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Aisle Seat Mid-Winter Mania

DVD reviews including ABOUT A BOY, SWEET HOME ALABAMA and more! Plus: Andy's Oscar Comments and the Mail Bag

By Andy Dursin

Oscar time has rolled around once again, and last week's nominations really offered few surprises.

CHICAGO, with 13 nominations, is the obvious choice to claim most of the awards on March 23. A highly entertaining musical based on the Kander & Ebb show, the movie has everything going for it: it's a critical success and a box-office hit, stamped by strong audience word-of-mouth. It's a musical, a genre that could be cinematically revived by the reception of multiple awards. And, hey, it's also a good movie -- which also helps.

GANGS OF NEW YORK, with 11 nominations, was my pick for the best of 2002, and perhaps Martin Scorsese has a real chance of bringing home the Best Director nod. As far as the movie itself goes, its violent imagery may prove to be a little much for some middle-of-the-road Oscar voters, but still may be considered a dark horse in a race where it seems apparent that THE HOURS, THE PIANIST, and certainly LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS are on the outside looking in.

As far as Best Original Score goes, I was delighted to see John Williams deservedly cop yet another nomination, this time for his wonderful score in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN - - an entertaining though ultimately slight Steven Spielberg film where Williams' score was the most enjoyable element in it.

I'm also not surprised that Howard Shore's THE TWO TOWERS failed to be recognized. As subtle and effective as the composer's "Fellowship of the Ring" soundtrack was, I found THE TWO TOWERS to be an overly bombastic and repetitive score in a movie that could have, ultimately, used a lot less music. Ditto for Williams' uninspired (by his standards) EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES, which snagged one lone nomination for Visual Effects -- the lowest Oscar count in Star Wars history. Add in the apparent confusion over how "original" these Original Scores were to the befuddled Oscar voters and it shouldn't have been any shock that neither were recognized.

Finally, can we dispose of five nominees for Best Original Animated Picture? And how about only handing out Make-Up awards when it's truly necessary? We're now living at a time when flops like TREASURE PLANET and the remake of THE TIME MACHINE are both nominated for Academy Awards.

So, I guess if you can make Jeremy Irons look like a refugee from an '80s rock band, I guess you can also get a ticket to the Oscars, eh?


DVD Picks of the Week

ABOUT A BOY (***1/2, 102 mins., 2002, PG-13; Universal): Adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel deservedly copped an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination last week for writers Peter Hedges, Chris and Paul Weitz, the latter two being responsible for the original "American Pie."

Hugh Grant is terrific as an obnoxious playboy who lives off the royalties from his father's one-hit wonder Christmas song. After trying to pick up single moms at a local group meeting -- pretending to have a child of his own -- he meets a Marcus, a precocious 12-year-old (played wonderfully by Nicholas Hoult) with a suicidal mother (Toni Collette) and no father figure. The two ultimately form a bond, though like everything in ABOUT A BOY, it doesn't quite happen or end the way you might anticipate.

Hornby's novel had to have been a tricky one for the filmmakers to adapt. With mood swings from melodrama to biting comedy and back again, it would have been easy for most directors to be pulled off course with ABOUT A BOY and never recover. Happily, the Weitz Brothers managed to pull off the difficult feat of articulating the comedic and ultimately heartwarming aspects of the story without compromising Grant's uncompromising lead character, a terrific performance by the actor that easily ranks as one of his best. Toni Collette is also excellent as Marcus' troubled mom, and Hoult never becomes grating in a consistently on-target performance as the young teenager. The ending itself is also brilliant, managing to be emotional one second and uproarious the next, reflecting real life and making its characters more three-dimensional than those we see in most Hollywood films.

Universal's DVD offers a strong 2.35 widescreen transfer that looks colorful and crisp at every turn. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is also superb, offering a fine mix of original songs and score by the group Badly Drawn Boy. For supplements, the disc includes commentary from Chris and Paul Weitz, approximately 15 minutes of deleted scenes (many of which are quite good), several music videos, a promotional featurette, DVD-ROM features, and other goodies.

ABOUT A BOY is a great movie well worth catching on DVD, where its intimate nature may play even better than it did on the big screen. Highly recommended.


LADY JANE (***, 140 mins., 1986, PG-13; Paramount): A young Helena Bonham Carter starred as 16-year-old Jane Grey -- who became Queen of England for a scant nine days in 1553 -- in this compelling 1986 costume drama.

While the teenage son of the late King Henry VIII grows increasingly sick, John Dudley (John Wood) tries to orchestrate an arrangement that will send the Protestant Jane -- and her husband, Dudley's carefree son (Cary Elwes) -- to the throne instead of the King's older, Catholic sister Mary (Jane Lapotaire). What Dudley doesn't count on is Jane's progressive social beliefs, like giving land back to the poor and downtrodden, restoring the shilling to its intended silver brilliance, and releasing political prisoners.

Good costume dramas are few and far between in the last few decades, which makes the underrated LADY JANE a movie well worth revisiting on DVD. David Edgar's script and Trevor Nunn's direction create an authentic depiction of time and place, while the performances are uniformly excellent. Especially noteworthy is the work of Michael Hordern, as an understanding Catholic called in to question Jane's beliefs, and Patrick Stewart and Sara Kestelman as Jane's parents.

Shot on location throughout England by Douglas Slocombe, LADY JANE is a fascinating historical study that manages to incorporate a youthful romance into a heady brew of conflicting politics, religious beliefs, and class struggles that plunged England into turmoil at that time. The film is leisurely paced at 140 minutes, and does seem to go on a bit (the scenes where the couple discuss what they plan to do with their kingdom are a little repetitive), but by and large this is a fine film with excellent performances -- a must for all history buffs. Also noteworthy is Stephen Oliver's original score, which manages to be more contemporary with its lyrical themes than most period soundtracks, working well within the confines of the drama. Oliver, who died in 1992, wrote dozens of scores for British TV films, many of them Shakespeare adaptations.

LADY JANE has been released on DVD by Paramount with a stills gallery on the supplemental side, but no other extras. The Dolby Stereo 2.0 soundtrack is something of a mess, though likely it's due to the limitations of the original sound mix. Dialogue in certain scenes is clearly audible, but muffled and very hard to understand in others. The music, on the other hand, is louder than the dialogue, which seems to been entirely recorded live during filming, but suffers from the discrepancy in the various locations where the movie was shot. There's also an audible, low-register "throbbing" sound I detected coming out of my subwoofer at various points during the movie (even during quiet dialogue exchanges). Not having seen the film previously, I cannot tell if this latter aspect is a problem inherent with the original track or something amiss in the DVD mix.

The 1.85 transfer fairs better. Enhanced for 16:9 TVs, certain scenes appear muddy and soft, but by all accounts this can be attributed to the original cinematography and not the DVD. LADY JANE was a modestly budgeted film and thus lacks the epic sweep of other period works, but it's still well worth a look.


Also New on DVD

SUMMER OF FEAR (99 mins., 1978, Not Rated; Artisan Home Entertainment): Kids growing up today don't even know what a good made-for-TV movie is. Networks seem like they'd rather crank out another disgusting reality show like "Fear Factor" than produce a watchable TV flick -- something that wasn't hard to do back in the '70s and '80s, when Movies of the Week would frequently boast decent stars and directors.

SUMMER OF FEAR, also known as "A Stranger In Our House," is a mostly routine and thoroughly predictable 1978 TV movie, which nevertheless played like a breath of fresh air in my DVD player after some of the junk I reviewed last week.

What makes it entertaining is the cast: Linda Blair (back in her cute, post- "Exorcist II", pre-"Roller Boogie" days) stars a typical teen whose cousin (the appealing, underrated Lee Purcell from "Big Wednesday") comes to stay with her family. No sooner does Purcell show up than Linda sees her beloved horse Sundance act up, boyfriend stolen, best friend ditched, dad seduced, and mom befuddled -- and I didn't even mentioned the case of hives that Blair contracts on the day of the big dance!

Turns out cousin Lee is really a witch with nefarious plans, and not even Jeff East (The Man Who Would Be Young Clark Kent) and pal Fran Drescher (believe it or not) believe Linda in her quest to expose her "cousin" from the Ozarks before she, well, does whatever she wants (steal someone else's boyfriend?).

The plot is familiar and obvious, but the cast makes it palatable, with Blair giving an appropriately whiny performance that still, somehow, manages to be appealing. Directing this CBS movie was none other than Wes Craven, who broke into the mainstream with this by-the-numbers but fun "fright" flick, which won't scare anyone under the age of eight.

Artisan has produced a surprisingly robust DVD for SUMMER OF FEAR. Craven and producer Max Keller contribute an audio commentary track, with Craven obviously sharing a good deal of affection for the movie. The reprocessed-for-stereo 5.1 sound is fine, and the original mono mix is also included. Visually, the full-frame transfer is excellent, with strong, bold colors and only a few abnormalities in the print popping up from time to time. The original fade-outs for commercial breaks have not been excised, making this a true blast of nostalgia for genre fans.


SWEET HOME ALABAMA (**1/2, 109 mins., 2002, PG-13; Touchstone): Cute but overlong romantic comedy stars Reese Witherspoon as a NYC fashion designer engaged to Mayor Candice Bergen's JFK Jr.-esque son (Patrick Dempsey). In order to get hitched, though, Witherspoon has to go back home to rural Alabama so she can get the official divorce papers signed by her ex-beau and current husband (Josh Lucas), whom she deserted years before.

Andy Tennant ("Ever After," "Anna and the King") directed this pleasant enough formula comedy, which grossed well over $120 million thanks to Witherspoon's charm and a script by C. Jay Cox that pushes all the requisite buttons you'd expect from a movie like this. While the film has some surprises that prevent it from being completely by-the- numbers -- Dempsey is actually kind of likeable -- you can still see where the movie is going to end up every turn.

The fun comes in getting there, and in this respect SWEET HOME ALABAMA achieves its goal for the most part. Witherspoon and Lucas manage to develop some chemistry with one another, while Mary Kay Place is excellent as Reese's mom. Candice Bergen's performance as the harried Mayor, though, hits a sour note -- it's basically the same cartoonish role she played in "Miss Congeniality," and the film tends to slow down whenever she's on-screen. Ditto for Witherspoon's Confederate flag-waving dad, played a little too stereotypically by the usually reliable Fred Ward. Overall, SWEET HOME ALABAMA is a sweet little piece of fluff that gets by due to Witherspoon and Lucas' performances. The main problem is that there's little reason why this particular story needed to go on for 109 minutes. A little less formula in the script and a little more punch in the editing room would have resulted in a real charmer instead of the pleasant but unremarkable commercial hit that it is.

Touchstone's DVD offers a 2.35 transfer that suffers from some shimmering lines around background objects and a little instability in the image overall. In the wake of SIGNS, this comes as another small disappointment from the generally reliable folks at Buena Vista. Certainly it's not bad, but it's not quite as sharp and clear as one would anticipate it being. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is superb, sporting a mellow score by George Fenton and a few bouncy songs. For supplements, there's a fine commentary track from director Tennant, a handful of deleted scenes, and a terrible alternate ending that was wisely dropped after test audiences (smartly) demanded re-shoots.
 


LIVING IN OBLIVION (***, 92 mins., 1995, R; Columbia TriStar): Smart, funny indie film won critical raves and snagged the Screenplay Award at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.

Tom DiCillo's film chronicles the nightmarish experience of an independent filmmaker (Steve Buscemi) during the shooting of his new movie. The male lead (James LeGros), "expanding his horizons" in making the low-budget film, thinks he has a better read on blocking scenes than the director; the female lead (Catherine Keener) can't seem to get her act in gear; and cinematographer Dermot Mulroney (who also co-produced) tries to get his relationship straightened out while holding the rag-tag crew together.

DiCillo's career since making this 1995 sleeper hasn't lived up to the promise he showed here, but if you've only got one movie up your sleeve, at least LIVING IN OBLIVION is a good one. This is a smart and perceptive film that movie buffs and aspiring filmmakers should really enjoy, with hilarious scenes and a mounting level of comic anxiety that ultimately reaches a fever pitch. The cast, meanwhile, is great across the board, with Buscemi in particular being dead-on in his role as a frustrated auteur.

Columbia TriStar's new Special Edition DVD offers a 1.85 transfer (16:9 enhanced) and 2.0 stereo soundtrack. A new commentary track by the director is included along with an interview with DiCillo and Buscemi and a handful of deleted scenes.

Highly recommended!


BAND OF THE HAND (**, 110 mins., 1986, R; Columbia TriStar): One of Michael Mann's few forays into producing, this 1986 action flick is fairly routine but pretty amusing nonetheless.

Vietnam vet Stephen Lang is put in charge of a group of young cons ripped off the streets of Miami, one of Mann's favorite stomping grounds. While Lang trains the group in a very "Rambo"-like setting in the Everglades, one of the group's girlfriends decides to take up with his former employer -- a nefarious drug lord (James Remar) whom the Band of the Hand is promptly sent to take down.

In 1986, audiences weren't all that interested with BAND OF THE HAND, with most critics calling it a pale imitation of Mann's "Miami Vice." Paul Michael Glaser's direction is standard, making the movie seem more like a two-hour TV-film than a theatrical release, while the Leo Garen-Jack Baran script is also cut and dried. The movie is by-the-numbers all the way, right down to its explosive finale.

That being said, what wasn't particularly interesting in 1986 -- the young cast, settings, and soundtrack (all routine for its day) -- will prove entertaining now for nostalgia buffs. The cast still includes a bland collection of young male leads (ex-model Leon is the big name in the group)[Actually, Andy has neglected what is now the biggest name in the group -- "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"'s writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell, in a role he probably leaves off his resume--SB], but the presence of Larry Fishburne (as a local hood), Lauren Holly, and the Willem Dafoe-ish Remar give the story a little juice. Ditto for the soundtrack, which includes '80s staples from the likes of Mister Mister and Prince, plus a pair of original Bob Dylan songs!

Columbia's DVD offers a colorful full-frame transfer and 2.0 Dolby soundtrack. Since the movie was not shot in widescreen, BAND OF THE HAND looks reasonably well composed in 1.33, though the framing only accentuates the TV-like aspects of the material. No other extras have been included.


MASTER OF DISGUISE (**, 80 mins., 2002, PG; Columbia TriStar): Dana Carvey's zany comedy plays like those scenes in the "Pink Panther" movies where Inspector Clouseau would suit up for disguise in the shop of Professor Balls. The only problem? Those "Pink Panther" sequences lasted about 10 minutes or less, while MASTER OF DISGUISE goes on for 80 some odd minutes.

Still, kids and die-hard Carvey fans should extract a few laughs out of this brainless affair. Carvey plays a hapless waiter named Pistachio Disguisey (I'm not making this up) who finds out his father (James Brolin) and grandfather (Harold Gould) have perfected the art of disguise to the point where Brolin can make himself look like Bo Derek, Jesse Ventura, singer Jessica Simpson and gold-medal winner Michael Johnson (all seen in quick cameos that try to bring the movie to life). After Brolin is kidnapped by evil Brent Spiner (no comment necessary), Carvey takes to disguising himself as a collection of characters -- some funny, most not -- with the help of the ever- appealing Jennifer Esposito, who always seems to get stuck in D.O.A. movies like this.

Carvey co-wrote this silly lark that Adam Sandler's company co-produced. The end result is pretty much what you'd expect from that teaming, though at least Carvey gives it his all and the film is over by the 70 minute mark (there are tons of outtakes and end credits).

Columbia's DVD offers only a full-frame transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack, plus commentary from Carvey and director Perry Blake. Additional deleted and alternate scenes are included (with introductions by Carvey in his Turtle Guy guise), along with music videos, trailers, and making of featurettes.


IGBY GOES DOWN (**, 98 mins., 2002, R; MGM): One of those movies that generates a whole lot of pre-release "buzz" before it fails completely to find an audience, Burr Steers' caustic IGBY GOES DOWN plays like a nasty, inferior version of Wes Anderson's "Rushmore."

Kieran Culkin plays Igby, a disaffected kid shipped from one boarding school to another, with a father (Bill Pullman) who's out of the picture and a mother (Susan Sarandon) addicted to pills. Despite finding sexual interest from Claire Danes, Igby's life is a desolate one, and not even his mom's new beau (Jeff Goldblum) and brother (Ryan Phillippe) can help the frustrated youngster in his quest to come of age.

IGBY GOES DOWN isn't especially funny and ultimately plays far too cynically for its own good. Culkin's performance is fine -- as is the work of the rest of the cast -- but the problem is that Steers' script is awfully one-note, with a tone that grows tiresome by the time the 98-minute film has finished. The 2.35 cinematography (nicely replicated on DVD by MGM) is solid, as is the wacky score by Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, but IGBY GOES DOWN is one of those films I have to chalk up as being for an "acquired taste" that I readily admit I haven't acquired.

MGM's DVD looks and sounds fine, and offers commentary with Culkin and Steers, some 10 minutes of deleted scenes culled off the workprint, a photo gallery, and the theatrical trailer.


GLORY DAZE (*1/2, 100 mins., 1996, R; Columbia TriStar): Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Rockwell, French Stewart, and Alyssa Milano likely wish they could bury this barely-seen independent film from the mid '90s, or at least have it removed from their filmographies. Unfortunately for them, their names mean more now than they did back in 1996 when this low, low-budget college comedy was released to a few theaters on the west coast.

Affleck, with a REALLY bad haircut, plays a college slacker who doesn't want to graduate, but rather stay on campus and party. Subsequently, this being a youth picture from the mid '90s, we have all sorts of Gen-X speak -- you have the requisite questioning of one's self worth like "why grow up?", "what am I going to do with my life?", "is there life after this college frat party?", and "I don't want to become my father." All of which is contrasted with typical, "Animal House"-like antics, and a supporting cast that includes "special appearances" by the likes of John Rhys-Davies (hot off "Sliders" at the time) and Spalding Gray. Needless to say, the movie -- which also boasts blink-or-you'll-miss-them cameos from the likes of Matt Damon, Leah Remini, Meredith Salenger, and Brendan Fraser -- fails in every way to live up to its talented cast, while writer-director Rich Wilkes (author of "Airheads" and "The Jerky Boys") has since gone on to write the hideous Vin Diesel flick "XXX" and its forthcoming sequel.

GLORY DAZE looks like it was shot on digital video, or something other than traditional 35mm film, at least judging from Columbia's DVD release. Both the 16:9 enhanced transfer and full-frame version seem awfully washed out and somewhat unfocused, likely the result of the movie's meager budget. The 5.1 Digital sound is OK, and bonus trailers are also included on the supplemental side.

Recommended strictly for Affleck completists or those who just can't pass up the idea of a college comedy with that cast.
 


Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Robert E. Bowd:

Hi Andy:

[Re: The Mail Bag segment from 2/4], I loved your last paragraph commenting on universities using MEN ARE FROM MARS as official knowledge. Haven't read the book, myself, but I can imagine the pop psychology spin it promotes. As someone who spends a fair amount of time around a university context, your remarks about the dumbing down of university curricula amused me. Your correspondent is likely going to write you an even lengthier tome in response to your comments on THELMA AND LOUISE.
 
I have always enjoyed your reviews - critical, fair, and intelligent, not to mention an ironic sense of humour which I appreciate - and look forward to reading them. In fact, I can hardly wait to get my hands on THE MUSKETEER COLLECTION, thanks to your review. Have a good one!

 Thanks Bob!

From Gary Howard:

Andy, I've said it before, publicly, and to you personally, but it bears repeating. The AISLE SEAT is absolutely the best feature in FILM SCORE MONTHLY, DAILY, HOURLY, you name it. Keep up the spectacular work.
I should mention that Gary is not a relative of mine, neither a pseudonym for one. Thanks for the kind words, Gary!

From James Southall:

[Re: X-Men comments from 2/11], While I'm sure Singer would have liked to ditch Kamen's score, on the scoring stage the director made Kamen rewrite various key sections of his score; Kamen had originally written themes for each character and it was a very leitmotivic score but Singer wanted "background music" that didn't interfere so insisted on the composer writing more low-key music. It's ironic that most of the criticism of the score is that it just isn't big enough and is too generic when these are exactly the flaws that Singer introduced himself. Given a free hand I'm sure Kamen would have written a score that would have satisfied considerably more people. It will be very interesting to see what Singer allows Ottman to do for the sequel.
From J.P. Falcon:
Andy -- I do not know if you plan to do any silent movie DVD recommendations in the future or not, but either way, don't pass up the opportunity to view the newly restored version of Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen. It has been a favorite of mine since my BETA days (yup BETA, guilty as charged). One of the many features is the newly recorded original score by Gottfried Huppertz. It is a marvelous work when you consider how long the two films are (over 4 hours). I have been posting this info on many message boards, even posting a review on Amazon.com because of my belief that this true masterpiece needs to be seen. Hope you get a chance to see it.
 
P.S. Sorry if this sounds like some spamming, believe me when I say that I have no financial gain from sales of this video.
No disclaimer necessary, J.P. I'll try and check it out!


NEXT TIME: More reviews and your comments, as always. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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