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Aisle Seat Holiday Gift Guide Part One

Three Days, 43 DVDs Rated For Gift-Giving Pleasure!

Today: JURASSIC, Jolie, and the "Untitled" ALMOST FAMOUS!

By Andy Dursin

We don't need Jack Palance to come out and say it, but believe it or not, Christmas is just days away. And that, among many other things, means the DVD titles you have been overlooking for the last couple of weeks are still lying dormant on store shelves. Whether they're perfect for you or your loved ones, there's something for everyone out there, as our annual, massive holiday round-up of DVDs will surely attest.

As always, we're going disc-by-disc through some 43 titles, giving you the plusses and minuses inherent in each DVD. Today we'll look at DVDs of movies that were released this past year; tomorrow we'll dive into the more "archival" (if you consider a movie from the '80s "vintage," that is) flicks that have been recently mastered into the digital age.

So, if you're looking for present potentials, you've come to the right place. Remember to email me at dursina@att.net if you need specific recommendations (I'll do my best) and we'll see you tomorrow. And now, let the shopping (and criticism) begin!


JURASSIC PARK III. Universal, $26.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Third entry in the popular series brings back Sam Neill's Dr. Alan Grant, persuaded by bickering couple William H. Macy and Teo Leoni into leading a fly-by of Isla Sorna, the mysterious island where Richard Attenborough's company resurrected the dinosaur via DNA breakthroughs. The fly-by, however, soon turns into a rescue mission gone wrong, with the group searching for the couple's lost teenage son and running into raptors, pteranodons, and the newly unveiled spinosaurus, all in hot pursuit.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: At 93 minutes, this is a fun, old-style '50s monster movie updated with state-of-art special effects. It's leaner and far less pretentious than the last go-around, "The Lost World," making it a significant improvement on its predecessor. Neill is terrific and more laid back than he was in the original JP, with Macy providing agreeable enough comic relief as the in-over-his-head dad. The ending is abrupt and Leoni's performance would have been grating if the film went on past its current running time, but director Joe Johnston should be commended for making a highly enjoyable monster flick that doesn't preach like its predecessors, concentrating strictly on action and the dinos themselves.

DVD GOODS: Universal's Special Edition DVD features the obligatory bells and whistles, mainly focusing on the special effects work of ILM and Stan Winston's animatronic creatures. Trailers, storyboards, and a commentary with the special effects team (including Winston) compliment the package, though Laurent Bouzereau's usually extensive "Making Of" documentary is virtually all-promotion, running a scant 23 minutes. Obviously, director Johnston didn't want us to see the movie's original, filmed ending (which was reportedly re-shot at the last minute), since the movie's lack of deleted scenes comes as the disc's most lamentable omission. The 1.85 transfer is good, not great, while the DTS and Dolby 5.1 mixes are surprisingly average considering the kind of film JPIII is.

GIFT POTENTIAL: If you know anyone who enjoyed the original JP and hated "The Lost World," Part III is like a breath of fresh air. The movie is no-frills, unpretentious fun, and not only do you get a voucher for a free Universal DVD with purchasing JP III, but also access to the fourth, bonus "Beyond Jurassic Park" disc, which is otherwise unavailable. Dino-mite, indeed.


LEGALLY BLONDE. MGM, $26.98.

NUTSHELL: "Clueless" Goes to College. Reese Witherspoon gives it her all as a Southern California fraternity girl who improbably decides to follow her stuffed-shirt boyfriend to Harvard Law School to better prove her love for him. And, of course, despite strict teachers (Victor Garber, Holland Taylor) and obnoxious classmates (Selma Blair), somehow, some way, Witherspoon's Elle Woods just manages to prove to everyone, and herself, that she's not quite the airhead she appears to be (something we've all known since the first ten minutes, of course).

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: This summer slice of escapism -- which managed to gross over $90 million -- is agreeably breezy and light, but the script (by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who penned the superior "Ten Things I Hate About You") hammers you over the head with one-dimensional stereotypes that ultimately give the movie a somewhat sour taste. It's all wrapped up with a "been there, done that" feeling further accentuated by Robert Luketic's bland direction, forcing Witherspoon to single-handedly carry the show -- and that she does quite well.

DVD GOODS: In addition to a commentary track, the DVD's flip side features several featurettes and a handful of deleted scenes with introduction by director Luketic. Both the 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are top-notch.

GIFT POTENTIAL: The big date movie and comedy hit of last summer, people who liked LEGALLY BLONDE loved it. If you know one of them, they'll be the audience for MGM's well-produced DVD as well.


THE SCORE. Paramount, $29.98.

NUTSHELL: Robert DeNiro is an aging thief who needs just one more robbery so he can leave his criminal life behind and move on with his girlfriend (Angela Bassett). Edward Norton is the young upstart who thinks he knows everything faster and better than DeNiro does in coordinating the heist of a priceless artifact guarded closely in the basement of the Montreal Customs House. Marlon Brando plays the big man (literally and figuratively) behind the operation.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: THE SCORE is constantly low-key, doesn't have any major action set-pieces or car chases, prominently features just a handful of characters, and doesn't hit you over the head with violence, sex, or needless "hip" comic relief. It's a kind of well- crafted heist thriller that could have been made exactly the same 20, maybe even 30 years ago -- back when MOST movies were more skillfully made than they are now. Norton is sensational, and watching three generations of stars interacting is the main draw to THE SCORE.

DVD GOODS: Commentary with director Frank Oz and several deleted sequences (showing off Brando and DeNiro's improvisations on the set) are the key supplements here, along with the standard promotional featurette and trailer. The 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both exemplary.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Frank Oz's first foray into R-rated, strictly-adult filmmaking won't prove flashy or fast enough to satisfy the Michael Bay crowd, but it sure feels like a refreshing breeze after watching most of the junk we've seen lately. The movie IS slow moving at times, but if you know patient movie-goers who happen to be DeNiro or Norton fans, and who are looking for more than special effects, this is a great title that a lot of viewers missed in theaters.


TOMB RAIDER. Paramount, $29.98.

NUTSHELL: Shapely video-game heroine Lara Croft -- the female Indiana Jones, capably fleshed out on the big-screen by Angelina Jolie -- is embroiled in an astronomical convergence (don't ask me how or where this is happening) and the pursuit of a "cosmic clock" that holds the key to being able to control time. A ruthless bad guy (Iain Glen), responsible for the death of her father (Jolie's real dad, Jon Voight), is in hot pursuit of the gadget, which takes Lara to Venice, Cambodia, and points far south in the hopes of attaining the power to the device before it falls into the wrong hands.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: An unfortunately ho-hum adaptation of the popular video game franchise, basically coming across in live-action form as a watered-down version of "The Mummy" -- itself, of course, a watered-down version of Indiana Jones. What saves the film from total disaster is Jolie's lively performance as Lara, which gives the uninspired story a major dose of energy lacking in almost every other facet of the production. It's not a good movie by any stretch, but Jolie is having so much fun in the part, TOMB RAIDER still provides enough entertainment for interested viewers (especially males under the age of 30).

DVD GOODS: Paramount has labeled TOMB RAIDER as a Collector's Edition DVD, and provides a solid supplemental package to back up the billing. Director Simon West might have had his movie re-cut behind his back before release, but obviously he got over it since he provides an adequate commentary track. Separate featurettes (13 of them!) touch upon the production and Jolie's physical conditioning, along with the history of the video game franchise, stunt work, and special effects. Deleted scenes (including an alternate opening sequence), the trailer, and a music video round out the "traditional" supplements, but there are plenty more -- from interviews to documentary footage -- available in the DVD-ROM portion of the disc. Wrapping it all up is Paramount's usual outstanding 2.35 transfer and throbbing 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, featuring an unremarkable Graeme Revell score.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Know of any video-game addicts? Teenage boys? Older guys who enjoyed looking at Jolie on the one-sheet poster? If someone you know fits into one of those categories, the DVD would make a splendid present, especially with all of the extras that Paramount has provided here.


SUMMER CATCH. Warner, $19.98.

NUTSHELL: The filmmakers who brought you "Varsity Blues" (and there goes three- quarters of our readership right now, I bet) bring you the touching tale of a young would- be pitcher (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) attempting to make it in the Cape Cod Summer League after dropping out of college. Complicating matters are a number of elements: his mom just died, his dad (Fred Ward) is a blue-collar caretaker who works for a stuffy local resident, his teammates are a group of wackos, and he's in love with the daughter (Jessica Biel) of the well-to-do family whose lawn he mows. It's meant to balance laughs, romantic comedy, and an inspirational sports movie-theme all at once but --

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Despite its modest $20-million box-office gross, a workable teen movie formula, and a terrific supporting cast (Fred Ward, Brian Dennehy, Brittany Murphy, Bruce Davison, the fetching Biel, and even one-time teen star Jason "Iron Eagle" Gedrick), SUMMER CATCH is one of the most synthetic big-studio efforts I've seen in recent memory. Prinze's performance confirms his inability to act, there's not one surprise to be found anywhere in sight, and the movie has no energy to speak of at any one point. It even makes MAJOR LEAGUE 2 look like a classic by comparison (yes, a damning statement, no doubt). As a teen movie fan, I grant plenty of leeway for films in this genre, but there's no redeeming value to be found here, aside from some unintended laughs in the cliche-ridden screenplay.

DVD GOODS: Warner's price is right ($20 retail), and there are 13 minutes worth of deleted scenes included, plus an audio commentary. Strangely, the movie "jumps" at several points in Warner's DVD transfer -- seemingly a problem with the print itself (every now and then frames seem to be missing). The 1.85 transfer is otherwise OK, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack includes a score by George Fenton, whose talents (like those of the cast) should have been utilized in a more deserving project.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Fans of Freddie Prinze, Jr. (whoever you are) and relatives of the folks that worked on this vapid effort are pretty much the only would-be recipients I would consider for this title. Definitely a strike-out for everyone else!


ANGEL EYES. Warner, $24.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Jennifer Lopez gives another strong performance as a Chicago cop whose life is saved by a strange man (Jim Caviezel) with a past shrouded in secrecy. As Lopez begins to sink deeper and deeper into losing contact with her own family, the two enter into an intimate relationship that threatens to unravel when, haunted by the past, Caviezel has trouble reconciling his history with their future.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Despite finding few takers in theaters last May, this is a surprisingly good, well-acted and thoughtfully written romantic-drama. Definitely NOT the supernatural thriller the deceptive advertising promised, but rather a tender and well- told tale of love lost and found, with two strong performances from Lopez and Caviezel. Credit Gerard DiPego's script and Luis Mandoki's direction for turning what could have been a bland and depressing formula romance into a compelling character piece.

DVD GOODS: Like a lot of Morgan Creek DVDs I've watched in the past, the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is problematic. This time out, it sounds as if the bass was inadvertently dialed down in the sound mix, since turning on the commentary track illustrates that there's plenty of low-end missing from the Dolby Digital track. On the plus side, the 1.85 transfer is solid and there's a decent commentary track to compliment the package.

GIFT POTENTIAL:ANGEL EYES is nothing but an unabashedly melodramatic, intimate romance masquerading in its publicity as a supernatural thriller. Despite some creaky, saccharine speeches that slow the movie down near the end, for most of the way ANGEL EYES is a surprisingly effective drama with good performances, low-key direction, and solid dialogue. If you know someone willing to take a chance on the movie, it's a perfect title to recommend.


ALMOST FAMOUS: UNTITLED. Dreamworks, $34.98.

THE NUTSHELL: The improved, expanded Director's Cut of Cameron Crowe's autobiographical film, based on the writer-director's own experiences as a teenage journalist covering the Allman Brothers Band (here dubbed a group named "Stillwater") back in the '70s. It's equal parts coming-of-age picture and backstage pop music chronicle, as youthful William Miller (Crowe's alter-ego) watches the drinking, drug- using, and woman-swapping hard-rockers strut their stuff during a period of time when folks were genuinely enthusiastic about the music on the airwaves. Frances McDormand is superb as Miller's mom, with excellent turns from Billy Crudup (as Stillwater's lead guitarist), Kate Hudson (as a groupie), and Patrick Fugit as William.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Even if you don't like rock & roll, this is a wonderful movie filled with memorable scenes -- alternately heartbreaking, heartwarming or hilarious. The performances are across-the-board sensational, and best of all, this is one of the rare "Director's Cuts" that's actually better than its original version. One of my few complaints about the theatrical cut was that it was a tad too episodic, having obviously shed some of its supporting characters (including Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk as Stillwater fans) in the editing room. Here, Crowe has added some 42 minutes of footage that fleshes out characterizations and gives the movie even more room to breathe -- making the small screen the perfect place to savor the longish running time.

DVD GOODS: This three-disc set might be priced a bit higher than most, but it more than justifies its price tag with a plethora of great features. For starters, you don't just get the new Director's Cut, but also the theatrical version (with all of the first DVD release's extras as well), and a bonus CD of six Stillwater tracks (one of which is previously unreleased). Crowe's commentary on the Director's Cut comes complete with his Mom, who goes to great lengths to inform us just how personal much of ALMOST FAMOUS really is. Add in other featurettes, and you've got a tremendous DVD, with a sterling 1.85 transfer and rockin' 5.1 Dolby Digital track perfectly complimenting the preceding (the theatrical version boasts a DTS track as well).

GIFT POTENTIAL: This is a great movie for teens and adults, presented in a top-notch DVD package that marks it as one of the year's Top Ten releases. Crowe's film is a kaleidoscope of memories and moments that you needn't have lived through to enjoy, and the DVD is equally rewarding.


SHREK. Dreamworks, $29.98.

THE NUTSHELL: For a while, Dreamworks' underdog CGI feature -- a fractured fairy tale based on William Stieg's book -- was the year's highest-grossing movie. So, unless you've been staying away from the multiplex in 2001, chances are that you've already enjoyed the low-brow comedy and big heart of this tale of a big green lug (voiced by Mike Myers) who falls in love with a beautiful princess (harboring a major secret, and voiced by Cameron Diaz) and who sets out on a journey with a wise-acre donkey in a kingdom ruled by a short-tempered (and short!) tyrannical despot, vocalized by John Lithgow.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: I didn't take to this movie like a lot of others did, finding the CGI work nothing extraordinary and the flatulence jokes wearisome after a while (not to mention the strident shots at Disney -- can you say "inferiority complex," Jeffrey Katzenberg?). On the other hand, kids didn't care and adults found more than enough amusement in the movie's sight gags and off-the-wall humor, which admittedly hits the mark more often than not. Even though I didn't think SHREK was a classic, it's still highly entertaining, and easily serves as Dreamworks' finest animated effort to date.

DVD GOODS: Dreamworks' two-DVD set hits the bullseye with its pristine widescreen transfer and matching 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. Disc 1 features a full- frame version with supplements aimed at kids (interactive games, etc.), while Disc 2 features a 1.78 transfer with commentary tracks and lots of behind-the-scenes material, taking you from pre-production (with drawing-board meetings) through to the final print. It's a rare supplemental package that works as well for kids as it does for adults, again illustrating Dreamworks' commitment to DVD.

GIFT POTENTIAL: You would have to be a Grinch not to find something here of interest, either in the extensive supplements or in the movie itself. Even if the PG-rated, juvenile bathroom humor gets in the way at times, it's almost impossible not to get caught up in SHREK's undeniably manic, and infectious, energy.


Also New & Noteworthy

DIRTY HARRY (Warner, $19.98): Excellent remastered edition of the original Dirty Harry flick offers a new digital transfer and 5.1 soundtrack -- Lalo Schifrin's classic score never sounded better -- plus a 30th anniversary documentary with Clint Eastwood, the original 1971 featurette, and a vintage interview gallery. Nicely presented by Warner as a low-priced single DVD release, it's also part of the "Dirty Harry Collection" box-set, featuring the handful of sequels Eastwood turned out over the years.

CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL (Touchstone, $29.98): Kirsten Dunst proves she can play a serious role in this thoughtfully written teen drama. Dunst plays a well-to-do rich girl in love with young Latino male Jay Hernandez (in an equally strong performance); Bruce Davison essays Dunst's stuffy congressman dad (he's beginning to specialize in this part -- see "Summer Catch" review above). Former "Christine" star John Stockwell directed this well-handled, sensitive tale of young love, even though the studio re-cut the film for a PG-13 rating after the love scenes proved too adult for its intended audience.

Touchstone's 1.85, 5.1 Dolby and DTS presentation is excellent; a chatty commentary track with Dunst and Stockwell, trailers, deleted scenes, and a decent documentary comprise an excellent supplemental package.

MADE (Artisan, $24.98): Jon Favreau made his directorial debut with this hit-or-miss mafia spoof. Favreau stars as an unsuccessful boxer whose pal (Vince Vaughn) gets the duo involved with the mob after Vaughn claims to be "made." Peter Falk, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Famke Jenssen co-star in this occasionally funny, at-times violent effort that Favreau also wrote. For the most part, the movie works because of the chemistry between Favreau and his "Swingers" co-star Vaughn. Artisan's 1.85, 5.1 DVD looks and sounds fine, and is backed by an excellent supplemental package: commentary, "action telestrator illustrated commentary" (you have to see it to understand it), plenty of deleted scenes and outtakes, a scene edit workship, three documentaries, a DVD-ROM interactive script, and lots more.


TOMORROW: Part II (and then some!) of our annual Holiday DVD wrap-up. Email any comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Ho ho ho!


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