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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll catch
you then. Excelsior!