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Aisle Seat November Madness

New Columbia Titles including WHALE RIDER, MAROONED and TV on DVD! Plus: Criterion Out of Print Alert!!

By Andy Dursin

We start off the month of November this week with a warning to Aisle Seat and Laserphile readers everywhere. Criterion will be deleting their outstanding Special Edition DVDs of Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA, NOTORIOUS, and SPELLBOUND -- plus Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS -- on December 31st of this year.

This means that the DVDs will no longer be in circulation beyond that point, and will become top-dollar collectibles everywhere in the near future. I assume the reason for this is that Criterion's license with ABC Motion Pictures (which owns the rights to the respective titles) is expiring.

Needless to say, even if the respective movies are re-released by another company, there's next to no chance that subsequent DVD versions will include the copious special features each Criterion release offers. There are isolated scores, complete radio plays, insightful commentaries, and fantastic Making Of material on all of the Hitchcock discs, which will make the titles instant collector's items once 2004 kicks into gear.

Obviously, my advice is to track down these titles now at your favorite online dealer or local shop, before they become difficult to come by. It's a shame that the excellent work Criterion put into these DVDs will soon become unavailable to the viewing public, so don't miss out and grab 'em now while you can!


Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

WHALE RIDER. 101 mins., 2002, PG-13, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis. COMPOSER: Lisa Gerrard. SCRIPT: Niki Caro from the novel by Witi Ihimaera. DIRECTOR: Niki Caro. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio Commentary; deleted scenes; Making Of featurette; soundtrack segment with full cues and composer introduction; art/photo gallery; trailer. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

A young Maori girl -- the only heir to the leadership of her tribe -- tries valiantly to become her people's leader in this moving and enormously well-acted film from writer-director Niki Caro.

Shot on the New Zealand coast, WHALE RIDER is one of those critically praised movies that's actually as good as its reputation would lead you to believe. Based on a Maori novel by Witi Ihimaera, this is a picture that's both a tender coming of age story and a tale of ancient traditions being counterbalanced by the modern world. The latter aspect of the material is what gives WHALE RIDER a satisfying and compelling center, in how the grandfather of the young girl, Pai, struggles to accept her potential destiny and yet embrace her as his family at the same time. The relationship between the two -- and the performances of Keisha Castle-Hughes as the girl and Rawiri Paratene as her grandfather -- make this a more powerful, intelligent, and emotional journey than you'd expect from a story of this nature, while the Maori culture is treated with great care and respect by the filmmakers.

Complimenting the storytelling is outstanding filmmaking. There are rich, widescreen visuals courtesy of director Caro and cinematographer Leon Narbey, as well as a haunting score by Lisa Gerrard. WHALE RIDER may not sound like a traditional teenage story, and it's not: this is a serious and ultimately uplifting picture that's well worth viewing on DVD.

Columbia TriStar's disc includes a terrific 2.35 widescreen transfer (enhanced for 16:9 televisions), along with an effective 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Supplements are also bountiful: an excellent commentary track from Niki Caro divulges her approach to the story, while a better-than-average Making Of profiles the production itself. A collection of deleted scenes are included with commentary, along with the original trailer and stills gallery. Finally, Gerrard's score is also given some time in the spotlight, with a handful of cues from the soundtrack album available to play in their entirety, along with the composer's liner notes -- a great idea that I'd love to see other studios pick up on!


Recent Releases

CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE. 107 mins., 2003, Unrated, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: *1/2. CAST: Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, Bernie Mac, Demi Moore, Luke Wilson, Matt LeBlanc, Justin Theroux, Robert Patrick, Crispin Glover, John Cleese, Bruce Willis. COMPOSER: Edward Shearmur. SCRIPT: John August, Cormac and Marianne Wibberley. DIRECTOR: McG. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Unrated Edition includes Making Of featurettes; Audio Commentary by the director; Commentary by the writers; trailers; On-screen trivia track; soundtrack sampler with director introduction; additional featurettes. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The original "Charlie's Angels" certainly wasn't a classic, but as an excuse to see its stars parade around in sleek attire and have a good time, it fill the bill as a decent enough lark. I'm not sure, though, how many people were crying out for a sequel, which is why the tiresome, endlessly bombastic CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE failed to ignite as much audience interest last summer.

Despite having a script credited to John August and Cormac and Marianne Wibberley ("The Sixth Day"), FULL THROTTLE is a mindless mess that plays like a feature-length coming attractions trailer. No scene lasts longer than a couple of minutes, the character development is non-existent, and the overly-cute dance sequences and in- jokes quickly become cloying in this second (and hopefully final) go-around for the cinematic series.

The "plot" has the girls trying to track down a missing ring that's encoded with the whereabouts of individuals being protected by the FBI's witness relocation program. The "Halo" ring has been stolen by none other than former Angel Demi Moore, who looks gaunt and gives a shrill, one-note performance in her would-be "comeback" role.

What little story there is takes a backseat to a seemingly endless collection of set pieces with so many references to pop music and other movies that, ultimately, FULL THROTTLE lacks any identity of its own. One minute the girls are in a James Bond spoof, the next they're mimicking "The Matrix," the following they're dressed up a la Jennifer Beals in "Flashdance." It must have been fun for the cast and crew to make, but the film ultimately wears you down, only coming alive when Crispin Glover makes a brief appearance as the assassin from the previous film -- it's just too bad he doesn't stay around long enough to see the end credits. (And as far as Bill Murray goes, the actor was smart enough to pass up a reprisal of his "Bosley" character, with Bernie Mac substituting here in a thankless part).

Columbia TriStar's DVD is at least entertaining enough, offering plenty of special features for fans. The Unrated Widescreen Edition apparently restores less than a minute of additional fight sequence violence, boasting a colorful and perfect 2.35 transfer with a non-stop 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Director McG offers a director commentary while the screenwriters participate in their own track; over a handful of featurettes profile the production of the movie from a mostly fluffy, self-promotional standpoint, while trailers and a "jukebox" with McG introducing various bits of the song-soundtrack are exclusive to the Unrated version. (The movie's PG-13 theatrical cut is available separately).


DADDY DAY CARE. 92 mins., 2003, PG, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Eddie Murphy, Jeff Garlin, Steve Zahn, Regina King, Anjelica Huston. COMPOSER: David Newman. SCRIPT: Geoff Rodkey. DIRECTOR: Steve Carr. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Blooper reel; Making Of featurettes; interactive games for kids. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen and full-screen versions, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Cute, kid-friendly comedy again shows that Eddie Murphy's forte these days is in the family entertainment genre. Murphy plays a workaholic dad who loses his job along with co-worker Jeff Garlin. With their toddler kids about to be enrolled in a strict "evil" kids academy run by the witchy Anjelica Huston, Murphy and friends decide to start their own day care center -- and promptly find themselves in over their heads.

The best aspect of DADDY DAY CARE is that it's an earnest, well-meaning family movie. Steve Carr's direction and the script by Geoff Rodkey are free of cynicism, refusing to look down on the genre or its target audience. Murphy is game, the supporting cast -- including Garlin and Steve Zahn -- seem to be having a good time, and the film manages to provide a good dose of laughs as it progresses through its routine story structure. If you have young kids and are seeking a worthwhile movie that won't wear on your nerves, DADDY DAY CARE is a solid choice.

Columbia TriStar's DVD is definitely, like the film, geared towards the young end of the viewing demographic. Interactive games for kids, an animated short titled "Early Bloomers," a blooper reel, and Making Of featurettes suitable for kids are included, as are both colorful 1.85 and full-screen transfers, and a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix sporting a pleasant score by David Newman.


Vintage Titles from Columbia

MICKI AND MAUDE. 118 mins., 1984, PG-13, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Dudley Moore, Amy Irving, Ann Reinking, Richard Mulligan. COMPOSER: Lee Holdridge. SCRIPT: Jonathan Reynolds. DIRECTOR: Blake Edwards. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, mono sound.

One of Blake Edwards' better films from the '80s (though that doesn't say a whole lot), MICKI AND MAUDE is best known as the feel-good Dudley Moore bigamist comedy.

Moore plays a TV reporter whose wife (Ann Reinking) becomes a state court appointee thanks to the recent election of a new California governor. Reinking doesn't have the time to start a family, so a disappointed Moore ends up falling for cellist Amy Irving and getting her pregnant. Eventually, Moore marries Irving at the same time Reinking herself becomes pregnant -- with the inevitable shenanigans to follow.

Edwards' penchant for slapstick and the presence of Moore might suggest a wacky, ribald comedy, but the big surprise with MICKI AND MAUDE is how earnest and heart-tugging the film becomes. Aside from a wild hospital climax where both of Moore's wives give birth, Jonathan Reynolds' script plays things more straight than silly, which results in a curious film that's neither as funny or dramatically sound as it ought to be. The movie also misses Henry Mancini's gift for comedic scoring, as Lee Holdridge's nice but sappy score accentuates the movie's weepy side; ditto for the Michel Legrand/Alan & Marilyn Bergman penned theme song, performed by Stephen Bishop in an obvious attempt at recapturing the magic of the "Tootsie" soundtrack.

Columbia TriStar's DVD does offer a solid 2.35 transfer, which captures all of Edwards' trademark widescreen cinematography. The mono sound is a bit weak, and trailers for other Edwards comedies (including "Blind Date" and "The Man Who Loved Women") round out the package.
 


MAROONED. 129 mins., 1969, G, Columbia TriStar, available November 18. ANDY'S RATING: **. CAST: Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Fransiscus, Gene Hackman, Mariette Hartley, Lee Grant. SCRIPT: Mayo Simon, from the novel by Martin Caidin. DIRECTOR: John Sturges. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, Dolby Surround sound.

The late '60s were a seminal time for science-fiction cinema, thanks in large part to the success of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Decades later, the influence of Kubrick's film can still be felt even while other genre films made at the same time feel stagnant and dated.

Such is the case with John Sturges' earnest but painfully dull MAROONED, a "realistic" science "fact" yarn about a NASA mission (headed by astronauts James Fransiscus, Gene Hackman, and Richard Crenna) that goes awry, and the subsequent efforts by experts on the ground (Gregory Peck, David Janssen) to save the day. It's a slow paced, methodical film that strove to be "realistic" in its day (heck, the musical score consists of sound effects!), yet its attempt at being a no-nonsense space rescue mission make the movie feel today like a Disney World ride that's several decades out of step.

The cast tries hard under the circumstances, with Peck, Fransiscus, Janssen, Crenna and Hackman giving solid performances. One assumes that they must have taken the roles due to the involvement of director John Sturges, who arrived on the project with a pocketful of classics ("Magnificent Seven") on his resume but not a whole lot of experience in outer-space drama. MAROONED is so static that you can fast-forward through it without missing a thing, stopping occasionally to admire the then-cutting edge special effects or tedious scenes with the astronaut's wives (including Lee Grant and Mariette Hartley), which fail to give the movie the kind of dramatic tension the material desperately needs. In fact, MAROONED remains the most high profile studio film to ever make it into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000!

At least Columbia TriStar has done a fine job mastering "Marooned" on DVD. The Panavision cinematography looks great in 2.35 while the 2.0 Dolby "stereo" mix rarely ever kicks into a multi-channel presence.

A side note on the soundtrack: if anyone remembers playing with Mego's robot 2- XL as a kid, you'll undoubtedly recognize the constant beeping tones heard in MAROONED's "soundtrack." It'll give you a feeling of nostalgia for a few minutes, until you opt to hit the fast-forward button again!


THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (***, 1966, 111 mins., PG; Columbia TriStar) and WHERE ANGELS GO, TROUBLE FOLLOWS (**1/2, 1967, 94 mins., G; Columbia TriStar; both available Nov. 11): Hayley Mills and June Harding cause all kinds of trouble for Mother Superior Rosalind Russell in this well-liked 1966 comedy, capably directed by actress Ida Lupino. With Jerry Goldsmith's goofy score backing up the shenanigans, this family comedy about a convent school became a box-office hit, thanks to its appealing leads, Russell's performance, and sincere tone. The movie was such a success that it spawned a hastily-filmed sequel the following year, "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows," which is more dated due to its "youth movement" angle. In this sequel, Stella Stevens plays a progressive nun who convinces Russell to take the girls on a bus trip to a peace rally; Susan Saint James plays the troublemaker who needs to be put in her place, while Lalo Schifrin replaces Goldsmith on the musical side. It's more predictable and not as polished as its predecessor, though fans will likely want to indulge in both titles now that Columbia TriStar has issued the two movies on DVD. On disc, both "Angels" movies look sharp in their full-frame formatted transfers; while 16X9 owners may be disappointed by the lack of a widescreen transfer, I wouldn't doubt that the two movies were originally shot in the standard Academy ratio and are thus properly presented here. The mono soundtracks are fine, and both discs hit store shelves next Tuesday.


THE FORBIDDEN DANCE (**, 97 mins., 1990, PG-13; Columbia TriStar): Hilarious bad-movie fun ensues when a princess from the rain forest (Laura Harring) journeys to L.A. in an attempt to stop an evil company from paving over her home. In the States, Harring ultimately falls for the son of the corporation's president, and decides -- why not? -- to enter with him in a dance contest to both spread the word about her plight and to show off the Lambada! "The Forbidden Dance" was one of two Lambada movies made in 1990, and most observers feel this Menahem Golan-produced 21st Century Film Corp. release is superior to the Melora Hardin non-classic "Lambada" (which MGM recently released on DVD). Harring, a former Miss USA who won kudos for her work in David Lynch's overpraised "Mulholland Drive" (and is billed as Laura Herring here), is appealing and can't dance worth a lick -- reasons all to check out Columbia's excellent DVD, which boasts a solid 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer and Dolby Surround soundtrack. And how can you not (partially) recommend a movie boasting Jose Feliciano on the soundtrack?


Columbia TriStar TV on DVD

SOAP: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON. 1977-78, Columbia TriStar. CAST: Robert Mandan, Katharine Helmond, Diana Canova, Jennifer Salt, Robert Guillaume, Richard Mulligan, Billy Crystal, Ted Wass, Robert Urich. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full frame, mono sound.

MARRIED, WITH CHILDREN: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON. 1987, 302 mins., Columbia TriStar. CAST: Ed O'Neill, Katey Segal, Christina Applegate, David Faustino, Amanda Bearse, David Garrison. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full frame, stereo sound.

Two sitcoms that helped define the sitcom genre -- one from the '70s, another from the '80s -- have arrived on DVD from Columbia TriStar in box sets that compile each show's first season.

SOAP was undoubtedly one of the most controversial programs of all-time, particularly when you consider the era in which it debuted. According to Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh's indispensable "Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows," even before the ABC sitcom premiered, the show was the subject of debate across the nation: various stations refused to air the program, and a few affiliates that did only ran it late at night.

The reason was simple: few shows, even in a satirical form like the one "Soap" utilized, would have homosexual characters like the one Billy Crystal played as a central part of its large cast. The series, which premiered in 1977, raised taboo issues as it chronicled the conflicts between the sparring Tate and Campbell families. The cast included Robert Mandan and Katharine Helmond as Chester and Jessica Tate, with Cathryn Damon and Richard Mulligan as the heads of the Campbell clan. Other familiar faces included Crystal, Ted Wass, Jennifer Salt, and Robert Guillaume, who debuted as the butler "Benson" here before spinning off into greater success in his own show.

"Soap" is sporadically funny today but the outrageous plot lines seem, well, pretty tame by modern standards. The cast is superb, but as history shows, "Soap" didn't last long: after success in its first few seasons, the program fizzled out as it ended its fourth year on the air. The controversy and "groundbreaking" aspect of the show seemed to be as much a part of ABC's own self-promotion at the time as those who felt that it did break barriers. Certainly there are times when the show is smug and pretentious, looking to score "hot button" points instead of going for a laugh.

That isn't the case with MARRIED, WITH CHILDREN, which helped catapult the Fox network into the mainstream when it premiered in April, 1987. Though the show stirred up some controversy of its own due to its raunchy humor, this series -- quite unlike "Soap" -- was more than content simply to provoke laughs over the course of its ten year run.

This chronicle of a blue collar family -- led by acerbic Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill) with wife Peg (Katey Segal), daughter Kelly (Christina Applegate), and son bud (David Faustino) -- is one of those shows that was easy for critics to dismiss, yet few comedy programs proved as durable over the long haul as "Married, With Children." Seen constantly on cable and local stations even now in re-runs, "Married" was able to parlay its initial success into miraculous longevity due to its cast and consistently funny writing. The barbs between Al and Peg, the outrageous plots and self-contained stories all enabled the Fox program to live a remarkable life as one of the longest running sitcoms of all- time.

Watching the first season episodes on Columbia TriStar's DVD (13 of them, since the show debuted in April), it's interesting to watch the genesis of the humor and characters, which the cast would further settle into as the program went along. The DVD also includes a "Reunion" special that aired on Fox, along with episode descriptions. The programs themselves look OK, while the early stereo soundtracks are in good shape. SOAP, meanwhile, boasts no special features -- just episode descriptions and the entire first season with decent full-screen transfers.

What's more, the episodes from both series are presented in their original, uncut network versions, and not in the edit-plagued syndicated versions that many might be familiar with. For fans, these two box sets are more than worth the purchase, enabling you to relive and rewatch each respective series at your leisure -- one of the prime benefits of having full season box sets on DVD.
 


Also New On DVD

DIRTY DEEDS. 97 mins., 2002, R, Paramount. ANDY'S RATING: **. CAST: Bryan Brown, Toni Collette, John Goodman, Sam Neill, Sam Worthington. COMPOSER: Paul Healy. SCRIPT-DIRECTOR: David Caesar. SPECIAL FEATURES: Trailer. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 and full-frame versions, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

As Australian gangster movies go, DIRTY DEEDS isn't bad.

Of course, the land Down Under isn't exactly renowned for its output in the genre, though this adequate, Tarantino-like wannabe is likely worth a viewing for genre fans.

Set in the late '60s, Bryan Brown plays an Aussie gangster with a supportive wife (Toni Collette) and cop-ally (Sam Neill) in tow. Into his world, though, come American gangsters John Goodman and Felix Williamson, who arrive from Chicago wanting their own piece of the pie.

It sets up a predictable showdown in writer-director David Caesar's film, which tries so hard to be "cool" and mimic its American counterparts with dizzying camera work and an overly active, throbbing rock soundtrack that it takes away from the goodwill the cast generates. The actors are excellent -- it's great to see Brown in a leading role again, and Collette, Neill and Goodman all put in fine supporting work -- but the routine aspect of the story, despite its setting, is a disappointment. Caesar does score a few points for a few introspective, amusing exchanges between Brown and Goodman, along with maintaining a genial tone, yet the end result is simply too violent and pretentious to really score. If DIRTY DEEDS had enough confidence in itself, it wouldn't have had to resort to the overly obvious "Pulp Fiction" and "Snatch" influences it displays here.

The widescreen scope cinematography does look vivid in Paramount's DVD, which also offers a cropped full-screen version (avoid). The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is too loud and shrill, being overly-amplified and designed, to be fully effective. A brief trailer (for the film's video release) is also included.

NEXT WEEK: TERMINATOR 3 and THE HULK arrive on DVD, plus the Mail Bag returns! Email all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then.


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