Aisle Seat Mid-January Report

New Sony Titles Including RESIDENT EVIL, LEON and FIFTH ELEMENT Special Editions

One of the more difficult decisions you have to make as a critic is deciding from what approach you critique a film. Clearly, the latest work by Martin Scorsese demands a more “scholarly” approach than a movie like, for example, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE.

Last fall’s second entry in the video game-to-movie franchise was a box-office hit worldwide, and reviewing it means you have to look at the picture from the point of view that it’s a) a silly video game movie, b) it has no ambition whatsoever other than to string a series of action scenes together, and c) the film demands less of the viewer than a movie like “The Aviator.”

You may be asking (and rightly so) about the script and character development. In that case, you’ve come to the wrong film, because RE: APOCALYPSE (**½, 2004, 94 mins., R; Sony) is not a movie you watch because of characterizations or the intricacies of its premise.

It is, however, a thorough guilty pleasure: a mindless, non-stop assault on the senses that somehow or other is more entertaining than its predecessor. Perhaps that’s because original writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson (“Alien Vs. Predator,” the lamentable “Event Horizon,” the underrated “Soldier”) only wrote and produced the sequel, leaving the directorial reigns to Alexander Witt, who deftly utilizes the widescreen scope frame and expands “Apocalypse” beyond the claustrophobic, “Night of the Living Dead”-influenced zombie action of its predecessor.

Equal parts “Resident Evil,” “Escape From New York” and “Mortal Kombat” (don’t say I didn’t warn you!), “Apocalypse” confusingly picks up (sorta) from the tail end of the original film, where heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) has escaped from the Umbrella Corporation’s vile clutches. Unfortunately for her, Raccoon City has become over-run with the undead and other assorted creatures, leaving the metropolis predictably in a state of panic. Renegade cop Jill Valentine (Seinna Guillory) and government agent Carlos (Oded Fehr) team up with Alice in an attempt at rescuing a scientist’s daughter lost in the city, and have only a limited time to do so before the area is “cleansed.” Oh, and did I mention the big, hulking monster Nemesis, who has some kind of emotional connection with Alice?

Less pretentious than its predecessor, “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” looks good and has all the hallmarks of a guilty pleasure for this critic. The movie’s international production team results in an eclectic cast of American and European actors (all with their own accents) of varying ethnic backgrounds – something that gives the whole movie an endearingly off-kilter atmosphere. The action is non-stop, growing more preposterous by the minute, and Jeff Danna’s pounding score works effectively in the film, whenever a litany of hard-rock tracks aren’t throbbing on the soundtrack (at least it’s better than the best-forgotten teaming of Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson from the original). Jovovich and Guillory both look fetching as action heroines, and there’s even some humor interspersed at various points.

Needless to say, “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” isn’t a movie for everyone. However, for those seeking some visually polished, B-movie fun – the kind you enjoy with a pizza and a few beers, with your brain switched firmly in the “off” “position – it’s an entertaining ride for all of its 94 minutes.

Sony’s 2-disc Special Edition of “Apocalypse” is filled with special features. There are no less than three commentary tracks on the movie: one with director Alexander Witt, producer Jeremy Bolt, and executive producer Robert Kulzer; another commentary with Sienna Guillory, Oded Fehr, and Milla Jovovich; and a third track with producers Paul Anderson and Jeremy Bolt. All three talks will be of interest for fans, though the cast commentary is the most chatty of the group, the director commentary of mostly-technical interest, and the producer commentary probably the most revealing in terms of the film’s development, writing, and prospects for future sequels (of which there’s undoubtedly one more in the pipeline).

The “bonus disc” offers 20 deleted scenes, mostly brief and taken from the film’s workprint; these run without commentary. A six-part making of featurette, “Game Over: Resident Evil Reanimated” offers a nice overview of the production in mostly promotional style, while three additional featurettes offer additional insight (“Corporate Malfeasance,” “Game Babes,” and “Symphony of Evil,” the latter not about the scoring but rather the CGI effects). A poster gallery and cast outtakes are also included along with the movie’s teaser and trailer, plus other previews.

As with most Columbia TriStar titles, the 2.40 transfer is immaculate and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound as relentless in its sound design as the movie is with its action. Definitely recommended for its target audience, and well worth a rental for genre aficionados.

Sony has also recently released a pair of “Ultimate Editions” of popular Luc Besson titles “The Fifth Element” and “Leon: The Professional.”

Since both movies have been released several times previously and most viewers by now are more than familiar with each, I won’t spend much time on the actual movies but rather the special features and unique content on each disc.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT (***½, 126 mins., 1997, PG-13) is a sprawling, candy-coated sci-fi fantasy that remains one of Besson’s best films, not to mention one of his most successful at the worldwide box-office.

Columbia TriStar had previously released a standard-issue, supplement-free disc (that still looked great) in the early days of DVD, then followed it with a “SuperBit” release with a top bit-rate transfer, accentuating the sound and picture (integral to the film’s enjoyment).

The new 2-disc Special Edition includes the previous SuperBit release on disc one: a gorgeous 2.35 widescreen transfer that’s breathtaking to behold, in addition to a dynamite 5.1 DTS soundtrack superior to the disc’s other 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Though reportedly not a new transfer, the SuperBit release is regarded as one of the finest that the DVD medium has to offer, so why fix something that’s not broken?

Disc two offers two hour’s worth of new featurettes. “The Visual Element” kicks things off with a 20-minute featurette examining the influence French comic book designers like Mobius had on the picture’s visual design, while “The Digital Element” looks at Digital Domain’s CGI work on the movie. “The Alien Element” concentrates on the eclectic design of the various aliens in the story (one of which was excised from the film), and “The Star Element” includes comments from Bruce Willis, Chris Tucker, and Milla Jovovich, with audition footage of the latter on-hand. “The Fashion Element,” meanwhile, dissects the costume design, while a look at “The Diva” (one of the film’s most striking images) profiles the blue-skinned extraterrestrial from the picture’s climax. A brief poster gallery and an on-screen Trivia Track rounds out the disc, which lacks only a commentary and the movie’s theatrical trailer.

There are fewer special features found in Columbia’s latest edition of Besson’s LEON, THE PROFESSIONAL (***, 1994, 133 mins., Not Rated), though for the money the disc is still a winner.

Again utilizing the previous SuperBit release for its content on disc one (meaning a beautiful 2.35 widescreen transfer with DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks) with the addition of a on-screen trivia track, the set’s second disc offers three new featurettes that fans should enjoy. “Natalie Portman: Starting Young” contains a recent interview with the actress, reflecting back on her still-discussed, career-making role in Besson’s 1994 film. “Jean Reno: The Road to Leon” offers likewise recent comments from the international star, while the 25-minute “10 Year Retrospective” includes comments from Portman, Reno, and other cast/crew members, with the notable omission of Besson.

Speaking of which, Besson apparently prefers to let his work speak for itself, which would explain both discs’ lack of commentary or interview comments from the filmmaker. While some fans may be disappointed in that respect, both of these Deluxe/Ultimate Editions are still highly recommended for their Superbit presentations and supplements (more so with “The Fifth Element” than “Leon, The Professional,” which also lacks the isolated score track of Eric Serra’s soundtrack, found in the second DVD release). If you don’t own either film or are a die-hard aficionado of Besson, both are well worth checking out, and are a bargain for the price (well under $20 a pop).

New Disney Animation

Disney’s DVD releases this week include several compilations of vintage studio animated shorts, as well as a double-feature pairing of the two made-for-video “Aladdin” sequels. Collectors should note all of these new discs are said to be available “for a limited time” only, though mainly for those who missed the “Disney Treasures” limited edition packages.

The new CLASSIC CARTOON FAVORITES series comprise four separate DVDs, each compiling character-specific Disney shorts.

Vol. 1 stars Mickey in seven shorts running just over an hour (“Mickey’s Circus,” “Mickey’s Garden, “The Little Whirlwind,” “On Ice,” “Hawaiian Holiday,” “Moving Day,” and “Orphan’s Picnic”). Vol. 2 gives the spotlight to Donald Duck, who appears in eight shorts (“Inferior Decorator,” “Don Donald,” “Golden Eggs,” “Bee at the Beach,” “Donald’s Dog Laundry,” “Donald’s Vacation,” “Old MacDonald Duck,” and “Chef Donald”), while Vol. 3 highlights nine Goofy vehicles (“The Art of Skiing,” “How to Fish,” “How to Swim,” “Baggage Buster,” “How to Dance,” “Lion Down,” “The Big Wash,” “Hold That Pose,” and “Father’s Day Off”). Finally, Vol. 4 is all about those crazy fellas Chip ‘N Dale, in nine adventures of their own (“Chicken in the Rough,” “Chip ‘N Dale,” “Out of Scale,” “Two Chips and a Miss,” “Food For Feudin’,” “Working For Peanuts,” “Out On a Limb,” “Three For Breakfast,” and “Dragon Around”).

All of the shorts are in good condition, framed in their original 1.33 aspect ratios with satisfactory mono soundtracks, dependant on the age/condition of the elements being used.

Now, for those who own the “Disney Treasures” Mickey, Donald, or Goofy box-sets, these releases are basically not for you. All of the Mickey shorts, for example, contained here were present in one of the Disney Treasures Mickey box-sets, so there’s nothing unique to be found on this release. Ditto on the Goofy and Donald discs, meaning only “Chip ‘N Dale” represents content arriving on DVD for the first time.

On the other hand, if you missed those limited edition tins, these discs present a “best of” sampling that kids should enjoy, with the price ($15 and under) geared towards casual viewers and family audiences, not collectors and die-hard fans. That’s also reflected in the “Fast Play” option of each disc, which bypasses menus and all other non-feature content, enabling kids to get right into the action.           

Also new from Disney this week are the first releases of the two direct-to-video “Aladdin” sequels, ALADDIN: THE RETURN OF JAFAR and ALADDIN AND THE KING OF THIEVES.

Both small-screen works offer colorful entertainment for kids, though the animation and scripts are vastly inferior to the 1992 film that they followed. Robin Williams was replaced by “Simpsons” voice Dan Castanella for “Jafar” (he also voiced the Genie in the TV cartoon), though Williams returned for “King of Thieves.” Unfortunately, the latter is weaker than the first follow-up, which at least boasts a few tuneful songs.

Both DVDs offer solid 1.33 transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and various special features aimed squarely at kids, with interactive games and such. The two discs are separately packaged but bundled together in a set that retails around $30 in various outlets.

Also New on DVD

WITHOUT A PADDLE (**1/2, 2004). 98 mins., PG-13, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary; video commentary by cast and the director; 13 Additional Scenes with optional director commentary; MTV Making Of and Interstitials; Theatrical Trailer; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

One of last year’s surprise box-office hits, “Without a Paddle” stars Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard as three childhood friends who take a trip to the Oregon woods after their best friend dies in a tragic accident. Naturally, all three have hang-ups: Doctor Green is shy in general and particularly hesitant around women; crazy man Shepard is having trouble finding the right job; and Lillard would rather be out surfing than sitting in an office or making a commitment to his girlfriend.

Steven Brill’s comedy offers colorful, scenic Pacific Northwest vistas in full widescreen, plus engaging supporting turns from Burt Reynolds as a forest sage and Ethan Suplee and Abraham Benrubi as marijuana farmers whom the boys run afoul of. Speaking of which, Green, Lillard, and Shepard make for an amusing trio, though after a strong start, the Jay Leggett-Mitch Rouse script runs out of energy, with a typical chase-movie framework substituting for some of the movie’s stronger gags early on. Though the laughs are likely to be best appreciated by younger viewers, there’s too much adult content in the PG-13 rated film for parents to feel comfortable letting their kids watch it.

Paramount’s DVD sports a good-looking 2.35 transfer with an energetic 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, which includes a fun collection of pop tunes and Christophe Beck score. Special features offer some 13 deleted scenes (some of which could have helped the movie feel less disjointed), plus an MTV Making Of and “Interstitials” which ran on the channel. The theatrical trailer is also on-hand, as are a pair of fun commentary tracks: one by director Steven Brill, the other a video commentary with the cast and Brill offering anecdotes on the production.

Vintage Round-Up

THE BEASTMASTER: Divimax Edition (**½, 1982, 118 mins., PG; Anchor Bay): Yet another release of the Marc Singer-Tanya Roberts sword-and-sorcery classic? Well, heck, why not, especially when Anchor Bay has included a new documentary sporting interviews with director Don Coscarelli, writer Paul Pepperman, plus stars Singer, Roberts and Josh Milrad among others. It’s a fun making of, while the remastered 1.85 transfer and DTS soundtrack appear only slightly superior to AB’s previous “Beastmaster” release. Coscarelli also provides notes on the fold-out  poster booklet while stills and the original script (DVD-ROM only) compensate for the features not retained from the 2001 DVD edition, including a more comprehensive booklet and home movie footage of the shoot.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (**, 1978, 85 mins., Not Rated; MGM): Wacky, alternately desperate or amusing vehicle for stars Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, released in the U.S. in what was reportedly a horribly truncated version running 74 minutes. MGM’s first-ever DVD release of the Paul Morrissey-directed Conan Doyle spoof contains the longer, apparently superior 85-minute European release version, which is supposedly more coherent than what was originally released on this side of the Atlantic (by Atlantic Releasing Corp. several years after the fact). Whatever the case may be, this curio is worth a look due to Cook and Moore’s antics (they co-wrote the picture with Morrissey), and the movie’s scope cinematography, here preserved in full 2.35 (16:9 enhanced) widescreen. The mono soundtrack and the picture’s theatrical trailer are also included. (Die-hard fans should note a Region 2 Special Edition also contains the abbreviated U.S. version, though it lacks a 16:9 transfer.)       

YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE (***, 1982, 96 mins., R; MGM): Sean Young is at her most fetching in this wacky spoof of doctor dramas and soap operas, appropriately directed by “Happy Days” TV guru Gary Marshall. Young and McKean play young medical internists who are tutored in the ways of medicine by veteran docs Dabney Coleman and Harry Dean Stanton. The gags are generally amusing in the script by sitcom vets Rich Eustis and Michael Elias, while Maurice Jarre’s intentionally heavy-handed score also helps. This early box-office hit from producer Jerry Bruckheimer (now a virtually forgotten film) also boasts appearances by Patrick MacNee, Michael Richards, Ted McGinley, Demi Moore and Janine Turner. MGM’s DVD includes a non-anamorphic 1.85 widescreen transfer with a decent mono soundtrack (it seems as if all ABC Motion Pictures properties were unable to be transferred in 16:9 widescreen or include any extras on DVD, since all Anchor Bay and MGM releases of ABC titles have unfortunately been not enhanced for 16:9 televisions. Alas, such is the case here as well).

JINXED (**½, 1982, 103 mins., R; MGM): Early ‘80s Bette Midler comedy is a zany affair with Bette as a Vegas lounge singer who gets involved with a young casino dealer (Ken Wahl) at the same time she lives with her live-in loser of a boyfriend (Rip Torn). Don Siegel directed this interesting though not entirely satisfying vehicle for Midler, which reportedly was a troubled shoot, with Midler and Wahl clashing behind the scenes, and Siegel suffering a heart attack during production (apparently, Sam Peckinpah directed some footage uncredited!). Frank D. Gilroy adapted his novel for the screen, but then had his name removed from the screenplay credits. Despite all the problems, this is nevertheless an amusing, uneven picture worth seeing for Midler fans. MGM’s DVD includes 16:9 widescreen and full-screen transfers, while the mono soundtrack is fine and a theatrical trailer rounds out the presentation.

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