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Aisle Seat Valentine's Day Special Edition

Reviews of the new X-MEN and STARGATE Special Edition DVDs
Plus: Charlie Brown Strikes Again, and more on the BACK TO THE FUTURE Exchange

By Andy Dursin

I've received a handful of emails over the last few weeks from Aisle Seat readers concerned about how to exchange their defective BACK TO THE FUTURE DVDs. The problems consist of framing issues throughout Part II and III in the Widescreen Edition of the Trilogy release, as mentioned in my column from last December.

While the corrected copies are still not yet available (they should be by the end of the month), now is a good time to put in a call.

Universal has started up a toll-free US help line number -- (888) 703-0010 -- which will provide you with a pre-paid mailer to exchange your discs. In Canada, customers can call (866) 532-2202.

Still no word on how customers who HAVEN'T yet bought the discs will be able to discern the old BTTF release from the packages with the corrected copies (this isn't a recall, after all), but at least Universal has done a good job here in cleaning up the mess.

Meanwhile, Valentine's Day is just a few days away, and if your loved one is not into the flowers and chocolates deal, there are plenty of choice new DVDs to choose from this week.


Top Valentine's-Themed Discs:

BE MY VALENTINE, CHARLIE BROWN (***, 75 mins. total, 1967-77; Paramount): The first Peanuts DVD to arrive in a couple of years, this is a smart compilation that includes the 1975 "Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown," along with one of the first Charlie Brown specials -- 1967's "You're In Love, Charlie Brown" -- and the 1977 effort "It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown."

"It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown" was one of the first specials I actually recall seeing as a young child. Watching it again on DVD, I can see why some Peanuts purists objected to the story, which focuses on Charlie Brown escorting the "little red-headed girl" to a dance following a big school football game. While there are some laughs here, Charles M. Schulz's story actually gives the red-headed girl a name (Heather) and shows her on-screen -- thus losing some of the mystery behind Charlie Brown's lifelong crush, but still resulting in a pleasant enough special. The music by Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen, alas, lacks the magic of Vince Guaraldi, but works well enough in the concluding moments.

"Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown" is a cute, though not especially memorable, 1975 effort with Charlie Brown watching in angst as his classmates trade cards and tokens on Valentine's Day. Vince Guaraldi's score, one of his last, is pleasant, but the big surprise on the DVD is the inclusion of "You're In Love, Charlie Brown," one of the earlier Peanuts specials and, in some ways, one of the best. Essentially a collection of skits linked together through CB's attempts at communicating with the red-headed girl before summer vacation, this is a smart and poignant episode, marked by one of Guaraldi's best scores for all the Peanuts shows. Paramount's DVD offers exceptionally crisp full-frame transfers, with the best of the bunch being the 1967 "You're In Love, Charlie Brown." The mono soundtracks require the volume to be pushed to the upper range of your stereo system, but appear to be in good shape. No supplements are included other than an "interactive game" for the upcoming made-for-video sequel "Charlotte's Web 2." Needless to say, this is a perfect disc for Peanuts fans. Kudos to Paramount for wisely incorporating three similarly-themed specials on one DVD, well worth your $19.99 (lower in most retail and online venues).


CUPID AND CATE (***, 98 mins., 2002, PG; Hallmark/Artisan): Wonderfully performed Hallmark Hall of Fame movie manages to be charming and sentimental without becoming overly maudlin.

Mary-Louise Parker is one of three daughters of strong patriarch Philip Bosco, off doing her own thing before falling head over heels for good guy Peter Gallagher. Complications ensue (this IS a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, after all) involving family relationships and medical issues, but the central performances keep you watching and caring about the protagonists despite the problems that arise.

This made-for-TV movie is admittedly on the weepy side at times but director Brent Shields and writers Jennifer Miller and Ron Raley (adapting a novel by Christina Bartolomeo) manage to successfully keep the melodrama in check, allowing the performers to create realistic characters worth investing some 100 minutes in.

Artisan's DVD offers a standard full-frame presentation with Dolby Surround sound. Mark Adler's sensitive score also manages to walk the fine line of emotion and saccharine, while production notes and credits round out the disc.

If you're looking for a "chick flick" a cut above the norm, CUPID & CATE is well worth a view.


For the Sci-Fi Loving Genre Fan:

X-MEN "1.5" (***, 102 mins., 2000, PG-13; Fox): I've warmed up to Bryan Singer's highly entertaining adaptation of the Marvel Comic since its release in 2000, mainly through repeat viewing of Fox's original DVD. While I still believe the movie could have used another half-hour of character development, when you consider how terrible a film based on the X-MEN could have been, Singer and screenwriter David Hayter deserve kudos for making a faithful, humanized comic-book for the screen that doesn't insult your intelligence.

Fox's two-disc Special Edition re-release of X-MEN has been dubbed "X-MEN 1.5," and while it's chock full of terrific new supplements, it does not -- unfortunately -- include an extended version of the movie itself.

Disc One includes the theatrical version along with some 18 minutes of deleted scenes you can access via an on-screen icon during the film -- these are, in fact, the same deleted scenes included on the original X-MEN DVD and look identical to boot. It's too bad they couldn't have been integrated back into the film, even though Singer -- in his exclusive new commentary track -- mentions how disappointed he was in his "editorial choices" throughout the movie, saying at various points "there was a better shot here that I should have left in."

There had been rumors that Singer planned on shooting additional footage for the first X-MEN during the filming of the upcoming X-MEN 2 (a la the way John Carpenter shot scenes for the network TV showing of "Halloween" during the filming of "Halloween II"), but apparently contractual issues with the cast nixed that idea. The remnants, though, of that idea are apparent in Singer's commentary, particularly when he mentions how -- perhaps one day -- the origins of other X-Men like Storm would be added back into the original.

Singer's commentary forms the centerpiece of the new DVD's supplements, most of which are contained on Disc 2. The best of the extras is an hour-long "Video Diary" on the making of X-MEN, featuring lots of candid behind-the-scenes footage of Singer and the cast at work. There's lots of the affable Hugh Jackman and very little of Anna Paquin and Halle Berry on-hand, along with some brief soundtrack recording session footage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michael Kamen is never mentioned by name in any segment of the DVD and Singer only admits that he was disappointed in certain elements of the original film -- expressing delight that John Ottman was on-board to score and edit X-MEN 2. However, Singer doesn't need to say it, as we all know that he must have wanted to dump Kamen's disappointing score but didn't have enough time or money to do so.

The camcorder footage makes for a "fly on the wall" documentary that's complemented by more routine but nevertheless well-produced featurettes on the film's origins (including interviews with the cast and Stan Lee among others), shooting, costume design, special effects, and promotion/release. During the course of these segments, you can access additional material like screen tests for Jackman, a visit to the set by the Prime Minister of Canada, and bizarre costume tests (like Storm's original, and thankfully unused, outfit!). These "branching" segments can also be accessed separately through the main menu, though curiously, I couldn't find the menu to do that for the deleted scenes on Disc 1.

The special features are rounded out by a 12-minute preview of X-MEN 2, featuring a tour of the sequel's sets with Bryan Singer, ending with the movie's theatrical trailer. It's a nice appetizer to what promises to be one of the most anticipated flicks of 2003.

On the technical side, the 2.35 transfer appears identical to the earlier DVD, but Fox has added a DTS soundtrack that improves appreciably on the original Dolby Digital mix (also included here).

Despite the lack of an extended cut, X-MEN 1.5 offers plenty in the way of attractive new features and should prove to be a must-have DVD for all X-fans.


STARGATE: Ultimate Edition (***, 119 mins. [theatrical cut] and 128 mins. [Director's Cut], PG-13, 1994; Artisan Home Entertainment): By my count this is the THIRD release of Roland Emmerich's 1994 sci-fi adventure on DVD, following an early single-disc edition (with the movie spread to two sides of the same disc!) and a "Special Edition" DVD featuring the Director's and Theatrical versions of the film but, alas, no enhancement for 16:9 televisions.

Fortunately, Artisan has finally gotten it right with this "Ultimate Edition" of the film, offering terrific new 16:9 enhanced transfers and DTS/Dolby Digital soundtracks that will prove to be essential for fans. What's more, the two cuts of the film have been included on their own respective discs, so there's nowhere near the amount of compression artifacts seen in the previous DVD releases.

I admit that I've always had a love/hate affair with STARGATE. This is one of those flawed-but-fun movies that has just enough going for it so that its positive attributes are magnified on repeat viewing, while the problems become less of a distraction. On the plus side, you've got a great central idea, sweeping scope cinematography and interesting F/X, and a marvelous David Arnold score that remains one of my favorites of the '90s. On the downside, I've never been able to understand why the charismatic Kurt Russell was cast as a stoic army man still brooding over the loss of his son, while the overly-serious Emmerich-Dean Devlin script never really exploited its premise as well as it could have. The stunt casting of Jaye Davidson as the Sun God Ra also feels like a wasted opportunity (maybe Michael Jackson would have been a better idea?), but despite its less satisfying aspects, STARGATE remains one of the few, old-fashioned Saturday Matinee sci-fi films made in the last 15-20 years to truly resemble an epic. It's a colorful, romantic fantasy-adventure that's highly entertaining in spite of the fact that it COULD have been better.

Special Features on Artisan's Ultimate Edition are fine but far from extensive. A new interview with "Chariots of the Gods?" author Erich von Daniken touches upon ancient civilizations and extraterrestrial life as well as your typical "In Search Of" episode (it only runs 12 minutes), while the commentary by Emmerich and Devlin has been reprised from the earlier Special Edition DVD. A vintage Making Of featurette is included along with trailers, but it's the improved transfer and inclusion of DTS audio that's going to put the DVD over the top for most consumers. And, at $19.99 retail (less in most online and retail outlets), it's too good of a package to pass up.


PREDATOR 2 (**, 106 mins., 1990, R; Fox): I hadn't seen this sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger/John McTiernan hit since it first opened in 1990, and over that time, I guess I had forgotten just how regrettable this slick but pedestrian follow-up actually was.

Danny Glover -- the natural choice to replace Arnold -- fills in as a Los Angeles cop investigating a series of drug-related gang killings in a "future" 1997 where the temperatures run so high sweat pours off everyone's clothes and mass transit riders carry guns in their handbags. (As if the movie wasn't dated enough, you also get Morton Downey, Jr. as an obnoxious TV talk show host).

Into this searing-hot urban cityscape walks the Predator (the late Kevin Peter Hall), who decides it's time to knock off the film's assembly line supporting characters: Glover's fellow cops Ruben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso (the requisite female role) and Bill Paxton (still trying to find his way post-"Aliens"), along with government heavy Gary Busey (second-billed!) and department head Robert Davi.

PREDATOR 2 is directed competently enough by Stephen Hopkins ("24," "The Ghost and the Darkness"), but the whole enterprise plays like the second or third back-up plan for a sequel in the event that Schwarzenegger and McTiernan wanted nothing to do with it. The flat dialogue, thin characterizations, and messy story line of Jim and John Thomas' script played havoc with their intriguing original concept of an extraterrestrial hunting down the human race while on a vacation trip to Earth. The movie's second half - - a prolonged chase sequence between Glover and the Predator -- is more coherent than the first, and the final battle is well-executed enough so that comparisons don't need to be made between PREDATOR 2 and all-time horrid sequels like "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure." Nevertheless, this commercially disappointing follow-up -- released appropriately at Thanksgiving -- was still unappetizing enough to nix any future installments in Fox's would-be franchise.

While the FX of R/Greenberg Associates were cutting-edge for their day, they seem a little ragged (even by 1990 standards) in Fox's new DVD release, which finally arrives in the U.S. after having been available in most international territories for years. The 1.85 transfer boasts solid colors but some grain, consistent with the age of the film. Better is the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, featuring a typically frantic Alan Silvestri score and plenty of surround activity. Extras include two short promotional featurettes and the original trailer (in 2.35 widescreen).


PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (**, 94 mins., 1981, R; Columbia TriStar): James Cameron likely wishes that his inaugural directorial outing was somewhat more distinguished than this in-name-only 1981 sequel to Joe Dante's 1978 cult classic.

While certainly PIRANHA II is certainly nothing to write home about, there are far worse cheapjack horror movies from the early '80s available on video.

Another "Jaws" variant, this Italian-made production stars Tricia O'Neil as a scuba diving teacher at a scenic vacation resort overrun not just by salt-water dwelling piranha -- but salt water-dwelling, FLYING piranha! Gratuitous T&A, blood and guts all ensue once O'Neil fails to convince the club's owners of the dangers that lurk out near the beach (apparently the owner is a charter member of the Amity Town Council), but prominently-billed Lance Henriksen and Steve Marachuk manage to assist her in keeping "The Spawning" under control.

While it takes a while for the flying fish to appear -- and you won't find a whole lot of similarities between PIRANHA II and "Aliens" -- Cameron's movie is surprisingly decent if you're looking for B-grade thrills. The characters are well-developed for this kind of film, with Henriksen and O'Neil creating a pair of believable protagonists whom you actually care about. In that respect, one can see a little bit of the filmmaker's talent shining through a predictable story with few production values outside of the scenic Caribbean locales.

Apparently shot in a hard-matte 1.85, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING has been released on DVD by Columbia TriStar in a workable full-frame transfer. The picture seems to be cropped off slightly at the sides, but I never saw many scenes that required a whole lot of pan-and-scanning (the credits are letterboxed at 1.85). The mono sound is OK, and bonus trailers have been included on the extras side.
 


For Comedy Fans:

THE BANGER SISTERS (**, 98 mins., 2002, R; Fox): I've concluded that Fox Searchlight -- Twentieth Century Fox's "independent" sub-studio -- is pretty much just a boutique for star-driven projects not high-profile enough for the parent company's own label.

How else would you describe THE BANGER SISTERS, which isn't so much an "indie" film as it is an obvious and predictable comedy from writer-director Bob Dolman (screenwriter of "Willow" and "Far and Away"), feeling at times like an R-rated TV sitcom.

Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon do give it their all as a pair of sisters who have grown out of their wild, rebellious late '60s youths -- or, at least one of them has. Free spirit Suzette (Hawn) still rocks hard, but sis Lavinia (Sarandon) has been suburbanized into your typical Soccer Mom, with daughter and hubby (Robin Thomas, in such a vanilla role that it makes the groom's parents from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" seem almost realistic by comparison) in tow. However, Suzette appears just in time to save Lavinia from her drab and boring existence, urging her to cut off her hair while Suzette par-tays with suicidal Geoffrey Rush (hey, whatever happened to him?).

Despite the engaging performances of Sarandon and Hawn (virtually playing the adult version of real-life daughter Kate Hudson's role from "Almost Famous"), THE BANGER SISTERS is pretty simplistic fare with few surprises. Dolman's script is awfully hard to swallow in terms of Hawn's charismatic ability to change the lives of those around her -- especially in the scenes involving Rush, which tend to come out of left field -- while the comedic portions feel cliched and obvious. Recommended only for fans of either actress.

Fox's DVD offers 2.35 and full-frame transfers, both of which look acceptable since the movie was shot in the non-anamorphic Super 35 format. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is fine, boasting a score by Trevor Rabin, and the disc is filled out with Dolman's commentary track, an HBO Special, Blooper Reel, and the original trailer.


SWEPT AWAY (*, 89 minutes, 2002, R; Columbia TriStar, available February 18): One of my fondest movie memories happened when I was 13 years old, when Boston's Channel 38 decided to show Lina Wertmuller's erotic "Swept Away" at 8pm on a cold February night in New England. Not only did they screen the movie, but they also aired it uncut with no commercial breaks. Better yet, the fact that it was on over-the-air, pre-cable TV enabled me to convince my parents that it was certainly fine for me to watch -- pretty much a happy set of circumstances that would have been the only way anyone would have let a young teen sit through the erotically-charged, comedic, and dramatic escapades of Wertmuller's acclaimed 1976 film!

Wertmuller's controversial movie managed to touch upon a wealth of topics -- relationships between men and women, sex, and the class struggle that divided its two protagonists -- that director Guy Ritchie and his wife, Madonna, fail completely to develop in the 2002 version of SWEPT AWAY, a hideous movie that was rightfully called one of the worst of last year.

The central story of Ritchie's film remains the same -- a pampered, rich, obnoxious woman (guess who?) gets her comeuppance when the Italian fisherman (Adriano Giannini) she despises ends up marooned with her on a deserted Mediterranean island -- but the similarities between the movies end there. This is a disjointed mess of a film that never makes up its mind as to what it wants to be: is it a comedy? Is it a commentary? Is it an erotic drama? Is it a melodramatic, depressing tragic romance?

Ultimately, the new SWEPT AWAY manages to be none of those things, as it sways from one mood to another with no coherence, while somewhat surprisingly, the film's "erotic" angle ends up being the one least developed of all. Ritchie wrote the film as a vehicle for his wife, but she's not good enough to carry off the tepid dialogue exchanges, and there's no chemistry between her and Giannini whatsoever (maybe if it was Roberto Benigni in the role, then SWEPT AWAY might have been interesting!). Even the scenery ends up a disappointment, with several shots obviously looking like sets and Alex Barber's cinematography being overly pale at times. Call it a real wash.

Columbia TriStar's DVD at least looks good (1.85 enhanced transfer) and sounds all right (5.1 Dolby Digital sound), featuring a passable score by Michel Colombier. Ritchie and editor Eddie Hamilton provide a typical audio commentary, which must have been recorded long before the movie bombed in its theatrical release, and there are some 16 deleted/alternate scenes, none of which are all that interesting. Even worse is a terrible "Swept Away Movie Special," which I assume aired on MTV, and offers inane comedic bantering between Ritchie and "Mrs. Ritchie," almost as cringe-inducing as the film's hilariously bad "downbeat" finale, which is one of many scenes that SWEPT AWAY misses the mark on completely.
 


STEALING HARVARD (*1/2, 82 mins., 2002, PG-13; Columbia TriStar, out February 18): Jason Lee, in one of his several recent clunkers, stars as an average Joe (or, make that John) who makes a promise to sister Megan Mullally's niece that he'll pay for her college tuition one day -- something he predictably can't afford once the girl is old enough to make it to college.

Bruce McCulloch directed this Peter Tolan-scripted comedy, which tries awfully hard to be a manic, brainless romp -- after all, what else can you expect from a cast that also includes Tom Green, Dennis Farina, Chris Penn, Richard Jenkins, and John C. McGinley? Unfortunately, this 82-minute effort is a completely forgettable affair all the way, offering a few giggles here and there but no big laughs and certainly not enough of a story to sustain the film's slight running time. Much of the film plays like blackout sketches Tolan had in mind before coming up with a framing story to hang them on; alas, this energetic but dull misfire feels like one of those shelved studio pics dumped out at the quieter time of the release schedule.

Columbia's DVD offers a handful of deleted scenes, including an extended ending funnier than what was used in the finished print, plus trailers and filmographies. The 1.85 transfer is colorful and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack fine, containing an okay score by Christophe Beck.


Quick Takes

SHAMPOO (**1/2, 109 mins., 1975, R; Columbia TriStar): Well-performed but dated '70s comedy-drama stars Warren Beatty in what many considered to be a vanity project for its star.

Beatty plays a Southern California hairdresser trying to maintain relationships with many of his female clients, including L.A. businessman Jack Warden's wife (Lee Grant) and mistress (Julie Christie). While Beatty's own girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) tries to help him open a hair salon of his own, her boyfriend is more concerned with trying with keep his juggling act in the air, ultimately falling for Christie while carrying on with even Warden's teen daughter (a pre-Princess Leia Carrie Fisher).

Written by Beatty and Robert Towne, produced by Beatty, and directed by Hal Ashby, SHAMPOO boasts some cutting one-liners that must have provided quite a jolt to audiences back in 1975, but these days, the shock value of the profanity is gone, and what's left is a meandering movie that ultimately leaves behind a sour taste. The film's limited use of original Paul Simon music doesn't really work, and neither does Beatty and Towne's all-over-the-map story, which ends with a downbeat ending typical of its period.

Columbia's DVD offers 1.85 and full-frame transfers, both of which look fine though the movie does tend to show its age in the grain department (the colors look all right but are far from vivid). The mono soundtracks are passable, and trailers for other Beatty films are also included on the disc.


THE FOREIGNER (*1/2, 96 mins., 2002, R; Columbia TriStar): Steven Seagal's career resurrection in "Exit Wounds" rubbed off as soon as "Half Past Dead" hit theaters with a meager box-office gross last fall. For obvious reasons, TriStar opted to send the latest Seagal effort, THE FOREIGNER, direct to video.

A somnolent effort from the folks at Franchise Pictures (the folks who brought us "Driven," "Battlefield: Earth," "3,000 Miles to Graceland," and -- need I continue?), THE FOREIGNER stars Steve as a "secret agent for hire" running errands for seedy international types in Europe. CIA conspiracies, double-crosses, and a femme fatale with a young daughter are thrown into the mix to little avail, since THE FOREIGNER is so lazily acted, written, and directed that it virtually evaporates right in front of your eyes. For die-hard (and I mean die-hard) Seagal addicts only; everyone else can take out their copies of "Under Siege" to remind themselves of the performer's better days.

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a strong 1.85 transfer that's done no favors by the movie's ugly cinematography. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack fares better, and a theatrical trailer has been included on the special features side.


ROAD HOUSE (***, 114 mins., 1989, R; MGM): Perennial favorite '80s action flick stars Patrick Swayze in one of his few hits post-"Dirty Dancing," as a bouncer hired to clean up a rural Missouri bar of scum and villainy. Local mob boss Ben Gazzara naturally has plans to strike down Swayze's new Man in the White Hat routine, but somehow good prevails over evil -- no surprise when you've got Sam Elliott and fetching Kelly Lynch (never quite as appealing again as she was here) on your side.

Joel Silver produced so many slick action programmers in the '80s and '90s that it's no surprise he packaged this United Artists release, which has become something of a cult classic over the years.

MGM's DVD offers a fine 2.35 (16:9 enhanced) transfer with Dolby Surround sound, and the original trailer as the disc's sole bonus feature. For rough-housing ROAD HOUSE fans, don't miss it.


NEXT TIME: Reese Witherspoon tries to find love in "Sweet Home, Alabama," we get to the bottom of "Igby Goes Down," plus your emails and comments. Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time!


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