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Taking a JOY RIDE on DVD

New Releases from B-movie chills to fresh Disney Special Editions!

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

I was going to open up this edition of The Aisle Seat with my annual rant about the Academy Awards, including how one of last year's best movies -- BLACK HAWK DOWN, a film I considered the best of 2001 -- didn't receive a nomination for Best Picture, while Peter Jackson's safe and entertaining (though hardly inspiring) adaptation of LORD OF THE RINGS managed to net an all-time genre high 13 nominations, more than genuine sci-fi/fantasy classics "Star Wars," "E.T." and "Close Encounters," among others.

But, after some deliberation, I decided I would spare you from reading another predictable ramble about how unfair the Oscars are, and also spare me from having to write it!

Instead, now that I've thawed out after attending the Patriots Super Bowl celebration on one of the few bitter cold days this winter in Boston, let's dive right into a DVD wrap-up of tempting new discs -- including a sneak preview of one of last year's most entertaining, and overlooked, big-screen releases.


Upcoming on DVD

JOY RIDE (***1/2, 96 mins., 2001, R, Fox, $27.98; available March 12): A few years ago, the Kurt Russell open-road thriller "Breakdown" netted a of excellent reviews and rode positive word-of-mouth to box-office success.

This sturdy, well-directed variant from film noir specialist John Dahl is, in many ways, even more entertaining -- a genuinely spooky treat that's easily one of the best movies to come down the pike in the last year.

JOY RIDE finds college guy Paul Walker (last seen in the summer hit "Fast and the Furious") bailing bad boy older brother Steve Zahn out of prison. En route to pick up gal pal Leelee Sobieski, the two decide to play a prank via their recently installed CB radio -- the "internet chat room" of yesteryear, according to Zahn.

The victim of their joke is "Rusty Nail," a trucker whom Walker and Zahn talk into meeting what he thinks will be a girl (dubbed "Candy Cane") in the motel where the brothers are staying in overnight. In one of several suspenseful, well-executed sequences, the trucker instead ends up meeting a jerk Zahn runs into -- and promptly rips the guy's jaw straight off while the jokesters sit and listen in the room next door.

What follows thereafter is a cat-and-mouse game with the mystery driver's big rig running Zahn, Walker, and Sobieski on and off the major interstates, taking a page out of Spielberg's "Duel" and breaking completely out of the "teen horror" genre confines the movie resembled only in its advertising (perhaps one of the reasons for the film's very modest box-office grosses last October).

Director Dahl's credits range from the superb "Red Rock West" to the underrated "Unforgettable," and he does an exemplary job building and sustaining suspense from start to end. The script, by scribes J.J. Abrams ("Alias," and possibly the forthcoming new "Superman") and Clay Tarver, establishes believable characters and situations you can immediately identify with, from the fairly innocent prank Zahn instigates to the dire consequences the protagonists find themselves in after the joke comes back to haunt them.

The climax builds to a fever-pitched frenzy that will keep you on the edge of your seat, while Marco Beltrami's score and Jeff Jur's cinematography give the film plenty of atmosphere to spare. The performances are all fine, with Zahn turning in especially strong work as a relatively innocuous slacker whose bombastic personality early on contrasts splendidly with his wide-eyed reaction to the increasingly demented behavior of the evil trucker.

JOY RIDE is solid, taut, and exciting entertainment on every level, and Fox's Special Features-packed DVD offers tons of great supplements.

No less than four deleted endings are present, including an entirely discarded 28-minute climax which is more explicit, less suspenseful, and changes the story's tone to that of a generic slasher film. Presented in workprint form, the (rightly) junked finale is fascinating to compare to the re-shot version utilized in the theatrical cut, with an unused, storyboarded climax and two additional variations on the final version's ending also included, along with one deleted scene.

You also get a featurette on the production of the film, three audio commentaries (one by director Dahl, a second track featuring the writers, and another by Zahn and Sobieski), the original trailer, and audition tapes for the voice of Rusty Nail by actors Eric Roberts and Stephen Shellen (Ted Levine was the obvious choice).

All in all, a top-notch presentation for a movie which will hopefully find its audience on video and DVD.


Midnight Movie Mania: New B-Movie Frights

SOUL SURVIVORS (*, 85 mins., 2001, R, Artisan, $24.98): It's never a good sign when a film opens with a pre-credits sequence that has absolutely, positively nothing to do with the rest of the picture! Such is the case with SOUL SURVIVORS, an incoherent, oft-delayed teen horror flick -- barely released to theaters last September -- which seems like it might have been edited by Freddy, Jason, or perhaps some nervous studio executives trying to up the blood n'guts quotient for its intended audience.

Melissa Sagemiller and pals Casey Affleck (Ben's less charismatic younger brother), Wes Bentley (bland "American Beauty" lead) and Eliza Dushku (Faith from "Buffy") decide to spend their first night at college by -- what else? -- going to a satanic rave held in the basement of a church. While driving home, Sagemiller's car crashes with a gaggle of the scuzzy partygoers, leading poor Melissa to have flashbacks, flashforwards, and visions of dead boyfriend Affleck -- or is he really alive and everybody else dead? Not even a slumming Luke Wilson -- on-hand as Father Jude -- offers any concrete evidence as to what's happening, or how the disgusting opening sequence ties into anything else in the film.

SOUL SURVIVORS is a little bit better than the hideous Winona Ryder bomb "Lost Souls," but its connection with anything positive pretty much ends there. Daniel Licht's overwrought, hackneyed score punctuates every uneven performance, while the film's haphazard editing at least makes the movie somewhat palatable to sit through since it's just so, well, odd! Conversations between characters seem to be cut off right when they're supposed to reveal something, while other plot angles and devices are seemingly introduced at random, as if we're already supposed to have known what's going on.

Who knows just what writer-director Steve Carpenter had in mind here, but the final, disjointed cut plays like a schizoid "Carnival of Souls"/"Sixth Sense" for the intellectually challenged youth market. Tellingly, booklet quotes from the actors talk about the movie's script as being unique, describing it as a "scary love story, a surreal 'Romeo and Juliet'" -- the kind of comments that lead you to believe that Carpenter had one thing in mind while writing his story and studio honchos quite a different one when filming commenced.

Even though Artisan's impressively-produced DVD is proudly presented in a so- called "Killer Cut" with more sex, blood, and violence than the PG-13 theatrical version, it doesn't seem as if anything substantive was added here aside from the extra gore (the running time is only a minute or so longer than the released cut).

The DVD offers a couple of deleted scenes (including a brief alternate ending), select commentary by Sagemiller, a couple of featurettes, trailers and storyboards. The 5.1 soundtrack is appropriately loud and the 1.85 transfer sufficiently slick, preserving a wasted effort by veteran cinematographer Fred Murphy ("The Fantasticks," "Mothman Prophecies," "Hoosiers").


THE MANGLER 2 (*, 100 mins., 2001, Artisan, $24.98): Back in my high school days, my friends and I would make sure we didn't miss one Stephen King movie adaptation, since the big man's name over the marquee often meant hilarity as much as it did horror.

My senior year alone would see the release of "Sleepwalkers," "The Lawnmower Man," and "The Dark Half," and between the four of us, Mystery Science-like comments would echo off the walls of the Showcase Cinemas Warwick. By the time I got to college, the King Movie Machine slowed down just a bit, especially after prestigious projects like "Needful Things" turned out to be just as lousy as lower-grade B-fare like "Lawnmower Man" (which for no apparent reason opened in Rhode Island a couple of weeks before it did around the rest of the nation).

Still, "Needful Things" was at least much, much better than "The Mangler," an unintentionally funny Tobe Hooper opus which somehow opened in theaters a while later and has since spawned a cheap Canadian knock-off, MANGLER 2, which has nothing to do with the Stephen King brand name other than its loose connection with Hooper's original film (and by a "connection," I mean the basic premise of a machine run amok).

Here, high school superintendent Lance Henriksen (you already know where this is going, don't you?) decides to implement a new security system that has recently been tested out by the government for its keen surveillance power, only to find that it has a mind of its own and begins to pick off some of the school's less promising students.

You know it's not an American film when several of the leading ladies don't appear anorexic, but aside from the switch in locale and tone, MANGLER 2 is just too "economical" for its own good. At times, this shoddy made-for-video effort looks like a college student's final project; the poorly-lit cinematography and amateurish performances accentuating the low-low-budget in a belated attempt to cash in one last time on King's name. What's worse, it's actually duller and not quite as unintentionally amusing as its predecessor, which did -- among other things -- have the distinction of starring "Silence of the Lambs" psycho Ted Levine in a rare leading man role!

Artisan's 1.77 DVD looks as good as the movie possibly COULD look (you'll probably see local cable access shows with better lighting), while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is a bit more polished. A full run of extras include outtakes and commentary with the filmmakers, which is likely more interesting than sitting through this sorry mess.  MANGLER 2 is run of the kill, so to speak, but at least isn't the worst made-for-video horror sequel I've seen -- that distinction is still safely held by last year's hideous MIMIC 2.


Family Entertainment on DVD: New From Disney and Artisan

The studio that Variety constantly refers to as "The Mouse" has been turning out one quality DVD after another of late -- what a far cry from early on in DVD history, when Disney couldn't have cared about the format. Still, you have to give the company credit for jumping in full-blast once the studio committed to DVD -- and committed they have been, with lots of supplemental-packed new releases being issued on a regular basis.

ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE (2001, 96 mins., G, ***, double-disc set, $39.98) is yet another high quality Collector's Edition of a Disney animated feature. The movie itself was only a modest success for the studio last summer, failing to approach the coveted $100-million mark and receiving a very mixed collection of reviews in its wake (some loved the animation style and accent on action, while others carped about the lack of music and traditional Disney elements).

This "lost civilization" tale -- with a group of adventurers trying to find Atlantis deep in its watery grave -- is fairly pedestrian in its story and concept, but compensates for the weak narrative with eye-popping animation, a mix of standard drawing and computer animation, blown up to colorful proportions in 2.35 widescreen. If you look at the movie strictly as a comic-book fantasy, ATLANTIS more than holds its own, being superior to recent, non-Disney attempts at this kind of project (like the well-drawn though somewhat tedious Don Bluth flop "Titan A.E"). James Newton Howard's music swells with appropriate bombastic energy on the audio end, making the DVD a delight for animation fans and home theater aficionados.

Speaking of the presentation, Disney's 2-DVD Collector's Set is the way to go for movie buffs. While a single-disc edition is available for about $10 less (and is aimed more at kids), the Special Edition features a bonus disc chock full of the kinds of supplements you would expect from Disney: a thorough recap of the production, from conception to post-production, with an examination of deleted material (including the "Viking Prologue," which was seen in the trailers), abandoned concepts, music and more.


Disney has also re-issued PETER PAN in a new Special Edition release ($29.95) to coincide with the theatrical premiere of "Return to Neverland." The 1953 feature was previously released on DVD back when Disney produced limited pressings of a handful of their animated classics, though most reports have it that the new DVD's transfer is pretty much identical to the earlier disc (which I don't have to compare).

What's new to this DVD is a recently-produced documentary and featurette, plus audio commentary from Roy Disney that's quite interesting for the anecdotes that he shares about the film's production and historical legacy. The 5.1 Dolby Surround is very effective, re-channeling the sound for stereo without adding pointless new sound effects.

PETER PAN itself needs little introduction, other than that it's still one of the most entertaining and fondly-remembered Disney productions, even if it's not quite on the classic level of masterpieces like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."


Another recent Disney DVD, DISNEY'S AMERICAN LEGENDS ($29.98), offers four animated shorts centering on American folk heroes Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Casey Jones (the Brave Engineer), and John Henry -- a recently produced short in comparison with the other, more vintage Disney cartoons included here.

The collection is introduced by James Earl Jones, and includes various DVD-ROM extras for kids. The Dolby Digital sound is fine and the colorful full-screen transfer presents the shorts as they were originally produced. Walt Disney's own television introduction to "Johnny Appleseed" is also included as a treat for nostalgia buffs.


Disney has also issued a Collector's Edition for a film one might have thought would be considered a black sheep by the studio: the 1992 box-office bomb NEWSIES ($29.98), a live-action musical that not even the magical touch of composer Alan Menken could turn into a financial success.

That said, this energetically-directed film is still worth viewing for genre fans, most notably because of Menken's often underrated score, which features a handful of excellent songs ("Carrying the Banner," "Santa Fe") written with lyricist Jack Feldman.

The problem with the movie isn't the music, but rather the stilted plot -- based on actual events -- that chronicles the plight of underage turn-of-the-century newspaper carriers and their eventual strike against newspaper owners Joseph Pulitizer (a tired Robert Duvall) and William Randolph Hearst. Christian Bale gives a charismatic performance as the head "Newsie" while Bill Pullman is on-hand to lend able support, though every sequence involving showgirl Ann-Margret drags the movie down to the point where you easily understand why the picture was a flop with kids.

Disney's DVD offers a revealing audio commentary with the filmmakers and featurettes shot during the movie's production that are predictably heavy on the promotional side. The 2.35 transfer is a notch above average, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound leaves a bit to be desired, rarely taking advantage of the surround channels (though this seems to be a problem with the original mix as the previous laserdisc release sounded identical).

If you're a musical fan and haven't seen NEWSIES, the DVD is well worth a viewing, preserving the film's widescreen dimensions and featuring a strong score by Menken that's deserving of another look.


Finally, due out this week is CINDERELLA II: DREAMS COME TRUE ($29.98), a direct-to-video sequel to the '50s classic that young kids should love.

A 73-minute, surprisingly well-drawn small-screen follow-up, CINDERELLA II presents several self-contained stories focusing on the adventures of Cinderella, her villainous step-sisters, and the lovable mice immediately following the "Happily Ever After" conclusion of its predecessor.

While obviously not a masterpiece, this is a very solid production with lots of positive message for kids, done in a fast-paced manner that will hold children's attention spans. Overall, CINDERELLA II is certainly a notch above most direct-to-video sequels, which is good news for parents who will undoubtedly have to sit through it once or twice (or more!). Disney's 1.66 transfer and Dolby Digital/DTS soundtracks are both excellent, while a music video and several special features aimed squarely at youngsters round out the disc.


JACK AND THE BEANSTALK: THE REAL STORY (2002, 183 mins., Artisan, $19.98): Hallmark Entertainment has produced a dozen ambitious fantasy mini-series for TV over the last decade -- some better than others, with a few truly bizarre efforts included in the bunch (remember the nutty, campy version of "Noah's Ark" starring Jon Voight and F. Murray Abraham from a couple of years ago?).

None, however, are quite as offbeat as this Brian Henson-directed, "realistic" take on the JACK AND THE BEANSTALK legend, starring Matthew Modine as a modern guy who finds out his family's heritage is truly rooted in a fairy tale. The story -- written by James V. Hart ("Hook," "Bram Stoker's Dracula") with Henson and Bill Barretta -- takes the classic tale and blows it up into a tale of dueling faraway kingdoms, with Legend's Mia Sara cast appropriately as the love interest.

As with most every Hallmark TV epic, you get plenty of CGI special effects (yes, even a big giant and a very tall beanstalk), plus celebrity cameos by the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Jon Voight (again!), Honor Blackman, Richard Attenborough and Daryl Hannah.

It all adds up to a glossy and good-looking, though admittedly uneven, brew that's too long for kids and not quite sophisticated enough for adults -- certainly not on the level of the better Hallmark efforts (like the terrific "Arabian Nights," enjoyable "Jason and the Argonauts," and overlong-but-amusing "10th Kingdom").

Artisan's DVD claims to be full-frame but the transfer is actually in the 1.85 aspect ratio. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is quite active, featuring a decent score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, while a pair of featurettes on the production and the FX work of the Henson Creature Shop are included for special features.


NEXT WEEK: Ssshhhhh, DON'T SAY A WORD, plus the DVD debut of SAY ANYTHING and the return of Andy's Soundtrack Corner. Direct all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll see you then. 'Nuff said!

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