Aisle Seat TWILIGHT ZONE Edition

Andy Reviews Image’s New Box Sets!
Plus: New Zone-inspired tales THE VILLAGE and THE FORGOTTEN

The familiar sounds of the Twilight Zone. . .the inevitable twist, the moody photography and feel that things are just a bit off-kilter.

For many of us who grew up post-1959 – whether it was back in the ‘60s during its initial run, or in the ‘70s and ‘80s via reruns – “The Twilight Zone” was a place that was always worth visiting. Rod Serling’s classic television anthology – a show that embraced sci-fi, fantasy, horror, satire, a bit of whimsy and many times the political paranoia of its era – remains one of the all-time classic series to grace the television airwaves. Whether the show scared you, repelled you, made you think, or simply entertained, chances are good that even the most average episode of Serling’s show (which ran on the CBS from 1959 to 1965) was scripted and produced by an abundance of talented writers, actors and directors, far more capable of delivering its intended message than nearly anything we see on the airwaves now.

Image Entertainment celebrated “The Twilight Zone” in the final week of 2004 by releasing a pair of new DVD sets: “The Definitive Edition” First Season of the original TWILIGHT ZONE (****, 1959-60; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week), as well as its intriguing, though ultimately disappointing, TWILIGHT ZONE (**, 1985-86) revival in the mid ‘80s.

The original “Zone” has been released in a variety of flavors on video, laserdisc, and DVD previously, but there’s no doubt Image’s new set is clearly the way to go for die-hard Zone fanatics. All the episodes have been treated to new remastered transfers, which look fresh and only a bit grainy, with the original monophonic soundtracks also appearing in satisfactory condition. What’s more, Serling’s “Next Week’s Twilight Zone” promos have been retained, some of which are as amusing as the episodes themselves.

Combining all 36 first season stories (quite a single-season number by today’s standards) including classics like “Time Enough At Last,” “The Lonely,” “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “A Stop at Willoughby,” the six-disc “Twilight Zone: Definitive Edition” is packed with extras, including a specially-packaged edition of Marc Scott Zicree’s outstanding “Twilight Zone Companion.” Zicree’s book includes synopses of all Twilight Zone episodes with interviews with writers, directors and cast members, and provides a great read, even without having watched the individual episodes detailed within.

In fact, some of the research Zicree conducted for his book in the late ‘70s – including interviews with cast members like Anne Francis and writers Richard Matheson and Buck Houghton – are included here as supplemental audio tracks, along with new commentaries from Kevin McCarthy and Rod Taylor among others, plus full isolated score tracks.

As any film music fan knows, the original “Twilight Zone” provided a golden opportunity for talented composers, both established artists like Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann, and then-fledgling newcomers like Jerry Goldsmith. Image has included no less than 21 isolated scores in this first season set (some of which are tracked with library cues), including: “Where Is Everybody?” (Bernard Herrmann), “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (Franz Waxman), “Walking Distance” (Herrmann), “The Lonely” (Herrmann), “A Stop at Willoughby” (Nathan Scott), “The Chaser,” “A Passage For Trumpet” (Lyn Murray), “Perchance to Dream” (Van Cleave), “And When the Sky Was Opened” (Leonard Rosenman), “What You Need” (Cleave), “The Four Of Us Are Dying” (Goldsmith), “Third From the Sun,” “A World of Difference” (Cleave), “The Big Tall Wish” (Goldsmith), “A Nice Place to Visit,” “Nightmare as a Child” (Goldsmith), “The Hitch-Hiker,” “The Purple Testament” (Lucien Moraweck), “Elegy” (Cleave), “Mirror Image,” and “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” (Rene Garriguenc).

Additional audio tracks include classroom lecture tapes with Professor Serling at work and even several recently-produced “Twilight Zone” radio dramas, including a remake of “The After Hours” with Kim Fields and narrator Stacey Keach (talk about an oddball pairing!).

For other supplements, Image has included a full slate of special features on the sixth DVD. The original version of the pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody?,” is included here, sporting alternate Serling narration, commentary from producer William Self, and a 1975 Sherwood Oaks College lecture. There are also bloopers, sales pitches, a segment of the game show “Liars Club” hosted by Serling, photo galleries, billboards, Emmy Award clips, a portion of a “Drew Carey Show” that paid homage to “Time Enough At Last,” and an issue of the 1963 TZ comic book in Adobe Acrobat format.

After five seasons on the CBS airwaves, “The Twilight Zone” retreated to a long, successful tenure in re-run syndication. Along the way, Steven Spielberg opted to produce an anthology “Zone” feature film in 1983. “Twilight Zone: The Movie” was a box-office flop and an ultimately disappointing film, dominated by misguided changes to its source material and only redeemed partially by George Miller’s concluding segment and Jerry Goldsmith’s sensational score.

Though far from a commercial success, the “Zone” movie paved the way for THE TWILIGHT ZONE to return to the air in 1985, alongside other genre anthologies like NBC’s “Amazing Stories” and revival of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Unfortunately, while “Amazing Stories” was front-loaded with talent and high production values (and as such hasn’t dated badly), the 1985 “Twilight Zone” feels very much like a product of its time. The grainy look of the series (which is how it originally appeared) and mostly pedestrian musical scores by “Merl Saunders and The Grateful Dead” only enhance the often disappointing stories assembled by producer Phil DeGuere and consultant Harlan Ellison among others.

Going through all six discs of Image’s “Twilight Zone” ‘85, I was struck by how the new show often lost sight of what Serling’s original series was all about. Many stories offer a shocking twist, but unlike the old “Zone,” there’s usually no subtext or point to them. Serling’s series often had a message that transcended the creatures and alien invaders you’d routinely see. Here, in its worst moments, the “Zone” revival simply feels like bad ‘80s genre television – more like “Tales From The Darkside” in tone and spirit than Serling – with often subpar special effects.

One of the other strange and unsettling aspects to the series is how it routinely used children as victims, with one episode (“Examination Day”) showing a young boy executed for being too intelligent, another young protagonist (in Joe Dante’s “The Shadow Man”) strangled at the hands of a fictional comic book character, and a Stephen King adaptation (“Gramma”) featuring Barrett Oliver being tormented by his devilish grandmother. There are other instances as well (“The Burning Man,” “Children’s Zoo,” “A Little Peace and Quiet”) where kids either meet a grizzly end or are at least viewed as obstacles in the happiness of its protagonists – something that, no wonder, made the ‘85 “Zone” an unbelievably unsuitable choice for viewing among 8:00 p.m. audiences on a Friday night (as producer Phil DeGuere notes in one of his audio commentaries, the producers were guaranteed by CBS that the show would air at 10:00 p.m., but ultimately to no avail. Regardless, the tone of most of these shows would leave a bad taste in the mouth at ANY hour).

There are, however, some superb episodes sprinkled throughout the disappointments – though only enough that a 2-disc “Best Of” compilation likely would have suited most viewers.

Director Wes Craven was responsible for the few standout shows from the “Zone” revival, including “Her Pilgrim Soul,” a lyrical tale of love lost and found, beautifully scripted by Richard Matheson; “Dealer’s Choice,” with Morgan Freeman and M. Emmett Walsh playing cards with the devil; and “Shatterday,” a Harlan Ellison story about a businessman (Bruce Willis) whose conflicting personas ultimately clash with one another.

Other solid episodes include the excellent “A Message From Charity,” about the unlikely, sensitive and moving connection between a girl in Puritan Massachusetts and a modern teenage boy, sporting a Basil Poledouris score that sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to most “Zone” revival soundtracks (and the less said, the better about the Grateful Dead’s eclectic, but unsatisfying, musical contributions). William Friedkin’s “Nightcrawlers” is the most impressive visual piece of the series, while Ellison’s “Paladin of the Lost Hour” manages to transcend its creaky visuals with a satisfying premise and incisive dialogue.

Speaking of Ellison, he contributes many fascinating and hilarious commentary tracks throughout Image’s box set, no more so than on “Paladin,” where he calls director Gil Cates (operating under the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym) a “hack” and talks about how “selfish” star Danny Kaye was during shooting. It’s moments like those that make you treasure commentary tracks where filmmakers are candid about what REALLY went on, and while such tracks are atypical on DVD, all of the commentaries here are fascinating and add plenty of insight into the series’ production, failures and successes.

Tellingly, most of the commentaries are included on the first three of the set’s six discs, with the second-half of the first season episodes offering little to discuss. Other extras include a 15-minute interview with Wes Craven, discussing his favorite moments from the show, and brief animated “bumpers” that CBS ran in between segments of the series.

The transfers, meanwhile, often look excessively grainy, but this was a product of how the show was shot (even though my recollections of the show’s original run are based on my days in 5th and 6th grade, this is how I recall them appearing on CBS in the mid ‘80s). About half of the soundtracks are in stereo while the others are in mono, and they’re all acceptable (again, not as elaborate as the rich stereophonic mixes “Amazing Stories” had, but still passable for their time).

Ironically, it took until the final days of 2004 to see two of the best DVD packages of the year released. Both sets have been exceedingly well produced, stock-piled with extras, and rank as essential purchases (at least the original “Zone”) for any respectable sci-fi/fantasy aficionado. Submitted for your approval, and highly recommended!

Zone-Esque New DVDs

Of course, the effects of Rod Serling’s groundbreaking series can be felt even today, where filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan have basically built their entire careers on “Twilight Zone”-inspired premises.

Shyamalan’s latest work, THE VILLAGE (**½, 2004, 108 mins., PG-13; Buena Vista) is out this week on DVD.

Joaquin Phoenix (who also appeared in Shyamalan’s “Signs”) and Bryce Dallas Howard star as young members of a quiet, isolated Pennsylvania town in the late 1800s, overseen by elders William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson. The townspeople tell their kin never to venture outside the town’s borders and mutter a word about “Those We Don’t Speak Of” (monsters who have been leaving skinned animal carcases around the village), Phoenix questions their authority and intentions when he believes that medical supplies could be obtained in “the towns,” thereby improving the quality of life for their residents.

Though a profitable box-office success, the movie was lambasted by many critics and audiences, with both pointing out the obvious “twist” in the movie’s premise and criticizing the flaccid dialogue in Shyamalan’s script.

While “The Village” is arguably the least ambitious of the filmmaker’s works to date (though I admit to having a firm dislike for “Unbreakable”), and the pseudo-19th century dialogue as performed by the cast sometimes comes across as unintentionally humorous (especially in the early going), Shyamalan’s film is a well-crafted and performed piece that isn’t so much about an Earth-shattering twist (which actually comes two-thirds of the way in) as it is about a people trying to maintain an existence without the interference of the outside world.

Like Shyamalan’s previous works, “The Village” is exceedingly well produced, with atmospheric cinematography by Roger Deakins and another memorable score by James Newton Howard, here superbly utilizing the talents of violinist Hilary Hahn.

Though the premise is obvious, it seemed apparent to me that Shyamalan built his film around his characters instead of waiting to unveil “the big twist” in the final minutes, a la “The Sixth Sense.” Shyamalan gives all kinds of overt clues that what you’re watching “isn’t quite right,” even in the opening minutes, and instead of dwelling on The Big Twist, turns his attention to Bryce Dallas Howard’s nearly blind, resourceful heroine. Howard (Ron’s daughter, making her starring debut) is a fresh newcomer who tries valiantly to carry the film, and very nearly succeeds with a strong, praiseworthy performance.

The problem comes in the sluggish pacing of “The Village” and lack of interesting characters outside of Howard’s heroine. Adrien Brody is wasted as the village idiot in a part that never seems fully developed, while Phoenix spends the second half of the picture literally off-screen. The performances of veterans like Hurt and Weaver, meanwhile, also seem stilted because of Shyamalan’s dialogue, which never feels natural. More over, the film truly would have worked better as a one-hour (or even 90-minute) “Twilight Zone” episode, but padded here out to 108 minutes, “The Village” feels overlong and under-nourished.

One could sense a better movie being made from a superior script (since the premise, ridiculous as it is, is intriguing), but “The Village” isn’t the total misfire you might have heard. At a time when nearly every film that comes down the pike is just another routine Hollywood product, Shyamalan deserves some credit for crafting pictures with their own tone, style and pace, films that – flawed as they are at times – will be viewed years from now on their own terms, removed from the period in which they were made. “The Village” may not be the strongest of Shyamalan’s pictures, but given the current state of filmmaking, it least it has its own voice, and ultimately enough aspects in its favor to warrant a viewing.

Buena Vista’s DVD includes a 25-minute Making Of, sporting a three minute segment on the picture’s scoring with Newton Howard, though the overall featurette seems curiously disjointed when viewed in full. There are also 10-minutes of deleted workprint scenes introduced by the director, along with a cute, “Raiders”-esque home movie Shyamalan shot as a teenager, photo gallery, and a visual “Diary” produced by Bryce Dallas Howard. The 1.85 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital EX sound layered with atmospheric effects and Howard’s rich score.

Also out this week is last summer’s Sci-Fi Channel quasi-documentary, THE BURIED SECRET OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN (2004, 124 minutes, Buena Vista), which came under some controversy last summer since it fabricated a few of the “buried secrets” it was advertised to uncover. It’s an amusing piece nevertheless, though also overlong and best left for aficionados of the filmmaker.

Another movie that just as easily could have been produced as a “Twilight Zone” show is last fall’s THE FORGOTTEN (**, 2004, 90 mins., PG-13; Columbia TriStar, available January 18th).

Genre writer Gerard DiPego (who also penned the underrated Jennifer Lopez-Jim Caviezel vehicle “Angel Eyes”) has put together what feels like a 30-minute “Zone” or a 60-minute “X-Files” padded out to feature length.

Julianne Moore plays a grieving mother who lost her son in a plane crash. Over a year later, she’s still recovering from the loss, only to find that day by day, fragments of her son’s existence – whether it’s a book of his drawings or family pictures with him – begin to vanish around her house. Soon her husband (Anthony Edwards) and shrink (Gary Sinise) tell her that she never had a son to begin with – leading Moore to seek out another parent who lost his daughter in the same crash (Dominic West). What follows from there is a fairly routine chase movie with Moore pursued by shady government agents, a sympathetic local police detective (a wasted Alfre Woodard), and some mysterious folks who may or may not be from this galaxy.

While competently handled by veteran director Joseph Ruben (“Sleeping With the Enemy”),
“The Forgotten” is easily forgotten once the final credits roll. Though you’ve heard this description applied before to other movies, this picture truly does plays out like an average “X-Files” episode minus Scully and Mulder. There are endless scenes of Moore running from the police and/or trying to convince everyone that she’s not insane, and when the finale arrives, it’s too short and obvious to provide a real payoff.

At 90 minutes, “The Forgotten” is also short on character development, adding further insult to injury. Characters like Woodard’s detective and Edwards’ role as Moore’s husband are ultimately both disposable and the picture leaves numerous story lines dangling at the finish.

Columbia TriStar’s DVD includes both the theatrical version of the movie and a slightly Extended Version offering two deleted scenes (including an unnecessary love sequence between Moore and West) and a slightly different finale. The deleted scenes are available to view outside of the picture, and there’s also an interesting commentary track (on the theatrical version) with DiPego and Ruben. The 1.85 transfer is superb and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is excellent, sporting a competent though appropriately forgettable score by James Horner.

Also New On DVD: Super Heroes, Super Cops and More

CATWOMAN (**½, 2004; Aisle Seat DVD Guilty Pleasure Pick of the Week). 99 mins., PG-13, Warner Bros. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Alternate Ending, Deleted Scenes, Making Of; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Available January 18th.

Maybe it was my first glance at the ridiculous costume Halle Berry wears in the film. Maybe it's because I had heard so many discouraging things about the picture that my expectations were ridiculously low. For whatever reason, though, I found the much-ballyhooed and financially disappointing “Catwoman” to be watchable and even downright entertaining in places.

Berry plays a graphic design artist who finds out that cosmetic mogul Sharon Stone’s idea for the perfect aging cream entails serious, deadly side effects. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it turns out) for Berry, Stone’s attempts at knocking off the quiet, demure wallflower end up turning her into a super-heroine after a mysterious cat infuses her soul into her. The new Catwoman purrs, whips, and kicks her way into the papers, while good-guy cop Benjamin Bratt tries to figure out if Catwoman is good, bad, or just good at being bad.

Don’t get me wrong here: “Catwoman” has its problems. The picture is silly and the one-liners often fall flat. On the other hand, this Denise DiNovi production (directed by Pitof, not Pilof) has some visual style, never stops moving, and does offer a few decently-handled action sequences. Berry and Bratt manage to generate some chemistry together, though the movie’s flat, uninspired ending is a disappointment (aren't we beyond the point of super heroes narrating their story, running towards the camera, and telling us about the various responsibilities they have?).

Still, for a movie with as sour a reputation as “Catwoman,” the picture comes off as a satisfying rental if nothing else. Comic purists objected to the movie’s departure from its DC Comics source, but everyone else likely won’t mind the picture as a passable guilty pleasure provided you can approach it from the right mind set.

Warner’s DVD, out next week, sports a satisfying 2.35 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Klaus Badelt’s score is pretty much standard-issue and unmemorable, though the mix itself employs some effective uses of the surround channels.

For special features, a few brief deleted scenes are included along with an alternate ending that would have proven more satisfying than the one ultimately used in the final cut. An amusing half-hour look at “The Many Faces of Catwoman” is hosted by former TV Catwoman Eartha Kitt, while a typical Making Of featurette sports more predictable commentary from the picture’s creators and cast. The original trailer rounds out a DVD that’s a total guilty pleasure.

SPIDER-MAN 2 (****, 2004). 128 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Cast and crew commentary; technical commentary; Trivia Track; music video; “Web-i-Sodes”; 12-part Making Of documentary; Other Featurettes; Multi-angle feature; art gallery; 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Whether it's the fully-developed characters, more laid back tone, the added dashes of humor and warmth, or the sheer fact that “Spider-Man 2" has a genuine story to compliment its dazzling action scenes, the bottom line is that last summer’s smash sequel is a sensational follow-up that's not only superior to its predecessor but also one of the great genre entertainments in memory.

Not that the original "Spider-Man" isn't a terrific example of comic-book filmmaking, but Sam Raimi's follow-up is even more satisfying. Thanks to a terrific screenplay by two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent that goes beyond the "origin story" confines of the original, "Spider-Man 2" is one of the rare sequels that improves upon its predecessor, perfectly capturing the essence of both the comic book's wild action and the very human story of Peter Parker at its core.

Here, Peter (Tobey Maguire) is trying to make it on his own, working as a pizza delivery boy at the same time he's taking university classes from the likes of Doc Connors (Dylan Walsh). Peter is still smitten with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), yet his other life as Spider-Man gives him little time to pursue romantic aspirations. While Peter debates the pros and cons of living as a super-hero, Doctor Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) tries, and fails, in a demonstration of a new form of fusion energy he's uncovered. The latter is backed by Harry Osborn (James Franco), still brooding over the loss of his "Green Goblin" pop and wanting to seek revenge on Spider-Man.

Doc Ock's failure results in a near-cataclysmic explosion that kills his wife (Donna Murphy) and causes the permanent grafting of mechanical limbs whose artificial intelligence ultimately controls Octavius -- resulting in a new super villain running amok in the Big Apple.

There's a fantastic set-piece late in the film involving Spidey, Doc Ock, and a runaway train, but the most satisfying aspects of "Spider-Man 2" are found in the further development of Peter Parker's character. Unlike other super-hero films where the protagonists exist only on one level and never evolve through subsequent adventures, "Spider-Man 2" takes its characters and shows them living, changing, and acting like real people. You can identify with Peter Parker because he has a harder time being human than slinging webs in the air, and Tobey Maguire's natural, heartfelt performance captures the duality of the character and his attempts to do the right thing perfectly.

Maguire is once again terrific, and Sargent's script gives the actor more to do here than the comparatively frenetic pace of the early film afforded. The chemistry between Maguire and Dunst also results in one of the most effective love stories ever seen in a film of this sort, and again, the added attention paid to their relationship gives "Spider-Man 2" more complexity and depth than the original film had.

The rest of the cast is every bit as good. Rosemary Harris once again shines as Aunt May, and even participates in Spidey and Doc Ock's first battle. J.K. Simmons is again hilarious as J. Jonah Jameson, given more lines and laughs than he had in the original. Even though Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin is a more outlandish and flamboyant bad guy, Molina's Doc Ock manages to effectively straddle the fence between sympathy and horror. It'd be easy to play the role for laughs, yet Molina finds the right tone for the part and never succumbs to the over-the-top campiness that plagued every starring villain in the "Batman" pictures.

Not only are the characters and story better fleshed out, but the entire tone of "Spider-Man 2" feels right. There are a lot more laughs to be found here, more instances of humor lurking around the edges, yet none are done at the expense of cheapening the story or poking fun at the subject matter. That's undoubtedly due to the more assured direction of Sam Raimi, who seems more confident behind the lens. "Spider-Man 2" has plenty of great effects and colorful battles (this time in full widescreen), yet this film feels a lot more cohesive in every facet than the original. Raimi doesn't feel the need to throw in a handful of montage scenes here because the story has already been established; instead, there are scenes which develop the characters, dialogue which feels less artificial and more "real," and not one wrong note struck in the entire show.

Even Danny Elfman's music score is more organic and less by-the-numbers than his earlier work. Whether it's because Elfman was more inspired by this story or because John Debney (and others) came in to write new music at the eleventh hour, the score is far more effective and satisfying than its predecessor as well.

Columbia’s 2-disc Special Edition DVD is reportedly going to be followed by an extended version sometime in 2005, but in the meantime, the regular release provides plenty of fun features for all Spidey fanatics. Two commentary tracks are included (one with Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire and producer Avi Arad, the other with members of the technical crew), while “Spidey Sense 2" offers more pop-up trivia tracks on-screen. A few online featurettes and Train’s “Ordinary” music video round out the extras on the first disc, leaving the bulk of the Making Of goodies for the second disc. “Making the Amazing” offers a decent look behind the scenes at the production of the sequel in 12 segments, while “Hero In Crisis” sports a profile of the Peter Parker character. “Ock-Umentary” examines how the filmmakers adapted the Marvel villain to the big screen, while “Interwoven” spends time showcasing the various women in Peter’s life. “Enter the Web” includes a multi-angle look at the creation of the movie’s concluding Pier sequence, while an art gallery and look at the production of Activision’s “Spider-Man 2" video game round out the extras. Technically, the DVD is superlative with a flawless 2.40 widescreen transfer and an elaborate 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

“Spider-Man 2" is a exhilarating, human, and altogether captivating movie that ranks right up there with the first two "Superman" films as the best cinematic comic book ever made -- a full-blown, web-slinging achievement for all involved. 'Nuff said!

STANDER (**½, 2004). 112 mins., R, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director Commentary, Making Of featurette, Deleted Scenes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Tom Jane gives an excellent performance in this disjointed but intriguing bio-pic of South African policeman-turned-outlaw Andres Stander. After seeing his brethren commit atrocities while serving years as a cop, Stander decides to turn the tables on the system by joining up with fellow criminals and forming “The Stander Gang.” The new outlaw and his gang of brothers instigate a series of high-profile robberies in the late 1970s and early 1980s that have the nation (still under the rule of apartheid) behind them, at least until their run comes to a tragic end.

Bronwen Hughes’ film is atmospherically photographed by Jess Hall and offers a compelling role for Jane. “Stander” is a complex and fascinating profile of a true life incident, with ample doses of humor and pathos, and Jane gives a multi-layered performance that’s one of his finest. The movie itself is a bit rambling and Hughes’ direction can be hard to follow at times, with unstable camera work and awkward angles used to capture the disarray of Stander’s mind set (and South Africa itself for that matter) during the period. (Talk about a departure for the director: her only other directorial credits are the forgettable Ben Affleck-Sandra Bullock vehicle “Forces of Nature” and the kid-pic “Harriet the Spy”!).

Ultimately worth viewing for Jane’s performance and for its authentic location shooting, “Stander” was a tough film to market and it’s understandable (though unfortunate) that this Newmarket Films production never received wide distribution in the U.S.

Columbia TriStar’s recently issued DVD will rectify that, offering commentary from the director, deleted scenes, the original trailer, and an “Anatomy of a Scene” featurette culled from the Sundance Channel.

The 1.78 transfer is solid, with the grainy aspect to the film inherent in its original cinematography, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound sports a dense rock score performed by the band The Free Association (much of which was written by David Holmes).       

HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE (***, 2004). 90 mins., Unrated, New Line. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes, Outtakes, Audio Commentaries, Music Video, Interviews, Sound Featurette, DVD-ROM Content; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The second “Guilty Pleasure” pick of the week, Danny Leiner’s long-awaited follow-up to “Dude, Where’s My Car?” (okay, awaited by a few people I suppose) is a fresh, funnier look at a pair of buds who take to the road on a wild night of discovery, raunchiness, and run-ins with Neil Patrick Harris, “Doogie Howser” himself, playing – actually – himself!

“Harold & Kumar” is absolute nonsense, but the amiable performances of John Cho and Kal Penn give this buddy comedy a different spin from the normal shenanigans. More over, the Jon Hurwitz-Hayden Schlossberg script manages to develop its two protagonists beyond mere “American Pie”-styled hijinks, resulting in a pair of near-real characters caught in a group of wild comedic situations. Some are funnier than others, but the ones that work hit big-time, making this trip to Whitecastle well worth the effort for comedy fans.

New Line’s “Extreme Unrated DVD” includes some additional nudity, though from what I recall seeing theatrically there are few differences between this and the movie’s R-rated version. Several commentary tracks are included with the film’s writers, director Danny Leiner, and stars Cho and Penn included. Deleted scenes, outtake bloopers, a music video, Making Of featurettes, and DVD-ROM extras (including a full script-to-screen storyboard viewer) are also on-hand to compliment a typically excellent New Line transfer (1.85 widescreen) and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, featuring a David Kitay original score and an amusing assembly of pop tracks.

In Brief

MIRACLE AT OXFORD (**½, 1996, 118 mins., R; Buena Vista): British sports movies are few and far between, but this competent 1996 film – actually called “True Blue” and somewhat ridiculously re-titled to evoke comparisons with last winter’s “Miracle” – is a solid effort. Ferdinand Fairfax’s film looks at the nasty rowing rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge, offering solid performances and location shooting. Buena Vista’s DVD includes a decent 1.85 transfer and 2.0 stereo soundtrack, with a very Vangelis-like soundtrack by Stanislas Syrewicz.   

MAGIC IN THE WATER (**, 1995, 98 mins., PG; Columbia TriStar): Mark Harmon, Harley Jane Kozak (whatever happened to her?), and a young Joshua Jackson play a vacationing family in the town of Glenorky where a Nessie-like monster resides. This Canadian-produced, mid ‘90s film was one of several Nessie-themed movies produced at the same time, though it’s inferior to the Ted Danson fantasy “Loch Ness,” with a saccharine script making this strictly for young audiences. Columbia’s full-screen transfer is just fine, and since the movie wasn’t shot in a widescreen process, the framing will only bother those with 16:9 TVs. The 2.0 Dolby Surround track is also acceptable.

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