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Aisle Seat March Madness

STAR TREK IV Special Edition arrives
Plus: Andy salutes SMALLVILLE, SPY KIDS 2 on DVD, and more!

By Andy Dursin

I don't write about a whole lot of TV here at The Aisle Seat, though I will admit that I watch my fair share (surely no surprise to those of you out there!).

One program that I've been an avid fan of ever since its debut is SMALLVILLE, the teenage Superman program on The WB network. Now, some of you undoubtedly may have caught the show during its infancy -- when it resembled a "Freak of the Week" program with Smallville students or teachers stumbling into Kryptonite and turning into villains each episode -- and quickly wrote it off.

If you did, you made a mistake, since the program has grown by leaps and bounds into one of the most consistently entertaining shows on the tube. Freed from the unrelenting sarcasm and narcissism of teen angst shows like "Dawson's Creek," SMALLVILLE has managed to develop a likable set of protagonists with unpredictable personalities -- Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor, for example, is the show's most popular character due to his conflicted nature -- and establish its own identity in the Superman legacy.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, SMALLVILLE has taken its time diving into its Superman roots. Last week's episode, however, finally did just that and then some, with none other than Christopher Reeve himself on-hand to explain Superman's Kryptonian origins to Clark Kent (the underrated Tom Welling).

The show was, like many of the episodes in the series' second season, well-written and perfectly performed. Reeve's appearance in many ways confirms that this is the first Superman spin-off to do justice to the original Man of Steel films since Reeve hung up the cape back in the '80s, while composer Mark Snow went a step further: eschewing the show's pop soundtrack and original synth score, Snow did a remarkable job incorporating John Williams' themes into the episode's second half. That he was able to accomplish that feat without drawing attention to itself -- instead, working it beautifully into the context of the program -- should net the composer additional praise.

It's no secret that Warner Bros. is once again trying to resurrect, and reinvent, the Superman franchise for the big-screen. After abortive attempts over the years to do so with the involvement of everyone from Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage to Kevin Smith, reports circulated last week that the studio is down to Brendan Fraser, Paul Walker, and a soap opera guy for the lead of the Man of Steel.

If the studio was smart, they'd wait until SMALLVILLE completes its run and launch the program -- with Welling and Rosenbaum -- onto the big screen as the next Superman series. If nothing else, it'd be fully deserved for a program that has rightly staked its place in the annals of Superman history.


Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (****, 118 mins., 1986, PG; Paramount): After the compelling yet solemn story arc of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and "Star Trek III: The Search For Spock," director Leonard Nimoy and producer Harve Bennett wisely decided to "have a little fun" with STAR TREK IV. All Paramount execs said was to make the movie into a time travel picture -- the rest was entirely up to the filmmakers, who ultimately collaborated with "Khan" auteur Nick Meyer in fashioning a clever, upbeat sci-fi adventure that remains the most successful of all Trek movies.

After quickly wrapping up plot fragments left over from the preceding two films, the Enterprise crew heads back to Earth in the Klingon Bird of Prey -- only to find out that an unknown, alien entity is threatening all life back home. The probe's only method of communication is in the song of humpback whales, who are extinct in the 23rd century. Naturally, Kirk and Spock opt to head back to 1986 San Francisco in order to find a living specimen to bring back to the future, but with Spock's resurrected brain not quite functioning yet at 100% and the crew in "fish out of water" territory, the comedic situations are exploited even more than the dramatic possibilities.

There has always been a divergence among Star Trek fans on THE VOYAGE HOME, which is none too surprising since the movie is still the only series entry to find breakthrough success at the box-office with mainstream viewers, casual fans, and Trek aficionados alike. Various Trekkies have disregarded the movie as frivolous and dumb, sometimes as if it's an insult to the series itself. Others -- and there are far more of them -- recall it being one of the few Star Trek films, outside of "Khan," that they even remember seeing.

As a fan of the original series, I have always felt that THE VOYAGE HOME showcases Star Trek at its best. Without a heavy, IV is light as a feather and freed from the formula that has plagued many series entries, while the cast, looking as relaxed as ever, seemed invigorated by the sheer scope of the movie, breaking out of the claustrophobic, set-bound trappings of the previous installment. The movie's script, ultimately co-credited to Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes but apparently rewritten completely by Bennett and Meyer, works equally as a comedy and a sci-fi fantasy, with the interplay between Nimoy and Bill Shatner being utterly priceless, despite the obviousness of some of the gags. Even after nearly 17 years, it's still easy to see why the movie was as popular as it was, grossing over $110 million domestically in '86 dollars (it's still the only film in the series to pass the $100 million mark).

Paramount's new 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD is the latest Trek Special Edition re-release, and serves as an sizable improvement from the II and III sets in terms of its supplements.

The commentary by Nimoy and Shatner together is a lot of fun. No, they don't make too many critical comments (and there's not much discussion on the development of the project, or those rumors that Catherine Hicks' part was once intended for Eddie Murphy!), but it's nevertheless a congenial talk that fans should love.

For more pointed anecdotes, there's yet another text commentary by Michael and Denise Okuda -- and once again, it's even better than its predecessors, offering plenty of information on specific details.

Extras on Disc 2 include a standard Making Of, "Future's Past: A Look Back," which includes interviews with Shatner, Nimoy, Bennett, Meyer, Catherine Hicks, co- producers Ralph Winter and Kirk Thatcher. There aren't a lot of stories revealed here that fans won't already know (and isn't overly critical, much like the preceding DVD documentaries), but it's an accessible featurette just the same, and far better than the dry, talking head interviews on the Wrath of Khan documentary. Some production footage is nicely interwoven in the segment, and is also included on the companion featurettes "On Location" and "Dallies Deconstruction."

Naturally, there's plenty of material on the special effects ("From Outer Space to the Ocean," "The Bird of Prey"), with the usual storyboards and production stills thrown in for good measure, but the big surprises come in the additional materials Paramount has included here. Especially enlightening are a 13-minute tribute to the late Mark Lenard, who played Sarek, and a fun piece called "Kirk's Women," which features comments from Catherine Hicks and several female guest stars of the original series, reflecting on their work with Shatner. It's a lot of fun, as are the interviews with Shatner, Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley shot on the set in 1986. Additional segments look at time travel, "A Vulcan Primer," "The Language of Whales," the movie's sound design, a tribute to Gene Roddenberry, and are topped off by the original trailer, containing James Horner's music from the preceding sequels -- indicating in the process how those themes would have clashed with IV's lighter tone.

Visually, the 2.35 transfer looks quite good. Previous laserdisc releases suffered from a bit of grain, but the 16:9 enhanced transfer is easily the sharpest I've seen the movie on video. The 5.1 soundtrack is also fine.

STAR TREK IV is still fun and thoroughly inspired -- right down to Leonard Rosenman's jubilant and unorthodox (for the series) score -- and likely to entertain all except the most die-hard Trek curmudgeon who can't see the film for the joy ride that is.


Also New on DVD

SPY KIDS 2: THE ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS (***, 100 mins., 2002, PG; Dimension): Stylish, colorful entertainment for kids of all ages, this second Spy Kids adventure from writer/director/production designer/composer/cinematographer/special effects supervisor Robert Rodriguez is just as much fun as the original.

Juvenile secret agents Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara are back, this time out to recover a secret cloaking device that's been stolen by some nefarious bad guys (as if there are any other kind). Up against them are a pair of rival Spy Kids and at the center of it all is a mysterious island run by mad scientist Steve Buscemi, whose monstrous creations bear more than a passing resemblance to work of Ray Harryhausen.

Rodriguez's fast-paced original film felt like a breath of fresh air in the family movie genre, which is why I was delighted that SPY KIDS 2 is every bit as entertaining (if a little overlong). There's more action, more characters, and more effects in this follow-up, which -- like its predecessor -- also avoids the temptation to preachify and turn the adventure into a bloated Afterschool Special. Vega and Sabara are both superb, while Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino reappear as their secret agent parents. Buscemi is terrific as the insane, befuddled genius, while Ricardo Montalban makes an appearance as Grandpa. Among the many highlights of Rodriguez's fantasy: a ballet sequence with Sabara and the President's daughter, plus a duel with the skeletons from "Jason and the Argonauts."

Buena Vista's equally colorful DVD offers a spotless 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, featuring another frantic score by Rodriguez and John Debney. Extras include a full commentary by Rodriguez, a handful of deleted scenes, tons of featurettes (including "Ten-Minute Film School," an examination of how Rodriguez was able to make an elaborate-looking film at a fraction of the typical Hollywood cost), still and art galleries, a music video, and plenty more.

Like the original, SPY KIDS 2 is a great fantasy for kids, made intelligently enough so that adults can enjoy it just as much. Highly recommended!


TUCK EVERLASTING (**, 90 mins., 2002, PG; Disney): Good-looking but flat Disney fantasy chronicles the lives of a family that's tapped into the Fountain of Youth and a young girl who uncovers their secret.

The Tucks (William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Jackson, and Scott Bairstow) are a group of Scottish immigrants who arrive in America at some point during the Civil War era. While trying to find a settlement for their farm, they encounter a magical well that causes all who drink from it to become immortal.

Into their closed existence comes a sheltered girl (Alexis Bledel from "The Gilmore Girls") whose parents (Amy Irving, Victor Garber) plan on sending her away to a turn-of-the-century girls' school for proper refinement. After a mysterious stranger (Ben Kingsley) seeking the Tucks talks to Bledel about their whereabouts, the girl ventures outside her family's grounds and meets the mysterious family that never ages.

Natalie Babbitt's acclaimed novel was previously brought to the screen in a modestly-budgeted independent production in 1981. Here adapted by screenwriters James V. Hart ("Hook," "Bram Stoker's Dracula") and Jeffrey Lieber for the big screen, TUCK EVERLASTING is a watchable, well-intentioned film nicely performed by a strong ensemble cast. The rural Virginia locales are vividly shot by cinematographer James L. Carter, and certainly the movie has its share of effective moments (particularly when Bairstow outlines his failed marriage) that make it a worthwhile film for family audiences, especially older children.

The central problem with the too leisurely-paced picture is that director Jay Russell never seems to get a firm grasp on the material. The movie is written for the viewpoint of the young girl who runs into the Tucks -- and is narrated by Elisabeth Shue in a manner to reflect that -- but the picture never quite connects dramatically. Bledel is fine but somehow her character's conflicted nature and questioning of whether or not she should drink from the well is nowhere near as well-exploited as it should be, and we ultimately come to care about the Tucks so much that the film's ending -- telling us only what became of the young girl -- seems to miss the mark completely.

The movie, which was co-produced by Scholastic Entertainment, does raise pertinent issues of life and death that parents can address with their kids, but one can sense that a better film could have been crafted from the source material.

Disney's DVD offers a feature called "Lessons of Tuck," which is hosted by co- star Jackson and interrupts the movie every few minutes for an Afterschool Special-like discussion of the picture's themes. Offering interviews with author Babbitt, the filmmakers, cast, and everyday teenagers, this is a nice segment that should prove rewarding for the family audience (eight and up) the movie is primarily aimed at.

Other Special Features include an interview and profile of Babbitt, and a pair of commentary tracks, one from director Jay Russell and Jackson, the other from Russell and screenwriter Jim Hart. The 2.35 transfer looked a bit shaky on one of my old DVD players in terms of picture instability, though the colors are nicely saturated and the cinematography otherwise looks great. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is fine, sporting a serviceable score by William Ross.


DAREDEVIL VS. SPIDER-MAN (80 mins., 1966-1994; Buena Vista): The latest DVD compilation of Spidey cartoons -- released to coincide with the debut of "Daredevil" on the big-screen -- this assortment offers a four-episode arc from the '90s Fox Kids series involving Peter Parker and Matt Murdock. The "Marvel Team-Up" inspired collaboration between Daredevil and Spidey finds the duo going up against (who else?) the Kingpin at night, while Murdock defends Parker in a trial by day.

The animation is standard, but fans enjoyed the Fox series for its relative faithfulness to stories found in the original Marvel comic, and should subsequently enjoy this new DVD release.

As with before, the DVD includes introductions by Stan Lee, plus a pair of bonus episodes: a vintage 1966 Spider-Man cartoon featuring the Kingpin, and a '90s Fantastic Four cartoon that guest-starred Daredevil. Transfers are all in decent shape, and the newer episodes boast OK stereo sound.

With Buena Vista adequately exploiting their animation archives for these Spider- Man discs (I suppose the next-best-thing to a proper box-set of Spider-Man cartoons), hopefully Rhino will release the highly entertaining Charles Fries live-action Spidey TV series from the '70s starring Nicholas Hammond and that groovy soundtrack on DVD.


HALF PAST DEAD (**, 98 mins., 2002, PG-13; Columbia TriStar): Easily the best Franchise film to be released last year (read into that what you will), this by-the-numbers but at least energetic enough programmer stars Steven Seagal as an FBI agent who improbably has to infiltrate Alcatraz to prevent a group of gung-ho special forces ops from taking down a death-row inmate hiding a $200 million secret.

Morris Chesnut leads the revolt from the commandos while Seagal works diligently with his man on the inside (played by rapper Ja Rule) to turn the tables and stop the bad guys before it's too late.

Martial arts expert Don Michael Paul wrote and directed this standard-issue (and modestly-budgeted) action flick, which managed to make a few dollars at the box-office last fall. There are few surprises to be found, and the limited budget results in some claustrophobic action sequences, but HALF PAST DEAD is at least swiftly-paced to work as a decent B-movie view for genre fans. And isn't it great to see Nia Peeples on screen again? (That would be a rhetorical question)

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers top-notch 1.85 and full-screen transfers, plus a predictably heavy, effects-filled Dolby Digital track including an original score by Tyler Bates. Commentary with Paul is included, plus some deleted scenes, a Cinemax making of special, bonus trailers, and more.

HALF PAST DEAD may be the most apt way to describe Seagal's career, but it's also a view with sufficient thrills to satisfy action-craving viewers who were let down by "The Foreigner."


NEXT TIME: THE OSBOURNES swear their way onto DVD, plus more reviews and your comments. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then!


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