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Aisle Seat Summer DVD Mania

Ten reviews from ROYAL TENENBAUMS to FIRESTARTER 2
Plus: REIGN OF FIRE, LILO & STITCH, and more!

By Andy Dursin

The summer movie season continues to move full speed ahead, with a big number of genre films being released both last week and in the next few days. "Eight Legged Freaks" looks to update the time-honored tradition of giant monster movies, while "Reign of Fire" attempted to put a spin on post-apocalyptic future films by having fire-breathing dragons taking over the world! After over a year on the shelf for re-editing, "Halloween: Resurrection" also opened (without critic screenings), though I'll be damned if I'd spend another $8.75 after sitting through "Halloween: H20" several years ago.

Here are a few quick new-release capsules for your enjoyment, along with a look at recent DVD releases for THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, HART'S WAR, IMPOSTOR: Director's Cut, and plenty more!


In Theaters

REIGN OF FIRE (*1/2): The year's best example of how a good trailer can be cut for an utterly terrible film, REIGN OF FIRE is a tiresome, formulaic bore made watchable only by Matthew McConaughey's hysterical performance as an American dragonslayer on a future Earth where fire-breathing beasts have enslaved the planet.

How and why this happened is explained in a couple of throwaway lines of dialogue -- the rest is dull filler, chronicling the exploits of rag-tag Brits (lead by the film's real star, Christian Bale) attempting to remain in their ragged "Waterworld"/"Mad Max"-like society while dodging the prehistoric monsters. One day a group of Americans arrive -- lead by the bombastic McConaughey -- who have a more direct approach to dealing with the dragons: they kill them. Using an air force chopper and plenty of firepower at their disposal (how they're able to recharge their weapons or find fuel is never discussed), the Yanks take down one beast, but then -- in the film's funniest scene - - McConaughey chews out the Brits for throwing a "soiree" over it.

"X-Files" vet Rob Bowman directed this hugely disappointing genre film, which offers no surprises or any suspense whatsoever (even Ed Shearmur's score is often a direct rip-off of "Aliens"). In fact, the film is so thoroughly routine that you'd find yourself on DVD fast-forwarding through it to find the special effects sequences, which themselves are competent but nothing extraordinary. This certainly isn't on the level of DRAGONSLAYER or even DRAGONHEART -- what REIGN OF FIRE is, unfortunately, is a tired old, post-apocalyptic film whose creators should have spent energy on cultivating a good script, not a glitzy marketing campaign. (PG-13)


LILO & STITCH (***): This isn't your Mom & Dad's Disney flick. In fact, this charming tale of a rambunctious alien who finds a home with a little Hawaiian girl and her older sister is a low-key and distinctive animated tale, quite unlike many of the studio's more generic recent efforts. Stitch is certainly one of the more offbeat Disney animated protagonists you'll see, but the key to the film is the believable relationship between Lilo and her older sister, both trying to create a family after the death of their parents. The scenes with Stitch and Lilo bonding through classic Elvis tunes are also priceless -- and are so good that the film's formulaic last 15 minutes come off as a disappointing and predictable end to everything that's come before it. Still, LILO & STITCH is a beautiful, hand-drawn feature with unique characters and personalities -- easily ranking as one of Disney's finer features in some time. Kudos as well to Alan Silvestri's excellent score, which utilizes a real Hawaiian school chorus and enhances the film with its own distinct flavor. (PG)


New Releases on DVD

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (***, 107 mins., 2001, R; Criterion/Touchstone): Wes Anderson's latest offbeat comic tome examines the rise, fall, and gradual redemption of a New York family lead by Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman.

The Tenenbaum children, much like the characters in Anderson's previous work, are eccentric and flawed, yet oddly sympathetic -- all having seen a downturn in their lives after starting out as child prodigies. Chas (Ben Stiller) became a financial wizard at the age of 13; adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) turned into a published playwright by the same age; and brother Richie (Luke Wilson) won a national tennis title by his mid-teens as well.

Flash forward nearly two decades later and the three are in turmoil -- Chas from the death of his wife, Richie unhappy after ending his tennis career, and Margot lost in a marriage with a dullard psychiatrist (Bill Murray) -- while estranged father Royal (Hackman) attempts to repair the damage to his clan after years spent on the sidelines, showing little interest in the well-being of his offspring.

Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson (who essays the role of neighbor Eli Cash), THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is another fascinating effort from Anderson, cut very much from the same mold as his last outing, 1998's memorable "Rushmore." The director's use of the wide Panavision frame, use of both original Mark Mothersbaugh music and eclectic pop tunes, and highly stylized storytelling culminates in an undeniably unique artistic accomplishment, kind of a comic "Magnificent Ambersons" to a certain extent. Anderson keeps you on your viewing toes by mixing comedy with drama, slapstick with sorrow, and his mixture of the two is often in perfect balance here. Working with another superb cast, the director also receives sterling performances from Hackman, Huston, and Danny Glover as the new object of Mrs. Tenenbaum's affection, while Alec Baldwin provides narration throughout.

Anderson's careful attention to detail and visual eye make THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS a treat for cinephiles, and there are many standout scenes and hilarious moments (no more so than when Owen Wilson goes on a Charlie Rose-like talk show to discuss his new book). That said, I didn't find Anderson's story to be quite as satisfying or coherent as "Rushmore," petering out a bit in the final minutes and leaving the viewer with the feeling that all the various narrative strands hadn't been entirely woven together. Still, the movie is well worth watching for its look and the way that Anderson tells his story -- imperfect, perhaps, but certainly a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience at a time when so little of today's filmmaking bears a distinctive voice.

The Criterion release of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS fits comfortably with their earlier DVD presentation of "Rushmore." Anderson's brother, Eric, designed the jacket, discs, and interior artwork, and the supplements are as equally offbeat as the movie itself. The film's Charlie Rose-like interviewer, "Peter Bradley," interviews several veterans from Anderson's films in a droll, funny 15-minute segment, while a revealing 30-minute Independent Film Channel documentary chronicles Anderson's work on the set. Separate interviews with all the principal cast members are included, along with outtakes (many of them "easter eggs" found around the edges of menu screens), a full artwork gallery, two short deleted scenes, commentary with Anderson, and a colorful booklet of Eric Anderson's sketches.

The 2.35 transfer is, of course, essential to appreciating the film, and the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are both superb, featuring songs ranging from Vince Guaraldi's immortal "Christmastime Is Here" to Mothersbaugh's delightful score.


HART'S WAR (**1/2, 125 mins., 2002, R; MGM): One of several Christmas releases last year that got bumped into the doldrums of February, director Gregory Hoblit's WWII escape thriller/courtroom drama boasts fine performances and several effective sequences, but suffers from a case of cinematic schizophrenia.

Colin Farrell plays the title role -- an American lieutenant captured at the end of the war and imprisoned in a German POW camp. There, he meets Col. McNamara (Bruce Willis), who oversees the American camps and places Lt. Hart in charge of a barracks -- something the uncertain young man handles with relative ease until two African-American pilots are shot down and assigned to Hart's group.

What follows from there is an uneven hybrid of WWII internment drama, "The Great Escape," a preachy film about racial tolerance, and a courtroom drama/murder- mystery! Billy Ray and Terry George are credited with adapting John Katzenbach's book, but I wouldn't have been surprised if a handful of "script doctors" also had their hands on the final product. Ultimately, the film turns out to be less than the sum of its parts -- despite solid work from Farrell and Willis, who effectively underplays the potentially showy role of the tough, embittered McNamara.

One of HART'S WAR's main problems is that it seems neither director Hoblit nor the screenwriters had a firm handle on the material. The picture's opening, set aboard a POW train transport, seems incredibly disjointed and pointless; the opening half-hour in general does a poor job establishing side characters and situations, leaving one with the feeling that it was hacked apart in the editing room. When the picture's unlikely murder- mystery element kicks in, Hoblit and the writers try to throw us a curveball so we can't guess the predictable action climax that ensues, but the finale is so poorly directed that there's little tension or suspense.

Still, HART'S WAR is an admirable effort, with atmospheric cinematography by Alar Kivilo (shot in Prague) and strong performances that keep you watching despite the unpolished script. One demerit, however, goes out to Rachel Portman's tiresome, string- laden score, which repeats the same thematic material over and over -- certainly not one of the composer's stronger efforts.

MGM's Special Edition DVD includes two commentary tracks (one by Willis and Hoblit; the other by producer David Ladd), along with the trailer, photo gallery, and a handful of deleted scenes. Tellingly, unlike most unused sequences contained in a DVD supplement, these are fully-finished scenes that had to have been cut late in the game -- perhaps in the interim between the movie's intended premiere and ultimate release date. The 2.35 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack filled with loud explosions, many of which are disproportionate to the general volume level.


IMPOSTER (*1/2, 102 mins., 2002, R; Dimension): Gary Sinise plays a scientist on a future Earth attacked by an invading army from Alpha Centuri. One day while heading into work, Sinise is captured and interrogated by a government inquisitor (Vincent D'Onofrio) who suspects that Sinise is really an Alpha Centurian spy with an implanted bomb intended to kill Earth Chancellor Lindsay Crouse.

IMPOSTOR is the second film this year adapted from a story by Philip K. Dick ("Blade Runner," "Total Recall"), but it couldn't be any more different than Steven Spielberg's MINORITY REPORT. This is a simplistic chase picture with few surprises, offering scant character development or anything interesting in the way of big plot revelations (aside from the movie's pre-requisite "twist" ending). D'Onofrio's bombastic, scenery- chewing performance as the heavy is the best thing about the picture, which boasts solid production values and a strong cast (Madeleine Stowe is Sinise's wife; Tony Shalhoub plays his scientist friend), but throws an interesting premise away due to a thoroughly formulaic treatment.

In fact, if the film feels padded, that's because it is. Like a lot of films being made these days, IMPOSTOR's unusual behind-the-scenes history is far more interesting than the finished product. A few years ago, Miramax started production on a sci-fi anthology picture entitled "Alien Love Triangle." The film was comprised of a segment of the same name (starring Kenneth Branagh, Heather Graham and Courtney Cox, and directed by Danny Boyle), a second story, and "Impostor" with Gary Sinise and Madeline Stowe.

Though it seems the Branagh segment may yet appear as a feature film as well, "Alien Love Triangle" itself was never released. However, studio executives liked what they saw of the "Impostor" segment so much that they decided to expand the movie into a full-length feature, upping the budget and adding more elaborate visual effects (by Industrial Light & Magic) to enhance the presentation. The story was also expanded to accommodate additional supporting players (namely, Mekhi Phifer as an unlikely ally to Sinise), with lots and lots of padding (i.e. chase sequences) extending the film's running time.

Reuniting the same cast and crew, IMPOSTOR -- the feature film -- was supposed to be Dimension's big Christmas release last year, but something went astray along the way. After numerous delays, the film was dumped into theaters with hardly any fanfare in February, where it received poor reviews and exited from multiplexes in a matter of days (once you see the finished product, however, it's not hard to see why).

I didn't see the film theatrically, but the DVD includes a "Director's Cut," which offers a 102-minute R-rated version in comparison to the 95-minute PG-13 cut that was released in theaters. As much as I usually advocate the inclusion of deleted footage on DVD, however, IMPOSTOR is the kind of film that quickly overstays its welcome. The good news with the Dimension DVD is that the original, 37-minute version IS included, and it eliminates an hour's worth of Sinise running around, trying to elude the bad guys. Watching it after seeing the released film confirms just how superfluous most of the action in Gary Fleder's feature version is.

While an intriguing project due to the cast and premise, IMPOSTOR should have either remained as a short film, or re-written entirely instead of the patchwork pad job performed on the original script (credited to Caroline Case, Ehren Kruger, and David Twohy, with an "adaptation" credit to Scott Rosenberg). Dimension's 1.85 DVD transfer is excellent, capturing the dark nuances of Robert Elswit's cinematography, while Mark Isham's heavily-electronic score offers little relief from pounding bass and generic suspense music (it does sound great in 5.1, however). A theatrical trailer and better-than- average behind-the-scenes promotional featurette round out the disc, which should rank as a curiosity rental for sci-fi buffs but little more.


THE SHIPPING NEWS (**, 111 mins., 2001, R; Miramax): Yet another example of a book that simply doesn't translate to the screen, "The Shipping News" stars Kevin Spacey in a difficult role as Quoyle, an inksetter for a Poughkipsee, New York newspaper. After fathering a child with nutty Cate Blanchett -- only to see her die in an auto mishap -- Quoyle decides to pack up his daughter, along with dotty aunt Judi Dench, and head for their ancestral homeland in Newfoundland, where he improbably becomes a newspaper columnist for publisher/fisherman Scott Glenn.

While Quoyle attempts to put his life back in order, he finds romance with single mom Julianne Moore and uncovers the demons in his own life, family background, and Newfoundland itself. With so many secrets to uncover, it's no surprise that there's rape, incest, death, and depression to go-around -- topics that director Lasse Hallstrom tackled to far greater success in his 1999 film, "The Cider House Rules."

Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton provides lovely, evocative shots of the Newfoundland coastline, but other than the scenery and Christopher Young's flavorful score, THE SHIPPING NEWS is a mess. Robert Nelson Jacobs adapted E. Annie Proulx's novel, and apparently didn't know what to do with the abundance of subplots and side characters the book had. Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein likely didn't have a solution, either, since the studio cut some seven minutes out of the film just days before it was released last November (the DVD includes the 111-minute theatrical cut, with no deleted scenes).

The final cut of THE SHIPPING NEWS is awfully disjointed, with unappealing characters and messy dramatic situations. Likely, Proulx's novel is the kind filled with internal dialogue and relationships that simply can't be filmed under any circumstance. While Hallstrom gives it a go, the movie doesn't work at all, with a fine cast left floundering: Spacey never quite convinces as the stoic Quoyle, Moore's accent doesn't feel right, though Dench and Glenn leave the most positive impression among the big cast (which also includes Pete Postlethwaite and Rhys Ifans).

Miramax's DVD includes a solid 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, along with a photo archive and 23-minute "Making Of" documentary that aired on cable TV. A commentary track is also included, though it might have been nice to see the original, longer assembly of the film, which was previewed for critics but not screened for audiences.


NEW BEST FRIEND (*, 2002, 90 mins., R; Columbia): Appalling, trashy teen melodrama wastes an attractive cast of young leading ladies. Mia Kirshner plays a demure college student who latches onto wealthy socialite Meredith Monroe after becoming her unlikely project partner in class. Kirshner is initially overwhelmed with her bratty friends (one-time "Lolita" Dominique Swain, "The Craft"'s Rachel True) but soon begins to exhibit those classic signs of a movie villainess: she wants Monroe's life, job, and economic status, and -- yes -- will stop at nothing to obtain it!

Zoe Clarke-Williams directed this barely-released Frank Mancuso, Jr. production, which boasts a 1999 copyright and was thrown into urban multiplexes by Tri-Star for a couple of weeks last spring on its way to the small screen.

Clearly an attempt to cash in on the raunchy teen movie sub-genre instigated by "Cruel Intentions," NEW BEST FRIEND manages to one-up even that film's caustic tone by having what are arguably the most unappealing set of characters I've seen in a movie this year. Victoria Strouse's script isn't content to just have Kirshner turn into a manipulator, but she keeps Monroe's obnoxious character completely unsympathetic from start to end. The result is a movie with no one to identify with or care about, with shoddy direction and crass sex scenes (including a laughable lesbian encounter) turning this into an irredeemable piece of cinematic garbage.

Columbia's DVD includes strong 1.85 and full-screen transfers, along with a bass- heavy 5.1 soundtrack, with original music credited to John Murphy and David A. Hughes. A director's commentary is also included, though Ms. Clarke-Williams never answers the question of how she managed to round up so many cute young leads -- and even Taye Diggs in a thankless role as the local cop -- all for a worthless affair that doesn't even provide guilty-pleasure laughs.


FIRESTARTER 2: REKINDLED (**1/2, 168 mins., 2002; USA Home Entertainment): Not that the world was crying out for a sequel to the disappointingly mediocre 1984 Stephen King flick, but this made-for-TV production is actually an improvement in some respects over its formulaic big-screen predecessor.

One-time plucky "Mighty Ducks" child star Marguerite Moreau has grown into a shapely young woman, taking over here as the adult incarnation of little Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore in the original, of course). Charlie has a new name and identity but soon learns that you can't run from your past -- particularly not if you can start fires with telekenesis! Old nemesis John Rainbird (Malcolm McDowell, stepping into the role of the late George C. Scott) is -- no pun intended -- hot on her tail, as are other government agents (including Danny Nucci) with just a little more sympathy for our distraught heroine.

New to this Philip Eisner-penned story are a nutty professor (the appropriately bonkers Dennis Hopper) and a slew of telekenetic kids who make the second half of this two-part TV film seem like VILLAGE OF THE FIRESTARTING DAMNED. Still, director Robert Iscove handles the generic action fairly well and the cast is appealing enough to keep you watching. Randy Miller's score isn't remarkable but is sufficiently competent to suit the action, which drew big ratings last spring for the Sci-Fi Channel (a weekly spin-off series is supposedly in the pipeline). Although it's nothing extraordinary, FIRESTARTER 2 is certainly well worth a look for genre fans.

USA's DVD includes a top-notch 1.85 (16:9 enhanced) transfer and potent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. No extras are included aside from cast filmographies.


KATE & LEOPOLD (**1/2, 122 and 117 mins., 2001, PG-13; Miramax): Take "Somewhere in Time," give it a comedic spin, and add a dose of "Sleepless in Seattle," and you have this entertaining albeit forgettable romantic-comedy from director James Mangold.

Meg Ryan is the workaholic modern day woman (where have we seen that one before?) who improbably ends up in a relationship with 19th century man Hugh Jackman, courtesy of ex-boyfriend (and daffy scientist) Liev Schreiber's time machine. Can the Duke of Albany learn to live in the 21st century? Will the two find true love in this modern civilization?

The answers definitely aren't going to astound you, but Jackman's charming performance lifts the predictable script into highly engaging fluff just the same. Taking a huge turn from his role as Wolverine in "X-Men," Jackman proves to be a deft comedic performer here, turning on the charisma and making this vehicle work despite its prolonged running time. Ryan is fine in a role she's played many times before, and the supporting cast is certainly better than usual: Breckin Meyer is quite amusing as Ryan's younger brother, while Schreiber and Natasha Lyonne lend additional support to the action.

Miramax's DVD is an excellent Special Edition, including both the 117-minute theatrical cut AND Mangold's 122-minute Director's Cut. The studio removed five minutes from the film (including one scene that they believed raised the issue of incest!) just days before its release last December, and it's nice to see that both versions of the film are available on DVD for viewers to choose from.

Other extras include audio commentary, additional deleted scenes, Sting's music video, and a promotional featurette. The 1.85 transfer is flawless and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack perfectly acceptable, including a decent score by Rolfe Kent. The original trailer isn't included, though a handful of other Miramax ads are -- Roberto Benigni's upcoming "Pinocchio" among them.


Vintage DVD Premieres

HARRY AND WALTER GO TO NEW YORK (**, 111 mins., PG, 1976; Columbia TriStar): If you want to impress your friends with your vast knowledge of film trivia, ask them "which film nearly bankrupt Columbia Pictures?" If they aren't serious buffs, they're unlikely to know that the answer was this mondo-expensive 1976 period comedy, which forced Columbia at the time to enter into co-production partnerships with other companies for several years until the studio was back in the clear (one reason, for example, why Columbia co-produced "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" with England's EMI and a German company).

All these years later, HARRY AND WALTER GO TO NEW YORK is an interesting misfire that Columbia has dusted off and released as a solid widescreen DVD, preserving the original Panavision cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs.

Elliott Gould and James Caan play a pair of traveling comics in the late 1800s who end up in prison after being arrested for fraud. There, they meet up with master English thief Michael Caine, who informs them of his plan to break into a New York safe -- plans which Caan and Gould use on their own after escaping. In New York (meticulously recreated on sets designed by Harry Horner), the duo meet up with suffragette Diane Keaton, improbably fall in love with her, and have to deal with Caine himself after he gets out.

HARRY AND WALTER certainly has the look of quality (plus a nice score by David Shire), but the problem with the movie is the same as it was in 1976: it just isn't funny. Mark Rydell's film is most definitely an admirable attempt at producing an old- fashioned, purely comic romp, but the John Byrum-Robert Kaufman script is relentlessly one-note, despite hard work put in by the cast and crew.

As has been discussed over the years, the film's haphazard editing didn't help any, either. Director Rydell and the stars complained that many scenes that would have given the film shape were left on the cutting room floor, making the final cut seem awfully disjointed (which it certainly does, most noticeably in the first hour).

While no deleted scenes have been included here, Columbia's DVD of HARRY AND WALTER is a decent effort, with a 2.35 anamorphic transfer (well-framed though soft and grainy at times) and acceptable mono soundtrack. The original trailer is included on the supplemental side. Recommended for fans of Caan, Caine, or Gould -- or for die-hard movie buffs interested in a movie that's an interesting footnote to '70s cinema history.


PERFECT (**, 120 mins., 1985, R; Columbia TriStar): Ready for some '80s nostalgia? If not, you'd better skip PERFECT, a movie that marked yet another career-killer at the time for John Travolta -- at least until "Look Who's Talking" come around a few years later.

PERFECT is a campy bad movie that was seriously marketed at the time of its release for its probing look into aerobic exercise, plastic surgery, and the image of perfection. Travolta plays a Rolling Stone reporter who delves undercover to expose health clubs -- its members and their sexual escapades -- and naturally falls in love with an instructor (Jamie Lee Curtis at her best), who informs Travolta "what's wrong with being perfect? What's wrong with wanting to be loved?"

James Bridges produced, directed and co-wrote (with Aaron Latham) this dated but highly watchable slice of '80s cheese, shot in Panavision by Gordon Willis and scored by Ralph Burns -- with a predictable plethora of forgettable rock songs comprising most of the soundtrack.

Alas, Columbia's DVD is in full-frame only, meaning the entire image is panned- and-scanned from the original 2.35 aspect ratio. That doesn't help out the visual look of the film (after all, the more Jamie Lee, the better), but the transfer itself is colorful and in decent shape. The 2.0 Dolby Surround sound is decent and the original trailer has also been included.

If you're looking for a bit of mid '80s nostalgia, PERFECT is good fun, despite the compromised DVD aspect ratio.


NEXT WEEK: An all-time Aisle Seat favorite, TOP SECRET!, is unleashed on DVD. Plus other new Paramount comedies, SPEED Special Edition, and OUR MAN FLINT checks in! Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!

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