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Aisle Seat Seventh Season Premiere!

Reviews of new DVDs (as always) as the Aisle Seat Celebrates its FSM Anniversary

By Andy Dursin

It seems like it was just a short time ago when the Aisle Seat launched as a regular FSM column back on October 7th, 1997 (Back then DVDs were just in the early days of their development, so laserdiscs and VHS tapes were among the first titles I covered here). Controversies, Mail Bag debates, and plenty of Q&A sessions have ensued over the years, and I have to thank all of the readers who drop a line each week with mostly enlightening comments -- all of which encourage me to keep on going! (Not to mention all the fine folks at the various studios and PR firms, too numerous to list here, without whom this column couldn't be possible).

So after a summer of mediocre cinematic fare (with a few exceptions, like "Pirates of the Caribbean," the car chase in "Matrix Reloaded," and the surprisingly robust "Terminator 3"), fall is here with the promise of big studio films, smaller indie flicks, and tons of big DVD releases that we'll be covering as the autumnal air begins to filter down from the north (at least for some of us in the US). Read on as the Aisle Seat begins year number eight (is it even possible??!?) here on Film Score Monthly.com. [Actually, I think Andy's math is a ltitle faulty -- it's the start of year number seven -- SB]


New on DVD

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS. 179 mins., 2002, PG-13, New Line. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett. COMPOSER: Howard Shore. SCRIPT: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Peter Jackson. DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Lordoftherings.net featurettes; Sean Astin movie "The Long and Short of It"; additional specials; 10-minute preview of "Return of the King"; trailers, TV spots; Emiliana Torrini music video. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital EX surround.

While I'm not exactly leading the LORD OF THE RINGS bandwagon that seems to have swept up most critics and audiences around the world, Peter Jackson's second entry in his Tolkien adaptation, THE TWO TOWERS is, in some aspects, a superior fantasy adventure than its predecessor. Since everyone knows the story by now, I'll spare you from a lengthy plot summary -- suffice to say this sequel picks up right from the end of the first picture and is comprised of big action scenes, sprawling battles, and fascinating new creatures. Gollum is a tremendously articulated CGI character, and Andy Serkis' "performance" gives this second part of Peter Jackson's trilogy a boost of energy in all the scenes he appears. There are some amazing moments here, marked by the climactic tussle at Helm's Deep that will surely draw repeat viewing from action and FX enthusiasts for years to come. I still don't understand how Liv Tyler nabbed herself third billing on the credits (she's been in the first six hours of the trilogy for a grand total of, what, 25 minutes?), but still, the movie manages to deliver the goods most of the way.

I was entertained by the film on the level of an old-time fantasy adventure (not unlike a technically proficient updating of an old Ray Harryhausen Greek mythology flick), but a few problems still linger in Jackson's Tolkien adaptation. Howard Shore's score here is a disappointment compared to his work on "Fellowship," being repetitious and overbearing in a manner that his first work was not -- something that partially has to do with structure of the story itself. After a slow start, THE TWO TOWERS turns into an impressive battle epic with tons of visual effects, though after 30 minutes of the battle at Helm's Deep, I had seen enough. In its own way, the small-scale and much lower-budgeted "Army of Darkness" had a climactic battle sequence that was more fun to watch -- ditto for John McTiernan's underrated "The 13th Warrior," with its crackling action scenes.

Finally, Jackson and his screenwriters have moved around elements of Tolkien's book, including what a friend of mine tells me is an unnecessary extension to Frodo's run-in with the brother of Sean Bean's character from the original -- resulting in a pointless trip to a burned-down city near the end. There are also long stretches of the movie when the hobbits are hardly in the film, with Jackson taking the safe route of concentrating on Aragon's adventures instead of developing Frodo's internal struggle with the Ring.

That said, THE TWO TOWERS is certainly an exciting piece of escapist fare and there's still much to savor in the picture, and New Line's 2-DVD set of the theatrical cut will be well worth a purchase for fans -- at least until the 4-disc Special Edition streets in November. The 2.35 Widescreen transfer is exceptional and the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack impressively mounted -- unsurprisingly, both are on "reference quality" levels and few should be disappointed with the DVD presentation here. Like the initial 2-disc, theatrical cut DVD of "The Fellowship of the Ring," New Line has included a fair amount of extras here, mostly of the self-promotional variety: featurettes culled from the Sci-Fi Channel and Lordoftherings.net primarily serve to promote the movie as much as show how it was made, while a music video of "Gollum's Song" and complete trailers and TV spots are also included (note that the trailers and TV ads were glaringly absent from the Deluxe Expanded 4-DVD set of "Fellowship" last year -- something that completists may want to note when debating on buying this DVD).

Sean Astin also produced a cute movie, "The Long and Short of It," which is also included here, along with a 10-minute preview of "Return of the King" and EA's upcoming video game. Discriminating consumers, though, may once again want to hold off for New Line's four-disc DVD of the expanded "Two Towers" cut, which will be available November 18th and promises more of the superb supplementary features the studio included in the expanded "Fellowship" box set at the same time last year.


IDENTITY. 90 mins., 2003, R, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: **. CAST: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, John C. McGinley, Jake Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rebecca DeMornay. COMPOSER: Alan Silvestri. SCRIPT: Michael Cooney. DIRECTOR: James Mangold. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: "Extended branching version" of the film; director commentary; deleted scenes; Starz on-set special; trailer. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.40 Widescreen, full-screen formats; 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Here's yet another thriller with a big twist that proves to be a predictable cinematic game (or sham, depending on how you look at it) instead of an actual drama with characters you care about. John Cusack, Ray Liotta, and Amanda Peet are part of a group of stranded motorists who end up at a motel in the middle of nowhere on a dark, rainy night. Soon after, the various individuals assembled there begin to be picked off one-by-one by a killer who may just be one of them. Meanwhile, in a story that Might Just Have Something to Do With What's Going On (it couldn't be any more obvious), psychologist Alfred Molina tries to persuade a judge to place a stay on his deranged client's execution.

It's almost impossible to review IDENTITY -- a movie that thinks it's much smarter than it actually is -- without giving away a ton of spoilers, so I'll just say that most movie buffs will have unlocked the movie's puzzle after just a few minutes, and once you've figured it out, there's nothing left to sustain viewer interest. The direction by James Mangold is comprised of stock suspense movie cliches, with nothing remotely scary to make you jump out of your seat as the thinly-developed characters are offed one after another (not unless you count co-star Rebecca DeMornay's latest cosmetic surgery). IDENTITY feels like the work of someone who recently sat through "The Sixth Sense," "The Cell," "A Beautiful Mind," "The Usual Suspects," and Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None." It's a hodgepodge of cliches without a voice of its own, capped by a laughable ending that's trumped by yet another ridiculous twist -- but, in hindsight, what more could you have expected from the writer of the JACK FROST franchise of direct-to-video horror movies?

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers the option of watching the movie in a barely- expended version that runs less than a whole minute longer than the theatrical cut; director James Mangold's commentary; a handful of deleted scenes with optional commentary; storyboards, the original trailer, and a "Starz" channel on-set special. The 2.40 widescreen frame looks well composed (a cropped full-frame version is also available), and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is layered with rumbles of thunder and, unfortunately, one of Alan Silvestri's dullest scores.


Universal Special Editions and Re-Issues

Universal has recently re-issued several popular comedy titles on DVD, in superior presentations than their earlier DVD releases.

Top of the line is their 2-disc Special Edition of MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE (***, 108 mins., 1983, R), which was previously issued in a widescreen DVD by Image sans extra features.

This new release is a marked improvement in both the video and sound departments: the 1.85 Widescreen transfer is clearer and sharper than the earlier DVD, while the stereo surround has been remixed in 5.1 Dolby Digital, giving the music more punch in the process. (There's also a hysterical "Soundtrack For the Lonely," which is definitely fun for a few minutes if nothing else).

For most, though, the main reason to upgrade will be the extras, which -- like the "Holy Grail" Special Edition DVD -- are bountiful. Commentaries from Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam compliment the film, while the movie can be viewed with a handful of deleted scenes restored back into the movie. Additional deleted scenes can be found on Disc Two, which also features a terrific 50-minute documentary on the making of the movie, highlighted by fresh interviews with Jones, Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cleese, and Eric Idle. The featurette also sports vintage production footage and a candid analysis of what worked and what didn't in the film, though Cleese seems a bit overly critical of the movie's sketch nature.

The movie's terrific soundtrack is also given time in the spotlight, with a ten-minute featurette looking at the production of the film's musical numbers (among the chorus girls is Jane Leeves, better known as Daphne from "Frasier"). Three odd segments include Idle and Jones re-recording the original songs, while copious trailers, TV spots, and brief comedic bits newly shot by the Pythons round out the disc.


Also re-issued from Universal is the seminal John Belushi college classic NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE in its so-called "Double Secret Probation" edition (***, 109 mins., 1978, R).

This new disc does include a newly produced segment, "Where Are They Now? A Delta Alumni Update," featuring recent interviews with the original cast -- in their original roles, no less. It's a cute, 23-minute piece of fluff for fans, though a better reason to upgrade here would be the DVD's remastered 1.85 transfer and remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

The original DVD was a "Collector's Edition" that basically contained the same transfer and supplements as its laserdisc counterpart. The new, 16:9 enhanced transfer here easily bests the original DVD, and the 5.1 sound is likewise an improvement from the original mono mix, giving a bit more presence to Elmer Bernstein's original score (could we PLEASE get a score album from this movie someday?).

You also get the full, 45-minute "Yearbook: An Animal House Reunion" documentary from the previous release, plus a new on-screen trivia track, the original trailer, and a "Shout" music video from the group MxPx. For the price ($15 and under), this is a highly recommended purchase.


Universal has also remastered three John Hughes teen comedy classics as part of its just- released HIGH SCHOOL REUNION box set (the titles are also available separately).

The charming Molly Ringwald vehicle SIXTEEN CANDLES (***, 93 mins., 1984, PG), the wacky albeit uneven Anthony Michael Hall-Kelly LeBrock SuperStation staple WEIRD SCIENCE (**1/2, 94 mins., 1985, PG-13), and the classic high school comedy- drama THE BREAKFAST CLUB (***1/2, 98 mins., 1985, R) comprise the three-disc set, and offer plenty of incentive for fans to plop down a few bucks for the new discs.

Though lacking extras, the DVDs offer new 16:9 transfers, each outdoing the overly grainy widescreen presentations that Image Entertainment and Universal released several years ago on DVD (which were, until recently, collector's items). Though the elements still exhibit a little bit of grain here and there, the colors are stronger and the picture better balanced overall in each instance from the earlier DVD versions.

More over, the soundtracks have all been remastered in 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital, and include the original song soundtracks as heard in each movie's theatrical version. Thus, there are no instances of "Some Music Re-Scored For Home Video" here, since Universal has apparently paid all the original song licenses. It's a nice addition that die-hard fans will undoubtedly appreciate.

Also available as part of the "High School Reunion" collection (though not as part of the box set) is Phil Joanou's underrated 1987 high school gem THREE O'CLOCK HIGH (***1/2, 90 mins., PG-13).

This clever variation on "High Noon" stars Casey Siezmako as an average high schooler who runs afoul of the new class bully, and is coerced into a fight in the parking lot right after school ends at 3 o'clock. Siezmako's attempts to get out of his predicament makes for a hilarious, even suspenseful high school yarn that's stylishly directed by Joanou and filled with deft comedic touches.

The Richard Christian Matheson-Thomas Szollosi script is a cut above for the genre, but it's the movie's style and presentation that make it one of the better teen comedies of the '80s. Joanou was unfairly criticized for "over-directing" the film when it was first released, but it's his visual style that separates THREE O'CLOCK HIGH from so many youth comedies released in the last 20 years.

Universal's DVD sports a strong, colorful transfer in the movie's original 1.85 widescreen aspect ratio. Since this is the first time the film has been properly letterboxed, it goes without saying that the DVD is essential for fans, and the 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtrack is also polished, sporting an unobtrusive and effective score by Tangerine Dream and Sylvester Levay. Definitely recommended!


Also New & Noteworthy

WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY? (***, 80 mins., 1966, PG; Image): Special Edition of Woody Allen's pre-MST3K spy spoof is dated in spots, but overall still comes off as one of the comedian-filmmaker's more inspired efforts. Allen was hired to re-dub a 1964 Japanese spy movie called "Key of Keys," turning what appeared to be a colorful, Far East version of James Bond into an amusing and sporadically hilarious spoof with a group of spies searching for the secret recipe to egg salad! Naturally, a lot of TIGER LILY is hit or miss, but it's still fun if you're in the proper spirit, with Allen and the group the Lovin' Spoonful appearing in the film. Image's Special Edition DVD includes the full 2.35 presentation of the movie's original TohoScope aspect ratio, and looks drab in places but decent enough all told. Image has also included the film's original soundtrack, along with an alternate TV soundtrack with different comedic dubbing and voices (and not nearly as amusing as the theatrical track).


CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (**1/2, 114 mins., 2003, R; Buena Vista): Adaptation of "Gong Show" host Chuck Barris' (supposedly-true) autobiographical account of his secret life as a CIA agent is exactly as off-kilter as you might expect. Sam Rockwell puts in a superb performance as Barris, who climbs the ladder of Hollywood fame thanks to his success as a game show producer, while simultaneously living another life after being recruited by a CIA man (George Clooney, who also directed) for the purposes of becoming a covert operative. His double life threatens to consume his relationship with his girlfriend (Drew Barrymore) and his career, which receives a big jolt after "The Gong Show" debuts. Charlie Kaufman penned the script for this strangely compelling tale, which boasts a strong cast (Julia Roberts and Rutger Hauer appear in supporting roles, along with insiders like Dick Clark and Jaye P. Morgan) and a glossy, somewhat distracting visual scheme concocted by Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (the movie looks as if it's been colorized at times). Ultimately, though, the subject matter will appeal primarily to showbiz followers, who should enjoy the tall tale (?) that Barris spins here. Miramax's DVD offers 2.40 widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus plenty of extras: commentary with Clooney and Sigel, lots of deleted scenes, behind the scenes vignettes, Rockwell's screen test, and a brief documentary on Barris himself, who appears at the end of the finished film.


ENOUGH: Special Edition (**1/2, 115 mins., 2002, PG-13; Columbia TriStar)

ENIGMA: Special Edition (***, 119 mins., 2001, R; Columbia TriStar, available Sept. 16)

Two of director Michael Apted's recent films have been available on DVD in deluxe Special Editions for over a year, but only now have arrived stateside.

ENIGMA was Apted's classy, elegant WWII thriller, which sadly received scant distribution in the U.S. and met with only mixed reviews -- half of which seemed to come from viewers anticipating the next James Bond movie. In actuality, this is a leisurely-paced but haunting thriller, starring an appropriately disheveled-looking Dougray Scott as a code-breaker in London attempting to shatter the Nazis' Engima code; Kate Winslet is excellent as the roommate of Scott's missing girlfriend (Saffron Burrows), while Apted and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (adapting Robert Harris' novel) do a wonderful job capturing time and place, all of it complemented by a moody and effective John Barry score. Columbia's DVD, as with their previous DVD from last year, offers a fine 2.35 scope transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, but this time out adds some supplementaries: an enlightening commentary track from the director, plus a pair of 20 minute featurettes and nearly 10 minutes worth of deleted scenes culled from a workprint.

ENOUGH was last year's watchable J.Lo woman-in-peril thriller, in which Jennifer Lopez plays the wife of suave Billy Campbell, who ultimately turns out to be quite the psychotic, abusive spouse in Apted's contrived but compulsively watchable thriller.

To her credit, Lopez gives a strong performance as the suffering wife, who tries to move away from Campbell, only to have him track her down -- even in her "new" life with daughter in tow. So, Lopez decides to get back at him the only way she can: by becoming an expert in self-defense. Nicholas Kazan scripted ENOUGH, a movie that works well as a domestic abuse drama and less effectively in its final third, when Lopez turns the tables on Campbell in a contrived and predictable finale. Still, for much of the way, the movie is taut and compelling, marked by Apted's assured direction and fine ensemble performances (from Juliette Lewis, Fred Ward, and Noah Wyle among others). While the plot description may sound like "Sleeping With The Enemy" and countless TV Movies of the Week, ENOUGH is good enough to warrant a viewing.

Columbia's DVD offers a strong 2.35 transfer that captures the full aspect ratio of the Panavision frame, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is fine, sporting an effective enough score by David Arnold. For supplements, the DVD adds on last year's supplemental section (which primarily consisted of a J. Lo music video), and adds a commentary from Apted plus another with producer Irwin Winkler, three brief deleted scenes, a 12-minute Cinemax special, three vignettes totaling a little under 20 minutes, and trailers for other Lopez flicks (including "Gigli"!).


NEXT WEEK: An Aisle Seat September TV on DVD round up, with ALIAS, 24, SMALLVILLE, and FAMILY GUY all newly released in deluxe box sets. Email comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. 'Nuff said!


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