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September Disc Spins

Choice DVDs from THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO to GREASE

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Some thoughts from the Soapbox to lead off this week:

As we head into fall, studios start dumping out also-rans, horror flicks, and more "mature" films to coincide with the shift in seasons.

Last week, for example, saw the release of BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER, one of the oddest-titled films to come down the pike in many, many moons. That it was produced by our friends at Franchise Pictures (the makers of "Driven," "3,000 Miles To Graceland," and "Battlefield: Earth") should come as no surprise, though what the heck was Antonio Banderas doing in this mess? I can't imagine that he couldn't have found SOMETHING better to do while waiting for "Spy Kids 3" and "Zorro 2" to go into production!

In the next few weeks we'll see everything from the second Michelle Pfeiffer film adapted from an "Oprah's Book Club" selection (oh joy!) to RED DRAGON, the "real" adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel from "Silence of the Lambs" screenwriter Ted Tally and director Brett Ratner.

Ratner, whose fun-but-strictly-bubblegum "Rush Hour" films have apparently turned him into an instant A-list director, has curiously spent a great deal of time taking shots at Michael Mann's fine 1986 adaptation of the Harris novel (MANHUNTER), while telling us he wanted to cast someone nobody would recognize (my paraphrasing) in the lead psycho role. Gee, I don't think anyone knows who Oscar-nominee and "Schindler's List" star Ralph Fiennes is, do you?

Speaking of that, Ratner has recently become attached to SUPERMAN 5, which raises the issue of who might be scoring that long-discussed film (assuming it ever happens, since we've been down this pike before -- most recently with Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage attached). Since Danny Elfman is scoring "Red Dragon," there'll undoubtedly be some talk that Elfman could be scoring the new Superman as well.

As much as I like Elfman, though, I'll say this: it's going to be very hard to drum up much enthusiasm for a potential "Superman" score by this composer. His SPIDER-MAN score felt like warmed-over "Batman" and "Darkman" to me -- serviceable, but hardly inspired by the composer's standards (some even went so far as to say it was one of the film's weakest elements).

If I see Keanu Reeves flying through the clouds (and we may have to live with that), I'd rather not think of Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton doing battle in the dark one more time. Agree? Disagree? Send a note to me at dursina@att.net and we'll debate it next time.


New On DVD From Buena Vista

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (***1/2, 131 mins., 2002, PG-13; Buena Vista): Surprisingly robust, well-performed adaptation of the Dumas classic stars Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes and Guy Pearce as Mondego, his deceitful best friend whose betrayal results in Dantes being imprisoned while Mondego claims his beloved. Unjustly imprisoned and seeking revenge, Dantes is schooled by a fellow inmate (Richard Harris), who informs him of a buried treasure that ultimately provides Dantes with an outlet for vengeance.

Director Kevin Reynolds is best known for his collaboration with Kevin Costner on several pictures (most notably "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), but don't hold that against him. COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO is easily his best work to date -- a crisp, well-mounted production shot in Malta and Ireland, marked by a solid adaptation (by Jay Wolpert) of the Dumas novel and superb technical credits across the board. Ed Shearmur's relatively understated music score is superb, Andrew Dunn's cinematography atmospheric, and the central performances simply terrific. I loved Caviezel's restrained, haunted performance as Dantes, while Pearce and Harris lend able support. As many noted, Luis Guzman's comical performance as Dantes' right-hand man is a little on the over-exaggerated side, but it gives the movie some needed humor.

A surprise box-office success (reaching over $50 million domestically), this COUNT is still high on my list as one of the year's most entertaining films, and if you missed it in theaters, Buena Vista's Special Edition DVD offers an excellent presentation of the film along with a strong collection of supplements. Commentary from Kevin Reynolds, several behind-the-scenes featurettes totaling approximately 30 minutes, and a handful of deleted scenes culled from the workprint are included, along with an excellent 1.85 transfer and crisp 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack (about the only thing missing is the trailer).

Highly recommended!


Also new from Buena Vista is the Collector's Edition of the delightful MONSTERS, INC. (***, 93 mins., 2001, G), the latest effort from Pixar Animation and Disney that became one of last year's highest-grossing films.

Not quite as ingenious as the original "Toy Story" but more entertaining than its sequel, MONSTERS, INC. is one of those rare family films that's almost as much fun for adults as it is for kids. Billy Crystal and John Goodman voice a pair of monsters who terrorize kids when the lights go out at night -- this in a surreal creature world where humans are viewed as the terrifying ones! Naturally, shenanigans ensue once the boys accidentally bring home a human child -- a plot twist that the equally successful (and entertaining) animated feature ICE AGE also exploited to good effect.
 
Disney generally releases dual DVD versions of their animated features: one being a supplement-free version aimed at kids, the other a pricier, deluxe 2-disc edition more for adults.

This time, they've happily combined the two into one release that should satisfy everyone. The double-DVD set includes a new short subject ("Mike's New Car"), the Oscar-winning short ("For The Birds") that preceded MONSTERS, INC. in theaters, outtakes, commentary, and 1.33 and 1.85 framed transfers that both look impeccable, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is always involving. The second disc of supplements is broken into two parts: the "Monster World" sports extras primarily aimed at little ones, while the "Human World" includes tons of goodies for older viewers, presented in the same way that the TOY STORY Special Edition box set was. Viewers are taken through exclusive, shot-for-DVD footage of the film's production, from early conceptual meetings through animation tests, story alterations, music recording (with footage of Goodman and Crystal at the recording of "If I Didn't Have You" with Oscar-winner Randy Newman), promotion, deleted ideas, and more.

It's a terrific set for a wonderful DVD that will undoubtedly prove to be a family favorite this holiday season. (It broke the single-day DVD sales record when it hit stores last Tuesday).


Another solid choice for family viewing, THE ROOKIE (***, 127 mins., 2002, G) is also newly out from Buena Vista.

Dennis Quaid gives a fine performance in this true story of a high school coach, Jim Morris, who became the oldest rookie in baseball history when he pitched for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays a few seasons ago. This well-directed, straightforward and moving film earned not only a G rating but strong box-office results similar to Disney's pigskin drama "Remember the Titans," which THE ROOKIE emulates in its heart-tugging storyline and family-friendly tone.

John Lee Hancock directed the film and provides an audio commentary on the DVD along with Quaid. The disc also includes a handful of deleted scenes (with director introductions) and a featurette on the real Morris. The 2.35 transfer is excellent, highlighting John Schwartzman's vivid scope cinematography, while the 5.1 Digital sound is likewise distinguished, featuring a solid score by Carter Burwell and a plethora of country-pop tracks.


Finally, Buena Vista has released the Josh Hartnett romantic comedy 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS (**1/2, 95 mins., 2002, R).

This predictable comedy takes a simple premise (Hartnett swears off sex for 40 days in order to better connect with women) and turns it into an uneven, yet highly watchable, vehicle for the actor. The first half stresses the comedic potential of the material with "American Pie"-like gags (plus the presence of "Road Trip" co-star Paulo Costanzo), while the second half settles into a typical, but cute, romance with Harnett discovering true love with Shannyn Sossamon (thankfully much better here than she was in "A Knight's Tale").

Director Michael Lehmann directs Robert Perez's uneven script with a sure hand, and it all goes down nice and easy -- a slight but entertaining movie that should be perfectly satisfying for its intended audience.

Buena Vista's DVD includes a commentary with Lehmann, Perez, and producer Michael London, along with the film's somewhat annoying teaser trailer. The 1.85 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound fine for this kind of film, sporting a decent score by Rolfe Kent.


New Release Checklist

GREASE. 110 mins., 1978, PG, Paramount.

WHAT IT IS: One of the top-grossing films of the '70s; the movie that confirmed John Travolta's promise as a superstar; the musical that has gone on to a long, successful string of stage revivals; and a soundtrack that still remains wildly popular after all these years, GREASE is still the word (you knew I was going to say that, right?). This super- charged, entertaining blast of '50s nostalgia stars Travolta as Zuko, Olivia Newton-John as Sandy, Stockard Channing as Rizzo, and a cavalcade of guest stars from the likes of Frankie Avalon to Sha-Na-Na. It's taken a while, but Paramount has finally brought this long-requested blockbuster to DVD.

ANDY SAYS: Fun fun fun, and finally in its original Panavision aspect ratio! This is a charming, undeniably entertaining musical that remains an all-time favorite for many viewers, directed with a burst of energy by Randal Kleiser. Patricia Birch's choreography is a perfect fit with the plethora of memorable songs, from the original Jim Jacobs-Warren Casey show numbers to the tunes penned specifically for the film ("You're the One That I Want," "Hopelessly Devoted To You"). It's silly but who cares?

DVD VERDICT: Paramount's DVD includes a 2.35 widescreen transfer (there's a cropped version available separately that should be avoided at all costs), and it looks generally good although the print shows its age. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack was a re-mix performed for the 20th Anniversary re-release, and it's quite potent, though pursists may prefer the original 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix (also included). A retrospective interview featurette is included, though it's reportedly the same supplemental material that was included on the VHS tape a few years ago. Fans may crave more, but since the movie is rarely ever exhibited in its original aspect ratio (even Turner Classic Movies shows the cropped version), just seeing the 2.35 frame is enough for me to recommend this DVD.

BOTTOM LINE: ***1/2. A classic flick, a decent DVD, GREASE is finally available. Hopefully a more elaborate Special Edition -- and a release of GREASE 2 -- will follow in the near future.


MAJOR LEAGUE. 106 mins., 1989, R, Paramount.

WHAT IT IS: Quintessential baseball comedy remains firmly ingrained in the minds of fans everywhere. This chronicle of the Cleveland Indians' rise from cellar-dwellers to championship contenders mirrored the actual Tribe for a while (at least until the team took a dive this season). The movie's premise is simple and predictable but makes for engaging fun: Tom Berenger is the veteran catcher who's seen it all, Charlie Sheen the brash pitcher who can't hit a barn door, Wesley Snipes made a splash as the cocky rookie, while Bob Uecker is the wackiest broadcaster this side of -- well, Bob Uecker!

ANDY SAYS: David S. Ward wrote and directed this memorable 1989 release, which has since become something of a sports movie classic over the years. With amusing lines and a surprisingly good love story (which landed Rene Russo on the map), MAJOR LEAGUE offered fresh twists on the conventional underdog sports film formula.

DVD VERDICT: Paramount's DVD offers the first-ever widescreen presentation of the film on video, and the matted 1.85 transfer is quite good considering the picture's age. The 5.1 Surround track is decent enough, sporting a good, early score from James Newton Howard.

BOTTOM LINE: ***1/2. How can you not love MAJOR LEAGUE? The movie has big laughs, a lot of heart, and a terrific ensemble cast clearly having a good time. Forget about Ward's lousy 1994 sequel and give this one another spin as we head towards the Fall Classic. (And while you're at it, give "Major League: Back to the Minors" a chance. The underrated, belated 1998 third installment is a huge improvement on the second film and is well worth a look).


TRADING PLACES. 116 mins., 1983, R, Paramount.

WHAT IT IS: John Landis' hilarious 1983 farce took Eddie Murphy's rising star and launched into the stratosphere, with the Saturday Night Live alumnus starring as a con artist who switches places with Dan Aykroyd's uptight Wall Street broker. Don Ameche began his '80s resurgence as a wealthy tycoon who, along with Ralph Bellamy, sets the identity shift in motion, while Jamie Lee Curtis broke out of her "scream queen" stereotype as a call girl who gets mixed up in the craziness.

ANDY SAYS: The Timothy Harris-Herschel Weingrod script is filled with belly laughs and the chemistry between Aykroyd and Murphy is terrific. Landis was working at the top of his game with this picture, and it shows: TRADING PLACES holds up as one of the top comedies of the '80s, and it's finally on DVD. Speaking of which--

DVD VERDICT: Paramount's no-frills DVD offers a perfectly acceptable 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed soundtrack. This is a fine presentation of the movie, though I'm sure that fans might have expected some supplements here.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: ***1/2. TRADING PLACES is still a fresh, funny farce showing most of its participants off in top form. The DVD lacks extras but it's certainly the best presentation of the movie yet on video, and comes recommended.


PANIC ROOM. 112 mins., 2002, R, Columbia TriStar.

WHAT IT IS: Jodie Foster plays a single mom who moves in with her daughter (Kristen Stewart) to a Manhattan brownstone. On their first night in their new home, a group of thieves (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam) come looking for something hidden in their secure "Panic Room," a seemingly impenetrable space where Foster and Stewart flee once the intruders enter their new quarters.

ANDY SAYS: David Fincher directed this formulaic but highly watchable thriller from a typical David Koepp script, meaning the story is filled with unbelievable moments and plot holes, yet is still well-crafted enough to work on a "popcorn movie" kind of level. Foster gives a strong performance, as does Whitaker in a predictable role as a thief who isn't as ruthless as his associates. The scope cinematography of Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khonji is impressive, in keeping with the trademark darkness inherent in Fincher's past work. The result is a movie that's more conventional than the filmmaker's previous pictures (make no mistake, this is a studio film all the way), but shows that the director can make a superior piece of mainstream filmmaking, despite its unsurprising script.

DVD VERDICT: Columbia's DVD is a straightforward "Superbit" title, meaning supplements have been forgone in favor of a high-bit 2.35 transfer and equally potent DTS/Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. The movie looks good and sounds even better, with a bass-heavy sound design containing a superb score by Howard Shore. The original teaser is included, but viewers should be aware that a bona-fide Special Edition DVD of PANIC ROOM is in the works for release sometime in 2003. Unless you're a die-hard fan of the movie, you'd be wise to hold off on a purchase until the Special Edition disc comes out.

BOTTOM LINE: ***. I was quite critical of PANIC ROOM's faults after first seeing the movie last spring, but there's a compelling, slick veneer to this movie -- more obvious the second time you see it, I believe -- that's hard to dislike. Columbia's disc looks and sounds excellent, though with the Special Edition DVD looming in the not-too-distant future, you may want to give this Superbit release just a rental.


THE SCORPION KING. 92 mins., 2002, PG-13, Universal.

WHAT IT IS: Less lavish spin-off from "The Mummy" series casts superstar wrestler-turned-actor The Rock in his "Mummy Returns" role of The Scorpion King. Here, the pre-Scorpion King -- an assassin who represents one of the last of his tribe -- who is hired to take out an invader who's laying waste to neighboring clans. Michael Clarke Duncan essays one of The Rock's allies, while Grant Heslov provides manic comedic support and the lovely Kelly Hu serves as a more-than-serviceable love interest.

ANDY SAYS: Didn't we see this movie a few years ago when it was called "Kull the Conqueror"? Just as that Universal release sought to launch Kevin Sorbo as a big-screen star, THE SCORPION KING tries to do the same for The Rock, placing him in a predictable sword-and-sorcery yarn where he can strut his stuff. Even John Debney's score includes ample doses of electric guitar, just as Joel Goldsmith's "Kull" score did as well! That said, THE SCORPION KING is a little more fun than Sorbo's ill-fated cinematic trek. Director Chuck Russell (he's back to Chuck now that he's turning out B movies again) starts the movie off on a tongue-in- cheek note that tells you this movie has no pretense whatsoever of being taken seriously. The action is fast, the movie briskly paced, Hu is attractive, and it's all over before it wears out its welcome. It's colorful entertainment for fantasy/action fans, and thankfully The Rock seems a lot more comfortable here than he did in his (unintentionally funny) opening scenes in "The Mummy Returns."

DVD VERDICT: Universal's 2.35 transfer is terrific and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack a real hoot, filled with blaring sound effects that woosh by you at every turn. For Special Features, the DVD is loaded. Russell's commentary track is quite enlightening, while deleted/alternate scenes are included and are also accessible during the film by highlighting an on-screen icon. Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), meanwhile, also gives a running commentary, portions of which can be viewed during the movie if you so desire (alas, it's one of those commentaries where the speaker rehashes the story and rarely ever relays any tasty anecdotes). A fluffy promotional featurette is included, as are a handful of shorter featurettes that detail the production in a little more detail. The original trailer, music videos, and outtakes round out a satisfying Special Edition package.

BOTTOM LINE: Admittedly, I'm a sucker for this kind of film, and while THE SCORPION KING offers nothing new to the fantasy genre, this is a solid action picture all the way. The movie's sense of humor and energy proved infectious enough for me to give this one a solid *** stars.
 


BACK IN TWO WEEKS with more reviews, comments, and more! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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