Aisle Seat Winter Chiller

Reviews of UNDERWORLD, Miramax and Indie Flicks, and More!
By Andy Dursin

As we finally thaw out from sub-zero temperatures in the northeast (we hit a low of 9 degrees here at our Aisle Seat offices), you can insert your standard "it might be cold but DVD is getting hot!" line here. In all seriousness, while the box-office may be in the midst of the January dumping grounds ("Torque," anyone?), this is the time of year where hotly- anticipated discs begin to arrive at your friendly neighborhood or online shop, ready and willing to be taken home.

This week we have a potpourri of titles, from classics to recent hits, and a generous sprinkling of independent releases thrown in for good measure. Something for everyone as those of us in the cold weather try and fight Mother Nature's barrage with a few good (or bad) movies!

Aisle Seat DVD Picks of the Week

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (***, 1951). 75 mins., G, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Full-screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital and original mono soundtracks; newly- discovered song "I'm Odd," Deleted Scenes, Song Demos, Animated Mickey Mouse Short "Through The Mirror," Walt's TV introductions, "One Hour in Wonderland" vintage special, trailers and DVD games for kids including "Virtual Wonderland Party."

Not one of the most beloved of the Disney classics yet a solid production just the same, Disney's 1951 "Alice in Wonderland" has arrived on DVD in a typically colorful package from the studio.

The movie remains something of a cold fish compared to other Disney efforts, mainly due to its brief running time and over-abundance of songs. Subsequently, you can't really identify with Alice as you can with other Disney heroines -- the movie seems intent on moving from one point to the next, a tactic that results in an efficient yet not especially memorable adaptation of Lewis Carroll's book. Nevertheless, several of the numbers are superb and the animation is colorful and beautifully designed at every turn -- elements enhanced in Disney's fantastic DVD transfer, boasting strong colors that never bleed and a nice 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed soundtrack (the original mono soundtrack is also included for purists).

The DVD is a "Masterpiece Edition" two-disc set that will only be available for a limited time. Unfortunately, most of the supplements on the DVD are aimed specifically at children, from a live-action "Virtual Wonderland Party" hosted by the Mad Hatter to interactive set top games. Adults will be more interested in a newly-discovered deleted song ("I'm Odd"), a fluffy featurette on how one rejected song worked its way into "Peter Pan," and plenty of vintage TV material. The latter includes "One Hour in Wonderland," a 50-minute special with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, plus Walt's introductions to the movie's initial network TV airings, and a classic Mickey Mouse animated short. Finally, some six original song demos are included on the second disc, albeit with scant background information on their origins.

UNDERWORLD (**1/2, 2003). 121 mins., Columbia TriStar Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital surround, two commentary tracks, Making Of featurettes, TV spots, trailer, storyboards.

Ridiculous, humorless, yet stylish genre potpourri crosses "Highlander" with "The Crow," adds in a dash of vampire and werewolf action, and does a poor job developing characters for a movie that runs a full two hours.

All that being said, though, the central story in Len Wiseman's hit film is an intriguing one: in a nondescript, towering city, a centuries-old war is being waged by aristocratic vampires and street-savvy "Lycans," whom the legions of the undead want to extinguish from the world as we know it. Humans rarely interact with either species, which is why vampire huntress Kate Beckinsale finds it odd that one of the last Lycan mobs is targeting a human hospital internist (Scott Speedman).

Screenwriter Danny McBride weaves a compelling story of an ages-old conflict between warring supernatural forces, yet one wishes that the relationships between the protagonists -- especially the "forbidden bond" between Beckinsale and Speedman -- had been elaborated upon. The society the vampires have established for themselves is intriguing as well (particularly in its contrast with the Lycan world), yet the movie frustratingly never indulges us in anything more than what feels like an outline of a full- blooded story.

Still, the visuals and action keep you watching, while Wiseman's obvious fetish for Beckinsale in leather (he married her following the production) results in a sleek female action hero who will likely be back in a sequel, which is clearly set-up at the end of the movie. With smarter dialogue and a more developed script, "Underworld 2" could be a strong sequel that surpasses its predecessor; this one, flaws and all, is still worth a look for genre buffs.

Columbia TriStar's Special Edition DVD offers an excellent 2.40 widescreen transfer with one of those bass-heavy techno 5.1 tracks that will make your subwoofer shake, rattle 'n roll. Extras include commentaries from the director and writer, plus a second technical commentary track, fairly good Making Of featurettes, TV spots, and trailers for this film, "Resident Evil 2," and a few other Columbia horror titles.

New Independent Releases

SWIMMING POOL (**, 2003). 103 mins., Unrated, Universal Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS surround, deleted scenes, original trailer.

Mystery writer Charlotte Rampling vacations at agent Charles Dance's posh French country home, where she meets his seductive young daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) whose promiscuous interludes with local men and mysterious background give the struggling bestselling author a shot of inspiration.

Francois Ozon's cool and low-key thriller (unfortunately TOO low-key) benefits from a strong performance by Rampling, Sagnier's good (and frequently topless) looks, and a moody, atmospheric score by Philippe Rombi. The central idea for the movie is sound, yet what ultimately transpires in "Swimming Pool" -- the conflict between the repressed English middle-aged author and the sexy, young wild child; a possible murder; and a twist ending -- isn't especially well developed. Indeed, when the movie throws a curve ball at us in the final moments, it's all too predictable, since the filmmaker seems to be all too obviously leading us to the destination we arrive at late in the movie. More over, its ambiguity fails to satisfy or keep you thinking about what you've seen -- Ozon gives us so little to go on that the finale's only explanation is one that some viewers will surmise is possibly happening earlier in the film.

Universal's Unrated DVD offers a colorful, strong 1.85 transfer that preserves all of Yorick Le Saux's warm cinemtography. The DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are both fine, while supplements include a handful of deleted scenes (mostly of Rampling touring the local countryside) and a theatrical trailer.

MANNY AND LO (***, 1996). 97 mins., R, Columbia TriStar Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 1.78 Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Surround.

A pair of teenagers -- Aleska Palladino and wiser, younger Scarlett Johansson -- take to the road to avoid parole officers, and hook up with a wacky older woman (Mary Kay Place) to aid them in Palladino's pregnancy along the way.

Lisa Krueger's funny and moving indie movie was hailed at the time of its 1996 release as a teen version of "Thelma and Louise." Years after the fact, it has actually held up better than Ridley Scott's film, thanks to its off-the-wall approach and warm story line. This is a very entertaining and wonderfully performed picture that has both a lot of laughs and a great deal of heart, rated R because of language but suitable for most viewers (teens included). Even at a very early age, Johansson (who has since starred to great acclaim in "Ghost World" and "Lost in Translation") shows a remarkable ability to convey nuances in her role, while Palladino and Place are both superb in support.

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a 1.85 non-anamorphic transfer that's in good condition throughout; the film obviously wasn't shot on a large budget so whatever imperfections there are in the print are a result of the movie's modest production. The 2.0 Dolby Stereo track is also fine, with an appropriately low-key score by John Lurie enhancing the offbeat comedy-drama.

New From Miramax

DADDY AND THEM (**, 2001). 102 mins., R, Miramax Home Entertainment. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, Audio Commentary, Behind the Scenes Special, Deleted Scenes.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS (**, 2001). 99 mins., R, Miramax Home Entertainment. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, Audio Commentary, Featurette.

Last week Miramax dusted off a pair of films that have spent a good deal of time in the studio vaults -- each with strong casts and at least one that was intended, more than likely, to have been a fairly high-profile release at one time.

Since Billy Bob Thornton's last directorial effort -- the underrated "All the Pretty Horses" -- was both a box-office bust and a project mired in post-production woes, perhaps it shouldn't have come as any major revelation that his follow-up effort, DADDY AND THEM (filmed before "Horses"), suffered as poor a fate financially.

Unlike "Horses," though, the country-bumpkin family interplay in "Daddy and Them" wasn't as deserving of finding success. A heavy-handed and cliched tale of an Arkansas clan that rallies to the aid of an uncle accused of murder (the late Jim Varney, who died nearly four years ago -- something that tells you how long this movie stayed on the shelf), Thornton's movie boasts a terrific cast including himself, Brenda Blethyn, Laura Dern, Andy Griffith, Diane Ladd, Kelly Preston, and even cameos from Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Affleck. With that kind of ensemble, one would have expected "Daddy and Them" to have been a major release, yet the fact that Miramax basically dumped the movie out on video without any kind of fanfare is proof of just how inconsequential the picture actually is.

Shot mostly in 1999 and never widely seen outside of a few festival runs, "Daddy and Them" has now been issued on DVD, where viewers in tune with Thornton's sense of redneck humor might find a few laughs. The 1.85 transfer is fine and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack perfectly functional, sporting a decent score by Marty Stuart. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette, a handful of deleted scenes, and commentary from Thornton and two of the producers.

Another long-delayed release, BUFFALO SOLDIERS, was likewise shot several years ago (it boasts a 2001 copyright), but only surfaced in a limited theatrical run last summer. Although Gregor Jordan's film is a black-comic look at an American soldier who makes a living hustling black market goods in West Germany during the final days of the Cold War, several press outlets (likely stirred up by Miramax's PR folks) played up the movie's "anti-war" elements as a counterpoint to the war in Iraq.

A game attempt at gaining some publicity for the picture, no doubt, but what that has to do with this rather tedious tale of a morally bankrupt and soulless soldier (Joaquin Phoenix) who, when not trying out his latest scheme, ends up dating the daughter (Anna Paquin) of his superior officer (Scott Glenn), is anyone's guess -- it's like watching "Sgt. Bilko" (the series, not the Steve Martin dud) without the laughs. Ed Harris, Dean Stockwell, and Elizabeth McGovern do lend strong support to the picture, which was scripted by Jordan, Eric Axel Weiss and Nora Maccoby from the novel by Robert O'Connor. The film's cast is terrific and the performances uniformly fine, but the picture simply doesn't mesh its comedic, satiric, and serious intentions into a cohesive unit that works.

Miramax's DVD looks great in 2.35 widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, though there's little remarkable about David Holmes' score. Extras include a commentary track with director Jordan, an "Anatomy of a Scene" segment and a Making Of featurette.

Also New And Noteworthy

SPIDER-MAN: The New Animated Series (**1/2, 2003). 276 mins., Columbia TriStar Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 1.78 Widescreen (16:9 enhanced), 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital surround; Audio commentary, Making Of segments including a featurette on the music.

The gigantic success of 2002's "Spider-Man" spawned both an upcoming sequel and a CGI animated series that premiered last year on MTV. While designed by the same folks who broke ground in the medium with the digitally-rendered series "Reboot" (speaking of that, where's the DVD?), this Spidey is, alas, a far cry from "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends."

Animated like a cross between "Reboot," Japanese anime, and cel-shaded video games, the look and feel of the 13-episode series -- which takes place following the events seen in the movie -- takes a bit of getting used to. While the action scenes that involve our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man are impressive, the character animation is markedly plastic -- sequences with Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and the gang are blandly produced and not especially interesting.

Neither, for the most part, are the plots of the episodes or the overall quality of the writing in general. As much of a Spider-Man fan as I am, there just seems to be something missing here. The plots seem to take forever to get moving, the dialogue is static, and there isn't much flow to the episodes individually. Perhaps it's because the series is sandwiched between the first movie and its upcoming sequel, and the writers were apparently under orders not to dramatically progress the central story line and relationships between the characters. Hence, the Peter-MJ romance is stuck in neutral, and while Spidey gets to fight a few familiar foes (Electro and The Lizard), there's nothing really remarkable about any specific episode.

It's not so much that the new "Spidey" is bad, just that it's disappointing: with the involvement of personnel who worked on "Reboot" and the "Starship Troopers Chronicles," I expected more than the finished product, which needed more work in the script department before being animated.

Still, animation buffs may find the program of interest, and Columbia has done a superlative job on the DVD. The 1.78 widescreen transfers are all impeccable, and they're backed by crystal clear DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Supplements are in abundance too: a handful of featurettes look at the production from concept to screen, with test footage, outtake reels, and interviews with all the principal crew. There's also a segment on the techno-heavy music, plus a few trailers (though sadly not the trailer for "Spidey 2").

JOHNNY ENGLISH (**1/2, 2003). 88 mins., PG, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted scenes, Making Of featurette, 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Cute, amusing parody of the Bond movies sports Rowan Atkinson as a befuddled government employee who improbably becomes a secret agent dispatched to retrieve the stolen crown jewels and prevent madman John Malkovich from taking over the world.

Writers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade scripted the last couple of James Bond films, which makes their collaboration with co-writer William Davies as much of an in- joke as the broader satire of the spy genre here served up by director Peter Howitt. Unlike the bathroom humor of "Austin Powers," though, "Johnny English" is a more warm- hearted spoof that generates most of its laughs from star Atkinson's predictably broad comedic shenanigans. Malkovich is also a hoot as the bad guy, while pop songstress Natalie Imbruglia plays a mysterious woman who may or may not be on our hero's side. Also worth mentioning is Edward Shearmur's fun score, sporting Bond-influenced motifs, and a main theme song performed by Robbie Williams.

Universal's DVD sports a colorful, fine 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras are somewhat on the limited side including deleted scenes, a promotional Making Of, character profiles and spy-related featurettes.

MARCI X (**, 2003). 82 mins., R, Paramount Home Video. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen and full-frame versions, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Unbelievably odd, thoroughly silly comedy boasts a script by Paul Rudnick, direction from Richard Benjamin, songs from Marc Shaiman -- and did I mention it's about a Jewish American Princess (Lisa Kudrow) who takes control of her family's record label and tries to diffuse a PR conflict with a rapper played by Damon Wayans?

Dumped into theatrical release last August without the benefit of critic screenings, "Marci X" is a strange, short, yet somehow watchable mess that does, to its credit, boast a few amusing musical numbers. The jokes, though, range from witty and sharp (especially Shaiman's parody of pop boy-bands) to stale and heavy-handed, with the movie's condescending satire of both Kudrow's socialite world and Wayans' Harlem origins draining some of the fun out of the preceding (there's even a cringe-inducing moment where Kudrow asks Wayans about how black people make love -- even for a movie trying desperately to be funny, it's tasteless). While amusing in places, it's so also out of touch that you shouldn't be surprised Richard Benjamin has directed less than a handful of films since the Reagan administration left office. Overall, though, "Marci X" is thankfully not long enough to be any more than a completely forgettable misstep on the part of talented personnel who have made better projects elsewhere.

Paramount's DVD offers matching 1.85 Widescreen and full-frame transfers plus a boisterous 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Also New This Week

CHUMP CHANGE (90 mins., 2002, R; Miramax): Sporadically amusing, mostly autobiographical tale from Milwaukee native Stephen Borrows, who directed and stars as himself (more or less): a Midwesterner who finds fleeting fame in Hollywood as a TV commercial actor, and returns home defeated from not hitting the big time. Most of the jokes don't fly but a few of them do ("you keep plugging and plugging away, then you wake up one day and you're David Soul") and the movie is so good-natured that it's tough to dislike it. Miramax's DVD includes a widescreen transfer, commentary from the director, outtakes and other supplements.

POKEMON HEROES: The Movie (71 mins., 2003, G; Miramax/Buena Vista): Another Pokemon feature comes barreling to DVD with extras for kids, a full-screen transfer, and a 20-minute "never before seen" Pokemon episode that's never been broadcast in the U.S.

MXP: MOST EXTREME PRIMATE (88 mins., 2003, G; Buena Vista): Cute sequel to "Most Valuable Primate" offers an inoffensive, decent animal comedy for kids, plus Robby Benson appearing in one of his first movies in ages. Extras include small-frye geared supplements, a full-screen transfer and Dolby Digital sound.


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