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Andy Reviews the Best DVD of 2003

Plus: YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, X-2, and Vintage Titles

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Jerry Goldsmith hasn't recovered from having his opening and closing credit themes removed from "Alien." James Horner says he was nearly fired by the producers of "Aliens" because he couldn't compose the score's climactic cue in the short time frame they desired. And Elliot Goldenthal says the sound mix of "Alien 3" was a muddled mess, in a flawed movie he stills calls "incomplete."

If those comments intrigue you, make sure you don't miss the long-awaited, 9-disc Special Edition DVD box-set of "Alien" series, rather illogically dubbed the ALIEN QUADRILOGY (Fox), due out December 9th.

The mammoth box-set includes all four "Alien" films in both their theatrical release versions and extended Special Edition edits (three of which make their debut in this set), with a supplemental disc for each movie, AND a ninth disc of extras including the complete contents from the "Alien" and "Aliens" laserdisc box-sets.

It's a fascinating, outstanding, marvelously entertaining anthology that easily ranks as one of the finest box-sets to ever arrive on DVD. Fueled by incisive commentary tracks and surprisingly frank documentaries, the Quadrilogy supplements are some of the best the medium has yet produced -- well-deserved kudos go out to the various folks who produced the project, including Charles de Lauzirika, who has been involved with some of the top DVD supplements in recent years (including "Legend").

Because most of us are more than familiar with the four films, I'm not going to spend a great deal of time critically analyzing the pictures.

Suffice to say, ALIEN (****, 1979, 117 mins. theatrical, 116 mins. SE) rode the sci-fi wave that "Star Wars" ignited and became a classic of its own thanks to Ridley Scott's direction, the film's evocative production design and striking H.R. Giger special effects. The story may be simple and derivative (and methodically paced), but everything about the execution of "Alien" is elegant and eerie. Both the film's theatrical version and the new, so-called "Director's Cut" are included -- as Ridley Scott states about the latter, it's not really a "DC" but an alternate version with extra footage. It's also a bit faster-paced, as evidenced by the shorter running time, adding a couple of extra glimpses of the alien and the infamous cocoon scene at the end (which thankfully has been trimmed from its unexpurgated outtake state on previous laser/DVD editions). No matter which way you go, "Alien" is still a classic of the genre, regardless of the many shameless imitations that followed in the wake of its release.

Its belated 1986 follow-up, ALIENS (****, 137 mins. theatrical, 154 mins. SE) still ranks as one of the great sequels of all-time, with James Cameron's brilliant reworking of the franchise opening up the story and characterizations of its predecessor. Sigourney Weaver rightly copped an Oscar nomination for her work as Ripley here, and the supporting performances (especially Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton) add depth to a rollercoaster ride of a movie that's bigger and better than the first film. For the first time, Fox has included the original theatrical version of "Aliens" on DVD -- which for me is faster-paced and superior to the longer "Director's Cut," which also is available here for the viewer to watch.

While "Aliens" improved in many ways on its predecessor, the ill-fated ALIEN 3 (**, 1991, 114 mins. theatrical, 144 mins. SE) wrote the text-book on how NOT to make a sequel. This unrelentingly grim and tedious film was a disastrous way for David Fincher to start his career in features, the messy result of a handful of writers and filmmakers having been attached previously to the long-in-development project. What ended up being made was not only an unsatisfying follow-up to "Aliens," but a movie that generates almost no legitimate scares, being dull and derivative of what came before. Fincher chose not to participate in the DVD's creation, but a longer preview assembly -- adding some 30 minutes of previously excised footage -- debuts here and does improve somewhat on the original theatrical version, especially in clarifying who the prisoners actually are (which we all know was a problem in the theatrical version).

After the calamity of the third movie, one might have assumed that ALIEN RESURRECTION (*1/2, 1997, 109 mins. theatrical, 116 mins. SE) would have been an appreciable improvement on its immediate predecessor. Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") came on-board to write the script for French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film, but the end result was a tiresome and gory freak show variant on the earlier movies, with more colorful characters than "Alien 3" but less visual style. The theatrical version of the movie is included here along with a new "alternate" Special Edition (like Scott, Jeunet states that his original edit IS the "Director's Cut"), which adds an unnecessary epilogue to the proceeding and minor character extensions.

While I'm obviously not a fan of the third and fourth films in the franchise, the QUADRILOGY box-set is nevertheless essential for its behind-the-scenes chronicle of the series, and its strikingly honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each picture. (If only most DVD supplements were as comprehensive as this.)

The candid comments of Jerry Goldsmith are just one of the highlights of the ALIEN supplement, which boasts an all-new, three-hour plus overview of the production. This is a smart, expertly-crafted Making Of that treads over ground other laser and DVD supplements first charted, but does so even more comprehensively. All the major players are newly interviewed, from Sigourney Weaver to Ridley Scott, David Giler and writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett.

As you'd anticipate, every facet of the movie is covered -- including the score. Goldsmith notes his disappointment at the removal of his music for the end credits, how the "alternate" main credit theme he composed in a matter of minutes was used instead of his original (preferred) piece, and how Scott failed to communicate with him about the direction of the score. Also interesting are editor Terry Rawlings' comments about using Howard Hanson (it was better than Goldsmith's work, which "wasn't his best" in Rawlings' mind), and David Giler's bizarre description of Goldsmith's music being too overbearing, "like 'Patton'"(umm -- ok, Mr. Giler!).

A multi-angle view of the chestbuster scene, a new group commentary track (different than Scott's solo commentary on the previous DVD), storyboards, stills and more are included in a supplement worthy of the movie itself -- entirely comprehensive save for the Quadrilogy's lack of isolated score and production audio tracks. Those were contained in the earlier DVD but not here, so do yourself a favor and track down the original "Alien" disc for the superb music-oriented content that's the only omission in this otherwise sensational set.

The supplements on ALIENS are likewise comprehensive, particularly the scoring segment where James Horner recounts his trouble writing for a movie that was still being re-cut and re-filmed once the recording sessions began. Horner seems to be diplomatic about the countless alterations James Cameron made to his score in post-production, but dives into full frustration about how Gale Anne Hurd threatened to fire Horner from the movie when he needed more time to write the movie's (classic) climactic cue. Horner claims that he told them to go ahead and try and find a "more experienced" composer than he -- a fiery exchange that proves more honest than anything you'll typically find in a DVD supplement.

The 180-minute Making Of is again filled with great production anecdotes and a thorough history of the production, while a stills archive includes shots of the recording session. While both the Special Edition and theatrical version are included, it's still surprising that additional deleted sequences aren't incorporated here -- fans will still have to wait to see the long-discussed scene between Ripley and a dying Carter Burke (Paul Rieser), a semi-reprise of the Dallas-Ripley cocoon scene from "Alien."

ALIEN 3, though, may have the tastiest supplement of all, even if some of it was reportedly discarded because it was "too controversial" for DVD. What's here -- a 162- minute overview of the film's troubled shoot -- is nevertheless a fascinating, gripping account of a movie that never should have began shooting in the first place.

Renny Harlin and Vincent Ward are on-hand to discuss their earlier versions of the third movie's premise, which sounded far more intriguing in Harlin's version (which was supposed to have been set on the alien's home planet) and Ward's illogical but visually audacious conception (Ripley crash-lands on a wooden planet run by monks!). Both discuss their departure from the movie and how director David Fincher had to deal with a script worked on by "too many cooks" that was being constantly rewritten during shooting.

It's been reported that on-set footage of a frustrated Fincher was excised from the documentary (which would account for the shorter run time of this Making Of), yet the program is still rich with honest comments from the cast and crew, including cinematographer Alex Thomson and composer Elliot Goldenthal. Thomson notes that not even he could tell the difference between some of the characters at a pre-release screening, while Goldenthal engages in a fascinating dissection of the movie's unappealing sound mix. The composer's comments are refreshingly direct and pinpoint the movie's weaknesses, though it's equally interesting to hear the sound effects editors say that Goldenthal's music was too loud and overbearing -- and how the filmmakers initially considered using no music at all!

Whether or not you like ALIEN 3, there's no doubt this documentary is a must for all movie buffs, both for pointing out the failings of the finished movie and the more interesting directions that original versions of the story might have produced.

ALIEN RESURRECTION's special features include one more mammoth documentary -- running a few minutes under three hours -- featuring new interviews with the principal filmmakers (including Jeunet) and a substantial look at the disappointing score by John Frizzell, which is easily the weakest of the series.

If all that wasn't enough, the Quadrilogy offers a bonus 9th disc incorporating all the supplements from the massive Special CAV Edition LaserDiscs of the early '90s! All of the text materials from those huge "Alien"/"Aliens" sets are included here, along with trailers, TV spots, and/or featurettes from all four movies. And, if you still have an appetite for more, there's the "Alien Evolution" British documentary narrated by Mark Kermode, examining the making of the original film. Though nicely done, after seeing the new documentaries made expressly for the Quadrilogy release, it comes up a bit short.

There are new commentaries on each movie, plus the option of seeing the new footage from each film's extended version in a separate supplement (there's also an optional "deleted footage marker," which pops up during new scenes in the longer versions, enabling you to identify specific changes). The new 16:9 transfers and 5.1 remixed soundtracks are just as potent as you'd hope, and the set is contained in a large cardboard box that impressively folds out to reveal stills from each of the four movies.

Although there have been plenty of outstanding discs this past year, the ALIEN QUADRILOGY stands out as the definitive DVD release of 2003. Though each one of the films will be available in separate double-disc editions starting in January (the supplements will apparently be identical to their corresponding discs here), the low price of the box set ($60-70 at many outlets) and the trailers and other extras on the 9th disc make the Quadrilogy the ideal gift for any Alien or sci-fi/horror fan this holiday season. Unquestionably recommended!!

Paramount Vintage Titles

Not to be lost amidst all the big holiday titles are a handful of solid new catalog offerings from our friends at Paramount.

Of chief interest to many Aisle Seat readers is the long-awaited DVD bow of YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (***, 108 mins., PG-13), the handsomely mounted Steven Spielberg production that sadly became one of the big flops of 1985.

Spielberg was coming off the success of "Back to the Future" and recruited Chris Columbus ("The Goonies, "Gremlins") to write the project, which chronicled a young Watson's first meeting with a juvenile Sherlock Holmes at a London boarding school. Barry Levinson was tabbed to direct, while an impressive production crew -- cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, production designer Norman Reynolds and composer Bruce Broughton -- was brought onboard to recreate Arthur Conan Doyle's world.

The resulting feature is an atmospheric and nicely performed adventure, with excellent work turned in by Nicholas Rowe as Sherlock and Alan Cox (son of actor Brian Cox) as Watson. They're so good together -- and the first hour so entertaining -- that it's a shame Columbus' script turns off the Conan Doyle track and throws in shameless, "Temple Of Doom"-inspired antics involving an Egyptian cult and a series of murders plaguing London. The ILM effects were outstanding for their time and are still fun today, albeit somewhat jarring to see in a movie of this sort. Watching the movie again for the first time in a while, though, I nevertheless didn't have a big problem with the F/X, but rather with the derivative and needlessly downbeat aspects of the film's second half, which put a bit of a damper on the action. (And no matter what way you slice it, the "Temple of Doom"-inspired climax is awfully tired).

That being said, the movie is still underrated and entertaining, and Paramount's DVD offers up a superlative 1.85 transfer with a bass-heavy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Bruce Broughton's score is one of his best, and along with the central performances, is more than enough reason to revisit "Young Sherlock Holmes" on disc.

Another mid '80s box-office disappointment has also turned up on DVD: the Richard Gere vehicle KING DAVID (**1/2, 113 mins., 1985, PG-13). Gere stars in Bruce Beresford's account of the once and future King of Israel, with Edward Woodward as Saul and Alice Krige as Bathsheba.

Donald McAlpine's widescreen Panavision cinematography is excellent, as is Carl Davis' eloquent score, but the movie peters out after a strong start. The second half seems to have been cut down from something much longer, with short, abrupt scenes failing to follow through on the story's handsome and satisfying opening act.

The cast is generally excellent, yet Gere's performance ranges from convincing to nearly embarrassing, and never really finds the right tone.

Paramount's DVD accentuates all of the movie's positive elements by including a gorgeous new 2.35 transfer with Dolby Surround sound. Davis' score and McAlpine's cinematography are reason enough to give the picture another look, in spite of its jumbled second half.

From a Biblical epic to a pair of films featuring early scripts by Francis Ford Coppola, we work our way back in time to Jack Clayton's disappointing, all-star filming of THE GREAT GATSBY (**, 143 mins., 1974, PG) and the entertaining, albeit overwrought, soap opera of THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (**, 110 mins., 1966).

Like a few of you, I was forced to sit through "The Great Gatsby" in 10th grade -- all 143 minutes of it. Despite starring a huge cast including Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, Sam Waterston, and Robert Redford as the title character, this Coppola-scripted adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel was generally regarded as a misfire by critics and audiences, both of whom found the movie cold and sterile. It's certainly impressive to look at -- thanks to the Newport, RI locations and Douglas Slocombe cinematography -- yet the movie lacks an emotional center, and most of the performances fail to capture the nuances of Fitzgerald's story.

Paramount's DVD offers a 1.85 transfer that's a bit soft in places but is generally decent. The 5.1 soundtrack offers a stereophonic remix, boosting Nelson Riddle's well-regarded adaptation of period music.

Although trashier and less ambitious, the Redford-Natalie Wood teaming in "This Property is Condemned" results in a modestly entertaining soaper. Redford plays a railroad official who arrives in small-town Dodson, Mississippi during the Depression and falls for floozy Wood, who has issues of her own and seeks (in vain) to leave the town and its inhabitants behind.

Sydney Pollack directed this John Houseman production, scripted by Coppola, Fred Coe and Edith Sommer ("suggested" by a one-act Tennessee Williams play). Everything about the movie is loud, from its Kenyon Hopkins score to the mostly overwrought performances, which also include Charles Bronson, Kate Reid, and a teenage Mary Badham. It's predictable and sappy, but still fun in a strange, mid '60s kind of way.

Paramount's 1.85 DVD is in better shape than "Gatsby," and includes a boisterous mono soundtrack.

Director Tony Richardson attempted to recapture the magic of his Oscar-winning "Tom Jones" a few times in his career, but the only time he ever came close was with his 1977 effort JOSEPH ANDREWS (**1/2, 99 mins., 1977, R).

Peter Firth essays the main character -- a young servant who becomes the object of affection of the scandalous Lady Booby (Ann-Margaret), who seeks to conceal her own identity in a mad-cap Henry Fielding adaptation similar to "Tom Jones." Richardson tried valiantly to energize "Joseph Andrews" with the same atmosphere as his early '60s hit -- the supporting cast includes numerous familiar faces and John Addison's score is another major asset -- yet the movie wasn't especially successful in theaters or with critics, who compared the movie unfavorably with its predecessor.

Seeing the movie now, though, is another matter: the film is light and entertaining, with engaging performances (especially by Firth) and an Addison score that works double time to make the picture work. It's not entirely successful, but it's a good deal more satisfying than its reputation would lead you to believe.

Finally, we come to a pair of Neil Simon comedies: the successful 1971 filming of PLAZA SUITE (***, 114 mins., 1971, PG-13) and the zany, less successful adaptation of STAR SPANGLED GIRL (**, 93 mins., 1971, G), which opened that same year.

The former is regarded by many as one of the best Simon adaptations: the playwright scripted the movie, while Arthur Hiller's assured direction coaxes one of the best performances ever out of Walter Matthau, who stars in three different comedic vignettes. In Act I, Matthau plays a louse whose wife (Maureen Stapleton) finds out that he's sleeping around. The second act finds Barbara Harris as Matthau's ex-lover, while the third act has Matthau and Lee Grant as parents whose daughter is about to be married. It's breezy and only a bit static, and Maurice Jarre's pleasant score helps out.

"Star Spangled Girl," meanwhile, can be best described by watching its opening credits: no sooner do we see still photos of star Sandy Duncan smiling, set against the American flag, than we hear Monkees frontman Davy Jones crooning the Charles Fox-Norman Gimbel classic "Girl." Now, if you know enough pop culture, you'll instantly recognize "Girl" as being the hit single that brought Marcia and Davy Jones together on that unforgettable episode of "The Brady Bunch," yet it started out life as the theme song of this forgettable Simon movie.

Now, to give Simon a pass, he didn't script this three-person vehicle, which stars Duncan as the squeaky-clean girl-next-door to campus radicals Tony Roberts and Todd Susman (who found more success years later as Sheriff Shiflett on "Newhart"). Their culture clash basically consists of each individual yelling at one another, while Jerry Paris directs with all the depth of an episode of "Happy Days."

That being said, the film is fun in a bad movie kind of way, and Paramount's DVD offers a clean 1.85 transfer with acceptable mono sound. "Plaza Suite" boasts a more colorful and clear transfer, also with adequate mono sound.

New on DVD

X2: X-MEN UNITED. 134 mins., 2003, PG-13, Fox. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Famke Jenssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Alan Cumming, Rebecca Romjin-Stamos, Brian Cox. COMPOSER: John Ottman. SCRIPT: Michael Doughtery, Dan Harris, David Hayter. DIRECTOR: Bryan Singer. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Two commentary tracks; Making Of; deleted scenes; trailers. TECHNICAL SEPCS: 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Bigger and -- mostly -- better sequel to the 2000 smash brings back all of your favorite Marvel mutants as they combat a villainous military man (Brian Cox) intent on starting a war between humans and those who are "different." Director Bryan Singer has a bigger budget at his disposal in X2, a movie that crams an awful lot of characters and plots into its 133 minute running time. Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, Halle Berry's Storm and Famke Jenssen's Jean Grey are given most of the spotlight in this go-round, reluctantly joining forces for a brief time with the evil Magneto (Ian McKellen again, looking as if he's having a great time) as they try to advert a battle with humankind. Meanwhile, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart, with not a whole lot to do here) is kidnapped by Cox for equally nefarious purposes, and we're introduced to Nightcrawler, a blue-toned good guy perfectly played by Alan Cumming in a role that offers a nice contrast to the other members of the team.

It takes a while for "X-Men United" to get going, but once it does, the movie provides rousing comic book entertainment. Jackman is again terrific as the tough-as- nails Wolverine, anchoring the movie with enough star charisma to hold the various storylines together. The action scenes are crisply edited (kudos to John Ottman) and choreographed, and the film is remarkably well balanced for a story that tries to juggle an awful lot of narrative threads in the air throughout.

If there's a downside, however, it's in the script's almost incessant set-up for future sequels. Sure, we all know there's going to be an "X-Men 3," but couldn't they just spend a little more time on telling THIS story instead of constantly setting up the next one? Furthermore, the ending -- without giving anything away -- is an almost blatant steal from "Star Trek II," right down to a main character's narration and swelling orchestral music from Ottman. Otherwise, X2 is a popcorn movie that's a lot of fun while it's in (constant) motion.

Fox's DVD is a bit of a disappointment on the supplemental side (what wouldn't be after reviewing the "Alien Quadrilogy"?), yet fans will enjoy the conventional Making Of with cast and crew interviews; nearly a dozen deleted scenes (fun, but none of major consequence); a pair of cast/crew commentaries; and a nice look at John Ottman's score, with interviews and recording session footage (including a visit from Patrick Stewart on the scoring stage). The 2.40 Widescreen transfer, meanwhile, is immaculate and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likewise outstanding.

LEGALLY BLONDE 2: RED, WHITE AND BLONDE. 95 mins., 2003, PG-13, MGM. ANDY'S RATING: **. CAST: Reese Witherspoon, Sally Field, Regina King, Jennifer Coolidge, Bruce McGill, Bob Newhart, Luke Wilson. COMPOSER: Rolfe Kent. SCRIPT: Kate Kondell. DIRECTOR: Charles Herman-Wormfeld. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes, gag reel, cast commentary, Making Of featurette, music video. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Just-for-the-money follow-up sends Elle Woods (Witherspoon again) to Washington to work for congresswoman Sally Field, on behalf of her dog Bruiser who -- okay, let's face it, this movie is just an excuse to rehash the entire plot of the first "Legally Blonde," except that it's Capitol Hill and not Harvard, and there's a whole new gang of sour pusses for Elle to give the makeover treatment.

Witherspoon gives it her all, as you might expect, but the Kate Kondell script is so hackneyed that none of the movie works -- especially not the protracted second half, where laughs give way to tedious (and outrageously, unintentionally funny) speeches. A few stars from the first movie appear in support (including Luke Wilson and Jennifer Coolidge), but despite the addition of Field and Bob Newhart to the cast, there's little to talk about in "Red, White and Blonde."

MGM's colorful Special Edition serves up all the requisite special features: commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel, promotional Making Of material, and a music video. The 1.85 transfer looks just fine and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack perfectly pungent -- it's the plot that's stale.

NEXT WEEK: Andy Reviews Panasonic's New DVD Recorder, plus more DVDs and your comments, which can be emailed to Cheers everyone!

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