Aisle Seat Summer of '85 Edition

Reviews of Paramount's EXPLORERS, DARYL DVDs
Plus: The Aisle Seat Online launches!

By Andy Dursin

This is the first week that The Aisle Seat will be published simultaneously here on Film Score Monthly online (where it has been uploaded since 1997) as well as my own Aisle Seat webpage. If you have a chance, check out the new site, which includes a brand-new Message Board, column archive, pictures (yes -- in color, too!), and more!

Don't worry, the Aisle Seat isn't leaving FSM -- you'll see it in both places -- but if you'd like to drop in, say hi, and join me for more updates and info, by all means stop in!

The summer of '85 was a good time to be growing up and going to the movies. "Back to the Future" and "Cocoon" were two of the season's biggest genre hits, and was just one of many films from that year that are still entertaining viewers decades later (not to mention "Lifeforce," of course!).

Not every film released that summer was a hit, though, as the summer of '85 had its share of box-office disappointments.

One of them was Joe Dante's EXPLORERS (**1/2, 106 mins., PG; Paramount), which was the genre auteur's highly awaited follow-up to his smash hit "Gremlins" from the preceding year.

With lofty expectations, a relatively large budget, and the concept of a Spielberg-like youth space fantasy, "Explorers" had been pegged as one of the top prospects for the summer of '85. When the movie arrived in theaters in mid July, though, "Explorers" became a quick casualty of mixed reviews and indifferent box-office response, turning into one of the year's costlier flops.

It's a shame as well, because for all of the movie's faults (and I'll get to those in a moment), this is an optimistic and entertaining film that begins extremely well and offers one of Jerry Goldsmith's most unabashedly lyrical and memorable scores from what was arguably the last "golden age" of film music.

Eric Luke's script follows three pre-teens -- dreamer Ethan Hawke, scientist River Phoenix, and outsider Jason Presson -- as they build a spaceship in their backyard. Their mission: to meet up with an extraterrestrial presence that's been sending thoughts to Hawke, who's also in love with his cute classmate (Amanda Peterson, who would later star in the '80s teen movie classic "Can't Buy Me Love").

The first half of "Explorers" is magical and moving, perfectly capturing the innocent period of each character's adolescence. The three leads are amiable and well-established in the script, with Dante bringing the same mix of youthful exuberance and fantasy that marked "Gremlins."

At about the hour mark, though, the movie completely falls apart. Once the kids actually launch into the outer reaches of our atmosphere, "Explorers" hits the ground with a thud, with the loud, noisy, Earth-culture-loving extraterrestrials comprising a lengthy joke that's neither funny nor well-staged. What's worse, the said scenes feel like they'll never end -- a criticism that was almost universally noted in most reviews of the movie at the time of its release. As many movies as I've seen, there are few films that start as well as "Explorers" and end as badly as this one. (On the plus side, if you've seen the movie more than once, it is easier to accept its deadly final act knowing the disappointment that's to come).

Dante tried re-cutting "Explorers" after its theatrical release -- editing out two sequences (totaling about three minutes) and re-working the last scene -- but his attention ought to have been turned towards at least trimming the final third, in lieu of re-shooting it altogether.

It's the slightly-abbreviated "Special Video Version" that Paramount has released on DVD, though the two theatrical release scenes that were cut are contained in the supplement, both in 5.1 Dolby Digital and 1.85 Widescreen (the full theatrical cut still plays on cable TV). The same transfer and sound are, of course, also present on the movie proper, which looks extremely sharp, vibrant, and just a tad grainy -- something that may have always been inherent in the picture's cinematography.

Goldsmith's score, meanwhile, truly sings in the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. As I wrote earlier, this is one of Goldsmith's many wonderful scores from the early-mid '80s, with an enthusiastic spirit and memorable, exuberant main theme making for one of my all-time favorite works by the composer.

Paramount's DVD offers no other special features aside from a photo gallery, but even without the theatrical trailer, "Explorers" remains a recommended view for its low price ($15 and under in most outlets) and its wonderful first half (or two-thirds). If the finale had lived up to its start, "Explorers" could have been a bona-fide '80s sensation, but even with its drawbacks, it's a well-intentioned and occasionally touching fantasy that's still worth the trip.

More conventional but nevertheless entertaining is D.A.R.Y.L. (**1/2, 100 mins., PG; Paramount), another '85 fantasy that met with somewhat lukewarm box-office.

Barret Oliver from "The Neverending Story" and "Cocoon" stars as Daryl, a seemingly ordinary kid with extraordinary talents. See, Daryl is really D.A.R.Y.L.: Data Analyzing Robot Youth Life Form, a government project that has escaped from the lab and into the real world, where he finds a pair of caring foster parents (Mary Beth Hurt, Michael McKean) who begin to suspect there's something "unique" about their new child. Meanwhile, the bad guys are hot on Daryl's tail, culminating in some typical '80s car chases, near misses, and escapes.

Like a cross between "WarGames" and "E.T.," "D.A.R.Y.L." is a satisfying '80s family film, superior to the kinds of live-action fare Disney was releasing at the time. The movie has some nice messages and effective widescreen cinematography, which comes across especially well in Paramount's DVD edition (in 16:9 widescreen). Marvin Hamlisch's score is a bit much at times, but it's freed from the goofy synthesizer scores that marred most films of its period, and sounds fine in 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Simon Wincer ("Lonesome Dove") directed "D.A.R.Y.L.," and it's an innocuous, entertaining picture ideal for family viewing. Paramount's presentation is superb and the film worthy of discovery on disc.

From the summer of '85 to the '90s, we come to another Paramount genre title about to make its debut alongside its predecessors on DVD: the effective 1993 UFO film FIRE IN THE SKY (**1/2, 109 mins., PG-13; Paramount).

Recounting the allegedly true story of an Arizona logger (D.B. Sweeney) abducted by aliens, Tracy Torme's script spends as much time with Travis Walton's co-workers (Peter Berg, Henry Thomas, Robert Patrick) as it does on the abduction itself, which is pursued by an investigator (James Garner) who thinks there's an Earthbound cover-up involved.

Robert Lieberman's movie is a bit long and too moody at times for its own good, but Bill Pope's cinematography is superb and the performances all on the mark. Even better is the alien abduction sequence near the film's end, with dynamic ILM special effects making for an unsettling and effective viewing experience. It may not be as dynamic as "The UFO Incident" with James Earl Jones (how 'bout a DVD release of that made-for-TV classic?), but it's perfect for Halloween viewing just the same.

Paramount's DVD offers a perfect 2.35 widescreen transfer with a bass-dominated 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, sporting a serviceable Mark Isham score.

New and Upcoming on DVD

LOVE ME IF YOU DARE [Jeux d'enfants'] (**1/2, 2004). 94 mins., R; Paramount. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 French Dolby Digital with English subtitles.

Quite offbeat French fare examines the equally off-the-wall relationship between childhood friends Sophie and Julien. The inseparable duo play a game of "dare" which starts off with mere juvenile pranks, but as the two grow into adults (played by Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard), the games turn more mean-spirited and harsh with their coming of age.

"Love Me If You Dare" is colorfully shot by Antoine Roch and scored with a delicate touch by Philippe Rombi, whose music tries to convey the off-kilter, mostly comedic intentions of writer-director Yann Samuell. The movie was apparently an enormous hit in its native France, where audiences ate up the film's strange story and mix of romance, dark comedy, and a downright strange finale.

It's that harsher edge that undoubtedly was the reason why Samuell's film didn't make much noise on this side of the Atlantic -- this is no "Amelie," despite its similar visual design. Yet, the first half of the movie is sufficiently enchanting, enough to recommend the film with some strong reservations about its ambiguous and disappointing final third (which leaves its "fantasy" world for a "real" coda -- at least I think so).

Paramount's DVD, out next week, includes a colorful 1.85 transfer that perfectly captures Roch's stylized, effective visual pallet. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, in the original French dialogue, is excellent and offers a robust mix for Rombi's dreamy score, one of the picture's chief assets.

GARFIELD (**1/2, 2004). 80 mins., PG, Fox. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen and full-screen versions, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, trailers for other Fox films, music video.

Jim Davis's lovable comic feline finally hit the big-screen with this critically- lambasted May release, which nevertheless managed to rake in $75 million in domestic box-office (plus an additional $100 million worldwide), becoming one of the year's more surprising hits in the process.

Pete Hewitt's film doesn't quite capture the moodiness of Davis's strip -- often favoring over-the-top physical humor instead -- but the Joel Cohen-Alex Sokolow script retains enough elements from the comic to make it sufficiently entertaining.

Here, Garfield (voiced by Bill Murray) finds his world with owner Jon (Breckin Meyer) turned upside down when canine Odie is introduced into their home. Garfield has trouble coping with having to share Jon with Odie, who ultimately runs away and into the clutches of evil animal exploiter Stephen Tobolowsky.

One of the strip's more enduring aspects was charting the hapless social life of Garfield's owner -- something that proves to be one of the film's more disappointing aspects. Though Meyer fits the part, Jennifer Love Hewitt is all wrong as Liz, the vet he's perennially asking out, and their relationship is a dud that doesn't capture any of the angst or humor that's long been a part of its source.

More successful is Garfield himself, who retains his Davis design thanks to excellent animation by Rhythm & Hues Studios (the same group that worked on "Babe"). The character is neatly integrated into the "real" world, and his interaction with Odie -- an actual canine -- is surprisingly believable. Murray, meanwhile, is a perfect vocal replacement for the late Lorenzo Music, and while the picture's plot is overly conventional, "Garfield" is ultimately a reasonably fun and agreeably short ride that should please fans of the comic and young children.

Fox's DVD looks stellar, with both 1.85 widescreen and full-screen options available. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack seems to have been recorded at a peculiarly low level, with little stereophonic presence (Christophe Beck's score is relatively thankless). Extras are limited to a music video and behind-the-scenes featurettes on two upcoming Fox family films.

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (**1/2, 2004). PG-13, 123 mins., Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted scenes, commentaries, sound demo; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Great special effects are the saving grace of Roland Emmerich's silly sci-fi extravaganza, which poses the question of what would happen if global warming reached catastrophic levels. The answer is: dumb dialogue, splendid visuals, thin characterizations, and over $180 million in domestic box-office.

"The Day After Tomorrow" is competent disaster filmmaking, make no mistake: the scenes of New York City frozen over, ships parked in the metropolitan streets, and tidal waves crashing into the Statue of Liberty are impressive in scope. If only the premise by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachimanoff made more sense (it's nearly as believable as watching one of those '50s monster movies with scientists talking jibberish), with some outrageous scenes forcing stars Dennis Quaid (as an intrepid NOAA climatologist) and Jake Gyllenhaal (as his son, stranded in NYC) to look as serious as possible in an effort to make the picture believable at least on a dramatic level. It's not, but as dumb-fun summer blockbusters go, "Day After Tomorrow" is a notch below "Twister" on the entertainment scale, and certainly makes for a recommended DVD view.

Fox's DVD sports a crisp, clean and superb 2.35 widescreen transfer with an equally strong 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The various sound effects and Harald Kloser's predictable score combine to make for a potent home theater mix, while special features include two commentaries (one by Emmerich and producer Mark Gordon; the other with Nachmanoff, the cinematographer, editor, and production designer), two deleted scenes, and an interactive sound demo. DVD-ROM content includes over an hour of behind-the-scenes "Making Of" featurettes.

RAISING HELEN (**, 2004). PG-13, 119 mins., Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted scenes, bloopers, music video, commentary; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Garry Marshall comedy isn't as saccharine-sweet and overly cloying as its trailers appeared, though saying that "Raising Helen" is a bit above mediocre isn't any kind of sweeping praise.

Kate Hudson, who's yet to carry a big-time box-office success, stars and gives a nicely restrained performance as the young, workaholic assistant to fashion guru Helen Mirren. Hudson's life may be tough enough as is, but gets a jolt of reality when her sister is killed in an auto accident, and she has to raise her teen daughter and younger siblings.

"Raising Helen" sounds like a TV-movie or sitcom pilot, but to the performers' credit, the cast does a nice job raising the material to respectability. Hudson isn't over- the-top, and John Corbett ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") is appealing as the Lutheran minister who she falls for. The kids are also OK, but the cliched Jack Amiel-Michael Begler script is more predictable on that front, with the typical growing up issues and Hudson's inability to cope being straight out of similar films. The overlong running time, meanwhile, also proves to be a stumbling block, and the movie's pop-music cast sing-a- long is unbearably bad (haven't we progressed beyond the requisite lip-synch sequence by this point?).

Buena Vista's DVD, out this week, features a perfectly fine 1.85 widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. John Debney scored the movie, but his music is mostly overshadowed by the numerous pop tunes on the soundtrack. Special features include a chummy commentary with Marshall and the writers; deleted scenes; outtake reel; and a Liz Phair music video.

LADY DEATH: THE MOTION PICTURE (**1/2, 2004). 80 mins., Unrated, ADV Films. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary, Making Of featurette, Animation featurette, 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The popular Epic comic heroine gets her own motion picture vehicle in this made- for-video feature which recounts the birth, death, and resurrection of Lucifer's daughter -- better known as Hope, a fair maiden who's transformed in Hell into a nubile slayer of evil and darkness (kind of like "Red Sonja" for the undead crowd).

Brian Pulido's creation has been a smash on the indie comic circuit for years, and while this modest production isn't quite the full-blown visceral experience some fans may have been anticipating, it's a decently-animated effort (by Sunmin Image Pictures) with stylish design that's right out of the comic itself. The 80-minute feature introduces the heroine's origins and sets up the basic conflict of the series, though one can sense more adventures to follow if this ADV Films effort is popular enough on DVD.

ADV's DVD looks great in 1.85 widescreen, anamorphically enhanced for 16:9 televisions. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is quite good, sporting a very nice, orchestral score by composer Bill Brown. Supplements include a commentary from director Andrew Orjuela and two "Making Of" featurettes: "Visions of Hell," focusing on storyboards dissecting the conceptual design of the characters and backdrops, and "Animating Death," which shows the filmmakers and animators at work. It's a nice package for a movie worth checking out for fans of the comic book and anime buffs in general.

NEXT TIME: Back with more reviews, comments and more.


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