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A Weaker BLADE

Plus: STAR TREK-THE NEXT GENERATION Beams Down On DVD!

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Very quick thoughts on this year's Oscars, with no obvious comments about the unbearable running time:

*I didn't much care for A BEAUTIFUL MIND, but if you DID believe that the movie was Best Picture, with the Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress, then how did Russell Crowe NOT win Best Actor? I didn't think Crowe's performance was one of his best (too often I felt he was posturing, almost reaching for the Oscar), but still, it seems Crowe was a victim of his own bad publicity. Nevertheless, Crowe was the whole show in "A Beautiful Mind," and if you bought the story at all, surely you had to believe Crowe was the primary reason for its success.

*Speaking of that, what did you make of Denzel Washington honestly admitting after the awards that TRAINING DAY wasn't the best movie he'd been in, or the best performance he'd ever given -- and that part of his award WAS based on a kind of "lifetime achievement." Is Denzel that old that he deserved that kind of distinction right now? Don't get me wrong, I think Denzel Washington is hands-down one of the finest actors of our generation (having been overlooked before for performances like "Courage Under Fire"), but how many out there thought he was a shoo-in win for a film that received heavily mixed reaction? (And how many of you wanted to slap Julia Roberts silly for her "I love my life!" line before revealing that Washington had won Best Actor?). Still, Washington received major props for simply stating after the Oscars that "it's an award for an actor," not a political statement about race.

*Along those lines, the political ramifications of Halle Berry's win -- the first for an African-American in the Best Actress category (even though Berry is ironically half- white) -- were felt far and wide, with Oprah Winfrey and others talking about how long overdue the award was. One would hope, however, that Berry was voted the Best Actress because of her MONSTER'S BALL performance (a film very few saw), and not simply because she's part African-American.

The implication that Oscar voters have been racist -- a view put forth in post-Oscar interviews with Berry and others -- is rather short-sighted, since it doesn't take into account the poor quality of roles minorities often receive in Hollywood. Instead of blaming Oscar voters for previously ignoring women of color in this category (and African-American actors in general), why not blame the kinds of movies that African- Americans often appear in, and the roles they are forced to take?

Then, in lieu of Washington and Berry's victories -- and Sidney Poitier's eloquent speech -- I felt extremely uncomfortable when Whoopi Goldberg resurrected old-time ethnic jokes by reciting "ghetto-ized" titles of Robert Redford movies shortly after Redford received his honorary Oscar. Talk about insulting.

*Is Julia Roberts THAT stupid? A year after calling Bill Conti "Mr. Stick Man," she looks down into the orchestra pulpit, and says it's a good thing that "TOM Conti" wasn't there Sunday night. Is she that dumb, was that supposed to be a joke, or perhaps another slight to ROCKY's music man?

*Highlight of the night for film music fans: Randy Newman, winning his first Oscar after some 16 nominations. Talk about a long, long time coming! His fun but hardly memorable song from MONSTERS, INC. was far from his best composition (something Newman would surely tell you), but seeing his obvious joy and surprise was richly deserved. Congrats, Mr. Newman!


New on DVD

One of the great things about collecting a television series on video is the ability you have to watch the program at your leisure, without having to worry about committing an hour each week to keeping up with the action.

After releasing all 79 episodes of the original "Star Trek" on DVD in some 40 individual discs, Paramount has wisely decided to step up the pace with STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. This week marks the first of some seven DVD box-sets the studio plans to release throughout the year, with each set including an entire season of the program.

It's great for consumers -- since the $139.99 retail price (which you can find around $100 in most outlets) is a relative bargain for the 20-plus hours of entertainment contained in one set -- and also for viewers and fans, since each box-set can be used to trace the development of the show and its gradual progression from an uneven variation on its predecessor to a sci-fi TV classic in its own right.

The first season box set is akin to witnessing many well-known series' inaugural years: there are scattered excellent, individual moments, but the program had yet to really hit its stride. Too often, the well-documented bickering behind-the-scenes lead to wildly uneven plots, many of which were disappointing remakes of the old series' adventures, and too many others that had yet to capitalize on the program's fine cast -- marred by hackneyed TV writing that was far from TNG's best. Indeed, just when it seemed that TNG got its act together during the first season with a superior effort, there's a clunker of an episode that followed, cementing the inconsistency that plagued the show during its early years.

Right off the bat, disc one illustrates this point: the 90-minute premiere, "Encounter At Farpoint," is entertaining enough (introducing John DeLancie's running "Q" character), but it's immediate follow-up -- the dreadful "Naked Now" -- was enough to make some viewers instantly lose interest in the series. What they would miss during the remainder of the first season wasn't anything extraordinary, but all of it remains a fascinating precursor to the terrific later seasons that TNG enjoyed down the road.

In the box-set, you get the following episodes: the terrible "Code of Honor," the early Ferengi episode "The Last Outpost," the solid "Where No One Has Gone Before," "Lonely Among Us" (D.C. Fontana's "revision" of her classic original episode "Journey To Babel"), "Justice," "The Battle" (another Ferengi episode), "Hide and Q" (a remake of the old show's second pilot, with Riker gaining God-like powers a la Gary Mitchell), "Haven" (one of the infrequent Troi episodes, featuring Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as her mother), "The Big Goodbye" (easily one of the best TNG programs from season one, thanks to Patrick Stewart's performance and a good script by Tracy Torme), "Datalore" (another mediocre original series update, this time of "The Enemy Within"), "Angel One," "11001001" (arguably season one's finest hour), "Too Short A Season," "When The Bough Breaks," "Home Soil" (a lame rip-off of "The Devil In The Dark"), "Coming Of Age," the entertaining Klingon entry "Heart Of Glory," "The Arsenal of Freedom," "Symbiosis," "Skin of Evil" (Tasha Yar's quick exit), "We'll Always Have Paris," "Conspiracy," and the underwhelming season finale, "The Neutral Zone."

Just as the laserdisc releases of TNG varied in quality, so do the DVD transfers in the box-set. Take the "Where No One Has Gone Before" episode, for example: most of the episode looks fine, but one segment of the program is extremely grainy, so much so that you might believe that it's a fault of the DVD mastering process. Likely, however, this was a problem with the program itself, since as the season progresses, the transfers tend to become sharper and more consistent. Likely, the visual quality on future box-sets will be even superior.

Audio wise, the DVD serves up a pair of terrific Dolby Stereo mixes: the original broadcast 2-channel audio, as well as an effective 5.1 remix that pushes the soundtrack into 5 channels without "rethinking" the original audio. TNG was one of the first TV series to really take full advantage of stereo recording, so it shouldnăt come as a major surprise that the audio easily surpasses the visual quality on DVD.

On the seventh and final DVD, Paramount has included several nice featurettes, containing new interviews with the cast and crew, along with others culled from press interviews shot during the show's initial run. "The Beginning" offers a look at the series' origins, featuring Rick Berman and the cast reflecting on the early days.

"The Making Of A Legend" looks at the physical production of the program, with a glimpse at the sets and special effects -- plus, FSM readers, a look at the music! Jay Chattaway is briefly interviewed about his work on the show, while Dennis McCarthy can be seen in recording session footage. It's not terribly elaborate (constituting four minutes out of a 15-minute featurette), but it's nevertheless nice to see. "Memorable Missions" and "Selected Crew Analysis" contain interviews with the cast reflecting on their small-screen voyages, in segments that look to have been utilized recently on TNN's non-stop cable airings of TNG.

The packaging is decent (the seven discs are housed in a fold-out case), though the booklet is a bit on the light side in terms of trivia and production anecdotes.

On the whole, however, this is a splendid box-set that Star Trek fans are going to love, and a perfect way for new viewers to experience the program at their own pace. The price and presentation are perfectly acceptable, and the supplements are a cool -- though certainly not comprehensive -- bonus. Trekkers take note: TNG: Season Two will be beaming down in May/June for your viewing pleasure.


Cinematic Capsules

BLADE 2 (**): "More gore, less filling" is the term I'd use to sum up this disappointing, repellent sequel to the surprisingly good sleeper hit of 1999. Wesley Snipes is back as the half-vampire, half-human Marvel super-hero, here summoned to help out a group of vampires being attacked by a plague of nosferatu-like creatures that prey on the undead as well as the living. David S. Goyer's script offers up the usual fights and kung-fu moves for Wesley, but director Guillermo Tel Toro is far more interested in bloodletting and plenty of disgusting special effects than his predecessor (Stephen Norrington) was. These vampire- offspring not only want to drink your blood, but their mouths open up into a foul, tentacle-laden critter a la John Carpenter's "The Thing" as they rip your guts out.

Kris Kristofferson re-appears as Blade's faithful pal Whistler, but while Snipes is game as always, the movie sadly lacks the presence of bad-guy Deacon Frost, who served up a grand menace to Blade thanks to Stephen Dorff's performance in the original. He's mentioned in passing here, but the sequel's substitute -- a cast-off son of a vampire king wanting to exact revenge on his old man -- is weak, and a would-be romance between Blade and the head vamp's daughter (the fetching but emotionless Lenor Vanela) comes off as half-baked at best.

Where the original BLADE was a cool comic-book come to life -- colorfully filling up a widescreen frame not employed here -- BLADE 2 is more of a claustrophobic, subterranean horror movie like Del Toro's "Mimic," with the director's urine-yellow cinematography washing out the first film's more contemporary look. More over, the director dwells on gore and blood to the point where I kept looking at my watch, waiting for this one to end.

BLADE 2 is grimier, uglier, and gorier than the original, but it's also less involving and interesting as a story. After nearly three years, you would have thought that Snipes and company could have cooked up a sequel with more bite, never mind blood. (R)


Video Premieres

2001: A SPACE TRAVESTY (*1/2, 2001, 98 mins., R; $24.98, Columbia TriStar): Proof positive that just as many bad Leslie Nielsen comedies can be produced outside the U.S. than right here domestically, 2001: A SPACE TRAVESTY is an oddball Canadian/German effort designed to cash in on the "Naked Gun" craze a few years after the fact.

Basically playing his "Police Squad!" character again, Nielsen plays a government agent sent to protect the president (a not-bad Bill Clinton imitator) from an evil doctor who's creating clones of world leaders on the planet Vegan. The usual sight gags ensue, some of them raunchier than the usual Zucker Bros. fare, with supporting performances turned in by an international group of actors, ranging from Italian comic Ezio Greggio to French singer Ophelie Winter -- something none too surprising given that the movie was bankrolled by a busload of international production outlets.

Canadian filmmaker Alan A. Goldstein -- who directed the acclaimed "Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick" but has since followed that with a slew of TV movies (and 1994's "Death Wish V") -- helmed this appropriately-named TRAVESTY from a script by Alan Shearman, who lists a bit role in "Escape From New York" on his resume but no screenwriting credits to speak of.

As always, Nielsen is game but the tired gags rarely work, with one major exception: the film's concluding "Three Tenors" spoof is a dead-on parody of the Pavarotti/Carreras/Domingo concerts, with a trio of imitators belting out The Village People's "In The Navy" at their operatic best. It's a legitimately hilarious gag stuck in the midst of an otherwise laughless affair, which received a token theatrical release in Canada before heading straight to the small screen. Columbia's DVD is full-frame but this certainly doesn't seem to be a problem here, with the colorful transfer being well-composed at 1.33:1. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is surprisingly potent, featuring an orchestral score by Claude Foisy that William Stromberg conducted with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.


NEW PORT SOUTH (*1/2, 97 mins., 2001, PG-13; Touchstone, $26.98): Or, "What If John Hughes Staged a Comeback and Nobody Knew?" Such was the case with this barely-released high school "thriller," written by Hughes' son, James, making his screenwriting debut.

A severely miscast Blake Shields plays a teenage loner (not unlike Judd Nelson's character from "The Breakfast Club") who decides to lead an uprising against his high school's faculty, with their repressive and restrictive methods that stifle creativity. Emulating a former student who was institutionalized after leading a similar insurrection, the boy ultimately turns from hero to dictator, a rebel without a resolution to the problems he addresses.

NEW PORT SOUTH offers the familiar suburban Chicago trappings of Hughes' earlier high school dramas, but they're framed by director Kyle Cooper in a way that suggests what David Fincher might do if he directed a remake of "The Breakfast Club." Alas, this film isn't as interesting as that idea sounds. The major problems with the movie are its unappealing cast and the choppy pacing and pretentiousness of Cooper's direction, which accentuate the flaws inherent in James Hughes's script -- including a major narrative about-face at the end that's hardly convincing given the way the initial part of the story is handled. The elder Hughes -- who served as Executive Producer here -- once made a handful of sensitive, excellent teen pictures back in the '80s, but this obvious attempt to update those films with its own "modern voice" turns out to be an unpleasant misfire on every level.

Unsurprisingly, Touchstone kept NEW PORT SOUTH on the shelf for all of 2000, releasing it only in a handful of theaters in the Midwest last September. The sparse DVD offers a strong 1.85 transfer -- despite Juan Ruiz-Anchia's pseudo-artsy cinematography -- and matching 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks, containing an annoying "clicks-and-beeps" electronic soundtrack by "Telefon Tel Aviv."


New and Noteworthy

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (****, 91 mins., 1996, G, Disney, $29.98)
HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME II (**1/2, 90 mins., 2002, G, Disney, $29.98)

Alan Menken copped a slew of Oscars and even more nominations for his now- classic Disney animated musicals throughout the '90s -- something that angered film score purists to be sure, but an honor that was particularly deserved for Disney's outstanding, surprisingly dark adaptation of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

This literate and mostly-faithful adaptation of the classic story is grittier and more powerful than any of Disney's recent animated productions, featuring rich, evocative visuals and breathtaking animation, along with one of Menken's finest works -- an occasionally gothic, powerhouse score filled with great songs, co-written with lyricist Stephen Schwartz. At the time, some criticized the movie for its singing gargoyles (voiced by Jason Alexander and others), but it's one of the movie's few concessions to very young movie-goers, and the rest of the picture is a rewarding and moving animated work that I believe will stand the test of time better than some of the more comical (and contemporary) Disney pictures from the last 15 years.

Making its DVD debut, Disney has unfortunately decided to bypass HUNCHBACK as a Deluxe, 2-DVD Special Edition -- a major disappointment given that the studio released a marvelous 1996 laserdisc box-set filled to the brim with extras, including deleted songs and other outstanding supplements. Here, the studio has carried over the laser's audio commentary and promotional Making Of featurette, but that's it -- leaving the door open, perhaps, to revisit the title in the future. From a visual and audio standpoint, the DVD is nevertheless impressive, boasting an excellent 1.85 transfer and superlative 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital mixes.

The studio's parade of made-for-video sequels continues with the just-released HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME 2, but this one is actually pretty good, all things considered -- lightening up the original's tone just a bit, but utilizing the entire original vocal cast (Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Kevin Kline, Jason Alexander), with the addition of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Haley Joel Osment as Esmeralda's son (and Quasimodo's new best friend).

The movie's animation and non-Menken songs are, of course, not on a par with its predecessor, but it's a far better movie than recent Disney small-screen efforts ("Cinderella II," "Lion King 2," etc.), and recommended for family audiences. Disney's DVD features a 1.85 transfer, matching 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, plus a glimpse behind the scenes with Jennifer Love Hewitt (whom the producers didn't know could sing until she was hired on for the job).


FRESH (***, 1994, 112 mins., R, Miramax, $32.98): New Collector's Edition of Boaz Yakin's celebrated 1994 effort centers on a young boy -- both a student and a heroin dealer -- and his attempts to stay alive in the inner-city after witnessing a shooting. Samuel L. Jackson co-stars in this well-performed and gripping thriller, which Miramax has newly released as a Collector's Edition DVD with commentary from the director, cast audition tapes, gag reel, storyboards, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. The 1.85 transfer is excellent and the Dolby Digital sound effective, boasting one of Stewart Copeland's better film scores.


MEXICO CITY (*1/2, 2001, $29.98, Miramax, 88 mins., R): Strange thriller from director-writer Richard Shepard offers Stacy Edwards ("Driven") as a young, divorced woman whose brother -- predictably involved in drug trafficking -- goes missing in Mexico City, and joins up with American Ambassador Robert Patrick in an attempt to find him. Co-produced by none other than Mike Curb, MEXICO CITY is a short, by-the- numbers video affair, atmospherically shot but pretty dull on the action meter. Dimension's DVD offers a 1.85 transfer, Dolby Surround, and commentary from the director. Rolfe Kent's undistinguished score is one of the composer's lesser efforts, wearing out its welcome despite the movie's abbreviated running time.


IRON MONKEY (**1/2, $29.98, Dimension, 85 mins., PG-13): Woo-ping Yuen's 1993 kung-fu opus is a favorite among genre fans for its pseudo-"Robin Hood," comical action, even though it took Quentin Tarantino and Dimension Films nearly a decade to import it domestically. For martial arts die-hards, IRON MONKEY offers fresh choreography, plenty of laughs and great stunts, though for outsiders, a little of this tends to go a long way. Fortunately, Dimension didn't completely re-think the original version of the film for American audiences, making a few reported minor trims here and there, and adding an okay score by James L. Venable. (At least the film was treated better than so many of Jackie Chan's hacked-and-slashed U.S. releases). Dimension's DVD offers a 1.85 transfer plus dubbed English AND Cantonese language tracks -- don't be fooled into thinking this is the original soundtrack, since Venable's score is included on both versions. Interviews with star Donnie Yen and Tarantino are included for extras, along with a "medley" of Venable's score, set to a still of the GNP/Crescendo CD album cover.


THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS (**1/2, 88 mins., 1997, R, Columbia TriStar, $24.98): Chow Yun-Fat's introduction to American cinema isn't anything but a formula retread of his superior Hong Kong thrillers, but THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS is nevertheless an entertaining actioner that (at 88 minutes) doesn't wear out its welcome, and is here resurrected by Columbia in a Special Edition DVD release. For new supplements, you have director commentary from Antoine Fuqua, deleted scenes and an alternate ending, the original HBO Making Of special, an exclusive featurette looking at Chow's first foray into U.S. filmmaking, plus trailers and more. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is superb, and the 2.35 transfer (enhanced for 16:9) is right on par with Columbia's usual standard of excellence. Watching the movie again, it's still disappointing that the movie wasn't anything out of the ordinary, particularly considering the fine supporting cast that was assembled here (Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker, Jurgen Prochnow), but as an OK time- killer, REPLACEMENT KILLERS is still worth a view for action fans.


THE EVIL THAT MEN DO (**, 90 mins., 1983, R, Columbia TriStar, $24.98): The days when Charles Bronson was a box-office draw have long since past, which makes revisiting some of his later, just-for-the-money efforts interesting -- especially since it's hard to believe anyone paid to see them. THE EVIL THAT MEN DO isn't one of the countless horrid movies Bronson turned out for Golan-Globus' Cannon Films, but it IS directed by the actor's frequent cohort, J. Lee Thompson, and offers a standard revenge- thriller plot: Chuck's killer-for-hire is lured out of retirement to avenge the death of his journalist pal in Central America. Jose Ferrer, Theresa Saldana and Joseph Maher co-star in this completely formulaic effort that boasts superior production values to Bronson's Cannon work, but little in the way of surprises otherwise. Columbia's DVD of this 1983 ITC Entertainment/Tri-Star release includes both 1.85 and full-frame transfers, a mono soundtrack (featuring an okay score by Ken Thorne), and theatrical trailers.


NEXT WEEK: THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER and more! Send all comments to
dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. 'Nuff said!


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