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Aisle Seat End of Summer DVD Bash, Part One

From CHOCOLAT to MARATHON MAN, 13 new DVD reviews!

By Andy Dursin

Like it or not, we've already come to the end of August, and the Aisle Seat has been flooded with countless new DVD titles over the last few weeks that need immediate reviewing attention.

So as we wind down a terrific, albeit hot summer in the Northeast (just as it has been throughout the United States), here's Part One of our End of Summer DVD Bash, going studio-by-studio through some new releases. Are they worth your while? The Laserphile knowsŠ


Paramount

ENEMY AT THE GATES. $29.98, R.

WHAT IT IS: Jean-Jacques Annaud's lavish WWII epic is a true story of a Russian sharpshooter (another effective role for Jude Law), popularized by military propaganda, whom the Germans decide to rub out by bringing in a vicious marksman (Ed Harris) while the Battle of Stalingrad rages on in the wintry Russian landscape. Annaud is one of the few directors left who can make a classically-constructed film that feels like it could have been made exactly the same way 15 or even 30 years ago, and ENEMY is a well-mounted, powerful piece of filmmaking that's flawed in its pacing and certain narrative decisions (the Rachel Weisz love interest angle should have either been augmented or cut completely), but is striking in how it details the conflict between two individuals while thousands are dying in the battle surrounding them.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: Paramount's superlative 2.35 transfer preserves the original Panavision cinematography, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is a masterful mix of James Horner's highly effective original score (it works great once you put the "Schindler's" influence aside) and potent sound effects. One of the best audio/video presentations of the year to date.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: Two documentary features include a promotional featurette on the production as well as a more interesting, 22-minute piece consisting of interviews with the cast and Annaud, who dives into greater detail surrounding the historical background of the actual event. A handful of interesting, but not integral, deleted scenes are included (a first for Paramount?), along with the excellent theatrical trailer.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: ***. Flaws and all, there have been few movies as technically well-made in the last few years as ENEMY AT THE GATES. Annaud's film conveys the necessary atmosphere, look and feel of the event, making you feel as if you're really there.

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: Despite being hissed off the screen at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, ENEMY performed quite well in the U.S., grossing over $50 million domestically. Annaud's co-writer here was Alain Godard, who also worked with the filmmaker on "The Name of the Rose" -- coincidentally the last time that Annaud collaborated with composer James Horner.


MARATHON MAN. $29.98, R.

WHAT IT IS: Back when thrillers were REALLY thrillers, director John Schlesinger fashioned this tough, gritty 1976 adaptation of William Goldman's novel, scripted for the screen by the author. Dustin Hoffman portrays a grad student unwittingly plunged into the world of international espionage involving his CIA agent brother (Roy Scheider, fresh off "Jaws") and a sadistic Nazi, Dr. Szell (one of Laurence Olivier's most memorable roles), searching for a bounty of diamonds. William Devane and Marthe Keller co-star in a supremely memorable thriller that has remained a highlight of '70s cinema for several top-notch sequences, and catapulted the phrase "is it safe?" into many a movie- goer's memories forever.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: Presented in a new, 16:9 enhanced 1.85 transfer, MARATHON MAN looks pretty good on DVD overall. The original mono soundtrack has been included, along with a new, 5.1 "enhanced" track that mildly separates the discreet channels and adds just a bit of stereophonic oomph to Michael Small's music score.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: A solid, 30-minute new documentary includes interviews with all the principal players, from Dustin Hoffman to producer Robert Evans, Roy Scheider, and Marthe Keller. It's a fascinating look behind the scenes and a fine addition to the disc, which also includes rehearsal footage introduced by Evans, the original '76 featurette, and the trailer.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: ***1/2. You hate to use the phrase "they don't make 'em like this anymore," but this taut and exceptionally well-acted picture represents one of the best thrillers of the '70s. For anyone who hasn't seen it, now's your best chance, in an excellent package from Paramount.


COMPANY MAN. $29.98, PG-13.

WHAT IT IS: Go figure this: a movie starring Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Denis Leary, Woody Allen, Alan Cumming, Jeffrey Jones, and young stars Ryan Philippe and Heather Matarazzo that not only didn't receive a wide theatrical release, but basically went right to video. Naturally, there had to be a reason why, and it only takes a few minutes of watching COMPANY MAN to see why: virtually none of it works. Co-writer/director Douglas McGrath plays a bumbling grammar school teacher who improbably becomes a CIA agent to help sort out a war-torn Cuba, led by Fidel Castro (Anthony LaPaglia), while his country-club snob of a wife (Weaver) believes her spouse to be a bumbling underachiever. McGrath directed the Gwenyth Paltrow version of "Emma" and co-wrote "Bullets Over Broadway" with Allen (whose relationship there must have had something to do with his unbilled appearance here), but this time displays none of the comic panache that he brought to either film.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 1.85 transfer is fine and the 5.1 soundtrack features a marginal score by David Lawrence.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: Unsurprisingly, none, except for the trailer.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: *1/2. With that cast, the movie is a definite curio, but the movie feels a prolonged ride right from the get-go, even at 81 minutes.


A PLACE IN THE SUN. $29.98.

WHAT IT IS: Switching gears from misfired farce to a highly respected Oscar-winner that nevertheless has a reputation as being overpraised, Paramount has done a superb job with their deluxe edition of this 1951 George Stevens film. Elizabeth Taylor stars as a wealthy woman whom overachieving factory worker Montgomery Clift tries to court in early '50s upstate New York, with Shelley Winters as the lower-class girl who reminds Clift all too well of his roots. Michael Wilson and Harry Brown adapted Theodore Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy," which was also turned into a play by Patrick Kearney (as well as a 1931 Josef von Sternburg movie). Despite being somewhat preachy, with an over-the-top performance by Raymond Burr in the last half hour, Stevens' film is still highly interesting, and infused with a handful of biting lines and several strong performances from Clift, Taylor, and Winters. Critics are still divided over the film, with many saying it's overlong and misses the point of the novel -- but either way, as an example of Hollywood's "Golden Age" filmmaking in its prime, this multiple Oscar winner is worth a view.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: The full-frame, black-and-white picture looks to be in better-than-average shape, while the 5.1 reprocessed soundtrack is fine, featuring an award-winning score from Franz Waxman.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: Paramount has included a commentary track with George Stevens, Jr. and Ivan Moffat, which is quite candid and interesting, with Moffat going so far as to criticize Waxman's overly theatrical main title. Their recollections will be of top interest for fans of the film or the era in which it was made. Two featurettes (produced a few years ago) looking at Stevens' career are also included, one featuring interviews with Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, and others, while the other features specific comments from other directors on Stevens' legacy (these include the late Frank Capra, Alan J. Pakula, Rouben Mamoulian, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz).

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: ***. The movie is overly melodramatic and slow at times, but the craftsmanship of the cast and crew make it a worthwhile endeavor to sit through.


Universal

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS. Universal, PG-13, $26.98.

WHAT IT IS: This live-action version of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon didn't quite perform at the box-office for co-producers Universal and MGM, but as the genre goes, it's a lively enough spoof. Small-town girls Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson are improbably transformed overnight into a teeny-bopper rock sensation by dastardly record producers Alan Cumming and Parker Posey, who use subliminal messages in their CDs to hook unsuspecting youth consumers. The Babyface-produced music is bouncy and the movie colorful enough, even if the entire film is stolen by "DuJour," a Backstreet Boys-parody group with Seth Green and Breckin Meyer, that's funnier in its five minutes of screen time than anything else in the film.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: Unsurprisingly active 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks compliment a typically strong 1.85 transfer from Universal.

DVD EXTRAS: Four minutes of deleted scenes, audio commentary from Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan (who wrote and directed), three music videos, production notes, a promotional featurette, and the original trailer.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: **1/2. This slice of cartoon nostalgia was a bit before my time (I think "Josie & The Pussycats in Outer Space" might have been rerun when I was a kid), and the movie isn't anything substantial, but on its own terms JOSIE is modest fun and perfect fodder for teens and kids at heart.

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: A PG-rated "Director's Cut" of JOSIE was recently rated by the MPAA, an interesting move since the original, PG-13 theatrical version included here doesn't seem to have warranted its "edgier" rating whatsoever.
 


HEAD OVER HEELS. Universal, PG-13, $26.98.

WHAT IT IS: Between this and "Josie," Universal's spring slate combined to gross less than half the opening weekend take of any film the studio released this summer. Still, it's hard to completely dislike this ridiculous but surprisingly watchable comedy that snuck under the radar of most moviegoers altogether. Monica Potter (quite likable here) stars as an art restoration expert who moves in with a gaggle of super models in NYC after her latest boyfriend cheats on her. After receiving the requisite goofy makeover, Potter spies heartthrob Freddie Prinze, Jr. in the building next door -- and promptly believes he's murdered a young girl. What follows thereafter is a goofy piece of cinematic escapism that's over before the 90 minute mark and likely will be out of your memory before then.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: Shot in Super 35, the movie looks solid in its 2.35 transfer and features a decent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack with a score by Randy Edelman and Steve Porcaro.

DVD EXTRAS: Not much here aside from a Spotlight on Location featurette, some production notes, and the original trailer, which tries unsuccessfully to sell the movie as a Cinderella-esque romantic comedy and a Hitchcockian thriller!

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: **1/2. Prinze comes off like Keanu Reeves in the middle of his "learning how to act" phase from the late '80s, but this fast-paced nonsense plays better than it sounds. No classic, but not a total dud, either.

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: Ex-Toto member Steve Porcaro was credited with "additional music" on THE SKULLS, which Randy Edelman also scored.


Columbia TriStar

THE BROTHERS. $24.98, R.

WHAT IT IS: An African-American tale of four friends living and loving in Southern California, THE BROTHERS played well in theaters last spring, grossing some $30-million for Columbia's specialty brand, Screen Gems. Morris Chestnut, Shemar Moore, D.L. Hughley, and Bill Bellamy play the "Brothers," whose personal relationships are tainted by the usual standbys of growing up: failure to commit, the pressure of balancing work and pleasure, and moving on with their lives. When Moore decides to tie the knot, his pals begin to wonder if this is the end of the line -- or the start of a new beginning. The four leads generate a fair amount of goodwill, which manages to overcome the lengthy running time and dramatic creakiness that takes over whenever writer-director Gary Hardwicke opts to go beyond the sitcom-like boundaries of the movie's premise.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: An acceptable 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both up to Columbia's usual high standards.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: Audio commentary, deleted scenes, a promotional featurette, a music video, and the original trailer make for a solid supplemental package.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: **. Funny in places (Hughley's very R-rated argument with his wife over the boundaries of their physical contact is hysterical), THE BROTHERS isn't on a par with other, recent African-American-cast films like "The Best Man." The cast is engaging but the screenplay doesn't back the characters with enough dramatic depth to make you really care about them. Still, Hardwicke shows some promise as a skilled comedic filmmaker if he concentrates strictly on the funny next time out.

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: Hardwicke made his directorial debut here after several years of cutting his teeth writing urban TV sitcoms like the short-lived "South Central."


SAVING SILVERMAN. $24.98, PG-13.

WHAT IT IS: One of several forgettable movies that were released during the February doldrums, Dennis Dugan's latest no-brain comedy epic (following on the heels of the Adam Sandler turkey "Little Nicky"), SAVING SILVERMAN stars Jason Biggs (whose high school mop makes him appear creepily similar to Slim Goodbody!), Steve Zahn, and Jack Black as childhood buddies all lusting after WB network ingénue Amanda Peet. Plenty of slapstick gags, juvenile pranks, and low-brow humor make for a whacked-out ride redeemed only somewhat by the appearance of Neil Diamond, who convincingly stars as himself.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: Both 1.85 and full-screen transfers are included, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is about on a par with your standard comedy release.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: Audio commentary from Dugan, the original trailer, and some outtakes are included for supplements.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: *1/2. Straining TOO hard to be silly, SILVERMAN is the latest crude comedy to take a page out of the Farrelly Brothers play book. But, as we've seen from the Farrellys themselves (who have tanked twice with recent producing efforts "Say It Isn't So" and "Osmosis Jones"), being gross doesn't necessarily mean being funny.

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: Columbia has released two separate packages of SAVING SILVERMAN -- the original PG-13 rated cut (which I viewed) and a longer, R-rated version that reportedly contains four minutes of added profanity and sexual references. (Apparently those four minutes don't make it any funnier, however). Supplements are the same on both discs.


TOMCATS. $24.98, R.

WHAT IT IS: Now you can read a critic who just slammed a movie for being crude and rude recommending another that's, if anything, even more offensive! The difference is that TOMCATS is actually funny, believe it or not. This box-office underachiever from Revolution Studios (which scored more successfully with "The Animal" and "America's Sweethearts" over the last few months) is a raunchy chronicle of three bachelors (Jerry O'Connell, Jake Busey, and SNL's Horatio Sanz) trying to win a bet by remaining single. In some ways, this is a wackier, whiter version of "The Brothers" (see above) but with no pretension other than making you laugh. And as much as I hate to admit it, TOMCATS did make me laugh, getting a major dose of energy from writer-director Gregory Poirier, who keeps the movie moving from film parody to gross-out gag and back again.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both up to Columbia's usual high standards.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: Likely due to the movie's scant financial returns, the DVD is bereft of supplements outside of a trailer and cast and crew bios.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: ***. You won't be watching this movie unless you know what you're getting yourself into, so chances are that you'll laugh at TOMCATS despite its lowest-common denominator jokes. I found it funnier than any other films of its ilk (including recent Farrelly Bros. films and the original "American Pie").

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: Can you believe that writer-director Poirier once authored the script for the noble John Singleton drama "Rosewood"?


Artisan

HAUNTED. $19.98, R.

WHAT IT IS: A terrific, little-seen 1995 British ghost story directed by veteran filmmaker Lewis Gilbert and co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola, HAUNTED stars Aidan Quinn, John Gielgud, and a young Kate Beckinsale in a tale of a haunting at an isolated English country manor. Debbie Wiseman's gorgeous score adds a touch of class to a creepy little movie that's more dramatically pungent than "The Others," with a twist you can't see coming from miles away. Based on James Herbert's novel, HAUNTED deserved more exposure than it received, premiering in the U.S. on video several years ago. Artisan's DVD gives you a perfect chance to take another look.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: This is the same, full-frame transfer released on laserdisc a few years back, but the movie doesn't appear to be losing any peripheral information and looks well composed in the 1.33 aspect ratio. The 2.0 Dolby Surround sound isn't anything spectacular, but it's functional. DVD EXTRAS: Nothing. No trailers, cast bios, or even production notes.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: ***1/2. I wrote a glowing review of HAUNTED when it first hit video for a Canadian magazine (the sadly now-defunct Home Movies) and received positive feedback from a few readers who took a chance on it. With Artisan's new DVD, HAUNTED is back in circulation and comes highly recommended, even if the disc is a no-frills re-issue, essentially, of the original video release.

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: Kate Beckinsale may be riding high on the success of "Pearl Harbor," but she first burst onto the scene in 1993's "Much Ado About Nothing," and followed that role with parts in "Haunted" and the excellent "Cold Comfort Farm" in the mid-90s.


WHEN DINOSAURS ROAMED AMERICA. Artisan/Discovery, $19.98.

WHAT IT IS: A recent Discovery Channel documentary attempts to show life in North America back in the time of the dinosaurs, with CGI special effects and narration by John Goodman. For the most part, though, this 90-minute special plays like an inferior version of the acclaimed, hugely successful BBC mini-series "Walking With Dinosaurs," with less elaborate special effects. Still, if you have kids obsessed with the walking creatures of millions of years ago, they'll likely be captivated by this production just the same.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: A top-notch 1.85 transfer, enhanced for 16:9 televisions, and a 5.1 Dolby Digital track features a score by Christopher Franke. (For some reason, my review copy starts playing with on-screen English subtitles that have to be manually turned off). DVD EXTRAS: Various Discovery Channel featurettes are included, along with interviews, a "music video," and interactive quizzes, dino facts, and information on the special effects and Franke's music.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: **1/2. If you have "Walking With Dinosaurs," you're probably all set when it comes to owning a dino-doc in your video library. But this is still a well-done, if not somewhat simplistic, special that would have been far more impressive if it wasn't overshadowed by its predecessor.

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: It's curious that John Goodman's name doesn't appear anywhere on the exterior packaging and the jacket production credits. Perhaps someone was worried his attachment would evoke memories of his work on the Steven Spielberg-produced, animated dino flop "We're Back!"??


Buena Vista

CHOCOLAT. Miramax, $29.98, PG-13.

WHAT IT IS: A pleasant, enjoyable fairy tale with gypsy Juliette Binoche transforming a repressed French village into a town of free-thinkers during Lent in the late '50s. Alfred Molina, Judi Dench, Lena Olin, and Johnny Depp lend able support to this Lasse Hallstrom- directed, Robert Nelson Jacobs-scripted adaptation of the Joanne Harris novel, a critical and commercial darling that garnered a fistful of Oscar nominations last spring. Rachel Portman's catchy score and Roger Pratt's expert lensing all contribute to a classy production that's as delectable as its title.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: Strong 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: A Miramax Collector's Edition, CHOCOLAT features a commentary track, several deleted scenes (not terribly significant), a behind-the-scenes featurette on the production and costumes, and trailers.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: ***1/2. The somewhat hackneyed story and typical anti-religious tone aside (why does virtually every Hollywood movie make established, organized faiths out to be restrictive, stifling institutions?), CHOCOLAT is a superb film, well-acted and told. Buena Vista's DVD looks and sounds great, and adds some tasty supplements to sweeten the pot.


VATEL. Miramax, $29.98, PG-13.

WHAT IT IS: The movie that nearly sank French studio Gaumont, VATEL was a pricey flop that didn't exactly re-launch director Roland Joffe's fading career. Gerard Depardieu stars as Francois Vatel, 17th century cook to France's Prince de Conde (Julian Glover). Large and in charge of putting together an elaborate feast for the Sun King (Julian Sands) at a country estate, Vatel ultimately falls for the king's mistress (Uma Thurman, adding yet another nail in the career coffin) -- obviously a no-no -- as he prepares a banquet that would make Emeril drool. The production design by Jean Rebasse and the nicely understated Ennio Morricone score create a sumptuous look that's easy to get lost in, at least until you realize how vapid the story is. It's hard to believe that Tom Stoppard was one of the screenwriters, hired to translate a French script into muddled English for Depardieu, Thurman, and co-star Tim Roth. U.S. distributor Miramax went all out to get the movie an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design (which it certainly deserved), but was saddled with a limp, overlong movie that the Weinsteins cut by over 20 minutes for its domestic release here. Still, this could be one of the few times they were correct in being hasty in the editing room -- VATEL is slow and sterile, despite the evocative production design.

DVD TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 2.35 transfer has solid colors and contrasts, but there's a slight instability in the image (there's a persistent shift around certain edges) that prevents it from being classified as pristine. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is perfectly acceptable.

DVD EXTRA FEATURES: A theatrical trailer and a featurette on the costume design are included.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: **. A depressing movie with a tragic ending, but hey, the cinematography is nice!

AISLE SEAT TRIVIA: Roland Joffe has misfired completely in his last few cinematic outings, including the strange semi-spoof "Goodbye, Lover" and the much-ballyhooed "Scarlet Letter" (which I still believe got a bad rap that it wasn't completely deserving of).


THURSDAY: Round two looks at MGM goodies, including HANNIBAL. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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