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Lord of the DVD?

Plus: BLADE II Special Edition with isolated score content!

An Aisle Seat August Entry
By Andy Dursin

First off this week, I have to give props to Robert Townson and the Varese Sarabande boys for yet another solid run of CD Club releases.

"The Sand Pebbles" has been eagerly awaited by Goldsmith fans for years, and -- while not my favorite Alan Silvestri score -- his "Romancing the Stone" has been a title many film score aficionados have wanted to get their hands on as well.

THE FURY Deluxe Edition is a real eye-opener. While I love the London Symphony Orchestra soundtrack album, the actual L.A. film recording has its own distinct flavor and packs a potent punch in its concluding minutes. It's a phenomenal album, although I wouldn't be so fast to dispose of my old Varese CD soundtrack just yet: the track "Death On the Carousel" (the "extra" cue) has been omitted from the new CD Club release. A similar performance of that cue IS on the L.A. soundtrack disc, but in an alternate (and shorter) arrangement -- so die-hard Williams fans should hold onto the older CD just for completion's sake.

I also have to mention THE BRIDE, which despite running 30 minutes with some curious liner notes ("The Hills Have Eyes Part II" was a box-office hit?) comes highly recommended just the same. This is a gorgeous, romantic work by Maurice Jarre that many listeners overlooked simply because the film itself was so poorly received (I tend to think the movie is severely underrated, despite its shortcomings). At only $15 and limited to 1,000 copies, I'd definitely take a chance on the album, even though Varese opted to reprise the contents of the original LP and nothing more.

For the next Varese CD Club wave, I yet again request two unreleased gems: Elmer Bernstein's FUNNY FARM and Bill Conti's VICTORY (or how 'bout a complete release of the actual RIGHT STUFF soundtrack?).


New on DVD

LORD OF THE RINGS (***, 178 mins., 2001, PG-13; New Line): After watching the first three hours of Peter Jackson's long-awaited film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" series last December, I had many mixed feelings. Overall, though, I felt that I had seen one of the few films that had succeeded in establishing a true fantasy world and an epic quest that lures you in the way that great fantasy can.

The story is one that needs little description: in the kingdom of Middle Earth, young Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) sets out on a journey to destroy an evil ring, created by the dark lord Sauron, that has been given to him by his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm). It not only renders its wearer invisible, but also gives him the power to control the various kingdoms of Middle Earth itself. Hot on the trail of the ring are evil armies and corrupted men, all united by the desire to control the ring and bring back the dark lord, no longer in physical form but gaining power by the moment. Frodo is joined on his journey by pal Sam Gangee (Sean Astin) and the great sorcerer Gandalf (Ian McKellan) among others he meets along the way, including Strider (Viggo Mortensen) and Princess Arwen (Liv Tyler).

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is the kind of film that most genre fans loved, though even watching it a second time on DVD, it's curious how repetitive the action is for a movie that goes on for three hours: the characters run into a monster or new supporting character, walk to another location, run into a monster or new supporting character, run to another venue, all the while staying ahead of the bad guys.

That's not to say that I wasn't entertained by the movie or enthralled by parts of it, but the novelty of its story doesn't seem as cinematically fresh as it could have been had the film been made years ago -- especially after so many other Tolkien-inspired cinematic journeys, from "Willow" to "Dragonslayer," "Star Wars" and others, have already covered similar ground of unlikely heroes, dastardly villains, and bizarre creatures scattered across unfamiliar terrain.

What I found most satisfying about LORD OF THE RINGS as a movie was the look of Jackson's film and the fact that he captured the essence of an epic adventure, a great quest, on-screen without getting sidetracked by the many supporting characters and subplots. When the characters travel through the mine of the dwarves, are pursued by a fire-spewing demon, and jump across a crumbling bridge, you truly feel as if you're in the middle of a great, epic fantasy adventure. Where each turn could lead down a different path, each path leading to doom or discovery.

There are some shortcomings with the film, and if I had to single out a general flaw I found, I'd note the rather one-note tone of the film: the drama doesn't seem to have any peaks or valleys. It's all just kind of "there." Maybe it's because of the repetitive nature of the story, or that Elijah Wood's functional performance as Frodo doesn't quite convey the wide range of emotion inherent in the character and his journey. Even though we know the ending is going to be open-ended, Jackson doesn't quite handle it right: I could hear several "is that it?" responses from people sitting near me when the film faded to black and the credits began rolling in theaters.

I generally liked Howard Shore's large orchestral, Oscar-winning score, but found, over the course of three hours, that his motifs also became redundant. His lilting music for the Hobbits reminded me of similar "ethnic" themes written for "Willow" and "Far and Away," while the "heroic theme" he composed for the adventurers grows tiresome over the countless scenes of the heroes venturing over rough terrain. It's always functional, but somehow it misses the wider, more colorful thematic pallet that Leonard Rosenman brought to Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated feature. It'll be interesting to see if Shore varies from his original work for the next six hours of the series, since a lot of his material felt worn-out by the time this installment was finished.
 
So, is THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS a classic? The next "Star Wars"? I think the jury is still out, but Jackson at least laid the foundation here to craft one of the fantasy genre's few epic cinematic works. Whether the remaining installments hit the dramatic heights that this one doesn't quite reach, or if it's all just a great-looking tease made unique only through its connection with the classic text, at least it seems apparent that it's going to be a journey worth taking.

Now, onto the DVD: New Line has just released a two-disc DVD edition of the theatrical cut, with a second disc of bonus features basically comprised of mostly-promotional featurettes. As with every New Line title, the 2.35 transfer is outstanding and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack one of the best you'll hear at home.

For Special Features, you get a 16-minute featurette produced by book publishers Houghton-Mifflin, a half-hour special that aired on Fox, and a 45-minute Making Of that was broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel. All of these are mostly promotional in nature but aren't devoid of interest, with background footage and interviews breaking up the monotony of seeing the same film clips rehashed over and over. A handful of shorter featurettes produced for the Lord of the Rings website are included, as are your full run of trailers and TV spots, an Enya music video, a preview of the upcoming Electronic Arts video game, and arguably of the most interest -- a 10-minute preview of THE TWO TOWERS, which features flim clips and behind-the-scenes footage (most intriguingly of Andy Serkis' Gollum character, prominently featured in the next picture), whetting your appetite for the sequel.

Now, several readers have emailed me and asked if they should hold off for the truly "Special" Edition of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING: a four-disc Director's Cut that will feature commentaries, an abundance of documentaries, and 30 minutes of footage restored back into the film itself (including new music composed by Howard Shore), coming in November.

My advice is this: if you are a major fan of the film and want a copy of the theatrical version, go ahead and pick up this two-disc edition. Fans will want every scrap of RINGS behind-the-scenes material (promotional or not), and the documentaries on this edition will NOT, apparently, be on the four-disc Director's Cut. It's also important to note that the Director's Cut will apparently be R-rated and contain more gore, which will be of significance if kids are a part of your viewing audience.

On the other hand, if you only have the time and money to invest in one release, I'd hold off and purchase the Director's Edition in November. It'll be just a few dollars more and promises to be one of the top special DVD editions of the year, if not the format altogether. Stay tuned!


BLADE 2 (**, 117 mins., 2002, R; New Line, Available September 3): "More gore, less filling" is the term I'd use to sum up this disappointing, repellent sequel to the surprisingly good sleeper hit of 1999.

Despite my reservations about the film, however, New Line has crafted another outstanding Platinum Edition DVD release that may be worth it for its supplements alone -- especially for its film music-related goodness!

First, the movie: Wesley Snipes is back as the half-vampire, half-human Marvel super- hero, here summoned to help out a group of vampires being attacked by a plague of nosferatu-like creatures that prey on the undead as well as the living.

David S. Goyer's script offers up the usual fights and kung-fu moves for Wesley, but director Guillermo Tel Toro is far more interested in bloodletting and plenty of disgusting special effects than his predecessor (Stephen Norrington) was. These vampire-offspring not only want to drink your blood, but their mouths open up into a foul, tentacle-laden critter a la John Carpenter's "The Thing" as they rip your guts out.

Kris Kristofferson re-appears as Blade's faithful pal Whistler, but while Snipes is game as always, the movie sadly lacks the presence of bad-guy Deacon Frost, who served up a grand menace to Blade thanks to Stephen Dorff's performance in the original. He's mentioned in passing here, but the sequel's substitute -- a cast-off son of a vampire king wanting to exact revenge on his old man -- is weak, and a would-be romance between Blade and the head vamp's daughter (the fetching but emotionless Lenor Vanela) comes off as half-baked at best. A cool battle with ninja-vamps at the beginning is, alas, only a tease for the rather tedious shenanigans that follow.

Where the original BLADE was a cool comic-book come to life -- colorfully filling up a widescreen frame not employed here -- BLADE 2 is more of a claustrophobic, subterranean horror movie like Del Toro's "Mimic," with the director's urine-yellow cinematography washing out the first film's more contemporary look. More over, the director dwells on gore and blood to the point where I kept looking at my watch, waiting for this one to end.

BLADE 2 is grimier, uglier, and gorier than the original, but it's also less involving and interesting as a story. After nearly three years, you would have thought that Snipes and company could have cooked up a sequel with more bite, never mind blood.

Now for some good news: New Line's DVD is packed with supplements, including a full- blown isolated score track of Marco Beltrami's score (in 5.1) that includes all of his own work and is not interrupted with dialogue, source music, or commentary interruptions. It's been a long time since we've heard a legitimate isolated score track, but fortunately BLADE II is one of them!

This two-disc set (available September 3) is filled to the brim with great commentaries and copious extras that may well be worth the purchase for genre fans even if, like me, you didn't care for the film. Del Toro and producer Peter Frankfurt engage in one commentary track that's unusually candid and interesting, touching upon Del Toro's direction and the production in Prague. Snipes and Goyer are teamed for the other commentary, with the two discussing the sequel's conception and road to the screen, along with other anecdotes that place it far above the usual self-congratulatory commentary track.

Disc two includes all kinds of interactive documentaries and supplements, presented in both an interactive format (i.e. an icon appears on-screen that brings you to more information) and a traditional text menu for those who don't want to spend time figuring out complicated menu screens (thank you, New Line!). The meat of the disc is "Production Workshop," which includes five individual "chapters" (The Blood Pact, Sequence Breakdowns, Visual Effects, Notebook, and Art Gallery) spanning the production of BLADE II.

The Blood Pact portion itself runs some 83 minutes, starting from the sequel's origin all the way through direction, production design, creature and visual FX, choreography, costumes, and -- yes -- even the score.

Beltrami is extensively interviewed about scoring the film, while recording session footage is on-hand in abundance. But the segment doesn't stop there -- Del Toro and Beltrami can also be seen discussing Varese's CD release of the score, mulling when it would be released and how much music would be on it! The use of ethnic instruments and their separate recording is also shown and discussed, while the performance of an alternate cue is included, enabling you to compare it to the final version.

This is easily one of the best film music featurettes I've ever seen on a DVD, period, and if you are a fan of Beltrami or this score, don't miss it!

Some 25 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes are also included (several fully scored), though Del Toro rightfully describes them as "crap" and you can easily see why they were axed.

A full compliment of trailers, TV spots, storyboards, a DVD-ROM interactive script, director's journals, and equally outstanding featurettes on the FX are just the tip of the iceberg in a package that's hands down one of the year's best on DVD. So good, in fact, that I'm almost willing to forgive the disappointment of the film and give this one a full- blown recommendation. For genre fans, certainly, BLADE II comes recommended without reservation. Look for it early next month.


THE SWEETEST THING (**, 90 mins., 2002, Unrated; Columbia TriStar): A schizophrenic comedy that's equal parts "There's Something About Mary," "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Bridget Jones' Diary," THE SWEETEST THING flopped at the box-office last spring despite generating "buzz" among various media outlets for its tale of swingin' single ladies mixing it up on the dance floor -- or at least, I think that's what the movie was about.
 
Cameron Diaz plays the heroine here, doing her usual dance and gyrating butt routines (I can't think of any other way to describe it!) as a party girl who just wants to meet Mr. Right. That she does, in the form of Thomas Jane (quickly becoming the Cary Elwes of the 21st century), who's actually engaged to be married in a few days to Parker Posey (in a worthless 90-second cameo). With gal pal Christina Applegate tagging along, Diaz opts to disrupt the ceremony, but not until we get an incredibly tasteless assortment of gross- out, "American Pie"-like gags, strange musical montages (including one spoofing "Pretty Woman" and "Grease"), and connecting dramatic tissue so thin that you have to assume a lot of this abbreviated comedy hit the cutting room floor (tellingly, the 90-minute movie is padded with nearly ten minutes of credits and outtake footage).

It says a great deal about a movie when a supporting role for former sitcom teen phenom Jason Bateman is the most amusing thing in it (he does, to his credit, perform a hilarious rendition of the Bangles' "Eternal Flame"), but I have to admit THE SWEETEST THING is so bizarre that it kept me watching. Diaz, Applegate, and Selma Blair are awfully appealing and I got the feeling that there was a funny, sweet movie lurking somewhere in Nancy Pimental's script. The problem is that the tone swings wildly from romantic comedy to disgusting, lost-common-denominator visual gags, almost as if the sexually- oriented humor was thrown in simply to get the movie made. Whatever the case may be, director Roger Kumble ("Cruel Intentions") seemed to have trouble juggling the film's multiple personalities.

Columbia has released both R-rated and Unrated versions of THE SWEETEST THING on DVD. Not having seen the theatrical cut, I can only assume one brief shot of male genitalia was added to the unrated version. The 1.85 transfer is perfect, the 5.1 soundtrack bouncy, and supplements include director and cast commentary, a promotional featurette, storyboards, trailers, and a half-hour, tongue-in-cheek look at Pimental working on the script.


NEXT TIME: Back in a couple of weeks with a late summer round-up. In the meantime, I have plenty of DVDs to sort through for the Halloween FSM Laserphile column in between heading to the beach. Drop an email to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time!


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