gwyenth) in a quite uneven comedy-drama-road-movie about how a group of assorted folks find solace from their everyday lives in the wild world of Karaoke. Included among them are Paltrow and estranged father Huey Lewis; harried businessman Paul Giamatti and small-time crook Andre Braugher; and former "ER" doctor Maria Bello and current "Felicity" co-star Scott Speedman.

There are solid performances and a few nice scenes in John Byrum's screenplay, but the movie never really comes together and fizzles when Braugher and Giamatti's story turns melodramatic and violent. Still, the music is good (Gwyenth can sing!) and keeps the movie rolling along, even over some of the picture's rough edges.

Though not advertised as a Special Edition, Hollywood's good-looking 1.85, Dolby Digital DVD features audio commentary with Bruce Paltrow, several deleted scenes, a multi-angle music video of the Huey Lewis-Gwyneth duet "Cruisin'," the original trailer, and a fairly interesting featurette on the film's production.

"Duets"' weak theatrical showing was followed by BOUNCE, a dour and slow- moving romantic drama with Gwyneth and ex-boyfriend Ben Affleck failing to ignite any sparks in a film about a single mom (guess who?) whose husband is killed in a plane crash. Affleck essays the advertising exec who exchanged places with her spouse and, improbably, falls in love with her.

Miramax's two-disc set is a bona-fide Special Edition, with audio commentary, deleted scenes, a featurette with the two stars, bloopers and trailers rounding out a solid package for a curiously cold, detached drama that never gives you a reason to care about it.

DRACULA 2000 (**, $26.98, Dimension): If you're in the mood for brainless horror- action, this slick and entertaining B-movie should satisfy viewers on the small screen more than it did for audiences paying $8.75 a ticket last December.

Director Patrick Lussier and writer Joel Soisson have fashioned an intriguing, albeit highly uneven picture that's part-youth horror chiller (think SCREAM), part updated Hammer horror, with fight sequences a la BLADE and bizarre, GREATEST EVER STORY EVER TOLD-like flashbacks (for Drac's Biblical origin) thrown in for good measure!

This time out, Drac (the far-from-intimidating Gerald Butler) is unknowingly resurrected in the present day by a group of thieves (including slumming Omar Epps and Jennifer Esposito) who break into the vaults of our old pal, professor Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer). Turns out that Van Helsing has been "guarding" the crypt of the Count in his Carfax Abbey offices in case something goes wrong -- which, predictably, it does.

Drac's new intended love is Van Helsing's daughter (the appealing Justine Waddell), who shares a deep spiritual (and chemical) connection with the head vamp through her father's blood ties with him. Now, it's up to antiquities dealer Jonny Lee Miller (another ex up-and-coming star gone wrong) to head to New Orleans and put the kibosh on old Dracula's plans before it's too late.

There are times when the filmmakers do seem to be aiming for some fresh twists on the material (at least in regards to the relationship between Dracula and Van Helsing), but they're mostly negated by incorporating too many overly-familiar elements from other films and genres. On the other hand, Lussier does a solid job in establishing a trio of vamped bombshells (including Jeri "Seven of Nine" Ryan and pop singer Vitamin C, under her real name, Colleen Fitzpatrick), and the movie is well-paced with a few effective moments.

You have to love DVD commentaries where directors actually spill the beans and truly, honestly discuss what REALLY happened on the set of their films. Obviously, these talks are few and far between, but Lussier and Soisson's commentary track here does the next-best thing, by admitting "DVD commentaries are a lovefest" and joking "the 'real' commentary can be accessed through a hidden feature on the disc"! (Maybe that's the reason for the strange disclaimer that runs each time you select the commentary, stating "these views are not representative of the studio and should be used for entertainment purposes only." Umm...ok!)

You can read between the lines enough here to discern that Dimension tinkered with the concept for the film before shooting began (upping the budget and effects), and made a few decisions in post-production (such as re-cutting the film's effective opening, here included in the deleted scenes) which made DRACULA 2000 broader and less inviting than it could have been.

Dimension's DVD looks great in its 2.35 transfer and features a crisp 5.1 soundtrack featuring a loud but effective Marco Beltrami score (and you have to admire Lussier's commentary, which sarcastically cracks "here come those metal tunes!" when jarringly inappropriate head-bashing rock comes blaring on during the end credits). Though not billed as a Special Edition, the disc comes pretty close, featuring a handful of deleted and extended scenes, a promotional featurette, storyboards, the trailer, and several audition tapes (for Waddell, Butler, and Fitzpatrick in her Vitamin C guise).

In the end, DRACULA 2000 isn't scary, sexy, or suspenseful enough to rank as a superior slice of the cinematic undead, but if you were interested in catching the movie on video, it rates as no-brain summer fun with just enough bite to warrant a look.

New From Columbia

The best of the Muppet films -- even though it was a box-office disappointment -- 1981's THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER (***1/2, $19.98) has been released by Columbia on DVD, marking the first time that the movie has been available in letterboxed format on video.

The only big-screen adventure of Kermit and Company that Jim Henson directed himself, this highly engaging caper-musical features a wonderful score by the late Joe Raposo, which deservedly copped an Oscar nomination for "The First Time It Happens," plus an agreeably over-the-top performance by Charles Grodin and a fun script courtesy of Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses and Jerry Juhl & Jack Rose.

Unlike its predecessor, the star cameos take a back seat to the story, as Kermit and Fonzie travel to London to solve a jewel heist that may have been perpetrated by glamorous fashion guru Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg) and her playboy brother (Grodin). Henson's direction is right on-target and Raposo's songs include a hysterical, Busby Berkley-styled musical number ("Miss Piggy's Fantasy") with Kermit and a dubbed Grodin trading operatic verses on separate corners of the screen. Great stuff that's just as much fun for adults as it is for kids (and I can attest to that, having now seen the movie as both!).

The 1.85 transfer is somewhat grainy, but it's as good as the film has ever looked through its numerous video releases and the widescreen framing preserves the original aspect ratio. Like the other Muppet films, the movie was shot in a "hard matte" meaning you gain information on the sides and lose nothing on the top and bottom when watching the letterboxed version. (A full-frame, cropped version is also available).

The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is equivalent to the movie's earlier, Dolby Stereo video releases, but the 2.0 stereo sound is severely compressed, sounding like a mono track by comparison. Some "Muppetisms" and a few bonus trailers are also included.

THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER is terrific fun, the best of the original Muppet films and a must for Henson and Muppet fans on DVD. And for my recent reviews of THE MUPPET MOVIE and MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, click here.

Columbia has also gone back to the '80s and released the second and third films in their lucrative "Karate Kid" series on DVD -- 1986's box-office blockbuster hit THE KARATE KID PART II (***, $19.98) and its pointless, 1989 flop follow-up THE KARATE KID PART III (*1/2, $19.98).

Both films continue the formula set by director John G. Avildsen's 1984 sleeper hit, with Ralph Macchio back as the not-so-kiddish Daniel, and Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, the karate guru who instructs his high school protégé in martial arts and life itself. With most of the same behind-the-scenes crew returning for both follow-ups (including writer Robert Mark Kamen), the sequels are easily able to re-create the atmosphere of the original film, although only the 1986 picture comes close to matching its charm. With Miyagi traveling back to Okinawa to visit his ailing father, Daniel travels with him, resulting in the usual culture clash and a romance with a young local girl (Tamlyn Tomita). It's formula but pleasant just the same.

Part II was a bona-fide smash at the box-office ($115 million in 1986 dollars pretty impressive), but the belated Part III ($38 million gorss) disappointed during the summer of 1989, lost in the last, truly "big" movie summer most of us remember ("Batman," "Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade," "Ghostbusters 2," "Lethal Weapon 2," "Star Trek V," "The Abyss," and "Licence to Kill" were just a few of the season's high profile movies).

In reality, though, this third go-round is a laughably melodramatic affair, with its comic book villains (including an over-the-top Thomas Ian Griffith) and tired plot. And Macchio himself, now five years removed from the original (okay, so he's a young 27!), seems ill-at-ease in his surroundings here.

Both KARATE KID sequels feature solid 1.85 transfers and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks, highlighting Bill Conti's enjoyable scores (plus some good, and bad, '80s pop music like Part II's hit single "The Glory of Love," performed by Peter Cetera). Trailers are included on both discs, and there's an interesting featurette included on Part II.

In case you're wondering, 1994's THE NEXT KARATE KID with Hilary Swank - - a definite improvement on Part III -- is due out at the beginning of August)

Columbia has also dusted off another kung-fu fighting relic from the '80s -- BERRY GORDY'S THE LAST DRAGON (**1/2, $19.98), with Taimak as a martial arts student seeking not the Force but rather "The Glow" in a gritty, urban NYC overseen by "The Shogun of Harlem" (played by an outrageously nutty Julius J. Carey III). Meanwhile, former Prince ingenue Vanity plays (what else?) a beautiful singer.

Director Michael Shultz contributes a spirited commentary track to the new DVD, and in particular relates a hilarious story about how he accidentally deleted some 40 pages of writer Louis Venosta's script from his PC while he was off taking a nap! The movie is ridiculous, dated '80s fun, meaning it's perfect entertainment for nostalgia freaks, and features a top-quality soundtrack of pop hits (including El Debarge's classic "Rhythm of the Night," performed on-screen as a music video during the film).

Columbia's DVD features a strong 1.85 transfer of the movie's somewhat ordinary cinematography, plus a 2.0 stereo mix, trailers, filmographies, and production notes. As close to a definitive presentation as you can get for a movie like this, THE LAST DRAGON proves to be a winner on DVD.

Aisle Seat Mail Bag: More on A.I.

From Troy Carmann:

While I mostly agreed with Andy Dursin's analysis of AI's flaws, I think he was a bit harsh in his overall reaction. It was an uneven movie, true, but had many touching and magical moments, a feat I haven't seen in many movies over that last five years or so, especially big-budget summer blockbusters. During much of the movie I was completely captivated, not wanting to break the spell it cast. The acting in general was impressive, and there were more than a few dazzling effects.

I think this movie could have been a masterpiece if Spielberg hadn't included so many references to other films (Pinocchio, Close Encounters), which ended up seeming like something out of a personal agenda and robbing originality from the plot.

I must agree with his opinion of John Williams's score, which offered some of his most inspiring music in years, daring to become involved with the characters and heart of the film in ways he hasn't done since the Jurassic Park/Schindler's List days. The writing for the final scenes and the end credits was both haunting and sublime, causing me to close my eyes and relish the mood and ideas projected by the music and the film in general. The absence of lyrics to the closing song made it much more effective, and by contrast with most current films made me appreciate non-pop song endings. Way to go John and Steven!

From Steve Stromberg:
Hi Andy,

I did not read your review yet. I've taken to not reading any reviews or watching Mr. Ebert and his sidekick give away half the plot to movies that would ordinarily have surprised me. I read them after I've seen the movie. Movie-going is much more satisfying that way. I like to walk in there knowing nothing (or as little as I can) about the movie. I found "A.I." to be a frustrating experience. It was top heavy with narration and had an ending that went on (much like "The Color Purple") forever so that it became anti- climactic. By the time David climbed into bed with his mom I could have cared less. I also had trouble believing the relationship with David and his "parents" and charming brother.

But it had some marvelous sequences and nice plot twists such as David finding all the boxes labeled "David" and then one moved as if the being inside was trying to kick his (its) way out - creepy. Even with the Mad Max and the Thunderdome sequence I though Jude Law's performance the best in the movie. He looked and acted like a robot. His little soft shoe numbers in the puddles and his quizzical way of regarding his surroundings I thought quite charming.

The worst part was the visit to Dr. Know where once again Robin Williams showed how really untalented (except for his improv stand-up stuff) he can be. It was dreadful. Geez, somebody get the hook, would ya? That whole sequence could have been left out of the movie or at least shortened to help David and Joe move along at a bit faster pace. But there were some wonderful visuals and I like William Hurt's opening monologue, the oceans at the beginning, and the haunting remains of New York City near the end. Williams score was okay but I'm still waiting for him to top "The Reivers" or "Sleepers".

COMING WEDNESDAY: I'll break down JURASSIC PARK III for you, plus more reader comments. See you then!

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