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Aisle Seat April Animation Celebration

Plus: Andy's Pick of the Week, Harry Potter, and more!

By Andy Dursin

A couple of items to start off with this week.

First, I was severely disappointed to learn that Mychael Danna has been dropped from scoring Ang Lee's THE HULK. Danna not only did a marvelous job scoring several of Lee's previous films, but he displayed a remarkable ability to change his musical voice based on the needs of the specific project. Listeners who are not familiar with Danna likely thought -- based on movies like "The Ice Storm" -- that he would be ill-suited for a project like "The Hulk," yet anyone who heard his powerful, underrated score from RIDE WITH THE DEVIL would feel differently.

Rumors circulating on message boards that it will either be Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer scoring the film are grounds for disappointment -- especially if it is the former. I thought Elfman was going through the motions with his serviceable SPIDER-MAN score last year, and can only imagine that his version of "The Hulk" would once again sound like "Darkman," "Batman," and similar genre scores Elfman has penned over the years. Don't get me wrong, I'm still high on Elfman when it comes to other assignments, yet in this genre I believe he's exhausted his talent and said all he's needed to. Is Joe Harnell available?

Secondly, old friend Daniel Schweiger has been involved in an exciting new project -- he's made a short film, DATING OR DISASTER, which is now available for screening online. Teddy Castellucci (a vet of several Adam Sandler hits) provided the score for Daniel's film, which you can watch by clicking here.

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

THE PEREZ FAMILY (***1/2, 113 mins., 1995, R; MGM): Marisa Tomei is as close to Kryptonite as you can get for this reviewer, though you needn't be a fan of the actress to enjoy this charming, underrated 1995 romantic-comedy-drama from director Mira Nair.

Tomei plays a free-spirited Cuban woman who immigrates to the United States along with recently released prisoner Alfred Molina in 1980. Molina hopes to reunite with his wife (Anjelica Huston) and daughter (Trini Alvarado), whom he had been separated from for nearly 20 years while serving time as a political prisoner under Fidel Castro. Once they arrive in Miami, however, circumstances dictate that the two pretend that they're married, while Huston begins to be courted by a local cop (Chazz Palminteri) and the notion of family itself is examined in this understated and eloquent adaptation of Christine Bell's novel.

THE PEREZ FAMILY is equal parts romantic-comedy and family drama, spiced up by a sizzling performance by Tomei and equally strong work from Molina as a lost soul seeking to reclaim his former life. The colorful, warm cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is complimented by one of Alan Silvestri's most poignant, under-appreciated scores, while Robin Swicord's fine script manages to incorporate a wide spectrum of emotions in a wholly satisfying story that few people saw when it was first released.

MGM's DVD, out this week, marks the widescreen debut of THE PEREZ FAMILY on video. Framed at 1.85, the 16:9 enhanced transfer is a huge improvement on Image's old, full-frame laserdisc, boasting stronger colors that never bleed and a satisfying widescreen composition (a full-frame version, which adds to the top and bottom of the image, is also included). The Dolby Surround soundtrack isn't anything out of the ordinary, but it's functional, and the film's original theatrical trailer -- which doesn't do a very good job selling the film -- is also included.

Though the disc is devoid of supplemental materials (this is, after all, a movie that didn't make a whole lot of noise in theaters), MGM should be commended for continuing to dive into their back catalog for titles like THE PEREZ FAMILY. With a winning story and wonderful performances, this is one of those sleeper films that home video was made for. Highly recommended!

New on DVD

FAMILY GUY: Seasons 1 and 2 (1999, 624 mins., Not Rated; Fox)
FUTURAMA: Season 1 (1999-2000, 300 mins., Not Rated; Fox)

If there was ever a TV series that deserved to be released on DVD, it has to be THE FAMILY GUY.

Seth MacFarlane's hilarious, pop-culture savvy cartoon bounced around the prime-time schedule during its three-year run on the Fox network, where critics viewed it as an inferior version of "The Simpsons" crossed with "South Park."

In reality, THE FAMILY GUY is an outrageous, unique cartoon that has its own style and rhythm, faster paced than "The Simpsons" and more consistently funny than Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Comedy Central creation.

Set in Rhode Island, FAMILY GUY chronicles the crazy life of Peter Griffin, a blue collar Ocean State resident with a loving wife, typical teenage kids, and a baby who looks like Peter Lorre and constantly schemes each episode to take over the world (or, in one memorable show, try to kill broccoli). The general plots -- a birthday party for the toddler, Peter hits a little league parent who he thinks is a man but is actually a woman! -- serve as a springboard for a mass assault of references to TV shows, movies, commercials, modern music, and celebrities that range from the commonplace to the completely absurd. If you remember the "Diff'rent Strokes" episode where Arnold was molested by a bicycle shop owner, or the "Kool-Aid Man" advertising campaign, or have seen the memorable clip of William Shatner singing "Rocketman" in the late '70s, then you'll have an idea of the kinds of out-there pop references only the most deranged mind could remember (which, predictably enough, means that I was in stitches during nearly every episode).

Fox's DVD presents every episode from the FAMILY GUY's first two seasons, which should come as a godsend for the show's fans and casual viewers who became frustrated by Fox yanking the show off the air for long periods of time and then shuffling its time slot. After the FAMILY GUY debuted after the Super Bowl in 1999, it was months before it returned to finish its first-season run. When the program returned for its second season, it ran for two weeks before being pulled off the air, returning the day after Christmas for one episode, then re-appearing in March 2000 for the rest of its shows. No wonder why the program never received the attention or garnered the fan base it deserved!

The four-disc set contains each episode in the order in which they originally ran. The full-frame transfers are generally very good, with whatever flaws there are inherent in the animation and not necessarily the transfers. The Dolby Stereo sound is excellent, sporting wonderful scores by Walter Murphy and Ron Jones, which frequently quote other TV themes and scores. Fox has also included a handful of group commentary tracks on eight different episodes, including creator Seth MacFarlane (who also performed most of the voices) and other members of the cast and crew, plus other special features including promos and advertising campaigns.

THE FAMILY GUY is a frequently uproarious show that anyone who loves TV, movies, and ribald comedy is urged to check out. Definitely recommended!

Also newly released from Fox is the complete first season box set of Matt Groening's FUTURAMA, which was -- in comparison with "The Family Guy" -- given slightly better treatment from the network in regards to its time slot. Still, this follow-up to "The Simpsons" from its original creator was pretty much a disappointment all told, despite its pedigree and hype.

FUTURAMA details the adventures of a pizza delivery man who stumbles into a cryogenics chamber and awakes (a la Buck Rogers) hundreds of years later in a futuristic New York. There he finds a world filled with one-eyed beauties and robots with attitude problems, both of whom he suits up with on a spaceship cruising the galaxy for spare parts.

With a similar animated style to "The Simpsons," FUTURAMA has its share of funny moments, most of which occur in references to their society's past and our present - - with cameo voices supplied by the likes of Leonard Nimoy, Dick Clark, and others. Unfortunately the show never really caught fire, and one can attribute that to its bland characters, who aren't especially interesting or endearing, as well as scripts of varying quality. FUTURAMA did have its share of fans, but never received the kind of widespread acceptance or acclaim that the network hoped for, despite a longer run than it likely deserved.

Fox's DVD includes a three-disc set featuring all the episodes from the first season. Select audio commentaries are also included on each disc along with a handful of deleted scenes and a stills gallery. The full-frame transfers boast superior animation and more consistent quality than "The Family Guy," and the 2.0 stereo sound is fine.

IT'S THE EASTER BEAGLE, CHARLIE BROWN (1974, 50 mins., Not Rated; Paramount Home Video, with "It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown"): The latest Peanuts DVD pairs the charming 1974 Easter perennial with a lesser-known, yet equally entertaining, 1976 story intended to celebrate Arbor Day.

The EASTER BEAGLE is a wonderful Charles Schultz effort which examines the gang's Easter preparations like coloring eggs and Linus' assertion that the Easter Beagle will soon arrive, spreading joy and candy to all who believe in him (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, Snoopy tries to help out Woodstock by finding our feathered friend some new digs.

The great Vince Guaraldi provided another toe-tapping soundtrack for this effort, which will celebrate its 30th Anniversary next year. With a good variety of amusing vignettes and a colorful design, this is clearly one of the best Peanuts specials and its arrival on DVD is a cause for celebration.

Paramount has also included IT'S ARBOR DAY, CHARLIE BROWN on the DVD, which was notable (according to Scott Maguire's essential Peanuts webpage for being the final special scored by Guaraldi. This low-key affair shows what happens to Charlie Brown's All-Stars when his sister Sally opts to turn their baseball diamond into a Field of Gardens, complete with trees and shrubs.

Transfers on both programs are presented in their original 1.33 aspect ratio. Both specials look good, though like the earlier Peanuts DVDs, the mono sound is recorded at an especially low volume and needs to be cranked up. Special features are also non- existent, though with many outlets offering the DVD at $16 or less, this is another great disc for Peanuts fans and hopefully the first of more to follow from Paramount.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (***1/2, 161 mins., 2002, PG; Warner Home Video): Second cinematic installment of J.K. Rowling's beloved novels proves to be more relaxed and even more entertaining than the original.

This time, the beloved boy wizard is wrapped up in an unknown evil that's causing harm to various students at Hogwarts, which -- speaking of the magical campus - - boasts a new teaching wizard (Kenneth Branagh, in a delicious performance as Gilderoy Lockhart) and plenty of surprises for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint), all enrolling in their sophomore year. Among the highlights: a spectacular confrontation with giant spiders in the dark forest, a slithering serpent, a young girl's ghost, and the introduction of Fawkes the Phoenix.

All of the same cast and crew members that brought "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" to life are back for this sequel, which results in more wonderful sets and plenty of memorable moments. John Williams' now-classic themes are reprised by conductor William Ross, though fortunately this is a far from an "Adapted and Conducted by Ken Thorne" situation (indeed, as rumors have swirled since its release, it seems Williams was much more "hands on" in this score than in similar circumstances in the past). Steve Kloves' script, meanwhile, takes its time establishing character and setting here, but the basic story is more captivating because there's less set-up and more time spent on the basic premise and mystery at-hand.

While the identity of the villain, once revealed, may prove to be a little convoluted for those who didn't read the books, CHAMBER OF SECRETS is a thrilling ride most of the way. The performances of the child actors are solid and contrast nicely with the uniformly fine work of the adults, particularly Jason Isaacs as the deceitful father of Harry's rival.

Warner's 2-DVD Special Edition (available in separate widescreen and full-frame versions) is a huge improvement on its predecessor. For starters, the supplementary materials haven't been locked in a series of endless interactive games, allowing you to simply plop the disc in and enjoy the extras. Nearly 20 deleted/extended scenes are included (none of which are all that essential to the main story), along with a conversation with screenwriter Steve Kloves and J.K. Rowling that are part of a larger section containing nearly two hours of interviews with most of the cast and crew (including John Williams). There are more interactive Hogwarts tours and plenty of PC- accessible materials for kids, similar to the "Sorcerer's Stone" DVD, but at least you're not forced to go through them to find the extras.

Visually, the 2.35 transfer is predictably good, though not without a little bit of grain (much like the previous DVD). The 5.1 EX Dolby Digital soundtrack is a little more elaborate than its predecessor, with a good balance between the music and the constant barrage of sound effects. CHAMBER OF SECRETS is grand, classy stuff, and about as magical a sequel as one could have hoped. Warner's DVD is a definite step up from the original, and will prove to be an easy purchase for Potter fans of all persuasions.

DRUMLINE (***, 118 mins., 2002, PG-13; Fox): One of last year's sleeper hits, DRUMLINE tells the story of an African-American high schooler (Nick Cannon) from New York City who receives a scholarship to join a southern college with a big marching band. Cannon's obnoxious behavior, though, soon contrasts with his musical ability, and the youngster needs to learn a few lessons from bandleader Orlando Jones and his peers before he can strut his stuff out on the football field during halftime.

This vivid, highly entertaining youth picture doesn't condescend to its audience or muck up the drama with unnecessary comedic interludes -- a credit to the Shawn Schepps-Tina Gordon Chism script and director Charles Stone III, who does an excellent job capturing the intensity of the movie's dueling-band finale. The performances are also on the mark, especially Leonard Roberts as Cannon's frustrated line leader. John Powell's score also works well within the confines of the drama, and the 2.35 widescreen framing gives the movie a strong cinematic feel.

Fox's DVD offers a terrific 16:9 transfer and bass-heavy 5.1 soundtrack. Special features include 10 deleted scenes (including an excised epilogue) culled from the workprint with commentary by Stone, along with his audio commentary track during the movie proper. A half-hour BET Making Of is included along with a pair of music videos.

Well worth a look!

Guilty Pleasure Pick of the Week

PHYSICAL EVIDENCE (**, 1989, 99 mins., R; Artisan): Michael Crichton directed this 1989 courtroom thriller, which was intended as a sequel to JAGGED EDGE until Glenn Close vowed to have nothing to do with it.

Instead, the Bill Phillips story was reworked for Theresa Russell, miscast as a lawyer defending Boston cop Burt Reynolds, on trial for the murder of a local snitch. Of course, all the evidence points to o'l Burt, but the only thing he's guilty of is a hangover and wearing that bad rug -- something that sends Russell out on a mission to not only win the case but reclaim her personal freedom, which is being severely compromised by live- in boyfriend Ted McGinley (what more do you need to say about this film than the mere fact that McGinley, co-star of "Happy Days" and "The Love Boat," has a leading role in it?).

It all culminates in a predictable, perfunctory ending, but I'll be darned if PHYSICAL EVIDENCE isn't a lot of fun. The movie's Boston setting results in some scenic local shots (I admit I have soft spot for Beantown-lensed flicks since I went to college there), even though much of the film was shot in Montreal and Toronto. It also has a splendid (albeit brief) score by Henry Mancini, and some outrageously bad dialogue and performances -- particularly by Russell, who could have used the role to springboard into mainstream leading parts that never materialized.

Even though PHYSICAL EVIDENCE was a Columbia film, the video rights have always belonged to Vestron/Live/Artisan, who has issued the movie on DVD in a (no surprise here) no-frills release. Actually, the full-frame transfer seems as if it's been derived from the original 1989 video master, since it's excessively soft and grainy throughout. That said, the Dolby Stereo sound isn't bad and the look of the movie adds to its nostalgic value. If you're looking for a little big-studio late '80s fun, then I'm guilty as charged by giving a recommendation for PHYSICAL EVIDENCE.

NEXT TIME: Back with more comments and reviews, plus your emails to Have a good one and we'll catch you then!

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