Aisle Seat Holiday Gift Guide
Reviews of the final DVDs of 2003, including ESCAPE FROM
NEW YORK, BAD BOYS II and more!
By Andy Dursin
With Christmas fast approaching, now is the perfect time to wrap up
what's been another huge year for DVD with one last batch of Aisle Seat
digital reviews. Next week I have a special column planned, so let's take
care of business and get down to the nitty gritty, including a look at
today's release of "Escape From New York," "To Live and Die in L.A.," this
week's Aisle Seat Choice DVDs, and more!
MGM Special Edition Wrap Up
Although I'm a fan of John Carpenter's early work, one of his films
that I've never been a huge aficionado of is ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
This 1981 sci-fi thriller does, however, have a large contingent of
fans, and those Snake Plissken buffs will be satisfied by MGM's new double-disc
Special Edition (** movie, *** extras; 99 mins., R), which arrives in stores
Kurt Russell's Clint Eastwood-esque performance as Carpenter's quintessential
anti-hero anchors the movie, which does, admittedly, deliver a lot of visual
bang for what was a quite economical budget back in the early '80s. The
auteur's last movie for Avco Embassy Pictures boasted production design
by Joe Alves (with work by a young James Cameron) in its telling of a futuristic
Manhattan that's been turned into a full-scale prison. Into its motley
assortment of criminals, scum and general villainy comes the President
of the United States himself (Donald Plesance), who crashes inside, leading
the authorities to recruit Snake in a last-ditch attempt at saving his
"Escape From New York" is one of those movies that certainly sounds
like it can't miss: Russell's performance and the picture's concept seem
tailor-made for '80s action fun, yet ever since I first watched the movie
in grade school (in a late-night, syndicated TV airing), I've been constantly
let down by the film every time I've viewed it. Carpenter's lethargic pacing
and often humor-less script (written with Nick Castle) plays at odds with
what ought to be a crackling suspense thriller, and despite a strong cast
(Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne
Barbeau among them), the movie pokes along when it ought to be racing ahead.
That said, the movie has generated a huge cult following over the years,
even in spite of Carpenter's hideous 1996 sequel "Escape From L.A." For
Carpenter devotees, MGM's 2- disc Special Edition offers a bevy of new
supplements, including the entire bank robbery prologue sequence -- shown
in its entirety for the first time. Carpenter himself even wrote some new
music for the scene, which is included along with a new 25-minute documentary
on the supplemental disc. Fresh interviews with all the principal players
are included along with trailers, which boasts entertaining anecdotes but
could have been fleshed out more beyond its abbreviated running time.
Meanwhile, the movie itself (2.35 widescreen, 5.1 remixed surround)
has never looked or sounded better, while the DVD also includes a new commentary
track by Debra Hill and Joe Alves, as well as a reprisal of the laserdisc's
highly entertaining chat with Russell and Carpenter. For "Escape" buffs,
this is a must, and MGM has rounded out the package with excellent fold-out
packaging and a new Snake Plissken comic book, hinting that perhaps the
franchise might be making a comeback (let's just hope it's better than
"Escape From L.A."!).
Also newly released by MGM is a Special Edition of William
Friedkin's 1985 crime thriller TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (**1/2, 116
mins., R, MGM), which is competent though a bit unremarkable until its
razzle-dazzle, car chase sequence.
William Petersen, who has finally received the recognition (thanks to
"CSI") that was long overdue him, stars as a Federal agent who's gone over
the edge. Willem Dafoe plays a counterfeiter that Petersen is pursuing
by any means necessary in Friedkin's thriller, scripted by the director
and Gerald Petievich from his novel.
It's mostly dated, "Miami Vice"-kind of action, right down to Wang Chung's
soundtrack, yet there are some strong performances from Petersen and Dafoe,
and a "money" set piece in the movie's well-executed car chase that have
made the movie a viewer favorite over the years.
MGM's DVD serves up a typically chatty commentary from Friedkin, plus
featurettes spotlighting deleted scenes and an alternate ending. A new
documentary looks at the production of the film, while a photo gallery
and trailers round out the disc, which sports a strong 1.85 transfer with
5.1 remixed Dolby Digital sound.
Finally, MGM will christen the new year with a Special
Edition of the highly entertaining Denzel Washington-Carl Franklin reunion,
OUT OF TIME (***, 105 mins., 2003, PG- 13). Denzel plays a small-town
Florida sheriff who finds himself embroiled in a murder involving a woman
he was having a relationship with, while trying to piece together a trail
of stolen root and dodge cops pursuing him.
Franklin and Washington previously collaborated on the superb (and under-rated)
film "Devil in a Blue Dress," and their work here again makes for a suspenseful
-- if at times predictable -- thriller that efficiently gets the job done.
Denzel is terrific as always, while Franklin knows what buttons to press
and how to press them. There aren't a whole lot of surprises here, but
the movie is compelling all the way just the same.
MGM's Special Edition DVD includes a commentary by the director, along
with outtakes and a mostly fluffy Making Of. Screen tests for co-stars
Sanaa Lathan and Dean Cain are included, along with a photo gallery and
the original trailer. A terrific 2.40 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack (sporting
an okay score by Graeme Revell) round out the disc.
Aisle Seat DVD Picks of the Week
THE SANTA CLAUSE II. 104 mins., 2002, G, Disney. ANDY'S RATING:
***. CAST: Tim Allen, Elizabeth Mitchell, David Krumholtz, Eric Lloyd,
Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson. COMPOSER: George S. Clinton. SCRIPT: Don
Rhymer, Cinco Paul, Ken Dario, Ed Decter, John J. Strauss. DIRECTOR: Michael
Lembeck. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Seven deleted scenes, gag reel, director
commentary; Making Of featurette, interviews, DVD-ROM features and interactive
games. TECHNICAL SPECS: 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, 1.85 Widescreen.
Belated sequel to the 1994 smash hit turned out to be a sleeper success
for Disney last year.
Tim Allen reprises his role of Scott Calvin, the newly installed Santa
Claus at the North Pole, who returns home to find his own son (Eric Lloyd)
on the "naughty" list this holiday season. Obviously, that's not a good
thing, and neither is another facet of his contract with the North Pole
powers-at-be: if Scott doesn't find a new wife by Christmas, his turn as
Santa will be terminated!
Eight years is a long time in coming for a sequel to happen (the movie's
seven credited writers is likely a result of numerous discarded scripts),
but the good news is that this light, airy piece of Christmas-time fluff
is nearly as engaging as its predecessor. Allen is relaxed and great fun
as Scott/Santa, while the original cast (Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson,
Lloyd) return, along with David Krumholtz as one of Santa's knowing aide
While I did miss Michael Convertino's score from the first film (one
of my all- time favorite holiday film soundtracks), George S. Clinton's
work here is solid and works fine alongside a sprinkling of seasonal song
selections. Disney's DVD looks terrific in 1.85 widescreen and sounds likewise
in 5.1 Dolby Digital. The special features include seven deleted scenes
and director commentary from Michael Lembeck (who used to be a TV sitcom
star back in the '70s and '80s), plus many interactive (DVD-ROM) games
geared specifically at kids. Highly recommended!
THE JAMIE KENNEDY EXPERIMENT. 2002, 367 mins.,
Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary from Jamie Kennedy over select
episodes; brief intro by the star; interviews with the creators; promo
spots, "2nd Marks" from various episodes. TECHNICAL SPECS: Original full
screen format, Dolby stereo.
Though the "reality TV" cycle finally seems to be cooling off a bit,
some shows that really weren't "reality" programs in the first place continue
to be successful. Witness "American Idol," which is more like a modern-day
version of a '50s talent show contest than trash like "Big Brother," and
"The Jamie Kennedy Experiment," which plays like an updated version of
"TV Bloopers & Practical Jokes" -- just with everyday people being
the brunt of jokes instead of stars.
This highly entertaining WB series has attracted a decent following
since it debuted, though its tough time slot (Thursday nights) has made
it difficult for many to find. That's why Paramount's first season DVD
box set of "JKX" is a good deal, since it includes the first 17 episodes
of the program, along with special features like selected commentaries
from the comic-star and interviews with the show's creators.
Kennedy stars in each segment as everything from a nerdy loser who hires
a group of immigrants to attend his birthday party (the show's third episode)
to a hapless TV infomercial host in a segment that turns uproariously funny.
The individual bits are laid out like sketch comedy, but the introduction
of people not in the joke turn the various set pieces into practical jokes
that, more often than not, deliver a solid quotient of laughs. Kennedy
is engaging and always fun to watch, and the brief episodes (just about
20 minutes with the commercials taken out) make this an ideal show to take
out and watch for a few minutes before viewing something more substantial.
Paramount's full screen transfers all look great and the stereo soundtracks
are fine. My only major complaint with the show is that the pre-commercial
teasers tip off too much about what's to come, revealing laughs that would
have been more effective if they weren't divulged ahead of time.
Also New On DVD
BAD BOYS II. 147 mins., 2003, R, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING:
*1/2. CAST: will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jordi Molla, Gabrielle Gunion,
Peter Stormare, Theresa Randle, Joe Pantoliano. COMPOSER: Trevor Rabin,
Dr. Dre. SCRIPT: Ron Shelton, Jerry Stahl. DIRECTOR: Michael Bay. DVD SPECIAL
FEATURES: Deleted scenes, production diaries, sequence breakdowns, stunts
and FX featurettes, music video. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1
Dolby Digital sound.
We all know that Michael Bay's mindset is that "Bigger is Better." As
time goes on, Bay's movies seem to get longer, louder, and less entertaining,
as evidenced by BAD BOYS II, an over-amplified mess of a summer blockbuster
that ill-advisedly takes the chemistry between stars Will Smith and Martin
Lawrence that worked so well in its predecessor and chucks it into a stew
of mindless violence, endless profanity, and non- existent story.
Here, our favorite trash-talking cops attempt to take down a Cuban drug
lord (Jordi Molla) who, with the help of Russian mobster Peter Stormare
(obviously a favorite of Bay's, in spite of his heavy-handed performance
in "Armageddon"), is smuggling Ecstasy into the good ol' USA. Gabrielle
Union is on-hand to provide the requisite female interest, but outside
of looking good, she has little to do but try and dodge bullets in this
mind-numbing assault on the senses that goes on -- and on -- and on for
nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Say whatever you will about the "Lethal Weapon" films (and specifically
the bloated third and fourth installments of that series), but at least
the filmmakers knew that rambling past the two hour mark for a movie of
that kind was tantamount to walking on thin ice. Bay and screenwriters
Ron Shelton (whatever happened to the guy who wrote "Bull Durham"?) and
Jerry Stahl care not about trying the viewer's patience, as "Bad Boys II"
goes from one idiotic scene to the next, with the filmmaker's token rapid-fire
editing and penchant for bombastic action scenes pushing most viewers'
limits to the max. It's more elaborate and bigger-budgeted than the original,
but it's also far less entertaining, and even Smith and Lawrence can't
compensate for the picture's one-note tone and uninteresting script.
Columbia TriStar's two-disc Special Edition includes a superb 2.35 transfer
with a non-stop 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack dominated by surround effects
and incessant score by Trevor Rabin and, one of my favorites, Dr. Dre.
Special features are included on the second disc and offer several Making
Of featurettes, spotlighting the effects and stunt work of the film, plus
deleted scenes and trailers.
THE MUSIC MAN. 133 mins., 2003, Disney. ANDY'S
RATING: **. CAST: Matthew Broderick, Kristin Chenoweth, Victor Garber,
Molly Shannon, Debra Monk, David Aaron Baker. COMPOSER: Meredith Willson;
Adapted by Michael Kosarin, score by Danny Troob. SCRIPT: Sally Robinson
from the original stage show. DIRECTOR: Jeff Bleckner. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES:
Making Of featurette, "Till There Was you" exclusive performance. TECHNICAL
SPECS: Full-screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
A few nights ago I watched "Forbidden Broadway" on PBS, a fund-raising
event that nevertheless contained a series of rarely-seen clips of live
stage performances from classic musicals. Naturally, a song from Meredith
Willson's seminal "Music Man" was one of the selections, with Robert Preston
belting out "Trouble" as he did in the show's long run and eventual big-screen
Even though his performance was lip-synched, you could feel the abundant
energy and magnetism of Preston in the role -- something that Matthew Broderick
can't hold a candle to in Disney's recent made-for-TV adaptation of "The
Music Man," newly out on DVD. Granted, it's difficult to compare Broderick
to Preston, but having seen other renditions of the show on-stage, I can
say that I've seen several better Harold Hills than Broderick's mousy,
It doesn't help that Jeff Bleckner's direction is excessively claustrophobic,
with so many scenes shot in close-ups that the staging is close to non-existent.
The choreography is one of the principal casualties of the proceeding,
and combined with Broderick's lifeless performance, conspire to make this
a most disappointing production -- one that is somewhat compensated for
in fine musical arrangements courtesy of Michael Kosarin and the sweet
performance of Broadway's Kristin Chenoweth as Marian the Librarian. She
outshines Broderick at every turn, and manages to make some of the tele-film
worth sitting through.
Disney's DVD offers the original full-screen transfer and a superb 5.1
Dolby Digital soundtrack, which has a nice stereophonic presence throughout.
Extras include a fluffy Making Of segment and a live performance in concert
by Chenoweth of "Till There Was You."
New From Columbia TriStar
THE DARK CRYSTAL: Collector's Edition. 93 mins., 1982, PG, Columbia
TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: ***. COMPOSER: Trevor Jones. SCRIPT: David Odell.
DIRECTOR: Jim Henson. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Miniature notebook reproduction
of Jim Henson's concept notes; letter from Cheryl Henson; limited senitype
image; Henson's original treatment; storyboards, character illustrations
(all exclusive to this edition. Other special features are identical to
earlier DVD, minus the isolated score track). TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen,
5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
Nicely packaged "Collector's Edition" re-issue of the 1982 Jim Henson
fantasy drops the isolated score track from its first DVD release, adding
a few new supplements that die-hard fans should find of interest.
Exclusive to this edition are Henson's original concept of the film,
"The Mithra Treatment," along with additional character illustrations and
storyboards. Other new extras are included in the oversized packaging itself:
a miniature reproduction of Henson's concept notes and storyboards on a
mini-yellow pad; a limited senitype reproducing an image from the movie;
and a nice note from Henson's daughter, Cheryl, describing her memories
about her father's work on the film.
They're nice mementos, yet most casual fans will likely be satisfied
with the supplements from the earlier DVD (all of which, minus Trevor Jones'
isolated score track, are reprised here). Included among the extras are
a deleted funeral scene and fascinating clips from the movie's "original
language" workprint, before the Skesis scenes were re-dubbed into English.
The terrific "World of Dark Crystal" hour-long documentary is included,
along with trailers, character drawings and profiles, and various talent
files. Visually, the 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are identical
to the original DVD release (and contain an odd music edit in the end credits).
The movie remains a fascinating work that demands repeat viewing, even
in spite of its flaws. Henson's creations (save for the plastic, uninteresting
design of its more human-like protagonists) and the look of the movie are
stunning to behold, and the widescreen composition of Oswald Morris makes
the production one that's still a unique odyssey, even more than 20 years
following its original release.
HENRY FOOL. 138 mins., 1998, R, Columbia TriStar.
ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey.
SCRIPT-DIRECTION: Hal Hartley. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.78 Widescreen, 2.0
Hal Hartley's movies are definitely an acquired taste, but his 1998
effort "Henry Fool" -- just making its debut on DVD from Columbia TriStar
-- is one of his more accessible works, even if it's overlong at 138 minutes.
Thomas Jay Ryan is a would-be intellectual who inspires garbage-man
James Urbaniak to write a poem. What ends up happening from there finds
Ryan falling for Urbaniak's sister (Parker Posey), while Urbaniak's depressed
mother (Maria Porter) looks on and his poem becomes something of a sensation.
Hartley's script is filled with crazy humor, wild turns of emotion,
and offbeat, colorful characters, but like a lot of his movies, a little
bit tends to go a long way. There should have been no reason why "Henry
Fool" goes on for nearly two-and-a-half hours, yet Hartley's self-indulgences
have always kept him from achieving more cult status than he has. That
being said, the movie's characters are interestingly drawn and performed,
and there are many effective scenes, of both comedic and dramatic nature.
Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a 1.78, 16:9 enhanced transfer that's
as good as the source material will likely ever look, while the 2.0 Dolby
Stereo soundtrack is modestly effective.
Gift-candidate Family Fare
LILO & STITCH'S ISLAND OF ADVENTURES (***, 2003, Disney):
With interactive games constantly popping up as part of typical DVD supplemental
fare, it's no surprise that we've finally reached the point where studios
are now producing full-blown board games in the medium. Disney's "Lilo
& Stitch's Island of Adventures" is a fun and engaging first stab in
the format, which takes the lovable characters from the hit movie (and
current Saturday morning/Disney Channel series) and places them in a game
for up to six players. The game is easy enough for kids to understand,
and all of it is nicely executed, with players using the DVD for rolling
the dice and trying to collect other "experiments" that happen to be Stitch's
cousins. The environments are colorful, the games aren't complicated, and
the presentation is enhanced with tuneful music in 5.1 surround. As a bonus,
the DVD contains a pair of episodes from the Saturday morning TV show,
along with playing parts and a "Stitch! The Movie" poster. A unique present
for family audiences, and definitely recommended.
LIZZIE McGUIRE Vols. 1 & 2 (***, 87 mins. each,
2000-02, Disney): Sure, the Lizzie McGuire phenomenon has cooled off since
Hilary Duff bolted for features and a pop music career, but just try telling
that to the show's legion of teeny-bopper fans out there! Disney's first
two DVD volumes from the clever, engaging Disney Channel series each contain
four episodes; Vol. 1 focuses on fashions, Vol. 2 focuses on "firsts,"
including Lizzie's attempt at sneaking into an R rated movie (in the amusingly
titled "Rated Aargh!"). The show manages to mix messages in with wacky
humor far more successfully than typical Nickelodeon trash, thanks to amusing
scripts and direction from veterans like Savage Steve Holland ("Better
Off Dead") and Potsie himself, Anson Williams. Extras are limited to music
videos and a "casting audition" game on Vol.1, while the full-screen transfers
look perfect and are complimented by 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks.
Cavalcade of Capsule Reviews
HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT/HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR/DATE BAIT (***, Image
Entertainment): Terrific triple-feature from Something Weird Video and
Image Entertainment contains remastered editions of fare that last found
fame as part of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." "High School Big Shot"
(1958) is the funniest and most entertaining of the lot, with a squeaky-clean
high schooler falling for a "bad girl" and trying to impress her by ripping
off a million in drug money! Check out the early score by Gerald Fried
and try not to laugh at the shenanigans served up by writer-director Joel
M. Rapp. "High School Ceasar" (1960) and "Date Bait" (1960) are a pair
of offerings from the prolific O'Dale Ireland, continuing the nostalgic,
'50s B-movie feel. "Caesar" is superior to the latter, with John Ashley
as a snotty rich kid who ultimately receives his comeuppance, while "Date
Bait" finds Marla Ryan as the object of affection of both good guy "Danny"
and bad boy "Brad." It's all hilarious and great fun for buffs, while Image
has rounded out the disc with trailers, exploitation art and audio "oddities."
This DVD surely makes the grade -- check it out!
ALEX AND EMMA (**, 96 mins., 2003, PG-13; Warner,
available Dec. 23): Author Luke Wilson has a month to finish his new novel
or hit men will soon be breathing down his neck. So, Wilson hires stenographer
Kate Hudson to assist him with his creation: a 1920's, Fitzgerald-like
tale of flappers and floozies. No, it's not quite "Misery," and Kate Hudson
and co-star Sophie Marceau aren't exactly Kathy Bates, but otherwise director
Rob Reiner's romantic comedy fails to match the overall entertainment value
of his earlier work about a writer pushed to the brink. It's predictable
fluff, but "Don Juan DeMarco" scribe Jeremy Leven's script is a notch above
for this kind of thing, even if Wilson is too straight-arrow to ignite
any sparks with Hudson. Warner's DVD offers a breezy 1.85 transfer with
a fine 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack (sporting a nice Marc Shaiman score).
Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer and commentary from Wilson and
HOW TO DEAL (**, 100 mins., 2003, PG-13; New Line):
Mandy Moore gives a strong, sensitive performance in an otherwise out-of-control
teen drama that throws in every major social issue facing teenagers today.
The result is an unbelievable soap opera with Moore as a high schooler
who ends up facing death, pregnancy, drug use, and other obstacles in her
quest at personal enlightenment and, well, "how to deal" with it all. Nina
Foch is a hoot as Moore's pot-smoking grandmother (she's using it for medicinal
purposes, or was at least), but there's little life in the rest of the
movie, which even young audiences had a tough time stomaching at the box-office
last summer. New Line's Special Edition DVD, like virtually all of the
studio's output, looks terrific and includes a group commentary including
the star, Making Of, and deleted scenes (with or without director commentary).
The 1.85 transfer is superb and a 5.1 soundtrack round out the disc.
THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS (**1/2, 79 mins.,
PG-13; Miramax): Second effort from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's "Project:
Greenlight" HBO series stars rising youngster Shia LaBeouf as a high school
senior who enjoys participating in weekend WWII recreations but little
else. His teachers are annoying, his parents (Kathleen Quinlan, William
Sadler) are grating, and his only solace is that his rich friend (Elden
Henson) has a cute older sister (Amy Smart). The stage is then set for
an offbeat teen coming-of-age story, but the execution by duo directors
Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle is so uneven that it's tough to tell what
sold Affleck and Damon on the merits of Erica Beeney's original script.
The actors try hard, but 79 minutes isn't enough time to flesh out the
numerous characters in this amiable, sporadically entertaining film that
can't quite get its act together. Miramax's DVD offers a fine 1.85 transfer
with 5.1 sound -- presumably, any special features will be included in
the DVD release of "Project: Greenlight"'s second season.
DIRTY DANCING: The Ultimate Edition (***, 104 mins.,
PG-13, 1987; Artisan Entertainment): Remastered two-disc set of the seminal
'80s classic sports a new digital 16:9 transfer and 6.1 DTS soundtrack,
an appreciable improvement on Artisan's previous (two!) DVD versions. New
extras include an introduction from Jennifer Grey, a second commentary
group track including Kenny Ortega and cinematographer Jeff Jur, additional
intrviews, and Grey's screen test. All of the superb extras from the earlier
Special Edition release have been reprised, including writer Eleanor Bergstein's
commentary, the full-length "Live In Concert" special, and more. The movie
remains a fun blast of '80s (and '60s) nostalgia: check out this and the
new RCA soundtrack re-issue (for which I contributed the liner notes) for
ideal Christmas presents this holiday season.
NEXT WEEK: The Aisle Seat wraps up 2003 with a
special "Unplugged" column of random musings. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll catch you then. Cheers!