10/18/05 Edition

Aisle Seat October DVD Harvest!

Mad Hot Ballroom, Traveling Pants & More
Plus: THE BIG LEBOWSKI bowls into a new SE!

Although it never comes together as effectively as it might have, the acclaimed documentary MAD HOT BALLROOM (***, 105 mins., 2005, PG; Paramount) is nevertheless a breath of fresh air in a year of tired studio films and bloated would-be blockbusters.

A chronicle of the New York City public school system’s 4th and 5th grade ballroom dance class, “Mad Hot” shows the joys, triumphs and tribulations of several schools as they compete in what has become a massively successful program for both educators and students. Promoting social skills and interaction between young boys and girls in a way that I never recall anything in my elementary school years doing, “Mad Hot Ballroom” is an uplifting, if not somewhat sobering, examination of kids -- many here from the poorest sections of the Big Apple -- getting wrapped up in something they ordinarily would have little (to no) interest in.

Hard-working teachers pour their hearts and souls into this program, which encourages kids to engage in the fine arts despite often economically challenging backdrops. Though most everyone seems to have a good time, make no mistake that -- once the competition advances beyond the initial stages -- things get pretty fierce: schools pride themselves on bringing home the annual trophy, and seem to hire more than one “expert” to consult their young charges in making the proper steps on the dance floor.

“Mad Hot Ballroom” has some hilarious and heartwarming moments, and comes through late with a serious, heartbreaking yet inspiring message: though some of the kids that go through the program ultimately hit the streets and become victims of their respective environments, the class has indeed turned some problematic students around, both in the classroom and out of it.

It’s a wonderful sentiment, but one wishes director Marilyn Agrelo and writer/co-producer Amy Sewell had established that theme earlier on in their movie. More over, the filmmakers ought to have developed some of the specific participants and teachers more than they do. There are too many schools and kids profiled early in the film -- so many that it can be hard to keep up with the various contestants. Regrettably, several students who don’t factor in the film’s outcome are given more screen time than the eventual winners -- something that detracts from the message that the program does much for kids, many of whom have so little.

Still, despite my reservations about the project’s lack of focus, “Mad Hot Ballroom” is a lot of fun and highly entertaining for viewers of all ages. Paramount’s DVD, out this week, offers nothing but a straightforward 16:9 transfer of the picture with 2.0 surround sound. Shot on digital video with a minuscule crew, “Mad Hot Ballroom” looks as if it was a labor of love on the part of its creators, who have packaged compelling evidence that not everything -- at least -- in our public education system is broken. Strongly recommended!

Also New On DVD

BATMAN BEGINS (***, 2005). 140 mins., PG-13, Warner. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of Featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

It’s easy to see why filmmakers have had such a difficult time trying to capture the exploits of Bob Kane’s Dark Knight on-screen. The inherent psychological aspects of the Bruce Wayne character, his inner-demons and guilt over the death of his parents, and the curious costume he wears are all obstacles one faces in trying to make a filmed adaptation of the DC Comics hero. From the campy Adam West-Burt Ward ‘60s TV show to Tim Burton’s uneven though entertaining box-office hits and Joel Schumacher’s poorly-received, decadent sequels, the live-action Batman productions have all illustrated -- to one degree or another -- the problems that bringing the super-hero’s adventures to the screen entail.

Now the franchise has started anew with the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” an epic “re-imagining” of the hero that captures some of the essence of Frank Miller’s superb “Batman: Year One” comic book. It’s an ambitious, at-times enthralling entertainment that unfortunately falters during its final third -- in a manner that ironically recalls the problems of its immediate predecessors at that.

First the good news: Christian Bale makes for a superb Bruce Wayne, who we meet at the beginning as a young man searching for his soul. Having left Gotham City and his name to the point where he’s believed dead, Wayne encounters a mysterious man named “Ducard” (Liam Neeson) while serving time in a Far East prison. In a sequence reminiscent of “The Shadow,”Ducard tutors Wayne in the ways of the “League of Shadows,” a group attempting to bring justice to the world by tilting the axis of power in various global locales.

Wayne leaves the group behind, though, after he refuses to execute a criminal, and returns to find Gotham City in the same, depleted condition one will recall from the old Tim Burton films. Criminals run amok, including a city mobster (a miscast Tom Wilkinson) and an Arkham Asylum shrink (Cillian Murphy) who has more up his sleeve than just treating his patients. One good cop -- Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) -- attempts to fight the injustice along with Wayne’s childhood pal-turned-D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), but their efforts are thwarted by a ring of corruption that extends to every nook and cranny of the dank metropolis.

Meanwhile, back at Wayne Manor, trusty butler Alfred (the wonderful Michael Caine) attempts to pick the troubled Bruce up by his bootstraps by indulging in his master’s latest interest: combating evil by becoming a one-man wrecking crew. Armed with weapons from Wayne Industries engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce springs into action and fights his childhood traumas by becoming Batman, or -- as Murphy at one point intones -- “The Bat-Man!”

Impressively shot in widescreen in a way that looks more like the work of Ridley Scott than Burton or Schumacher’s efforts, Nolan’s “Batman Begins” starts well, if not a bit leisurely. Bale looks the part and is given a well-crafted backstory courtesy of Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer. His interplay with Caine -- who’s given one of his best roles in years -- is tremendous, and being able to see veterans like Caine and Freeman together on-screen is worth the price of admission alone.

Nolan effectively illustrates Wayne’s guilt over his parents’ murder and perfectly sets up the springs that set his transformation into Batman in motion. Heck, we even get to see Batman doing some detective work -- a cornerstone of the comics that was almost entirely lost amongst the bombastic action and effects of the previous “Batman” films.

Where the movie gets into trouble -- and unfortunately a fair degree of it -- is in its final third. After doing such an impressive job setting up the plot, Nolan and Goyer come up with an absurd finale where the villains attempt to turn Gotham’s residents against one another by contaminating the water supply. Their method? A chemical that -- once sprayed through the air and in concert with the poisoned liquid -- makes its victims hallucinate poor make-up effects.

This results in a weird, choppy climax that almost feels like “Escape From Gotham City,” except with Batman filling in for Snake Plissken. What’s worse is that the special effects are substandard -- the affected Gothamites see Batman as a blurry figure with glowing eyes and light emitting from his mouth, much the same way that Michael Mann depicted vampires in “The Keep.” Needless to say it doesn’t work, while the “demise” of the nefarious Scarecrow is hysterically funny -- and not in an intended way, either.

The cast is also a mixed bag. Bale and Caine work so well together that they help to off-set some of the picture’s curious, and less effective, performances. Tom Wilkinson, a fine British actor, seems totally misplaced here as an inner-city mobster -- a role that cries out for the likes of a young Paul Sorvino or, at the least, Joe Pantoliano. Cillian Murphy seems far too young as the shady Dr. Crane, with his over-the-top “look out for the Bat-Man!” line providing a few unintended chuckles for the audience I screened the movie with. Katie Holmes comes off as a lightweight against the likes of Bale, Caine, and Freeman, and her final scene with Bale is too pat and predictable.

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s “tag team” soundtrack also doesn’t work well enough to justify the collaboration between the two veteran composers. Though propulsive and at times effective (thankfully in a less blaring way than Elliot Goldenthal’s excessive scores for the Schumacher films), it’s also highly forgettable. There’s no central thematic material to grasp onto, and their tiresome cue for the Batmobile chase -- which sounds like what Samuel Barber might have come up with in an “Adagio For Batman” -- stands as a severe miscalculation.

Ultimately, “Batman Begins” has nearly as many problems as it has positives, yet Nolan is enough of a craftsman and artist that the pros outweigh the cons. Always exciting to watch and with strong central performances from Bale and Caine, this is a flawed but fascinating new take on the comic book legend -- better than the Schumacher films and essentially as satisfying as Burton’s efforts. Which is to say, it’s entertaining, but there’s still room for improvement in the next adventure.

Warner’s two-disc Collector’s Edition DVD offers up the fantastic 2.35 widescreen transfer and rich 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack one would anticipate from this release. The movie looks and sounds top-notch, especially on a big-screen TV, and could possibly play even better for some viewers there than it did in theaters.

For special features, Warner has included the theatrical trailer and a slew of short featurettes that, all told, comprise roughly 105 minutes of documentary materials on the second disc (a single-disc version is available for the same price). These take you through the production of “Batman Begins” via numerous cast and crew interviews, though truth be told, they’re far from the most compelling supplements I’ve seen on DVD this year. The lack of deleted scenes and commentary is likewise telling – no doubt we’ll see a more features-laden Special Edition down the road.

That said, Warner’s technical presentation of “Batman Begins” on DVD is superb, and fans will eat this one up immediately on that basis alone. Recommended.

SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS (**1/2, 2005). 119 mins., PG, Warner. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Additional Scenes; Featurettes; Conversation With Author Ann Brashares; Trailer; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Earnest, entertaining film about four teenage friends (Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel, America Ferriera, and Blake Lively) who separate during one summer. Bledel’s heroine journeys to Greece and falls for a local fisherman; Ferriera attempts to reconcile with her father (Bradley Whitford), only to find that he’s harboring a major secret; Lively tries to court an instructor at her soccer camp; and Tamblyn stays at home, working for a Walmart-like chain and attempting to produce a documentary (or “suckumentary,” as she calls it).

Ann Brashares’ popular novel for young females makes for an easy-going, pleasant film from director Ken Kwapis. Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler adapted Brashares’ work for the screen, structuring it in an episodic form that moves from one story to the next. While the last half-hour veers into heavy melodrama, the rest of “Sisterhood” is engaging and sincerely acted, though some plot developments (such as Ferriera’s restrained initial reaction to her father’s new family) are a bit hard to believe. Still, with terrific performances from all four leads and a satisfying score by Cliff Eidelman, “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” is, at the least, a superior coming-of-age tale with a feminine slant, suitable for all ages.

Warner’s DVD includes a “video commentary” from the stars, who sit in front of a small monitor with lit candles and snacks, and provide some discussion for key scenes in the movie; a host of deleted scenes, with commentary from Kwapis; an interview with Brashares; and several featurettes. The 2.35 transfer is vibrant and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound just right for this kind of film.

New From Universal

THE BIG LEBOWSKI: COLLECTOR’S EDITION (****, 1998). 118 mins., R, Focus/Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Remastered Transfer; Making Of featurette; Jeff Bridges photo gallery; “Introduction” by “Mortimer Young”; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Personal preference will dictate how much enjoyment you get out of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 romp, but for this critic, “The Big Lebowski” ranks as one of the funniest movies of all-time.

A brilliant mix of social satire, detective thrillers, and general observations on the human condition, “Lebowski” sends stoner bowler Jeff Bridges into a noir-ish mystery involving a millionaire daughter’s missing toe and -- more essentially -- Bridges’ stolen rug. The odyssey that follows is a hysterical, endlessly quotable adventure with Bridges joined by bowling cohorts John Goodman (never better than here) and Steve Buscemi as he attempts to uncover the truth and re-cover his beloved (and soiled) rug.

Having shown “The Big Lebowski” to a variety of viewers over the years, the reactions to this Coen effort have run from manic laughter to general disappointment. Yet I still haven’t laughed so hard and consistently at a film since “Lebowski” was released in 1998 -- some of the individual scenes are nothing short of uproarious, and it holds up just as well on repeat viewing.

Polygram originally released “Lebowski” on DVD in the fledgling days of the format, so fans have been clamoring for a re-issue for some time. Alas, Universal’s Collector’s Edition (out this week) is short on special features, offering only the same Making Of featurette from the previous disc; a photo gallery of Jeff Bridges’ behind-the-scenes pictures; and a tongue-in-cheek “restoration introduction” by “non-uptight film preservationist Mortimer Young.” Since the Coens aren’t renowned for their affiliation with Special Edition DVDs, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that the DVD isn’t packed with new material, though unlike even the Special Edition of “Blood Simple” (which at least had a cinematographer commentary), the special features here register barely a blip on the radar.

Still, for just about $10 in most outlets, it’s not a bad deal to pick up the DVD for its new, 16:9 enhanced transfer, one that easily surpasses Polygram’s previous release, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is just as satisfying as its predecessor.

UNLEASHED (**, 102 mins., 2005, NR; Rogue/Universal): Jet Li stars as the “pet” killing machine of a Euro crime boss (Bob Hoskins) who breaks free from his “master” and into the home of a blind pianist (Morgan Freeman), where he tries to start a new life. Luc Besson wrote and co-produced (with Li) this noble attempt at an action piece with more character development than usual, yet the finished film is tedious and predictable, with Kerry Condon severely miscast as the female lead. Universal’s DVD offers a pair of featurettes, music videos, and an interview with director Luis Leterrier, and comes in both Unrated and R-rated Widescreen versions. The 2.35 transfer is excellent, as are the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks.

KICKING & SCREAMING (*½, 95 mins, 2005, PG; Universal): Will Ferrell screams more than kicks his way through this mind-numbing studio concoction that will test the patience of even the most ardent Ferrell aficionado. As a dad who coaches his son’s youth soccer team, Ferrell goes overboard with his frantic personality, making even co-star Mike Ditka appear restrained by comparison. Robert Duvall, meanwhile, must have cashed the check o’plenty for his supporting role in Jesse Dylan’s by-the-numbers kid-flick, which scared up only modest returns at the box-office. Universal’s DVD offers deleted scenes, outtakes, and standard featurettes. The 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both adequate.

CARLITO’S WAY: RISE TO POWER (**, 2005, 100 mins., R; Rogue/Universal): Mediocre prequel to the Al Pacino-Brian DePalma cult favorite is respectable enough as made-for-video projects go, though that admittedly doesn’t say a whole lot. Jay Hernandez here steps into Pacino’s shoes as a young Carlito, just about to gain power in the Spanish Harlem underworld. Martin Bregman produced and recruited his son, Michael, to helm “Rise To Power,” which would have likely been dismissed as just another routine crime melodrama had it not borne an association with the original “Carlito’s Way.” Rogue’s DVD offers deleted scenes and a pair of featurettes, plus an okay 1.85 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: Part 2 of our Aisle Seat Halloween Celebration, with SINGLE WHITE FEMALE 2 and more! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!


Get Firefox!

All Reviews, Site and Design by Andy Dursin