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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 today.

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 life.

"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 elves.

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 adaptation.

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, miscast performance.

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 Dolby Stereo.

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 Reiner.


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 dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Cheers!


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