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More March Madness at The Aisle Seat!

New DVDs including SLAP SHOT, ZOOLANDER Special Editions

Plus: William Castle Frights, USED CARS, and a Broughton masterpiece!

By Andy Dursin

Now that Spring has finally sprung, your wallets are going to be stretched just a little bit further as more and more new DVDs begin to be released at an almost-alarming rate. Indeed, just trying to keep up with some of the great titles The Aisle Seat has been inundated with in the last few weeks is enough to keep you occupied without having a day job (and when you have both, it makes it just a little bit harder!).

In addition to new DVDs, it's been a great time to be a soundtrack fan. Varese's latest CD Club releases confirm that the resurrection of the long-dormant label isn't just a flash in the pan, even though I found the sound on the DIE HARD soundtrack to be just a little less satisfying than I anticipated. That said, the fact that a score like Kamen's classic is finally, officially available is something to rejoice about.

In addition, promotional pressings of long-unavailable scores has been on the rise, with Bruce Broughton being the primary benefactor of two outstanding new discs: the 2-CD YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES release (one of the great scores of the '80s) that's already impossible to come across, plus Percepto's wonderful, new limited edition of Broughton's lyrical 1986 work THE BOY WHO COULD FLY.

I interviewed Broughton for Home Movies, a Canadian magazine I wrote for back in 1995, at which point THE BOY WHO COULD FLY was available only on an out-of-print CD -- a London Sinfonia re-recording, in fact, that Broughton conducted for Varese Sarabande.

Percepto's new promotional CD offers over an hour of Broughton's original, actual soundtrack, and it's a grand, glorious release that's the antithesis to most of today's orchestral scores. While Broughton's music is every bit as lyrical and melodic as his writing often is, THE BOY WHO COULD FLY is at times quite understated -- nothing like the spoon-fed, Zimmer-esque "wall of sound" scores we hear so often today.

Along with "Silverado," "Rescuers Down Under," and "Young Sherlock," this is one of Broughton's finest works, and the deluxe CD package includes a superb, full-color booklet featuring in-depth liner notes from Daniel Schweiger. Packed with rare lobby-card stills, production artwork, and an astute analysis of the movie (including its box-office failure) and Broughton's magnificent score, it's a perfect compliment to a great-sounding, remastered presentation of the music itself. (Though curiously, there are no recording credits to be found in the package).

Kudos to Taylor White at Percepto for releasing what was obviously a labor of love on the part of all involved. Even if your purse-strings are being pinched by attractive CDs and DVDs, find room for this marvelous CD, which can be ordered from Percepto direct at www.percepto.com List price is $19.95, and at only 500 limited copies, it's sure to be gone almost as quickly as the "Young Sherlock Holmes" promo disappeared from specialty stores around the world.


New On DVD

Professional hockey had a bad reputation back in the ë70s, or at least a reputation for being a sport filled with goons and fights. George Roy Hillís terrific SLAP SHOT (***1/2, 1977, 123 mins., R; Universal, $26.98) is a movie that clearly echoes and satirizes that reputation, and still holds up today as a hilarious sports comedy, even though the game it mocks has matured beyond the fisticuff-laden contest itís portrayed as here.

Paul Newman plays an aging player/coach of a minor league (read: semi-professional) hockey team, the Chiefs, whose management decides -- after diminishing returns at the gate jeopardize the teamís financial well-being -- to bring in a group of ringers, misfits, and losers to lure back crowds. Michael Ontkean is one of his teammates, a genuine hockey player wanting to just play hockey -- which is something the team may or may not need, as Newman finds out.

Written by Nancy Dowd, SLAP SHOT is intelligent and hysterical in spots, and also gritty and realistic in others. At the time of its release, the film was heavily criticized for its R-rated profanity (fairly mild by todayís standards) and violence, and yet neither are gratuitous or inappropriately applied to the setting of the film. Director Hill wanted to achieve a sense of realism for his story, which meant filming the movie in actual minor league venues in and around Syracuse, New York, and discarding some usual cinematic ingredients -- like a music score -- in favor of an almost documentary styled approach. (Hill's frequent collaborator, Elmer Bernstein, was hired as a "music supervisor.")

Thatís not to say that SLAP SHOT leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth, because the laughs and characters are appealing throughout. Itís just that SLAP SHOT seems more real than most sports comedies because of its tone and multi-faceted script, which veers from comedic to dramatic and blends the two seamlessly from beginning to end. Newman, Ontkean, and the rest of a sterling supporting cast are terrific in this tale of
a rag-tag group of misfits learning to succeed on the ice -- even if their methods arenít quite as ethical as you would expect them to be. And while the NHL has since progressed into a skills-oriented finesse game -- and away from the goon-fight style from SLAP SHOTís time, the filmís themes remain fresh and the situations topical in our success-oriented society.

The 25th Anniversary of the film is being celebrated in a new Special Edition DVD re-issue from Universal, due out March 26th.

The studio previously released SLAP SHOT in a solid DVD several years ago, with a 16:9 transfer and the original trailer. That same transfer seems to have been utilized for the new Special Edition, which throws a couple of new supplements into the fray: audio commentary by the "Hanson Brothers," plus an on-camera interview with the boys that lasts a few minutes. The same trailer and production notes are also included on a disc that isn't a must if you already have the original DVD, but is highly recommended if you're making your first SLAP SHOT purchase on home video.


Universal also commissioned a sequel to coincide with the anniversary -- the unimaginatively titled SLAP SHOT 2 (**, 2002, 104 mins., R; $26.98, available March 26) -- which has gone straight-to-video but is at least entertaining enough to make it one of the more acceptable -- if still needless -- video follow-ups we've seen recently.

Stephen Baldwin -- who must have been third down on the list of his family members to be contacted about this one -- stars as the Chiefs' captain and coach, who gets a rude awakening when slick media mogul Gary Busey buys the franchise. Busey's goal is simple: he wants to pair the Chiefs with his "all-star team" and turn them into the hockey equivalent of basketball's Washington Generals, the perennial grist for the Harlem Globetrotters' on-court antics. To top it off, a female coach (Jessica Steen) is appointed, which doesn't wear well with the boys, including the returning Hanson Brothers.

Writer Broderick Miller doesn't seem to know a whole lot about real hockey, since the Chiefs' new competition -- a group of pretty-boy "Ivy leaguers" who disparage the heavily-Canadian Chiefs -- is almost completely inaccurate in relation to actual Ivy League teams, who primarily use the kind of "tough Canucks" that the Chiefs have in this film! (Trust me, having watched college hockey for nearly all of my life, I know an uninformed script when I see it!).

That said, the movie is strictly formula but director Stephen Boyum fares pretty well in handling the hockey scenes with more visual flair than you'd expect from a made-for-video affair, and there are some sporadic laughs to be found. Baldwin and Steen, meanwhile, even build up some decent chemistry together. On the other hand, I wish I could say that  John Frizzell's score was an asset, but it unfortunately represents another lackluster credit in the composer's rising "whatever happened toÖ?" resume.

Universal's DVD features a darkish 1.85 transfer and matching DTS/Dolby Digital soundtracks. A couple of featurettes are included, along with a trailer, production notes and cast bios.

Universal is also offering the SLAP SHOT Anniversary DVD and SLAP SHOT 2 as a DVD two-pack for $39.98.


Also New From Universal

CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN (**1/2, 2001, 129 mins., R; $26.98): I'm a sucker for big, sprawling, old-fashioned romantic epics, and while the often stilted melodrama in this John Madden-directed adaptation of Louis De Bernieres' book sometimes proves a major turnoff, at least the colorful cinematography, melodic score, and appealing performances of Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz make CAPTAIN CORELLI worth a look.

Set on a beautiful Greek island during WWII, Cage plays an Italian officer whose regiment's goal is to keep the peace. Since the threat of war has yet to engulf the isle, Corelli and the other soldiers grow accustomed to the island's scenery and its people -- including Cruz, playing the daughter of resident doctor John Hurt. Naturally, fireworks ensue once Cage and Cruz begin a passionate love affair, much to the chagrin of her fiancee (a somewhat miscast Christian Bale), though romance takes a backseat once the war spreads to the island.

Shawn Solvo's script is functional, but the movie's top assets are clearly John Toll's exceptionally warm cinematography and Stephen Warbeck's underrated music score, both of which rank as some of the finest efforts in their respective fields last year. Warbeck's score is every bit as emotional and poignant as you would expect, marked by a particularly strong melodic line that perfectly underscores the somewhat under-written romance between Cage and Cruz (who nevertheless do their best with the script). Toll's capturing of the gorgeous coastal landscapes of Cephalonia, meanwhile, is almost like taking a much-needed vacation after the doldrums of winter.

The movie may be a bit sterile at times, but if you enjoy a leisurely paced (albeit predictable) cinematic romance, at least CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN boasts enough positives to outweigh its dramatic deficiencies.

Universal's 2.35 transfer is excellent, and the DTS and Dolby 5.1 soundtracks provide an immerse audio experience. Extras include a running commentary track with director John Madden, plus a music video of Russell Watson's operatic rendition of Warbeck's theme song, and the usual production notes and biographies.


PAVILLION OF WOMEN (*1/2, 2000, 116 mins., R; $26.98): A well-filmed though sappy soap opera based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, PAVILLION OF WOMEN is more interesting for its behind-the-scenes production history than the movie itself.

An unprecedented collaboration between Universal and Beijing Film Studios, this Chinese-produced spectacle was brought together by star Luo Yan, who served as producer and scripted the film with her attorney (!) in English. Willem Dafoe stars in the movie as an American priest who ultimately has a relationship with Yan's aristocrat, leading to the inevitable confrontations with her peers, romantic interludes, and forbidden secrets while war enshrouds the protagonists.

Despite a colorful appearance and a sweeping score by Conrad Pope, PAVILLION OF WOMEN is slow and dramatically inert, more a curiosity item for its English/Chinese collaboration than anything else. Dafoe and Yan fail to ignite any sparks, while the ponderous pacing results in the movie overstaying its welcome at the two-hour mark.

Universal's DVD looks great in 1.85 (16:9) widescreen, while 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital tracks provide a pleasing soundscape. Some informative production notes and cast bios elaborate upon how the project came to fruition.


THE SKULLS 2 (**, $26.98, 93 mins., R; Available April 9): Mediocre made-for-video sequel to the guilty pleasure teen hit of 2000 boasts a no-name cast in a bland reworking of the original: a secret collegiate society attempts to recruit new members on-campus, but the shady behavior of certain "Skulls" members quickly hints to our protagonist (one-time "Dawson's Creek" guest star Robin Dunne) that suspicious and deadly events can't be far behind.

Teen movie mogul Neal H. Moritz and original writer John Pogue produced this formulaic retread, which at least looks good and is capably directed (as best this material can be handled) by Joe Chapelle. Ultimately, though, it's a less interesting variation on its predecessor, which still ranks as one of the more entertaining films of its kind in recent years.

Universal's 1.85, 5.1 Dolby Digital DVD looks and sounds flawless. The finished version (due out in early April) is supposed to include several Special Features, though none of them were present on the preview copy I looked at.


Also New & Noteworthy

ZOOLANDER (***, 2001, 89 mins., PG-13; Paramount, $29.98): Ben Stiller's often uproarious spoof of the fashion industry is definitely worth a look on video, where the movie will likely find more fans than it attracted in theaters last September.

Stiller plays brainless supermodel Derek Zoolander, whose title of VH1 Model of the Year is stolen away by pretty-boy newcomer Hansel (a hysterical Luke Wilson), just as villainous Mugatu (Will Ferrell) decides to brainwash Zoolander in order to have him assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Scripted by Stiller with Drake Sather and John Hamburg, ZOOLANDER boasts several fall-down funny gags -- from a music video parody (set to a George Michael '80s staple) that turns tragic for Zoolander's model pals, to an equally amusing passage where Zoolander heads back to recapture his small-town roots, complete with embarrassed coal mining father Jon Voight and brother Vince Vaughn.

There are plenty of (amusing) celebrity cameos on-hand and gags galore -- enough so that it's hard to believe that Stiller adapted this material from a character he created as a brief segment for a VH1 Fashion Awards program. However, unlike the countless Saturday Night Live sketches that have turned into endlessly unfunny big-screen fare, ZOOLANDER proves to have enough juice to sustain its feature-length running time -- even though most of the big laughs come during the first half, and the movie runs out of gas in its final minutes.

Nevertheless, Stiller -- who also directed -- and Wilson are great fun together (the two previously appeared in last year's hit "Meet The Parents"), while solid support is provided by Milla Jovovich as one of Ferrell's hench-women and Christine Taylor (the real-life Mrs. Stiller) as a Time reporter.

Paramount's super DVD presentation features a strong 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus a wide range of supplements, including commentary, 10 deleted/alternate scenes, outtakes, promo spots, and both original skits that Stiller produced for VH1. The soundtrack features a limited score by David Arnold and a surprisingly deft collection of songs, ranging from pop classics to new covers of old standards.

ZOOLANDER manages to be both a silly comedy and a keen satire at the same time, and anyone looking for a few laughs is urged to check it out.


New From Columbia TriStar

RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS (**, 2001, 131 mins., PG-13; $26.98): Playing a 16-year-old who becomes pregnant during the turbulent '60s, Drew Barrymore struggles to hold this one-woman show -- based on Beverly D'Onofrio's autobiographical novel -- together.

After a rocky opening that starts the movie in the '60s with a young actress in Drew's role, flash-forwards to the '80s (with awful narration that seems to have been added after the fact), then awkwardly shifts back to the '60s with Barrymore now in the young girl's part, RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS turns out to be a routine story of a young woman trying to overcome circumstances preventing her from having a good life, going to college, and being successful. Specifically, Drew's heroine is burdened with a child and a loser of a husband (Steve Zahn, doing his usual crazy-guy shtick) who turns into a junkie as the '60s progress. Making matters worse, her policeman father (James Woods) just doesn't understand, and best-pal Brittany Murphy has problems of her own.

Director Penny Marshall gets a lot of mileage out of Miroslav Ondricek's lovely, too-good-for-this-material cinematography, but Barrymore seems to be trying TOO hard here, failing to convince us of her character's maturation and eventual (and inevitable) triumph over adversity. As much goodwill as Drew generates with viewers, this role simply seems to have been too much of a stretch for the actress at this point in her career.
More over, the movie goes on and on at 131 minutes, and the sequences involving Barrymore and Adam Garcia are completely unconvincing, especially since Garcia looks as old as she does, and he's supposed to be playing her now-grown son!

Columbia's DVD finds the studio doing their usual exemplary job: the 1.85 transfer is flawless, with warm, colorful hues and contrasts, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is also superb.

As a sign that Barrymore overreached here, her audio commentary and the DVD's behind-the-scenes featurettes confirm how important the role was to the actress -- even though it's the kind of part that she could have been far more convincing in with a little more age and a lot more dramatic experience behind her.


USED CARS (***1/2, 1980, 113 mins., R; $19.98): Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote "1941" for director Steven Spielberg and producer John Milius, so Spielberg and Milius gave the fledging filmmaking tandem their own project in return: this eccentric and hilarious 1980 farce about slimy used car salesmen. Kurt Russell plays one of the anything-for-a-quick-buck hucksters, but the movie really belongs to Jack Warden, who puts in a memorable duel-role turn as the Fuchs brothers.

USED CARS is filled with appearances by veterans who appeared in "1941" and other Zemeckis/Gale vehicles, while the movie boasts the snappy comic pacing that firmly established the duo as one of the top young movie-making teams at the time (however, it wouldn't be until ROMANCING THE STONE that the two really struck it big). The ending demolition derby goes on a bit too long, but USED CARS is anything but a lemon for comedy fans, making Columbia's new Special Edition DVD a treasure.

Shot on a very modest budget, the 1.85 DVD transfer is as good as the movie possibly can look, while the basic mono sound is likewise workable. For special features, the DVD includes a great audio commentary from Zemeckis, Gale, and Kurt Russell, who laments that the project might have been more financially successful had Bill Murray starred in it! Like a lot of commentary tracks Russell is involved with, his sense of humor brightens up the discussion, making it an engaging and easy track to listen to.

The DVD also includes outtakes, radio spots, trailers, production notes, a vintage advertising gallery, and even a genuine TV commercial Russell appeared in for the dealer whose lot the filmmakers used in the movie! Highly recommended.


BARABBAS (****, 1961, 137 mins.; $24.98): Dino DeLaurentiis always carries around a bad rap for the infamous cinematic turkeys he's been involved with, but for every bomb like "King Kong Lives," one can find a solid effort from early in the producer's filmography that the passage of time has concealed.

A case in point is BARABBAS, the powerful 1961 drama about the unsavory title character (one of Anthony Quinn's best performances) who is pardoned by the people of Jerusalem instead of Christ. Barabbas then spends the remainder of his life watching Christians being stoned to death for their beliefs, while suffering hardships from falling back into his past criminal ways, being sentenced to working in sulfur mines, and eventually becoming a gladiator while combating the villainous Torvald (an equally great performance by Jack Palance at his sinister best).

There are actually quite a few similarities between this film and Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR, but "Barabbas" isn't constructed like a music video and bares far more of a resemblance to the reverent Biblical films of the 1950s -- though with a harder edge courtesy of director Richard Fleischer, who rightly regards this as one of his finest films. Christopher Fry and several Italian screenwriters adapted Nobel Prize winner Par Lagerkvist's novel, and the movie is filled with superb performances across the board (the cast also includes Vittorio Gassman, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Andrews, Arthur Kennedy, Valentine Cortese, and Silvana Mangano).

What's more, the evocative visuals are truly impressive in scope and surpass any of Scott's herky-jerky camerawork in "Gladiator." Aldo Tonti's outstanding cinematography works wonders from the genuine sun eclipse at the beginning through to Barabbas' redemption at the finale. On the musical side, Mario Nascimbene's score adds the appropriate emotional touch.

Many critics have complained over the years about the movie's bloated running time, but for anyone looking for a reverent, moving, and underrated epic to watch around Easter, BARABBAS comes recommended without reservation.

The highlight of Columbia's new BARABBAS DVD is its 2.35, high-definition transfer. Shot in Super Technirama 70, the widescreen framing here is a must, and the transfer is generally solid, aside from some source elements that show their age every once in a while. The 4.0 encoded surround rarely displays any kind of stereophonic presence, but it's acceptable, and a theatrical trailer is included on the supplemental side.


MR. SARDONICUS (***, 1961, 89 mins., $24.98)
STRAIT-JACKET (**1/2, 1963, 93 mins., $24.98)
HOMICIDAL (**, 1961, 93 mins., $24.98)

There's been a revival of interest in the works of horror-meister William Castle over the last few years, mainly due to Warner Bros.' recent, gory remakes of "House on Haunted Hill" and "Thirteen Ghosts."

Columbia has taken advantage of this, releasing three new DVDs of Castle's works from the early '60s: the highly entertaining 1961 chiller "Mr. Sardonicus," the obvious "Psycho" rip-off "Homicidal" from that same year, and 1963's gleefully campy "Strait-Jacket," dominated by an over-the-top performance from Joan Crawford as a woman who spends 20 years in an asylum after murdering her husband and his mistress with an axe (and of course, more murders just seem to follow poor Joan all around).

Of course, Castle's movies have their gimmicks (including the audience-interactive "punishment" ending from MR. SARDONICUS), but at heart these are wonderfully nostalgic black-and-white programmers with campy humor and engaging performances.

The best of this batch is MR. SARDONICUS, which features Ronald Lewis as a surgeon whose former love is married to a dastardly baron (Guy Rolfe), whose face becomes frozen into a permanent grin after he retrieves his late father's riches. HOMICIDAL feels far too much like "Psycho" for its own good (with a "twist" ending you can see coming from miles away), but STRAIT-JACKET -- written by "Psycho" scribe Robert Bloch himself -- is more fun, thanks to Crawford's nutty performance.

Columbia's DVDs feature Making Of featurettes on each disc, with STRAIT-JACKET benefiting the most from the Special Edition treatment (you also get Crawford's costume and make-up tests, plus a screen test and bonus trailers). STRAIT-JACKET looks perfectly acceptable in its 1.85 transfer, while MR. SARONDICUS looks a little rougher but is still in decent shape (also framed at 1.85). HOMICIDAL looks okay in its standard, full-frame transfer.
 
For viewers nostalgic for Castle's creepy terrors of the early '60s, all three titles come highly recommended.


NEXT WEEK: Boldly going where few TV series have gone before, Paramount unleashes Season One of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION on DVD. A look at the box-set, plus new Buena Vista titles. Send all emails to dursman2000@yahoo.com and we'll catch you next time. Excelsior!


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