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Aisle Seat Spring Training Edition

A Round-Up of Theatrical Releases, and new DVDs from CLEOPATRA to CHARLIE'S ANGELS

Plus: Agatha Christie visits Anchor Bay!

By Andy Dursin

Yes, folks, spring is here, the Oscars are over (did anyone really care?), and so we're back at the Aisle Seat, after a good long month of sports-related work. Andy's other online gig is -- believe it or not -- covering college hockey, so aside from an upcoming sojourn to Albany next week for the "Frozen Four," we're back to the movies and DVDs that have been piling up in our New England offices here during the last few weeks.

Since our last column, we've also seen a handful of new movies come out in the wake of "Hannibal," including Jean-Jacques Annaud's ENEMY AT THE GATES (***), which is an extremely well-acted and mounted WWII thriller punctuated by a solid score by James Horner. Some of the relationships in the film seem to have been left on the cutting room floor (a situation I hope Paramount's DVD will rectify later this year), but in a season bereft of quality films, I certainly enjoyed this picture and would recommend it to anyone who has stayed away from the multiplex of late.

Also new is HEARTBREAKERS (**1/2), a female, mother-daughter "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" variant with Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt making for an odd couple of con artists. Both are OK, but the supporting performances of this overlong, though amiable, farce give the movie its energy: Ray Liotta manages to thankfully wipe away memories of his "Hannibal" role with an enjoyable performance here as a schnook who Weaver duped, while Gene Hackman is terrific as a chain-smoking millionaire who's the next intended target of the protagonists. Only indie fave Jason Lee seems out of his element in a bland "straight man" role as a good guy Hewitt falls for. At 125 minutes, this is an unnecessarily prolonged ride at times, but the sporadic laughs and nice scenery make it a decent date movie for those so inclined.

If, on the other hand, you're more in the mood for DVD viewing, all studios have been active releasing wave after wave of big titles, both old and new. Here's a round-up of recent picks -- and be sure to check back in soon for the next Aisle Seat, when we run-down sci-fi fantasy faves like KRULL and ZARDOZ, both in sterling new transfers with supplements as well!


Recent and recommended

Nobody thought that 2000 was an especially good year for movies, but at least the final quarter brought us several glossy, entertaining studio pictures that met with mixed results at the box-office.

THE 6TH DAY (***, $24.98), an efficient, engaging sci-fi thriller from director Roger Spottiswoode, sought to re-launch the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger (similar to the resurrection of Steven Seagal's career with the current hit "Exit Wounds"), but despite generally good notices from critics, didn't find an audience upon its release last November.

While an obvious financial disappointment, this is easily Arnold's best film since "True Lies," and has all the ingredients of a solid futuristic plot: a believable scenario involving cloning, cool technological gadgets (including replicated pets and robotic playpals for kids), plus decent special effects and a quick pace. More over, the movie is crowd-pleasing fun, boasting nifty action sequences and performances from Arnold, villainous Tony Goldwyn and Michael Rooker, and sorta-sympathetic doc Robert Duvall.

Spottiswoode, as he did with "Tomorrow Never Dies," handles the movie efficiently, leaping effortlessly over some of the movie's plot holes (the script by Marianne and Cormac Wibberly is actually much better than you would have thought), and focusing on character whenever the action isn't on-going. Even Trevor Rabin's upbeat-synth score is surprisingly okay.

All of this makes THE 6TH DAY a perfect candidate to find its audience on video, and here, Columbia's DVD does not disappoint. The 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both outstanding, and an audio commentary with Rabin -- along with an isolated score track of his music (not a bad inclusion given Varese's shortish CD release ) -- is also included, along with trailers and TV spots, and full-length "ads" for the futuristic pets and dolls featured in the film.

The extras are nice, but reportedly some of the additional features originally slated for inclusion in the DVD (including some behind-the-scenes featurettes) were scrapped at the last minute, even though J.M. Kenny is still listed as having produced the supplements. But, for $25, it's still a great looking and sounding disc, and the movie provides solid entertainment, making DVD the perfect forum to enjoy this overlooked actioner.

Columbia had more success at the box-office with CHARLIE'S ANGELS (**1/2, $24.98), the colorfully goofy action-adventure that managed to fit comfortably between an "Austin Powers"-like spoof of the '70s TV series it was based on and an engaging action-adventure with well-choreographed fight sequences.

Amiable performances by its three leads -- Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu -- puts the movie's sometimes uneven screenplay over the top, while veteran music video helmer McG's direction keeps the glossy visuals moving. Between those elements, and fun supporting performances by Bill Murray and, amazingly enough, Crispin Glover as a bad guy, CHARLIE'S ANGELS was not just a guilty pleasure from late last year, but also one of the more downright purely enjoyable studio films from the second half of 2000.

To be expected, Columbia has produced a fabulous looking and sounding DVD. With a perfect 2.35 transfer and sensational 5.1 soundtrack, CHARLIE'S ANGELS makes for an ideal reference-quality title to show off your home theater system. The supplements are equally enjoyable: audio commentary with McG and cinematography Russell Carpenter, plus featurettes on the set design, costumes, kung-fu choreography, stunts and visual effects are included for "how did they do that?" info, while trailers, two music videos, several brief deleted scenes, outtakes, bloopers, production notes and bios round out a thoroughly entertaining collection of special features.

The movie may be flawed, but it IS fun, and Columbia's DVD is every bit as addictive as the bubblegum entertainment that the movie provides.

Buena Vista, meanwhile, has rolled out a long list of new titles, and leading the way is REMEMBER THE TITANS (***, $29.98), the unlikely collaboration between the Walt Disney Pictures brand name and producer Jerry Bruckheimer that resulted in a feel-good football drama, the true story of a Virginia high school football team in the early '70s fighting racial prejudice as well as their on-field opponents.

Denzel Washington and co-star Will Patton are both terrific in a movie that is every bit as corny, syrupy, and saccharine as you might anticipate from a Disney release (with too many Motown sing-alongs), but also highly entertaining nevertheless.

Buena Vista's DVD features a pretty good 2.35 transfer (some background shimmering is evident from time-to-time), excellent 5.1 mixes in both DTS and Dolby formats, and two audio commentaries: one by the filmmakers, the other -- more compellingly -- featuring a discussion between the real-life coaches Washington and Patton essay in the film. Six deleted scenes are included, presented fully scored and in 5.1, along with an ABC fluff "documentary" hosted by Lynn Swann and additional behind-the-scenes featurettes. Solid family entertainment.


Cleopatra 1963!

Last week Varese unrolled a lavish 2-CD set of Alex North's score for the infamous Elizabeth Taylor epic "Cleopatra," just in time to coincide with Fox's THX-remastered presentation of the actual film ($26.98), which will be released April 3rd on DVD in a truly spectacular three-disc set.

While I had not previously screened the movie from start to finish before, I was able to catch a few minutes of CBS/Fox's widescreen laserdisc a few years back. In every way, shape and form, the DVD will come as a revelation for those familiar with previous transfers of this picture: the 2.20 THX transfer is more detailed, colorful, and vibrant than the original laser release. The sound, meanwhile, is remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital, and happily -- unlike the recent "Ben-Hur" DVD release -- this remix retains the wide stereophonic glory of North's score, and is comparable with the original laser audio. Fox archivists reportedly worked for years to find director Joseph L. Mankewicz's original six-hour cut of the film, but despite being unable to do so, were able to skillfully produce a great-looking and sounding DVD of the original theatrical cut -- even though the DVD is inexplicably missing North's exit music.

The movie is what it is -- virtually impossible to watch in one four-hour sitting, CLEOPATRA is best viewed in two separate installments, and taken as a massively overproduced soap opera with moments of unrivaled spectacle, as well as dry, tedious stretches with performances ranging from merely adequate (Liz) to outstanding (Rex Harrison as Caesar). Fox has reissued the movie as a "romantic spectacle," the "Titanic" of its day, and the film remains a curiosity item if nothing else for its ballyhooed history.

That latter element is addressed in the two-hour documentary found -- along with other supplements including the trailer and newsreel footage -- on the third, supplemental disc included in the set. For most viewers, this compulsively watchable new production will be of more interest than the actual film, diving head-on into the movie's nightmarish production. Included are new interviews and priceless (silent) "lost" footage of the movie's original, abandoned shoot, with Stephen Boyd and Peter Finch in the Marc Antony/Ceasar roles.

Scheduled to be broadcast in April on AMC, it's a terrific, comprehensive behind-the-scenes glimpse into the Hollywood studio machine of the period, and will provide viewers new to the film with an understanding of what the movie's fuss was all about -- especially since it's not always evident on-screen.


Manic, and more dramatic, comedy

One of Spike Lee's biggest box-office hits was not prominently sold as a typical "Spike Lee Joint," and with good reason -- the often outrageously funny THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY (***, $24.98) isn't the director's usual fare, but instead a terrific concert film showcasing the talents of African-American comics Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac.

One of last summer's few breakout sleeper hits, this extremely entertaining and frequently hysterical 115- minute effort chronicles what was reportedly the highest-grossing comedy tour in history, with Lee interspersing backstage interviews with clips of the comics doing what they do best: out on stage performing in front of an audience, talking about subjects as mundane as sports figures to headier topics like religion and politics.

Paramount's DVD features a solid 1.85 transfer and surprisingly active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, plus a trailer, music video, and additional bonus scenes that expand on some of the material found in the final print. For sheer belly laughs, there are plenty to be found in this high energy picture.

Taking a detour into more dramatic comedy, Paramount has recently released a terrific presentation of ALFIE (***1/2, $24.98) on DVD -- Lewis Gilbert's 1965 adaptation of Bill Naughton's play, featuring one of the most acclaimed and certainly well-remembered singular performances of the '60s, that of course by Michael Caine as a Cockney bachelor with a limited conscience living and lovin' in metropolitan England.

The movie feels somewhat dated at times due to its then-contemporary setting, but Caine's performance as the title character, who slowly becomes aware of his actions, anchors the movie with a heartbreaking, poignant realism.

Gilbert shot the movie in full widescreen, and Paramount's 2.35 transfer of the Panavision frame is impeccable, with the source material appearing in very good shape. Similar to other, recent Paramount DVDs of older titles (like "The Odd Couple"), the studio has remastered the mono soundtrack in 5.1 Dolby Digital, channeling the music in stereo and giving a bit more oomph to the dialogue tracks. It's not overwhelming but certainly gives the audio more ambiance. (For purists, the original mono tracks are also included).

A theatrical trailer is also included on the disc, selling the movie's strong critical notices and frank discussion of its adult themes. For Caine's performance alone, ALFIE remains a highly recommended view.


Super Sleuths

Looking for similar, vintage British fare? From the EMI library (now controlled by Le Studio Canal +), Anchor Bay has issued a handful of Agatha Christie film adaptations on DVD -- a welcome addition to the label's vast and eclectic array of titles.

All previously available on videocassette through Thorn EMI (later Thorn EMI/HBO, HBO/Cannon, and ultimately HBO Video!) in murky, out-of-focus transfers, mystery buffs should enjoy each of these four big-screen mysteries, which provide the usual "whoduneit?" entertainment as well as some campy performances and, in at least one instance, sheer demented excess.

The latter can be found in the 1972 Sidney Gilliat thriller ENDLESS NIGHT (**, $29.98), a hysterically over-the-top exercise in pulp nonsense that feels more like what Paul Verhoeven might have produced -- had he been working in British cinema in the early '70s -- than a typical Agatha Christie adaptation!

The unrestrained Hywel Bennett gives a shagadelic performance as a limo driver who improbably marries wealthy heiress Haley Mills. Soon after, the couple construct a glorious -- albeit deliriously '70s (with remote-controlled window panels and swimming pools) -- home in the scenic English countryside. No sooner than Mills introduces her voluptuous sister Britt Ekland to the bratty Bennett does the entire movie go from an improbable rags-to-riches story to a tale of murder and insanity, complete with an overwrought, melodramatic ending punctuated by Bernard Herrmann's goofy use of the moog synthesizer (played by Howard Blake, of all people).

This trashy thriller -- reportedly having little in common with Christie aside from the author's brand name -- would prove to be the first of many, more traditional EMI adaptations of Christie novels to follow, the biggest success coming with Sidney Lumet's somewhat overpraised "Murder on the Orient Express" (with Albert Finney as master-sleuth Hercule Poirot) in 1974.

Several years later, the studio and producers John Barbourne and Richard Goodwin decided it was high time to bring another series of star-studded mysteries to the silver screen, and DEATH ON THE NILE (***, $24.98) would be the next Christie entry in 1978.

With Peter Ustinov on-board for the first of his many Poirot performances, John Guillermin's lengthy but enjoyable travelogue received a lot of mileage from Nino Rota's score and a solid script by Anthony Shaffer ("Amadeus"). The all-star cast here features Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, Mia Farrow, Jack Warden, and George Kennedy, and while the movie seems to go on a bit, it's still a great- looking film that copped an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

Ustinov reprised his role for EMI in the almost-as-enjoyable 1982 effort EVIL UNDER THE SUN (***, $24.98), which brought onboard James Mason, Roddy McDowall, Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith (again), Jane Birkin (again), and Sylvia Miles for its tropical island murder setting. Bond vet Guy Hamilton handled the directorial reigns this time out, resulting in a more efficient running time (under two hours), while Anthony Shaffer returned to pen the screenplay.

While Ustinov later returned as Poirot in one Cannon Films production (the horrible "Appointment With Death") and several made-for-TV movies, EMI opted to try their hand once with the Miss Marple character in the stilted 1980 adaptation of THE MIRROR CRACK'D (**, $24.98), starring Angela Lansbury in her pre-Jessica Fletcher days as the dotty neighborhood sleuth of the English countryside.

Lansbury, though, proved to be no Margaret Rutherford in this film, since she spends most of the picture off-screen recovering from an ankle injury! To pick up the sleuthing slack, James Fox steps in as Marple's nephew as he investigates the death of a local woman, who mysteriously died while attending a party for a visiting Hollywood film crew.

Despite the best efforts of Fox and Lansbury, THE MIRROR CRACK'D is stolen away by scenary- chewing, hammy performances by former American matinee idols Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, and Tony Curtis, each of whom seem to be competing for the picture's worst performance (it's close, but Hudson has the funniest lines). The script by Jonathan Hales (co-writer of STAR WARS: EPISODE II) and Barry Sandler is creaky, and is done no favors by Guy Hamilton's leaden staging. John Cameron's score hits all the appropriate melodramatic notes, but it's not surprising that EMI didn't try another Marple go-around after this misfire.

All four DVDs feature 1.85, enhanced transfers, OK mono soundtracks, plus trailers and TV spots. Featurettes on the production of EVIL UNDER THE SUN and DEATH ON THE NILE are included on those respective discs, while the latter also boasts interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jane Birkin.

While all four (with the excpetion of "Endless Night") fit comfortably into the Christie formula, each makes for stylish entertainment, and Anchor Bay's presentation should satisfy every armchair detective on DVD. Hopefully, with these Christie pictures resurrected, MGM might consider releasing the delightful Miss Marple films from the mid-'60s -- each starring Margaret Rutherford -- particularly since the pictures' brief running times would make for a pair of terrific double-feature DVDs.


NEXT TIME: It's a Sci-Fi/Fantasy round-up with KRULL, ZARDOZ, HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME, RED PLANET, and more! Direct all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!
 


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