1/31/06 Edition

Aisle Seat PINK PANTHER Edition
andy reviews the "black sheep" sequels & the cartoon box set!


The word isn’t good on the upcoming remake of “The Pink Panther” starring Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau and Kevin Kline as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, which finally hits theaters February 10th after sitting on the shelf for over six months.

Whether or not Martin’s version strikes out with critics and audiences remains to be seen, but the release of the ‘06 “Panther” has happily paved the way for a succession of new, Pink-related DVDs that should delight fans of the original movies and its popular cartoon spin-off.

In terms of the original “Pink Panther” films, MGM released a five-film box-set offering most of star Peter Sellers’ output in 2004 (these included 1964's “Pink Panther" and “A Shot in the Dark,” 1976's “Pink Panther Strikes Again,” 1978's “Revenge of the Pink Panther,” and the outtake-filled “Trail of the Pink Panther” from 1982). This box-set, which is still available (as are the titles individually), offered newly remastered transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, all of which were appreciable upgrades on the initial run of “Panther” DVD releases.

What’s new this week are the DVD debuts of three “black sheep” entries in the series: 1968's “Inspector Clouseau,” as well as “Curse of the Pink Panther” (1983) and “Son of the Pink Panther” (1993), with the former two making their debuts in widescreen for the first time in any format. In addition, Universal has issued a new "Return of the Pink Panther," putting the title back in print for the first time in several years, and thankfully in a new remastered 16:9 transfer as well.

After masterminding “The Pink Panther” and “A Shot in the Dark,” director Blake Edwards sat on the sidelines while The Mirisch Corporation moved ahead with a sequel of their own: INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU (**½, 1968, 96 mins., Sony/MGM), with Alan Arkin facing the difficult task of stepping into Peter Sellers’s shoes for director Bud Yorkin’s caper.

I don’t believe “Inspector Clouseau” was ever released on VHS, and at the very least, it has made very few appearances on television over the years. For the majority of viewers out there, then, Sony’s new DVD will be the first time they’ve had a chance to lay their eyes on this little-seen comedy, which isn’t so bad on its own terms as it is inferior to Edwards’ own “Panther” comedies.

Arkin’s Clouseau falls somewhere between a reprisal of Sellers’ clumsy detective and an awkward imitation by a younger, more commercially viable leading man (which is what Arkin was back in the day, of course), and the star does flounder a bit with his French accent. Still, Arkin compensates for his muddled dialogue with an appealing performance on the whole; he’s not Sellers, but once you get past that obvious fact, Arkin’s interpretation isn’t nearly as disappointing as you might have heard.

Neither, for that matter, is the movie, which sports a few mildly amusing gags and scenic London locales captured in full Panavision widescreen. The plot (by Frank Waldman, who later collaborated with Edwards on scripts for “Return” and “Strikes Again”) is disposable (Clouseau arrives in London to work with Scotland Yard on derailing a robbery attempt), but the film has numerous British character actors on-hand (Frank Finlay, Barry Foster, Patrick Cargill) and a surprisingly infectious score by Ken Thorne that avoids the tendency to go for a “period” late ‘60s sound like most of the films of its era. (One can also clearly see a gravestone for Yorkin’s long-time associate Norman Lear at one point!).

Perhaps because the movie has been circulated so little over the decades, it should come as no surprise that the source materials for “Inspector Clouseau” do show their age here and there. Still, this is a superior DVD all told from Sony, offering crisp 2.35 framing and a decent mono soundtrack. No extras are included.

Arkin’s sequel didn’t perform well enough at the box-office to warrant a further follow-up, and for a while it appeared as if “The Pink Panther” franchise had run its course...

...that is, until Blake Edwards began preparing a TV series sequel starring Clouseau and the original “Phantom,” Sir Charles Litton. The series didn’t materialize, however, since the eventual return of Peter Sellers meant that THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER (***, 1975, 119 mins; Focus/Universal) went to the big-screen instead.

Though theatrically released by United Artists, this sequel -- rated among the series’ best by critics and fans alike -- was actually produced by ITC Entertainment, and as such has been owned and distributed outside the parameters of MGM/UA throughout the years.

An Artisan DVD from 1999 offered a disappointing widescreen transfer, but the good news is that Universal acquired the rights to the movie and has now produced an excellent new DVD, sporting a remastered 16:9 transfer that finally does justice to this hilarious, if disjointed, Panther comedy. Sellers’ return ensured box-office success, and his Clouseau here is just as daffy as before (if not more so), following on the trail of the Phantom (Christopher Plummer in the David Niven role), whom he suspects of stealing the world-famous Pink Panther diamond.

With one of the series’ best animated title sequences (courtesy of Richard Williams) and a handful of big laughs, “Return of the Pink Panther” is one of the crown jewels the series has to offer. Universal’s DVD doesn’t offer any extras, but the image is such an appreciable upgrade on the old Artisan disc that fans will feel as if they’ve watched the film for the first time. Highly recommended!

“Return” re-launched the franchise on a global scale, paving the way for the subsequent Sellers sequels -- 1976's ridiculous but gleefully entertaining “Pink Panther Strikes Again” and 1978's “Revenge of the Pink Panther” -- to both achieve impressive box-office receipts both in the U.S. and worldwide.

Sellers’ untimely death in 1980 (while he was apparently developing “Romance of the Pink Panther”) did not deter Blake Edwards from continuing the series, first in 1982's “Trail of the Pink Panther,” which combined amusing outtake footage from “Pink Panther Strikes Again” with new footage of Sellers’ co-stars from the preceding films. The result was certainly watchable and amusing for fans, but the “story” ultimately never worked, and the picture struck out at the box-office as a result.

Filmed at the same time as “Trail” was more of a “true” sequel to the series, CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER (**½, 1983, 110 mins., PG; MGM/Sony), which -- in spite of tepid reviews -- is actually a much better movie than its immediate predecessor, if only because Edwards attempted to legitimately relaunch the series here with a new hero: “Soap” alumnus Ted Wass, playing American detective Clifton Sleigh.

The Edwards-Geoffrey Edwards script finds Sleigh being recruited by Dreyfus (the ever-underrated Herbert Lom) to investigate the disappearance of Clouseau. Along the way, he not coincidentally visits all the stars who popped up in “Trail” (Burt Kwouk’s Cato, Robert Loggia’s mafia boss, not to mention David Niven, Robert Wagner and Capucine, with Niven’s voice having been dubbed by Rich Little). The plot, though, holds together better than “Trail,” with Edwards offering several inspired sight gags (especially when Wass is nearly swept away in an airport by a driving rain storm) and a particularly amusing cameo for star “Turk Thrust II” substituting for Sellers at the film’s end.

“Curse” was never previously issued in widescreen on DVD or laserdisc, for that matter, making its debut here in 2.35 a must for Pink Panther fans. Sony’s 16:9 transfer looks colorful and just splendid, restoring Edwards’ wide Panavision frame to its original scope proportions. The mono soundtrack is also just fine, offering a fine Henry Mancini score that’s appreciably livelier than his “Trail” offering (and arguably one of the best of the entire series, with a particularly satisfying rendition of the original “Panther” theme over the end credits).

“Curse of the Pink Panther” is no classic, and cannot be compared favorably to the original Sellers films, but -- like Alan Arkin’s “Inspector Clouseau” -- it’s also certainly not as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe. Wass’ game effort was quickly written off (as was the franchise) after disappointing box-office returns, but Edwards would try one more time to re-launch the series in 1993's “Son of the Pink Panther,” putting Roberto Benigni through the slapstick paces as Clouseau’s illegitimate son. Though it was nice to see Herbert Lom and Claudia Cardinale (one of the stars of the original “Pink Panther”) sharing screen time, the feeble “Son” tanked even more than “Trail” and “Curse,” ranking as the lowest point in the series’ history (let’s hope Martin’s version at least fares better than Benigni’s offering).

Though the Panther film series endured a long hiatus and a few misses at the box-office, the affable, loveable Pink Panther character enjoyed an even longer, and more consistently successful, career as the star of over 100 animated shorts (not to mention numerous TV series and commercials).

Produced by David DePatie and Friz Freleng, the Pink Panther made his solo debut as the star of 1964's “The Pink Phink” and promptly won an Oscar for his efforts. If that wasn’t enough, the Panther would go on to star in 123 other shorts, all of which are collected in Sony’s marvelous THE PINK PANTHER: CLASSIC CARTOON COLLECTION (aprx. 13 hours, 1964-80, Sony/MGM; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week).

The Pink Panther cartoons -- for anyone who didn’t grow up having seen them (which was tough to do since every generation has had the shorts or series available for viewing in one form or another) -- are almost always amusing for kids and adults alike. The lack of dialogue made the shorts easily accessible to all countries and they remain of universal appeal today, with the Depatie-Freleng staff having concocted ingenious trappings for the Pink Panther’s brand of physical comedy to play off, whether it was in a modern setting, in prehistoric times, or in parodies of familiar literature or film.

Sony’s five-disc box set includes all 124 Panther shorts produced between 1964 and 1980. The shorts all appear to be in excellent condition and offer the segments as they were originally produced (and not with the canned laugh track that would often accompany them on Saturday morning TV broadcasts in the ‘60s and ‘70s).

Extras on the fifth disc include “Behind The Feline: The Cartoon Phenomenon,” a documentary examining the popularity of the character that was first included in MGM’s 2004 Pink Panther Collection DVD set; a featurette interviewing animator Art Leonardi; an interview with Hope Freleng about her late father’s work; an American Cinematographer interview with DePatie and Freleng; original storyboards and a featurette on how to draw The Pink Panther; and the full main title sequences from “The Pink Panther,” “A Shot in the Dark,” “...Strikes Again,” “Revenge” and “Trail.”

If there’s one downside to watching the Pink Panther cartoons included here, it’s that -- after viewing several shorts in a row -- you may get tired of hearing Henry Mancini’s classic theme repeated ad nauseam. There’s not a whole lot of variety in the soundtracks themselves, though there are some amusing variations on the Panther motif depending on the theme of the respective short.

That said, this collection (marvelously packaged with a free ticket to the remake, or $10 off a Pink Panther DVD at select locations) is an essential purchase for all Pink Panther fans and animation buffs. We should be so lucky as to regularly receive thorough DVD compilations like this one, so kudos to Sony for a package worth every bit of its $50 or so pink price tag. Great stuff!

Also New On DVD

FLIGHTPLAN (**, 2005). 98 mins., PG-13, Touchstone/Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Robert Schwentke; Two Featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Jodie Foster doesn’t have much fun in the movies these days. After appearing in “Panic Room” as a single mom fighting for her daughter’s safety from a group of home-invading thieves, Foster starred in last fall’s “Flightplan” -- a picture about a newly widowed mom who fights for her daughter’s safety after she disappears on a flight from Berlin.

Reasonably well-made but depressingly pedestrian and unbelievable, “Flightplan” has Foster essaying Kyle Pratt, an airline engineer whose daughter vanishes while in transit from Germany. The plane’s captain (Sean Bean), lead stewardess (a completely wasted Erika Christensen, whose role must have been left on the cutting room floor), and airline security expert (Peter Sarsgaard) indulge Foster in searching for her little one but ultimately believe that she’s delusional...and that Foster never had her daughter onboard at any point to begin with.

Writers Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray, along with director Robert Schwentke, attempt to throw the viewer off during the picture’s first half with a faux-M. Night Shayamalan styled screenplay, but it’s a red herring all the way (and not that you necessarily would believe it, either, since Sarsgaard comes across as a creep from the moment he appears on camera). Foster essentially reprises the same woman-in-peril role she performed to moderate success in David Fincher’s “Panic Room,” but at 98 minutes “Flightplan” has very little character development going for it, with most of the passengers onboard Foster’s flight coming across as stock Hollywood stereotypes (I particularly disliked the heavy-handed “not all Arabs are bad” subplot, which is rammed home no more pretentiously than at the film’s finale). Ultimately, “Flightplan” is a silly, unpleasant, and outlandish movie with little going for it outside of a moderately stylish look (credit to cinematographer Florian Ballhaus), with an ending that’s very difficult to believe...to say the least.

Buena Vista’s DVD does offer a marvelous 5.1 DTS soundtrack, layered with effects and an okay score by James Horner. The 16:9 transfer is likewise rock solid, and extras offer commentary by Schwentke and two featurettes (a standard “Making Of” and a look at the production design by Alexander Hammond).

New From Sony

THE FOG: Unrated Edition (**, 2005). 103 mins., PG-13, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director Commentary; Three Featurettes; Additional Deleted Scenes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Aarrgh! That’s the sound of not just the ghostly pirates who haunt this remake of the 1979 John Carpenter cult fave, but also the reaction a viewer might have at how frustrating the 2005 edition of “The Fog” ultimately is.

“Smallville”’s Tom Welling and “Lost” alumnus Maggie Grace certainly look the part as the young, attractive couple at the center of the mysterious goings on in Antonio Bay, a quiet Oregon coastal community, where spectral pirates come calling whenever the fog rolls in. At the center of the goings-on is one rightly annoyed Captain Drake (Rade Sherbedgia), who wants revenge for the wrongs the town’s founding fathers did him and his cargo of afflicted lepers centuries ago.

Writer Cooper Layne (the tedious disaster flop “The Core”) re-worked the rather slim premise of the original Carpenter-Debra Hill script for director Rupert Wainwright’s version and, for a while, it appears as if the new “Fog” is on firm footing. The movie looks stylish and offers an appealing cast, but just when it appears as if Layne’s new script is going to improve on its predecessor, “The Fog” gets lost in a tired succession of chases and fumbled characterizations. The potential was there for an interesting triangle between Welling, Grace, and local DJ Selma Blair (in the Adrienne Barbeau role), but none of it comes together, with Blair serving little purpose when all is said and done. Meanwhile, the picture’s final twist makes no sense at all, with little having been established about who the character is and no explanation for the eventual outcome.

Just as curious is how Wainwright and Layne excised one of the original movie’s few memorable sequences (with Barbeau fighting for her life on top of the Antonio Bay lighthouse)  in favor of an awkward showdown between the pirates and the modern-day town elders -- characters that, like everyone else in the movie, are likewise undeveloped.

“The Fog” has a few neat effects, reasonably effective cinematography by Nathan Hope, and a quietly Carpenter-esque score by Graeme Revell, making it certainly watchable and, I suppose, worthwhile for die-hard horror fans. The problem is that it could have been so much more, had Layne followed through on his original script and delivered strong characters you could have cared about.

Sony’s DVD includes a very nice 2.35 widescreen transfer with a predictably active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Additional deleted scenes, three featurettes (including a new interview with Carpenter), and a commentary from Wainwright make this a nice DVD....just a shame the film wasn’t more fun than it was.

THE LEGEND OF ZORRO (***, 130 mins., 2005, PG-13, Sony): OK, so this sequel to the 1998 hit has a bit too much story and not enough dramatic momentum moving it forward -- it’s as if the filmmakers never found a compelling hook for a sequel, and the movie was eventually made with as promising a plot as they could find. That being said, director Martin Campbell’s reunion with stars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones is still a rousing slice of old-fashioned matinee fun, with Zorro out to stop a terrorist (the wonderful Rufus Sewell) from causing havoc when California is about to join the union. James Horner’s spirited score and Phil Meheux’s scope cinematography provide a boost to the entertainment, which ought to please fans of the original, provided you realize going in that this sequel is inferior -- but still fun. Sony’s Special Edition DVD offers commentary from Campbell, deleted scenes (including an abandoned sequel set-up prologue and epilogue), several Making Of featurettes, and a marvelous 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

OLIVER TWIST (**½, 130 mins., 2005, PG-13; Sony): Curiously flat retelling of the Dickens classic from director Roman Polanski at times feels like a bland made-for-TV adaptation. Ben Kingsley mugs endlessly as Fagin, the Prague-based location doesn’t feel authentic, and the emotion is restrained in the Ronald Harwood script; it’s all reverent and respectable, but somehow never particularly compelling, either. Sony’s DVD boasts three featurettes: “Twist by Polanski,” offering a basic overview of the production; “The Best of Twist,” a 17-minute featurette that’s far from an “in-depth examination” of the movie (where’s the portion about the music referred to on the back cover?); and a profile of the picture’s young stars. The 2.35 transfer is excellent, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound satisfying, offering a score by Rachel Portman that’s pleasant but -- much like the film -- not especially remarkable.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: Collector’s Edition (***½, 1960, 128 mins.; MGM/Sony): This new two-disc Collector’s Edition of “The Magnificent Seven” doesn’t just rehash the supplements from MGM’s prior 2001 DVD; it adds several new featurettes and improves the prior so-so 16:9 widescreen transfer (appreciably so during reel changes and the opening credits). Extras include a pair of commentaries (the previous actor commentary and a new talk with historian Sir Christopher Frayling), new featurettes on Frayling, Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent score (courtesy of comments from sage Jon Burlingame), and “Lost Images” from the movie. These extras were apparently available in various overseas DVD editions of the film, but make their debut in the U.S. here for the first time. Between the new extras and the improved transfer, this “Seven” is well worth the upgrade from the previous DVD edition.

THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (**½, 1985, 85 mins., G; MGM/Sony): Strange is the best world to describe this occasionally spellbinding, but more often bizarre animated effort from Claymation meister Will Vinton. The 1985 fantasy -- which adapts portions of some of Mark Twain’s lesser-known stories -- offers vivid stop-motion animation and several impressive moments, but also a very odd, melancholy tone that -- while making it more “mature” -- also makes it too downbeat and depressing for children. Ultimately Susan Shadburne’s script bites off more than it can chew, but Vinton’s animation is more than worth a single viewing, and Sony’s DVD of this barely-released feature offers a superlative 1.85 (16:9) transfer with a robust Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack. No extras are included in this affordable catalog title.

DIFF’FRENT STROKES: Complete Season 2 (1979-80, 24 Episodes, Sony): One of my favorite sitcoms growing up returns to DVD in this three-disc box set from Sony. Alas, while Season 2 doesn’t contain my favorite “Parental Discretion Advised” episodes (particularly the ultra-disturbing “Bicycle Man,” with WKRP’s Gordon Jump as your friendly neighborhood child molester!), there are still plenty of nostalgic gems sprinkled throughout the year, including Arnold and Willis being formally adopted by Phil Drummond; a visit from the cast of the short-lived Maclean Stevenson sitcom “Hello Larry”; appearances by the girls from “The Facts Of Life” (co-star Charlotte Rae left midway through the year for her own starring gig on the spin-off); and an appearance by none other than Muhammad Ali in “Arnold’s Hero.” As with the prior “Diff’Rent Strokes” box-set, Sony has included uncut broadcast-length episodes in solid condition, and the laugh tracks sound as phony as ever in the 2.0 Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. I can hear it now: “what ‘cho talkin’ ‘bout, Dursin?!”

Also New From Universal

TWO FOR THE MONEY (**½, 123 mins., 2005, R; Morgan Creek/Universal): Al Pacino does his usual thing as a master gambler who recruits former college football star and aspiring bettor Matthew McConaughey for his NYC operation. Yes, it’s “The Devil’s Advocate” formula, except without Charlize Theron getting a nasty haircut and all those excessive effects spoiling the party. Director D.J. Caruso and writer Dan Gilroy have fashioned a standard, predictable, but very watchable character-drama with “Two For The Money,” which failed to catch fire at the box-office last fall. Despite its somewhat uneven tone, the movie plays well on DVD, where the viewer can savor the performances of Pacino and McConaughey, as well as Rene Russo, who also co-produced this Morgan Creek production. Universal’s DVD offers deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, a profile of actual sports betting, a fine 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER (**½, 129 mins., R; Universal): Writer Jeffrey Caine and director Fernando Meirelles’ beautifully filmed adaptation of the John LeCarre novel at least plays better than the D.O.A. filming of “The Russia House” (a movie that’s still as effective a cure for insomnia as downing a few Tylenol PM’s), starring Ralph Fiennes as the husband of a slain activist (Rachel Weisz) who vows to find out what happened to his wife in Northern Kenya. Cesar Charlone’s location cinematography is marvelously captured in Universal’s DVD, but nothing (outside of a prior reading of LeCarre’s novel) can clarify the movie’s over-stuffed plot and characters...or make you truly care about what’s going on. Universal’s DVD also offers deleted scenes, one extended sequence, and three solid featurettes profiling the movie and author LeCarre. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are as satisfying as any DVD I’ve seen so far this year.

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