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Aisle Seat Holiday DVD Buyer's Guide, Part I

Reviews of BACK TO THE FUTURE, MINORITY REPORT, and other discs ripe for gift-giving!

By Andy Dursin

Once again it's time for our annual Aisle Seat DVD Buyer's Guide, and in Part One this week we have a couple of terrific family titles to recommend -- along with the long- awaited box-set of BACK TO THE FUTURE and the two-disc edition of MINORITY REPORT. I'll be back next week with a few more selections for those last-minute Christmas shoppers out there (and you know who you are), but in the meantime, give some of the following discs a spin--


BACK TO THE FUTURE TRILOGY. Universal 3-DVD Special Edition (separate widescreen and full-screen versions), out this week.

THE NUTSHELL: Does this release need any introduction to viewers? Universal's long- awaited three-disc Special Edition includes 1985's highest-grossing film, "Back to the Future," along with its 1989-90 sequels, shot back-to-back. Anyone who grew up in the '80s undoubtedly saw the original more than a few times, and the good news is that the picture remains a joyful blast of entertainment, with wonderful performances, smart writing, and infectious energy. The sequels, while not on the classic level of the original, remain highly worthwhile for separate reasons: 1989's "Back to the Future Part II" offered a delirious, dizzying time-travel adventure with a brilliant and underrated final third that placed an interesting spin on the events of its predecessor. For those who thought Part II lacked heart and romance, "Back to the Future Part III" reprised the endearing character interplay of the original and brought the series to a perfect close.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: I have a lot of wonderful memories of seeing the BTTF Trilogy while I was growing up.

The original opened in 1985, right before I started fifth grade. Back then, Michael J. Fox was a known commodity due to his work on the hit NBC series "Family Ties," and "Back to the Future" looked like a cute time travel picture geared specifically towards kids.

However, when I saw the movie for the first time that summer, it was clear even to a 10- year-old that the movie's appeal went far beyond the barriers of youth movie-goers. Adults loved the picture's multi-generational story, which managed to encompass comedy, time travel, '50s nostalgia, and themes of relating to one's parents that are timeless -- regardless of how dated some of the '80s jokes are (including the hilarious reference to Tab, which was dated even when the movie was first released!).

For a lot of reasons, BACK TO THE FUTURE (****) is one of my favorite films. Fox plays a typical '80s teen with typical '80s parents whose relationship with crazy inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) results in the teenager traveling back to 1955. There, he inadvertently alters the course of his own history by disrupting the moment when his father (Crispin Glover) and mother (Lea Thompson) meet and fall in love. What's worse, mommy now has a crush on him (!), forcing Marty to find a younger Doc and try to set things right before his existence is wiped away.

There's just an optimistic and charming element inherent in Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's script that few films in the sci-fi/fantasy genre can match. Fox's Marty and Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown are two highly likable protagonists, and equally noteworthy is the supporting work of Thompson and Glover as Marty's parents, along with Thomas Wilson's bully Biff Tannen.

While the picture's portrayal of both the '50s and the '80s are highly idealized, it provides an interesting contrast to Fox's quest to reunite his flawed parents and keep his existence together after causing a rift in the space-time continuum.

In nearly every facet, BTTF works splendidly -- we have one of Alan Silvestri's best scores, Dean Cundey's warm cinematography, a couple of bouncy Huey Lewis & The News hits, and a story that continues to entertain even some 17 years after its release.

Four years later, Zemeckis and Gale returned to the series for a pair of sequels shot back- to-back, and released in November, 1989 and May, 1990, respectively.

Although a big box-office hit, BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II (***1/2) is a movie that received a lot of negative (and mostly unwarranted) backlash from critics and audiences shortly after its release. Most of the complaints came from viewers who didn't care for the picture's frantic, non-stop action, open-ended ending (pretty absurd considering that the third movie was opening less than six months later), and that it lacked the "heart" from the original picture. While the latter may be true, I've always found it curious that critics chose to attack a follow-up that remains one of the more innovative and challenging sequels still ever produced.

In Part II, Marty and Doc Brown travel into the future where Marty and girlfriend Jennifer's kids are having problems -- but the attempts to set things right there then cause ramifications in the past once Biff steals the time machine and changes the course of events.

Zemeckis rightly calls Part II the "most interesting film" of his career, and in many ways it is. After continuing the series right from the end of the original, Gale and Zemeckis chose not to write a carbon-copy of the first film, but rather a fast-paced and frantic time- travel adventure that ultimately goes back INTO the original film from a whole different angle. I always found that portion of the picture to be enormously entertaining, since it reprised portions of the first film through its own distinct, dramatic story line -- clearly the most unique element in Gale's underrated script.

As far as the rest of the movie goes, I've always loved the way that the picture weaves a complicated and yet not-all-that confusing story that spans pasts, presents, and futures with great special effects, particularly innovative for their time. It's a rollercoaster ride that ends leading right into the next installment, very much like an amusement park attraction you can't wait to take another turn on.

The one valid criticism that was leveled at the movie -- that it lacked the warmth and heart of its predecessor-- is more than compensated for in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III (***1/2), which abandons the technical wizardry and time-traveling element of the second picture and concentrates on telling a central story -- marked by a charming romance between Doc Brown and a Hill Valley townswoman (Mary Steenburgen) -- set in the Old West.

Or, to be more precise, in the Old West of the Hollywood filmmaking era. A handful of character actor veterans pop up in this fitting end to the trilogy, which focuses on Marty trying to get back to his present while Doc falls in love and has to contend with Biff Tannen's gunslingin' forefather (Tom Wilson again, in another appropriately nasty performance).

Another rousing score by Alan Silvestri rounds out a perfect finale to the trilogy, which has finally made its way onto DVD.

DVD GOODS: Universal's three-disc set is a solid Special Edition, though this may be a case of information overload at times.

The meat of the extras can be found in a pair of commentary tracks found on all three discs.

First is a Live Q&A session with Zemeckis and Gale recorded at USC under the guidance of home video specialist Laurent Bouzereau. The track runs anywhere between 60-90 minutes each on all three films, with the two filmmakers fielding questions read by Bouzereau from students.

The two cover the bases from the (mis)casting of Eric Stoltz in the original version of BTTF, to the infamous "To Be Continued" line that was added to the video release of the first movie. Along the way, the two talk about Fox's crazed schedule, Spielberg's involvement in the films, and -- most tellingly -- Crispin Glover's insane demands that lead to his ouster from II and III (and how the sequels had to be written to cover for his absence).

There ARE some revealing moments in this track, but getting to the tastier nuggets does, admittedly, take a while. The conversation is a little on the slow-moving side, and unfortunately none of the extra supplements address the major themes of the movie in quite as much depth.

The secondary commentary track by Bob Gale and producer Neil Canton is interesting but, unfortunately, is also pretty dry. More than a few times Gale brings up topics but refuses to go into them, claiming that they were already covered in the Q&A commentary and the documentary featurettes. However, after listening to all of the tracks, either some material was cut or Gale's memory isn't all that hot (the topic of Elisabeth Shue's casting in the sequels is just one issue where Gale says "we already went into that" when I couldn't find it anywhere on the three discs).

Having to pinpoint one minute out of several HOURS of supplementary material (a good deal of which is spent on ridiculous topics like "what kind of manure did Tom Wilson step in?") just to find where a major topic is addressed -- like Stoltz's casting -- is easily one of the shortcomings of the ample material Universal and Bouzereau crammed onto this set. Either some editing down of the Q&A track, or a guide to where the important questions were raised, would have been a good idea.

The documentary featurettes turn out to be more disappointing. Each disc contains approximately 15 minutes worth of new Making Of material, featuring interviews with Fox, Zemeckis, and Gale. However, the lack of other participants, and surprisingly short running times, results in a fluffy featurette that only skirts the surface of the BTTF Trilogy's legacy. In fact, nearly half of the PART II documentary is spending talking about the original film!

Thankfully, there are other goodies that make up for that disappointment. Each film's "vintage" Making Of featurette has been included, as have a handful of deleted scenes from both BTTF I & II (Part III also has one lone [thankfully] deleted scene where Mad Dog Tannen guns down Marshall Strickland). Outtakes are also included, along with trailers, multiple still galleries on each picture, music videos, shorter featurettes (including a look at the production design), an interview segment with J. Fox on the original movie, animated "anecdotes" that pop up a la VH-1 videos, and DVD-ROM content including the original scripts.

Visually, the 1.85 transfers are generally good, exhibiting some grain at times but looking well-composed and colorful enough. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are sufficient, though it might have been nice to see the inclusion of a DTS mix like so many of Universal and Amblin's titles have had in the past.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Extremely high. While there's an imbalance in the supplementary features (too much commentary and not enough documentary material), Universal has done a solid job treating one of their tent-pole franchises right on DVD. It may have taken a while, but the box-set of BACK TO THE FUTURE is guaranteed to please every fan this holiday season.


MINORITY REPORT. Dreamworks 2-disc Special Edition (separate widescreen and full-screen editions), out this week.

THE NUTSHELL: While it may not have made the millions that many expected a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise to have produced, MINORITY REPORT is still one of the year's most entertaining and thought-provoking films.

In a future detailed by Philip K. Dick in his short story of the same name, murders are prevented by a "Pre-Crime" unit comprised of law enforcement officers and the three psychic humanoids who provide details of precognitive crime scenes to them. Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is in charge of the localized D.C. unit, which is about to go national until a future murder targets Anderton himself, sending the divorced officer (still grieving over the loss of his young son) on the run from his team and authorities Colin Farrell and Max Von Sydow.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: A year after the disappointment of A.I., Spielberg is back with a far more satisfying sci-fi vision. True, this sci-fi picture is also gritty, dark, and cautionary, and does bear some resemblance to A.I. in its depiction of what mankind can do to benefit itself to the point of tampering with nature. However, it's clear from the opening frames that Spielberg is more at home with "Minority Report," with the director mixing different genres together while maintaining the strong characterizations and human emotions that have become staples of his work.

The result is a fully entertaining, intelligent, and human film that's equal parts mystery- thriller, chase picture, and sci-fi action flick all in one, boasting Tom Cruise's most modulated and effective performance to date.

MINORITY REPORT does have some flaws (like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's often irritating use of diffused light and a "guess the killer" ending that's far too obvious), but it's a pleasure to see Spielberg back on his game again.

DVD GOODS: Dreamworks has released separate Widescreen and Full-frame versions of MINORITY REPORT on DVD. The movie was shot in Super 35 and the 2.49 transfer on the Widescreen version arguably looks sharper than the movie did in theaters. However, with Kaminski doing his usual job behind the lens, this is not a "pretty" movie but a stark-looking and gritty one. The 5.1 DTS soundtrack is sensational and the Dolby Digital soundtrack comparable.

In terms of Special Features, the disc sports what amounts to a lengthy documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau split up into short segments spanning several minutes a piece. The program contains all the usual behind-the-scenes clips and interviews with Cruise and Spielberg, plus a plethora of information on ILM's special effects. The end result is a decent, but not overwhelming, Making Of that's a little too much on the promotional side of things to really hit the bullseye.

GIFT POTENTIAL: If you know a Spielberg or Cruise fan who passed on MINORITY REPORT in theaters (and, judging from the film's solid yet disappointing box-office receipts, there are apparently a lot of them out there), Dreamworks' DVD serves up a solid presentation of one of the year's best, and certainly more demanding, films. Highly recommended.

Gifts For The Kids (and Adults, too!)


LILO & STITCH. Disney Home Entertainment DVD.

THE NUTSHELL: Ribald animated adventure ranks as Disney's highest-grossing feature in several years (Pixar-produced flicks excepted). One thing's for sure: this isn't your traditional 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 form a family after the death of their parents.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: The scenes with Stitch and Lilo bonding through classic Elvis tunes are 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, for most of its duration, 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.

DVD GOODS: A single-disc release, Disney's THX-approved transfer (1.85) and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both exceptional. Special Features here include a handful of deleted scenes and a better-than-average Making Of special that includes interviews with the filmmakers and even a couple of minutes devoted to Alan Silvestri's score. Music videos from the A*Teens and Wyonna are also included, as are all of the hilarious trailers that dropped Stitch into the midst of classic Disney films.

It's been reported that there's a 2-disc Special Edition DVD of the film coming out (with as many stories that the set has been nixed), but for many viewers this release will suffice.

GIFT POTENTIAL: A great movie for younger viewers, LILO & STITCH should also appeal to parents and animation buffs who have been disappointed with some of the Mouse's recent efforts ("Treasure Planet" and "Atlantis" in particular). Good fun.


ICE AGE. Fox 2-disc Special Edition, available now.

THE NUTSHELL: Computer-generated animated feature from Blue Sky Studios and Fox became a box-office behemoth last spring. Basically an updating of the John Wayne film "The Three Godfathers," Chris Wedge's terrific fantasy finds a woolly mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) and a sloth (voice of John Leguizamo) stumbling upon a human child who just lost its mother. With the assistance (however devious it may be) of a saber tooth tiger (voiced by Denis Leary), the trio set off to find the child's tribe, all the while a prehistoric squirrel-like critter named Scrat tries valiantly to simply gather an acorn.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Every once in a while someone other than Disney scores a huge hit with a family movie that manages to be sentimental without being overly saccharine and predictable.

ICE AGE is one of those gems -- a moving, smart, and funny adventure that should captivate kids of all ages. The Michael Berg-Michael J. Wilson-Peter Ackerman script includes some Warner Bros.-like gags, mixed in with appealing and yet not overly cute characters. The end result is a wonderful entertainment that should provide perfect viewing during the holiday season.

DVD GOODS: Fox's two disc Special Edition is legitimately special. Audio commentary by the filmmakers compliments a flawless 1.85 and full-frame transfer, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is quite involving, sporting one of David Newman's finest scores.

The second disc contains all kinds of supplements, though the highlight is undoubtedly "Scrat's Missing Adventure," a new five-minute short film (in 1.85 and Dolby Digital) that brings Scrat back for another round of big laughs. Six deleted scenes are included, along with Blue Sky's Oscar-winning short, "Bunny," a decent Making Of documentary, some six production featurettes, a running commentary by Leguizamo in-character as "Sid" the sloth, teasers, trailers, and even an international language reel.

GIFT POTENTIAL: ICE AGE is one of the best family movies to come down the pike in a long, long while. Don't pass it by if you have kids around, or if you're an animation junkie looking for something a little different than the traditional fare. Highly recommended!


NEXT WEEK: Last-minute DVD gift reviews from SERPICO to THE DUELLISTS in Part Two of our annual Buyer's Guide. Drop an email to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Happy shopping!


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