Aisle Seat Winter Horror Edition       


The best sports movies not only accurately capture the essence of the competition at hand, but also replicate the time and place of the events transpiring in them.

Such is the case with FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (***½, 2004, 118 mins, PG-13; Universal; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week), an authentic, almost documentary-like look at a small Texas high school’s season in 1988.

Based on H.G. Bissinger’s acclaimed novel, former actor-turned-director Peter Berg has fashioned a marvelously compelling, multi-layered and decidedly un-Hollywood-like film that’s a must for not only sports fans but film aficionados as well.

One of the few name actors in the film, Billy Bob Thornton gives a strong performance as the coach of the Odessa-Permian Panthers, who enter the ‘88 season as an overwhelming favorite to win the coveted state championship. This being Texas, high school football is more than just your typical small-town gathering: the Panthers play in a stadium some colleges would envy, while Coach Thornton makes $50,000 a year – a substantial coin, especially for the era.

Despite having a talented roster of players, though, the team quickly suffers a major loss when its fast-talking running back (Derek Luke) is injured. The Panthers then fall into a tail spin that makes them less than a sure thing to contend for the title, while off the gridiron, the town is painted as a dead end avenue, a place where its glories are often lived – if not on the playing field – then firmly in the past.

The constant sense of desperation leads each one of the Panthers to try and make it out of Odessa and get into college. Unfortunately, the opportunities are limited, and with the team’s playoff prospects growing dimmer by the moment, so are the futures of its core players, including the quiet quarterback (Lucas Black) with a troubled mother and a third-string running back (Garrett Hedlund) whose father (Tim McGraw) is an abusive drunk living squarely through his own days on the field.

Shot on location with bone-crunching field action, “Friday Night Lights” is a superb film on many levels. Not only does Berg (who co-wrote the script with David Aaron Cohen) capture the intensity and passion of Texas high school football, but he creates a vivid portrait of people trying to make it out of a place where those that don’t (or can’t) will never leave.

The director gets sensational performances from its cast as well, including McGraw’s tormented father (a remarkable debut performance from the country music star) and Luke’s brash running back, who loses it all in a devastating injury. Though we’ve seen the sequence before in other films, the moment in which he confides to his uncle that he doesn’t know how to do anything other than play football is enormously moving and real – a testament to the performances and Berg’s no-nonsense direction.

“Friday Night Lights” is a great sports movie, but it’s also more than that: its realistic sense of time and place, atmospheric music, and strong characterizations culminate in a film that’s one of the best of 2004. Don’t miss it.

Universal’s Special Edition DVD includes an outstanding featurette (produced by Jim Bacon) looking at the real 1988 Permian Panthers, utilizing interviews with actual players and game footage; a featurette on McGraw’s transition to the big screen; director commentary with Berg; and “Player Cam,” examining the training of the cast members and production of the football game sequences. A full compilment of deleted scenes (running nearly 20 minutes) are included, several of which would have added to the final product, whose only failing is that its pace is sometimes overly frrenetic.

The 2.35 widescreen transfer is razor sharp, though the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is a disappointment: the bass rocks constantly throughout the film, but dialogue is often difficult to hear, and the track needs to be turned up to high levels to coax any presence out of it. Perhaps the result of too much material being crammed on a single disc, hopefully Universal will remaster the title at a later date with a DTS mix.

They Did The Monster Mash!

Paul W.S. Anderson will never be mistaken for a true auteur. His filmography is littered with good-looking, albeit brainless, genre flicks like "Resident Evil" and "Soldier," with the occasional bomb like "Event Horizon" sprinkled into the mix.

Still, Anderson knows how to construct a stylish looking genre flick, and his B-movie expertise made him ideal for ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (**½, 2004, 102 mins., PG-13; Fox), the long-in-development franchise team-up that grossed over $80 million last summer, despite negative reviews from critics. That latter aspect is unsurprising, however, since a lot of reviewers would be predisposed to finding the movie silly and pointless to begin with.

Granted, Anderson's film isn’t “Alien” or “Aliens,” but after two tepid "Alien" sequels that each nearly ended that series -- not to mention a disappointing sequel that put a near- permanent hold on the "Predator" franchise -- the dumb comic-book action of "Alien Vs. Predator" comes as a somewhat refreshing surprise.

Not that the movie's routine first half will have you on the edge of your seat, however. Anderson and Shane Salerno's premise follows a group of present day archeologists and scientists -- hired by wealthy industrialist Charles Weyland (Lance Henriksen, playing the human forefather to Bishop) -- into the Antarctic where an ancient temple has been found beneath the ice. The group, which includes environmental expert Sanaa Lathan, uncovers a strange chamber where humans were used as ritual sacrifices for...well, without divulging all of the plot, let's just say that Aliens and Predators were somehow involved in the development of human civilization and big game hunting simultaneously.

"Alien Vs. Predator" is not nearly as ambitious as "Alien 3" or "Alien: Resurrection," yet it's ultimately far more entertaining than both of those misguided flops (not to mention "Predator 2"), particularly once the film hits its midway point. When the Predators and Aliens finally meet, Anderson's movie delivers the outlandish action and effects you'd anticipate coming from the premise, and rolls its way to the finish line surprisingly well.

Up until that point, the dialogue isn't especially interesting nor the scenario full of twists, yet I enjoyed the movie's visual design and special effects. Unlike the freakish make-up seen in "Resurrection" and the overall garish look of "Alien 3," Anderson seems to have gone back to the drawing board and utilized the design of the creatures from James Cameron's superlative "Aliens," in addition to H.R. Giger's original "Alien" conceptions, in establishing the look of the movie. There are also a few fleeting nods to those initial "Alien" movies (something that ought to please fans), but for the most part, "Alien Vs. Predator" stands on its own as an efficient, if unremarkable, late summer genre offering. The special effects are excellent and the final climactic battle between the Alien Queen, the Predator, and the last human standing is good, old-fashioned fun, well-edited and choreographed, and easily the best set piece of the "Alien" series since the conclusion of Cameron's 1986 hit.

Early in the film, one of the "Wolf Man" films is seen playing on a background TV. It's a telling reference, since "Alien Vs. Predator" is not a film with much on its mind other than providing its audience with an entertainment that couples two well-established monster franchises. In its own way, it's not all that different from "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" or any of the later Universal Monster team-ups from the mid '40s. It's a modern-day B-movie that knows what it is and provides a reasonably entertaining time for viewers who can approach it from the mind set that the material requires. (Now, if only Anderson had known when to quit and not tossed in that last groaner of a final shot!).

Fox’s single-disc DVD is packed with extras, though nothing really substantial in the deleted scenes arena. Anderson had complained that pre-release cuts hurt the film, yet the excised footage on-hand here (an alternate opening and only three minutes of brief deleted sequences) doesn’t really add to the finished product (that alternate opening is also available to view in conjunction with the final cut). A 20-minute Making Of featurette is included, as are a pair of audio commentaries (one with Anderson, Lance Henriksen and Sanaa Lathan, another with the creature effects and VFX producers). DVD-ROM content includes a Dark Horse comic book gallery, while the 2.35 transfer is excellent, as are the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks.

Fans should note that there’s a 2-disc Special Edition of “AVP” available in numerous international territories, sporting additional deleted scenes with optional commentary (eight of which are reportedly exclusive to that release), an HBO Making Of special, additional featurettes, and trailers (none of which are included on the U.S. release). Depending on your enjoyment of the picture, it may be worth importing that release, or waiting for Fox to do an inevitable re-issue when “Alien Vs. Predator 2" (or “Alien 5") is released domestically.

Also new this week from Fox is a two-disc Special Edition of PREDATOR 2 (**, 1991, 108 mins., R), released to coincide with the debut of “Alien Vs. Predator.”

This is a substantially improved DVD edition, featuring a superior transfer than Fox’s initial release of “Predator 2" two years ago. The 2.35 transfer is crisper and in much better condition than the original DVD release, while the robust 5.1 DTS mix is an upgrade over the previous Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (also contained here).

Supplements include a pair of informative commentary tracks, one with writers Jim and John Thomas, the other with director Stephen Hopkins (who went on to helm most of the first season episodes of “24"). Both will be of interest for buffs, with Hopkins dissecting the challenges involved with producing the sequel and the Thomases on writing both “Predator” films (the brothers note how they’d like to do another stand-alone “Predator” installment, next time with a historical element).

A 35-minute featurette does a nice job providing anecdotes on the filming, with Stan Winston offering tales of his work on the sequel, while visual effects producer Joel Hyneck details the picture’s FX in a series of short segments. Another section of brief featurettes examine the weapons constructed for the film, while a full compliment of trailers, promotional featurettes, and even Morton Downey, Jr.’s uncut talk show segments round out the disc.

Definitely worth an upgrade for “Predator” aficionados, with a low retail price (around $15 in most outlets) to boot.

THE GRUDGE (**, 2004). 91 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar, available February 1st. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with Sam Raimi, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ted Raimi and others; Five-part Making Of featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Japanese horror continues to migrate to the U.S. with mixed results. While the Americanized “The Ring” offered a substantial improvement on its source, the Sam Raimi-produced remake (actually more of a sequel) of “Ju-On,” titled THE GRUDGE, is only a negligible improvement on its predecessors, which frankly weren’t all that good to begin with.

At least Raimi did recruit original “Ju-On” director Takashi Shimizu to helm “The Grudge” in his native Japan, and subsequently, the movie does boast the same languid pace as the original film and an atmospheric use of cinematography and sound design. Alas, if only the plot (what little there is of it) was as satisfying.

Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the film’s heroine: an American nurse living with her exchange student boyfriend (Jason Behr) in Japan. After a fellow nurse goes missing, Gellar is sent to the home of an American couple with an incapacitated mother, only to find the couple also missing and the restless spirits of a murdered family hard at work. See, in the universe of “The Grudge,” whenever someone dies a violent death, they haunt the location in which they died, and anyone who comes in contact with them is doomed to meet a violent, disturbing end.

Once this set-up is established, “The Grudge” has the same central problem as its Japanese predecessors (which included a TV series and a slew of sequels): namely, there’s literally nowhere else for the movie to go except to show the demises of its lead characters. Unlike “The Ring,” there’s no real story in Shimizu’s film (adapted by Stephen Susco), but rather a series of flashbacks showing what happened to the characters that triggered the event, and the deaths of the missing individuals. In those scenes, sure enough, we get all the standard Japanese horror devices: a restless female spirit with long dark hair and a wide-open iris (so scary!), dripping water, creepy sound effects and quick cutaways whenever the murders take place (at least the Japanese understand the meaning of restraint, though there’s an “uncut” version reportedly in the works for DVD).

If you’ve seen “The Ring” or other Japanese horror films, “The Grudge” offers no surprises, except how thin the character development and central scenario is. Since there’s no solution to Gellar’s plight, the movie grows increasingly tiresome as it plods along, with the ghostly set-pieces leading to the same resolutions and Shimizu taking his time setting up the situations (too much time, as “The Grudge” feels overlong, even at 91 minutes).

At least “The Ring” had some mystery and a plot to compliment its horrific moments. “The Grudge,” like “Ju-On,” is a one-trick pony that’s all about the scares and not about plot or character development. As a result, the film comes across as a one-dimensional thriller with a frustratingly conventional conclusion that only seems to set us up for an endless series of sequels.

Sony’s DVD, out on February 1st, includes a fun group commentary with Sam Raimi, his brother Ted (who also appears in the film), Gellar and others, along with a five-part “Making Of” documentary examining the origins of “Ju-On,” its adaptation for American audiences, and the picture’s production. Another featurette includes a “medical explanation of fear response in film.” The 1.85 widescreen transfer is superb and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound includes ample uses of the surround channels (particularly when the ghost of a young Japanese boy pitter-patters around the room!) and an effective Christopher Young score.

Paramount TV on DVD

Paramount’s latest TV on DVD offerings comprise two first seasons of long-running series, and the fourth of an all-time classic sitcom.

Richard Dean Anderson first hit the airwaves as MacGYVER (1985-86, 1045 mins) in the fall of 1985. This amiable, kid-friendly show traced the adventures of Anderson’s super agent spy, a resourceful hero who tried whenever possible to use non-violent methods to track down the bad guys and save the world. Accurately described as part James Bond and part-boy scout, MacGyver’s adventures often made for self-contained episodes with few supporting characters (Mac’s boss, Dana Elcar’s Peter Thornton, is only seen in a smattering of first season episodes, and isn’t even billed in the front credits), and fairly energetic, if not routine, ‘80s TV action.

The Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, produced “MacGyver” for ABC, which debuted in its first season on Sunday nights at 8pm, before moving at midseason into a Wednesday night 8pm slot. The show, however, didn’t really take off in the ratings until it preceded “Monday Night Football” in the fall of ‘86, where it would stay for the rest of its seven season run.

“MacGyver” isn’t as much fun as “The A-Team”or Stephen Cannell’s other ‘80s action series, but kids should enjoy the fast pace and varied stories of the series, which take often place around the world in exotic locales (though the show was none-too-obviously shot domestically in the U.S.A.). Like any first season, “MacGyver”’s initial run of 22 episodes (spread across six DVDs) are a little rough around the edges, with some fluctuation in tone and in need of more supporting players.

Curiously, the series pilot offers Michael Lerner as another government bureaucrat in charge of Mac’s adventures, while Shavar Ross (Dudley from “Dif’frent Strokes”) plays...well, I’m not sure...either a young friend of Mac’s or his adopted son. Both Lerner and Ross were excised from the series proper, though only in subsequent seasons would Elcar’s Peter Thornton and other intermittent supporting roles (like Bruce McGill’s Jack Dalton) be developed into the fabric of the series.

Paramount’s six disc DVD box sets includes the entire first season in good-looking transfers and satisfying mono soundtracks. Randy Edelman’s music is energetic and memorable (and basically got him on the map as a film composer), even though it’s heavily synthesized. The discs are packaged in slim cases with episode descriptions and no extras.

The same presentation has been afforded the initial season of the long-running, cult favorite series CHARMED (1988-99, over 16 hrs.).

This amiable show was one of the first big hits for The WB Network, offering three good-looking heroines – Alyssa Milano, Holly Marie Combs, and Shannen Doherty – who comprise a trio of “good witches” who fight evil each week in their native San Fransisco. Like fellow WB series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” the villains in the series range from witches and warlocks to a Wendigo and your basic everyday demon.

What distinguishes “Charmed” is the basic humanity of its core characters, who try and be everyday people (holding down their own jobs) while having the power to help others. Doherty’s Pru has telekentic powers; Combs’ Piper can literally freeze time; while Milano’s Phoebe can take a glimpse into the future. All three try and live ordinary, twentysomething lives with dating and employment issues, but inevitably get wrapped up in another apocalyptic predicament and have to use their newfound abilities.

“Charmed” isn’t as smart as Joss Whedon’s series, but it’s also not as pretentious: it knows its audience wants an escape, and it provided it (and still is, even now in its seventh season) with young, attractive characters, decent effects, and a consistent sense of humor permeating every dark and mysterious plot.

Paramount’s six disc DVD set includes all 22 first season episodes of “Charmed,” which aired on The WB from ‘98 to ‘99 on Wednesday nights at 9pm. The transfers are in very good condition and contain adequate stereo soundtracks.

Finally, from two series in their infancy to one reaching the pinnacle of its comedic heights, Paramount this week offers the complete Fourth Season of CHEERS (1985-86, over 10 hours).

Now with its supporting cast in place (Kelsey Grammar’s Frasier Crane having been firmly established in the series, and Woody Harrelson’s lovable Woody making his debut), “Cheers”’ fourth season perfects the chemistry, strong writing, and consistent laughs that made it one of the most successful sitcoms of all-time.

Highlights in year four include the debut of Bebe Neuwirth as Frasier’s squeeze, the icy and hilarious Lilith Sternin, in the hilarious “Second Time Around”; the Emmy-nominated “2 Good 2 Be 4 Real,” where the gang tries to set up Carla via a personal ad; “From Beer To Eternity,” setting up the rivalry between the Cheers gang and Gary’s Old Towne Tap, a rival establishment in Boston; “Take My Shirt, Please,” with Sam’s Red Sox jersey being auctioned off (and nobody bidding on it!); “The Triangle,” when Fraiser descends into the drink and Sam and Diane’s attempts to get him out of it (an Emmy nominated episode for director James Burrows); and the three-part season ender, “Strange Bedfellows,” with guest star Kate Mulgrew as a Boston councilwoman who falls for Sam, leading Diane to succumb to major jealousy.

As with the previous “Cheers” sets, Paramount’s transfers are excellent, and the stereo sound is likewise superior for ‘80s sitcoms. Unlike the previous sets, there are no special features, which shouldn’t be a major problem considering the set gives you 26 mostly hilarious episodes for around or under $30 in most outlets. Highly recommended!

Indie Round Up

OPEN WATER (*1/2, 2004). 81 mins., R, Lions Gate. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary, Making Of featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Last year’s most overrated critical darling, “Open Water” posits what would happen to an American yuppie couple who, while on vacation, are left for dead by their diving boat out in the middle of the open ocean. There, the two bicker, argue, and try to place the proper blame on each other, while a school of vicious sharks swims nearby, ready to strike at any moment.

After successful festival screenings and a landslide of positive reviews, I have to confess that I expected a lot more from “Open Water” than your typical indie film. Unfortunately, I should have known better: after a tedious opening 15 minutes (complete with the year’s most gratuitous nude scene), “Open Water” hits the water and quickly drowns under its own pretentiousness. Though the initial scenario keeps you watching initially, the two lead characters become so grating that you’d wish the sharks would just hurry up and have them for dinner.

Unfortunately, the movie takes forever to get to that moment, with interminable scenes of the couple arguing over running late constantly, the importance of each other’s daily grind...I kept on thinking that “Open Water” was going to be stopping any second for commentary by Dr. Phil.

Adding further insult to injury is the picture’s climax – or, more precisely, lack of one. Right when the movie seems to be building to some kind of emotional crescendo, “Open Water” ends with one of the most abrupt and meaningless finales seen in any film in the last decade. (And to think some compared this film with “Jaws”!).

Lions Gate’s Widescreen DVD contains a 16:9 enhanced transfer in great condition and 6.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. The use of music in the film is occasionally absurd, such as when an African children’s chorus sings a melancholy ballad while the characters are about to be consumed for lunch. Audio commentary, a Making Of, and trailers round out the disc.

“Open Water” was based very loosely on a 1998 incident that occurred off the coast of Australia, where a pair of Americans were stranded by their tour boat. Though the couple’s bodies were never recovered (and there were no signs of any shark attacks), some locals indicated they had faked their deaths and were seen in various places in the days following the incident. One wonders how much more compelling a film based on the real events might have been than “Open Water” itself.       

MEAN CREEK (**, 2004). 89 mins., R, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Jacob Aaron Estes and cast members; storyboards; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Well-meaning and sincerely performed drama from writer-director Jacon Aaron Estes ultimately plays like a padded “After School Special” for the 21st century.

Young Rory Culkin plays a grade schooler continually beaten up by a bully at school. His brother (Trevor Morgan) decides to stand up for his kin by staging a fake birthday party on a local creek, and inviting “George,” the obnoxious kid responsible for the beatings, along for the ride. The plan is to scare the bad guy into submission, but tragedy strikes on the river and the characters clash over how to handle the deadly consequences of their actions.

Atmospherically shot by Sharon Meir and scored by Tomandandy, “Mean Creek” offers strong performances from its young cast (there are few speaking parts for adults in the picture) and a potent, if obvious, message.

The film’s central problem is that there’s little else to “Mean Creek” outside of its set-up: we know something bad is going to happen from the outset, we understand that the “good” characters will be conflicted by their decisions and the “bad” kids will feel no guilt for what happened, and ultimately that the bully character isn’t so bad after all. I kept waiting for Estes to throw us a few curve balls, but “Mean Creek” plays it straight and the result is an overlong film filled with good intentions that those old ABC “After School Specials” did a more effective job of conveying several decades ago. It doesn’t help that Estes’ script also doesn’t feel natural, with the younger protagonists spouting dialogue that feels far too mature for their age.

Paramount’s DVD looks superb in 1.85 widescreen and offers an atmospheric 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Extras include a commentary track with Estes and cast members, plus storyboards.

New From Lions Gate

GARGOYLE: WINGS OF DARKNESS (**, 2004). 97 mins., R, Lions Gate. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

It’s always good to see Michael Pare back in action. In the made-for-video “Gargoyle,” the former “Eddie & The Cruisers” star plays a CIA agent in Romania where a centuries-old creature has somehow made its way out of the catacombs of an old church to torment local residents.

Jay Andrews’ creature feature is strictly small-screen fare, but “Gargoyle” (which debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel late last year) provides good, solid B-movie fun for monster lovers. The creature effects by Artifex Studios try to evoke Harryhausen-esque memories of old-time stop-motion FX, and the movie has a fast pace and jokey tone that makes it endearing in spite of its shortcomings (like dull characters and a predictable story).

Lions Gate’s DVD includes a good-looking 16:9 enhanced transfer in the 1.85 aspect ratio, plus 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, sporting a decent score by Neal Acree.

DANNY DECKCHAIR (**½, 2004). 100 mins., PG-13, Lions Gate. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, Commentary, Making Of featurette, Trailer; 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Cute Australian import stars Rhys Ifans as a wacky guy who improbably takes off in his deck chair/balloon contraption and floats to a small town where he falls for cute local girl Miranda Otto.

Jeff Balsmeyer’s romantic comedy tries a bit too hard to be quirky and amusing, but Ifans and Otto’s performances are engaging and the movie never becomes pretentious. The score by David Donaldson, Janet Roddick and Steve Roche is likewise pleasant and the movie never becomes predictable, making it a nice choice for Valentine’s viewing.

Lions Gate’s DVD includes commentary from Balsmeyer and Ifans, a standard “Making Of” featurette, the original trailer, a fine 16:9 enhanced transfer (1.85 aspect ratio) and both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks.
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