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An Aisle Seat Thanksgiving

Andy reflects on HARRY POTTER and the EPISODE II trailer

Plus: Comedic DVDs FROM THE HIP to HEATHERS

By Andy Dursin

Aaah, Thanksgiving has arrived here in the United States, bringing all the wonderful traditions of the holiday with it: seeing your family and friends, watching football, taking in the occasional screening of "The Plymouth Adventure" on TCM (until you get completely bored and turn it off), and laughing at people sitting in insanely long lines at movie theaters and shopping malls everywhere. In other words, it's time to stay home, folks!

If you were one of the many thousands who went out to see HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (****) on its record-shattering opening weekend, you were treated to one of the most exquisitely filmed "children's" films ever, and, according to the majority of my colleagues, one of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations one could possibly have hoped for.

Even at 153 minutes, this sterling production -- complete with lavish sets, evocative cinematography by John Seale, and another magical score by John Williams -- managed to keep any and all children I was sitting next to entertained from beginning to end. Chris Columbus was able to sustain an atmosphere of childlike wonder in every scene, staying away from any gooey, saccharine emotions that would have been so easy to drift into. The few critics who have carped that it doesn't retain the magic of the book are overlooking the obvious fact that they already know the story -- the sort of thing that happens when you know the ending and therefore aren't surprised by the narrative. (On the other hand, I didn't read the books and was completely caught up in it.)

One of the reasons I enjoyed the film so much was that it would have been easy for the filmmakers to get it wrong. It could have been "Hook," or a later-era Spielberg effort that would have fallen right into the realm of sentimental ickiness. It might have been filled with American stars, or scored with hideous pop-rock tracks.

Instead, it was astounding to me as to how RIGHT Columbus, screenwriter Steve Kloves, and a talented cast and crew got this material. Surely J.K. Rowling's instance on having her book adapted to the screen faithfully was one of the reasons why the first of many HARRY POTTER films to follow is such a spellbinding effort for both kids and adults alike. Even if you've never read the books, do yourself a favor this holiday season and check it out.

On the other hand, I can't see how anyone couldn't be nervous after watching the second trailer for STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES.

Playing up the "love story" between Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala -- and temp-tracked with the "Princess Leia" theme from the original film -- this longer trailer, attached to "Harry Potter" prints, is a definite step back from the first, dialogue-less teaser that we saw a couple of weeks ago on "Monsters, inc."

I'm not sure who decided to cast Hayden Christiansen in the plum role of Anakin, but judging from the laugh-inducing, overwrought performance he delivers in the trailer alone, I think it's clear George Lucas should have handed over the directorial reigns to someone who understood actors this time out -- especially with a story that is supposed to rely more heavily on the relationship between the two leads than special effects (or so they say).

I can think of a dozen young actors who could have made for a perfect Anakin. Christiansen looks completely out of his element judging from the trailer, confirming criticism from folks who claimed to have seen early footage that every scene between Natalie Portman and Christiansen is flaccid, dull, and unemotional.

Trust me: check out the trailer and try not to laugh. Let's hope the rest of the movie manages to overcome what looks like the worst casting call since Sofia Coppola was tapped to replace Winona Ryder in "Godfather Part III."


New On DVD:

Comedic Shenanigans from the '70s, '80s, and today!

A lot of times at the Aisle Seat we end up covering the big sci-fi spectacle, but I do try and sample a wealth of other genres just to give you something else to possibly consider for DVD viewing.

So, here's a round-up of titles on the lighter side of things that we've received over the last couple of months on DVD, including a few choice cult favorites.


Anchor Bay '80s Madness

HEATHERS: Special Edition (***, $19.98, 1988, Anchor Bay): A movie that appears on the list of nearly every fan of '80s cult cinema, Anchor Bay's second DVD edition of "Heathers" adds a THX-approved transfer and a handful of supplements to their bare-bones and grainy first release.

But despite the new remastered transfer (1.85 and enhanced for widescreen televisions), the movie still exhibits the somewhat drab look of a low-budget New World Pictures production (which it is, after all). The 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed sound is somewhat more accomplished, featuring David Newman's eccentric score and several songs from the period.

The new supplements include the half-hour "Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads," which does offer conversations (many of them new) with Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, director Michael Lehmann, writer Daniel Waters, and producer Denise DiNovi among others. It's a nice bonus that looks back on the picture from a fondly nostalgic angle, with some fun behind-the-scenes stories shared as well.

The theatrical trailer (with its SO annoying rendition of "Three Blind Mice"), screenplay excerpt of the original ending, and talent bios are also included. A chatty and informative commentary track with Lehmann, DiNovi, and Waters has also been incorporated from Lumivision's laserdisc release, meaning it was recorded several years ago.

The movie itself has held up pretty well, though its pitch-black, acid tone and sometimes heavy- handed preaching make the movie hard to consider a "classic," even of the black comic kind. Still, Waters' dialogue is often very funny, the performances are appealing, and the movie a nostalgic blast for '80s high school fans.

Anchor Bay has released the HEATHERS Special Edition with several different covers on DVD, so if Winona Ryder isn't your cup of tea, seek out the Shannen Dohery cover at your local haunts.


HIDING OUT (**1/2, $19.98, 1987, Anchor Bay): Let's go back to the days when Jon Cryer was, for a time, anyway, regarded as a big star. His charming performance in what was John Hughes' arguably best teen film, "Pretty in Pink," opened the door for several roles in teen comedies that followed, including the entertaining 1987 DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group release HIDING OUT.

It's the patented "fish out of water" tale, with Cryer as a Boston stock broker who pretends to be a high school student after testifying in a mob trial and pursued by relentless mafia hitmen. So, Cryer goes for the goofy '80s dye-job and has a good time hanging out in high school, where cousin Keith Coogan (of "Adventures in Babysitting") offers tutoring and romantic interest is provided by Annabeth Gish, who was quite cute back in her teenage years.

The movie is slight, forgettable, but also fairly energetic and entertaining for teen movie fans, presented by Anchor Bay in a 1.85, 16:9-enhanced transfer with a basic 2.0 Dolby Surround mix and the original trailer included.


FROM THE HIP (***, $19.98, 1986, Anchor Bay): Folks who thought "Ally McBeal" revolutionized the world of legal dramas with its off-the-cuff humor obviously hadn't seen creator David E. Kelley's first stab at a serio-comic courtroom effort: the now-forgotten but entertaining 1986 effort FROM THE HIP.

Starring Judd Nelson in one of his most brash and obnoxious performances (and that's saying something!), FROM THE HIP finds Boston lawyer Nelson representing a collegege professor (John Hurt) on trial for murder. Elizabeth Perkins essays Nelson's love interest, while many stars who would become regulars in Kelley's subsequent TV output also appear, including Darren McGavin and Ray Walston.

While it sounds conventional, the movie itself is a bizarre mix of comedy and drama, with the second half even turning into a pseudo-thriller! The uneven mix might have been the result of writer Kelley's script being rewritten and directed by Bob Clark of "A Christmas Story" and "Porky's" fame.

Still, if nothing else, FROM THE HIP is consistently interesting and unpredictable, and is finally watchable on home video for the first time via Anchor Bay's new DVD. Shot in the anamorphic JDC Scope process, the 2.35 frame is presented intact for the first time since the original theatrical release, and the transfer (enhanced for 16:9 TVs) looks solid. The mono soundtrack isn't anything special, but then again, most DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group productions from the mid '80s couldn't afford a stereo soundtrack to begin with.

A theatrical trailer is also included for this definite curio, and one of the more interesting solo efforts from any "Brat Pack" alumnus in the '80s. (Be sure to check next week's Aisle Seat for a look at the "definitive" Brat Pack film, ST. ELMO'S FIRE, which is due out shortly on DVD!).


Paramount Laff-Fests

PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM (***, $29.98, 1972, Paramount): Woody Allen's career filmography has seen a revival recently with MGM's multiple DVD box-sets of Allen's '70s and '80s work, which leads one to believe that Paramount had that in mind when it came time to release PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM on DVD.

This 1972 comedy marked Allen's own adaptation of his stage play, starring Woody in his usual screen persona -- the neurotic nebbish whose personal life is in a shambles. His wife (Susan Aspach) leaves him, he sees Humphrey Bogart's image from "Casablanca" instructing him on matters of the heart, and worst of all, he's also in love with pal Tony Roberts' wife (Diane Keaton, in her first of many Allen outings).

Allen may not have directed the film (Herbert Ross did), but you may not notice much of a difference between this and most of Allen's directorial outings: the film has the same, low-key cinematic approach, witty dialogue, and wry observations about relationships that mark most of Woody's own efforts. The movie may not be classic Allen, but for Woody fans, Paramount's no-frills DVD (no trailer) will be of interest. The 1.85, 16:9 enhanced transfer is generally solid, while the English mono track is nothing to write home about (with a somewhat un-Allen like original score by Billy Goldenberg). The disc price may be a bit high at $30 for the lack of extras, but it's still recommended heartily for Woody-philes.


HE SAID, SHE SAID (**1/2, $24.98, 1991, Paramount): This mildly entertaining romantic comedy gets a lot of mileage out of strong performances by Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins as point-counterpoint TV personalities who hook up off the set -- and predictably get involved in as many personal squabbles as they do professional ones.

If it sounds by-the-numbers, well, it is, but there are some unique qualities about the film: first, it's told in two separate segments from each character's point of view (Ken Kwapis directed Bacon's segment, Marisa Silver handled Perkins'), while the Panavision cinematography by the great Stephen H. Burum gives the preceding a glossy, widescreen presentation that looked severely cramped on all pan-and-scan TV prints.

Together with an engaging score by the late Miles Goodman and supporting performances from Nathan Lane and a pre-"Basic Instinct" Sharon Stone, HE SAID, SHE SAID is an entertaining date movie that's been produced splendidly on DVD by Paramount.

The 2.35 transfer (enhanced for 16:9) looks sharp, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is not bad for this kind of film, while the original trailer and an informative audio commentary with the directors, Burum, and screenwriter Brian Hohlfeld are included for extras.


THE BUTCHER'S WIFE (**, $29.98, 1991, Paramount): One of Demi Moore's disastrous post-"Ghost" roles came in this offbeat fantasy-comedy with a sterling cast but a not-especially interesting screenplay.

Moore essays a blonde southern belle with psychic powers who stumbles upon boater George Dzundza on the scenic North Carolina coast. Foolishly believing that the former "Law & Order" star is the man of her dreams, Moore follows him to his New York City butcher shop, only to fall for good guy shrink Jeff Daniels and help solve the problems of the rest of the neighborhood in the process.

Mary Steenburgen, Frances McDormand, and Margaret Colin lend able support to Terry Hughes' 1991 film, but the sitcom-ish script by Ezra Litwak and Majorie Schwartz is thoroughly routine from the very first frame, rarely ever achieving the level of magic the film promises. Michael Gore's score, meanwhile, tries hard to establish a charming, whispy quality that Rachel Portman would fulfill in this kind of film these days.

Paramount's basic DVD features a decent 1.85 transfer, 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Stereo mixes, and the original trailer as an extra. Best recommended for die-hard Demi Moore fans only.


Also New and Noteworthy

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (***, $19.95, 1978, Columbia TriStar): Off the resounding box-office success of 1976's "Murder By Death," Neil Simon scripted this semi-sequel, reuniting several cast members in a silly, highly entertaining spoof of Humphrey Bogart thrillers, '40s film noir, and the detective genre in general.

Peter Falk delivers a wry, funny performance as the title character in a movie that doesn't stray far from the obvious targets, and yet is fitfully amusing all the way through. Simon's script, directed again by Robert Moore, offers plenty of sight gags, with a terrific supporting cast including Eileen Brennan, Sid Caesar, Stockard Channing, Paul Williams, Dom DeLuise, Louise Fletcher (especially amusing), Madeline Kahn, Marsha Mason, Phil Silvers, Abe Vigoda and others. Patrick Williams' enjoyable score also lends an able assist.

Shot in Panavision, THE CHEAP DETECTIVE has always been severely hampered by its cropped TV prints, but fortunately Columbia has provided an okay 2.35 transfer here. Like a lot of '70s films, the movie was shot with soft-focus, filters, etc., which makes the hazy cinematography prone to grain in the first place. Aside from those issues, the movie looks fine, and the mono soundtrack is adequate. A cropped version of the movie, which should be avoided at all costs, is also included.

Columbia has also added a nice extra: a 12-minute, recent interview with Simon, reflecting on the film. It's obvious that Simon was satisfied with the movie, ranking it as one of his more enjoyable cinematic endeavors. For film buffs and anyone seeking a pre-Zucker Brothers kind of gag-filled spoof, you're likely to agree.


FUNNY GIRL (***, $24.98, 1968, Columbia TriStar): I'm not the world's biggest Barbra Streisand fan, so right away that disqualifies me from giving a completely neutral view of this much-loved (by the fans' stars) 1968 musical FUNNY GIRL, the box-office smash that copped a handful of Oscar nominations and a win for Streisand as Best Actress.

Still, the tuneful Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score, which includes such favorites as "People," "Don't Rain on My Parade" and the title song, lends solid support to Barb's quintessential big-screen performance as comedienne Fanny Brice, ranging from high comedy to melodramatic passages in William Wyler's film (with musical numbers handled by Herbert Ross). Either way, it's regarded as a much better film than the bloated 1975 sequel, "Funny Lady," which is due out on DVD in February.

Columbia's DVD features an excellent 2.35 transfer and both 5.0 and 2.0 Dolby mixes. Streisand aficionados will enjoy the two featurettes ("Barbra in Movieland" and "This is Streisand"), while the usual production notes, trailers, and filmographies round out the supplemental side of things.


Musical Extras

If you know of any musical lovers in need of a DVD just for them this holiday season, Sony Classical has released a pair of titles that may prove to be perfect stocking-stuffers.

Previously seen last summer on PBS, RECORDING "THE PRODUCERS": A MUSICAL ROMP WITH MEL BROOKS ($24.98) offers highlights of the cast album recording session for Brooks' blockbuster hit musical, featuring snippets of 14 songs from his terrific score.

Like a lot of recording session videos, there's a lot of self-congratulatory accolades paid between the cast and crew, who obviously had the time of their lives (in likely the show of their careers) participating in the project.

Still, if you saw the show on Broadway, or want a glimpse of its infectious atmosphere and music, this 85- minute video will prove to be satisfying enough, featuring all the original cast members (Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Roger Bart, Gary Beach among them) performing their numbers with Brooks looking on with satisfaction.

Sony should be commended for including a PCM Stereo track on the DVD, enabling you to hear the full, uncompressed stereo sound without the limitations of most DVD Dolby Surround mixes. A 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also available, and the disc includes a bonus photo gallery as an extra.

Sony has also released OUR FAVORITE THINGS: CHRISTMAS IN VIENNA ($19.98), a holiday concert taped last year with Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Placido Domingo, and Vanessa Williams offering an enjoyably varied reading of Christmas traditionals and more recent works (including John Williams' "Somewhere in My Memory" from "Home Alone").

The 70-minute program, performed by the Vienna Symphony under the direction of Steven Mercurio, should be of chief interest to fans of the respective performers or musical lovers looking for a solid DVD that you can dust off each Christmas and enjoy either as background music or as a feature presentation.


NEXT WEEK: THE BEASTMASTER roars on DVD, plus any and all reader comments and more reviews! Direct all comments to dursina@att.net and have a Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


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